Eagles might not have any rookie starters

ASSOCIATED PRESS Second-rounder Jordan Matthews could see the most playing time of this draft class.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Second-rounder Jordan Matthews could see the most playing time of this draft class.
Posted: May 13, 2014

SO, CHIP. How 'bout that draft?

"Honestly, I have no idea," the Eagles coach said Saturday when asked if he was stoked about his seven new draft picks.

Kelly was just being honest. Which is actually kind of a refreshing thing from a football coach.

The fact is, despite the hundreds of thousands of dollars the Eagles have spent on college scouting over the last 12 months, despite the obscene number of Marriott points general manager Howie Roseman and his personnel staff have racked up during the long evaluation process, it's still anybody's guess whether Marcus Smith, Jordan Matthews, Josh Huff, Jaylen Watkins, Taylor Hart, Ed Reynolds and Beau Allen are going to be any good in their new profession.

And yes, I understand the hypocrisy of saying that when you can find my draft grades for all 32 teams, including the Eagles, on an accompanying page in this sports section.

"When I was at Oregon, after signing day, we'd say, 'Boy, we had a great signing day,' " Kelly said. "After the draft, everybody says, 'We got everybody we wanted. We had a great draft.'

"The truth is, no one knows . . . But we feel comfortable with the direction we're going and the guys we've brought in here."

A word of warning about this Eagles' draft right now: Don't judge it by the number of draft picks that will be in the starting lineup on Sept. 7 when they open the 2014 season against Jacksonville at the Linc, or even by the number of picks starting against the Giants on Dec. 28 in the final regular-season game.

The Eagles' 2012 and 2013 drafts produced an impressive eight starters (including nickel corner Brandon Boykin) on last year's 10-6 playoff team.

In 2012, the Eagles' nine draft picks that year started a total of 47 games. Five of those nine played 450 snaps or more as rookies. Last year, the Eagles' eight picks started 33 games, with four of them playing 450 or more snaps.

Unless there are a lot of injuries, that's not going to happen this season. Right now, there's a good chance that none of the Eagles' seven picks will start a game in 2014. That's right. Zero. And that's not necessarily a bad thing.

First-rounder Smith's best hope for playing time is as a pass-rush specialist and on special teams. Second-rounder Matthews is expected to see the most playing time of the rookies, as the team's slot receiver.

Hart, the 6-6, 280-pound fifth-round defensive end out of Oregon, might - might - work his way into the team's six-man defensive-line rotation.

Huff probably will earn his keep as a rookie on special teams and as the team's fourth receiver. Fourth-round corner Watkins and fifth-round safety Reynolds, like Huff, are going to see most of their rookie action on special teams.

Allen, the 6-2, 333-pound seventh-round nose tackle, might see time as a short-yardage and goal-line run stuffer, or he might spend the year sipping smoothies on the practice squad.

This doesn't mean these guys aren't good enough to be NFL starters.

It just means the Eagles have gotten better, and there are fewer "Help Wanted" signs on the depth chart.

"The last couple of years, when we've drafted guys, you knew they were going to come in and play," general manager Howie Roseman said. "But as you get better as a football team, it's harder to get immediate contributors as starters.

"Will we get as many immediate starters from this draft as we have the last couple of years? I don't know. I know we'll have better competition. I know we're a more talented team than we were when we started this offseason or, quite frankly, last year when Chip and his coaches first got here.

"Part of that is we have depth now and competition at a lot of positions. And I think if we have some injuries, we have guys who are going to be ready to play. And we have some young players who are going to need to be developed, but in a couple of years, are going to be really good players."

Linebacker Trent Cole had eight sacks in the Eagles' last eight games last year. But he turns 32 in October and has an $11.6 million cap number in 2015. In a perfect world, Smith will give them some meaningful snaps as a designated pass rusher this season, then step in for Cole next year.

Watkins also could be in line for a starting job in 2015 when one of the Eagles' starting corners, Bradley Fletcher, will be a free agent, and the other, Cary Williams, will see his cap number jump from $6.4 million to $8.1 million.

Safety Nate Allen and wide receiver Jeremy Maclin both only signed 1-year deals this offseason. So Reynolds and Matthews and Huff all could get starting shots in 2015 if they play well this year in limited roles.

"We have a group of players in this draft who will immediately come in and compete for playing time, and then it's up to them," Roseman said. "I do see immediate impact [players]. Now, some of it may be in a [backup] role initially. But we weren't going and drafting a guy, even a guy like Jaylen [Watkins], just because we think he's a nickel corner or we just think he's a role player who can fill in at a variety of spots."

One area this draft class and many of the veteran free agents the Eagles signed in March most certainly are going to have an impact on is special teams.

The Eagles' special teams did not play well last season. They finished 26th in the league in kick-return average and 27th in punt-return average. Their coverage units were inconsistent. They gave up nine kickoff returns of 30 yards or more, including four of 40-plus yards and two touchdowns. Also gave up a punt return for a touchdown.

With the exception of Allen, all of the Eagles' draft picks are expected to be major special-teams contributors.

Improving the special-teams units "was an emphasis," Kelly said. "I think people can tell by the additions that we've made [in both the draft and free agency]. There was a real conscious decision that we had to upgrade our coverage units in terms of how we were doing things. We felt that Nolan Carroll and Chris Maragos and Bryan Braman, with some of these guys that we drafted, that's really going to help us."

If the biggest contribution most of this year's draft choices make is on special teams, Roseman is OK with that, as long as they continue to develop, as long as they are ready to step in and contribute when it's their time, whether that's later this season or next year or 2 years from now.

"We've always talked about the draft being a long-term decision for us," he said. "The easy way out is just to look at the holes on your roster and say, 'All right, let's just draft to fill those holes.' Because in the short term, you'll probably get better draft grades and you'll probably look better in Year 1.

"But we're trying to look at the ceiling of these players through Years 2 and 3, and hopefully 4 and 5 down the road."

So, in a couple of years, remind me to stop the Eagles' coach in the hallway at NovaCare and say, "So, Chip. How 'bout that 2014 draft?"


Email: pdomo@aol.com

On Twitter: @Pdomo

Blog: ph.ly/Eagletarian.com

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