Philadelphia Eagles Must Remain Patient with 2014 Draft Class

Andrew KulpContributor IMay 23, 2014

Newly-drafted Philadelphia Eagles' Marcus Smith, center, poses with team president Don Smolenski, left, and head coach Chip Kelly before an NFL football news conference at the team's practice facility, Friday, May 9, 2014, in Philadelphia. Smith was selected in the first round, 26th overall, by the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFL draft on Thursday, May 8, 2014. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Matt Slocum/Associated Press

The Philadelphia Eagles managed to address every one of their most pertinent needs in the 2014 NFL draft. Now the question shifts to when, as in how soon will each of the seven athletes chosen be ready to contribute? And the answer might be longer than you think.

The old line is it takes three years and it can even take as many as five to truly assess how well a team drafted. In the Eagles’ case, it’s going to be two at the very minimum, because the class of ’14 does not appear to have brought in a great deal of immediate help.

While the Birds had more needs than they could possibly fill in a single draft, they didn’t have “holes” per se. There are aging veterans in key roles. There are positions that would benefit from an upgrade. There are rather serious depth issues in multiple areas.

2014 Eagles Draft Picks and Starters at Their Position
RD, NO.PICKPOS.PROJ. STARTERS
Rd. 1, No. 26Marcus SmithOLBTrent Cole, Connor Barwin
Rd. 2, No. 42Jordan MatthewsWRJeremy Maclin, Riley Cooper
Rd. 3, No. 86Josh HuffWRJeremy Maclin, Riley Cooper
Rd. 4, No. 101Jaylen WatkinsCBCary Williams, Bradley Fletcher
Rd. 5, No. 141Taylor HartDEFletcher Cox, Cedric Thornton
Rd. 5, No. 162Ed ReynoldsSMalcolm Jenkins, Nate Allen
Rd. 7, No. 224Beau AllenNTBennie Logan
PhiladelphiaEagles.com

Yet there are very few spots on Philadelphia’s roster where a rookie would have been expected to come in and compete for a starting job from day one—unless you want to count the kicker.

Look no further than at outside linebacker, where Marcus Smith is expected to spend his rookie season as Trent Cole’s backup. Despite the fact that the Eagles used a first-round pick on Smith, and pass-rusher was widely considered the club’s biggest need, the reality is they weren’t looking for somebody to replace Cole this year.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - DECEMBER 22:  Trent Cole #58 celebrates with Connor Barwin #98 and DeMeco Ryans #59 of the Philadelphia Eagles after sacking Jay Cutler #6 of the Chicago Bears during the first quarter at Lincoln Financial Field on December 22, 2013 in
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Part of that is because Cole, even at 31 years old, will be difficult to replace. Despite switching to linebacker last year after eight NFL seasons at defensive end, he adapted fairly well to the position change. The two-time Pro Bowler came on strong down the stretch especially, logging eight sacks over the final eight games.

Part of it is contractual as well. According to Spotrac, Cole carries a salary cap figure of $6.6 million this year, 75 percent of which would convert to dead money against the cap if he was traded or released. The best players will play regardless of status, but the Eagles still intend to get something for their money.

But a huge part of it is the fact that none of the pass-rushers available in this year’s draft appeared to be NFL-ready starters, including Smith. A converted quarterback, Smith only played defense for three seasons at Louisville, and it wasn’t until 2013 he finally began racking up numbers.

Smith can carve out a niche as a situational pass-rusher as a rookie, perhaps even a nickel linebacker. He may very well develop into an All-Pro someday. However, the idea that a 22-year-old rookie with one quality season in college—in one of the sport’s weakest conferences no less—could be a threat for Cole’s job seems a little far-fetched, to say the least.

Fourth-round pick Jaylen Watkins finds himself in a similar situation at cornerback. Cary Williams turns 30 this year and is average at best. Yet, according to Spotrac, more than half of Williams’ $6.4 million cap hit would convert to dead money if he were dumped, so clearly the plan when the Eagles signed him the previous offseason was he would start this year.

Of course, it’s no surprise late-round picks such as Watkins, defensive end Taylor Hart, safety Ed Reynolds and nose tackle Beau Allen were added to serve as depth initially. Generally speaking, you don’t see a lot of players whose names were called on Day 3 cracking the starting lineup as rookies.

Even at wide receiver though—where the depth chart was so thin, the front office felt compelled to use two picks in the first three rounds addressing it—the impact Jordan Matthews makes as a rookie might be more limited than most people realize.

Philadelphia Eagles 2013 Veteran Receiving Statistics
PLAYERGMSRECYDSAVGTD
Brent Celek163250215.76
Riley Cooper164783517.88
Zach Ertz163646913.04
Jeremy Maclin (2012)156985712.47
LeSean McCoy165253910.42
Darren Sproles (NOR)15716048.52
NFL.com

With Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper firmly entrenched as the starters, Matthews is expected to work primarily out of the slot in ’14. Last season, Philadelphia used three-receiver sets on roughly 75 percent of all offensive snaps.

NASHVILLE, TN - SEPTEMBER 07:  Jordan Matthews #87 of the Vanderbilt Commodores catches a pass against the Austin Peay Governors at Vanderbilt Stadium on September 7, 2013 in Nashville, Tennessee.  (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)
Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

That number is likely to fall off dramatically this year, even if Matthews is ready. The team traded a fifth-round pick during the offseason for all-purpose weapon Darren Sproles, who tends to line up in the slot quite a bit. The use of two-tight end formations should rise as well due to the emergence of Zach Ertz, as the offense finds ways to get him on the field without taking fabulous in-line blocker Brent Celek off.

Matthews will almost certainly have the opportunity to play more than any other first-year player this coming season, but even that might be less than 50 percent of the time until everything is said and done. And if that’s all he’s going to get, when will fellow rookie wideout Josh Huff see action?

All that being said, the fact that so few players are being counted on to make a meaningful impact is not a reason for concern. Actually, it means quite the opposite. The fact that the Eagles aren’t forced to rely on rookie indicates the roster is improving across the board.

And realistically speaking, how easy is it to find immediate help in the draft at Philadelphia’s position in the first place? The Eagles originally owned the No. 22 pick, so it’s not like they’re getting a top talent there, and with only six selections going in, moving up for a superior prospect would not have been easy.

There was no reason to. This draft wasn’t about improving for 2014, although they did to an extent. The Eagles are deeper and therefore stronger than they were going in. Smith and Matthews should make sizable contributions. Hart and Allen will crack the rotation at defensive line at least, and the rest could see significant time in the event of injuries.

Eagles 30 or Older before Super Bowl or Free Agents in 2015
Offensive PlayerAge or FADefensive PlayerAge or FA
TE Brent Celek30S Nate AllenUFA
RG Todd Herremans32OLB Trent Cole32
LG Evan Mathis33CB Bradley FletcherUFA
WR Jeremy MaclinUFAILB DeMeco Ryans30
LT Jason Peters33DE Cedric ThorntonRFA
RB Darren Sproles31CB Cary Williams30
Spotrac.com

The real goal of this draft though was building for the future. Cole and Williams are just two of 12 major Eagles contributors who are in their 30s, will turn 30 before the Super Bowl or can become free agents next year.

The players the Eagles drafted in 2014 will all get their shot. Only most, if not all of them, will have to wait until 2015 to truly leave their mark.