By GORDON GLANTZ
GORDONVILLE — If we have learned anything from Howie Roseman, it’s that he always has an ace hidden up his sleeve, ready to play it at the exact moment when the competition is sleeping on him.
That said, with the 2019 NFL Draft fast approaching, it outwardly appears that his cards are on the table.
At least as much as they can be for a guy always looking to play the angles for the benefit of the hometown Eagles.
This offseason, he has fortified the roster for coach Doug Pederson and staff with an evenhanded distribution of veterans, leaving no real gaping holes to be addressed in the draft.
When you are playoff team that one season removed from a Lombardi Trophy, that is a good place to be.
And that’s where the Bird are — able to draft the best player available.
While it’s lip service that every team uses, it’s pretty obvious here.
“Let’s not be biased toward a particular need, because that’s where we make mistakes,” said Roseman, likely still haunted by the ghosts of Danny Watkins and Marcus Smith, among others. “That’s one of the things that’s exciting where we are right now. We can go play right now. We think we’re a pretty good team. So we go into the draft knowing we don’t have anything that we have to fill at any position.”
The Birds enter the draft with the following picks: One first (No. 25), two seconds (No. 53, No. 57), two fourths (No. 127, No. 138), one fifth (No. 163) and one sixth (No. 198).
Trades are likely, and I’d say it’s a 50-50 chance Roseman stays at No. 25 in the first round, which could set in motion a chain of events to acquire more picks or just target some select prospects and call it a draft.
Roseman could either use one of the second-round picks, along with No. 25, to move into the 15-20 range. He could also trade back, maybe even out of the first round altogether, and add the third-round pick – and maybe the seventh — they don’t have.
It would be about their board, and where they can get someone they covet.
Let’s now take a look at who the Eagles have at each position, and who are some possible fortifications are for the draft Because of the front office’s due diligence in the offseason, the possibilities are so endless that a lot of names are being thrown at you:
QUARTERBACK: While there should be legitimate concerns that Carson Wentz will make it through a whole season healthy, the Eagles are insisting they are comfortable with relatively untested Nate Sudfeld as the backup.
“When you’re able to find a guy like Nate and develop him, that’s like drafting a quarterback,” said Roseman in a pre-draft press conference. “That was just as good as any quarterback we could have taken certainly in the middle rounds.”
The Eagles also added Luis Perez from the suddenly defunct AAF, but he is strictly practice squad material for now.
Going with just Wentz and Sudfeld would save a spot on the active roster, but it would risky if – or when – Wentz goes down. The question would be if they go on the street for a veteran on a one-year deal or add through the draft. If they choose the latter option, it certainly wouldn’t be until Day 3, and likely not until the fifth or sixth round.
Names to consider are Ryan Finley (NC State), who holds three academic degrees, Jordan Ta’amu (Mississippi) and Eric Dungey (Syracuse). Easton Stick replaced Wentz at North Dakota State. He doesn’t have the same arm or size (6-2, 220), but he is mobile. Kyle Shurmur (Vanderbilt) is the son of Pat Shurmur, for whatever that’s worth.
RUNNING BACK: The need for a No. 1 back seems to have been filled by trading for Jordan Howard. Roseman expressed optimism about young backs Corey Clement and Josh Adams, who led the team in rushing last as an undrafted rookie who began the year on the practice squad. It’s hard to tell where Wendell Smallwood fits in, especially in the final year of his rookie deal, but he has shown enough to round out the group. Boston Scott and draft bust Donnell Pumphrey are also in the mix, if only as tackling dummies for the preseason.
Before the trade for Howard, there was a lot talk about the Eagles going for the running back with one of their top three picks, and maybe even trading up to secure Alabama’s Josh Jacobs, but that seems less likely now. Still, there are some names to consider on Day 3. There are two backs with Day 2 skill sets – Rodney Anderson (Oklahoma, pictured below) and Bryce Love (Stanford) – who should be available in the fourth or even fifth round because of injury issues. The Eagles could draft one, and provide a red-shirt year by stashing them on IR to get healthy. Temple’s Ryquell Armstead could be a late-round sleeper, but the Eagles have not had an Owl in camp – even as an undrafted free agent – since quarterback Adam DiMichele in 2009, which seems to indicate something a bit more nefarious about the relationship with their stadium tenant. Some small-school backs that could be add in the fifth or sixth rounds are athletic freak Jalin Moore (Appalachian State) and Wes Hills (Slippery Rock).
WIDE RECEIVER: Just like Howard at running back, bringing back fan favorite DeSean Jackson to take the top of the defense takes away the immediate need for reaching for a receiver earlier in the draft. Alshon Jeffery is the No. 1 receiver while they could do worse than Nelson Agholor in the slot. Meanwhile, with promising Mack Hollins back after missing all of last season, they are in decent shape at the top of the depth chart. While there are some in-house names – Shelton Gibson, Greg Ward Jr., Braxton Miller, etc. – it would not be out of the question to draft a receiver.
