Backs Could Be The Key To Eagles' Draft

Posted: April 26, 1987

As far as the Eagles' draft fortunes were concerned, 1986 was the Year of the Running Back. Of their 15 regular draft choices and one supplemental pick, five were ballcarriers. Four - Keith Byars, Anthony Toney, Junior Tautalatasi and Charles Crawford - are still on the roster.

So at a time when running backs should be among the least of their needs, it is ironic that the Eagles should discover that running back is precisely the position that may hold the key to their success Tuesday when the NFL commences its annual land rush for collegiate talent.

The 1987 draft, according to NFL personnel people and others who make a living tracking this vernal talent hunt, is a tad on the lean side. According to Joe Woolley, the Eagles' director of player personnel, there are 12 to 15 ''legitimate" first-round picks - players who should be starters, possibly stars.

That group - and particularly the top 10 - is made up primarily of defensive players, and an impact defensive player is exactly what coach Buddy Ryan has said he wants to take when the Eagles get their turn with the No. 9 overall choice.

The problem, however, is that most of the teams drafting in front of the Eagles also need defensive help.

If too many of those higher-placed teams were to pick defensive players, the pool of available talent could be so shallow by the time the Eagles pick that they would have to try to trade down or, failing that, draft a player who plays a position they're really not interested in.

That's where the running backs come in. A number of teams behind the Eagles need ballcarriers. Should those clubs be successful in making deals to move in front of the Eagles to snatch the running backs of their choice, then the likelihood of the Eagles getting the defensive player they want would increase.

What, or rather who, would make Ryan happy? First, let's take a leap of faith and assume that Ryan really does want a defensive lineman.

The top linemen on the board are defensive ends Reggie Rogers (Washington), Jason Buck (Brigham Young) and John Bosa (Boston College) and defensive tackles Jerome Brown (Miami), Shawn Knight (BYU) and Danny Noonan (Nebraska).

Which of those players would Ryan consider a genuine No. 9 pick? Naturally, Ryan is not saying, so here's a consideration of their merits:

* Rogers had been considered the premier lineman in the country and a sure- fire top-three selection until just recently, when some teams started downgrading him. His work habits could come into question.

* Brown is a natural four-man-front defensive tackle and a tenacious street fighter on the inside. The Eagles should love him, but so will a few other, higher-placed teams.

* Knight is a huge defensive tackle (6-foot-6, 290 pounds). He has the flexibility to play outside, too, but that's not his best position.

* Noonan is considered good enough at his position to be taken by a lot of teams as high as No. 9. His position, however, has been nose tackle in a 3-4 defense. His big-play potential is just that - potential.

* Buck has trouble keeping his weight from sliding from 220 to 270 to 240. Also, he's a defensive end, and the Eagles would probably rather have a tackle.

* Bosa is all fire and intensity. Coaches love his attitude, but at 6-3, 260, he doesn't carry the bulk to be a can't-miss prospect.

Of that group, who will be left when the Eagles make a choice?

Well, there's no question about the draft's first selection: Quarterback Vinny Testaverde has been in Tampa for a week studying the Buccaneers' offense.

And it really doesn't matter if the No. 2 team, Indianapolis, trades its pick - whoever has it almost certainly will pick Alabama linebacker Cornelius Bennett.

Buffalo has the third choice. Assuming the Bills keep it, they will probably pick Rogers or Purdue defensive back Rod Woodson.

Next up, Green Bay. The Packers need defense and football players who will stay out of criminal court. The logical pick for them would be Rogers or Woodson, whoever is left. But this is a team that may well make a trade with San Francisco (which has the 22d and 25th picks) or Kansas City (the 19th pick), both of whom want a running back.

San Diego has the fifth pick, and the Chargers will grab the first running back, probably Auburn's Brent Fullwood - that's if neither San Francisco nor Kansas City has already moved up and taken him.

St. Louis goes next, and the Eagles will hold their breath. The Cardinals are switching to a four-man front and need a genuine defensive tackle in the middle. Brown looks like the reasonable choice, but the Cards are known for off-the-wall draft picks.

If St. Louis picks Brown, the members of the Eagles' brain trust will have to start looking at all those contingencies they have planned. But if the Cardinals take the second-best runner, fullback Alonzo Highsmith of Miami, things will look especially good for Philadelphia. If Highsmith goes to the Cards, the 49ers and Chiefs will be sweating bullets.

Detroit has the seventh pick and no second-rounder. If two runners are gone, the Lions should be able to hold up the Niners or Chiefs for a first- and second-round pick. The Chiefs or Niners would then be able to select Penn State runner D.J. Dozier.

If the Lions don't make a trade, they may have to go with the best available linebacker on the board, Penn State's Shane Conlan.

Houston picks just in front of the Eagles. The Oilers also want a running back. If Fullwood, Highsmith and Dozier are all gone, though, that means Temple's Paul Palmer is most likely to be the next running back picked. But the No. 8 spot in the draft may be just a little too high for Palmer. If the Oilers feel that way, they probably will grab Brown.

Which brings us to Philadelphia. Given the four top defensive linemen likely to still be on the board at this point, Knight, with his John Dutton dimensions, looks like the best fit for Ryan's defensive system.

If, somehow, four running backs are taken in front of the Eagles (meaning successful trade-ups by San Francisco and Kansas City), that will mean that Brown probably has slipped through. If so, Ryan is not likely to let him slip through his fingers.

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