Three numbers turned T.J. Edwards from college star to NFL longshot.Eagles
It was the 4.87 40-yard dash that Edwards ran before the 2019 NFL Draft that erased the film of a first-team All-American and runner-up for the Butkus Award for many and turned tangible evidence of a good football player into a two-down dinosaur on the endangered species list in an ever-evolving league obsessed with hybrid linebackers that can run and cover.
The Eagles were the ones that ultimately took a flyer on Edwards, a 240-pound old-school thumper in the middle, as an undrafted free agent.
The Wisconsin product started ninth on the depth chart in Philadelphia, not exactly Mont Everest but a daunting climb up Pedigree Hill.
Now 25 and entrenched on the Eagles defense, Edwards proved enough in his rookie training camp to make the 53-man roster. From there, Edwards convinced then-defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz to put him in the mix when injuries started to pile up.
The LB started four games as a rookie and was a core special-teamer, amassing the most tackles on the third phase for an Eagles rookie since Kurt Coleman in 2010. Meanwhile, only Nate Gerry played more special teams snaps than Edwards.
The training wheels were off by 2020, although some of the pre-conceived notions, notably the thought he was a liability in pass converge, continued to plague Edwards. He started all 12 games he played that season, however, totaling 64 tackles, five of those for loss, along with two sacks, two forced fumbles, and an interception.
Philadelphia, of course, wasn’t very good in Doug Pederson’s final season and that meant a new coaching staff operating under some of the same tropes Edwards had to deal with as a rookie.
“I didn’t scout him coming out, but when I got here, you read everything and you talk to different people that looked at him and things like that,” defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon explained. “I think that if there were a couple negatives on him, they are not negatives with what we’re asking him to do.
“Actually, they’re positive.”
Positive but only after some more lobbying by Edwards’ actual performance when he was graded as the 10th best off-ball LB in the NFL last season by Pro Football Focus.
Revisionist history ignores that the Eagles entered the 2021 campaign banking on the underwhelming Eric Wilson because the free-agent pickup could run and perhaps if the Eagles were a track team, that strategy would have panned out.
As Wilson was playing his way off the field and out of Philadelphia, Edwards was the ship passing him in the night, impressing another staff and proving instincts and football intelligence can erase narratives and track stars quicker than a false step can take a LB out of a play.
“[When] you talk about instincts. All that is is what are they seeing with their eyes and what are they processing,” LBs coach Nick Rallis said. “… [Edwards is] already an extremely fast processor, extremely smart. He’s moving really well. He’s playing physical.”
It took one season for Edwards to convince his new bosses that he is the defensive leader they’d been looking for.
“I’ve challenged T.J.,” said Rallis. “I said, ‘Hey, I want you to understand opponents better than I do.’ Because at the end of the day, I’m not going to be able to prepare him for everything that’s going to happen on that field.”
In Rallis’ mind, he wants a coach on the field.
“If he understands, hey, they’re out there doing this and we haven’t seen this yet but this is why teams do this, he’s gonna play that much faster,” the coach said of Edwards.
Turns out the Eagles weren’t looking to replace Edwards with Nakobe Dean, they were looking to complement the fourth-year pro.