Luke Kuechly is the perfect fit for the Philadelphia Eagles.
For the Philadelphia Eagles, the 2012 NFL draft is less about building a solid foundation for the future than it is an opportunity to address some areas of need in a much more cost-efficient manner than doing so through free agency.
In the salary-cap era, NFL teams have had to learn to strike a balance between marquee free-agent talent—and the salary-cap hit that comes with them—with draft-day bargains when filling out their rosters. It is a precarious high-wire act where leaning too far in either direction can spell disaster.
In 2011, the Eagles embarked on what was one of the most impressive free-agent spending sprees in league history, yet fell short of the playoffs in what was, speaking in terms of overall records, a down year for the NFC East. The abundance of talent the Birds had amassed at some positions simply couldn't hide the dearth of talent at others, most notably the linebacker and safety positions.
With almost every key contributor to last year's team coming back, All-Pro caliber talent at almost every skill position on the field, and a "now or never" credo headed into 2012, the Eagles draft board should be much smaller and more focused on a specific type of talent than that of most teams.
The Eagles need to focus their efforts on finding players who will compete for playing time right away, athletes who may not have as high a ceiling as some of their fellow draft classmates, but whose combination of physical attributes and football IQ give them the ability to step onto the field in Week 1 and represent an improvement for the Eagles in the areas where they need it most.
Operating under the assumption that the Eagles will use the franchise tag on DeSean Jackson and keep him in the fold for 2012, which seems to be increasingly likely, here is the team's latest seven-round mock draft prediction.
Luke Kuechly is the sideline-to-sideline tackling machine the Eagles' defense desperately needs.
The most glaring hole in the Eagles defense in 2011 was at middle linebacker. Despite a defensive scheme that sets the table for a high-volume tackler in the middle to put up huge numbers, no Eagle defender was even in the top 50 league-wide for total tackles in 2011.
Enter Luke Kuechly, a 6'3", 237-pound tackling machine out of Boston College, the perfect solution to the Eagles' problems. As a junior in 2011, Keuchly led the nation with an eye-popping 191 tackles (102 solo), an average of almost 16 per game, on his way to earning first team All-America honors to go along with the 2011 Butkus Award, Lombardi Award, Lott IMPACT Trophy and Bronko Nagurski Trophy.
Kuechly has a true nose for the ball and displays perfect technique. He is fast enough to cover the field from sideline-to-sideline and his football IQ is off the charts. If there was ever a draft-match-made-in-heaven, this is it. Kuechly would undoubtedly jump into the starting lineup right away for the Eagles and make an immediate impact.
While Andy Reid has a history of undervaluing linebackers in the draft, refusing to take one before the third round, Kuechly is a can't-miss prospect whom Reid cannot take the chance of passing on.
Alternates: LB Dont'a Hightower, Alabama; LB Courtney Upshaw, Alabama; SS Mark Barron, Alabama
Markelle Martin is a punishing hitter who could finally fill the void left by Brian Dawkins.
The Eagles have been fruitlessly searching for Brian Dawkins' replacement since the day he left town for Denver. With Markelle Martin, a 6'1", 195-pound free safety out of Oklahoma State, on the board, they need to look no further.
Martin is a superb athlete and a devastating hitter, cut from the same mold as Dawkins himself. En route to first-team All-America honors in 2011, he recorded 74 tackles, 11 pass breakups and two forced fumbles. He is disciplined and instinctive in the defensive backfield, a rarity among hitters of his caliber.
More importantly, Martin has proven himself to be an emotional leader in the defensive backfield, something the Eagles have sorely missed since the departure of Dawkins. Despite using a multitude of draft picks in recent years searching for his next star safety, Andy Reid must not come up gun-shy on this former Cowboy.
Jerel Worthy would add depth to the Eagles' defensive front.
In 2011, the Eagles defensive line was among the best in the NFL thanks, in large part, to the scheme implemented by new defensive line coach Jim Washburn. Known as the "wide-9," Washburn preaches attacking the ball without hesitation, eschewing conventional wisdom which requires that a defensive lineman read the play as it unfolds.
This constant attack requires a deep rotation on the defensive front and, with four of the team's 11 free agents coming from that group, the Eagles are certainly on the lookout for quality defensive linemen.
Jerel Worthy, a 6'3", 310-pound defensive tackle from Michigan State, is a great fit for the Eagles' defensive line rotation. Powerfully built, quick off the ball and capable of absorbing double-teams, Worthy has unfairly fallen down many mock draft boards due to the fact that his numbers were unimpressive in 2011.
What many fail to realize is that Michigan State's defensive scheme asked Worthy to absorb as many blockers as possible as to free up lanes for blitzing linebackers or rushing defensive ends, not necessarily attack the quarterback or ball carrier. When freed to do so, Worthy proved himself to be every bit of the backfield nightmare he had been early on in his Spartan career.
Given his explosiveness, Worthy projects to be a solid 4-3 defensive tackle, one who could bring the Eagles much-needed depth at the position.
Alternates: OG Kevin Zeitler, Wisconsin; LB Audie Cole, North Carolina State
Florida International's T.Y. Hilton would bring excitement back the Eagles' return game.
In 2011, it became readily apparent that the Eagles were no longer willing to use DeSean Jackson so liberally in the return game. The risk of major injury to their star receiver, who has shown a susceptibility to concussions, was simply to large. However, the lessons of his electric return ability must not be lost.
