While the Philadelphia Eagles are busy devising a blueprint for the NFL’s impending free-agent period beginning on March 11, the truth is the team would much rather supplement their talent with spending. The building blocks for a true championship contender are more likely to come from May’s draft.
The core of this team as it stands right now was built through the draft, and the Birds would like to keep it that was as much as possible. Of course, the front office has to find and identify players who will make it at the next level, which is often easier said than done.
It’s a two-part process. First, hone in on a need. Second, locate personnel that fits the game plan.
It’s still very early in the process, with the college all-star games just wrapping up with the Senior Bowl over the weekend. The combine, pro days, film evalutations and even what happens during free agency will shape and mold what teams do when draft day finally arrives.
That said, we’re honing in on the biggest needs and potential fits for the Eagles here in January, and to help us, we’re using pro player comparison videos to help us equate college stars to today’s pros. Here are just a few of the draft-eligible players who would look in midnight green come next season.
Deone Bucannon (Washington St., 6’1”, 216 lbs.)
If the Eagles did nothing at safety this offseason, they would be going into 2014 with Earl Wolff and Patrick Chung as the starters. Needless to say, the defense needs some work in the defensive backfield.
Safety will likely be a point of emphasis in free agency, whether that’s re-signing Nate Allen or going after a high-priced upgrade, but it’s an area that also warrants attention in the draft. This year’s class isn’t a particularly deep group, but there are definitely a few names that could help.
Philly’s scouts were said to be sniffing around Deone Bucannon at the Senior Bowl—as many as three at a time. At 6’1”, 216 pounds, Bucannon certainly has the look as scouts say. Rob Rang also mentions his impressive wingspan and reputation as a big hitter in his scouting report for CBSSports.com.
Bucannon also makes plays on the ball though, recording six interceptions as a senior at Washington State.
Bucannon can likely be had in the second or third round, but it’s possible the draft’s consensus top safety will fall to the Eagles at No. 22. Hasean “Haha” Clinton-Dix has great measurables as well (6’1”, 208 lbs.), plus the whole coming out of Alabama thing going for him. It sounds like they couldn’t really go wrong there.
Louisville’s Calvin Pryor (6’2”, 208 lbs.) and Baylor’s Ahmad Dixon (6’0”, 205 lbs.) are players to watch in the first few rounds as well. Remember, size is going to be one of the key attributes the Eagles’ front office is looking for across the board.
Justin Gilbert (Oklahoma St., 6’0”, 200 lbs.)
Cornerback isn’t a hole for Philadelphia in 2014. Cary Williams was serviceable last year—the Eagles couldn’t cut him even if they wanted because of the over $3 million in dead money it would leave on the cap—while Bradley Fletcher probably played better than anybody imagined he would.
Beyond ’14 is another story. They could stand to upgrade from Williams, and Fletcher will be 28 and a free agent. This is one area the front office would be wise to think ahead.
While not necessarily a first-round need, you can’t argue with taking the best player available, which at cornerback and that point in the draft might be Gilbert. He possesses decent size, length and athleticism for the position at the next level, and B/R’s own Matt Miller wrote in December no corner coming out of college was better in man coverage last season.
Gilbert would also bring a playmaker’s touch to the Birds’ secondary, something that was lacking on the outside last season. The Oklahoma State product recorded seven interceptions in ’13, returning two for touchdowns.
Need could cause Gilbert to rise in the draft, in which case the Eagles may have to focus their attention further down the board.
At 6’3”, 215 pounds, Nebraska’s Stanley Jean-Baptiste looks like a day-two prospect. Analysts have compared his ability to Seattle’s Richard Sherman, and Eagles scouts were known to be talking to the converted wide receiver at the Senior Bowl.
Keep an eye on Florida’s Jaylen Watkins and Virginia Tech’s Antone Exum in the middle rounds. Both players crack 6’0”, fitting in with Chip Kelly’s “big people beat up little people” mantra. However, they also have the versatility the head coach loves, each having played safety extensively in college as well.
I wouldn’t mind if the team took a flyer on Aaron Colvin (6’0”, 186 lbs.) toward the end of the draft. The Oklahoma corner was flying up draft boards before suffering an unfortunate ACL tear at the Senior Bowl, but he should rebound and could be a steal late in the selection process.
Jeremiah Attaochu (Georgia Tech, 6’3”, 252 lbs.)
At 31 years of age and playing outside linebacker for the first time in his NFL career, Trent Cole racked up eight sacks in 2013. Of course, all eight came in the second half of the season, just one example of the boom or bust nature of Philadelphia’s pass rush.
Not only do the Eagles need to worry about the future—Cole’s salary jumps in ‘15—they need to get better at putting pressure on quarterbacks, period. Unfortunately, the top outside linebackers in the draft—UCLA’s Anthony Barr and Buffalo’s Khalil Mack—will be long gone before the Birds are on the clock.
They’ll have a shot at the next tier of rushers, including Attaochu, who is flying up draft boards after a tremendous week at the Senior Bowl. The Nigerian native has good size and athleticism and plays with violence, racking up 12.5 sacks and 16.0 tackles for loss in his final season at Georgia Tech.
