THE LEAST popular thing the Eagles could do in the first round of the draft Thursday night would be to select an offensive lineman. But it also might be the smartest thing they could do.
By the end of last season, the Eagles' offensive line was one of the top performing units on the team. Jason Peters was the best left tackle in the league. Todd Herremans had made a silky-smooth switch from left guard to right tackle. Rookie center Jason Kelce was playing like a seasoned veteran and drawing comparisons to five-time Pro Bowler Jeff Saturday. Free-agent left guard Evan Mathis had blossomed under Howard Mudd's tutelage. And rookie right guard Danny Watkins no longer was playing like a deer in headlights.
When Peters ruptured his right Achilles' tendon last month, the Eagles were aggressive in finding a replacement, signing the best free-agent left tackle on the market, Demetress Bell.
So everything's fine there, right? It would be silly to spend a first-round pick on a guy who probably won't be able to crack the starting lineup as a rookie, right? Wrong.
If Bell lives up to the expectations of his free-agent paycheck and neither he, nor any of the other starters on the o-line, slips on a bar of soap or tears an ACL or herniate a disk, this unit should be just fine this season.
But that's a big if, particularly when you consider that Bell missed 17 of 48 games due to injuries the last 3 years with the Bills.
Depth is an issue here, just as it is at quarterback and running back and a couple of other positions. Their top backup at tackle at the moment is King Dunlap, who probably wouldn't have even been re-signed by the Eagles if not for the injury to Peters. Their top interior backup is 2011 fifth-round pick Julian Vandervelde, who played in just one game as a rookie. One more significant injury to a starter and the wall protecting Michael Vick could come tumbling down.
Look, I understand why fans would much rather see the Eagles select a pass-rushing defensive tackle like Mississippi State's Fletcher Cox or a linebacker like Boston College's Luke Kuechly or a cornerback like South Carolina's Stephon Gilmore or a wideout like Notre Dame's Michael Floyd rather than a boring old offensive lineman.
But unless they trade up, none of those four players likely still will be on the board when the Eagles pick at 15. The same goes for Alabama safety Mark Barron and South Carolina defensive end Melvin Ingram.
"We're going to take the best player, and if that best player happens to be at a position where there's someone already starting, but we think this guy has a chance to be a really great player, we're still going to take him," Eagles general manager Howie Roseman said last week.
That "best player," if the Eagles stay at 15, could end up being either the draft's top-rated interior lineman, Stanford's David DeCastro, or the draft's second-rated offensive tackle, Iowa's Riley Reiff.
My mock-draft choice of Reiff to the Eagles didn't get a very favorable reaction from fans, most of whom accused me of being a contrarian. Let's see if they feel the same way in September if somebody up front gets hurt.
Scouts have put Reiff's first-round value in the 12-to-20 range. He's an athletic 6-5, 313-pounder who played in a pro-style offense at Iowa. While he played left tackle at Iowa, he has been projected as a right tackle in the NFL, at least early on. But the Eagles have enough versatility up front that they could slide Herremans over to the left side if Bell or Mathis got hurt and plug in Reiff at right tackle "Reiff is a really good, solid technician," NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said. "When they come out of Iowa, they're always well-coached. Especially the o-linemen. This is a kid you could plug in Day 1 at right tackle. He's a better player right now than Bryan Bulaga was when he came out."
Bulaga, another former Iowa offensive lineman, was the Packers' first-round pick in 2010 and has been their starting right tackle the last two seasons.
"Riley Reiff is just consistent and solid across the board," ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said. "He's going to come in and be a good player. I don't know that he'll ever be an elite left tackle, which is what you're looking for when you take a tackle in the top 10. But he'll be able to help a team right away on the right side."
DeCastro also is a possibility from a value standpoint if he makes it down to 15. But the Cardinals reportedly have a lot of interest in him at 13.
"He has a chance to be one of the elite guards, and right away," McShay said. "He's as ready as I think I've ever evaluated a player in terms of being ready to come in and play at a high level.
"I wrote 'balance' down about 90 times when I was watching his tape. Everything's in balance and under control. He's instinctive. He's absolutely just nasty. Tough, physical. Just plays with the temperament you're looking for."
A few other things that could factor in to what the Eagles do: Peters, who is expected to miss the entire 2012 season, turned 30 in January. His contract runs through 2014 with base salaries of $7.9 million this year, $10.7 million in 2013 and $8.7 million in 2014.
The Eagle are hopeful he'll make a full recovery from his Achilles' injury. But there's no guarantee of that. We're talking about a uniquely athletic 335-pound man here. Will he still have that same athleticism when he returns in 2013? Maybe, maybe not.
As for Bell, he signed a 5-year, $35 million deal with the Eagles. But only the first year of the contract is guaranteed. So if he gets hurt or doesn't live up to expectations, it could be one and done for him in Philadelphia.
Bottom line: The idea of the Eagles drafting an offensive lineman in the first round isn't as ridiculous as you might think.