IN THE WEEKS and months leading up to the April draft, every NFL team puts together a "board" that ranks all of the eligible players by the overall grade given them by that team's scouts, coaches and personnel executives in predraft meetings.
Teams will tell you that they try to stay true to that board on draft day. If they own the 15th pick in the first round, as the Eagles do this year, their plan generally is to take the highest-rated unclaimed player on their board, regardless of position.
But that's often easier said than done.
Take the Eagles in the second round of last year's draft. They had the 22nd pick in that round, the 54th overall, and selected Temple safety Jaiquawn Jarrett. Jarrett wasn't the 54th-best player on their board. But the Eagles felt they needed to take a safety fairly early that had a chance to step in and start.
They elected not to re-sign veteran Quintin Mikell, and their other starting safety, 2010 second-rounder Nate Allen, had ruptured a patellar tendon in December and there was no guarantee he'd be ready for the start of the season or how effective he would be.
The only other safety on the roster with any starting experience was 2010 seventh-rounder Kurt Coleman, who started the final two regular-season games after Allen got hurt, as well as the Eagles' playoff loss to the Packers.
Jarrett was a reach at 54. How big of a reach depends on who you talk to. Three teams told the Daily News after last year's draft that they had fourth-round grades on Jarrett. A fourth team said it had him going in the bottom half of the third round.
Asked to explain his decision to take Jarrett so early, coach Andy Reid said this after the draft: "We didn't feel that the second round was necessarily as strong as it had been in the past. What you saw people doing is they either moved around a little bit or they targeted a guy they liked for their system and they went and got him.
"Who knows if [Jarrett] would have fallen any farther. The kid from UCLA [Rahim Moore] went [45th to Denver] and [Jarrett] was the next [safety] up. So it really came down to who needed a safety and who was willing to pull the trigger."
Jarrett clearly didn't make the first-year impact the Eagles had hoped. Spent much of his rookie season on the bench trying to get his arms around Juan Castillo's defense as the Eagles' continued problems at safety contributed to just the third playoffless season for the Birds in the last 12 years.
While Reid and general manager Howie Roseman both think Jarrett eventually will develop into a solid NFL starter, their decision to draft for need and take him last year helped them realize that they need to focus less on drafting for need and more on taking the best player on their board.
"At some point, you get entrenched into what your team needs," Roseman said last month. "And because we were so determined to win a championship as quickly as possible, we wanted to address those [needs] as quickly as possible. We thought we were close to getting over the hump and felt if we could just get this [position addressed], it would complete our team.
"But when you look back at many of our successful [draft] picks, they were situations where we took the best players [regardless of position]. It's something I believe in. It's something we're going to get back to."
The Eagles, who have nine picks in next week's draft, including three of the first 51 selections, will be less tempted to focus on filling a need this year because, well, they don't really have any crying needs.
Yes, they could use an outside linebacker. Yes, depending on your opinion of Jarrett and Coleman and Allen, they could use another safety.
Yes, they could use more depth along both lines. Yes, they need another backup running back behind LeSean McCoy. And yes, they need to find a quarterback for Life After Michael Vick.
But assuming left tackle Demetress Bell can stay in one piece for the better part of 16 games, and assuming the Eagles didn't get fool's gold when they traded for middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans, there isn't a gaping hole on offense or defense that has to be filled next week or you can kiss the playoffs goodbye.
Which means, theoretically, they can just take the best player available when they're on the clock, position be damned.
"The thing about taking the best player on the board is, if you don't need him this year, you'll almost certainly need him next year," said former NFL general manager Charley Casserly. "In a free-agency system, in a year or 2, you're going to have a need at almost every position."
That sounds good in theory. But the problem is, many coaches and general managers don't have the luxury of thinking about next year or the year after.
In case you haven't noticed, NFL job security ain't what it used to be. When you need to win now to avoid a pink slip, you're not interested in a down payment on the future. You want a player who is going to help you immediately. And that means drafting for need.
"When I was in Buffalo, we were always in a situation there where the coach was ready to get fired or I was ready to get fired," said Tom Modrak, who was the Bills' player personnel director for 10 years before getting fired last year. "So you try to give them what they need. You try to accommodate everybody and you end up accommodating no one."
In 2006, the Bills had two first-round picks. Modrak hit a bull's-eye with the first one, taking Ohio State safety Donte Whitner, who was a 5-year starter with the Bills and helped the 49ers get to the NFC Championship Game last year.
Swung and missed with the second one, North Carolina State defensive tackle John McCargo, because he reached for a need.
"We had switched to a 4-3 and needed a three-technique tackle," Modrak said. "McCargo really was the only one out there other than a kid from LSU who had drug issues [Claude Wroten, who went in the third round to the Rams]. So we moved up a couple of spots to get McCargo [with the 26th overall pick]."
McCargo started just one game for the Bills in 5 years.
Two years later, the Bills' coaching staff told Modrak it needed a big wide receiver. He gave them what they wanted, taking a 6-6, 210-pound string bean out of Indiana named James Hardy in the second round. Hardy was a bust. Caught 10 passes in 2 years before getting released.
"We were going to take Jordy Nelson," Modrak said. "But the Packers grabbed him five picks before us. Turk Schonert was the new offensive coordinator and he wanted a big receiver. So we took Hardy. Not one of the finer moments of my career. As they say, if you listen to the crowd, you end up sitting with them."
Casserly said even teams that try to stay true to their board often make the mistake of inflating the grades of players they like at positions of need so that they can address a position of need even when they're claiming to be taking the best player available.
"The problem you have a lot of times is, in your [predraft] meetings, you subconsciously force guys up your board, talking yourself into liking them better than you should," he said. "Now, you say, 'Well, if you know that, then you won't do it.' But you're doing it subconsciously.
"You always fight that in the meetings. You're human. Everybody in the room is human. You're trying to fill a need. You're trying to do what's right for your team. It's a battle."
Some have suggested that Reid's uncertain future - he has 2 years left on his contract and almost certainly needs his team to make the playoffs this season to assure his return in 2013 - could influence the Eagles' draft strategy next week. Reid is the team's executive vice president of football operations and has the final say in personnel matters, including, presumably, all draft decisions.
Would he be less inclined to take Vick's heir apparent in the first or second round over, say, a defensive tackle who could be part of Jim Washburn's line rotation as a rookie?
"When you're in a stable place, it helps your decision-making process," said Modrak, who spent 20 years as a personnel executive with the Steelers before joining the Eagles in 1998, the year before Reid was hired. "You're not worried about things you shouldn't be worried about when you're on the clock."
Tick, tick, tick.
Contact Paul Domowitch at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow on Twitter @PDomo.
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