Attaochu’s versatility might be his best trait of all. According to Rob Rang’s Senior Bowl practice reports, the collegiate defensive end adapted well to 4-3 outside linebacker during the week, showing a willingness to defend the run and learning to drop into coverage on the fly. He’s a little raw, but there seems to be little doubt he can pick up any scheme.
As of now, Kyle Van Noy is still projected higher than Attaochu on many big boards. The BYU product is a natural outside linebacker, but his production plummeted in ’13 (4.0 sacks), and he may be a bit undersized (6’3”, 244 lbs.) in some eyes.
Stanford’s Trent Murphy is another name to watch. Murphy did not draw a lot of positive reviews at the Senior Bowl, but he was an extremely productive player in college with 15.0 sacks and 23.5 TFL in ’13. Hard to argue with that.
Ra’Shede Hageman (Minnesota, 6’6”, 318 lbs.)
The Eagles made their transition to a 3-4 alignment on defense a relative success in year one despite lacking the presence of a true nose tackle. That’s partly because defensive coordinator Bill Davis employed a hybrid scheme much of the time, but the Birds should continue moving toward a true 3-4.
The issue is nose tackle can be one of the most difficult positions to fill. There simply aren’t that many athletes available who possess both the size and ability to command constant double teams up the middle and still disrupt the offense.
One such player the Birds could take a long, hard look at is Hageman, who has a massive build and plays strong at the point of attack. Hageman's dominance doesn't necessarily show up in gaudy numbers on the stat sheet, but he posted a solid all-around line in '13 with 13.0 tackles for loss, two sacks and an interception.
Of course, at the University of Minnesota, there probably aren't many defenders there to keep offenses from focusing on keeping Hageman at bay.
There’s a slight concern at 6’6”, Hageman may not be suited for nose in the NFL as shorter guards and centers can get leverage with sound technique. The kid is scheme-versatile though according to NFL Network's Bucky Brooks, and could kick out to end in a 3-4, or work inside in the hybrid 4-3 under Davis utilizes.
Elsewhere, Louis Nix seems to be the consensus top nose tackle in the draft. He is expected to be off the board by the time the Eagles select at No. 22 though, and he’s coming off of a nothing season plagued by injuries at Notre Dame. Buyer beware.
The player I’ve sort of fallen in love with the last two weeks is Justin Ellis, the 350-pound tackle out of Louisiana Tech. Ellis was drawing rave reviews at practices for both the East-West Shrine Game and Senior Bowl, which combined with his rare size has likely built him up into a mid-round pick.
Tennessee’s Daniel McCullers is also pushing the 350 mark and could slide up into day two. Unlike Ellis, he’s faced much more pro talent coming from the SEC.
Kelvin Benjamin (Florida St., 6’5”, 235 lbs.)
When ESPN’s Mel Kiper assigned Kelvin Benjamin to Philadelphia at No. 22 overall in his first mock draft for Insider subscribers, the selection raised a few eyebrows. The pick actually makes a ton of sense though.
For one, the organization likely cannot afford to bring back both Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper as they head to free agency, leaving the third wide receiver spot open to upgrade. Plus, if Maclin does return, it’s probably on a short-term deal, and DeSean Jackson has hinted his contract could be an issue as well, so the future of the position is far from concrete.
Not only could Benjamin potentially fill the void created by one or multiple Birds receivers departing over the next offseason or two, he might be better than all of them. 6’5”, 235 pounds is a monster build that is almost impossible for defenses to match up against, not to mention he’s expected to run in the 4.5s.
It wouldn’t be a surprise if Benjamin’s stock rises between now and May and the Florida State product is off the board before the Eagles are ever on the clock. Luckily, if he is gone, there are plenty of other big receivers littered throughout the draft.
Allen Robinson (6’3”, 210 lbs.) could be worth a late first-round pick as well. The highly-productive Penn State receiver is like a poor man’s A.J. Green from Cincinnati in the way that he goes up and snatches the ball out of the air while it’s at its highest point.
Jordan Matthews (6’3”, 209 lbs.) might be a target in the second. The Vanderbilt grad helped himself with a strong week of practices at the Senior Bowl, drawing praise from analysts such as the NFL Network’s Mike Mayock, who described Matthews as “probably the top senior wide receiver in the draft.”
De’Anthony Thomas (Oregon, 5’9”, 170 lbs.)
Less a need, more a fit, Thomas could be a dangerous all-purpose weapon in the Eagles’ offense. Listed as a running back, the collegiate track star also lined up as a wide receiver and can even return kicks and punts, too.
Thomas played for Chip Kelly at Oregon, so not only is he familiar with the system in Philadelphia, but the head coach already has an intimate understanding of his strengths and weaknesses.
LeSean McCoy led the NFL in rushing and yards from scrimmage in 2013, and was second among all backs in total snaps played according to Pro Football Focus (subscription only), so obviously the Eagles are in no hurry to replace him. There’s no clear-cut No. 2 behind Shady though.
With so much invested in McCoy, and competent reserves behind him, it’s difficult to envision the franchise going running back at any point in the draft. However, Thomas could very well be the lone exception.