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Mayock: Eagles need to focus on defense in first round

Despite Eagles' loss of impact wideout DeSean Jackson, NFL expert Mike Mayock thinks defense is still their primary need.

Former Michigan State defensive back Darqueze Dennard. (Michael Conroy/AP)
Former Michigan State defensive back Darqueze Dennard. (Michael Conroy/AP)Read more

SINCE THE unceremonious release of DeSean Jackson late last month, the popular thinking by Eagles fans and draft analysts alike is that the team must - and will - use its first-round pick in next month's draft on a wide receiver.

You can't let 82 catches, 1,332 yards and nine touchdown receptions walk out the door and not replace them, right?

With the most talented crop of young wide receivers in more than a decade about to hold its coming-out party, you need to pluck a replacement for Jackson with your first-round pick next month, right?

Wrong, says Mike Mayock.

"Why is everybody so gung-ho on the Eagles taking a wideout [in the first round]?" the respected NFL Network draft analyst said.

"From my perspective, they almost have to look at the best-rated defensive player on their board at [No. 22]. I think they [need to take] their highest-rated player between an edge rusher, a corner and a safety. And then, if the entire defensive board is wiped out by the time they're on the clock, then you look at the offensive side."

Before we delve into the issue of just how urgent the Eagles' need for a wideout is, let's first try to figure out what defensive players they might have a crack at with No. 22.

No one, not even the people jonesing for the Eagles to take a wideout, will disagree that they need another edge rusher. But the crop of 3-4 edge rushers isn't nearly as deep as the crop of wideouts.

The top three are Jadeveon Clowney, Khalil Mack and Anthony Barr. Clowney and Mack are expected to be top-five picks, and Mayock doesn't think Barr will make it to the Eagles.

"A lot of people have [Barr] going to Tennessee at 11," he said. "There's a need there, plus his college coach [former UCLA defensive coordinator Lou Spanos] is coaching the linebackers at Tennessee. Could he slide any further than that? Maybe. But I don't see him dropping beyond 15 or 16."

Missouri's Kony Ealy and Auburn's Dee Ford could be there for the Eagles at 22. But most NFL personnel people I've talked to think Ealy is better suited to be a 4-3 end than a 3-4 outside linebacker, and Ford, well, he's a bit of a project. He's undersized and still a ways from being physically big and strong enough to be an every-down NFL player.

"I don't think he's ready to play the run in the NFL," Mayock said of the 6-2, 252-pound Ford. "Teams like Tennessee and LSU ran at him. Right now, he's one-dimensional.

"He's a good situational pass-rush guy that, if you paired him with an outside linebacker who is great against the run, would give you the best of both worlds. But I don't think he's ready Day 1 to step in and be consistent against the run and rush the quarterback."

Mayock thinks both of the draft's top two safeties - Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Louisville's Calvin Pryor - will be gone by 22.

Eagles coach Chip Kelly clearly has a fondness for players from his old college conference, the Pac-12, which could put the third-rated safety in the draft, Washington State's Deone Bucannon, in play for them at 22.

While Mayock likes Bucannon, he thinks the best move for the Eagles, if they stay at 22, would be to take a cornerback.

"There really are five corners at the top end," he said. "Everybody has different opinions on who the best ones are. The most talented corners are [Ohio State's Bradley] Roby and [Oklahoma State's Justin] Gilbert. But I don't think they're the best football players. I think [Michigan State's Darqueze] Dennard and [Virginia Tech's Kyle] Fuller are the two best football players.

"If any of those four are available and the Eagles are on the clock, I think they have to take a hard look at taking one of them right away."

But what about wide receiver? What about replacing Jackson and those 82 catches and 1,332 yards and nine touchdowns?

The fact is, Kelly doesn't seem to think that will be as big a problem as many of you do. For starters, he has Jeremy Maclin - who has never caught fewer than 56 passes - returning, though he is coming off an ACL tear.

He added pass-catching running back Darren Sproles, who has 232 receptions the last 3 years. And it's safe to say he will find a way to make much greater use of his talented second-year tight end, Zach Ertz, who caught 36 passes and four TDs as a rookie.

That said, there's no question they need to add a wide receiver. With Jackson gone, it gets a little hazy after Maclin and Riley Cooper. OK, a lot hazy.

But do they need to address that in the first round? Could they wait until the second or third round?

We'll find out soon enough.

In February, Eagles general manager Howie Roseman talked as if he thought they could wait.

He called the wide-receiver class "unique" and said, "We'll be sitting there in every round and there's going to be a receiver that we like.

"It's just going to happen that way, because you look around the league and there are teams that already are three- to four-deep at wide receiver and probably aren't going to want to take one early. And that's going to push guys back [to the later rounds]."

Mayock expects five or six wideouts to get taken in the first round and possibly as many as 12 in the first two rounds.

The draft's two top-rated wideouts - Clemson's Sammy Watkins and Texas A&M's Mike Evans - will be claimed quickly. But some combination of USC's Marquise Lee, Oregon State's Brandin Cooks, LSU's Odell Beckham and Florida State's Kelvin Benjamin still could be on the board at 22.

"Those are the four that could be sitting there when the Eagles are on the board," Mayock said. "You've got all different kinds of flavors. Some people love Lee. Some people like Cooks, who is the smallest [5-10] but fastest [ran a 4.33 40] of that group. Beckham will be sitting there at 22.

"Some people think Benjamin has tremendous upside, and others are scared to death that he's a 1-year wonder."

On Twitter: @Pdomo