Preview: Sunday game against the Bears, 1 p.m. on Fox.
The Eagles’ top-ranked defensive player during the first half of the 2019 NFL season isn’t perennial All-Pro tackle Fletcher Cox or end Brandon Graham.
Rather, it is undrafted rookie middle linebacker T.J. Edwards, according to Pro Football Focus. Edwards’ grade of 91.9 is the highest on the team, putting him ahead of offensive leader Brandon Brooks (90.8), Graham (89.8) and Cox (89.7).
Edwards has clearly made the most of his 47 plays — all but two of which have come with regular starter Nigel Bradham sidelined during the last three weeks.
“T.J. is a beast, man,” said fellow linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill. “His instincts for a linebacker, especially as a rookie, are next level. His ability to take in the playbook and understand defenses and offenses is pretty impressive.”
“I think T.J.’s been waiting on his moment,” Graham said. “You can tell by how he practices-he gets after it. I think he’s going to keep getting better. We’ve just got to give him his reps.”
Since Bradham has been ruled out for Sunday’s afternoon’s game against the Bears (1 p.m. on Fox), Edwards should continue to be in Jim Schwartz’s linebacker rotation.
Edwards was called upon for 10 plays after Bradham injured his ankle in the road loss to the Vikings, then 22 vs. the Cowboys and 15 more plays against the Bills, which was his first start. He had four tackles in the win over Buffalo and three vs. Dallas.
“I’ve never been one of those guys that’s super-fast and super-strong,” said Edwards after Friday’s practice at the NovaCare Complex. “I think I play really well with my hands and use good technique.”
The 6-foot-1, 241-pound Edwards isn’t overwhelmed by big moments, either.
He appeared in his first collegiate game with Wisconsin against Alabama in the 2014 AdvoCare Classic at AT&T Stadium. A redshirt freshman, Edwards admitted the speed of the players initially caught him by surprise, but he eventually settled in and registered a game-high 12 tackles in a 35-17 loss.
Edwards ended up starting 52 games at Wisconsin. He led the Badgers in tackles during three of his four seasons (2015, ‘16 and ‘18) and accumulated 367 tackles during his career.
After going undrafted, Edwards was strictly a special-teamer with the Eagles until Bradham’s absence created an opportunity.
“One thing I learned from the older ‘backers is you never know what’s going to happen, so you got to be ready at all times,” Edwards said. “There’s not going to be a place where there can be a drop-off when you come in the games.”
And to think he never played linebacker and barely any defense in high school.
Edwards was a pretty fair quarterback at Lakes Community High School in Lake Villa, Illinois. Toledo was the only school to offer him a scholarship until the coaches utilized him at safety for the final four games at Lakes.
After initially committing to Western Michigan, Edwards heard from Wisconsin and others as signing day approached. They liked what they saw of him on tape and projected him as a linebacker. He eventually flipped to Wisconsin.
“I think growing up I always wanted to play defense,” Edwards said. “I loved the physical aspect of football. Once I got to college and saw, schematically, what the linebacker does, it was best for me. I wanted to be in that spot for sure.”
Edwards cannot overlook the similarities between his first extended playing time at the collegiate and professional levels. Both occurred in front of huge crowds at AT&T Stadium and essentially turned out to be baptisms by fire.
“It’s weird how much the two relate,” Edwards said. “At first, (the NFL) was fast. After a while, everything just started to slow down and I just started to do what linebackers do – reading keys and things like that. It started to help me play a little faster.”
And he’s grateful for the four games at safety during his senior year of high school. Had he remained strictly a QB, who knows what he’d be doing today?
“I’m definitely glad I made the switch, for sure,” Edwards said. “It’s funny how it all worked out.”
Funny and fortunate for Edwards and the Eagles.