The draft is mere weeks away, and every year teams think they about to take their team's next great player. And every year fans hope their team lands the next great player as well.
Figuring out a great draft pick, let alone multiple great picks on draft day is tough. Figuring out a great one in hindsight is considerably easier, almost too easy. It would be too simple to create a list of the greatest Eagles draft picks by just naming the best players that were drafted by the team and rank them. That would favor the top picks who went on to Hall of Fame or near HOF careers at the expense of late round steals that went on to really good but not HOF caliber careers. Which brings us to the dilemma of how do we judge a draft pick, or draft class? Is a top pick that goes on to the greatness that is expected of him, such as Steve van Buren, a better pick than a late rounder who becomes a very good player, such as Trent Cole? Is a draft class that gives a team three or four good starters such as the Eagles 2012 draft better than a draft class with one great player and nothing else, such as the Eagles 1999 draft? With these different weights in mind, this list is a balance of top picks, late round gems, and overall hauls.
Honorable mention: The 1998 draft
The 1998 Eagles were awful in nearly every way. They had the worst offense in the league and a defense that couldn't stop anybody. At the end of the season, they cleaned house. There was one lone bright spot though: their draft picks. Andy Reid took over a bad team, but not a bad core to build around, and a good portion of that core came from the 1998 draft. In the 1st round, they took Tra Thomas, the starting left tackle for the Eagles for 11 years and a three time Pro Bowler. They traded their 2nd and 5th rounders for Hugh Douglas. In the 3rd round they took defensive linchpin Jeremiah Trotter and in the 4th special teams ace and team leader Ike Reese. That's a very good haul by a very bad team.
10. Brian Westbrook
It's always a good laugh to go back and read draft previews and grades from years past. There's always going to be players considered locks to be great that were busts, and players considered reaches who turned out to have very productive careers. In 2002, the Eagles were widely considered to have reached for their 3rd round selection, an undersized running back from their own backyard, Villanova's Brian Westbrook. From Mel Kiper:
CB Sheldon Brown was a slight reach in the second round. They also reached on RB Brian Westbrook. While he is versatile, he needs to show necessary explosiveness. His key is his ability as a punt and kick returner and as a pass-receiving option. I guess they hope he can be a young Brian Mitchell.
Kiper did like the Eagles late round picks, who never amounted to anything. Oops. Westbrook was one of the best players from the 2002 draft, and would finish his career as the second leading rusher in Eagles history, and 10th leading receiver.
9. Harold Carmichael
These days teams spend more time, effort, resources and money on the draft than ever, and it's still an inexact science. So you can imagine what it was like in the 70s, when the league was handwriting picks on overhead projectors. In the 7th round, the 161st pick of the 1971 draft, the Eagles found one of their greatest players ever, Harold Carmichael. A physical freak from a small school, teams were concerned his stride was too long, as absurd as that sounds. The Eagles tried him at tight end his rookie year, but he wasn't productive. Two years later, with Roman Gabriel at QB and Carmichael moved to WR, he led the league in receptions and receiving yards. During a pre-season game in his rookie year, NFL Films filmed OJ Simpson asking about the enormous rookie. When told he was a 7th round pick, he replied "Can you believe that? All those computers and he's a 7th round pick. Ain't that a trip?"
8. The 1977 Draft
Six years later, the Eagles wouldn't have a 1st round draft pick. Or a 2nd, 3rd or 4th, their first selection of the draft did not come until 119th overall, the 5th round. Yet they still came out of the draft with two terrific players. In the 6th they took small school star Wilbert Montgomery, who set the NAIA record for rushing TDs as a freshman en route to a NAIA title and ended his four year college career as the NAIA's all time record for touchdowns. Montgomery missed 11 games in his final two years in college, scouts were concerned he was too fragile and too small to make it in the pros. They weren't wrong, Montgomery only played a full season once. But when he was healthy, he was excellent, going to two Pro Bowls and ended his career as the Eagles all time leader in rushing yards. In the 7th they took DT Charlie Johnson, who went to three Pro Bowls and was one of the key players on the 1980 Eagles defense, which lead the league in scoring defense and reached the Super Bowl. Montgomery and Johnson in any round is a good draft, to get them in the 6th and 7th was a steal.
7. The 1986 Draft
Two is nice, but three is even better. The 1986 draft was a key one for the Eagles. In the 1st round they took RB/TE Keith Byars, who had 6,204 yards from scrimmage and 30 rushing and receiving TDs, plus 6 passing TDs in seven years with the Eagles. And that was under Buddy Ryan. It was almost by accident. Ryan had no idea that Byars played tight end in the first half of his college career, they simply noticed he ran good routes and had good hands. The later rounds were even more fruitful. In the 8th round, the Eagles took Seth Joyner, who actually was cut in camp but then came back during the season, and in the 9th Clyde Simmons, undersized and from a small school. To get three starters in a draft is a good haul, to have two of them be mainstays of an elite unit in Joyner and Simmons is a great draft.
