Shareef Miller grew up in Frankford watching Eagles games with his grandfather, shedding tears when the Eagles won the Super Bowl and only dreaming about the possibility of one day playing for his hometown team.
The Eagles made that a reality by taking the Penn State defensive end and George Washington High School alumnus in the fourth round of the NFL draft on Saturday, making him the first Philadelphia native they drafted since 2004.
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Miller was one of two players the Eagles drafted in the final four rounds. They traded back in the fifth round and took Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson, satisfying an organizational pledge to invest in developmental quarterbacks. Thorson is the first quarterback the franchise has drafted since Carson Wentz in 2016.
Miller and Thorson joined tackle Andre Dillard, running back Miles Sanders, and wide receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside to comprise the 2019 draft class. It was the second consecutive year the Eagles drafted only five players, a low number because of a few trades top executive Howie Roseman made – including Friday night’s deal to move up in the draft to secure Dillard. They need the class’ quality to overshadow its quantity.
“I can tell you that every single guy that we drafted, there were multiple [scouts] that would put their name on that card, and just say, ‘This guy is an Eagle. This guy fits us'," said Joe Douglas, the Eagles’ vice president of player personnel. "This is a high-character class, and it’s a group of playmakers.”
In a class deep with defensive talent, the Eagles took only one defensive player. But Roseman took solace in the belief that Miller would have gone higher in another year, falling to the end of the fourth round purportedly because of the deep class of linemen. Whatever the reason, the Eagles were pleased to add the 6-foot-4, 254-pound edge rusher who ran a 4.69 40-yard dash at the combine and totaled 7.5 sacks for the Nittany Lions last season.
Miller, 22, would have been satisfied to start his NFL career anywhere. But he made no secret about his dreams of wearing Eagles green. He watched the draft with family and friends in a rented loft in the Northeast and said it was “surreal” when Roseman phoned him -- it “still feels like a dream.”
For someone who played youth football with the Frankford Chargers and high school football at Frankford before transferring to rival George Washington at his mother’s urging to avoid trouble, Miller knows what joining the Eagles means to so many others like him in the city.
“It’s going to mean a lot to those kids just to see someone come from where they came from and had to go through some things – someone who had a single parent,” Miller said. “That’s really going to help my community. It’s really going to change a lot of things. It’s going to give these kids someone to look up to. … Now they have me – someone who came from where they came from. What more can they ask for? I’m going to be that voice for them.”
The addition of Thorson fulfills a pledge by owner Jeffrey Lurie to draft a quarterback every year or other year. Thorson, 23, started 53 games over four seasons at Northwestern. He threw for 3,183 yards, 17 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions last season. In his career, he had 61 touchdowns and 45 interceptions, and the Wildcats’ record was 36-17. He’s considered a good athlete for the position, although an ankle injury in their bowl game kept him from participating in the combine.
Roseman said the Eagles received praise from other coaches and evaluators after landing Thorson with the No. 167 overall pick, and coach Doug Pederson was impressed with Thorson at the combine. After studying Thorson’s film, Pederson wanted him to join Wentz and Nate Sudfeld on the depth chart.
“This kid’s tough, and he fits exactly what we look for in a quarterback,” Pederson said. “Arm strength, decision-making, the ability to extend plays, and he’s going to fit really well with that room and with Carson [and Nate]. It’s going to be a really fun spring and summer and leading up to training camp, to see all those guys ... come together in that room and gel, and it’s a good opportunity for him.”
Miller and Thorson might develop into contributing players for the Eagles, but this draft class will be judged by the first three picks. Sanders and Arcega-Whiteside were both at the team facility on Saturday, meeting their new coaches.
Sanders arrives at a high-profile position and played on the television screens of many area fans on Saturdays, so he’ll have a spotlight on him from his first practice. Unlike Dillard, he has a good chance to carve out a Day 1 role. And considering the investment the Eagles made in him – it was the highest they drafted a running back in 10 years; Roseman said they were surprised he was available at No. 53 – he might soon become the starting running back that has eluded the franchise since LeSean McCoy was traded.
“I don’t think it gets any higher than playing at Penn State,” Sanders said of the attention he’s gotten. “You’re playing in front of 100,000 people at home games. There’s nothing really too big for me."
Arcega-Whiteside is known for his ability to make contested catches, a characteristic that has helped make Alshon Jeffery a No. 1 wide receiver in the NFL. Growing up in South Carolina, Arcega-Whiteside watched Jeffery in college and studied him in the NFL. Now, he will be Jeffery’s understudy and has exchanged messages with his teammate.
“As a kid, it’s like, dang, I want to be him one day,” Arcega-Whiteside said. “I want to be playing college football, like representing my state, having all the kids look up to me. That was me. On top of that, when I get to Stanford and he’s tearing it up in the league, like dang, I’ve got to do whatever he’s doing, because whatever he’s doing is working, and I want to emulate the same kind of style.”
After the draft, the front office was busy adding undrafted rookies, who will join the veterans for OTAs in May. That’s when the coaches will get their first glimpse of what the 2019 roster will look like with the newcomers, although it’s not complete. Because of the small draft class, the Eagles didn’t add a safety or a linebacker. And, as satisfied as Roseman is with his five-man class, he knows there’s still time to add talent.