With the start of the 2011 NFL Draft less than 48 hours away, teams around the country have all but solidified their draft boards in preparation for the big day. The pro days and private workouts are over, and the player interviews have been carefully scrutinized.
With the wealth of information that they have accumulated over the past several months, the Philadelphia Eagles are well prepared to use their 10 picks, however they can, to fill the most pressing needs on their squad.
Although the top two needs for the Philadelphia Eagles that have been highlighted the most this offseason are right cornerback and offensive line, UCLA linebacker Akeem Ayers just might be the best fit for the team at No. 23.
The Eagles' linebacker corps was a mess last season and will require a complete overhaul. With the likely departures of Ernie Sims, Omar Gaither and Akeem Jordan, the team will need to find a standout player at one of the three positions in order to bring stability to their defense.
As I mentioned in my previous article on can't-miss defensive prospects, Ayers has the tools to become a prolific SAM linebacker in Juan Castillo's defense. His sideline-to-sideline speed, coupled with his pass rushing skills, make him a dangerous man to have in the front seven.
The Eagles have already expressed an interest in Ayers, inviting him to a private workout in early April. In most mocks, Ayers is projected to be available at No. 23, so look for Andy Reid to snap up this promising defensive prospect.
At right guard, the tandem of Max Jean-Gilles and Nick Cole simply wasn't enough to bear the brunt of pass rushing defensive linemen. The Eagles will need to shore up the right side of their offensive line in order to keep Michael Vick from getting attacked on every single snap.
Although he possesses the talent of a first-round prospect, Villanova's Benjamin Ijalana will likely fall to the mid-to-late second round for two reasons. First, his December surgery for a double sports hernia might cause some teams to fear the injury bug after he was forced to skip both the Senior Bowl and the NFL Combine.
Second, if you believe Ijalana's agent, Tony Agnone, the NFL is notoriously prejudiced against small-school prospects due to the lack of competition. In a recent interview with Philly.com, Agnone attempted to fight that predjudice:
"I think there's always a prejudice against a guy from a smaller school, so obviously if any team wants to downgrade Ben, that's an excuse. The level of competition is what they always argue, but if you look around...There are plenty of I-AA guys in the league, and they have to understand that."
It appears as though the Eagles are one of the teams who are ignoring Ijalana's small-school label, though, as they invited him to a private workout in early April. Should Ijalana still be available at pick No. 54, the Eagles could take a shot at acquiring another hidden gem from Villanova, a la Brian Westbrook.
With all of the uncertainty at the conerback position, the Eagles will wait no further than the third round to address that pressing need. Although they passed on Colorado's Jimmy Smith in this particular mock draft, Smith's counterpart Jalil Brown will be a steal at No. 85.
With a penchant for devastating hits and enough speed to cover the deep ball, Brown has the potential to be a deadly physical counterpart to Asante Samuel. He might even be able to teach the veteran a thing or two about tackling.
Although he will need a season or two to develop his play recognition, Brown can provide immediate value on special teams or as a nickel cornerback. The Eagles have already shown their interest in him by inviting Brown in for a private workout, so the steal of the draft could very well go to Andy Reid, if he plays his cards right.
Since longtime veteran Quintin Mikell appears to have one foot already out the door, the Eagles will need to add to their depth at safety. 2010 seventh-round pick Kurt Coleman appears to be an option to start, but with special teams ace Colt Anderson as the only experienced backup, additional talent is a must.
Although initially thought to be a late-round prospect, safety Chris Conte has rocked up many draft boards after stellar performances at both the NFL Combine and Cal's pro day. In fact, Sporting News has named Conte as one of the top risers in the 2011 NFL Draft:
"It was easy to see that Conte was highly productive in college because of his intelligence and physical style, but there was some worry about his limited athleticism. He proved, however, that those concerns were unwarranted, both at the Combine and at Cal's pro day. He has many of the tools to become a solid defensive starter who also contributes heavily on special teams, making him an intriguing third- or fourth-round pick."
If Conte manages to continue his high level of performance at the NFL level, he will be able to challenge Coleman for his starting job, making Conte a steal in the fourth round.
