Rank the Eagles’ draft needs? On a scale from desperate and dire to barely endurable?
The Eagles’ roster is one of the worst in the league, and ranking the team’s positional needs is an accordingly difficult challenge. I gave a ranking from #1-11 from biggest to smallest need, but parsing the hairs was tough, so more importantly I dropped most of them into four buckets.
The first tier is the desolate wasteland that needs both new starters and additional depth. The second tier has a clear need at starter, while the third tier arguably has that starter on the roster — but just for this one season. The fourth tier is where the long-term needs rest, while the fifth and final tier are the good, healthy positions. There’s exactly one group that made it all the way down there.
I gave the tiers some more fun names as we went, shared my perspective on the rostered players and the likely incoming extensions/cuts, and listed a few targets that I think make sense, at their value in the 2021 NFL Draft, for the Eagles
Tier 1: Find One Good Player, I Dare You
Here’s a list of the Eagles linebackers currently under contract beyond 2021: Davion Taylor and Shaun Bradley.
Now, it you’re thinking to yourself, aren’t those the two linebackers they drafted last year...yes.
T.J. Edwards and Alex Singleton, two of the three presumed “starters” for this upcoming season, are entering restricted free agency. If they both play at the level they’ve delivered over past seasons, they’ll be tendered, but not necessarily expected to start long-term. Perhaps the only long-term starter, off of current projections, is Eric Wilson, a handy cover man from Minnesota. But there’s a reason he was still available in early April for a 1-year, $2.75M deal. He’s a subpackage player in an ideal world.
And can Bradley or Taylor become anything? Perhaps, but neither should be considered solid, predictable options on the long-term horizon. The Eagles could take a linebacker not just at 12, but at 37 or 70 or 84, and reasonably expect them to win a starting job on this roster in the short term, and have every opportunity to hold that job in the long term.
Targets: Pete Werner, Ohio State; Baron Browning, Ohio State; Derrick Barnes, Purdue
#2: WIDE RECEIVER
There’s more passable starting talent (Greg Ward) and actionable youth (Jalen Reagor, Travis Fulgham) at wide receiver than at linebacker. From a pure talent perspective, linebacker is clearly the weakest position. But considering how important the positions are — and how many more wide receivers you put on the field than linebackers — wide receiver does have a strong case for the #1 spot.
I left it at #2 here, but the Eagles are alone in their uniquely unproductive stretch of WR play. From occasional BGN contributor Patrick C.:
The Eagles have not had a wide receiver gain 1,000 yards in a season since 2014. That’s 6 straight years.— P (@GoBirdsGoSixers) April 28, 2021
They are the only team in the NFL without at least one WR to gain 1,000 yards during that time.
That’s gross incompetence. They can’t afford to pass on a WR in the 1st.
Like linebacker, the Eagles lack both established, starting-caliber talent and depth. While Reagor and Fulgham are locks for the roster, incumbent slot WR Greg Ward and even last year’s fifth-round rookie John Hightower should have their positions challenged on the depth chart. Spending 12 on WR would be warranted, but no matter where the Eagles select their first WR, selecting a second feels necessary.
Targets: Every single one of them, you know this by now
Tier 2: It Could Be Worse, But Not Really
In this second tier, we do have at least one (1) interesting player. For cornerback, that’s Darius Slay, who had a modest season in Jim Schwartz’s defense following the trade acquisition from Detroit. Slay was responsible for shadowing WRs and never really got dominated (save for one fateful game against D.K. Metcalf), but also never really dominated in terms of ball production, though he did well to deny targets altogether.
Of course, denying targets altogether isn’t necessarily a phenomenon that can be attributed to your talent when the guy opposite you is Avonte Maddox/Cre’Von LeBlanc/Nickell Robey-Coleman/Michael Jacquet III/Kevon Seymour/...I can’t remember anyone else. Rudy Ford?
The outside corner role opposite Darius Slay glares as a huge weakness for this defense. And while the Eagles’ can argue they have some competition for the nickel spot between Maddox and LeBlanc (if-resigned), that just leaves them with no depth at outside corner, as both LeBlanc and Maddox have proven they are not inside/out versatile players. Slay’s value will be minimized if teams can just throw away from him constantly, so CB2 is perhaps the biggest starting role that remains unfilled on this roster altogether.
Targets: Jaycee Horn, South Carolina; Asante Samuel Jr, Florida State; Zech McPhearson, Texas Tech
Tier 3: Questions Remain
I’m not sure that this will cause a kerfuffle, but let me get out in front of it beforehand anyway: this shouldn’t even remotely be up for debate.
Quarterback clearly falls into this tier, as Jalen Hurts can be most charitably categorized as a “potential starter” 3.5 games into his career. As an evaluator more bullish on Hurts as a long-term backup and gadget player coming out of Oklahoma, I found my opinion largely unchanged off of Hurts’ rookie performance. Now with the starting job in hand, he can certainly get better! The new offensive coaching staff can design more intentional QB runs into the offense! But these are not guarantees; they’re hopes.
Do the Eagles definitely have at least one (1) starter at quarterback on the roster? No?
Then the position is a need.
Targets: Justin Fields, Ohio State
#5: OFFENSIVE TACKLE
Speaking of which! The Eagles do not clearly, definitively have a starting left tackle on the roster. Andre Dillard feels like a cause even further lost than his fellow 2019 draftee J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, but his absence allowed for the feel-good rise of Jordan Mailata. And Mailata had impressive moments last year! I think Mailata showed more to feel excited about his starting potential than Hurts did.
