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What if Chip Kelly’s Eagles traded up to draft Marcus Mariota?

Looking at an alternate timeline ...

Tostitos Fiesta Bowl - Oregon v Kansas State Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

It’s “What if?” theme week here at SB Nation. We’re looking back at some of the biggest hypothetical situations in sports.

We are just over five years removed from the biggest mistake the Philadelphia Eagles ever made... well, at least that is what you might think if you go back and read the comments immediately following the 2015 NFL Draft. While Eagles fans surely remember this vividly, let me paint a picture of what we were going through for the rest of you.

It is a couple of weeks before the draft. The Eagles are fresh off of their second 10-6 season in a row, narrowly missing the playoffs after losing a heartbreaking game to Washington in Week 16. Chip Kelly is the head coach and general manager of the team and has unleashed the powers of the hurry-up offense on the world. Although he cut our beloved DeSean Jackson a year ago... and although he traded the team’s all-time rusher, LeSean McCoy, just weeks ago... and although he traded our Hall of Fame quarterback for Sam Bradford just days ago [and trust me, that name was not any more appealing to us, Eagles fans, in 2015 than it is in 2020] just days ago, most of us have bought into his mania. We know that Chip is going to trade up and draft Marcus Mariota, the quarterback from Oregon who, under Kelly’s tutelage, was a freshman sensation starting in 13 games and throwing a 32:6 touchdown to interception ratio. In the two seasons since Mariota has managed to win the Heisman Trophy and make it to the National Championship game in an offense based on the one Chip Kelly pioneered. In an offense that the Eagles use. In an offense run by the same Chip Kelly who “groomed” Mariota at Oregon. It was evident to us: Chip Kelly was going to get Marcus Mariota, and the Eagles are about to win the next 15 Super Bowls.

As it turns out, the Eagles did not move up to get Mariota in that fateful 2015 draft and instead drafted a young man named Nelson Agholor. Although the team never publicly admitted making a serious run at a top pick, many reports and rumors emerged that the team did, in fact, make such a run, including top NFL insider Ian Rapoport.

Let’s say the Eagles made this trade using the 2015 and 2016 1st rounders and a 2015 3rd rounder. With these draft picks, the Eagles selected Agholor, as mentioned above, Jordan Hicks, and Carson Wentz. Agholor gets a lot of heat in Philly, but he was a part of the Super Bowl run and was a good role play for a few years. Hicks and Wentz have had similar careers, both showing top-level play in between periods of prolonged injury. Fletcher Cox has been the best player on Eagles since those tweets, and it would have been truly devastating to see him wreaking havoc in a Titans jersey. Brandon “#justanickel” Boykin and Mychal “bad-at-football-worse-at-trading” Kendricks both ended up being duds. From the Eagles point-of-view, the primary trade-off is this: Would the team be better off keeping Fletcher Cox and Carson Wentz, or would they have had more success with Marcus Mariota and the two or three years Kelly would have been given with a new franchise quarterback. To truly break down this trade-off with 20/20 hindsight, we must ask the following questions:

Could Chip’s offense have worked with Mariota?

Just months after missing out on Mariota in the 2015 NFL Draft, Kelly was ultimately let go from the Eagles, a move that started the chain of events leading to Doug Pederson and Carson Wentz arriving in the City of Brotherly love. The 2015 Eagles managed a record of just 6-9 under Kelly’s leadership, which was a step back from the playoff-caliber team fielded the two years prior. The top-five offense looked like a shell of its former self, and the already lousy defense got worse. Some say this sudden change was a result of Kelly’s strategy being “figured out,” while others rightfully associated it with the departure of Nick Foles, DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, and LeSean McCoy. Mariota, meanwhile, didn’t have the most significant 2015 season either. While appearing in 12 games, Mariota was sacked on 10% of his dropbacks and threw for just a 2:1 touchdown to interception ratio. It’s hard to imagine Mariota would have played too much better than Bradford; however, it seems likely he would have been an upgrade. For argument sake, let’s say the offense could have continued to operate at the 2013-2014 pace had Chip gotten Mariota, instead of sharply declining with Sam Bradford at the helm

Could an already struggling Eagles defense have afforded to lose Cox?

