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NFL breakout players 2018: Inside or outside, Joe Walker makes the Eagles defense better

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More than just an old-school thumper, Walker can thrive wherever the Eagles want to play him.

Arizona Cardinals v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

The Eagles selected Joe Walker in the seventh round in 2016, but he ended up missing his entire rookie season after tearing his ACL during training camp. Walker bounced back last season to win the backup middle linebacker job behind Jordan Hicks. After mostly watching from the sideline for the first seven weeks, Walker filled in as the starter after Hicks went down with a ruptured Achilles.

Walker played pretty well when he was in there. He was generally only in the lineup on running downs, but he appeared to know what he was doing. He got guys lined up right, and made the plays he was supposed to make for the most part. Things were starting to really look up for the young linebacker, but then he got a stinger in a Week 12 win over Chicago. That injury would eventually force him back to IR for the second year in a row.

I am sure he still enjoyed the Eagles’ Super Bowl run, but it had to be bittersweet for Walker knowing he might have been the one starting in a Super Bowl victory his second year in the league had he been able to stay healthy.

Walker is healthy again now. Heading into this season, he’s two years removed from his ACL tear, which is usually how long it takes guys to truly get back to fully trusting their knee and running full speed again.

Additionally, Mychal Kendricks, who was one of the starting outside linebackers last season, was released this spring and Dannell Ellerbe, who took over at middle linebacker after Walker went down, is no longer on the roster. That means Walker should, at the very least, be the backup middle linebacker again this season. But there is also the chance that with an opening at linebacker, and Walker being the only backup with experience as a starter, that the Eagles switch Hicks to outside linebacker so that Walker can start in the middle.

In fact, I think it’s probably what they will do.

If Walker has finally shaken his injury bug for good, he could be a really good full-time starting middle linebacker for that defense.

At 6’2 and 236 pounds, Walker is an old-school thumper type who fits right in as a run stopper. He was always on his toes, often inching forward right before the snap, and did a good job recognizing runs and getting downhill in a hurry last season. Walker also had no problem taking on offensive linemen and fighting off those blocks. He didn’t mind blowing up a fullback on ISO plays, either.

At the same time Walker also did a good job of playing under control and usually wasn’t fooled by play action passes. He didn’t play a lot of man-to-man or anything, but he appeared to be getting good zone drops and breaking up passes that came into his area. He may not be a great guy in coverage, but I didn’t see him as much of a liability when he did have to drop, either.

Hicks is going to stay in on passing downs anyway when they go to nickel, and there are more things you can do with him as an outside linebacker than you can just keeping him in the middle all the time. It just makes sense to me to shuffle them around so that their linebacker unit as a whole is at its best.

If it goes that way, Walker’s production should explode this season as a starter. If they choose to keep Hicks in the middle and start someone else outside, even as a backup, I would expect Walker’s production this season will dwarf the 10 tackles he was credited with last year.

One way or another I believe the guy is going to have a breakout season, regardless. The only question now is if it will be as a starter or not.

Confidence level: Moderate