Howie Roseman said that he regretted calling the 2019 draft class of defensive linemen “historic” as soon as he said it back in January. For the typically measured executive, it was an uncharacteristic expression that could have been used against him.
But Roseman owned the statement after the draft, even though the Eagles didn’t expend one of their first three picks on defensive linemen. He chose not to focus on the players he was unable to get – despite a pool of talent so deep that 10 went in the first 19 picks – but rather on the offensive talent that he said fell to the Eagles.
“I regretted right after saying it about the historic defensive line class … but I think, really, when you look at where guys went, it was,” Roseman said Saturday at the NovaCare Complex. “What it did for us was it pushed some guys to us that maybe in a normal year on the offensive side of the ball wouldn’t be able to get to our pick.”
And yet, the Eagles still had to move up three spots – and forfeit two additional picks – to draft tackle Andre Dillard at No. 22 in the first round. But Roseman said he wasn’t dogmatic about which side of the ball he addressed, even though a total of 13 defensive linemen went in the first round – the most since 2011.
Asked if he would have been surprised if he was told before the draft that he wouldn’t choose a defensive lineman with his first three selections, Roseman said, “I would have been more surprised if you told me we didn’t get a lineman with the first three picks.” And considering his draft history – seven of his eight first-round picks have now been in the trenches – that’s a believable statement.
But other than drafting Penn State defensive end Shareef Miller in the fourth round Saturday, the Eagles didn’t dip into a positional class that vice president of player personnel Joe Douglas said just last week was deep across the board.
The best teams avoid pushing needs and adjust to the ebbs and flows of the draft. The Eagles say they believe they selected three difference makers with their first three picks – Penn State running back Miles Sanders and Stanford wide receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside followed Dillard in the second round – and two promising prospects with their final two picks – Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson followed Miller in the fifth round.
And for now, we have little to go on other than their word. On paper, it looks like a solid collection of players.
But what about the ones that got away, or the ones they weren’t willing to trade up for? It may have taken a second-rounder to nab Clemson defensive tackle Christian Wilkins or slightly more than they gave up for Dillard to swipe Mississippi State defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons before the Dolphins and Titans selected each at No. 13 and 19, respectively.
But it may have been worth the gamble. Only time will tell.
The Eagles shouldn’t draft for the coming season, but their defensive line, from this vantage point, doesn’t look much stronger than it did before the offseason. And they didn’t get younger. Roseman emphasized that player acquisition isn’t over. He may still have a defensive lineman up his sleeve. Perhaps, Ezekiel Ansah? But the roster, for the most part, is set.
And the Eagles’ moves up front on defense were solid, if underwhelming. They re-signed defensive end Brandon Graham and just, on Thursday, defensive tackle Tim Jernigan. They acquired defensive tackle Malik Jackson and brought back defensive end Vinny Curry. And they said goodbye to defensive end Michael Bennett, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, and (essentially) defensive end Chris Long.
All-pro defensive tackle Fletcher Cox will anchor the line again. And defensive end Derek Barnett returns despite missing most of his sophomore season with a torn rotator cuff. But did the Eagles do enough to replace the 15 1/2 sacks and 50 quarterback hits that parted with Bennett and Long?
“It’s a good mix of veterans and young players,” Roseman said. “Obviously, [Barnett] coming back – our first-round pick – we’re really excited about. And then you come into defensive tackle, and maybe a week ago looking at the position and having some concerns, quite frankly, about that position and the depth.”
Jernigan, who missed most of last season with a back injury, will add depth behind Cox and Jackson. And Treyvon Hester, Bruce Hector, and Hassan Ridgeway, who the Eagles got from the Colts for a seventh-rounder Saturday, have rotation potential. But there isn’t an obvious long-term complement or replacement for Cox.
The 28-year-old Cox gets significantly more expensive, in terms of salary cap dollars, in 2020, and his next contract could price out the Eagles, who have quarterback Carson Wentz’s extension still to worry about.
At defensive end, Graham is versatile, but he’s recorded more than 6 1/2 sacks only once in his previous 10 years. Barnett is a budding talent, but he’s yet to actually do it on the field for an extended period. And Curry is currently the third end. Josh Sweat, Daeshon Hall, and Joe Ostman are relative unknowns.
Long is still under contract, but the 34-year old said the Eagles essentially told him that if he came back, his role as a third-down rusher would be reduced.
“At 34, with my experience and what I’ve done, and still believing in myself and playing at a high level, it’s too hard on my body, on my family, on everybody else to go through it for a role that’s far from perfect,” Long said to The Inquirer Thursday. “I told them this maybe a month ago, I said, ‘Hey, listen, just plan like I won’t be back.'”
It’s hard to see Miller, or even Curry, matching his production, and barring injury, Long is unlikely to return. The Eagles’ defensive line is still a strength, especially compared to the rest of the NFL, but Jim Schwartz’s scheme is predicated on getting pressure from the front four. Did the Eagles do enough this offseason, and for the sake of the future, enough in the draft?
Or was this an opportunity missed?