DeMeco Ryans could be the missing link on Philadelphia's defense
Philadelphia is counting on DeMeco Ryans to lead way for young linebacking corps
Ryans was traded from Texans in March; perhaps Philly's best offseason move
2010 Achilles injury, 2011 position switch, injured elbow made him expendable
PHILADELPHIA -- The late March trade that brought middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans to Philadelphia has a chance to be one of the shrewdest moves of the NFL's offseason and should help solidify the middle of the Eagles defense, which got gouged repeatedly in 2011, especially during Philly's stupefyingly bad 4-8 start.
But it all depends on which version of Ryans has relocated from Houston to Philadelphia: the stout tackler who won the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2006, twice making the Pro Bowl in his first four seasons in the league; or the player who had his 2010 cut short by an Achilles' injury and his 2011 impacted by both the Texans' defensive scheme change and further health issues?
Which one is going to don the green and white, DeMeco?
"I say tune in to see which one you get,'' Ryans said with a laugh Tuesday, minutes after going through the paces of his first full-squad practice on the opening day of the Eagles' organized team activities (OTAs). "I guess you're going to have to tune in to find that out. But I'm feeling great and I'm confident in my ability. I'm confident in this scheme and what we're doing. And I'm ready to get out and showcase that.''
Ryan certainly walks in the door in Philly looking like the answer to a position that has plagued the Eagles since Jeremiah Trotter was in his prime and routinely menacing ballcarriers. Back in his familiar middle linebacker slot, with three-down responsibilities after a year of coming off the field on third downs as a weakside starter in Houston's new 3-4 formation, Ryan sounds revitalized by the jump to the NFC. He's healthy again after needing a full year to feel like himself after rupturing his Achilles' in Week 6 of 2010. And still two months shy of his 28th birthday, he is very much being counted on to lead the way for a young Eagles linebacking corps that includes Brian Rolle, Mychal Kendricks, Jamar Chaney, Casey Matthews and Kennan Clayton -- all of whom have entered the league from 2010 on.
Now all he has to do is recreate the form that made him Houston's career tackling leader with 637 stops in his six seasons as a Texan (2006-2011), earned him All-Pro recognition in 2007, and led to his annual selection as Houston's defensive team captain. It all makes sense on paper, but as the Eagles' underachieving 2011 season again reminded us, the best-laid plans don't always lead to production once the games start counting.
"I knew coming here was going to be a great fit for me, because just watching the Eagles, they had a good team already,'' said Ryans, who found himself no longer necessary in Houston after the Texans hired defensive coordinator Wade Phillips in 2011 and shifted to a 3-4 scheme that featured the playmaking talents of young, athletic linebackers like Brian Cushing, Brooks Reed and Connor Barwin.
"A lot of people were already afraid to face the Eagles. But with me coming here, I just want to come in and help a group of young linebackers and teach them the things I know about the position and also to line up, get back to playing the type of ball I can play, sideline to sideline.''
Ryans may have just arrived, but as the most experienced linebacker on the Eagles roster, he's going to be asked to help bring along rookie strongside starter Kendricks, a second-round pick out of Cal, and incumbent weakside starter Brian Rolle, a sixth-round selection in 2011 out of Ohio State. No unit bore more of the blame for the team's defensive shortcomings last season, and getting the linebacking issues addressed was clearly the top priority this spring for Eagles head coach Andy Reid and his embattled second-year defensive coordinator, Juan Castillo.
The conventional wisdom says the Eagles "stole'' Ryans from Houston, giving the Texans just a fourth-round pick with a swap of the teams' third-round selections to acquire the 2006 second-rounder who initially outshone defensive end and 2006 No. 1 overall pick Mario Williams in Houston. But in reality, Ryans was probably a potential salary cap casualty for the Texans from the minute Houston hired Phillips and made the switch to his 3-4 defense.
Ryans had received a six-year, $48 million contract extension in March 2010, and Houston would have owed him almost $6 million in 2012, a sizable chunk of change for a two-down player who didn't look like he'd be able to reproduce his 2006-2009 impact on the weak side in a 3-4.
Ryans himself started reading the writing on the wall late last season, wondering if his days as a Texan wouldn't extend anywhere near as long as he once believed. After working for years to help Houston get to the playoffs, he watched the Texans finally reach the promised land and win the AFC South in 2011, but by then he had been somewhat marginalized on a defense he once led.
