For Eagles, NFL draft offers possibilities at linebacker

Michigan State defensive tackle Jerel Worthy could be a potential first-round pick. (Al Goldis/AP)

Look over the Eagles roster and you don't find many glaring holes, particularly for an 8-8 team.

They have a quarterback they are committed to, a star running back, and an offensive line that should remain intact if they can re-sign guard Evan Mathis. They have two talented wide receivers, at least at this moment, and a strong tight end.

Their defensive ends create pressure, they have a glut of cornerbacks, and while there are concerns at safety, the team isn't ready to give up on the second-round picks it added there each of the last two years.

Then there is linebacker, a yawning hole screaming for improvement, and defensive tackle, where the Eagles are productive but aging, and lack a big-time run-stopper.

Linebacker is the bigger need, but the defensive tackle class is perhaps the deepest in this NFL draft, according to analysts.

The Eagles get a chance to examine their options this week in Indianapolis, where the league hosts more than 300 college standouts at its annual scouting combine.

The team has struggled to draft star talent on defense, accounting for its needs and forcing it to spend heavily in free agency. Since 2006 the Eagles have taken 11 defensive players in the first three rounds. Only Nate Allen, a 2010 second-round pick, is a starter.

The jury is still out on Allen, Jaiquawn Jarrett, and 2010 first-round defensive end Brandon Graham, but none has shown star talent yet.

"We want to get great players from the draft, and so we'll look at the things we've done, not only in the last two years, three years, but really in the last decade and try to learn from them," said general manager Howie Roseman, noting that Graham and Allen were slowed by injuries in their second seasons.

If the Eagles plan to break their streak of not taking a first-round linebacker since the Carter administration, Boston College's Luke Kuechly could be a perfect fit, said NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock.

"If I'm the Eagles and Kuechly's there, that might be a slam dunk for me, because I know what I'm getting and I'm plugging a huge hole," Mayock said last week.

He considers Kuechly "the best inside linebacker in this draft, by far," with no injury history, strong instincts, and more athleticism than he gets credit for. Mayock compared him to Sean Lee, a rising star for the Dallas Cowboys, saying Kuechly could start immediately.

Kuechly is also rated as the draft's top linebacker by ESPN's Todd McShay and Mel Kiper. Kuechly led the nation in tackles each of the last two seasons, so the on-field play is there.

The combine, though, gives teams a chance to examine prospects' health firsthand, interview them to gauge their intelligence and personalities - a key factor for middle linebackers, who quarterback the defense - and make sure that what they see on tape matches up with their performance in drills.

"If Kuechly runs 4.7 [in the 40-yard dash], in that range, he's a top 15 pick," Mayock said. "If he runs 4.8, there's going to be a problem."

After Kuechly, Mayock doesn't see another middle linebacker worthy of the Eagles' first pick, No. 15 overall. Alabama's Dont'a Hightower should go later and Arizona State's Vontaze Burfict, who has wowed some with big hits, doesn't crack Mayock's list of top five linebackers.

"I don't see first round at all," he said of Burfict.

Unlike linebacker, though, there might be plenty of options at defensive tackle. Five to seven players there might be worthy of first-round picks, Mayock said, starting with Michael Brockers (LSU), Jerel Worthy (Michigan State), Dontari Poe (Memphis), and Devon Still (Penn State).

The combine's physical tests of speed, strength, and quickness draw the most attention, but Roseman said the Eagles focus mainly on what they have seen in games.

"We'll try to stick to where our board is now," he said, adding that an extreme performance could lead to an adjustment.

Free agency, starting in March, could change the team's obvious needs by the day the draft begins, April 26. The team could opt for a veteran linebacker or defensive lineman. If the Eagles lose wide receiver DeSean Jackson, they might need to draft for a replacement.

Roseman, though, said his draft plans shouldn't shift drastically based on what veterans the team acquires or loses.

"You really want to take the best player available because you can't really project where your roster is going to be three, four, five years from now," he said. "The draft is a long-term decision."

Maybe this is the year the Eagles use their first pick to fill a long-standing need.


Contact staff writer Jonathan Tamari at 215-854-5214, or @JonathanTamari on Twitter.