Eagles feeling the draft
Their 2012-13 picks have been impressive this season.
NFL PERSONNEL people don't pound their chests a lot because even the best of them know that evaluating football flesh is an inexact science. The next Ryan Leaf or Tony Mandarich or JaMarcus Russell or, yes, Danny Watkins, always is lurking around the next corner.
That said, Eagles general manager Howie Roseman and his scouting staff, who are meeting this week at the NovaCare Complex to start putting together their 2014 draft board, are feeling pretty good about their last two drafts.
An impressive nine of the 17 players they selected in the 2012-13 drafts are either starters or key role players on this year's 7-5 team, which heads into Sunday's game against the Lions tied for first place in the NFC East.
A franchise that had missed on far too many early round picks in recent years is getting major contributions from its first five picks in the '12 draft - defensive end Fletcher Cox (first round), linebacker Mychal Kendricks (second), defensive end Vinny Curry (second), quarterback Nick Foles (third) and cornerback Brandon Boykin (fourth).
Cox and Kendricks are big reasons the Eagles have been able to make such a smooth transition from last year's wide-nine 4-3 to this year's two-gap 3-4. Curry, a natural 4-3 end, has worked hard to earn a role as an inside pass-rusher in Bill Davis' defense and has four sacks.
Foles leads the league in passing and Boykin, the Eagles' valuable nickel corner, has a team-high four interceptions.
The '13 draft has been no less productive. First-round pick Lane Johnson has started all 12 games at right tackle and has gotten better with every game.
Second-round tight end Zach Ertz, whose selection many questioned because he seemed like an unnecessary luxury item on a team that had more pressing needs, has 26 receptions, 16 for first downs, and three touchdown grabs, and has become a nice mismatch weapon for Chip Kelly.
Third-rounder Bennie Logan is the team's starting nose tackle. Fifth-round safety Earl Wolff started six games before injuring his knee.
"We have such good [scouting] people here now and we have a good process," Roseman said. "I'm really excited and encouraged. What you really want and need is, if you have four [good] drafts back-to-back-to-back-to-back, that's when you put yourself in position to compete for a long time.
"I feel like we've had two. Now we have to pile on two more. I'm confident we can do that."
Roseman has surrounded himself with very good personnel people, hiring Tom Gamble away from the 49ers to be the team's vice-president of player personnel and bringing in veteran NFL personnel men Tom Donahoe and Rick Mueller as senior advisors to work with respected college scouting director Anthony Patch.
The most important change the Eagles have made the last 2 years is deep-sixing Andy Reid's and Joe Banner's draft-for-need approach and taking the best player available, regardless of position.
"We're looking at the draft as long-term decisions for our football team now, not short-term fixes," Roseman said.
One of the reasons the Eagles drafted so poorly during the latter years of the Reid era, particularly the abysmal 2010-11 drafts, was because they drafted for need, believing that if they could just upgrade a position or two, they would be able to compete for a Super Bowl.
The result: selections like Watkins and Jaiquawn Jarrett.
"If the process is right, you have a chance," Roseman said. "If the process is wrong, you can hit once in a while, but it's not going to last. I think we at least got that part right."
Ertz is a perfect example of the Eagles' new approach to the draft. Tight end wasn't a pressing need last April. They already had Brent Celek and Clay Harbor and had signed James Casey less than 2 months earlier. But Ertz was at the top of their board with the 35th overall selection and they took him.
"When we talk about [our scouting approach] with our personnel staff now, [Ertz] is the example of who we are now," Roseman said. "We go into the draft and obviously there are positions you'd like to fill. But you have to stick to what you believe in, and that's taking the best player for us.
"Zach's that example of a position maybe you weren't looking to take in the draft, but a guy we felt could be here for a long time and is a really good player. He was just the best player on our board when we were picking."
The last two drafts already look very good. But if Foles turns out to be the real deal and Cox and/or Kendricks develop into the Pro Bowl players Roseman thinks they can be, the '12 draft could go down as one of the better ones in franchise history. But those still are big ifs.
"The great part about being in the season is you're in the season," Roseman said. "Our staff, we're focused right now on looking at the  free agents and setting up our draft board. Because we don't draft for need, we're going to just rank the guys based on who are the best available players and let it fall where it is. We don't have a timeline right now to make any decisions."
