Following the free-agency rush period, the Philadelphia Eagles will need to re-evaluate their priorities heading into the 2014 NFL draft.
General manager Howie Roseman laid relatively low during free agency, passing on superstars like Jairus Byrd, T.J. Ward and Darrelle Revis. Even with the Eagles $24 million under the cap, Roseman opted for under-the-radar players, adding a handful of special teamers, a change-of-pace running back in Darren Sproles (via trade) and starting safety Malcolm Jenkins to a three-year deal.
A strong case could be made that the Eagles will still need a safety in the '14 draft. The team would be wise to exclusively target the defensive side of the ball, considering the offense is poised to once again rank among the league's elite groups.
The recent trade rumors surrounding DeSean Jackson, via CSN Philly's Derrick Gunn (h/t Chris Wesseling of NFL.com), may alter Chip Kelly's plans to a certain extent.
If Jackson really is on his way out, Philly needs to try to get a player who can replace his athleticism on the field. That's difficult to find, and it may require a first-round wide receiver.
For now, though—with Jackson still on the team—the current Eagles roster suggests the organization should spend its first-round pick on a defensive player.
The fanbase will undoubtedly be clamoring for a safety. The franchise hasn't had a Pro Bowl safety since Quintin Mikell left following the 2010 season, but it was Brian Dawkins heading to Denver that really set the Eagles back. Not only has Roseman come nowhere near replacing Dawkins as a player, but Dawkins’ leadership and locker room presence have been sorely missed as well.
The position has turned into an annual weakness, as Philadelphia has cycled through veterans like Marlin Jackson, O.J. Atogwe, Kenny Phillips and Patrick Chung, and draft picks like Nate Allen, Macho Harris, Kurt Coleman and Jaiquawn Jarrett. None of those players have stabilized the position.
But Roseman may be happy with the Eagles' current safety corps. The Eagles have never prioritized this position, and half-hearted attempts like Malcolm Jenkins are what the team does each offseason. They look at it as a batting-average approach, hoping to hit on a player without spending much money.
That worked fairly well in 2013. Connor Barwin was good. Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher played well. Donnie Jones was a Pro Bowl punter.
Then again, Patrick Chung was awful. James Casey barely played. Isaac Sopoaga was washed-up, although the team lucked out and got a fifth-round pick for him (and parlayed that into Darren Sproles). And Kenny Phillips didn’t even make the team.
Sometimes it may make sense to spend a little, and most fans probably wish the Eagles had made more of an attempt for a player like Revis, Byrd, Ward or Brian Orakpo. What Philly will have do is hit it big through the NFL draft.
Since Jeffery Lurie has given Roseman control of the team’s drafts in 2012, Roseman has been very good. He hit big with both first-rounders, Fletcher Cox and Lane Johnson. Nick Foles looks like a franchise quarterback. In fact, that 2012 draft could become one of the best in franchise history—Cox, Mychal Kendricks, Foles and Brandon Boykin were all acquired.
The ’13 draft looks pretty solid as well. Johnson has the athleticism to be a franchise right tackle. Zach Ertz should be a top-10 tight end in the next several years. Bennie Logan grabbed a starting job as a rookie nose tackle. Earl Wolff will be given every shot to be a starting safety.
So the Eagles’ draft picks in ’14 are valuable, since they have a general manager with a recent track record of success. It may not completely make up for the "Dream Team" debacle of 2011—along with awful draft picks like Danny Watkins, Jarrett, Curtis Marsh and Casey Matthews—but it’s definitely a step in the right direction.
The Eagles will be selecting at pick No. 22, and there’s a good chance both elite safeties (Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Calvin Pryor) will be off the board.
The logical choice would be the best player available—on the defensive side of the ball.
Quarterback is theoretically set through 2015, which is when Nick Foles' contract expires. The running back position is the best in the business. The tight ends are deep, and the offensive line is the same top-five unit from 2014. The only conceivable position that could use an upgrade is wide receiver.
It may come down to who really is the best player available. If it is Kelvin Benjamin or Brandin Cooks, don’t be at all surprised if Philadelphia selects a wide receiver. The trade talk surrounding Jackson is one thing, but Jeremy Maclin is signed to just a one-year deal and Riley Cooper has only a team-friendly, five-year deal. The Eagles may already be looking for another receiver to add to the mix.
On the defensive side of the ball, it may be a “boring” pick like one of the defensive linemen. But there are a handful who would make sense.
Louis Nix is a mammoth 0-technique nose tackle, although it’s not as if Logan played poorly as a rookie. Ra’Shede Hageman can play both end and tackle in a 3-4 scheme. Aaron Donald won’t likely be around still, but linemen like Stephon Tuitt and Timmy Jernigan are fine picks as first-round selections, even if they don’t carry the appeal of a wide receiver.
All of those players could be worked in as rotational ends behind Fletcher Cox and Cedric Thornton, while contributing as tackles when defensive coordinator Billy Davis does run a four-man front.
A pass-rushing specialist may be a priority still. This is an area that wasn’t addressed via free agency.
Trent Cole looks to be set to return in 2014, which makes sense because he played especially well down the stretch a year ago. But his $11.6 million cap hit for ’15 suggests he will be gone after next season unless he restructures. He’s also over 30 years old, so he isn’t the long-term solution at outside linebacker anyway.
Barwin is a fine player, but he’s more of a versatile linebacker than a straight-up pass-rusher. Brandon Graham hasn’t reached his full potential yet, and he may fit better on a new team as an end in a four-man front. The same may make sense for defensive end Vinny Curry, a 2012 second-round pick who has played sparingly since being drafted.
Outside linebacker might be the biggest need for the Eagles. A 3-4 defense needs a quality interior lineman who constantly requires double-teams, but any defense, regardless of scheme, needs players that wreak havoc on the opposing quarterback. Philadelphia doesn’t really have that player. If Dee Ford or Kony Ealy is available, it’s an ideal fit.
Cornerback is another position that would fit both a need and a possible best-player-available scenario. Many mock drafts have suggested that the Eagles will pick Michigan State’s Darqueze Dennard in the first round; he is commonly rated as the second-best corner and a borderline top-20 talent. If Dennard is there, he makes sense.
That would allow the Eagles to possibly cut Cary Williams or Bradley Fletcher, saving just over $3 million in cap space. The starters would be Williams/Fletcher on the one side, Brandon Boykin on the other and Dennard in the slot. Or Philadelphia could keep Boykin in the slot and start Dennard. But Williams has a $8.2 million cap hit for ’15 and Fletcher is set to be a free agent. The team does need to start looking for long-term corners.
And there’s always the chance Philadelphia will trade up or down. If Texas A&M receiver Mike Evans is still available after the St. Louis Rams pick at No. 13, it may entice Roseman and Kelly to work out a deal to trade up.
Roseman also mentored under Andy Reid for many years, and Reid was never shy about trading out of the first round if he got a good deal. He did so in both 2007 and 2008, and if a team wants to take the Eagles’ 22nd pick, Roseman has to be willing to listen.
Roseman’s best-player-available philosophy should work well for this draft, though. It’s a deep class, and the Eagles could afford an upgrade at almost every defensive position. Drafting a defensive player with the first two picks should be almost a requirement, given the difference in the talent of the offense and the defense.
The overall depth at wide receiver suggests a third-round pick would be well spent at that position. Kelly will probably want to draft a quarterback as well. In all, though, four of the six picks should be defensive players to give the Eagles the best chance at repeating as NFC East champions in 2014.