PHILADELPHIA – Once again, all we heard from the Eagles – just like we heard from every NFL team – was that they were going to draft the best player available, regardless of need. Eagles coach Chip Kelly assured us that the key to success is to always trust your draft board and take the player at the top of it when your turn finally rolls around, regardless of the position he plays.
And then Kelly, like all NFL coaches, drafted for need – unless, of course, it was just an amazing coincidence that the best players available to the Eagles in every round just happened to play wide receiver, defensive back or linebacker, which just happen to be the positions where the Eagles need the most help.
How much help will the Eagles get from their 2015 draft? Nobody knows, of course, but two of them have an excellent chance of cracking the starting lineup – wide receiver Nelson Agholor and cornerback Eric Rowe. Plus the Eagles’ third-round pick, inside linebacker Jordan Hicks, could see significant playing time if a) starter DeMeco Ryans has problems returning from last year’s season-ending Achilles injury, or b) starter Mychal Kendricks gets traded, which seems likely considering how Kelly has been damning him with faint praise ever since the season ended.
There’s no question Agholor, the first-round pick from Southern Cal, will get significant playing time and he could even start, simply because the Eagles are so thin at wide receiver and they use three of them most of the time. Second-year man Jordan Matthews becomes the No. 1 receiver by default since the Eagles allowed Jeremy Maclin to walk away to Kansas City in free agency. The other receivers on the roster are Riley Cooper (who was invisible for most of last year), veteran Miles Austin (who has been hampered by injuries the last few years after making the Pro Bowl for Dallas in 2009), and second-year man Josh Huff (who could end up with more playing time than Cooper or Austin when the depth chart dust finally settles).
Whereas Agholor will basically be handed a job, cornerback Eric Rowe, the second-round pick from Utah, will have to earn his playing time. Byron Maxwell, signed as a free agent from Seattle, has a lock on one starting job. And veteran Walter Thurmond, signed as a free agent from the New York Giants after spending the previous four seasons with Seattle, has the edge to be the other starter simply because he has the experience that Rowe lacks, and experience is critical at a position where one mistake can cost you a touchdown.
But Rowe could end up as a starter if Kelly trades Brandon Boykin, who has been the Eagles’ top slot defender the last three years. Thurmond has also played a lot of slot, and since it appears Kelly is determined to get rid of as many of Andy Reid’s players as he can, there’s a good chance the Eagles’ secondary will consist entirely of Kelly’s players, with veterans Nolan Carroll III and Jaylen Watkins and rookies JaCorey Shepherd and Randall Evans (both drafted in the sixth round), fighting for playing time and/or roster spots.
The secondary is where Kelly has done the most work and his best work as he’s replaced three starters – cornerbacks Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher and safety Nate Allen – from a team that was ranked 31st out of 32 NFL teams in pass defense. Safety could still be a problem unless Earl Wolff bounces back in a big way. He showed promise as a rookie two years ago before his first season was cut short because of a knee injury and Wolff rarely saw the field last year as he sat behind Allen and returning starter Malcolm Jenkins.
So, the Eagles came out of the draft with players at the positions where they needed the most help. On paper, they appear to be better than they were last year, at least on defense, and in a few months we’ll find out if those paper improvements are for real.