With Clement coming off of injury, and no known punt returner on the roster, they could look at the draft’s better return men who are also receivers. Those names include Parris Campbell (Ohio State), who has been timed in the sub-4.4 range, and Deebo Samuel (South Carolina), who is not as fast (4.5ish) but has the more sudden moves that often work better in the big leagues. Julian Edelman clone Andy Isabella (Massachusetts) looks the part, but does not have much return experience. Georgia’s Mecole Hardman would be a steal in the fourth round, if he lasts that long. Raw as a receiver, he brings 4.3 speed and return skills. Later in the draft, they could look to fil the need with his Bulldog teammate, Terry Godwin, or a small school playmaker such as Alex Wesley (North Colorado) or Penny Hart (Georgia State).
It would be a mild surprise not to hear one of these names called by Roseman and Co. (second in command Joe Douglas loves small-school talent).
TIGHT END: After catching the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl, all Zach Ertz did for an encore was set a record for receptions for tight end in a season. Meanwhile, Dallas Goedert should easily build on what was a promising rookie season. Richard Rodgers was resigned as a safe bet to be the third tight end, and there are some other in-house candidates, but Roseman could pull the trigger on the right tight end at the right time in the draft.
With the draft class at tight considered strong, the fact that the Eagles are covered here could help push other talent into their lap.
An intriguing name would be Trevon Wesco (pictured below) of West Virginia, which has served as a farm system of sorts for the Birds in the past. Wesco is 6-3 and over 270 pounds, and is also raw, but he could be a core special teamer and, heaven forbid, line up at fullback without burning a roster spot on a traditional fullback.
OFFENSIVE TACKLE: A lot of mock drafts have the Eagles drafting a replacement for Jason Peters, and maybe even moving up to do so. Names mentioned include Greg Little (Mississippi) and Bobby Evans (Oklahoma), who both possess the requisite size and athleticism to warrant high picks. This is where we would need to be behind the curtain to know what the Eagles are thinking, long-time. Do they believe Halapoulivaati Vatai, who breathes the rarified air of starting left tackles who won Super Bowls, can be the replacement? Was Jordan Mailata, a rugby player out of Australia, just a PR stunt when drafted in the seventh round last year?
Remember what Roseman said about Sudfeld, and how the time investment being more valuable than a rookie. Also keep in mind that the tackle class, overall is considered mediocre. We don’t want another Danny Watkins, do we?
GUARD/CENTER: Whether or not the Eagles add tackle early, they will likely look to the interior line at some point, probably on Day 3. Brandon Brooks, two years removed from a Pro Bowl season and one removed from a ruptured Achilles, may not be ready to start the season. Stefen Wisniewski is gone. Isaac Seumalo is slated to start at left guard, but we’ve heard that song before. Good things have been said about Matt Pryor, last year’s sixth-round pick, but he could be regarded more as a tackle who can play guard than a pure guard. Meanwhile, Roseman may have to make arrangements for replacing center Jason Kelce, who talked about retirement a bit this offseason.
Versatile Beau Benzschawel (6-5, 317) of Wisconsin would be an ideal developmental choice.
And, while the presumption that offensive line coach/running game coordinator Jeff Stoutland’s fading connection with Alabama will mean drafting players from there, a good fit would be pivot Ross Pierschbacher (6-3, 309), who also has experience at guard.
DEFENSIVE LINE: This where the rubber meets the road. If this is not the strong spot of the whole team, it is at least on the defensive side of the ball. Two big reasons for that are Pro Bowl defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and depth. Defensive line also happens to be the strongest spot in the draft, inside and outside, and Roseman has not been shy about pointing it out. A smoke screen, or will the Birds reload for the future while giving themselves a killer rotation in the present.
While Michael Bennett was dealt to New England, Brandon Graham was resigned in a pleasant surprise, and will be joined at defensive end by promising third-year man Derek Barnett, who should be back healthy after missing most of last season.
Malik Jackson was brought in to play alongside Cox, ostensibly replacing Timmy Jernigan. And welcome back, Vinny Curry. An end by trade, he can slide inside on passing downs.
However, with it unclear if Chris Long will retire, it is not out of the question to add an end – even with last year’s fourth-round pick Josh Sweat expected to make more of an impact.
Inside, the backups are journeymen Trayvon Hester and Bruce Hector, so a top-end talent there would be almost unfair.
And there are plenty to choose from. In reality, the Eagles could use their first three picks on defensive linemen and justify it as a sound move for the present and the future. Nothing makes a suspect secondary more stable than a line that creates passing downs by stuffing the run and then getting pressure on those passing downs.
So which players could we see in green, should they go this route?
