With fewer than seven hours to go before the draft, here are three things to watch in tonight's draft:
1) Whether offensive tackles go 1-2-3
It's been the widespread belief for the past two months that an offensive tackle would go No. 1, and it has seemed certain for the past few weeks that Luke Joeckel and Eric Fisher would both be top five picks. But no player has been hotter in the past week than Lane Johnson, as The Inquirer's Jeff McLane has been reporting. There's some smokescreen involved in this process, but this is also a clear indication of the talent of tackles in the draft -- and the drop-off after Johnson.
And because the Eagles sit at No. 4 and like Johnson, don't be surprised if a team trades to jump the Eagles at No. 4. The Raiders need extra picks -- especially a second-round pick -- so they could move down to either No. 5, or somewhere else in the top 12, and likely get one of their top targets and an extra pick. In fact, the Jaguars could also trade out of No. 2 to a team that wants Joeckel and Fisher. So the top three picks go 1-2-3, and the Chiefs might be the only team to pick in their original place.
Of course, the Eagles could also swap with the Raiders at No. 3 and No. 4 to ensure another team doesn't get Johnson ahead of time. This happened last season, when the Browns and Vikings swapped Nos. 3 and 4 so the Browns could make sure they drafted Trent Richardson. In order to switch spots, the Brown surrendered picks in the fourth, fifth, and seventh rounds. I don't see the Eagles giving up those picks. But if they want Johnson that badly and think he'll be off the board, that's something to watch.
2) Quarterback-hungry teams trading into bottom third of first round
In the mock draft I submitted, I had the Eagles and Bills trading into the bottom third of the first round to take quarterbacks. For teams that want Geno Smith, EJ Manuel, Ryan Nassib, and Matt Barkley, this could be a consideration. There are a few reasons. First of all, there's a major advantage in drafting a quarterback in the first round compared to the second round. First-round picks are eligible for five-year deals, compared to four-year contracts. When you look at the money that's paid to quarterbacks, that's a huge advantage. A rookie deal for a starting quarterback is the most valuable contract in the NFL.
The other reason is because the run on the quarterbacks could start immediately in the second round, when the Jaguars begin with the No. 33 pick. There's buzz that the Jaguars could target Ryan Nassib in that spot. So if the Bills and Jets like Nassib, as Nassib indicated in an interview on Tuesday, they might need to get ahead of the Jaguars.
If the Eagles like EJ Manuel, they might be able to get Manuel at No. 35. But there's a risk that someone else could jump ahead of time -- especially at the 49ers spot at No. 34 in the second round. If the Jets and/or Bills miss out on Nassib, they could try to jump ahead of the Eagles. So to be safe and to get that fifth year, the bottom third of the first round is a possibility. But I'd be surprised if the Eagles sacrifice their 2014 first-round pick. They value future picks too much. I can see them trading picks later in the draft, because they can always move down in a later round or trade a player to recuperate picks. And by that point in the draft, the boards for teams are not as close as they are early in the draft.
3) Where the safeties go
This is one of the deepest safety classes in years, and safeties have become increasingly hard to find -- especially for the Eagles. If the Eagles don't use their second-round pick to acquire a quarterback, that will be fertile ground ofr a safety. There are safeties such as Matt Elam, Eric Reid, and Jonathan Cyprien who could potentially go late in the first round, but they could also slip into Friday's second round. The only surefire first-round safety seems to be Kenny Vaccaro.
So for Eagles fans who want to correct a long-standing problem, don't just pay attention to the Eagles picks, but also the other picks later in the first round. If the Eagles have the No. 35 pick on Friday, they'll have plenty of options.