Eagles' draft passed on top defensive players

Eagles general manager Howie Roseman. (Mark Stehle/AP)
Eagles general manager Howie Roseman. (Mark Stehle/AP)
Posted: May 03, 2013

The Eagles had no trouble defending their approach to the 2013 draft: It was consistent, and it was according to plan.

They may have considerably more trouble defending against other teams when the season begins, however.

If it takes three years to evaluate a draft class, it's absurd to evaluate any of the team's picks after just one week. But it's perfectly reasonable to assess what the team did and didn't do, and where its roster stands going into May and June practices.

On offense, the roster looks pretty good. Of course, on offense, it looked pretty good before the offseason. The biggest personnel improvement the Eagles will make is getting left tackle Jason Peters back to 100-percent health. The second is the return of center Jason Kelce.

On defense? Well, here's where the success or failure of this draft will really be decided.

On defense, the roster was terrible by the end of 2012. After free agency and the draft, it is marginally better - mostly through subtraction.

Cutting ties with casual cornerbacks Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie had to be done. Signing pass rusher Connor Barwin and a handful of bargain-bin defensive backs was fine, as far as it went. GM Howie Roseman succeeded in giving defensive coordinator Bill Davis the ability to line up with 11 credible NFL players.

But this defense has lacked a real fear-inducer - a player that keeps opposing coaches at the whiteboard until the wee hours - since Brian Dawkins. That remains true - that is, unless Davis' scheme unleashes the hidden monster in Barwin, Fletcher Cox, Mychal Kendricks, or somebody else.

This is where the team's much-celebrated, stick-to-the-draft-board approach may turn out to be misguided.

It is foolish to reach too high for needs, as Roseman said the Eagles did in 2010 and 2011. But that means taking a fourth-round talent like safety Jaiquawn Jarrett in the second round. It shouldn't mean ignoring needs entirely. If grades are pretty close among a handful of players, there is absolutely nothing wrong with filling your greatest need.

Especially - and this is key - because your grades are entirely subjective in the first place.

Three of the Eagles' picks, all on the offensive side of the ball, will ultimately get the most scrutiny. The first rounder, Lane Johnson, is an obvious pass/fail test because that's how it is when you pick fourth. Johnson must be a reliable starter for years to come. Period.

But the Johnson pick was made for solid reasons. The selections of tight end Zach Ertz in the second round (35th overall) and QB Matt Barkley in the fourth round (98th overall) were the clearest examples of the Eagles' sticking strictly to their grades without factoring in need.

If Barkley-to-Ertz becomes the Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski of the next five years, then it won't matter who else was available in those spots. Remember, the Eagles passed on Jerry Rice in 1985 because they were set at wide receiver: They'd just drafted Kenny Jackson in '84.

But a handful of defensive players went in the 10 picks after Ertz. Some of them would have filled huge needs for the Eagles. Most of them were ranked about the same or higher by many draft analysts. (And yes, those can be iffy, but there's a kind of credibility in consensus.)

Detroit took cornerback Darius Slay with the 36th pick. Linebacker Manti Te'o went to San Diego two picks after that. Florida State DE Tank Carradine went 40th to San Francisco (a team that seems to know what it's doing). Cornerback Johnathan Banks (43d), DT Kawann Short (44th), and linebacker Kevin Minter (45th) were all within 10 picks of Ertz.

Barkley is tougher to gauge. Many experts, real and imagined, had him rated as a second- or even first-round talent. He turned out to be the first pick of the fourth round.

That made him every bit the value pick the Eagles said he was. But if linebacker Nico Johnson, DT Akeem Spence, DE Alex Okafor, or LB Jelani Jenkins turn out to be players, the value of adding another QB will be measured accordingly.

Again: If it truly takes three years to know anything, there is every chance the Eagles' approach will prove best. It's easy to see how their formula could prove successful.

But you can also make out the vague outline of possible regret. Drafting for need might be risky, but so is remaining needy.


Contact Phil Sheridan at psheridan@phillynews.com. Follow @Sheridanscribe on Twitter.

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