Feb 27, 2012; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Mississippi State defensive lineman Fletcher Cox does footwork drills during the NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-US PRESSWIRE
Last year the Eagles went into the draft and addressed needs with early picks. This wasn't an ideal scenario, but under the circumstances it made sense. Things are much different in 2012. The starting lineup is mostly set so the Eagles can focus on adding talent and not filling needs.
The strongest area of the Eagles might be the defensive line, yet most people think the team covets defensive tackle Fletcher Cox at pick 15. Wide receiver is stronger than linebacker, but would it really surprise anyone to see the Eagles spend a second round pick on a receiver over a linebacker?
On the surface, moves like these would seem dumb. Why improve an area of the team that is already strong? Shouldn't you instead focus on the weaker areas? That certainly would be logical thinking, but life in the NFL doesn't always work that way.
One of the keys to good roster building is to simply focus on talent. I'll use an extreme example to start with. Let's go back to the 2001 Eagles. The defense was outstanding. The offense was good enough. Donovan McNabb was a playmaking quarterback. Duce Staley and rookie Correll Buckhalter were good and the offensive line was very good. The weak spot was the wide receiver corps. If I gave you the ability of adding a player to that team and you had to choose between Reggie White and Jeremy Maclin...who would you choose? The offense really could have used a player with Maclin's talent and the defense was good as is, but you simply can't pass on an elite talent. White should be the pick.
As I said, that's an extreme example. Generally the choice is more gray than black and white. Still, that's the mindset you need to have. How can I improve the overall team the most?
There are some other things to consider. The player must be able to get on the field. There is no point to drafting a good offensive tackle if a team has a pair of good starting tackles already in place. One way that would work is if you could move someone to guard, be it the rookie or the veteran. If the current tackles were nearing the end of a contract or older players on the way out, you could take the tackle and sit him for a year, thinking he was simply too good to pass up. Having a player sit for a season isn't the worst thing in the world. It also ties into the next point.
You focus on talent because you are thinking long term. Eagles fans saw a great example of this in 2002. The team had the best secondary in football with Troy Vincent, Bobby Taylor, Al Harris, and Brian Dawkins as the key guys. The Eagles threw everyone a huge curveball when they traded Harris and then spent the top three picks on defensive backs. Why draft guys at the team's strongest spot? Andy Reid and Tom Heckert knew that the secondary was getting older. They felt it was smart to get replacements on board so that the players would be ready to take over when needed. Taylor and Vincent left after the 2003 season, the new guys stepped in, and the Eagles went to the Super Bowl.
The 2012 Eagles are in good shape and can focus on talent. There are no gaping holes in the lineup. I know some people think safety is a problem area, but the team wants to find out if Jaiquawn Jarrett can handle the spot. Kurt Coleman is also very much in the mix. Could the Eagles upgrade here? That is possible, but the problem is that there is only one safety in the draft that is really highly regarded - Mark Barron. I don't think the Eagles will spend pick 15 on him. Taking players after Barron wouldn't mean an upgrade so much as just a change.
Since the Eagles have no glaring holes, they can target specific players that they want. I think defensive tackle Fletcher Cox will be the focus of the first round. If they can't get him, things get interesting. If Barron is still on the board, maybe the Eagles do take him. If Luke Kuechly is still available, maybe Reid finally breaks the long streak of no first round linebackers. Kuechly is a natural middle linebacker, but could be too good to pass up. Put him at SAM for now and then shift him to the middle to replace Ryans down the road.
One possibility a lot of fans have been pushing is for the Eagles to take a receiver at 15 if the top defensive guys are gone. I am very much against this because the Eagles already have so much young talent in place that I don't think it makes good sense. That said, the team might disagree with me. The Eagles did bring Michael Floyd in for a visit. They have more than just casual interest in him. Adding a player like him to DeSean Jackson, Maclin, and Jason Avant would give the Eagles the best set of receivers in the NFL. That's not a bad thing for a team that loves to throw the ball.
Cornerback is also an interesting possibility. Asante Samuel remains on the roster for now, but the team is trying to deal him. Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie will be the starters in 2012. Asomugha is an older player and Rodgers-Cromartie is in the final year of his deal. Adding a top shelf corner at pick 15 would make long term sense. The flip side of that is if the team extends Rodgers-Cromartie's deal and Asomugha is able to play well for another 3 years, drafting a corner high would only make sense if the player can handle the slot position. Some guys are good inside, some outside. If the right player falls to 15, maybe the Eagles do go for a cornerback.
Are there any scenarios where a surprise player could slide? Receiver Justin Blackmon is hard to get a read on. I think he'll go in the Top 10, but that's not a complete lock. Blackmon lacks ideal speed and this is a deep receiver class. It is highly unlikely he gets all the way to 15, but if he did, the Eagles might jump on him. Melvin Ingram is a defensive end to some and linebacker to others. He is a terrific athlete and disruptive defender. He could go as high as pick seven, but could slide. Ingram is only 6-1 and doesn't have long arms. That could knock him down a few picks. I doubt he gets to 15, but if he did I think the Eagles would be very interested in taking him.
The other player that must be mentioned is Ryan Tannehill, the quarterback from Texas A&M. He could go as high as pick four to the Browns, but also could slide out of the Top 10. If Tannehill does somehow make it to 15, the Eagles will take him. Count on it. The team doesn't need a quarterback right now, but that is precisely why you take him. Get him early so he can learn and be ready to take over when that time does come.
If the Eagles had major holes in the lineup, they would have to factor those in and possibly pick players for the spots. Luckily the Eagles have a starting lineup that is in good shape and that gives them the freedom to play the draft how they want. They can target a player and move up. They can sit tight. They could even move back if the value at 15 isn't good.
The key is to find talented players. Don't pass on talent and settle for need. Super Bowls aren't won by teams with the fewest holes. Super Bowls are won by teams with playmakers. Cox could be a disruptive force up front. Kuechly could be a playmaker in the middle of the defense. Barron isn't an elite ballhawk, but did have 12 career interceptions so we know he can make plays. Floyd could be a huge help in the red zone with his size, strength, and hands.
The Eagles have put themselves in position to add some serious talent in the draft. Having a solid lineup and an extra second round pick gives them the freedom to be aggressive, creative, or just stay put. Lots of options. Next week should be a lot of fun.