Although the Eagles would love to have Jerome Harrison back after a solid 2011 season, there is a good chance that he could seek a starting position elsewhere. The team will need to bolster the depth behind LeSean McCoy, as special teamer Eldra Buckley has previously shown that he cannot handle the workload.
Enter Hawaii's Alex Green, who the Eagles brought in for a private workout back in early April. The large-framed Green weighs in at 6'0", 225 pounds, yet manages to elude defenders effectively after bursting through the line. He was reportedly very impressive showing off his cutting skills during Hawaii's pro day.
If he were drafted, Green would provide an excellent complement to LeSean McCoy for use in red-zone and short-yardage situations, two areas where the Eagles could use improvement.
A high-energy kind of guy, Matthews has the finesse and hand skills necessary to be a valuable pass-rush specialist. He also has the ability to drop back into coverage, making him more of a hybrid DE/OLB in Juan Castillo's defense.
Matthews has all of the intangibles: high ceiling, great attitude, nonstop motor and a killer work ethic. The only catches are that he is a bit undersized at 257 pounds and that he is coming off of a shoulder injury from his 2010 campaign.
Still, Matthews is the kind of low-risk, high-reward signing that the Eagles would jump on in the fifth round. If developed properly under defensive line coach Jim Washburn, Matthews could develop into a valuable asset to the team.
For all of the quarterbacks that the Eagles have scouted during the 2011 offseason, there is a good chance that they will select one in the later rounds of the draft. Although the team already has three quality quarterbacks on the roster, they will need to add depth, especially now that Mike Kafka appears to be on the market in addition to Kevin Kolb.
Virginia Tech's Tyrod Taylor has already drawn comparisons to Michael Vick, and rumor has it that the rejuvenated NFL superstar has taken Taylor under his wing. The Eagles themselves have expressed an interest in the speedy quarterback, inviting him in for a visit during late March.
Much like Appalachian State's Armanti Edwards of last year's draft class, Taylor has the speed necessary to be evaluated as a wide receiver in addition to quarterback. However, in a February interview with Pro Football Talk, Taylor insisted that he was a one-position guy:
“Teams are grading me at quarterback and I’m getting good feedback from that. I’m a quarterback and I’ve been playing this position since I was five. No other position...I think some people see my athleticism and think I should play another position. I think I have everything I have to be a quarterback.”
Ever since the days of Randall Cunningham, the Eagles' offense has revolved around a mobile quarterback who can take off with the ball if his receivers don't give him an option. Taylor certainly fits the mold well enough to merit a fifth-round pick.
Although the Eagles are sitting pretty with wide receivers DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Jason Avant and Riley Cooper, they will need a suitable fifth receiver to round out their depth chart.
In addition to his potential as a receiver, TCU's Jeremy Kerley has the added bonus of being a prolific return man, with an average of 27.7 yards during his senior year. With the awful combination of Jorrick Calvin, Gerard Lawson and Chad Hall handling kick returns last season, the Eagles will welcome a player of Kerley's talent.
As Kerley said himself in a recent interview with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram:
"It's just as important for me to return kicks as it is to catch passes. I'm hoping teams look at me as the total package, a guy who can do it all."
With the tight end position very thin behind Brent Celek, the Eagles will need to add a blocking tight end in the later rounds of the draft.
Dubbed the "only true blocking specialist" of this year's tight end class by the Chicago Tribune, Lee fits the description of what the Eagles should be seeking. Although his passing game is a bit unrefined, Smith can still handle the short, underneath passes that would make him valuable in short yardage situations.
Smith aggressively uses his 6'6" 266 pound frame to block effectively, showing a mean streak in his play. He has a very high motor and, if he lasts into the seventh round, will be a steal for the Eagles.
For their final pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, the Eagles will look to address their depth along the offensive line. One intriguing prospect that has paid a visit to the Nova Care Complex over the past few weeks has been Cincinnati center Jason Kelce.
With the ability to play either center or guard, Kelce uses his smaller 290-pound frame to showcase his speed and quickness. He posted the fastest 40-time for an offensive lineman at the NFL Combine with a time of 4.89 seconds. He also ranked as the top offensive line performer in the 20-yard shuttle and 3-cone drill.
If Kelce managed to pack a few more pounds onto his frame during the offseason, he has the potential to be a solid reserve center for the Eagles.