Listen to Eagles officials before the NFL draft, and they’ll emphasize that they won’t draft for need, that they will look for the best available player. That’s easier to do when the projected depth chart reveals a playoff-caliber starting lineup in April. But when the Eagles make picks during the draft next week, they could have needs in mind.
Those needs might just come in 2019 or 2020 – not necessarily 2018.
“We’re not sitting there wherever we’re drafting and saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to redshirt guys,’” top executive Howie Roseman said. “We’re excited about this draft because it gives us an opportunity to help our team on the field in 2018 as well. But I think it goes back to the philosophy that we’re going to try to draft the best players and look at the draft as not just short-term needs for the team, but what’s in the best long-term interest of the team.”
Throughout the offseason, Roseman has repeatedly mentioned the Eagles’ 2019 and 2020 contracts. The front office is acutely aware that Carson Wentz is eligible for a lucrative extension in 2019, that other young starters have expiring contracts and are in line for richer deals, and that five projected starters are already 30 years old or older. The Eagles need to counter those expensive second-contract players with contributors on rookie contracts.
Even if the team won’t explicitly say it, this long-term planning will likely factor into how they approach the draft. For evidence of how this can work, just look at the Eagles’ 2002 draft.
After finishing 11-5 and reaching the NFC championship game, the Eagles spent two of their first three draft picks on cornerbacks Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown, even though they had one of the NFL’s best cornerback combinations. But Troy Vincent was 31 and Bobby Taylor was 29, and both players would be free agents after the 2003 season. The perception at the time was that cornerback was not a need, but that was only the case when examining the 2002 roster.
By their third seasons, Sheppard and Brown were the Eagles’ cornerback combination in the Super Bowl. The Eagles’ down-the-road thinking proved to be shrewd.
“We’re trying to put together not only the best team possible this year, but also making sure we could contend for a long period of time here,” Roseman said. “We have been having those conversations [about] ’19 and ’20.”
When looking at the 2018 Eagles, the team does not have many glaring needs. The Eagles could use more depth at safety and tight end, and coach Doug Pederson wouldn’t say no to more playmakers on offense. But there are more questions when looking beyond 2018.
Running back is an example. Jay Ajayi projects as a starter this season and could be a key piece for the offense after averaging 5.8 yards per carry in seven regular-season games following a midseason trade. But Ajayi is also entering the final year of his contract and there have been concerns about the long-term health of his knee. If the Eagles don’t re-sign Ajayi after the 2018 season, they’ll have a major hole to fill at running back considering Ajayi’s talent. The Eagles could find a dynamic rusher in this year’s draft who can join Ajayi and Corey Clement in the 2018 backfield before potentially taking on a bigger role beyond this season.
On the offensive line, the 36-year-old Jason Peters won’t play forever, even if it seems like it. Jason Kelce will turn 31 in November and has no guaranteed money left on his contract after this season. The Eagles have young reserves with starting experience such as Halapoulivaatai Vaitai and Isaac Seumalo, but questions remain about whether they’ll be long-term starting options. That’s why the Eagles are being linked to offensive linemen in this year’s draft.
“I believe [if] there’s an offensive tackle that unexpectedly falls to them at the bottom of the first round, I think they would jump on that,” NFL Network draft analyst Bucky Brooks said. “I think being able to have some forethought when it comes to what do you do with Jason Peters as he gets older, do you have a replacement in the hopper, someone you can develop on the side that you can develop without the pressure putting him on the field? That’s the best way for teams to stay at the top level.”
Even on defense, where the Eagles have addressed their depth this offseason, they are aging along the defensive line and have big contracts at safety. By drafting defensive end Derek Barnett last season, the Eagles addressed a premium position before there was a clear need. Now, Barnett projects as a potential 2018 starter whose role will continue to grow.
The Eagles could consider that strategy at safety, where Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod are one of the NFL’s most formidable duos. But Jenkins will turn 31 in December and McLeod’s contract swells in 2019 and 2020, with a salary cap charge of $10.9 million in the final year. They could identify a safety who is a Barnett-like rotational player in 2018 but takes on a much larger role in the next few seasons.
The Eagles also took a down-the-road approach last season by drafting Sidney Jones in the second round even though Jones was not expected to contribute as a rookie because of injury. They’re expecting Jones to be a key part of the secondary this season. He has the talent to eventually emerge as their No. 1 cornerback.
If the Eagles exercised that type of patience for the No. 46 pick last season when they had greater need, then they could do the same with the No. 32 pick this year on a more established roster.
“At the end of the day, these guys are signing five-year deals in the first round and will be part of your team for the next five years,” Roseman said. “And I have no idea what we’re going to need in 2019, let alone in 2020, 2021.”
Maybe not, but the Eagles are making those guesses during their long-term planning. You might see it play out on draft day.
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