The Eagles have a couple of very good reasons for wanting to believe that Nick Foles can be their long-term quarterback. One is that they wouldn't have to consider using a first- or second-round pick in next April's draft on a quarterback. The other is, that like the Seahawks with Russell Wilson, who was selected 13 spots ahead of Foles in the third round of the '12 draft, they would be in the enviable position - for a year at least - of not having to commit a lot of salary-cap space to the quarterback position.
Under NFL rules, players must play through their third season before teams can touch their rookie deals. That means even if Foles breaks every NFL passing record this season, he will earn next year what his rookie deal calls for him to make, which is $750,880. That gives the Eagles, who currently have a little more than $19 million in cap space, flexibility to re-sign some of their other young players and also be aggressive in free agency.
"It used to be you didn't really know what you had in a [quarterback] until you were 2-3 years in," Roseman said. "Now, because these guys have been trained so well . . . Nick's done a great job with all the expectations. He's making sure he limits his number of mistakes. You don't see him make the same mistake twice.
"The best place to evaluate players is in critical moments. From our perspective, you couldn't be more excited about having young players in big games to see how they play and evaluate them."
The Eagles defense has been on the field a league-high 892 snaps this season. Many of the team's defensive players are on pace for career-high snap counts.
Including penalties, linebacker DeMeco Ryans already has played 927 snaps, which is a 1,236-snap pace. That would be 162 more than he's ever played in a single season (1,074 last season), or the equivalent of two extra games.
Cornerback Cary Williams (913 snaps) is on pace for 1,217 snaps, or 116 more than his career-high. Safety Nate Allen (863) is on pace for 1,151. He's never played more than 871. Linebacker Connor Barwin (898) is on pace for 1,197 snaps, which would be 178 more than his career-high.
Trent Cole already has played 722 snaps, which puts him on a 963-snap pace. The last time the 31-year-old linebacker played anywhere close to that many was in '09 (959 snaps).
The interesting things is, none of these guys are dragging. In fact, most of them never have felt better, never have played better. Clearly, Chip Kelly's emphasis on sports science is not hocus-pocus. It works.
"I feel better than I've ever felt in my career right now," Cole said. "I feel like I'm still in the first game, I really do. Usually you feel sore about now, even though it's Thursday. But I don't feel one ounce of soreness or nothing. This is the way you want to feel going into a game."
This is a guy who never has been a particularly strong finisher. He was an undersized 4-3 end and usually wore down as the season went along. Going into this season, he had 71 career sacks. Just 20 1/2 of them came in the final six games of the season. This season, four of his five sacks have come in Games 11 and 12.
Figuring the Eagles
* The Eagles have converted an impressive 72.5 percent of their third downs of 3 yards or less (29 of 40). The only team in the league with a better percentage is the Broncos (75.6). During Andy Reid's 14 seasons as head coach, the Eagles never converted more than 70 percent of their third downs of 3 yards or less. A year-by-year look at the Eagles on third-and-3 or less under Reid:
2012. . . 55.1 27-49
2011. . . 62.7 37-59
2010. . . 57.4 39-68
2009. . . 58.2 32-55
2008. . . 58.8 40-68
2007. . . 69.3 52-75
2006. . . 54.1 33-61
2005. . . 60.4 29-48
2004. . . 52.1 25-48
2003. . . 58.8 30-51
2002. . . 64.9 37-57
2001. . . 35.8 19-53
2000. . . 61.8 34-55
1999. . . 51.7 30-58
Nick Foles leads the league in touchdown percentage (9.7) with 19 TDs in 196 attempts. That currently is the 10th best TD percentage in league history and the second-best in the NFL since 1963 (Peyton Manning, 9.9 percent in '04). It's only the third-best in Eagles history, though, behind Tommie Thompson (10.2 percent in '48) and Adrian Burk (10.0 in '54). Sid Luckman has the best single-season touchdown percentage in history. The former Bear great threw 28 TD passes in 202 attempts (13.9) in 1943.
* Foles may not run as fast as some of the quarterbacks Chip Kelly had at Oregon. But he shares the same knack for not throwing interceptions. In Kelly's four seasons as the Ducks' head coach, his QBs threw just 32 interceptions in 2,646 attempts. That's just one interception every 82.7 attempts. Foles, of course, hasn't thrown a pick yet this season.
* One of the few statistics Chip Kelly cares about is response after turnover. In the last four games, all wins, the Eagles have forced nine turnovers, but redeemed them for just 13 points (one touchdown, two field goals).
