If the Eagles had never drafted Jalen Reagor, would they have still taken DeVonta Smith?
It’s a fair question to ask after they selected Smith in the first round Thursday night, a year after they chose Reagor in the same round. The Eagles have never expended picks as high on receivers in consecutive years, at least in the modern era of the NFL. At any position, it’s a rare occurrence.
The last time the Eagles went back-to-back in the first round at the same spot was in 2005-06 with defensive tackles Mike Patterson and Brodrick Bunkley, respectively. But the latter selection didn’t raise many eyebrows at the time because the organizational philosophy of building from the lines out had already been established.
Howie Roseman came from that school of thought, having tutored under Andy Reid and Joe Banner. In only one of his first eight drafts as general manager did the Eagles not take a lineman in the first round, and that was in 2016 when they selected quarterback Carson Wentz at the most important position.
When Roseman went receiver in 2020, few were shocked because of the depth at the position and because the Eagles had an obvious need. The value of the 21st selection also meant he wouldn’t need to force a priority position.
But Roseman erred in choosing Reagor over Justin Jefferson. So much that maybe the more appropriate question to ponder is whether he would have drafted Smith had Jefferson been the choice a year ago?
To acquire the Alabama receiver, the Eagles traded up two spots to No. 10 — forfeiting the Nos. 12 and 84 overall picks. Smith has obvious talent, and the selection was sure to go over well with hypercritical fans, but did Roseman break from long-held beliefs about team building to correct a mistake?
“It is definitely not shifting our focus or our philosophy,” Roseman said during a video news conference. “We stuck to our board on this. This is a guy whose grade stuck out. This was one of the top players in the draft for the Eagles.
“We thought it was a great player and we didn’t want to bypass that to fill a need.”
But receiver was a need. Reagor might still develop into a quality starter. But there was little evidence of it during his rookie season. Beyond the second-year receiver, the cupboard is bare. And an argument could be made that Reagor was, like Smith, the result of a previous drafting failure: picking JJ Arcega-Whiteside in the second round of the 2019 draft.
The Eagles are a rebuilding team. They have a new coach in Nick Sirianni. And while Smith could be seen as satisfying Sirianni’s appreciation for the position, would the Eagles have been better off addressing one of the positions they’ve long considered premium?
Smith, Roseman appeared to be saying, was worth the do-over. And that could very well end up being the case. The reigning Heisman Trophy winner checks off a lot of boxes, even if there are valid concerns about his slight frame.
The Eagles needed to acquire blue-chip players, something they’ve failed to do the last several drafts, and the 6-foot, 166-pound Smith would seem to qualify. The New York Giants appeared poised to take him at No. 11. At least that’s what Roseman thought; otherwise he wouldn’t have leapfrogged them.
But even if Smith becomes elite, do receivers win Super Bowls? It’s a hard question to answer or quantify. Some of the greats have won titles. But for every Jerry Rice, there are exponentially more top receivers who never scaled that mountain. Recent history would suggest having Julio Jones or Calvin Johnson wasn’t enough for the Falcons or Lions.
Those might be only anecdotal examples, but many NFL GMs won’t spend high draft picks on prospects without size or they won’t hand out large second contracts to receivers when they deem protecting and pressuring the quarterback paramount.
But if Smith wasn’t the guy, then who else should the Eagles have drafted? The defensive line group was considered slight. No defensive tackles went in the first round and an edge rusher didn’t go until No. 18 (Jaelen Phillips).
On the offensive line, Penei Sewell was the first tackle to go, at No. 7 to the Lions. Rashawn Slater was available and went at No. 13 to the Chargers, but the Eagles might have projected him as a guard rather than a tackle, a spot of less importance up front.
The Eagles’ deepest position is also their offensive line. But their top three guys — center Jason Kelce, right guard Brandon Brooks, and right tackle Lane Johnson — are all over 30 and the latter two are coming off surgery. Left tackle is also unsettled with the unproven Andre Dillard and Jordan Mailata vying for the role.
Cornerback was a position of need, but the two top prospects — Jaycee Horn and Patrick Surtain II — went Nos. 8 and 9. The Eagles were unlikely to take linebacker Micah Parsons (Cowboys, No. 12), so they stuck to their guns at one lesser position.
Roseman could have likely gotten Smith’s college teammate, Jaylen Waddle, at the Eagles’ original spot of No. 6. And, of course, the same could be said of either Horn or Surtain. But tight end Kyle Pitts and receiver Ja’Marr Chase were gone by then, and the return for moving back to No. 12 — a 2022 first-rounder — was rich even if Roseman might have been wrong about there being 12 players with whom the Eagles were comfortable.
“From March to draft day, a lot has changed,” Roseman said. “I think that at the time maybe we thought there would be more quarterbacks, to be honest, going before we picked.”
Three quarterbacks, as expected, went in the first three picks, but Justin Fields and Mac Jones lasted until the 11th and 15th selections, respectively. Maybe passing on either will haunt Roseman, but the Eagles made their commitment to Jalen Hurts when they traded back, and getting Smith, his former college teammate, should please the second-year quarterback.
As for Smith’s size, or lack thereof, Eagles vice president of player personnel Andy Weidl said it didn’t show up on film.
“When I watched him play, I saw a guy with length and I saw a guy with toughness,” Weidl said. “You catch 117 passes in the SEC, you’re doing something right. … Even more so, whenever his team needed him, he stepped up. The moment was never too big for him.”
Ultimately, the Eagles appeared to have not out-thought the pick. Roseman has previously been guilty of factoring far too many variables into his top choices. The inconsistencies in his approach — favoring scouts over coaches or vice versa, or factoring in too many voices or too few, or taking owner Jeffrey Lurie’s opinion into account or not — have led to dreadful drafts.
Could there or should there have been dissenting voices about Smith as related to organizational value? Maybe. But it’s likely he was a unanimous decision. When even that has been difficult to accomplish, having everyone on board can be viewed as at least a minor success.
“DeVonta was standing out on our board,” Roseman said. “His grade, the type of player he is, the type of person he is. And so, we just wanted to make sure we got him. We really just think he can be a difference-maker for our team on and off the field.”