The Eagles went to the Super Bowl in 2004. One of the big reasons for that was the draft class of 2002. Just take a look at the top four players selected and you'll see the impact that group had.
1st round - CB Lito Sheppard
2nd round - CB Sheldon Brown
2nd round - SS Michael Lewis
3rd round - RB Brian Westbrook
That is one impressive group. Brown is the only one that didn't go to the Pro Bowl, and he ended up having a better career than Sheppard. Westbrook was a truly special player that made huge plays on special teams (just ask Giants fans) and offense.
Ten years after the Eagles went to the Super Bowl, the team is once again a title contender that is fueled by a strong draft class. Take a look at the 2012 class.
1st round - DL Fletcher Cox
2nd round - ILB Mychal Kendricks
2nd round - DL Vinny Curry
3rd round - QB Nick Foles
4th round - CB Brandon Boykin
5th round - OL Dennis Kelly
Foles is the name that grabs your attention. He's a quarterback and that is arguably the most important position in all of sports. He also is coming off an amazing season. Foles posted freaky good numbers and went to the Pro Bowl. He appears to be the long term answer at quarterback (although Sunday made a lot of people nervous) and that gives him a value that is hard to quantify.
Teams are thrilled to find a long term quarterback when they spend a top five pick. When you can find one in the third round, that is basically the equivalent of a winning lottery ticket.
Beyond Foles, this class is starting to look like it could be special.
Cox was drafted to be a playmaker on the defensive line. Then Chip Kelly brought in his 3-4 defense and 2-gap style. Cox was no longer allowed to attack upfield, but instead read plays and ate up blockers. He played better in 2013 than casual fans realize, but didn't have much to show for it.
Cox did not stand out at this summer's Training Camp or in the preseason games. That got people worried about him. Those worries went away Sunday when he played very well in the season opener. Cox made his presence felt by doing the dirty work, but also by making some plays. The highlight moment for him was scooping up a fumble and hustling into the end zone for a late touchdown that put the game completely out of reach.
If Cox can play as he did on Sunday on a regular basis this season, he will have a huge impact on the defense. The 3-4 is built on linebacker play, but goes to a whole new level when a defensive lineman thrives. Think about Richard Seymour with the Patriots or J.J. Watt with the Texans. Cox might not get to that level, but he's got tremendous potential.
Kendricks is the only Eagles defender who definitely outplayed Cox on Sunday. Kendricks has flashed big potential for two years, but also has been highly erratic. He's driven fans and the coaches crazy with some of his mistakes.
There was a lot of hope that 2014 would be different for Kendricks. He is in the same position and with the same coaches for the first time in several years. Players usually need stability. It helps to bring out the best in them. Kendricks had a great summer and that carried over to Sunday. He flew around the field and was highly disruptive. Kendricks had one sack and got a couple of other big shots on Chad Henne. Kendricks deflected a pass. He tackled well and looked good in coverage.
Cox will have a hard time making the Pro Bowl due to the 3-4 defense limiting the kind of numbers he can put up, but Kendricks can be a major playmaker in the scheme. He's got a chance to be a star player.
Curry would love to be on the field as much as Cox and Kendricks, but right now he's a backup defensive end and situational pass rusher. That doesn't sound like much, but Curry remains an impact player. Offenses have to account for him when he's on the field. Curry didn't have the coaches trust last year and it limited his snaps. This year they know him better and he knows the scheme better. Curry isn't just a role player. He is an impact role player.
Boykin fits that same description. Kelly and the other coaches prefer big corners. They want Boykin to be the team's nickel back, which keeps him in the slot most of the time. This limits Boykin to playing only about 50 to 60 percent of the team's snaps, but he is an impact player.
Last year Boykin had six interceptions and was a tangible playmaker. He says not to count on the picks happening as frequently this year, but he is still a key player for the defense. Quarterbacks love to go to the slot receiver on third downs. If Boykin can take that option away, it will help the defense get off the field. Boykin has emerged as one of the best nickel backs in the entire NFL.
Dennis Kelly wouldn't have made this discussion last year. He was hurt and not playing. After this past week's injuries, Kelly has a chance to be the starting left guard for the Eagles. He did start games at right guard and right tackle as a rookie so Kelly has some experience. This is a key moment in Kelly's career. If he practices well, he can start. If he plays well, he can keep the job for several weeks. Any struggles and Kelly will find himself right back on the bench.
It is too early to call the Eagles a Super Bowl team, but they definitely look the best of the downtrodden NFC East. If the class of 2012 continues to play well, the Eagles just might find themselves back in the big game, 10 years after their previous appearance.
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Bryce Brown was also a 2012 draftee. The Eagles dealt him to the Bills for a mid-round pick. It will be interesting to see who that player turns into and how his career pans out.