Written by Ray Butler – @RayButlerII
The first installment of a three-part series previewing the 2015 Eagles’ Draft.
Positions of Need
This is a particularly difficult year to judge the order of the Eagles’ needs. While my opinion almost certainly differs at least somewhat from that of the decision makers within the organization, listed below is my ranking of the positional needs of the Eagles along with an explanation as to why the position is an area that should be addressed in the upcoming draft. I ranked positions according to my belief of their importance to the overall success of the Eagles 2015-2016 season, not necessarily in what order I believe they will be drafted.
Why does the need at the safety position trump the Eagles’ apparent need at wide receiver and on the offensive line? Defense wins championships. Though the phrase may seem to be fading away in a league that is geared more towards offensive firepower than ever before, a look into the defensive statistics of recent Super Bowl winners proves that the phrase holds just as much meaning as it did ten years ago. Since the 2006 season, only one Super Bowl champion defense (the 2011 New York Giants) ranked outside of the top 15 when combining averages of top statistical categories (Categories include: Rushing defense, passing defense, total defense, red zone defense, sacks, interceptions, fumble recoveries, turnovers, and points allowed). While the defense of the Eagles presumably got better in free agency with the re-signing of edge-rusher Brandon Grahams and the additions of Byron Maxwell and Walter Thurmond III, I still believe that Philadelphia is one key piece away from having an upper-echelon NFL defense. With that in mind, I believe the Eagles should address their enormous need of pairing a second safety with Malcolm Jenkins in the defensive backfield very early in the draft. Billy Davis’s defense often schemes safeties to match up with slot receivers and tight ends in man-to-man coverage, so I anticipate the Eagles targeting a safety with above-average coverage and ball skills who is also a reliable tackle. I could also see the team drafting a prospect labeled as a cornerback in hopes of converting him to a top-tier NFL safety. This safety class is considered by several draft experts to be razor thin, and the Eagles once hoped to land coveted safety Devin McCourty during free agency before he opted to re-sign with Patriots in March. After failing at filling the need at safety during free agency, drafting the right player to help anchor the Eagles’ secondary should be the top priority for Chip Kelly in the upcoming draft.
2) Wide Receiver
The Eagles will need to follow up on their successful selection of Jordan Matthews one year ago by selecting an equally effective receiver in the upcoming draft. While the organization and fan base seem hopeful that Josh Huff will significantly progress from his rookie season to his sophomore season, on-field results remain to be seen. Personally, I believe Philadelphia may opt to select two receivers in the upcoming draft. Barring a trade up for a certain quarterback, I look for them to either use pick 20 or 52 to select a wide receiver. I also anticipate the team using a mid-round draft pick, such as pick 145, 156 or 195, to draft another receiver who Chip Kelly foresees complimenting Jordan Matthews, Jordan Huff, and the other rookie receiver the Eagles will take in the upcoming draft. Where the Eagles will select their first receiver of the draft remains up for debate. While most Eagles fans believe the team should draft a player who will take the top off of defenses with vertical, straight-line speed, I tend to look at Philadelphia’s receiving corps holistically. Outside of Jordan Matthews, tight end Zach Ertz and an aging Darren Sproles are arguably the best pass catchers on the Eagles’ roster. Thirty-year old Brent Celek can still be somewhat of a situational threat in the middle of the field, but I look for the Eagles to continue to mainly utilize him in two tight end formations that favor a run-heavy attack. While Kelly still seemingly views Riley Cooper as somewhat of an asset, the sixth year wide receiver realistically brings little to the table outside of his value as a perimeter blocker on running plays such as outside zone and buck sweep. With little faith in the free agent acquisition of oft-injured Miles Austin and no concrete evidence to support the rumored progression of Josh Huff, I think the Eagles should value overall talent more so than looking for a specific skill when selecting a receiver early in the upcoming draft. While this year’s receiving class is thought to be deep, receivers who were once thought of late second round or third round picks are now being viewed by some teams as late first round and early-to-mid second round picks. This likely means that if the Eagles have their eyes set on one of the top-ten ranked receivers in the upcoming draft, they may have to select him with pick 20 or look to trade up in the second round, like they did a year ago to land Jordan Matthews.
3) Offensive Line
While the safety and wide receiver positions could easily be debated as the Eagles top need following the 2015 free agent cycle, I believe addressing the offensive line is firmly planted as Philadelphia’s third biggest need leading up to the draft. When looking at the Eagles’ current personnel on the offensive line, age is unquestionably the biggest concern. The Eagles two best linemen, Evan Mathis and Jason Peters, are both 33 years old and entering the twilight of their productive careers. Starting guard Todd Herremans was released by the organization in February, and Chip Kelly seemed to hint at the annual Owners’ Meeting in March that 30 year old Allen Barbre could possibly be in line to replace Herremans in the upcoming season. While I believe the current offensive line of the Eagles has the potential be one of the best in the NFL in the upcoming season if it can remain healthy, I also believe Philadelphia should look to get younger by using a mid-round pick to add an offensive lineman. Versatility is a key for Kelly in the arena of offensive linemen, and the third-year head coach has a track record of coveting players who can play both tackle and guard. While one particular prospect will likely be available at pick 20, I think it is of the best interest of the Eagles to address more pressing needs with their first round pick and instead look to add depth to the offensive line on the second or third day of the draft.
