Eagles training camp 2021: Jonathan Gannon’s hybrid SAM position coming into focus

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Gannon’s hybrid SAM position starting to come into focus originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

Last week, when the Eagles released their first unofficial depth chart, there was one reaction I saw a bunch of times.

Genard Avery is a starter?

Well, sort of.

Keep in mind that the depth charts issued by teams are compiled by the public relations department, so it’s not like it’s ripped from Nick Sirianni’s notebook. But based on what we’ve seen at practice, yes, Genard Avery is a starter. Sort of.

At the strongside linebacker spot (SAM), Avery was listed as the starter, followed by Joe Ostman and rookie Patrick Johnson. (The Eagles also listed 12 starters on defense to account for the nickel package.)

But his is a hybrid off-ball linebacker/pass rusher SAM position that’s new in Philadelphia and seemingly comes from Gannon’s history with Mike Zimmer in Minnesota.

“I think we’re still defining that role,” Gannon said back on July 29.

But that was weeks ago. And since then, we’ve seen a healthy dose of Avery, Ostman and Johnson in that position.

What’s the latest?

“Yeah, I think we are starting to define a little bit of each guy what he can do, what are his really good skills in that position and what the skills that each one of those guys have to improve on,” Gannon said on Monday. “But I think it's starting to define itself as far as, ‘Hey, this is what we are trying to get done with this call. Here’s what you need to do to function and play productive football for us.’”

This role is almost emblematic of Gannon as the Eagles’ defensive coordinator. Having the position at all is a clear departure from the defense that was run in Philly under Jim Schwartz. This position is multiple, it’s versatile, it’s a lot of what Gannon wants. But for now, it’s also a little mysterious. And guess what? Gannon’s a little mysterious too. We know he has some tricks up his sleeve — we’ve seen some at practice — but we won’t really know what they are until Week 1 comes around.

The simplest explanation for this hybrid linebacker position is that these players can line up as a traditional stack linebacker or they can get on the line of scrimmage as a stand-up edge rusher. It’s a position that requires versatility and a wide range of skills. This guy has to rush the passer and sometimes he has to drop in coverage.

But Gannon’s emphasis is always on playing to his players’ strengths. So maybe to take this a step further, this position might change based on which player is filling the role.

Got all that?

In Minnesota, this was a role filled by Anthony Barr, who, we should point out, is a former first-round pick, a four-time Pro Bowler, and considerably better than any of the three players who have filled the role for the Eagles this training camp.

The Eagles in Week 1 of the preseason opened the game in their nickel package, which means Avonte Maddox was out there and they did not have a “starting” SAM. You have to remember that in the modern NFL, the Eagles’ nickel package is really their base defense. Having a third linebacker out there is the sub package these days.

But it’s also important to point out that Avery missed the game with a groin injury. Ostman played 23 snaps. And Johnson played 46 snaps, most of which came in the second half.

Since then, Ostman has suffered a concussion and is day-to-day and Avery returned to practice in a limited fashion. Seeing Avery in this week’s game would be helpful for Gannon to define this role and for the rest of us to get a better sense of what this role is supposed to be.

Of course, we already got some hints against the Steelers. Here’s how Ostman’s and Johnson’s snaps broke down on Thursday night, according to ProFootballFocus:

Ostman

Box: 8

D-line: 14

Slot: 1

Johnson

Box: 30

D-line: 11

Slot: 4

Wide corner: 1

“Yeah, what you saw in the game is a lot of what we're going to do,” Gannon said. “You saw the SAMs out there a decent amount and got some other things for them. But we saw them get lined up and strike blocks and then drop a little bit in pass coverage, which is what they will be doing.”

We’ve seen Avery, Ostman and Johnson in this role all training camp but there’s no guarantee these guys will be on the roster. Another name to keep in mind is veteran Ryan Kerrigan, who seems to have the skills to play this position too. But Kerrigan has played defensive end exclusively in summer practices and has recently been limited after surgery on his thumb.

So how invested is Gannon in having this position be a part of his defense? Based on what we’ve seen this summer, very. So maybe Avery isn’t a true starter; it’s just a sign that this position isn’t going anywhere.

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