A wild card is Ed Oliver of Houston. He missed most of last year with an injury, had some bouts with immaturity and is a tad bit undersized (6-3, 285) to play inside in some schemes (there is some talk of him being an oversized middle linebacker). Draft projections have him all over the map, and reports are that the Eagles are intrigued. A one-time projected top 5-10 pick, he’d be a no-brainer at 25 but maybe not worth the risk to trade into the 15-20 range. That’s because there are other interior linemen to be had at 25, or even by trading back.
Names include a pair of Clemson stalwarts, 340-pound Dexter Lawrence and athletic Christian Wilkins (pictured together below), and Jeffery Simmons of Mississippi State. Another option, oft-mocked to the Eagles, is 6-7 Jerry Tillery of Notre Dame, whose character matches his skill set.
As for defensive ends, highly productive players like Joe Jackson (Miami) and Jaylon Ferguson (Louisiana Tech, pictured below), who was brought in for a visit with the Eagles, could compete with Sweat if Long does not return.
One more name to keep in mind is Zach Allen of Boston College. At 6-4 and 280 pounds, it is unclear if he is best suited for inside or outside in the NFL. That perceived negative would be a positive for defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, who values versatility. Allen was productive in college (18.5 career sacks) and is known for his high motor. He’d be a reach at 25 and probably would be gone by later in the second round, but would be the type of system fit they could add with a trade back (like with Goedert last year).
LINEBACKER: If there is any position of need, this might be it. With Jordan Hicks now in Arizona, Nigel Bradham is the only impact linebacker. Kamu Grugier-Hill would be the next man up, and there is also hope Nathan Gerry progresses. Behind them, there is newcomer L.J. Fort, who is more of a special teams ace than a full-time starter, and Paul Worrilow, a similar veteran who missed all of last season with a serious knee injury.
The Eagles could get by with a mix and match approach to buoy Bradham, who can play the middle but is more effective outside, or they can address it in the draft.
If the Eagles trade up in the first round, this could be where it happens. The top middle linebacker is clearly Devin White of LSU, but it would take a lot to get where they would need to be – somewhere in the 5-10 range (Detroit has put a for-sale sign on its No. 8 pick, for example) – to get him. Would they trade No. 25, one of the seconds and a second next year – or throw in, say, Agholor – to do it, though?
Next up, and also a plug-and-play talent, is Devin Bush (pictured below) of Michigan. There is a chance he slides to No. 25, but do the Eagles take that chance? Another option would be to trade back into the early second round and consider Mack Wilson of Alabama.
After those three, the next group of middle linebackers are rated as either going late in the third round or early in the fourth. Without a third, and not picking until later in the fourth, that would not work without some maneuvering – or some luck.
A late-round steal could be Jahlani Tavai (pictured below) of Hawaii, who had about a million tackles for the Rainbows as a four-year starter. He has requisite size (6-3, 245) to match his tenacity, but his 4.75 speed could limit him to being a two-down player.
If the Eagles wanted more of an athletic hybrid to play outside, Florida’s undersized Vosean Joseph (6-1, 226) could fall into the laps with one of the second round picks.
SECONDARY: This group incurs the wrath of the fans, but too many draft picks have been invested to realistically think another will be, right?
The Eagles have shown interest in some of the draft’s top corners – i.e. Byron Murphy (Washington) and DeAndre Baker (Georgia), while avoiding Temple’s Rock Ya-Sin like the plague – but that could be a smokescreen. All they would be asking for are same growing pains, and bites on double moves, they already have with the young corners they have invested picks in the last few years.
There are some intriguing Day 3-type prospects, though, who could end up in whatever shade of green the Birds decide to wear. There has been a lot of buzz around Jimmy Moreland (James Madison, who showed up well against the big boys in the post-season but measured in at 5-11, 175 – not ideal in an era of bigger corners. Another smaller-than-ideal corner from a lower level is Washsburn’s Corey Ballantine (5-11, 198, pictured below), but he brings some return chops to the mix. Blace Brown, out of Troy, who finished his career with 12 interceptions. He has bloodlines – Herschel Walker’s nephew – but an ACL injury in December of 2017.
All we know is that Ronald Darby was brought back. Roseman went out of his way to give a vote of confidence to Sidney Jones, the second-round pick of two years ago who has had trouble staying healthy. They also have Jalen Mills, Rasul Douglas, Avonte Maddox and late-season surprise Cre’von LeBlanc in the picture.
At safety, Rodney McLeod was one of several veterans to restructure his deal to stay put alongside Pro Bowler and team leader Malcolm Jenkins. Veteran Andrew Sendejo was brought in as a free agent to be the third safety, while Tre Sullivan also remains. They could add a safety of the future – Deionte Thompson (Alabama), Taylor Rapp (Washington), Chauncey Gardner-Johnson (Florida) or Nassir Adderley (Delaware) have been associated with the Eagles in some mock drafts – but there is also a question of if they view one of the young corners (Maddox, Douglas or Mills) as a safety down the road. Would they burn a Day 1 or 2 pick – or any pick – with the other needs mentioned above for what amounts to a luxury?
With Roseman, anything is possible.
He holds the cards.