The offseason for the Eagles is still in its infancy, and we’ve spent most of it talking about the biggest needs the team has. Wide receiver, cornerback and running back are the obvious short term holes, with draft needs at left guard/center and offensive tackle due to the age of the starters there and possible offseason moves creating vacancies. But there’s another position that’s both a long term need due to the age of starters and a short term one due to a starting job probably opening up that has mostly flown under the radar: defensive end.
Age is a consideration here even if no roster moves are made. Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry are 28, and Connor Barwin is 30. They’re not past their primes, but they’re not entering them either, and with the team finishing 17th in sacks and 14th in sack rate, help is needed anyway. It’s difficult to see Barwin returning to the Eagles in 2017 given that the team saves nearly $8 million in cap space and he was ineffective in 2016, and since Curry spent the entire season behind him on the depth chart, there will be a starting job up for grabs.
Free agency isn’t looking like a great option. Jason Pierre-Paul will probably be the top pass rusher to hit the open market (Chandler Jones isn’t going anywhere), he has eight sacks in 20 games over the last two years, is 28 and has one hand. Most of the top free agents are over 30 and the ones that aren’t most likely won’t hit free agency. It might be difficult to find a cheaper player in free agency who can just replace Barwin, let alone upgrade from him.
Last year, the Dolphins gave Mario Williams 2 years, $17 million with $12 million guaranteed after a 15 game, 5 sack season. He had 1.5 in 13 games in 2016. The Rams re-signed William Hayes, who notched 5, 4 and 5.5 sacks in the previous 3 seasons a 3 year, $17 million contract with $10 million guaranteed and he had 5 sacks in 2016. The Bucs gave Robert Ayers, whose 9 sacks in 2015 was nearly double his career best, 3 years, $19.5 million with $11.5 million guaranteed, he had just 6.5 sacks in 2016. The Falcons gave Derrick Shelby, who started 9 games in four years in Miami and recorded just 9 sacks a 4 years, $18 million contract with $7.5 million guaranteed. Suddenly Vinny Curry’s contract, that over 3 years is $27 million with $18 million guaranteed makes a little more sense, though it’s still a bad contract. The Eagles find themselves in a strange position: they should (and almost certainly will) move on from Connor Barwin’s $8.3 million cap hit, but other teams have spent about that for even less than Barwin contributed.
So the draft would seem to be the route to take, but that presents a problem. If you want a good pass rusher, you pretty much have to take him early.
Over the last five seasons, there have been 27 players who have averaged just 7 sacks a year. 15 were taken in the 1st round (just two in the 2nd). And recent drafts show a similar weight, of the three top sack getters in each draft from 2013-2015, six of the nine were 1st rounders. It’s a premium position in the draft.
The Eagles recent history bares that out. Since Trent Cole led the team in sacks in back-to-back seasons in 2009 and 2010, a player who was drafted in the 1st or 2nd round has led the team in sacks in all but one season (2013). And Cole is an exception to the rule, so much so that draft profiles of late round pass rushers use Cole as a comparison. Among others, in 2014 Michael Sam did, this year Lewis Neal has.
If the Eagles are to spend a 1st round pick on a DE, then they can’t take a top WR or CB. They could try to find help on day two, but then that means unless they somehow pick up another 2nd or 3rd round pick, they can’t grab a WR, a CB and a RB in the first two days of the draft.
And maybe they won’t. The team could sign two free agent WRs, giving them instant starters and allowing them to take one on day three of the draft and allowing him to develop as a backup. They could also sign a CB to fill one of the starting spots. In such a scenario, anything in the 1st round could make sense, especially with the depth of prospects at CB and RB in the 2nd and 3rd rounds.
There’s probably going to a pretty good pass rusher available for the Eagles at 14 or 15. Do they draft for a skill position player for Carson Wentz to grow with? There’s a lot of logic in that. Do they add a corner in the hopes they can have a long term solution at a position they are constantly overturning? Or do they draft purely on value, which depending on how the draft plays out ahead of them, could be a defensive end?
We’ve looked at running backs, offensive tackles and wide receivers the past few weeks. This week, we’ll turn to defensive ends, a need that isn’t as immediate as others, but is no less important.