As patterns go, the one that emerged as the Eagles selected their first three picks of the 2012 NFL draft was pretty obvious.
When the front office and coaching staff evaluated what went wrong last season, the conclusion was that the offense gave the ball away too much and the defense stunk.
The former can be fixed with better decisions and better luck. The latter can be fixed only with better players. With those three picks in the opening two rounds, the Eagles took a defensive tackle, a linebacker, and a defensive end.
"From a coaching standpoint, I'm trying to eliminate any . . . weaknesses the best I can from a defensive standpoint," Andy Reid said.
If there were any questions how the organization felt about the incumbent defense, that middle pick really answered it. The Eagles take a linebacker with a pick as high as the 46th pick they used to grab Mychal Kendricks just about never. In fact, aside from dotting the middle rounds with a series of linebacker picks over the years, Reid's drafts have usually ignored the position in the first two rounds. Quinton Caver and Matt McCoy will do that to you.
Barry Gardner, taken with the 35th pick of Reid's first draft in 1999, was the last linebacker taken higher than 46th. (In fairness to Reid's draft-day leanings, most of his predecessors and much of the NFL feel the same way. The last linebacker taken higher than 46th by the Eagles before Gardner was Jerry Robinson [21st] in 1979.)
That alone, however, is the exception that proves the rule of this offseason. The Eagles have determined that the defense has to get better and has to get better fast. Moving up to grab tackle Fletcher Cox in the first round was a no-brainer given that philosophy. The Eagles definitely need to get stronger up the middle on defense and stronger against the run. Cox can get to the quarterback from the tackle position, which is a plus, but he also projects as a massive force against the run.
The Eagles were ranked in the bottom half of the NFL last season in rushing yards allowed and yards per rush allowed. Certainly, some of that was due to the mismatching of players as the team adjusted to the defensive line coach Jim Washburn's wide alignment. The tackles and linebackers didn't fill the gaps well enough, and the strong-side linebacker position had three different starters as the Eagles searched for someone who could cover a tight end.
Kendricks is small, fast, and tough. Reid said he was projected as that strong-side guy and the Eagles passed up on some better talents on the board in order to take him.
This was going to be a draft, according to general manager Howie Roseman, in which the Eagles would strive to take the best player available and then sort it out. That wasn't necessarily the case with Kendricks, but the overriding need at linebacker took precedence.
The philosophy was back in place with their next pick of the second round, however. They had a handful of guys with about the same ratings, and so they traded down eight spots before taking defensive end Vinny Curry with the 59th pick. With Jason Babin and Trent Cole as starters, and backups in Darryl Tapp and Phillip Hunt, the end position wasn't crying out for help, but Curry had slipped from his original projection as a late first-rounder and the Eagles went for defensive talent. (It probably also wasn't the most ringing endorsement of former first-round pick Brandon Graham, who may or may not ever recover from his rookie knee injury.)
In taking Kendricks and Curry, the Eagles passed on some other positions that could have been strengthened, too. There was a representative selection of offensive tackles, cornerbacks, wide receivers, and even the occasional running back or safety there to be had. The Eagles were consistent with those first three picks. They went defense and they went to the muscle positions, making sure of their strategy before the gap of 29 picks until their late third-round selection.
"A lot of it is the best player available the way it fell," Reid said. "It wasn't something where we came in with a plan that just says, 'Hey, we're going to go strictly just defense.' I thought we were playing very good defense at the end of the year. We add these fellows into it and . . . it creates great competition and certainly increases our athleticism."
Well, perhaps that's just the way it fell, but it looks more like a pattern. And if you wondered how defensive coordinator Juan Castillo could keep his job, that pattern might provide the answer. Reid didn't blame the driver. He blamed the car.
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