Instead of suffering in the absence of second-year Mike linebacker Nakobe Dean, the Eagles found a way to excel thanks to the stellar play of veteran Nicholas Morrow.
Now Dean is on the verge of returning to the lineup after sitting out four games due to a foot injury suffered in the season opener at New England. The Eagles, who remain unbeaten at 5-0, started Dean’s 21-day practice window on Tuesday and could activate the former Georgia star as soon as this weekend for Sunday’s game against the New York Jets.
“I had a walkthrough (Wednesday morning) and probably had the biggest smile,” Dean told reporters before the full practice in the afternoon. “It’s great being back with the team. I never missed a game. Ever. Since Little League or anything, so for me to miss games because of injury, I definitely felt it, but I had to stay mentally strong through the whole process, continue to work, and get better.”
Dean joined starting Will linebacker Zach Cunningham as well as Morrow, Christian Elliss and practice-squad LB Ben VanSumeren during individual drills at practice. Patrick Johnson, who worked with the off-ball LBs during Dean’s absence, was back with the edge rushers.
Dean estimated he was near 100 percent before the session but added, “We have to practice yet.”
The final test in Dean’s mind will be the physicality of the game.
“Now (we’re) putting in the final piece – striking guys and feeling that weight on your foot, make sure you’re OK with the weight on your foot,” said Dean.
The Eagles’ penciled-in on-field defensive leader who wore the green dot before exiting the lineup Dean was hyper focused on staying engaged while on the sidelines, even traveling with the team across country for Sunday’s win over the Los Angeles Rams.
“He wants to be around at all times. He’s a football junkie,” head coach Nick Sirianni said of Dean. “Always trying to be around it. You saw that he was at the game. Sometimes you don’t always take guys to the away games. He really wanted to be there. He was great on the sideline. Obviously, we would rather have him on the field, but he was great on the sideline with his teammates saying what he saw.
“So, I thought the way he went about his time off, again, we’ll see what’s going on as the week progresses, but the way he went about his time off was really continuing to try to grow and get better. You just can’t keep him out of the building and can’t keep him out of the film room.”
“Not only because (football) is all I know but because I wanted to stay with the team,” Dean said of making the tip to LA. “I believe I’m a part of our defense. It’s my job.”
Friend and teammate Jordan Davis was hardly surprised Dean wasn’t keen on any time off.
“He took (the injury) in stride. Nakobe’s a hard worker. He’s tough,” said Davis. “It was nothing short of what I expected from him. He’s ready to be out there. He’s been locked in. He’s been with us all the time, but just not playing on Sunday. The same amount of preparation he puts in week in and week out is still there.”
Dean also spent the downtime learning from the veterans who have held down the fort. Morrow is currently Pro Football Focus’ No. 5 ranked off-ball LB in the NFL while Cunningham is tied for the team lead with 33 tackles.
“Everybody teaches you something and they teach me the aspect of how they play the game, how Nick watches film and how he’s able to pick up on routes, and what quarterbacks are like, and how physical Zach is and the physicality he brings to the game,” said Dean. “I’ve learned all that from them and some stuff off the field.”
Sirianni technically has three weeks to make a decision but the smart money is on Dean staring against the Jets this Sunday. The Eagles know who their best LB is and want to get back to that as quickly as possible.
“We don’t have to make that decision right now,” Sirianni said. “We’re going to see how he looks out there. … Do we have a plan in our head? Obviously, I think that’s something that we keep tight though for a competitive advantage.”