A mixed review for Matthews

Linebacker Casey Matthews registered his first sack Sunday, dropping Dolphins QB Matt Moore in the second quarter.
Linebacker Casey Matthews registered his first sack Sunday, dropping Dolphins QB Matt Moore in the second quarter. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer)
Posted: December 13, 2011

For once, Casey Matthews wasn't answering for the failings of the Eagles defense.

"It was fun just getting back out there and being on the field and helping our team win," Matthews said Sunday, sweating in the humid postgame locker room after getting his most playing time since Week 3.

Matthews took over this week as the Eagles' middle linebacker in the nickel package, and, with the team leading most of the game, played the majority of the defensive snaps.

"It's a long season," Matthews said Sunday. "I always thought I would get back out there, I just didn't know when."

In his second chance, Matthews made the highlight reel with his first career sack, but a closer view of his play shows a mixed performance. He did a good job covering tight end Anthony Fasano on several plays, but was beat once for a first down and missed several tackles against the run, including a would-be safety on Reggie Bush. He was often caught inside as Bush slashed to the edge and gained yards. Matthews finished with three tackles, one for a loss.

In other words, it was about what you might reasonably expect from a fourth-round pick: some good, some bad, some reasons for hope and some cause for concern.

The problem is, the same evaluation could be made of most of the Eagles' other recent draft picks, including first- and second-rounders who are supposed to have the superior talent that forms the backbone of contending teams.

Thirteen games into the season, none of the top picks drafted the last two years by coach Andy Reid and general manager Howie Roseman has taken his job by the throat and made us take notice.

Of the six Eagles taken in the first and second rounds in 2010 and 2011, only two - guard Danny Watkins and safety Nate Allen - are starting, and neither has regularly shown elite capability.

Watkins doesn't look lost, as he did in the preseason, but he is not the dominant force Roseman touted after the draft, at least not yet. Allen, coming off of a torn patellar tendon last year, continues to seesaw on the field. He looked good for a few games early in the year, struggled badly against New England and Seattle, and was mixed again on Sunday. He made strong plays in coverage, breaking up two potential touchdowns to Brandon Marshall, but was spun around on a Bush run.

This year's second-round pick, Jaiquawn Jarrett, still hasn't found his way into the defensive rotation despite an obvious need at safety. Drafted as a hitter whose instincts were supposed to outweigh physical limitations, Jarrett has played in nine games, mostly on special teams, and has nine solo tackles. He has been absent from the stat sheet in six of the games he has played in.

Brandon Graham? Last year's top pick said he is healthy after microfracture surgery last December, but didn't dress Sunday as the Eagles went with Canadian Football League import Phillip Hunt instead.

"Brandon's future is very bright," Reid said Monday.

Perhaps, but there has not yet been much evidence on the field.

To be fair, Graham suffered a serious injury as a rookie and so did Allen. Each deserves more time. Curtis Marsh, a third-round pick this year, is stuck behind established starters.

One or two seasons isn't enough to label a high pick a bust, especially when injuries are involved. More than a few NFL draft picks struggled for a few years before going on to successful careers.

But the flip side is that some stars emerge quickly, and erase doubts early on. None of top picks of the last two years has done so. None has provided much tangible reason to believe he is a building block for the future.

The best you can say is that perhaps their futures are brighter. It's a hope, based on flashes and expectation, rather than actual production.

The obvious but inescapable contrast is the Giants' Jason Pierre-Paul, who in his second season has 121/2 sacks. Drafted two spots after Graham, there are no caveats needed around selection. His ability is already plain to see.

Closer to home, consider the last three major successes the Eagles have had in the early rounds: Jeremy Maclin, LeSean McCoy and DeSean Jackson. Each got opportunities as rookies, and each took advantage. None was a finished product, but they all showed enough to know early on that the Eagles had something to build on.

The team has had success in the late rounds - 2011 sixth-rounder Jason Kelce looks like a find - but the best teams in the league build their cores with hits on elite players at the top of the draft. Take a look at the Packers' recent picks: Aaron Rodgers, A.J. Hawk, Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, B.J. Raji, Clay Matthews and Bryan Bulaga were all taken in the first or second rounds since 2005.

Maybe the Eagles' recent picks have that type of talent and will soon justify the front office's faith.

At some point, it comes time to prove it.


Contact staff writer Jonathan Tamari at 215-854-5214, jtamari@phillynews.com

or @JonathanTamari on Twitter.

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