Projecting the 2014 Eagles draft class

Smith
Smith
Posted: May 21, 2014

THERE IS little less predictable in professional sports than NFL draft dividends.

There is little more enjoyable to predict.

The season lasts just 16 games; careers, seldom more than 4 years. Often, one misstep dooms a player of whom little is expected. Often, a player of whom much is expected gets more chances than he's worth.

The perception, somehow, is that this was the first Chip Kelly draft. That is a misperception; Kelly was the head coach last year, too. As such, what happened from the 2013 draft to the 2014 draft should serve to predict what will happen in the next year, too.

The most substantial thing that happened: The Eagles traded veteran nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga in the middle of a promising season, just as the defense was rounding into shape, and handed his starting job to third-round rookie Bennie Logan.

Logan played his way into the starting lineup, and he played fine after the trade, but, in this context, what matters most is that the Eagles were willing to trade a proven veteran to allow a rookie to flourish.

Trent Cole fans, take heed.

Everything in Chip Kelly's world moves as fast as his offense.

None of the following scenarios can take into consideration the inevitabilities of an NFL season, such as injuries, personal issues, the ability to learn, the chance to play and coaching biases.

Also, while the rookies just completed their first weekend as pros, they haven't endured a minute of training camp, haven't taken a hit from a professional, haven't tried to play 20 games in 21 weeks.

But it is a pleasant exercise to think about what they can be if things go perfectly; what most likely will happen, given what we know about them and the coaches and the league . . . and what might happen if they don't cut the mustard.

1. Marcus Smith, OLB

Best case: The Eagles love Smith's athleticism, but immediately burdening him with the weight of a starting job seems out of the question, no matter how well his preseason goes. After all, he learned the game as a quarterback and played mainly defensive end at Louisville. Still, if Smith shows an ability to get to the quarterback and is superior to Cole in the rare instances when Cole is asked to drop into coverage, why not trade Cole?

It would be no insult to Cole, who was a fifth-round pick in 2005 who became a Pro Bowl end in a 4-3 scheme, and whose pursuit of running backs from the backside never has been appreciated enough. If Smith blossoms quickly, Cole could bring a decent pick in trade with a team that runs a 4-3 . . . especially considering Cole is earning just $5 million in salary this season. His salary explodes to $10 million in 2015 and $10.9 million in 2016, money he almost certainly will not make with the Eagles as a 33- and 34-year-old converted outside linebacker. If Cole is going to be gone after this season anyway, and if Smith is playing well, it might be time to move on.

Worst case: Smith cannot handle offensive tackles who weigh 70 pounds more than he does; he is mystified by coverage responsibilities; and he is useless on special teams. He dresses for two games and reboots for 2015.

Likely case: Smith is eased into participation. He doesn't dress for the first two games, earns 10 pass-rushing snaps per game by December and understands the position well enough to make Cole expendable after this season.

2. Jordan Matthews, WR

Best case: At 6-3 and 212 pounds, Matthews bullied the opposition at Vanderbilt. His lineage is impeccable - Jerry Rice is his cousin - and his work ethic appears excellent. He has fine speed for a big receiver, was productive every season and, more than anything else, he was durable: He began playing as a true freshman, never missed a game and started all but two of them.

Given the chance to catch the ball on the run out of the slot, which will be his position to lose, Matthews could catch 60 passes and follow Vikings standout Percy Harvin as a wideout rookie of the year, especially if Jeremy Maclin proves to be fully recovered from his second knee surgery and worthy of double coverage. Matthews also is a kick-return option, though probably not the best one; Harvin, of course, was phenomenal. If, for some reason, Matthews projects out of the slot, Maclin might become expendable. He's on a 1-year contract. If he's healthy and underutilized, there is no reason to turn down a palatable trade offer for Maclin during the season.

Worst case: Matthews finds NFL linebackers, safeties and nickel corners a little more punishing than those in college. He fails to make the tough catches, struggles to learn Kelly's offense and is a special-teams dud.

