Early Birds: Eagles' areas of interest at the combine
**The Eagles have more pressing needs on defense, but no issue is bigger for Chip Kelly than determining who will play quarterback next season. Whether that decision comes down to surrendering enough assets to move up for Marcus Mariota or simply determining that Nick Foles is the team's unquestioned starter, this is the question that the Eagles must figure out in the next two months.
I'll get more into the Mariota discussion during the coming days, with comments from the Heisman Trophy-winner and details and reaction about a potential move up in the draft to acquire him. Beyond Mariota and Jameis Winston, the draft does not appear to provide options that the Eagles could plug in as Day 1 starter.
That's what I'll focus on here, because the Eagles will get a chance to meet and evaluate some of the other top quarterbacks. UCLA's Brett Hundley and Baylor's Bryce Petty are both in the next tier of quarterbacks, although they, too, have good mobility and questions about how they'll translate as pocket passer.
"I don't think it's a great quarterback class," NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. "I also think the NFL is going to have to start getting used to evaluating these spread quarterbacks. It's really hard.
"You get the Bryce Petty and Brett Hundley, both of whom probably have second-round talent. They have good size, good arm strength. Hundley is a good athlete. Petty is a pretty good athlete. They're both in that 6'3", 6'4" range, 220 to 230 pounds. There's a lot to like about both of those kids.
"When you watch them within the framework of their offense, they've got a long way to go to become pocket quarterbacks. They don't throw with anticipation. If the first look isn't there, both of them are hesitant and indecisive which leads to stacks and other problems."
Maybe the Eagles like one more than other teams and take a chance if they cannot land Mariota. Hundley was a recruiting target of Kelly's at Oregon. But if the Eagles go in that direction, it could be hard to argue that they should move on from Foles, who has already brought the team to the playoffs. So the question could come down to Mariota or Foles -- especially with a free-agent quarterback class that does not offer upgrades.
**The Eagles need the most help in the secondary this offseason. They could potentially replace as many as three starters. I wrote about some preliminary names to watch at the combine in Tuesday's Inquirer.
I still think the Eagles should come out of the draft with at least two defensive backs, but they cannot go into the draft expecting to find a starter. There are too many variables at play, especially picking at No. 20. The upgrades must first come in the free agent market, and then the Eagles could be in position to draft based on value and not on need. In fact, their inability to land a pass rusher in free agency last season seemed to motivate them to reach for that edge rusher in the first round. So when you watch and read about the defensive backs who will go in the first round of the draft, don't automatically think that's the position the Eagles will target if they cannot move up for Mariota.
There is some decent depth at cornerback, especially that fits the size prototype that the Eagles seek. One measurement to watch at the combine this week is arm length. That's a dimension that could be of value at that outside cornerback spot. Mayock mentioned Jalen Collins, Trae Waynes, and Marcus Peters, but there are other cornerbacks such as Florida State's P.J. Williams and Wake Forest's Kevin Johnson who could command interest.
At safety, there is less of a market – unless Landon Collins falls to No. 20 or the Eagles view Washington's Shaq Thompson as a safety. The Eagles would be better served figuring out the safety spot next to Malcolm Jenkins in March.
**If not a quarterback or a defensive back, then what position in the first round? The answer that might seem like a cliché is "best available player," but it's true because the Eagles have some spots where they need to think about replacing aging starters in a few years. Offensive line is one, with three 30-year-old starters. The Eagles don't have much young depth along the line, so I wouldn't be surprised if they come out of May's draft with some linemen after avoiding the position last spring.
Also, inside linebacker. It's not as much a necessity if Najee Goode and Travis Long return healthy, but the Eagles lacked depth on the inside last season. There are some impressive inside linebackers this year – Mississippi State's Benardrick McKinney and UCLA's Eric Kendricks (brother of Mychal) are both intriguing.
Look for much more in The Inquirer throughout the week.