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Why Eagles are taking a long look at Zack Baun at linebacker this spring

Why Eagles are taking a long look at Zack Baun at linebacker this spring originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

Free agent pickup Zack Baun started to turn some heads once he got the chance to rush the passer in New Orleans last year. And it seemed like he was excited about getting the chance to do that with the Eagles this season.

And at the moment he’s an inside linebacker.

At least for now.

In the two OTA practices open to reporters and the first day of mandatory minicamp, the 27-year-old Baun has been getting most of his reps as a first-team linebacker next to Devin White.

“I have no clue why [defensive coordinator Vic Fangio] went that direction, actually,” Baun said. “I can do a lot of different things. If that’s where Vic sees me and he’s studied my film, he’s watched me. He’s seen me in the league and in college, he’s seen what I can do. And if he thinks that’s a good spot for me, that’s where I’ll be.”

The Saints drafted Baun in the third round back in 2020. But it wasn’t until 2023 when a combination of injuries and good practice reps gave Baun the opportunity to finally rush the passer in games. And he gave the Saints a spark in that department.

So when the Eagles signed him to a one-year deal this offseason, many thought they brought him in to be a situational pass rusher, to perhaps play the role that Andrew Van Ginkel played under Fangio in Miami last year when he had a six-sack season.

But when Fangio was asked about the off-ball linebacker position this spring, the first name he mentioned was Baun. And Fangio has followed through with that in recent practices.

Baun expressed some excitement about the opportunity to rush the passer earlier this spring but he’s also pretty excited to get this run at inside linebacker in these practices.

“No disappointment,” Baun said. “I’ve been playing inside backer for four years. I feel like I can do a lot of different things. There’s no disappointment. In Vic’s scheme, there’s always opportunities to rush the passer from the inside and do a bunch of different cool things. So, no, I’m chilling.”

Of course, the path to playing time at inside linebacker might be a little easier to see than at edge rusher, where the Eagles are deeper. While Nakobe Dean is still working his way back from an injury-plagued 2023 season, Baun and White have consistently been the top linebackers this spring. Maybe that changes, but it at least appears to be an indication that Dean won’t just be handed a starting linebacker spot.

The other reason we’ve probably seen Baun playing at inside linebacker this spring is the nature of these non-padded practices.

“Well, right now it’s passing camp. Everybody is in pajamas,” linebackers coach Bobby King said. “So just trying to utilize the best we can do with him right now, get the coverage work and see if he can do it. So far, so good.”

It makes sense. These practices are the perfect time to see Baun in coverage and determine whether or not he can do it, especially if there’s a chance it’s a part of his role during the season.

The Saints drafted Baun in the third round out of Wisconsin in 2020 and he has played both inside linebacker and edge rusher during his career, so it’s not like this is anything new. When he signed with the Eagles, he didn’t talk about role. He just wanted a new opportunity.

Here’s a look at Baun’s snap counts, per PFF, during his years in New Orleans:

2023: 252 line, 33 box, 15 slot, 1 wide
2022: 68 line, 6 box, 9 slot
2021: 59 line, 122 box, 12 slot, 1 wide
2020: 87 line, 9 box, 6 slot

At 6-foot-3, 225 pounds, Baun has 32 3/4-inch arms. He thinks that length can help keep offensive linemen off of him. It theoretically can help to clog up passing windows in the middle of the field as well.

Because of the comparisons to Van Ginkel, who thrived under Fangio in 2023 and signed a two-year, $20 million deal with the Vikings this offseason, Baun plans on reaching out to Van Ginkel a bit to get some tips this offseason.

The comparison makes sense because they’re two tweener types who have some ability as pass rushers as well as inside linebackers.

And just because Baun is lining up off the ball in early June, it doesn’t mean that’s the full plan for him once training camp and the season come around. So he’s just trying to prepare for everything.

“If there’s an opportunity to practice my coverage right now, that’s what I want to do,” he said. “I’m trying to get better at everything. After practice I’m working on my pass rush just in case. I don’t know where this is going.”

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