If it takes three years before you can start to assess a draft class, then the early returns on the Eagles' 2017 selections are in and they aren’t good.
Derek Barnett has failed to justify the top pick. Sidney Jones was released before the season, effectively earning the ignominious “bust” label. Rasul Douglas was also sent packing. Mack Hollins, Donnel Pumphrey, Shelton Gibson, and Elijah Qualls have long been gone.
Which leaves fifth-rounder Nate Gerry as the lone pick to justify the original cost. The Eagles released the linebacker three years ago only to bring him back on the practice squad. But when your only “hit” comes on the third day, you’ll take them any way they come.
“It’s disappointing. I take all of that personally, and I think that you want more guys from your draft class to be successful,” Eagles general manager Howie Roseman said Sept. 5, the day Jones and Douglas failed to make the 53-man roster. “I think unfortunately we had to learn from that draft class and we’ve gone over some of those guys and what happened there.”
The 2018 draft appears more promising, but the 2019 class has gotten off to a rocky start, save for one player, and it is far too soon to draw any conclusions about 2020. But the 2017 debacle has set the Eagles back when that draft should have provided several core maturing pieces by this time.
The Eagles aren’t in the position for a complete rebuilding, not when you have a franchise quarterback entering what should be his prime. But they did set out this offseason to get younger and cheaper. They just didn’t go as far as they could have, partly because of the pandemic.
Veterans such as DeSean Jackson, Alshon Jeffery, Jason Peters, and Vinny Curry returned, in part, because younger players at their positions either failed in Philly or weren’t deemed quite ready. But their inclusion can also stand in the way of learning on the job.
The Eagles need to turn over the roster. The foundation is fraying at the edges. Jason Kelce, Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox, Lane Johnson, Zach Ertz, Jackson, Peters, and Curry – the team’s nucleus for most of the last decade – will all be 30 or over by the end of this season.
Several are still playing at an elite level and could into next season. But others are clearly on the downslope of their careers and unlikely to return. The Eagles increased their volume of draft picks this year partly to account for that shift and to balance the salary cap.
They are slated to be $64 million over next year, and while there are some easy ways to trim that number, they do need more inexpensive contracts, and that often comes from hitting on late-round picks.
“Going back to March, certainly when the CBA was extended, I didn’t anticipate that we would be talking about probably a diminished cap next year,” Roseman said. “So we’ve got to adjust to that and continue to try to compete at a high level. So part of that is having young players play.”
Last Sunday’s loss at Washington was brutal for the Eagles in many respects, but it was particularly harsh on Roseman’s recent drafts. Of the top three selections in each of the last four classes, only six of 12 were active. Two of the six had little to no impact.
Tight end Dallas Goedert, cornerback Avonte Maddox, and defensive end Josh Sweat -- all from the 2018 draft -- had strong outings. And rookie wide receiver Jalen Reagor caught a 55-yard pass. But receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside wasn’t targeted once, despite playing 41% of the offensive snaps, and linebacker Davion Taylor saw the field for only 14 special-teams plays.
Injuries played a role in the absences. Tackle Andre Dillard, running back Miles Sanders, and Barnett were sidelined, and the latter two are slated to return Sunday against the Rams. But rookie quarterback Jalen Hurts didn’t dress, and each week he sits or doesn’t play will provide additional fodder for those who thought Roseman could have used a second-rounder for a more pressing need.
Eagles coach Doug Pederson said that activating Hurts would be a “week-to-week discussion,” but dressing a third quarterback would seem a luxury unless you plan on utilizing him in some way on offense.
“I would say that if he were up, he doesn’t necessarily have to be a part of the game plan in any specific way,” Pederson said Wednesday.
Safety Jeremy Chinn, running back J.K. Dobbins, and interior lineman Matt Hennessey were some prospects on the board who might have made more immediate sense than Hurts. Chinn started for the Panthers, Dobbins rushed seven times for 22 yards and two touchdowns for the Ravens, and Hennessy played 18 snaps as a sixth offensive lineman.
But comparisons at this point are virtually meaningless. There are still far too many unknowns. Barnett, for instance, can still live up to being the No. 14 overall pick three years ago. The Eagles remain bullish on the defensive end despite his relative lack of production and assorted injuries.
Goedert looks like a score for a second rounder. Maddox and Sweat could be good value for fourth rounders. But offensive linemen Matt Pryor and Jordan Mailata, despite being third day picks, have clearly not developed fast enough, otherwise they wouldn’t have been beaten out by the undrafted Nate Herbig and rookie Jack Driscoll.
The Eagles say they still believe in Dillard and Arcega-Whiteside, but they said the same about Jones and Douglas right up until they cut bait. At least they wasted little time before parting with the two remaining 2019 picks – defensive end Shareef Miller (released earlier this month) and quarterback Clayton Thorson (released a year ago).
Look around the rest of the NFL, even among the elite teams, and you will find draft whiffs. The 49ers, for instance, missed on both of their 2017 first-rounders (Solomon Thomas and Reuben Foster). But the Saints found four starters in that class. The Steelers found three.
And overall, the Eagles need more than just guys they can check off as hits because they start. They need Pro Bowl-caliber talents. They found one in 2016 with quarterback Carson Wentz in what may be Roseman’s finest moment. But only Goedert and Sanders among the 2017-19 drafts arguably have that potential.
Roseman has done a fine job supplementing the poor drafts in free agency and with trades, but having to forfeit picks and big money for someone like cornerback Darius Slay because Jones and Douglas didn’t pan out isn’t a long-term winning formula.
“Did we force some things? Did we do some things that were kind of contrary to our plan going in because we missed out on some things? Those are all the questions we ask,” Roseman said of the 2017 draft. “We don’t just sit there and go, ‘Those guys didn’t do a good job and we’re just washing over it.’
"I do think when we look back at the last few years draft classes overall, they are pretty good. ... But that doesn’t mean that we haven’t made mistakes and we can’t do a better job.”
The Eagles can kick the can down the road on recent drafts, but avoidance can last only so long – especially if the losing continues.