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Eagles 2014 draft class has yet to shine

Patience was a message from the Eagles when the NFL draft concluded in May. Seven months later, that patience is being tested.

Eagles linebacker Marcus Smith. (Michael Perez/AP)
Eagles linebacker Marcus Smith. (Michael Perez/AP)Read more

Patience was a message from the Eagles when the NFL draft concluded in May. Seven months later, that patience is being tested.

In last Saturday's loss in Washington, only three of the seven players the Eagles drafted even entered the game. The progress of most of the rookies is not seen by fans because they're buried on the depth chart and have been bystanders during the team's December collapse.

"Sometimes after a year, it's tough to evaluate an entire draft class just because of situations," Eagles coach Chip Kelly said. "Guys come in and sometimes you look at a draft class and there are guys that are really good at the positions you already have. So, that doesn't mean that guy's not a good football player, it just means that you have some pretty good guys that are already on your roster at that spot."

Kelly said that the team's depth has prevented rookies from playing in "certain situations," and he added that everything the Eagles do is "about competition." So he would not play Marcus Smith just because Smith is a first-round pick.

Smith has played only 6 percent of the defensive snaps and had his development stunted by bouncing between outside linebacker and inside linebacker. He cannot even reach the field on special teams.

The top contributor has been second-round pick Jordan Matthews, who is the team's slot receiver and enters the season finale against the New York Giants on Sunday with 59 catches for 757 yards and seven touchdowns.

Third-round pick Josh Huff has shown flashes on offense and special teams, while also making some key errors. He has played 17 percent of the offensive snaps and is the team's top kick returner. Fourth-round pick Jaylen Watkins has played both cornerback and safety in practice, but has not taken a defensive snap.

The Eagles have not used either of their two fifth-round picks. Defensive lineman Taylor Hart has been inactive for all 15 games, and safety Ed Reynolds did not even make the team. Seventh-round pick Beau Allen has been a steady reserve nose tackle, playing 17 percent of the defensive snaps.

At the end of the 2013 season, the Eagles had two starters and two major contributors from the draft class. At the end of the 2012 season, the Eagles had three starters and two key contributors from the draft class. This year's team has more depth than those seasons and picked lower in the draft. Even with those caveats, it has not been fruitful enough for an organization that pledged on building through the draft.

"You're not going to realize your true potential in the NFL until you've gone through it a few years," Matthews said. "I think people have to really pump the brakes when it comes to judging a 21- or 22-year-old man who just got to a new arena and just got paid a lot of money if he has the pressures of family, learning a new city, learning new plays, competing with guys who might not only be better, but are better and know the system. That could be a hard thing to break into."

In the front office and among players, there's a reminder that any discussion of the rookies should also include undrafted players. Kicker Cody Parkey has been a piece for the Eagles this season, and Trey Burton was valuable on special teams.

But most of draft weekend focused on defense, where the Eagles spent five of their seven picks. Those five players have combined for only 256 of 11,858 total defensive snaps.

"I think all of them we have an open mind with," defensive coordinator Bill Davis said. "I think they've all worked hard and are getting better. Have they been good enough to crack the starting lineup? The answer to that is no. Can they eventually? The answer is yes."

Watkins was active last week and was a backup at outside cornerback, slot cornerback, and safety. Even though he could not supplant any of the starters this season, there is optimism about his versatility and development.

"I'm definitely smarter," Watkins said. "Technique has gotten a lot better. . . . They did a good job cross-training me. So next year, you'll never know where you see me in a game. Could start at corner, could end up at nickel at the end of the game."

The Eagles' defensive line is the strength of the defense, and Hart is stuck behind some key contributors. He views this season like a redshirt freshman year, taking the time to beef up to around 300 pounds from his listed weight of 281 pounds.

"I've increased my size and my strength and working on the speed aspects," Hart said. "I'm pretty similar, but just a stronger and smarter player."

Players often seek a spike in their development from their first season to their second season, which is what a few of the rookies have expressed. They will have the benefit of a full offseason, will no longer be unfamiliar with the scheme, and will have a year of life in the NFL. Matthews called it the "most pivotal" time for the Eagles rookies.

"When we come back next season, we can't be, 'Oh, he's still learning,' " Matthews said. "We've got to be guys that can come in and make plays and you don't even need a pat on your back, because the coach expects you to do it anyway."

The Eagles could have more opportunities in the linebacking corps and in secondary for Smith and Watkins. Huff, who was slowed in the preseason by a shoulder injury, could join Matthews in a more central role on offense.

The Eagles are not going to hit on every pick, but a bad draft can set back a rebuilding job as much as a good draft can boost it.

"You've got to look over the course of time before you can make a judgment on all draft classes," Kelly said. "That's how I kind of look at it."

Notable. Mychal Kendricks (ankle) and Bradley Fletcher (hip) were both limited in practice on Thursday.