Inside the Eagles: Will Eagles finally get right defensive lineman in draft?

a formerNo. 1 draft pick , still has a chance to pan out. DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
a formerNo. 1 draft pick , still has a chance to pan out. DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer (Brandon Graham,)
Posted: April 15, 2012

The Trevor Laws Eagles era ended last week without fanfare.

At this point it has become commonplace: another high draft pick expended on a defensive lineman, another come and gone without making even a dent in the starting lineup.

The Eagles' dubious history with drafting on defense has been well-documented, especially on the line, where Andy Reid has invested so many of his top selections over the last decade.

Despite those missteps - or perhaps because of them - the Eagles are again poised to take a defensive lineman in the early stages of this year's draft. The first round will take place April 26, and many "experts" have the Birds selecting one of several defensive tackles with the 15th overall pick.

Reid, of course, could surprise and go in another direction, as he has many times before. And, really, he doesn't have an immediate need on the defensive line. But the projected starting four are aging and the Eagles' second group, in general, doesn't have a long-term prospect, because draftees like Laws haven't panned out.

The lone exception may be Brandon Graham. The Eagles' top pick two years ago, the defensive end essentially had his second season wiped out after December 2010 knee surgery. Graham is a wild card, and the uncertainty over his return could propel the Eagles to take another defensive end in the first round.

In today's pass-crazy NFL you can never have enough premium pass rushers. Reid has exhausted himself trying to find one in the draft. Since 2002, he has selected five defensive ends in the first three rounds, more than any other position.

Those five - Jerome McDougle, Victor Abiamiri, Bryan Smith, Daniel Te'o-Nesheim, and Graham - have accounted for 11 total sacks, and only Graham remains. Reid did strike gold in 2005, when he found Trent Cole in the fifth round, and for that he deserves credit.

Overall, Reid's defensive lines have been among the best in the league over the last decade. Whether it's acquiring Jason Babin in free agency, or plucking Juqua Parker out of obscurity, or signing the unwanted Antonio Dixon, the Eagles have managed to stock their front four with playmakers.

The draft is just one piece of the puzzle. But the offensive-minded Reid can't seem to solve the riddle of getting an impact defensive lineman early in the draft, although Mike Patterson has been a steady defensive tackle for seven seasons.

The Eagles have hardly been the only team to strike out. And it's hard to trace the failure to win a Super Bowl back to those whiffs. But what if Reid chose Jason Pierre-Paul instead of Graham, or Cliff Avril instead of Smith, or Charles Johnson instead of Abiamiri?

All three of those defensive ends were on the board when the Eagles chose otherwise.

Despite recent attempts to distance Reid from the Graham choice, the head coach is the Eagles' architect. He has final say. These are ultimately his picks. But it's also fair to sprinkle the blame around to general manager Howie Roseman, his predecessor Tom Heckert, their team of scouts, and former defensive coordinator Jim Johnson.

There has been something systematically wrong with how the Eagles evaluate defensive linemen. Roseman and Reid have been candid this offseason about their relying less on predraft all-star games, the combine and interviews, and more on game performance.

"We tried to do that, but I think what was happening is we didn't realize that some of these things maybe were having an effect more than we even wanted," Roseman said last month. "It shouldn't have even any equal weight."

Compared to other NFC teams that have employed a 4-3 front over the last 10 years, the Birds have produced among the least number of starters, games played, and sacks from linemen drafted in the first three rounds.

Both they and the Giants have selected eight defensive linemen over that span. While the Giants have gotten five Pro Bowls, 17 starting seasons, and 175 sacks from their group, the Eagles have no Pro Bowls, nine starting seasons, and 371/2 sacks.

Last year the Eagles did not draft a single defensive lineman. Instead, Reid gave first-year line coach Jim Washburn free-agent defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins and Babin. Washburn's unit recorded an NFL-best 46 of the Eagles' 50 sacks.

But there was room for improvement and there is room for new additions. Last year offensive line coach Howard Mudd was handed top draft pick Danny Watkins. This year could be Washburn's turn.

Perhaps he could reverse the Eagles' fortunes in the draft. Washburn was on staff when the Tennessee Titans selected Jevon Kearse and Albert Haynesworth. He was also there, however, when they picked Coatesville High's Derrick Morgan three picks after Graham and one after Pierre-Paul.

The Eagles have brought LSU's Michael Brockers and Memphis's Dontari Poe - both defensive tackles are projected to go in this year's first round - in for visits. The scuttlebutt from the NovaCare Complex is that Washburn really likes Mississippi State defensive tackle Fletcher Cox.

The 6-foot-4, 298-pound Cox would appear to be the best fit for Washburn's pass- rush-first scheme. Drafting a big body like the 6-foot-4, 346-pound Poe would be un-Reid-like, although his strong combine numbers could be compelling.

Trevor Laws was billed as an interior lineman who would get after quarterbacks. In 56 games, he notched only five sacks. Last Wednesday, the unrestricted free agent signed a one-year deal with the St. Louis Rams.


Toeing the Line on the Defensive Side

Here is how the Eagles have drafted on the defensive line in the first three rounds compared to the 10 other NFC teams that ran the 4-3 scheme over the last decade. "Starts" is for how many seasons a player was a full-time starter. "Games" and "Sacks" are the average number for each player.

Team          Players   Pro Bowls     Starts     G/Avg. Sacks/Avg.     Record     Playoff app.

Eagles          8          0               9          41.4        4.7          99-60-1          7

Saints          5          1             19          69.4        24.7          90-70          4

Giants          8          5            17          53.4        21.9            88-72          6

Falcons          4          0            11          57.8        7.4          87-72-1          5

Bears          8          3              8          32.1        4.9            82-78          3

Seahawks       5          0             10          44.2        8.5          81-79            6

Panthers       7          5             11          34.3        16.9          79-81          3

Vikings          4          6             15          65.5        20             77-83          3

Buccaneers      7          0              7          30.7        6.6          74-86          3

Rams          6          0              7          31.9        8.5          56-104          2

Lions             7          1              9          48 8.       9             47-113          1

- Jeff McLane

 


Contact Jeff McLane at 215-854-4745, jmclane@phillynews.com, or

on Twitter @Jeff_McLane.

 

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