Shareef Miller’s career path isn’t much different than many NFL fourth-round draft picks. Selected by the Eagles in 2019, the defensive end struggled to get on the field as a rookie, was released before his second season, and is now hanging on with his third team thanks, in part, to offseason roster expansion.
But the evaluation, drafting, development, and, ultimately, the failure of Miller with the Eagles offers some insight into how easy it is for teams to select the wrong players. The success rate, no matter how you quantify it, would make even the most steadfast scientist want to quit if selecting college prospects was the experiment.
The Eagles, of course, have done worse than most teams in the draft over the last five years. But the current regime has had previous success and picks that could be labeled hits even during that span. For proof, look at the fourth-round defensive end they chose the year before Miller, Josh Sweat.
The main difference between the picks: There was disagreement over Miller, and little over Sweat.
Maybe Sweat flames out in his fourth season, and maybe Miller finds his footing in his third with the Cardinals. But their career paths are trending in opposite directions even though both entered the NFL as developmental prospects with potential upside.
Howie Roseman likes nothing more than a defensive end capable of becoming a third-day diamond. Even for a position at which the Eagles have invested significant capital in the first three rounds, the general manager has expended eight picks on ends in the 10 drafts he’s run since 2010.
At only linebacker has Roseman spent as many selections from the fourth round on. Mostly it’s because he’s rarely chosen one in the first three rounds.
Sweat is the lone success story of the third-day ends. A few, such as Joe Kruger and Alex McCallister, came and went, never to be seen again. Some, such as Ricky Sapp and David King, caught on elsewhere but lasted only so long.
But there are contributors, and even starters, to be found later in the draft. This year’s defensive line class overall isn’t projected to be strong. But as Eagles vice president of player personnel Andy Weidl suggested, just because there aren’t expected to be many first-rounders taken Thursday, that doesn’t mean there isn’t talent down the line.
“Time will tell with this class how good it is, how good it was,” Weidl said Wednesday during a video conference call. “I know this: Just the history of the draft, you can find defensive linemen at all different levels. You’ve got Arthur Jones and Pernell McPhee with the Ravens in Day 3, and those guys were instrumental in helping us win a Super Bowl in 2012.”
The 2019 defensive line class was considered one of the strongest in recent memory. Thirteen were taken in the first round. Many observers expected the Eagles to draft one that high, but they traded up for tackle Andre Dillard instead.
With two second-round picks, they selected running back Miles Sanders and receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside. The Eagles didn’t have another until the last pick of the fourth round, and with it they chose Miller.
“We think in a normal draft, that guy goes yesterday,” Roseman said after the selection. “Because so many teams took defensive linemen, we had an opportunity to get a young pass rusher we think we can work with and develop and has some tools in his body.”
But Miller was by no means a unanimous decision. Teams are unlikely to have uniform opinion on even the highest of draft picks, but evaluations on later-round picks or undrafted prospects can run the gamut. One Eagles evaluator told The Inquirer he had Miller as second-to-last out of 25 defensive linemen he graded.
When the pertinent parties met for a pre-draft meeting to go over the position, the process took longer than normal because of the depth at the top. When they got to the middle of the pack, the evaluator was surprised that others had Miller ranked as high.
There were certainly valid reasons. The Penn State product had good size (6-foot-4½, 254 pounds), speed (4.69-second 40-yard dash), and was productive in four seasons, especially as a senior (7½ sacks and 15 tackles for loss).
But there were some concerns about his lack of skills at the point of attack.
“Miller doesn’t play with early, aggressive hands in the run game or as a rusher, and that severely limits his consistency in both areas,” NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein wrote before the draft. “His lack of instincts as a rusher is a concern, but improving his approach at the top of the rush should be coachable.”
The Eagles evaluator had a theory as to why Miller struggled at the point. He wasn’t physical enough.
“Sure, he made plays,” the evaluator said, “but all he did was run around people and never went through anybody to get the quarterback. He had some traits for our system, but you need to be physical across the board in the pros.”
Miller, who didn’t respond to an interview request for this story, is a Philadelphia native. He grew up in the Frankford section and graduated from George Washington High in the Northeast. The Eagles brought him to the NovaCare Complex for Local Day, and he met with various members of the coaching and scouting staffs.
