What is the Eagles’ bigger need in the NFL draft, offensive line or wide receiver?
Wide receiver is still an area of need, but the Eagles have always prioritized the trenches.
Part 3 of a weekly series previewing the NFL draft.
By now it’s pretty apparent the Eagles have their No. 1 wide receiver in DeVonta Smith, but, as last Sunday’s loss to the Giants illustrated, the wide receiver spots behind him still leave something to be desired.
Even though they’ve taken a wide receiver in the top 50 three drafts in a row, there’s a reasonable case to be made that they’ll need to bolster the position once again this offseason. Jalen Reagor, the team’s first-round pick in 2020, has seen his stock plummet this season; it’s never been lower after two game-altering drops late in the team’s 13-7 loss to the New York Giants.
JJ Arcega-Whiteside, the team’s second-round pick the year before, has been relegated to a special teams and blocking role. Quez Watkins, a sixth-round pick in 2020, has earned a spot in a long-term rotation alongside Smith as a deep threat that defenses have to account for, but outside of those two, the Eagles don’t have much to show for their draft investments.
There’s an adage in the league that teams that miss at a position in the draft have to overpay in free agency to cover up those mistakes, and that could be instructive when projecting what the Eagles could do. It’s a good year for free-agent wide receivers. Don’t get invested in top-tier, high-priced guys like Davante Adams or Chris Godwin, but Mike Williams, Zay Jones, and several others could be quality starters at a more reasonable number.
Using a third first-rounder in as many years at wide receiver would be a pretty surprising move for the team, so any possible targets would likely be Day 2 or Day 3 picks.
Still, where does wide receiver rank on the team’s list of needs, either in free agency or in the draft?
“To me, there are other priorities that I would be focused on at this point,” former Eagles general manager Joe Banner told The Inquirer. “I think there’s a good chance Smith and Watkins are a quality starting duo. ... They’re both quality starters, including one who has a chance to be very good. So it doesn’t become a priority to get a third wide receiver.”
Banner had a track record of prioritizing the offensive and defensive lines above skill positions during his 18 years running the Eagles’ front office, and that philosophy has lasted since he’s left. Because of this, Banner said the team is far more likely to identify needs up front rather than on the perimeter.
“My priority for them right now is the offensive line,” Banner said. “It’s still very susceptible right now, as we’ve seen. It lacks the depth it needs. And it’s older at a couple of key spots. ... That’s where their priority should be. Until they fix that — if you don’t have a good offensive line, the wide receivers don’t even get a chance to showcase what they can do. The coach isn’t going to get a chance to call the plays that he wants to call. For me, I would be focusing on the line, which is my bias anyway and has been the team’s bias for a long time.”
There’s certainly an argument to be made that adding an offensive lineman, particularly one who can play multiple spots at a high level, is the team’s biggest offensive need. The Eagles drafted Landon Dickerson in the second round of last April’s draft with that intention and he’s settled in nicely, but the amount he’s played this season illustrates the importance of being six or seven guys deep up front.
Right guard Brandon Brooks has missed the last 10 games with a pectoral injury and will miss his 11th this Sunday against the New York Jets. The last time he played consistently, he was arguably the best offensive lineman in the league at any position, but it’s been two years since he’s reached those heights. Even if he can regain his form and stay on the field, he’ll be 33 next season. Center Jason Kelce has entertained retirement each of the last few offseasons, just turned 34, and doesn’t have a clear-cut heir.
Isaac Seumalo, who was playing at a high level before suffering a season-ending foot injury, could eventually move from guard to center replace Kelce, but another center or guard would help keep the line’s status as one of the best in the league.
There’s always a chance Jeff Stoutland could develop a player like Sua Opeta, Nate Herbig, or Jack Driscoll into a high-level starter instead, but the Eagles could also just do the offensive line coach a favor and give him a prospect with elite physical traits and college production.
Which players fit that description? Let’s start with the most expensive: Iowa center Tyler Linderbaum.
Think of Linderbaum as a high-priced Kelce replacement. Like Kelce, he’s a smaller center with impressive athleticism. He’s got a handful of reps as a puller where he gets up to the second- and third-level in a hurry to decleat a linebacker or defensive back.
One clip of Linderbaum from earlier in the season closely resembles Kelce’s viral block as a puller against the New Orleans Saints a few weeks back.
Linderbaum also has a wrestling background, which bodes well for the understanding of leverage you’d want from a smaller center who will have to move bigger bodies in the NFL.
But remember, he’s expensive. Linderbaum is projected as a top-10 selection despite playing a less-than-premium position. The Eagles value interior linemen more than some teams, but even they might hesitate to address the position that high.
If the Eagles feel good about Seumalo or Dickerson eventually sliding over to center, taking a tackle who can play guard as well could solve their problem. Lane Johnson is healthy and playing well this year, but he’s dealt with consistent ankle issues and will be 32 next year.
None of this is to say Johnson is at the end of his career, but the reason Johnson is an Eagle right now is because the team drafted him to eventually take over for a then-32-year-old Jason Peters in 2013. The lesson: It doesn’t hurt to draft a premium position like tackle a year or two too early.
If you include first-round tackles into the equation, a handful of players are worth monitoring going into the conference championship week and bowl season.
North Carolina State tackle Ikem Ekwonu, Texas A&M guard/tackle Kenyon Green, and Mississippi State tackle Charles Cross all fit the bill as first-round projected linemen.
Looking ahead to the draft
Game to watch
Georgia vs. Alabama, 4 p.m., CBS
There are several conference championship games this weekend rife with highly touted prospects, but any draft enthusiast should watch at least one Georgia game before the season’s over.
The Bulldogs have seven defensive prospects ranked in Pro Football Focus’s top 100, including three potential first-rounders in nose tackle Jordan Davis, linebacker Nakobe Dean, and edge rusher Travon Walker.
Believe it or not, Alabama also has a few potential first-rounders.
Offensive tackle Evan Neal has a chance to be the first O-lineman off the board next spring, so the matchup with Walker will be a good one to watch. Safety Jordan Battle will be worth keeping an eye on considering the Eagles’ long-term needs at the position, and wide receiver Jameson Williams could go in the first round as well.