* In their last four games, the Eagles have used "12" personnel (1 running back, 2 tight ends) on 92 of 250 offensive plays, or 38.8 percent of the time. That's a dramatic increase over the first eight games when they used 12 personnel on just 93 of 607 plays (15.3 percent). In the last four games, tight ends have averaged 5.5 catches and 63.5 yards per game and have five touchdown passes. In the first eight games, they averaged 3.7 catches and 54.7 yards per game and had two TD catches.
* The Eagles are second in the league in "explosive plays," which are runs of 12-plus yards and pass completions of 16-plus yards. They have 110 of them - 77 completions and 33 rushes. The Lions are first with 121 (90 pass, 31 rush).
* Punter Donnie Jones has put 29 punts inside the 20. That's the second-most in the league to the Chiefs' Dustin Colquitt (31). He's only had 22 of 65 punts, or 33.8 percent, returned. Only four punters have better return percentages - the Bears' Adam Podlesh (21.8), the Seahawks' Jon Ryan (25.5), the Packers' Tim Masthay (30.0) and the Bucs' Michael Koenen (33.3).
From the lip
* "There's a lot of intelligent people in the world, but there's not a lot of wise people in the world. I think Ted has wisdom. A guy that has been around this organization for as long as Ted has, [he's] a great teacher, just a guy that, you know, that wily old sage veteran in the room that we can really bounce a lot of ideas off." — Chip Kelly on longtime Eagles assistant coach Ted Williams
* "I'm still thinking about it. I can [still] feel it. It was a crossing route, I made the play and as soon as I got my hands on the ball, he was grabbing me right there in that space, that area. I kept telling him, 'Let go, get off me, get off me.' But he wouldn't let me go." — 49ers TE Vernon Davis who accused Rams S T.J. McDonald of grabbing his genitals last week
* "I just can't remember. It's been 10 years. It slipped my mind." — Giants QB Eli Manning when asked why he refused to play for the Chargers after they drafted him in 2004
* "When I come back next year, I don't think there's going to be a tackle in the league who can stop me."
— Giants DE Jason Pierre-Paul who has been playing hurt most of the season and has just two sacks
By the numbers
* Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III were the first and second picks in the 2012 draft. Russell Wilson and Nick Foles were the 75th and 88th. Yet, Wilson and Foles have a combined passer rating (115.5) nearly 33 points higher than Griffin and Luck's (82.8). Wilson and Foles have averaged a combined 8.9 yards per attempt and have thrown 41 TD passes and just six interceptions. Griffin and Luck have averaged 6.9 with 30 TDs and 19 picks.
* Tom Brady is 40-8 (.833) in his career in the final four games of the regular season. That's the highest winning percentage among quarterbacks with a minimum of 20 starts since 1970.
* The Ravens, who host the Vikings Sunday, are 10-1 at home against NFC opponents under John Harbaugh.
* The 9-3 Patriots have clinched their 13th straight winning season. That's only the sixth-longest streak in league history. The Cowboys have the longest. They had 20 straight winning seasons from 1966 through '85.
* If the Panthers beat the Saints, they will become just the fifth team ever to win nine consecutive games after starting a season 1-3 or worse.
* With 100 receiving yards Sunday against the Eagles, Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson can become the first player in NFL history with at least eight 100-yard receiving games in three straight seasons.
Domo's rankings (through Monday night)
1 Seahawks 11-1 (1)
2 Patriots 9-3 (2)
3 Broncos 10-2 (4)
4 Panthers 9-3 (6)
5 Saints 9-3 (3)
6 49ers 8-4 (7)
7 Chiefs 9-3 (5)
8 Lions 7-5 (9)
9 Bengals 8-4 (10)
10 Colts 8-4 (12)
11 Cowboys 7-5 (13)
12 Ravens 6-6 (14)
13 Eagles 7-5 (15)
14 Cardinals 7-6 (8)
15 Chargers 5-7 (11)
16 Steelers 5-7 (17)
17 Bears 6-6 (16)
18 Rams 5-7 (18)
19 Titans 5-7 (19)
20 Dolphins 6-6 (24)
21 Packers 5-6-1 (22)
22 Giants 5-7 (23)
23 Raiders 4-8 (21)
24 Jets 5-7 (20)
25 Vikings 3-8-1 (30)
26 Jaguars 3-9 (29)
27 Bucs 3-9 (27)
28 Falcons 3-9 (31)
29 Bills 4-8 (25)
30 Browns 4-8 (26)
31 Texans 2-10 (32)
32 Redskins 3-9 (28)