What good is being fast if you’re running the wrong way?
That’s an especially prevalent question as it pertains to the Eagles’ group of linebackers. Because in an age of high-flying offenses, athletic linebackers who can cover and play the run are really important. And the Eagles have tried to stock up (albeit cheaply) on those fast ‘backers.
But the guy without that speed is the one standing out the most.
T.J. Edwards is still trying to prove he can do it all. He’s trying to prove he’s a three-down NFL linebacker. He’s trying to prove all 32 teams were wrong for not drafting him last year.
And he’s trying to prove that his football instincts can make up for any athletic limitations he may have.
He took a big step toward proving all that a couple weeks ago against the Cowboys.
In that game, Edwards had 13 tackles and a huge strip sack that was scooped up and taken to the house by Rodney McLeod. And with Nate Gerry on IR, Edwards also played 62 snaps (78%) in that game, by far the most of any game in his career.
“There's a difference between a guy that tests well and a guy that plays football well,” Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said on Monday. “I think that T.J. is a guy that plays football well.”
But the fact that Edwards didn’t test well is likely the reason that he wasn’t drafted last year out of Wisconsin.
At the 2019 NFL combine, Edwards did just the bench press and decided to save his other tests for his pro day. So here’s a collection of all his scores and how they would have ranked among linebackers at the combine:
40-yard dash: 4.77 seconds (29th percentile)
Vertical jump: 32.5 inches (34th percentile)
Broad jump: 112 inches (16th percentile)
Bench press: 16 reps (9th percentile)
Yeah, that’s not great.
“I’m not going to wow you in a T-shirt and shorts,” Edwards said to the Wisconsin State Journal in March of 2019, “but I’ve always been a guy who, when you put the pads on, I’m the best guy out there. That’s what I strive to be. It’s one of those things where, I know (NFL teams) are going to watch the tape, and let the chips fall where they may.”
But those test numbers were a big reason why, despite mid-round grades from many draft analysts and despite a celebrated career with the Badgers, Edwards still went undrafted.
On Monday, Schwartz credited the Eagles’ scouting department for helping land Edwards after the draft. He said Edwards was a “red star player” for many of their scouts, which simply means he was one of their favorites. And it’s easy to see why. Because for all the God-given physical ability Edwards might lack, he makes up for it with instincts and football IQ.
"Yeah, definitely,” Edwards said on Monday. “I think that's one of the strongest things about my game. I feel that I'm always finding a way to be around the ball, and I think that comes from experience in college with all those snaps played and all those different situations and things like that.
“And then, coming here and being able to watch some of the events last year, and how they see things and how they do things and then kind of do it my way this year and figure it out for myself. So I think the instincts definitely make up for a lot in terms of what you guys have called 40-yard dash time and all that stuff."
And if you want to tell Edwards he’s not fast enough to play in the NFL, go ahead. He’ll just use it the same way he uses his undrafted status as motivation.
“I’ll always carry with me that, you know,” Edwards said, “32 teams passed on me and I get to go out there, every single day in practice, every day in the weight room and prove to them why they made the wrong decision. So it's exciting to me. I like that underdog feeling."
On Monday, Schwartz compared Edwards to Preston Brown, who played linebacker for the Bills during Schwartz’s one season in Buffalo back in 2014. Brown was a third-round pick out of Louisville despite running a 4.86 in the 40 at that year’s combine.
While Brown never became a star in the NFL, he piled up 512 tackles during his first four NFL seasons and was tied for the league lead in tackles in 2017 with 144.
“And you didn't even call the game as if you were trying to cover him up and that's the way I feel about T.J.” Schwartz said. “Everything we've asked him to do, he's been able to do.”
Of course, with Edwards, the question has always been about his ceiling. Because the NFL is all about speed these days and it’s fair to question if instincts are enough. Early in his career, Edwards has primarily been a two-down linebacker, coming off the field for obvious passing downs. The NFL is a speed game now and everyone knows Edwards isn’t traditionally fast.
But he always seems to be in the right place at the right time. And even if he’s not fast, he’s at least always going in the right direction.