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Sapp To Play SAM LB

Sapp To Try Out LB

By Lance Epstein

Even though Ricky Sapp stated on draft day that what he excels as a pass rusher, head coach Andy Reid and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott decided to go in a different direction with the ultra talented Sapp.

When minicamp kickoff on Friday, the fifth-round pick out of Clemson will be lining up as a SAM linebacker and not as defensive end.

“I played defensive end in college. Right now in this minicamp, I’m playing SAM,” Sapp said at the NovaCare Center on Thursday afternoon. “So just seeing coverages and making different checks, that’s different for me. I’m excited about it. I’m just going to read the playbook all night and get ready for tomorrow.”

Sapp (6-4, 252) did not played the linebacker position in college, but he did play the "bandit" position. A position that required him to be able to rush the quarterback as well as drop back into coverage to guard opposing team’s running backs or tight ends.

Still this comes as a big shock to many fans, which thought he was going to occupy the Eagles’ "joker" position (very similar to Clemson's bandit position). And at worse, he would be a “curveball” off the bench and a situational pass rusher like Reid discussed in his post-draft press conference earlier in the week.

“He’ll start off as a defensive lineman, and he’ll learn some of the linebacker stuff,” Reid said. “We have a Joker position, where he can stand up and do a little bit of what Chris Clemons did and [Jason Babin] did that, so, he’ll learn that position, and we’ll see how he does. We’ll see how he handles some of the linebacker role within that position and then we can work from there.”

If Sapp can quickly learn the position, he will have a great chance to start and make an immediate impact in his rookie season. Currently, the Eagles have veterans Moise Fokou and Alex Hall competing for the starting job. With Sapp’s gifted athleticism, he could replace both very easily with a strong showing during training camp.

“I’m an athlete. I play good in space. I definitely can drop in coverages," Sapp said. "I can cover running backs, receivers, anything. At the end of the day, I just want to get on the field. I don’t care if it’s playing nose tackle or long snapper.”

During the draft process, scouts envisioned Sapp using his speed and athleticism to be an impact player at the SAM linebacker position (if he was drafted by a 4-3 defense). But still, he has never had to play off the line of scrimmage as a linebacker in his entire career.

In addition, his instincts might not translate into being an adequate linebacker at a NFL level. Although, Sapp seems very confident and even convinced that he could get the job done bearing in mind that at Clemson, he played coverage against the ninth pick in the 2010 NFL draft in running back C.J. Spiller.

“I think I can definitely [cover],” Sapp said. “I can play well in space and I’m ready to go to work with it.”

Even though Sapp is willing to play anywhere to see the field and seems very secure in his abilities to become a premiere SAM linebacker, his game is better suited to play with his hand on the ground as a pass rusher.

Could he eventually be a first-rate linebacker? Certainly, but that is a big unknown and the last time the Eagles attempted this type of move, they failed.

Chris Gocong came out of college with a similar pedigree as Sapp. Both are considered to be better fits for a 3-4 defense as a pass rushing linebacker, but the Eagles decided select him anyway. Like Sapp, the Eagles tried to move Gocong from his natural defensive end position (that he lined up at all throughout his four-year career at Cal-Poly) into the vital SAM linebacker.

In the end, the experiment with Gocong failed, as he could not cover tight ends or running backs in space. Finally, this offseason the front office admitted their mistake and he was traded to Cleveland; a team that plays a 3-4 defense. His failure along with other failures over the past couple years has left the Eagles searching for an adequate SAM linebacker. The Eagles have not had an elite player at the position since the days of Carlos Emmons.

Instead of trying to make Sapp the square peg in the round hole, the team should explore the idea of using him the same way they did with Jevon Kearse. In Kearse's first season with the Eagles, he was a vital force at the “joker” position. He registered 7.5 sacks and made tons of plays in coverage as well.

With the athleticism, speed and agility in Sapp’s repertoire, he could wind up being a diamond in the rough for the Eagles. However, he needs to be utilized properly in order to achieve that success. Right now playing him at the SAM linebacker is a very questionable move.

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