Then-defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz was a proponent of drafting Miller.
“He told me that I am a great fit. I’m a guy they need,” Miller said of his initial meeting with Schwartz. “He loved that I had a basketball background, and he loved that when he watched me on film. He said when you see some guys on film they look stiff and robotic, and he said I don’t.
“He said I looked smooth and fluent.”
Schwartz had influence in defensive selections during his tenure, but Roseman wouldn’t have made the Miller pick had he not been on board and had support within the personnel department.
There was internal concern, however, that Miller could face distractions by playing too close to home. He had grown up in a tough environment that led his mother to transfer him to another high school. And teams often balk at drafting local products.
Miller grew up an Eagles fan.
“Me and my grandpop watched the Eagles games every day,” he said during the NFL combine. “When the Eagles won the Super Bowl, we cried.”
Some Eagles staffers believed that his story appealed to owner Jeffrey Lurie and that it played a role in his inclusion on the draft board and ultimate selection. A few decision makers argued against more because of his local ties, but Roseman countered that the Eagles needed defensive ends, always a priority position, and Miller was worth the price.
“It’s those types of things that make you scratch your head,” a team source said.
A numbers game
Few rookies enter the NovaCare Complex with every evaluator on board with the acquisition. But once they do, they’re Eagles, and there is a joint effort to get the best out of the players. The same thinking applied to Miller.
Schwartz was enthusiastic when he first spoke of him but tempered his comments as he would any for any rookie.
“He has some good eyes to rush the passer. He’s around the ball a lot,” Schwartz said that May during spring workouts. “He did those things at Penn State, and we’ve seen some of the same things with him here. Just like a lot of young players, there are things he’ll work on as far as technique, the consistency that goes into being a professional player.”
But Miller injured his back during the initial rookie minicamp and was in and out of the trainer’s room over the next several months. To some, the injuries were related to his lack of physicality.
He struggled in training camp and the preseason, and when Schwartz was asked again about Miller before the start of the season, he reeled back on his earlier comments.
“He still has a long way to go,” he said. “Let’s not put him in the Hall of Fame yet.”
Roseman was realistic about Miller as well. He knew that the Eagles’ depth on the line would make it difficult to earn playing time, let alone be active on game days. But he had also expressed doubt about his long-range prospects, team sources said.
“Shareef looked good in the games, and you see his athleticism, and you see he has tools in his body,” Roseman said that September. “At the same time, too, we have to understand that we have to develop players.”
Miller didn’t dress for the first six games. He was active in Week 7 at the Cowboys even though the Eagles dressed six other ends. He didn’t play. He was up the next week at the Bills, too, but aside from two special teams snaps, he never got on the field.
Just days later, they traded for Genard Avery, another defensive end. Avery got the nod ahead of Miller through the rest of the season, although his snaps trailed off once it became apparent that he wasn’t ready.
Miller tried to stay patient.
“It’s a numbers game,” he said in November. “I just got to wait my time.”
It’s unclear if Miller was affected by his close proximity to home. He was released before the start of last season even though Schwartz said he had improved.
“When it comes down to it,” Schwartz said, “you only have so many spots on your 53.”
But the Eagles did think enough of Miller to bring him back on the practice squad after he spent a month on the Panthers’ 53-man roster. But he was cut again in December and signed a reserve/future contract with Arizona.
The odds are stacked against Miller. The analyses vary, depending upon the definition, but fewer than approximately 20 percent of fourth-round draft picks can be labeled successes.
Sweat, once deemed the best college recruit in the nation, had most of the tools to thrive in the NFL. But he suffered a horrible knee injury as a high school senior and played out of position in Florida’s 3-4 scheme.
There’s still some concern about whether he can develop into a starter because of concerns over the knee and stamina. Most of his impact plays have come in the first half of games. But he’s already justified the draft cost.
Miller had many forces working against his success in Philly. But the pick was risky, and, despite the strong cases made against drafting him, Roseman forged ahead.
A few Eagles staffers over the years, when their evaluations were ignored, have comforted themselves with a cynical refrain: Don’t ever go into a draft meeting saying this guy is the best or the worst because you can rest assured they either aren’t drafting him or they are.