On paper, the Eagles improved tremendously at cornerback during free agency. The team signed top-target Byron Maxwell to a lucrative multi-year contract and also brought in Walter Thurmond III on a one year “prove it” deal. Along with Brandon Boykin, the additions of Maxwell and Thurmond III give the Eagles three above-average NFL cornerbacks. What the position does lack, however, is size. In Billy Davis’s defense, the cornerbacks are often asked to play a vital role in run support. A 6’1 and 207 pounds, Maxwell certainly fits the mold of the physical-style corner the Eagles are looking for. Boykin and Thurmond III, however, are both listed under six feet tall and neither have much experience as a perimeter cornerback in the NFL. While a lot of fans believe Boykin could move into the role opposite of Maxwell, he is likely better suited at nickel back, where he has ranked as one of Pro Football Focus’s top coverage defenders in each of the last two seasons. There is also speculation that Boykin could be traded for draft picks prior to the upcoming draft. If Boykin is moved (I believe there is a better than 50/50 chance that he will be), the Eagles will almost certainly draft a cornerback relatively early in the upcoming draft. While Boykin’s being on the team might affect when the Eagles will draft a corner, I do not see it affecting the style of corner that Chip Kelly will look to add. The Eagles will almost certainly draft a corner who is at least six feet tall and near the 200 pound mark OR a player who makes up for a lack of height with excellent ball skills and impressive effort in run support. The Eagles will certainly strive to draft a cornerback who they feel has the ability to start on the opposite side of Byron Maxwell for the foreseeable future.
5) Edge Rusher
The Eagles finished tied for 2nd in the NFL with 49.0 sacks last season. And while on paper Philadelphia should be able to get after the quarterback again this season with current personnel, the Eagles will be without the services of Trent Cole, who the team released during free agency in March. Cole tallied the third most sacks on the team last season (6.5), and the Eagles have not yet added a player from outside of the organization who can fill the pass-rushing void. The Eagles did, however, re-sign outside linebacker Brandon Graham, who finished the 2014 season with 5.5 sacks. While defensive linemen Fletcher Cox, Vinny Curry and Cedric Thornton combined to sack the quarterback 14 times last season, the Eagles still need one more pass rusher to solidify their aggressive defensive attack. While last year’s first round pick Marcus Smith will get a long look at outside linebacker leading up to the season, the former Louisville Cardinal played only 74 total snaps last season and did not record a single solo tackle. Smith is not considered a lock to make the Eagles’ final 2015 roster. Connor Barwin will continue to be a stronghold in the Eagles’ defense, and Graham should have the opportunity to become a three-down player for Billy Davis. With that said, drafting a player who can situationally enter the game on passing downs to rush the quarterback should be a priority for Chip Kelly in this draft. The contracts of Cox, Curry and Thornton are set to expire following the upcoming season, so Kelly could certainly target a pass-rushing defensive end with one of the Eagles’ draft picks.
The future at quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles has been the hottest topic of debate amongst fans since news broke that the team had traded Nick Foles for former first overall pick Sam Bradford. While I still believe there is an outside shot of Chip Kelly conjuring up the necessary players and draft picks to move up in the first round to select Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota (the only prospect I will mention by name in this section of the overview), recent speculation that Mariota will not make it past the first few picks of the draft has made it increasingly likely that Bradford will likely be the Eagles quarterback for at least the 2015-2016 season. Regardless of whether or not the Eagles will attempt to trade up to take the quarterback that Kelly once compared to Peyton Manning, I fully believe the Eagles will select a quarterback at some point during the upcoming draft. If it is not Mariota, there are a few late round options that could be enticing to Kelly. If the Eagles are smart, they have been and will continue to evaluate quarterbacks leading up to the draft knowing that they very well may need a quality backup option for Mark Sanchez in the event that Bradford cannot remain healthy throughout the upcoming season. Whether he is traded or cut from the team prior the regular season, I do not foresee Matt Barkley being an Eagle during the 2015 season. If the Eagles do not draft Mariota and Bradford turns out to not be the long-term solution at quarterback, whoever the team selects in the upcoming draft will ideally compete with Sanchez and another player for the starting job prior to the 2016-2017 season. Scary, I know.