"When the scheme changed [in Houston], I picked up everything fine, and there was nothing that hindered me with the scheme,'' Ryans said. "But I could see my role changing after the first couple games, with me coming out on third downs. That was my first time ever not playing on third downs, and given that I had just signed a new contract, I knew they weren't going to have me sitting on the sidelines on third down after getting a new deal. That wasn't going to last.''
It didn't, but it still registered as an eye-opener to almost everyone when the Texans moved Ryans, who had been the heart and soul of Houston's defense, and was one of the most well-respected and well-liked members of the organization and the community. Ryans' former Texans teammates reacted swiftly and sadly to news of the deal, with players such as Cushing, tight end Owen Daniels, defensive end J.J. Watt and cornerback Glover Quin taking to social media to pay tribute to their departed friend. Even Texans general manager Rick Smith took the rare step of issuing a statement that publicly thanked Ryans for his service to the franchise.
But as stunned as the Texans were that Ryans was leaving, the Eagles were equally ecstatic to be gaining such a proven commodity at their greatest position of need. After the initial surprise wore off, Ryans embraced the change as well, viewing Philadelphia as an ideal locale to restart his career. Getting back to being the man in middle for a contending team was the goal.
"Even though I saw where things were at [in Houston], you never actually think it's going to happen,'' said Ryans, of his breakup with the Texans. "So when it does hit, and it came out I was being traded, it's still kind of a shocker. But at the same time, I'm in a good place because I knew the team I was going to was a good team.
"You never think you're going to leave a place, and we grew a tight bond, me and my teammates, being there that long. Those guys voted me a captain every year I was there. Leaving a place like that, of course it's going to be tough. But I'm just happy to be here, however I got here. I'm happy it worked out the way it did and I was able to come to a contending team.''
Providing leadership can be a difficult assignment for any newcomer, but Ryans already looks comfortable in his veteran role with the Eagles, and the team's young linebacking corps has quickly learned to look to him for guidance and direction. Even in the limited practice that was Tuesday's opener to OTA's, he seemed familiar with his surroundings and at ease sharing his insights with the rest of his fellow Eagles linebackers. Afterward he talked about how important an attention to detail is at this time of year, and how he and his new teammates have to "master'' their assignments.
After last year's on-the-fly, lockout-shortened preparation for the new "Wide-Nine'' defensive line approach that Castillo's unit featured, which often left Eagles linebackers very exposed to being blocked by offensive linemen, having more time to practice and hone skills is a welcomed occurrence in Philadelphia this year.
"I've been waiting for a long time to put the Eagles gear on and step out there,'' Ryan said of his first practice session. "It was fun being able to come together as a team and get a little practice in. It's great here. There are a lot of young, athletic linebackers and a lot of potential here. All we have to do is put it together and stop some people on offense. Our offense is explosive, and defensively we just have to step up and be a top defense in this league.''
Ryans said all he really knows about the defensive issues in Philadelphia last season were that the Eagles were young at linebacker, and playing in a new scheme for a new coordinator in Castillo. Philadelphia spent four of its first five picks in this year's draft focusing on defense, but the acquisition of Ryans is still considered the centerpiece addition of the offseason. Getting him was more vital to the Eagles' 2012 chances of success than even the arrival of first-round defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, second-round linebacker Kendricks, second-round defensive end Vinny Curry and fourth-round cornerback Brandon Boykin.
While Ryans' reputation precedes him to Philadelphia, he still must prove he's the player he was the first four-plus seasons of his career in Houston, before the 2010 Achilles injury and the 2011 position switch and an elbow problem rendered him expendable.
"It was really until October of last year before I felt I had that burst back again,'' he said. "I felt like I was doing OK before that, but I really wasn't. The second half of the season was when I started feeling like myself again. But then I had an elbow issue come up and that didn't help things, running around with a big brace on my arm.''
If Ryans is physically right, he'll help the Eagles plenty. At first glance, it seems the move has already paid some early benefits, giving Philadelphia's defense a player it can look to in the middle for both valuable leadership and much-needed veteran experience. If he can match his previous production, it will indeed register as another Eagles steal via trade.
"I'm trying my best to make an impact,'' Ryans said. "Both on the field and in the locker room. It's nothing I'm going to force upon guys. I'm just going to continue to be myself. But now I'm one of the new guys coming in, so we'll see how it all works out. I know people here are expecting big things.''
It's Philadelphia. Big expectations come with the deal. But if Ryans can deliver as the new man in the middle of the Eagles defense, the rewards will be even bigger.