It took him a few seasons to discover his best play, but since 2015, he has been the best interior defensive lineman in football not named Aaron Donald. - Pro Football Focus, May 13th, 2020

In short, absolutely not. Cox has grown into one of the better interior defensive linemen over the past five years and has been an absolute terror for opposing offensive lines. It’s hard to imagine the 5th worst defense from 2014 losing its best player. With Cox, the 2015 Eagles ended up being the 3rd worst defense, and without him, they almost certainly would have been the worst in the league.

Was Kelly a better talent evaluator than Howie Roseman is for the team?

The NFL only got to see 4 years of the “great offensive mind” that is Chip Kelly, but it is hard to deny he brought excitement to an offense. It’s also hard to deny that some of the players selected by Kelly were anything but crucial to the Eagles’ ultimate Super Bowl run. Lane Johnson, Zach Ertz, Bennie Logan were all selected in 2013. It’s not known precisely how much influence Kelly had in his first draft with the Eagles, but nonetheless, the first three picks of his tenure were fantastic. In 2014, the opposite was true, as the combination of Marcus Smith, Jordan Matthews, and Josh Huff is reminiscent of forgetting to wear deodorant for a day, it may not have ruined your day, but it’s something you’d like to avoid moving forward. To be fair, Beau Allen was also selected in 2014, but 7th round picks are dart throws at best, so I’m not giving Kelly too much credit for the great selection. His final draft was headlined with Nelson Agholor, Eric Rowe, and Jordan Hicks, a mixed bag that all together is viewed as more of a positive than a negative. In one draft with the 49ers, Kelly drafted DeForest Buckner, which was good. He also drafted Joshua Garnett, Will Redmond, Rashard Robinson, Ronald Blair, John Theus, Fahn Cooper, Jeff Driskel, Kelvin Taylor, Aaron Burbridge, and Prince Charles Iworah, which was a terrible haul. Howie Roseman, since taking over in 2016, has drafted Carson Wentz, Isaac Seumalo, Halapoulivaati Vaitai, Jalen Mills, Derek Barnett, Sidney Jones, Dallas Goedert, Avonte Maddox, Matt Pryor, and Miles Sanders, all of which seem to be at least solid role players. Howie has also made plenty of questionable picks, including recently drafting Jalen Hurts in the 2nd round. In the limited sample size, I’d have to side with the players on team Howie as I think getting a variety of NFL caliber players is better than getting a few high-end players with many misses.

Would the franchise be better off today with Kelly/Mariota or Pederson/Wentz/Cox?

I think in the short term, Kelly and Mariota would have made for an exciting offense to watch, but any of that additional offensive potential would be instantly zapped by the loss of Fletcher Cox on defense. While Wentz has looked phenomenal at times, he is not getting any younger, and his sporadic injury history has not looked great. I don’t care what kind of Quarterback Factory a team may be, drafting a QB in the 2nd round is absolutely a message to the starting quarterback and is very indicative of the uncertainty regarding Carson Wentz and his future. Until Wentz really proves he can put the team on his back and go to the next level, I am fine calling the trade-off between Mariota and Wentz a relative draw for now, but it is undeniable that when packaged with Cox, Wentz is the winner here.

Pederson, on the other hand, has 110% proven himself to be a legitimate NFL coach, winning the Super Bowl in just his second year as a head coach. I do think Chip Kelly was onto something with his offensive scheme, but the overall system was just too aggressive to be implemented overnight. Doug Pederson has to be considered the better NFL coach and the better leader, but Chip Kelly is undoubtedly an offensive mastermind. The deciding factor for me between the two is the ego. Doug is a reserved, humble man who wants to be the best. Chip was an egomaniac who thought he was single-handedly capable of running an NFL organization without any experience in the league. Doug takes the cake.

The Chip Kelly story was a short-lived one, but boy was it full of excitement. It is fun to wonder what could have been with the combination of Kelly and Mariota, but I wouldn’t trade the real story for anything.

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