But even then, he’s still a neophyte to the game. When he makes mistakes, they’re bad ones, and he blows assignments and pass protection reps in debilitating ways. His finishes on the hoof and eagerness to punish are exciting building blocks, but again — there’s no guarantee that development continues. Throw in the recurring health concerns of Lane Johnson and the absence of a backup tackle (Vaitai out of the building, Pryor clearly a guard, Dillard not good, Driscoll probably viewed as a guard by the team) and bookend is a priority in Philly.
Targets: Samuel Cosmi, Texas; Dillon Radunz, North Dakota State; Spencer Brown, Northern Iowa; Tommy Doyle, Miami (OH)
EDGE feels like it should be higher, but because the team is so doggone bad, it’s halfway down the list. Simply put, the Eagles’ rotation is established next season: Brandon Graham, Derek Barnett, and Josh Sweat will rotate through the majority of the reps. And that alone allows them to avoid EDGE early, if they want to.
But as we well know, they’re considering taking an EDGE as early as 12 — and that reflects the long-term state of the position. Barnett and Sweat are both approaching contract years, while Brandon Graham’s contract expires after the 2022 season. Graham’s deal is so heavy on voided years that it makes fiscal sense to extend him again, but he’ll be 34 when that deal expires. There’s only so far the can can go down the road.
With a tight cap, it’s unlikely the Eagles extend both Sweat and Barnett, and whoever they retain is a bit of an injury flight risk. Ex-DC Jim Schwartz prioritized a rotation-heavy approach, and even if new DC Jonathan Gannon accepts a more top-heavy spread, EDGE remains a long-term need for the Birds.
Targets: Jayson Oweh, Penn State; Carlos Basham Jr., Wake Forest; Patrick Johnson, Tulane
#7: Tight End
Again, this is a heavy long-term look. Zach Ertz will almost undoubtedly come off the books by Sunday, paving the way for Dallas Goedert to take on a dominant TE1 role and hopefully return dominant TE1 production — something of which he’s capable, when healthy.
But Goedert is a rising free agent after 2021, and only QB convert Tyree Jackson is guaranteed on the roster in 2022. If new HC Nick Sirriani wants to continue using 13 personnel packages the way he did with the Colts, the Eagles need to add to the tight end room, for now, and for later.
But tight end doesn’t rank that highly because it’s easier to find productive bodies at the tight end position, where a variety of free agents are always available, relative to the above positions. It’s a bit like the WR/LB debate, though I leaned the other way with this one. TE is worse in terms of rostered talent, but so long as you have Goedert + someone with a pulse, you’re probably fine.
Targets: Nick Eubanks, Michigan; Zach Davidson, Central Missouri
Tier 4: It Won’t Be The Reason They Lose Games This Year
The Eagles’ short-term starters are in hand, as both Rodney McLeod and Anthony Harris are in the building on one-year deals. With four voidable years tacked onto his contract, a generally healthy background, and at only 30 this year, I expect Harris to stick around on an extension into future seasons. But even if he doesn’t, the Eagles have at least one interesting rookie in K’Von Wallace, an athletic fourth-round pick who the past coaching staff couldn’t find a use for. With Jonathan Gannon’s history developing safeties in Indianapolis, I think Wallace has a bright future in Philly.
I’d welcome a safety pick, as I think the Eagles have woefully undervalued the position over the last few years. But if they can’t get a clear starter early, I’m not sure they really need depth, so a late pick feels a bit needless.
Targets: James Wiggins, Cincinnati; Jevon Holland, Oregon
#9: Defensive Tackle
If you believe the Eagles are willing to move on from either Fletcher Cox ($23.8M, $13.1M dead cap) or Javon Hargrave ($17.8M cap hit, $16.8M dead cap) in 2022, then defensive tackle is probably a bigger need. And I can talk myself into it, but with two very good-to-elite talents currently in hand, and a nice young player in Hasaan Ridgeway returning for 2021, I view DT as a relatively strong spot.
Objectively strong? Not really. But hey, you take what you can get on this Philly roster. And in this case, you already have DT1-3 for this season established on the roster, and expect high impact play from this spot.
Targets: Jonathan Marshall, Arkansas; Darius Stills, West Virginia; Bobby Brown III, Texas A&M
#10: Interior Offensive Line
There’s reason to be more concerned about iOL than this — the health of Brandon Brooks, the age of Jason Kelce — but against the rest of the Eagles’ decimated roster, it holds up. Isaac Seumalo is a 28-year-old starting caliber guard under contract for another two years; Brandon Brooks is an elite guard when healthy, and while that isn’t guaranteed, Brooks has recovered before and is pretty much uncuttable for another two years as well. A Kelce retirement is nigh, but the Eagles have youth they like in Nate Herbig and Jack Driscoll. With the experience those two got last year, they’re well-equipped to respond to injury this year.
Targets: Sadarius Hutcherson, South Carolina; Drew Dalman, Stanford; Jaelin Fisher, Charlotte
Tier 5: Actually Good?
#11: Running Back
The Eagles have a good (and cheap) young running back in Miles Sanders, a decent (and cheap) pass-catching scatback in Boston Scott, and Jordan Howard for some reason. There is no need to add another body to this room, given the players that are typically available on the free agent market. It’s not the strongest position on the depth chart, but unless they’re gonna spend 12 overall on Najee Harris, there’s no real way to make it impactfully better this year.
Targets: Deon Jackson, Duke; Chris Evans, Michigan; Kene Nwangwu, Iowa State