Birds' turnaround started with 2012 draft

The new wave: Drafts and deals in '12 set the stage for this year's show. Two stars: Nick Foles (left) and Brandon Boykin.
The new wave: Drafts and deals in '12 set the stage for this year's show. Two stars: Nick Foles (left) and Brandon Boykin. (   RON CORTES / Staff)
Posted: January 05, 2014

Brandon Boykin keeps a framed list next to his bed of the 12 cornerbacks drafted ahead of him in 2012. It is a motivational ploy devised by his fiancee. Boykin reads the list so often that he has memorized the names.

In his second season with the Eagles, the 2012 fourth-round pick still cannot move past the slight. His six interceptions ranked second in the NFL and he emerged as one of the key players on the Eagles defense, but he will continue to judge himself against those 12 cornerbacks "every year, until I'm out of the league."

"I told myself I'd get better than all of them," Boykin said. "There was no doubt in my mind I was the best of all of them."

The Eagles 2012 draft board read "DeMeco Ryans" under fourth round. It was a reminder that they acquired the veteran linebacker after giving away a fourth-round pick one month earlier. General manager Howie Roseman thought the Eagles' remaining pick in that round was too late for Boykin, who Roseman believed would have been considered the "most explosive" cornerback in the draft if a leg injury hadn't sidelined him during the spring.

The team's brass sweated through the first 27 picks of the fourth round, before the Eagles picked. If the Eagles liked Boykin so much, wouldn't the other teams like him, too?

"If I was fully healthy, I would have been late-first, early-second," Boykin said. "Without a doubt."

Boykin lasted until the 123d overall pick. He was the fifth player chosen in an Eagles draft class that became part of the foundation of the franchise's first NFC East crown since 2010 and will be showcased in Saturday's playoff game against the New Orleans Saints. The Eagles could have taken Boykin earlier, but they had the other four players rated higher. And those picks also proved fruitful.

First-round pick Fletcher Cox plays the most of anyone on the Eagles' promising defensive line. Mychal Kendricks and Vinny Curry were second-round picks. Kendricks is one of four linebackers in the NFL this season with three interceptions and four fumble recoveries, and he recorded one of each in last week's division-clinching victory. Curry was third on the team with four sacks. He has the most sacks per snap of anyone on the Eagles.

Third-round pick Nick Foles finished with 27 touchdowns and two interceptions in 13 games, and his 119.2 quarterback rating led the league.

Then came Boykin, who has emerged as one of the top playmaking cornerbacks. He made two game-clinching interceptions, including one last weekend to send the Eagles into the playoffs.

The Eagles have four other 2012 rookies on the roster: fifth-round tackle Dennis Kelly, seventh-round running back Bryce Brown, plus undrafted running back Chris Polk and wide receiver Damaris Johnson.

They were not scouted or selected by coach Chip Kelly. In some cases, the fit did not seem ideal because of size or scheme. The players insist talent trumps all else.

"I think we're exactly what Chip wants," Kendricks said. "Regardless of [a player's] size, with their gifted attributes, you can get them to do anything if they're willing to put in the work."

And that's what differentiated the 2012 draft for the Eagles - or at least it's how the organization explains it. The front office did not become preoccupied with need or fit after the disastrous 2010 and 2011 classes, when the Eagles either reached for or misevaluated players. They selected prospects they thought were most talented, and the result is a group that has keyed a postseason run one year later.

"The bread-and-butter of our team has got to be the draft," Roseman said. "We feel really good about our process. It started with 2012."

Philosophical change

The Eagles are not the first team to emphasize a build-through-the-draft philosophy that emphasizes taking the "best player available," and they won't be the last team that strayed from that philosophy when the Super Bowl seemed so close. It's how they were left with underachieving free agent signings and never-achieving draft picks.

"We had to look at ourselves and say, 'What are we doing here? Why aren't we getting great contributions from our draft picks?' " Roseman said.

Roseman's answer has become an organizational talking point during the last two springs. They forced picks because of need, thinking they could fill a hole to complete the roster. Owner Jeffrey Lurie said he streamlined the process in 2012, essentially absolving Roseman of responsibility. Lurie considered the 2012 draft and offseason the first that he holds Roseman "completely accountable for."

"When we looked at it, I think it was for the right intentions, because we were in five championship games, and we were in the mode of win now, and the mode of trying to fill holes," Roseman said. "But when we went back and studied it and tried to be self-critical, it's too hard to hit on draft picks when you go in and say, 'I have to. I need.' When you go into it and say, 'Let's take the best players,' and you stack them that way, and you don't let it get into your mind what you need, it gives you a much better chance of hitting on draft picks."

When Roseman went through the 2012 picks this week, he listed the attributes that jumped out at him 20 months ago. He praised Cox's arm length; Kendricks' explosion; Curry's reach; Foles' height, hand size, and passing ability; Boykin's athleticism.

Only Kendricks was an immediate starter last season. By the end of the season, the Eagles had seven first-year players in the starting lineup. They drafted Curry despite a logjam of pass rushers. Foles was targeted even though Vick had a $100 million contract. Boykin was not one of the top cornerbacks on the roster when training camp opened last season. By going with talent instead of need, the talent was available for blossoming when Kelly came aboard.

"We'll do that every year that I'm here because it gives you a better chance of being successful in a draft," Roseman said. "If you go into a draft and have a list of needs, and you come out feeling like you hit on all of them, you probably had a bad draft."

Building off a bad season

The rookie class bonded in the summer of 2012, when they won leaguewide contests at the rookie symposium in Canton, Ohio. They did not win much after that. A 4-12 rookie season included locker room dysfunction and a coaching change.

"It didn't stunt my development at all. If anything, it helped me develop more," Kendricks said. "Just because of the lessons learned in hard times, you grow as a player. From a football standpoint, I learned a lot, regardless of the record and what was going on. Outside of football, when you're talking about the locker room, you see what really bad can be. When you're at an all-time low, there's nowhere to go but up."

They all had fresh starts under Kelly. The players resolved to never experience a season like 2012. Cox said the group collectively refused to use a scheme change as an excuse under Kelly. It required a significant transition because they all needed to play in schemes almost entirely different from last season.

Kendricks said that talent can translate into scheme. His speed has been a major asset to the defense, and his coverage ability will be critical against the Saints.

"He's only in his second year and I think sometimes people forget about that because he is so athletic," Kelly said. "He's a by-product of his experience. I know I say that a lot, but it's tough to manufacture those looks."

The production of Boykin and Foles is especially important to the class, considering when they were drafted. Teams are expected to find starters in the first two rounds. Standout players in the middle rounds help distinguish draft classes.

Foles came out in a crowded quarterback class and played on a losing team in his senior year, hurting his draft stock. Last season's coaching staff was determined to rectify Foles' footwork, and he has thrived in Kelly's offense. Boykin plays only half of the snaps on defense, in the slot, but the coaching staff considers it a starting position and Boykin has played it as well as any nickel cornerback in the NFL.

A draft class takes more than two years to judge, so it's premature to make wholesale evaluations in 20 months. But with so many contributing to Saturday's playoff game, the early returns are positive.

"Crazy part is it's our second year," Curry said. "It's only going to keep getting better."


zberman@phillynews.com

@ZBerm

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