With the NFL draft a little more than a month away, the next 10 days are going to be very important for the Eagles and the league’s other 31 teams.
More than 50 schools, including powerhouses like Alabama, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Florida, and Penn State, will be holding their pro days.
NFL teams have had limited exposure to this year’s draft class because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Scouts weren’t allowed to watch practices on campus last fall.
The annual scouting combine in Indianapolis, which was supposed to feature the top 330-plus draft prospects last month, was canceled. So was every all-star game with the exception of the Senior Bowl.
Teams are prohibited this year from timing, testing, or interviewing players beyond the pro day workouts. They aren’t allowed to bring in players for predraft visits or work them out privately.
All of these restrictions have added even more importance to the pro day workouts.
It’s still anybody’s guess what the Eagles might do with their first-round pick, which is the sixth overall. Could they trade down? Given general manager Howie Roseman’s current lust for draft picks, sure, but probably not too far. A trade out of the top 10 isn’t likely.
Could they take a quarterback, even though they appear committed to going with Jalen Hurts at least through 2021? Sure.
“We’re going to make sure we do our due diligence on [the quarterbacks] and every other position that would be a possibility for us in the first round and with the rest of our 11 picks,” Roseman said last week.
Florida tight end Kyle Pitts has been a popular name linked to the Eagles in mock drafts. The NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah and ESPN’s Todd McShay both have the Eagles taking the Archbishop Wood High School product at No. 6. Florida’s pro day is March 31.
Jeremiah has Pitts as the third-best player on his board, and said a case can be made that he’s the best player in the draft. If he’s still on the board at No. 6, he said it would be a “no-brainer” for the Eagles.
“I think he can emerge as the best tight end in the National Football League,” Jeremiah said. “He’s got that type of dynamic ability. Obviously, [Dallas] Goedert is one of the best tight ends in the NFL. But to me, I would love to break the huddle with those two guys and force teams to try and figure out how to match up with them.”
Others, though, think the Eagles would be better served taking one of the draft’s top three wide receivers – Ja’Marr Chase of LSU, or Alabama’s DeVonta Smith or Jaylen Waddle.
With the quarterbacks expected to get pushed up – as many as three, and maybe even four, could go in the first five picks – at least two of aforementioned wideouts could be available to the Eagles at No. 6.
The Eagles took three wide receivers in last year’s draft, including Jalen Reagor with the 20th overall pick. Reagor missed five games with injuries and finished with just 31 catches for 396 yards and one touchdown. The other two rookie wideouts, fifth-rounder John Hightower and sixth-rounder Quez Watkins, combined for 17 catches and a touchdown.
Slot receiver Greg Ward led Eagles wideouts with 53 receptions, but averaged just 7.9 yards per catch and 5.3 yards per target. JJ Arcega-Whiteside’s second NFL season – just four catches for 85 yards in eight games played – was even more disappointing than the 2019 second-rounder’s rookie season.
And after an impressive start that included 29 catches for 435 yards and four touchdowns in a five-game stretch, former practice-squadder Travis Fulgham fell off the map. He had just nine receptions in the Eagles’ last eight games.
So, there clearly is a need at wide receiver for the Eagles. Their wideouts averaged a puny 7.1 yards per target last season and had a collective 56.6% catch rate.
The Eagles finished 24th in pass plays of 20 yards or more with 43. Just 24 of those 43 were by wideouts.
Chase, who opted out last season because of the pandemic, is expected to be the first wideout taken and might or might not make it down to the Eagles at No. 6. But Smith and Waddle both should be there when the Eagles are on the clock even if Chase isn’t.
Chase will work out at LSU’s pro day on March 30. Alabama has so many draft prospects that it’s holding two separate pro days. Smith will work out at the first one on Tuesday. Waddle will participate in the second one on March 31.
Chase’s decision to sit out last season hasn’t hurt his draft stock at all. The 6-1, 200-pounder has the complete wide-receiver skill set. As an outside receiver on LSU’s 2019 national championship team, he caught 84 passes for 1,780 yards and 20 touchdowns.
“A lot of times when you’re watching receivers, you see guys that can win with separation and quickness, and you see guys that can win with physicality and on contested catches,” Jeremiah said.
“When you watched Chase in 2019, you saw examples of both. He could separate from people off the line of scrimmage and at the top of his route. And he played big and went up and got the football. Then, after the catch, he gives you the strength and physicality to break tackles.”
Smith had a Heisman Trophy-winning season for the Tide. He had 117 receptions for 1,856 yards and 23 touchdowns. Had 12 catches for 215 yards and three touchdowns against Ohio State in the national championship game.
Smith gets a lot of his yards after the catch. But he’s got a thin frame – he’s 6-foot but only 174 pounds – and played primarily in the slot for the Tide.
The Eagles took Reagor over LSU’s Justin Jefferson last year because they felt Jefferson wasn’t as good on the outside as he was in the slot.
Jefferson was taken by the Vikings right after the Eagles took Reagor. He lined up outside for the Vikings 70% of the time as a rookie and caught 88 passes for 1,400 yards and seven touchdowns.
The 5-10, 182-pound Waddle is a vertical threat who played in just five games last year. He had 25 catches and averaged 22.3 yards per catch in Alabama’s first four games before suffering an ankle injury.
He had surgery and returned for the national championship game against Ohio State, even though he was still limping noticeably during the game. He had three catches against the Buckeyes.
Jeremiah has Waddle rated just ahead of Smith on his board.
“With Smith and Waddle, it’s kind of a flavor thing,” he said. “Waddle gives you a little bit more juice, but DeVonta Smith plays plenty fast as well.
“Smith is a pristine route-runner. As everyone knows, he’s real thin. But he’s really long-armed and can go up and get the ball.
“I just felt what you get after the catch [with Waddle] with some of the shiftiness, and then just the home-run speed that he has is why I ended up with Waddle over Smith.”