INDIANAPOLIS - The NFL draft is more than 2 months away, but preparations for it are well under way, with the annual scouting combine kicking into gear yesterday. It's as hard as ever to say what the Eagles are looking for, except it seems pretty obvious they will focus on shoring up their defense, which ranked 15th in the NFL last season.
And yet, there are offensive priorities as well. If you're a student of Eagles history under the current regime, you look at the fact that tight end L.J. Smith is heading into the final season of his contract, couple that with the fact that agent Brian Mackler has not seemed optimistic about getting a new deal done, add in that the Birds haven't drafted a tight end since they took Smith in the second round in 2003, and that free-agent signee Matt Schobel was at least a mild disappointment last season, and it's easy to make the case that tight end could be an Eagles focus when the NFL's talent fair convenes April 28 and 29.
The consensus at the combine seems to be that tight end is not a strong position this year. The top two prospects, Arizona State's Zach Miller and Miami's Greg Olsen, are juniors who decided to come out early, probably because they looked at the unimpressive senior talent in this draft. Miller and Olsen are projected as late-first-round or second-round picks. The Eagles have the 26th selection in the first round.
"I'm not big on the tight-end class," NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said this week in a conference call. "The group of senior tight ends was the worst I've seen in a while. The two juniors came out, Greg Olsen and Zach Miller, which has helped it. But there isn't a whole lot of depth there and there are hardly any tight ends that will block anybody."
ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. called this tight-end group "not very good."
But Miller and Olsen both are athletic pass catchers who can work out of the backfield or split wide, as the Eagles often deploy their tight ends. Both also played defensive end in high school and had college offers at that position. Both have been compared to distinguished predecessors, from whom they sought advice about the NFL - Miller speaking with former Arizona State tight end Todd Heap, now of Baltimore, and Olsen speaking to ex-Hurricane Jeremy Shockey, of the Giants.
Miller, 6-4 5/8, 258, said he talked to Heap about the fact that the Sun Devils were changing coaches when Heap was going from his junior to his senior year, helping Heap decide to enter the draft rather than adjust to a new offense and a new coach as a senior. Miller faced the same situation, with Dennis Erickson replacing Dirk Koetter.
Miller brings a nifty nickname - "The Truth," bestowed on him early in his college career by safety Riccardo Stewart, after Miller made a one-handed catch in a workout. The Sun Devils moved Miller around a lot, lining him up as an H-back or fullback at times.
"I think that helped a ton for the NFL," Miller said yesterday. "They want to see how versatile you are . . . that gave me good experience and good game film, that they can see me doing that."
Olsen transferred to Miami after starting out at Notre Dame. He graduated early from Miami in criminal justice and is getting a lot of draft buzz, at least in part because the Hurricanes have seen tight ends Shockey (2002), Bubba Franks (2000) and Kellen Winslow (2004) chosen in the first round.
"A well-rounded tight end is something that has a ton of value in the NFL," said Olsen, sounding much like Miller. Olsen said he measured 6-5 7/8 and weighed 254 yesterday. "Being able to split out, go in the backfield, run routes, catch the ball - that's something I bring to the table."
Miller said he thinks his blocking is better than his pass catching. Olsen acknowledges he isn't at that point.
"I think it's something I'm adequate at, but I'm going to continue to improve at, as I get stronger, improving my technique," Olsen said.
Olsen said he is "more of an even-keel, levelheaded guy" than Shockey, with whom he has been compared. "I play hard, just like he does, but I'm a different type of player."
After Miller and Olsen, the next tier of tight ends, likely to mostly be second-day NFL picks, includes Rutgers' Clark Harris and Ben Patrick, who played last season at Delaware after transferring from Duke.