Eagles know that drafting receiver in first round requires patience

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Eagles executive vice president of football operations Howie Roseman talks about the quarterback Sam Bradford trade and the 53-man roster cuts while meeting with the media, at the NovaCare center, Saturday, September 3, 2016. ( STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer )

MOBILE, Ala. - One year ago, the Eagles brass left the Senior Bowl smitten with Carson Wentz. Howie Roseman had said that the Eagles traded up to No. 8 because they thought the strength of the draft took a dive after the top 10. He conceded Wednesday that the statement was nonsensical. He wanted to get one of the top two picks because he wanted to select one of the top two quarterbacks.

Roseman, owner Jeffrey Lurie, and coach Doug Pederson watched Senior Bowl practices from the sideline Wednesday - vice president of player personnel Joe Douglas was there, too - but they no longer needed to focus on quarterbacks. The emphasis is instead on building the roster around Wentz.

For that reason, it's a good sign that Roseman identified the strength of the draft as the skill positions: wide receiver, running back, tight end, and defensive back. Those align with the Eagles' needs.

But for Eagles fans who are looking at the top receivers in the first round and imagining a connection with Wentz, expectations might need to be tempered.

"If you take out the 2014 wide receiver class and you look at this, it's really been historically a tough position to acclimate in the National Football League," Roseman said, referring to a class that included Odell Beckham Jr. and Mike Evans, among other Pro Bowlers. "It hasn't been a plug-and-play position. And I think that class changed everyone's thoughts a little bit, but the reality is we have years of data that it's a hard position to come to the National Football League and contribute. It's a developmental position, and you've got to look at it when you're drafting guys from that perspective."

Two years ago, Nelson Agholor and Dorial Green-Beckham were among the top prospects at their position, and both were taken within the first 40 picks of the draft. Two years later, neither player has developed into a reliable starter for the Eagles. Roseman said that in the college game, there's not much press coverage and a receiver can be matched up against a cornerback who won't play beyond college.

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Roseman also emphasized that development is key at the position. The only coaching change the Eagles made was in the wide receivers room, where they fired Greg Lewis and hired Mike Groh. Groh has more experience developing NFL receivers than Lewis.

The Eagles are no doubt interested in receivers in this draft - their brain trust was studying the senior group intently Wednesday - but more immediate help will likely come via free agency. Roseman said it all depends on who is on the market. It could include Chicago's Alshon Jeffery, Washington's DeSean Jackson, Cleveland's Terrelle Pryor, the Los Angeles Rams' Kenny Britt, and Miami's Kenny Stills.

But for the Eagles to be active in free agency, they'll need to open salary-cap space. Roseman said the Eagles have been preparing for it throughout the year. There are a number of key veterans whose cap numbers make them candidates to be released, traded, or in need of a restructured contract. Running back Ryan Mathews, defensive end Connor Barwin, center Jason Kelce, cornerback Leodis McKelvin, guard Allen Barbre, and potentially even left tackle Jason Peters fall into this group.

"It's our job to make tough decisions," Roseman said. "Make sure they're not emotional and they're the best for the Philadelphia Eagles going forward."

The Eagles are likely to move on from Mathews, leaving them with a need at the position. The top running backs in the draft are not at the Senior Bowl because they're underclassmen, but it's a strong group. LSU's Leonard Fournette and Florida State's Dalvin Cook are considered first-round talents. The question is when the Eagles would bite.

The NFL's top two rushers this season were rookies. Dallas' Ezekiel Elliott went No. 4 overall, showing that it's never too early to take a potential star running back. But the second-leading rusher was Chicago's Jordan Howard, who went in the fifth round, so productive running backs can be found later in the draft. Douglas was a major part of Chicago's decision to draft Howard last season.

"If you get a great running back, it changes games," Douglas said. "You saw that with Dallas this year. I think you can get not only running backs, you can get great players at every level of the draft."

The Eagles have eight picks in the draft, which will be in Philadelphia in April. Their first-round pick, which comes from Minnesota in the Sam Bradford trade, will be either No. 14 or No. 15. A coin toss with Indianapolis next month will determine the spot.

Considering that the strength of the draft aligns with the Eagles' needs, it was presented to Roseman that the Eagles might be inclined to trade down and acquire more picks. Roseman did not necessarily agree. He saw the Eagles fail to land major contributors in 2014 and 2015. The Eagles have had more success when they draft earlier in the rounds. They need to add more difference-makers to the roster with Wentz, and it would help if they can hit on their first-round pick for the second consecutive season.

"I think there is a line where you don't get a difference-maker," Roseman said. "This is your opportunity in the first round to get a difference-making player."

zberman@phillynews.com

@ZBerm

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