INDIANAPOLIS – The benefit of preparing for the NFL draft while returning a Super Bowl-winning roster with almost every starter under contract is that there are no glaring holes that must be filled. However, there are key role players who might need to be replaced. So it was noteworthy that when Eagles executive Howie Roseman and coach Doug Pederson assessed the draft pool they’re scouting at the combine this week, the strengths lined up with positions where the Eagles will likely need reinforcements this offseason.
“From our perspective, great class of running backs here,” Roseman said. “Really excited to see those guys work out. Maybe when you look at the tight end class, a little deeper [than usual]. Maybe a little lighter along the defensive line than it’s been the past couple of years. Offensive line took a jump this year. And then the safety class is really strong.”
The Eagles might be positioned to address spots that were filled by running back LeGarrette Blount, tight end Trey Burton, and safety Corey Graham – all pending free agents – if the board falls the way they’d like.
The problem is the Eagles lack draft picks – they have six, and they have traded their second- and third-round selections – and are drafting later in each round than ever before. Of course, that’s a small price to pay for hosting a parade on Broad Street.
The Eagles first pick at No. 32 overall, yet Joe Douglas and the scouting staff won’t have first-round grades on 32 players. Unless someone drops whom they view differently from how others around the league do, the Eagles will have a choice at No. 32: Use a first-round pick on someone from a lower tier of talent, or try to trade back in the draft to accumulate more picks.
“If there’s a guy there that we feel can make a difference and is a first-round talent, we won’t hesitate to take that guy,” Roseman said. “If we have a bunch of guys with similar grades, we would look to move back. Same thing if we have a bunch of guys with lesser grades. Now, it takes two. So you can’t just say I’m going to move back or I’m going to move up. But that’s the process we’ll go through.”
“Best available player” is a popular catchphrase this time of the year, but teams are seldom drafting from listed rankings. It’s usually tiered, and there’s a point where the grades don’t match the value of the pick.
Look for the Eagles to try to be aggressive to address their depleted reserve on the second day of the draft. Roseman once needed to leave the draft room and take a walk to burn off anxiety from sitting out a late round in the draft. Don’t expect him to remain idle while every other team picks during the second and third rounds.
“If there are options to not sit out Night 2, it would be better than the big calendar in our office … that says ‘golf outing, Friday,’ ” Roseman said. “That would not be good. We’re definitely going to try to be active and get more picks. But it’s not like we can just demand it from one of the other 31 teams. There are avenues, but those avenues take two. You can have a goal – and I’m not saying we do have a goal – but you can have a goal to get more picks. We would certainly like to get more picks in this draft.”
The most effective way for the Eagles to do it would be to trade out of the first round, or to dangle a valuable player, such as quarterback Nick Foles, on the trade market. They could try to package Day 3 picks to move up in Day 2, but that would take away from their later-round reserves.
The Eagles’ draft strategy could also be dictated by the strength of the quarterback draft class. At least four quarterbacks will likely be taken in the first round. If more passers garner first-round consideration, it could push a desirable position player down to the Eagles or compel a quarterback-hungry team to trade up to the final pick of the first round. That’s considered a prime spot for an exchange; it has been dealt three times in the last four years.
The Eagles have not selected a running back in the first round since 1986, although the depth of this year’s class could allow the Eagles to wait until later in the draft. Colts general manager Chris Ballard said that there will be “really good players at the running back position come out of this draft third, fourth, fifth, sixth round.”
But waiting could be a risky plan – look what happened to the Eagles last year – and they might have a decision about running backs such as Georgia’s Sony Michal or Auburn’s Kerryon Johnson at No. 32. Johnson, who was second-team all-American in 2017 after rushing for 1,391 yards and 18 touchdowns, is considered a three-down running back because of his size and contributions in the passing game.
The tight end draft class is deeper than in past years, but not as top heavy without a consensus first-round pick. For a team that has not selected a tight end since 2013 and could be without Burton and Brent Celek next season, it’s worth studying this group, including Penn State’s Mike Gesicki and Oklahoma’s Mark Andrews.
“This is a good tight end draft this year, there’s some guys, so we’re going to add talent there, too,” Pederson said. “There’s going to be some tough decisions probably made this spring.”
And with questions about the Eagles’ future at linebacker, Pederson was eager to do more research at the spot. The linebacker class will be on the field Sunday. The group is not especially deep, but four could go in the first round, including Alabama’s Rashaan Evans and Boise State’s Leighton Vander Esch. The Eagles have not selected a college linebacker in the first round since Jerry Robinson in 1979.
“It’s not a big group there, but there are some guys in the top of the group that [are] intriguing,” Pederson said. “See if they fit.”
The Eagles could also continue stocking up at wide receiver even though they drafted two last season, and both the offensive and defensive lines will remain priorities.
Roseman said that as the Eagles move forward with their team building, they must make sure they have enough players on rookie-level salaries to balance the inevitable high-salaried players who will be on their payroll while retaining key players.
That will require the Eagles to hit on draft picks and find contributing players throughout draft weekend. There are only eight weeks to go. It’s why the Eagles went to Indianapolis this week.