Florida International wide receiver T.Y. Hilton is cut from the same mold as Jackson. At 5'10", 183 lbs, Hilton is small in stature, but possesses electrifying, game-changing speed. In his four-year career as a Golden Panther, Hilton returned two punts and four kickoffs for scores, while racking up over 3,500 yards and 24 touchdowns through the air.
While his skills are certainly not limited to the return game, Hilton would be able to make an immediate impact as the Eagles' primary returner. That element of explosiveness in the return game can swing a game in the Eagles' favor in the blink of an eye.
Bernard Pierce is a great fit for the Eagles' offense as a change-of-pace back.
For several years running, the Eagles have struggled in both short-yardage and goal-line situations. Ronnie Brown, part of the heralded free agent class of 2011, was supposed to be the answer to the Eagles' short-yardage questions, but he barely found his way to the field.
Luckily for the Eagles, they need not look too far for the real answer to their problems. Temple University's Bernard Pierce, a powerful, quick and decisive runner, is the perfect thunder to LeSean McCoy's lightning.
Pierce was a revelation for the Owls, bursting on the scene as a true freshman in 2009. In his time in cherry and white, Pierce broke almost every meaningful rushing record, playing a major role in the program's swift turnaround.
In 2011 alone, Pierce rushed for 27 touchdowns and a gaudy 5.4 yards per carry average, despite missing two games due to injury. While some have downgraded the workhorse back due to a perceived susceptibility to injury, he would thrive in a setting like Philadelphia where the load would not be placed squarely upon his broad shoulders.
A punishing runner like Pierce could be just what the Eagles' red-zone offense has been lacking all these years, and his presence could help to keep LeSean McCoy fresh, a must if the Eagles are to contend.
With so little depth on the current roster at the linebacker position, the Eagles must come out of this draft with at least two solid players at the position. James-Michael Johnson, a 6'2", 240-pound beast from the University of Nevada, would be a steal in the fourth round.
Johnson had a bit of a coming out party at the 2011 Hawaii Bowl where he posted 13 tackles, 11 solo and a sack against the high-flying offense of the Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles.
Johnson is quick to the ball, strong and a big hitter, all attributes that would serve him well in the Eagles' defensive schemes. He has also proven himself to be more than capable in pass coverage, a vital skill for NFL linebackers.
William Vlachos would bring solid depth to center position in Philadelphia.
Jason Kelce posted a solid rookie campaign, and ousted incumbent starter Jamaal Jackson. With Jackson, the longest tenured Eagle, slated to earn close to $2 million in 2012, it would not be surprising if the team chose to release the veteran center. In that case, the Eagles will be looking for young talent to back up their second-year starter, and few have a better resume than William Vlachos of the University of Alabama.
At 6'1" and 300 lbs, Vlachos fits the mold that offensive line coach Howard Mudd likes in his charges. A three-year starter at Alabama, Vlachos is extremely durable, starting 39 straight games in the rugged SEC. He anchored a line that cleared the way for Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, and was the centerpiece of two national championship teams.
Vlachos certainly has the pedigree and athletic ability to be a star center in the NFL and would bring solid depth to the position in Philadelphia.
Mike Daniels would bring solid depth to the Eagles' defensive front.
In the Eagles' everlasting quest for added depth on the defensive line, Mike Daniels makes sense as the team's first sixth-round pick.
An honorable-mention All-Big Ten performer in 2011, Daniels displayed a propensity to disrupt the offensive backfield, recording 11 tackles for loss to go along with four sacks.
He is quick off the line and possesses explosive strength, making the 6'0", 280-pound defensive tackle a great fit for defensive line coach Jim Washburn's rotation.
Reuben Randle would be a great addition to the Eagles' receiving corps as a reliable red-zone target.
For years, well beyond the tenure of Andy Reid, the Eagles' offense has lacked a big, solid red-zone target at receiver. There have been many attempts at drafting or signing one, but none have panned out.
As the team enters its third year with former draft pick Riley Cooper, one has to assume their patience is running out. Cooper has yet to assert himself as a reliable target within the 20-yard line, and with stars like Jeremy Maclin, DeSean Jackson and Jason Avant ahead of him, 2012 may be Cooper's last chance to prove his worth to the Eagles' front office.
A little competition never hurts, however, so look for the Eagles to look for a big receiver with one of their final two picks. Rueben Randle, at 6'4", 207 pounds, is just the kind of athlete the Eagles need. His talent and his position on the draft board are contradictory, likely the result of LSU's quarterback struggles in 2011.
Despite his slide down the draft board, make no mistake, Randle is an excellent athlete and would be a steal for any team late in the sixth round of the draft.
At 6'7", Josh Chichester is a quarterback's dream in the red-zone.
Solving their red-zone woes will be a major focal point of the Eagles' offseason. Despite having one of the most explosive offenses in the league, the Birds struggle once inside the 20-yard line, partly due to their lack of size at receiver. With space limited, defenses take the opportunity to knock around the Eagles' smallish receivers, effectively eliminating their greatest asset: speed.
What better way to neutralize that defensive tactic than to draft the biggest target available on the board, University of Louisville tight end Josh Chichester.
At 6'7", Chichester is almost impossible to overthrow. Having started his college career as a wide receiver, he is not lead-footed either. Chichester would create matchup nightmares for defenders in the red-zone, and immediately help to alleviate the Birds' chronic red-zone woes.