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Chip Kelly's goal for his first Eagles draft

Chip Kelly wants to build Eagles' stable of good players in this week's NFL draft, but doesn't see it as his defining moment.

Chip Kelly does not foresee the immediate casting of a bronze sculpture depicting him reaching for the telephone to relay Thursday's initial pick. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)
Chip Kelly does not foresee the immediate casting of a bronze sculpture depicting him reaching for the telephone to relay Thursday's initial pick. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)Read more

THE FIRST-YEAR coach who had the worst draft luck in Eagles history might have been Bert Bell.

Bell, who helped found the franchise in 1933, took over as owner-coach in '36, just as the NFL adopted Bell's idea of a college draft. And Bell's Eagles got the first-ever pick, after going 2-9 in 1935. It was quite an opportunity. Bell used it on the first-ever Heisman Trophy winner, running back Jay Berwanger, of the University of Chicago.

But Berwanger didn't want to play pro football, at least not for the Eagles. They traded his rights to the Bears, who balked at Berwanger's salary demands, so history shows that the first-ever Eagles draft pick never played a down in the NFL.

Seems fitting, somehow.

Nineteen Eagles coaches later, Chip Kelly approaches his first draft, which starts Thursday and continues through Saturday. The tenure of Kelly's predecessor, Andy Reid, came to be defined by Reid's selection of quarterback Donovan McNabb with the second overall selection in the 1999 draft. (At least the first decade of Reid's tenure was defined by drafting McNabb. Other, less successful moves defined the final 4 years.) Will this be a similar, seminal event for Kelly?

Maybe, maybe not. Couple different factors there - one being that Reid had final say on draft day 1999, whereas the Eagles are being murky about that in 2013; the supposition is that general manager Howie Roseman will make the call, should he and Kelly disagree. Also, McNabb, your ultimate frustrations with him aside, was that most prized NFL commodity, a franchise quarterback. A lot of people don't think such an asset is available in this draft. Hard to make a signature moment out of drafting an offensive tackle.

Asked last week how he views his first draft, Kelly did not advocate the immediate casting of a bronze sculpture depicting him reaching for the telephone to relay Thursday's initial pick to New York.

"I'm not that philosophical," Kelly said. "I want to come out of it with the best players. Hopefully, my goal is we have a lot more drafts. So you could say it's your signature draft if it's your only draft. I plan on being here more than 1 year, so our whole goal is, can we improve this football team? And that's it. But I don't look at it as this is a defining moment of what we're doing. When people look back 10 years, 20 years, who was the pick, and all those other things - I'm not that deep. I can tell you that. We're just trying to get the best player we can."

Obviously, as the Eagles rebuild from 4-12 in 2012, this draft is critical, but it alone is unlikely to make or break Kelly. After plucking McNabb, the lone gem from that group of overrated quarterbacks in '99, Reid didn't help himself all that much with the other five picks he enjoyed in the first four rounds - linebacker Barry Gardner (35th overall), offensive lineman Doug Brzezinski (64th overall), guard John Welbourn (97th overall), safety Damon Moore (128th overall) and wideout Na Brown (130th overall). Yet Reid still went to the NFC Championship Game five times in 8 years.

Greasy Neale is the only Eagles coach to win multiple NFL titles, in 1948 and '49. Neale's first draft pick was a defensive back named Art Jones, in 1941. Jones, like Berwanger, never played for the Eagles; he was traded to the Steelers after the draft. Yet Neale persevered. In 1944, his team selected Steve Van Buren fifth overall, in '45 Pete Pihos 41st, and things started to look better.

When Dick Vermeil took over in 1976, he faced a draft in which the Eagles had traded away their first four picks. The only cornerstone Vermeil was able to salvage was defensive end Carl Hairston, in the seventh round. Vermeil was so hard up for talent, he held an open tryout, which led to Vince Papale and eventually to a movie starring Mark Wahlberg. Vermeil's first-ever draft pick was a fourth-round defensive end named Mike Smith, from Florida. He did not make the team.

Buddy Ryan's first draft is memorable because Ryan took running back Keith Byars 10th overall in 1986, after earlier declaring Byars a "medical reject" because of a foot problem. Ryan then got linebacker Seth Joyner in the eighth round and defensive end Clyde Simmons in the ninth, a darned good haul, even if he did waste a second-rounder on a troubled linebacker named Alonzo Johnson.

Ryan's misdirection ploy has become a big part of the lore of his tenure, but at the time, it really wasn't a big deal. In the April 30, 1986, Daily News, the day after the draft, Paul Domowitch noted that Ryan said a week before the draft he would take Byars if the nine teams picking ahead of the Eagles passed on him. The day before the draft, on his WCAU-AM radio show, Ryan went the other way, with the "reject" bit.

Naturally, when the Eagles drafted Byars, reporters wanted to know what was up. "We wanted that to get out," Ryan was quoted as saying. "We were hoping somebody would pick it up and write it. But nobody did."

Ryan was certain Byars would be a star, a key part of a championship team. In his typical fashion, he jabbed the teams that passed on the big Ohio State star.

"The clubs ahead of us ran a gut-check on the Philadelphia Eagles and we passed it," Ryan said. "We're going to pass a lot of them this year.

"We were sweating it out all the way down the line. He's a great football player and is going to be great for a lot of years."

As is so often the case, the draft-day rhetoric was overheated. Byars became a very good player, not a great one. You could argue that Joyner and Simmons turned out to be bigger building blocks, and in any case, the two most important players of the Ryan era, quarterback Randall Cunningham and defensive end Reggie White, predated Ryan's arrival.

Rich Kotite's first draft pick, in 1991, was offensive tackle Antone Davis, which set the tone for the Kotite era pretty darned well, in retrospect. Ditto Ray Rhodes and defensive end Mike Mamula in 1995.

When Reid took McNabb in '99, and fans booed because they wanted running back Ricky Williams, Reid didn't castigate them or tell them they were wrong. He just said: "On Sundays, the fans will know what we've got here."

Reid said that very confidently. If Kelly can say the same Thursday night, with the same quiet confidence, he'll be off to a good start.