The Eagles focused on upgrading their offensive skill-position players around quarterback Carson Wentz on Friday by using their two second-round picks on Penn State running back Miles Sanders and Stanford wide receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside.
Sanders, 21, was the No. 53 overall pick and becomes the highest running back the Eagles selected since using that same pick on LeSean McCoy in 2009. He replaced Saquon Barkley in Penn State’s offense and rushed for 1,274 yards and nine touchdowns with 5.8 yards carry last season. Arcega-Whiteside, 22, was taken four picks later and gives the Eagles another physical wide receiver. He’s 6-foot-2, 225-pound and caught 63 passes for 1,059 yards and 14 touchdowns last season.
The Eagles resisted trading back to accumulate more picks or addressing defensive positions that could use depth so they could add young weapons for Wentz. Top executive Howie Roseman said that’s how the board fell and it wasn’t their plan, but acknowledged that the Eagles have an “affinity for scoring points” and the team is built to try to take leads and force opposing offenses to be one-dimensional. They need skill players for that to happen.
“We continue to add depth and we continue to add talent,” coach Doug Pederson said. “We obviously help our roster that way, not only this way, but also for the future. And the guys we have are guys we can work in different positions. …We can take Miles, work him in space. We can take J.J., work him inside, work him outside. There’s position [flexibility] with those guys.”
Roseman, aware of his history of not spending high picks on running backs, started his news conference by joking that “we draft running backs in Philadelphia!” Although it’s a position of need even after trading for Jordan Howard, it was clear that Sanders was a player the Eagles coveted. Roseman called him a favorite of both the coaching staff and the scouting staff, and Roseman even started the day by going to running back coach Duce Staley’s office and hoping that Sanders fell to them in the second round. Sanders, who said he had a “real good connection” with the Eagles during the pre-draft process, was the second running back selected.
“You see a guy with great feet, great balance, lateral quickness, he’s got quick-strike ability,” said Joe Douglas, the Eagles’ vice president of player personnel.
Sanders should have an immediate role in the offense, although that can grow in the coming seasons. Howard is entering the final year of his contract, and Sanders could eventually emerge as the Eagles’ featured rusher — a role that’s been difficult to consistently fill ever since McCoy was traded.
“I’ve seen LeSean McCoy come through Philly and do great for the Eagles, but I’m looking forward to doing even better,” Sanders said on a conference call. “I’m looking forward to coming in and producing and doing whatever I can to get another championship.”
Four picks after the Eagles drafted Sanders, they focused on a player who had been one they targeted. The Eagles had a few appealing options at wide receiver, including three of the fastest wide receivers at the combine.
The Eagles wanted Arcega-Whiteside. He’s not known as much for his speed — he did not work out at the combine, but he had a 4.49-second 40-yard dash at his Pro Day — but he excels making contested catches. He was a standout basketball player in high school, and both of his parents played professional basketball. Douglas said Arcega-Whiteside’s “ability to go up and get the ball and his strength, his ability to separate and finish contested catches in the scoring zone” separated him from the other wide receivers.
“Sometimes, these West Coast guys who play late, they get a little underrated because people aren’t watching those late games,” Roseman said. “This guy’s a baller. He has a very good skill set. And when our fans get to know him, they’re going to be really proud. He symbolizes an Eagle mentality, Eagle football.”
Arcega-Whiteside said he’s not worried about how’s rated — he only cares about being with the Eagles. He said the Eagles are getting a player who “loves football” and is going to try to learn and willing to play special teams as a rookie. He believes he’s not given enough credit for his speed, though, and that he does more than outmuscling defensive backs. But that’s the part of his game that gets the most attention, and if nothing else, he can help the Eagles in the red zone from Day 1.
“Having that basketball background helps you...put your body in ways where you can high-point the ball,” Arcega-Whiteside said. “A lot of people think jump ball is all about jumping. It’s about positioning. And because of my basketball background, that can help me a lot.”
The Eagles’ top three wide receivers are Alshon Jeffery, DeSean Jackson, and Nelson Agholor. The spots are less clear behind them, with Mack Hollins and Shelton Gibson entering their third seasons and a few other roster hopefuls in the mix, too. Arcega-Whiteside fits as an understudy for Jeffery who gives the Eagles another big-bodied presence. He said Jeffery is one of the players he’s emulated.
Roseman noted that the Eagles think not only about the 2019 depth chart, but the long-term outlook of the roster, too. The Eagles have only two picks remaining on the final day of the draft. Roseman said they have confidence in finding undrafted free agents, but they did consider trading back to accumulate more picks. Ultimately, they didn’t want to miss out the two players they wanted.