With unexpected draft picks, Birds still have needs to fill

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The Eagles took Oregon linebacker Casey Matthews in the fourth round. (Ross D. Franklin/AP)

It's tricky business predicting the Eagles' draft plans.

Last year heading into the draft, their center was four months removed from major knee surgery, the right guard was an enigma bordering on free agent bust, and the left guard was hobbling on a bum foot.

Andy Reid might as well have been walking around with a neon sign as gaudy as his draft weekend Hawaiian shirts that screamed: "No surprise here: We're drafting interior linemen!"

Except they didn't. In fact, the Eagles didn't add a single offensive lineman through the draft, free agency, or trade last offseason. Instead, they stocked up the defensive line, adding ends Brandon Graham, Daniel Te'o-Nesheim, and Ricky Sapp via the draft, trading for end Darryl Tapp, and drafting defensive tackle Jeff Owens.

By training camp, the Eagles' higher-ups had fretted that they hadn't done enough to strengthen the offensive line, and eventually those fears were realized.

Center Jamaal Jackson rushed back from tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in time for the opener and tore his triceps. Right guard Stacy Andrews was so useless that the Eagles dealt him before the season for one of Howie Roseman's coveted seventh-round picks.

And even though left guard Todd Herremans' foot injury never mounted to anything significant, the line was so discombobulated that right tackle/turnstile Winston Justice's problems overshadowed the interior's inconsistencies. (Remember center Mike McGlynn's fumbled snap against the Titans?)

But the offensive line was hardly the worst of the Eagles' problems last season, which is amazing when you consider their NFC East crown.

The defense was a schizophrenic unit by season's end that either couldn't pressure the quarterback or couldn't pass-defend against a third-string quarterback. Which was more at fault - the pass rush or the secondary - is up for debate, but the Eagles' front four was a battered group by January.

Defensive end Trent Cole had only three sacks in the second half of the season after tallying seven in the first eight games. Juqua Parker opened the season with four sacks in three games. He had only two the rest of the way. Graham, the Eagles' top draft pick in 2010, tore his ACL in December and is unlikely to be back by the start of the coming season.

So Graham is a question mark, Cole and Parker are nearing 29 and 33 years of age, respectively, and the rest of the defensive ends are almost completely unproven. Darryl Tapp is a decent complementary piece, but Te'o-Nesheim and Sapp and Canadian Football League transplant Philip Hunt are projects.

The Eagles had to add an end in the draft, right? Almost every "expert" had them snapping one up in the first two rounds. But they didn't.

How about defensive tackle? The need there wasn't as great, but Mike Patterson and Brodrick Bunkley - especially Bunkley - are in decline, and it's not as if Antonio Dixon and Trevor Laws are all-pros.

Nope. Not there either. Eighteen defensive linemen went in the first two rounds of the draft, 27 in the final five. Roseman said the value at that position was in the early rounds. And rather than go in that direction, the Eagles took a guard, safety, and cornerback one, two, three. The interior of the line gained two more bodies when a center and guard were added on Saturday.

Last year, Reid and Roseman said that improving their pass rush was the No. 1 offseason priority. The bolstering of the line supported that claim, but the pass rush generated only 15 sacks in the second half of the season after notching 24 in the first half.

"That was a little bit of a trend in the league with a few of the teams," Reid said Saturday. "We've gone back and looked at that and we think we have it worked out. We'll see if we do come the season."

To be fair, the Eagles are "not a finished product."

But the free-agency pool is limited. Ends Jason Babin and Ray Edwards are available, but Babin is 30 and Edwards is likely a restricted free agent. Defensive tackles Shaun Cody and Barry Cofield are just average. Maybe the Eagles have a deal for Kevin Kolb that brings a stud defensive end in return. But don't the Eagles have to find a starting right cornerback, too?

Those questions will remain unanswered for the time being. Predicting when the lockout ends is just about as hard as getting into the Eagles' draft-day war room.

 


Contact staff writer Jeff McLane at 215-854-4745 or jmclane@phillynews.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Jeff_McLane