Likely case: Matthews starts Game 1, catches 35 passes - remember, Darren Sproles, LeSean McCoy and the tight ends need balls, too - and learns the offense, so as to realize more of his potential as a second-year player.

3. Josh Huff, WR

Best case: There might be no player in the entire draft more intriguing than Huff, mainly because of his familiarity with Kelly's offense. The only person at the NovaCare Center with a greater understanding of what Kelly wants from his wideouts probably is Jeff Maehl, another former Oregon receiver who spent last season as a backup with the Eagles.

Huff immediately will be able to play every receiver position - he had the audacity to offer tips to returning veterans - and, considering the nature of an NFL season, where everybody gets hurt sometime, Huff will have chances to play at least a couple of them. His familiarity with Kelly's scheme also means that Huff can substitute for any receiver during games, an invaluable asset in Kelly's uptempo pace. Huff can return kicks, and will. He can cover kicks, and will. A former running back, he can handle the ball out of the backfield, and he will. Simply, he is the most versatile player on the team . . . and he has not yet played a down. If Maclin stumbles, expect Huff to step right in. A 40-catch season as a rookie would be outstanding.

Worst case: Huff's unremarkable speed hinders him on the outside and in the return game, and his unremarkable size limits him in the slot. Despite his knowledge, he could disappear; more so if the other receivers excel.

Likely case: Huff gets frequent backup time, is a serviceable returner and coverage man and shows enough ability to convince the Eagles to pass on re-signing Maclin.

4. Jaylen Watkins, DB

Best case: Since the Eagles are starting him off at cornerback, Watkins gets a chance to replace an injured Cary Williams, Bradley Fletcher or Brandon Boykin for a couple of games during the season, displays superior coverage ability and is a starter in 2015. Or, better still, Watkins gets a chance to play safety this season and is the answer at one of those spots for the next 4 years and beyond. With his experience and his speed, he should enhance the kick-coverage units.

Worst case: He is manhandled by receivers in the preseason and finds himself a game-day casualty all season.

Likely case: Watkins makes himself a valuable special-teamer who makes strides during the season at cornerback, but finishes the year with an uncertain future as far as playing safety or corner, leaving the Eagles looking for corner help again.

5a. Taylor Hart, DE

Best case: He makes the team, contributes on special teams and gets a few token shots behind Cedric Thornton, Vinny Curry and Fletcher Cox.

Worst case: He gets cut and winds up on the practice squad, adding strength to his 6-6, 281-pound frame . . . and some other team comes and snags him.

Likely case: His Oregon ties earn him a precious roster spot that might better be used for a player who will contribute.

5b. Ed Reynolds, S

Best case: He is the Week 1 starter ahead of veteran Nate Allen and second-year fifth-rounder Earl Wolff. Reynolds showed he could make plays in 2012 at Stanford, though a spotty 2013 and ho-hum predraft workouts left many wondering how 2012 happened. Safeties sometimes think their way into winning, and Reynolds might have enough football savvy to become indispensable, if not irreplaceable. At 6-1 and 207, he could become an enforcer, especially on special teams.

Worst case: He is slow and confused on defense, slow and timid on special teams and therefore cast as the Eagles' latest safety bust.

Likely case: He figures it out quickly, gets snaps in the defensive backfield by the end of the season and contributes on kick coverage.

7. Beau Allen, DT

Best case: Allen's best friends are the Eagles' depth chart and roster. There is only one other 3-4 defensive tackle on them; 309-pound second-year man Bennie Logan. Allen's personality will click with Chip's, and he could be active for every game this season. Imagine getting that sort of relevance from a seventh-round pick.

Worst case: Allen gets cut because he somehow convinces the coaching staff he cannot stay conscious on game day, because, really, staying conscious is all he'll have to do.

Likely case: A weekly backup who provides 333 pounds of heft in the middle on goal-line and short-yardage plays.


hayesm@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @inkstainedretch

Blog: ph.ly/DNL

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