IT’S AN INTERESTING exercise to scroll back to the front pages of this time 15 years ago. In Donovan McNabb’s second season as the full-time starter, the Eagles had come within one possession of earning a Super Bowl berth and were now looking toward the NFL draft to push them over the hump. The assumption was that they’d look to bolster a run defense that had finished 18th in the league in fewest yards allowed and 16th in yards per attempt, particularly since starting middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter had just signed a free-agent deal with the Redskins and veteran defensive end Hugh Douglas was heading into his 31-year-old season. In fact, they did nothing of the sort.
By the end of the third round, the Eagles had added four players to the two positions that were among their strongest: three defensive backs, where they already featured 29-year-old Bobby Taylor, 31-year-old Troy Vincent, 28-year-old Brian Dawkins and recent free agent signee Blaine Bishop, and a running back, where 27-year-old Duce Staley and 24-year-old Correll Buckhalter were already in the fold.
When the first-day flurry was over, a palpable buzz of disbelief coursed through the media contingent that had descended on the NovaCare Complex. Brian Westbrook was an understandable pick, perhaps even a shrewd one. There was an argument to be made for any one of the defensive backs. But all three? Hadn't they just traded away a perfectly good cornerback in his prime, presumably because the depth they had at corner made him expendable? What sense did it make to acquire a second-round pick for 28-year-old Al Harris and then use that pick on another defensive back?
To anyone who was alive back then, the irony needs little explanation. Turns out, that first day of the 2002 draft was the day the Eagles laid the foundation for the second generation of the Andy Reid/McNabb roster, which included that 2004 team that lost to the Patriots in the Super Bowl. If the Eagles had been drafting to address their immediate needs that day, they might’ve ended up with Robert Thomas instead of Lito Sheppard, or Anton Palepoi instead of Sheldon Brown, or Kevin Bentley instead of Westbrook. Perhaps they would have found a way to advance to three more NFC Championships over the next three years. But, then, perhaps not.
Fast forward a decade and a half: Reid, Joe Banner and Tom Heckert are gone; Howie Roseman, Doug Pederson and Joe Douglas are on the clock. On Thursday, during a half-hour question-and-answer session with reporters, Roseman and Douglas each emphasized the contingent nature of drafting. Whatever a team’s level of preparation, it is still at the mercy of the teams picking in front of it. This year, one of the most interesting variables involves a position the Eagles hope they’ve addressed for the foreseeable future. Each team that snags a quarterback in the top 13 is another player available to the Eagles at No. 14. It’s a weak enough crop to envision no team doing so, but it’s a important enough position that you could envision two or even three teams making such a move. If those two or three teams instead take cornerbacks, well …
“I can speak about last year’s draft in Chicago,” Douglas said. “We thought defensive line was very deep and really our board was cleaned out by the end of the second round.”
Roseman had a similar experience after judging the defensive tackle position to have a deep well of talent.
“We went in and thought there would be guys in the fourth and fifth round that we liked,” he said, “but by the time we came in and picked, we were basically cleaned out, as well.”
You take the best player available. It’s cliche, and might need a few shades of gray to be completely accurate, but, overall, it’s the only way to approach the kind of odds an NFL team faces in the draft. During the week leading up to that 2002 edition, Reid spoke about research he’d conducted that showed only 25 to 30 percent of first-round draft picks end up succeeding. To further dilute those odds by limiting ones focus to a certain set of positions is a provably foolish strategy. You take the player who has the best chance to succeed, regardless of the position he plays. Throughout the first decade or so of the Reid years, the Eagles stuck to that philosophy with a rigidity that drove fans — and, perhaps, his quarterback — insane.
Toward the end of the Reid regime, the strategy seemed to change.
Among their picks in the first four rounds of the 2010 and 2011 drafts were four defensive backs, two defensive ends, two linebackers and a kicker as the Eagles scrambled to shore up a defense and special teams where gaping holes had emerged. Safety was a big need when they drafted Nate Allen at No. 37 overall. Rob Gronkowski went five picks later. That’s not to say they had Gronk graded higher, but it is a good example of what hindsight would look like if their last words before calling New York were, “Yeah, but we need the safety more.”
Chances are, we’ll never really know the precise strategy Roseman employs starting this Thursday. But given the thrust of the Eagles offseason, it could be tough to avoid the temptation of erring on the side of the guy who most helps you here and now. Their two biggest acquisitions were guys who can become free agents after this year; their left tackle is 35 years old; their center was reported to be on the chopping block all offseason; and their top incumbent running back and wide receiver can both become free agents after this season. Add a couple of starting-caliber cornerbacks to the team and you can at least imagine a playoff contender on paper. But what if Alabama tight end O.J Howard is the player the scouts grade highest? What if it’s Temple linebacker Haason Reddick?
In a sense, the Eagles almost have two different rosters: one that projects for this season, and one that projects for three years from now. For a team that has talked about taking a step back to take two steps forward, the roster of the here-and-now looks a lot closer to competitiveness than the one beyond this season.
The three-year plan demands replacements for Jason Peters, Jason Kelce, Allen Barbre, perhaps Brandon Graham and Malcolm Jenkins, plus a running back and a wide receiver. It also demands a couple of cornerbacks, which is the most obvious spot where it overlaps with the one-year plan. An NFL team can win with the Eagles’ current situation at wide receiver and running back. Cornerback is another story.
So what takes precedence if a player starts to fall and it’s a tight end or a safety or a running back whom Douglas’ staff grades higher than the best cornerback or defensive end on the Eagles board?
Will they really enter a season with Patrick Robinson and Jalen Mills and Ron Brooks at corner? If their goal is to maximize the value they get out of this year’s draft, they might have to.
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