Eagles take a gamble with Smallwood, Mills, and McCalister

LSU Jalen Mills v Miss 1200x800 Eagles Getty
The Eagles used a seventh-round pick in the 2016 draft on LSU safety Jalen Mills, shown here trying to tackle Mississippi wide receiver Laquon Treadwell during the second quarter of a game at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium on Nov. 21, 2015 in Oxford, Mississippi.

The Eagles of old never would have selected three prospects with the red flags Wendell Smallwood, Jalen Mills, and Alex McCalister wore like scarlet letters entering the draft.

Forget even the recent history of Chip Kelly, who would have had players with checkered pasts involving arrests, suspensions, and social-media foibles removed from his board predraft. The Andy Reid-Joe Banner-Howie Roseman Eagles had a protocol as strict when it came to evaluating prospects.

They took some risks, but they were mostly rolls of the dice based on personality (e.g., DeSean Jackson). Did they miss out on some players who would prove worthy of a second chance? Sure. But more often than not, the potential for reoccurrence far outweighed any reward.

But these are the gambles teams take when they don't have many high draft picks and when they select a quarterback second overall who isn't expected to contribute for at least a year. Typically, teams hope to pull at least three rookies from a draft who can be factors right away, whether it's as starters or role players.

The Eagles, after nabbing eight players in the draft - six of whom came in rounds 5-7 - don't have any obvious Day 1 contributors, most notably Carson Wentz. Perhaps third-round offensive lineman Isaac Seumalo can win the open left guard spot. But the Eagles' third-day prospects, for the most part, had to wait two days to be drafted for a reason.

And if it wasn't because of talent, it was for off-the-field problems. Smallwood, a running back out of West Virginia, was arrested and charged in July 2014 with witness intimidation in relation to a murder case. The charges were eventually dropped because, Smallwood said, "I never did any of that." But he regretted that he placed himself in such a position by "hanging out with the wrong people."

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Mills, a defensive back from Louisiana State, was charged with second-degree battery of a woman in June 2014. He hit her in the head and knocked her unconscious, according to the initial police report. The charged was eventually reduced to a misdemeanor simple battery, and Mills was sent through the court's pretrial diversion program.

Upon completion, the charge was dismissed in December 2015.

McCalister, a defensive end, was suspended by Florida for the first game of last season for violating team policy. He was removed from the team for another offense in December before the Gators' bowl game.

Roseman said McCalister's transgression "wasn't legal."

All three players were either slated to be drafted higher, or were given higher grades by many analysts and scouts. But they fell, and the Eagles were willing to overlook their past mistakes.

"We forget sometimes these guys are college kids and things happen," Roseman said.

Some evaluators tabbed Mills, who was chosen in the seventh round, as a second-round talent. Smallwood, who led the Big 12 in rushing, probably would have been rated higher had his arrest not already been well-known. The Eagles snatched him in the fifth round.

Smallwood also used coarse language to describe Philadelphia fans in a series of messages on Twitter five years ago. The tweets were resurrected Saturday after he was drafted, at which point he deleted his account. The Eagles said they knew of the tweets before the draft.

"We look at social media," Roseman said. "We are aware of the statements that he made. They were in 2011. A lot has changed between now and then. We don't condone anything he said, but we spent a lot of time with him, and we feel that this is a good kid."

McCalister, given his size (6-foot-6, 240 pounds, long arms) and athleticism, normally would not last until the seventh round. Roseman, the Eagles executive vice president of football operations, admitted that each of those players were likely hindered by questions over character.

The Eagles have long been an organization that valued character almost as much as talent. Owner Jeffrey Lurie has taken pride in having that reputation. But for Reid and Banner, that was best way to run business. And Roseman, too, followed that philosophy when he became general manager.

When Kelly took over personnel from Roseman last year he was even more adamant about drafting squeaky-clean prospects. Unless he knew the player, Kelly simply had sketchy characters erased from consideration.

But after Saturday's anomalous gamble on three players, it was fair to question whether Roseman's year away had him reevaluate the Eagles' philosophy.

"I'd say we did give guys second chances," Roseman said of the Eagles' past gambles. "When you talk about Mike Vick, certainly a guy we gave a second chance, too. Bringing [Terrell Owens], who had some things. DeSean coming out - people thought he had some character concerns."

Vick was clearly the exception. Owens had never been arrested. And the same went for Jackson. And, to be fair, those were exceptional players. Will Smallwood, Mills, and McCalister ultimately be worth the risk?

Roseman pointed out that West Virginia was willing to make Smallwood one of the faces of their program. He said that Mills "needed to grow up a little bit, but he's not a bad kid." He said essentially the same of McCalister.

Reid used to have a saying - "production over tolerance" - meaning that he was willing to give players a little room to bend as long as they produced. If Smallwood, Mills, and McCalister aren't productive, the hook could be short.

They had better be worth it.

"At some point the amount of resources you're putting into a guy - you weigh the risk/reward in those situations," Roseman said. "But we don't think we brought any bad people in here."

They have to prove it.

jmclane@phillynews.com

@Jeff_McLane

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