6. Reggie White
In the early 80s, the United States Football League threatened to end the NFL's effective monopoly on pro football. The league started off as an alternative to the NFL, playing in the spring so as to not directly compete against the NFL. But they did directly compete for stars, and players such as Steve Young, Jim Kelly, Hershel Walker, and Gary Zimmerman started their careers in the USFL. But by 1984, only their second season, things started to change. Donald Trump spearheaded a move to a fall schedule, which ultimately contributed to the demise of the league. In anticipation of players leaving the USFL and in an effort to stop teams from getting in bidding wars among themselves for those players, the NFL held a supplemental draft of USFL players who would have been eligible for the NFL draft. With the fourth pick, the Eagles took Reggie White. When the USFL started to collapse after the 1985 season, White left for kelly green pastures, and the rest is history.
5. Brian Dawkins
Like Westbrook, reading contemporary accounts of Brian Dawkins around the draft is a laugh. Vito Stellino didn't even discuss him in his 1996 draft review, but did focus on Bobby Hoying, taken over 20 picks after Dawkins. In his draft preview, Bill Plashcke wrote:
2. Brian Dawkins, Clemson--Has the hands of a running back, which is where brother Ralph played for Louisville several years ago. He made the honor roll but, interestingly enough, scouts wonder if he is smart enough.
Safe to say he was. An iconic player, no Eagles draft pick played more games for the Birds than the great Brian Dawkins. Not bad for the last pick of the 2nd round.
4. Tommy McDonald
Entering the 1957 draft, Tommy McDonald was coming off of back to back All American seasons and won the Maxwell Award. He was the catalyst of Bud Wilkinson's back to back national championship Oklahoma Sooners teams in 1955 and 1956, the team never lost when he played. So how did the Hall of Fame wide receiver last until the 3rd round?
For one, he was tiny. McDonald is the smallest player in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And two, he never played wide receiver in college. At Oklahoma, McDonald was a running back and also threw the ball. In 1955 he led the team in both rushing and passing yards, and in 1956 he was the leading rusher. But he caught only 21 passes in three years. A punt and kick returner in his rookie year, he was little used on offense as the Eagles couldn't find a home for him. In 1958 new head coach Buck Shaw moved him to end, and with new addition Norm van Brocklin at QB, McDonald led the league in TD receptions. To call a player "a football player" is complement to his abilities and versatility. Tommy McDonald was a great football player. To get him in the 3rd round was thievery.
3. Pete Pihos
Speaking of "football players," good things come to those who wait, and for the Eagles Pete Pihos was worth it. Pihos fell to the 5th round of the 1945 draft because he would miss the 1945 and 1946 seasons due to military service. "I can wait for a player like Pihos" said coach Greasy Neale. His patience was immediately rewarded when Pihos joined the Birds in 1947, as they went from 6-5 in 1946 to 8-4 and the NFL Championship in 1947, then won back to back titles in 1948 and 1949. Pihos played seven different positions and missed only one game in his nine year Hall of Fame career, in 1952 the Eagles moved him to defensive end out of necessity. In 1953 he moved back to offensive end for what would be the last three years of his career. In that three year span he led the NFL in receptions three times, receiving yards twice and receiving touchdowns once. He made the Pro Bowl or First Team All Pro Team in six of his nine seasons, the Hall of Fame, is a member of the NFL's 1940s All-Decade Team and it's 75th Anniversary All-Time Team. Every other team passed on him at least three times in the draft.
2. Donovan McNabb
The most memorable draft pick in Eagles history, and one of the more memorable ones in all of NFL history. The 1999 draft was quite the spectacle. Considered at the time a rich draft for QBs, the reborn Cleveland Browns had the pick of the litter with #1 overall. (While it wound up not mattering, it was another example of how bad the 1998 Eagles were: they even sucked at the wrong time, the "best" they could do for 1999 was pick 2nd overall.) Among Donovan McNabb, Daunte Culpepper, Akili Smith, Tim Couch and Cade McNown, the Browns first ruled out... McNabb. Whoops. The Eagles were next, and that's when it got crazy. Angelo Cataldi, so convinced the Eagles should draft Ricky Williams, bused 30 fans dubbed "the Dirty Thirty" to the draft to boo the Eagles pick if it was not Williams. They did. Oops. Williams wound up being drafted by the Saints, who traded their entire draft to land him. After the draft head coach Mike Ditka and Williams did a photo shoot as a bride and groom, it all went downhill from there for them. Five quarterbacks were taken in the first 12 picks of the 1999 draft, a higher concentration than the famed 1983 draft, and McNabb was head and shoulders the best one. Couch had more INTs than games played, Smith threw five TDs in 17 starts, Culpepper had a nice few years with Randy Moss at WR then was a journeyman, McNown was traded for peanuts twice in two of his four seasons. McNabb, one of the few players actually booed when he was selected, wound up being the best player in his draft.
1. Chuck Bednarik
The first overall pick in 1949, and the greatest Eagle ever. Who else could possibly be the greatest draft pick in Eagles history? It was almost like it was meant to be. From 1947-1958, the league had a bonus pick rule, where the first overall pick was selected by a lottery, with each team only being eligible to win once. During the late 1940s, with the rival All American Football Conference competing for players, the draft was held with as much secrecy as possible to prevent the AAFC from knowing who was picked. The leagues would merge after the 1949 season. In the 1949 draft the Eagles, the league's defending champions, won the bonus pick and with it took Chuck Bednarik out of the University of Pennsylvania. This happened under the leadership of Commissioner Bert Bell, who was a graduate of... the University of Pennsylvania and a co-founder of... the Eagles. Shenanigans? Maybe, or maybe just blind luck. Greatness? Most definitely. Rest in peace Concrete Charlie.