With three picks among the first 57 selections in the first and second rounds of the NFL draft, there are all sorts of areas where the Eagles could add a future starter this week.
Running back? Sure, Jordan Howard is under contract for only a year.
Edge rusher? Why not. The more the merrier in Jim Schwartz’s scheme. Get younger there.
Safety? That would be a solid move for the near future. Rodney McLeod and Malcolm Jenkins won’t be together forever.
Wide receiver? Carson Wentz surely would appreciate another difference-maker, one who ought to be here for the long term.
Offensive line? Definitely an area where there hasn’t been much high-round investment lately, and where the group is getting older.
But if you want to place a bet on a position the Eagles are most likely to address early, defensive tackle might be the way to go, for a few reasons.
Malik Jackson, the Jacksonville free agent the Eagles signed this offseason, had an odd year in 2018, getting benched by the Jaguars.
Interior pass rush pressure has become a sort of defensive holy grail the last few seasons. That spot opposite Fletcher Cox is very important, in terms of freeing Cox to wreak havoc. And this draft is very strong at defensive tackle. It might be easier to get a difference-maker defensive tackle at 25th overall, where the Eagles draft in the first round, than at any other position this year – assuming they stay at 25.
Defensive tackle isn’t something fans usually talk a lot about going into the draft. But the Eagles have drafted 10 of them in the last 15 years, and four times they have used their top pick that way – in 2005 with Mike Patterson, 31st overall; the next year with Brodrick Bunkley, 14th overall; in 2008 with Trevor Laws, when the Eagles didn’t have a first-rounder, tabbing Laws 47th overall, in the second round; and in 2012, when they took Fletcher Cox 12th overall.
The NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah ranks six defensive tackles among his top 50 prospects this year, and his 25th-ranked prospect is a defensive tackle, Clemson’s massive Dexter Lawrence (6-4, 342). Jeremiah doesn’t project Lawrence to the Eagles; he gives them Oklahoma wide receiver Marquise Brown, his 16th-ranked prospect.
If the Eagles stay at 25, they seem unlikely to have a shot at defensive tackles such as Alabama’s Quinnen Williams, Houston’s Ed Oliver, or Clemson’s Christian Wilkins. Down the road, the best of the strong defensive tackle group might turn out to be Mississippi State’s Jeffrey Simmons, who could fall in the first round after tearing an ACL during draft prep.
The Eagles’ similar gamble on highly regarded corner Sidney Jones two years ago hasn’t been a great success so far. Would they go the redshirt route again? If Cox and Jackson stayed healthy, they wouldn’t need Simmons as a starter this year.
“We can’t view the draft as what’s best for just this moment, we have to view the draft as what’s best for our team going forward,” Howie Roseman said in a predraft session with reporters.
Lawrence is likely to be available at 25, ditto Notre Dame’s Jerry Tillery (6-6 ½, 295). Lawrence missed both of the Tigers’ postseason games after a positive test for a banned muscle-growth supplement. He seems to be amazingly quick for his size, but raw.
Lawrence has been compared to Haloti Ngata – not the worn-out, 34-year-old version of Ngata the Eagles got last season, but the one Baltimore drafted 12th overall in 2006, who went to five Pro Bowls.
Tillery is said to have all the tools but doesn’t always use them consistently.
On a recent conference call, Jeremiah was asked about pass rushers in the Eagles’ range who might be able to play defensive tackle.
Jeremiah said that Tillery “falls in that range as somebody that can get to the quarterback. He would just do it from an inside alignment …
"An interesting name is a guy like Dexter Lawrence, where does he fit in? Yeah, he doesn’t rush the passer, he hasn’t had an opportunity to rush the passer that much, but when you’ve got edge pressure and you’ve got somebody on the inside that can create some pocket push, there’s some value for somebody like that who can have an impact as a pass rusher without necessarily winning with quickness, or getting it done himself. He can impact it in that regard.”
Jeremiah said the Eagles would “have an interesting decision to make if Jeffery Simmons were to somehow fall down there, who I think can move up and down the line of scrimmage. But again, you’ve got to wait out the injury, coming off the ACL, and see where he is.”
In their predraft session, Roseman and player personnel vice president Joe Douglas talked about bringing in difference makers. The last time they did that at D-tackle was with Cox, seven years ago. Since then they’ve drafted Bennie Logan in the third round in 2013, then let him go via free agency; Beau Allen in the seventh round in 2014, the same; and Elijah Qualls, a sixth-rounder who was cut last year.
“I think if you look back, historically, a lot of the elite ones are probably first- and second-rounders,” Douglas said when asked about getting a difference-making defensive tackle. “But I can go back through and think about strong contributors, really good players, that were [taken] after that.”
Douglas noted that when he worked for the Ravens, they got Pro Bowl defensive tackle Brandon Williams from Mississippi Southern in the third round in 2013. The Eagles don’t have a third-round pick this year, though.