Linebacker boom or injury bust? Why the Eagles were able to draft Nakobe Dean in the third round.
Despite some injury concerns for Dean, Eagles GM Howie Roseman gets what he sees as a uniquely talented player.
Nakobe Dean came dressed to impress for the NFL draft.
The Georgia linebacker arrived at the red carpet in Las Vegas on Thursday donned in a blush suit with a white harness and wide-brim, caramel-colored hat tilted just-so to his left.
Dean never got to take the stage, though, as commissioner Roger Goodell called 32 other players’ names. There had already been reports that a laundry list of injuries suffered in college, along with a predraft pectoral strain, might drop the talented off-ball linebacker out of the first round.
But few evaluators expected Dean to last beyond the second round Friday. General manager Howie Roseman said the Eagles had him as one of their top two prospects when they were on the clock at No. 51. Nebraska center Cam Jurgens got the call instead.
Then as Dean’s wait extended through the second and into the third round, the same question kept getting asked during the national broadcasts: How was the Butkus Award winner on the college football’s best defense still on the board?
And the responses mostly centered on his medical chart, specifically the pec injury for which he reportedly “declined” to have surgery before the draft. The Eagles, however, wouldn’t allow Dean to bypass them once again and selected the 21-year-old with the 83rd overall pick.
“That was the nerve-wracking part about it, the whole thing,” Dean said during a video conference call late Friday night. “You know, listening to things that are not true and it’s costing me a lot of money. And just seeing my mama’s face, and for me falling and to hear things like that, that was just the biggest thing.
“But at the end of the day, I’m blessed. I feel like I got picked by a great organization, and I’m ready to work.”
Dean, dressed in black and wearing an Eagles cap during the video call, wasn’t the last prospect in the green room in Vegas. Quarterbacks Malik Willis and Matt Corral weren’t chosen until later in the third round. But Dean clearly took his slide as a slight.
“It’s done nothing but make my chip [on his shoulder] grow bigger,” Dean said.
A shoulder, though, was one of several previously injured body parts that led most teams to red flag Dean as a medical risk and lower his grade. He suffered a partially torn labrum in 2020, played through it for the final month of the season, and had offseason surgery.
Dean returned for his final season and seemingly played without lingering issues. But he has battled through knee tendinitis and various soft-tissue injuries for years. And the concern, two league sources from other teams said, was that the shoulder and knee were chronic and related to various muscle strains.
He tore his pec while training for the bench press early in the offseason and missed drills at the NFL Scouting Combine and Georgia’s pro day.
“I went to doctors, got second opinions and everything, and nobody, nobody said I should have surgery,” Dean said. “Nobody had told me I had to have surgery.”
Roseman said that Dean doesn’t need surgery and that he will be able to participate in the Eagles’ two-day rookie camp that starts Friday. Practices will be light, though, and while the GM said that he doesn’t ”anticipate missed time,” the medical staff is likely to be cautious with him.
“I think I called our doctors three, four times to see [if I’m] missing something … because obviously this guy is way higher on our board, and we were considering taking him at 51,” Roseman said.
The Eagles hung tight, though, and held their breath as four other inside linebackers — Montana State’s Troy Andersen, Oklahoma’s Brian Asamoah, Wyoming’s Chad Muma, and Alabama’s Christian Harris — were chosen before No. 83.
Roseman then started calling around to other teams to gauge their interest in Dean. He said that if the Eagles didn’t pounce, others were poised to take the linebacker. Sources from four other teams said that Dean was on their boards and that he would have been an option in either the third or fourth round.
The Eagles have taken fliers on players with medical red flags before. The results, predictably, have been varied. In recent history, they took cornerback Sidney Jones in the second round of the 2017 draft just a month after he ruptured his Achilles. Last year, they drafted offensive lineman Landon Dickerson despite a recent ACL tear and myriad other injuries.
Jones missed most of his rookie season and when he finally got on the field never fulfilled the investment. Dickerson returned by Week 2, became the starter a week later, and didn’t miss a game the rest of his promising first season.
Dean doesn’t have to be rushed into a prominent role. The Eagles have T.J. Edwards back as their middle linebacker and signed free agent Kyzir White to play the weak side. Davion Taylor is also likely to have a role.
No one on the roster at the position can match Dean’s pedigree. A five-star recruit out of Horn Lake, Miss., he found a role in Georgia’s stacked defense as a freshman and by his sophomore season was making presnap calls and checks.
A mechanical engineering major, Dean carries a 3.55 grade point average. He’s smart-smart, but more importantly for the Eagles, football smart. Scout after scout raved about his instinctive play at the second level, which allowed him to move a tick faster than most to the ball.
NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah had him ranked as his 17th-best overall prospect heading into the draft.
“This is a unique player,” Roseman said.
In terms of size, he’s unique in that he’s on the smaller side. Dean finished below the 35th percentile among linebackers in every measurement, including his 5-foot-11¼ height (fifth), 229-pound weight (13th), 31⅞-inch arm length, and 9⅛-inch hand width (14th).
NFL linebackers, especially in Philadelphia, have shrunk in size over the last few decades with speed taking precedence over strength. But with Dean undersized and often dinged up, questions about durability likely hindered his stock.
Up until last year, the Eagles of recent history might not have been willing to take the gamble on an injury-prone linebacker in the third round. Since becoming GM in 2010, Roseman has chosen only one linebacker earlier: Mychal Kendricks in the second round of the 2012 draft.
But new defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon’s scheme placed greater emphasis on the position last season and the linebackers were exposed, especially before the midseason promotion of Edwards.
Roseman has dipped into his pockets and signed linebackers to second contracts and signed some as free agents. But he signed Haason Reddick and White in free agency and drafted Dean and Kyron Johnson (sixth round) despite using only five picks.
Reddick is more of an edge rusher, White was brought in relatively cheap, and Dean was an opportunity too good to pass up, but did Gannon’s defense force Roseman to re-evaluate his views on the positional value of linebacker?
“I don’t know if there’s a perception that we just go into draft and free agent meetings and just basically take the off-ball linebackers and say like, ‘No, thank you,’” Roseman said Saturday at the conclusion of the draft. “I think for us it’s just as much as possible keeping the main thing the main thing. It’s always going to be about making sure the o-line and the d-line are really strong.
“And after that when there’s opportunities to add or the value’s there, I think, you see that with Kyzir and certainly Nakobe here, those are really good football players.”
While appearances can be deceiving, if Dean looks anywhere as sharp as he did in college, the Eagles may be stylin’ at linebacker for years to come.