With the NFL draft nearing, this is the time of year for questions. Do the Eagles have enough at linebacker? Do they need another threat on offense? More depth on the defensive line?
Concrete answers aren't available today. Truth is in even shorter supply than usual in the days leading up to the NFL's big talent extravaganza. The Eagles actions during the draft will give us their most honest answers. But as the team weighs its options, here are five questions to consider, and that could dictate their draft-day plans:
1. How much pressure is really on Andy Reid?
These two questions hover over just about everything the Eagles will do this season.
Many believe that Reid is under pressure to produce some kind of postseason run – with good reason. The Eagles have Pro Bowl talent at nearly every position group and Reid has now had two swings at replacing Donovan McNabb (Kevin Kolb, then Mike Vick). Vick has been up-and-down, and his third season as a starter will reflect immensely on the Eagles' record and Reid's judgment. Reid has a hand-picked coaching staff and will have a full offseason to incorporate last year's free agent signings. If he is going to prove that his three playoff wins in the past seven seasons are just a temporary dip and not a permanent slide, now is the time to do it.
But owner Jeffrey Lurie, who called the team's performance last year "unacceptable," pointedly refused to set any targets for extending Reid after this year (the coach's contract takes him through the 2013 season, though teams rarely let their coaches play out the final year of a deal). Which leads to the question above. If Reid is really under pressure to win now, he has to draft accordingly. But if he still has room to maneuver, if it's not truly a make-or-break season, Reid could plan for the future by, say, using an early pick on a quarterback to develop as Vick ages. That would fit his history and indicate that there is little reason to expect a coaching change in the near future. But it may be the case that Reid faces pressure this year unlike any he's faced yet in Philadelphia. If so, look for early picks to be spent on players that can help immediately, not another quarterback or project for down the line.
Which brings us to …
2. How much do the Eagles believe in Mike Kafka?
Unless the Eagles stun everyone and pay heavily to trade up for Ryan Tannehill (which would go entirely against the 'win now' idea and show that Reid has a longer leash than any of us think) or take 28-year-old Brandon Weeden, they're not going to be in position to draft a quarterback who is seen as a potential franchise centerpiece. And let's be clear: winning big and consistently in the NFL today requires an elite quarterback. Mid-tier QBs won't do it.
Kirk Cousins and Russell Wilson had nice college careers, but I haven't seen anyone project them as the kind of guys you count on to lead you to a Super Bowl down the line. As I wrote a couple weeks back in arguing that the Eagles should pass on QBs this year, quarterbacks in the second round and later almost never become those kind of top-flight passers (I know, I know, Drew Brees and Tom Brady; they are both great. They are also exceptionally rare. Also worth noting: Brees was the second quarterback taken in 2001, after Vick; the Eagles would be looking at maybe the fourth to sixth best prospect in this class).
If the Eagles are tempted by a quarterback, it will most likely be to develop a competitor to Kafka, and maybe a stopgap option if and when Vick's time here ends. Kafka has yet to have a full offseason with the Eagles and has attempted just 16 career passes, but Reid has talked up his ability. If you believe him, then bringing in another developmental backup will simply give you a second reserve with a similar talent level. The new guy won't help immediately since it will take time for him to learn and probably won't be a long-term prospect you build your future around, either. For that, you almost always have to go to the first round.
As Sheil points out, adding a second backup-level QB doesn't make a lot of sense, unless the Eagles are counting on another Kevin Kolb-type trade several years from now. Only if the Eagles have seen enough of Kafka to doubt his ability as an occasional starter would a mid-round QB help anytime soon. But barring a huge trade, it's unlikely that the team is finding its own Aaron Rodgers or Eli Manning this year.
3. How confident are the Eagles in DeMeco Ryans?
The Ryans trade was a smart one considering the low price and the potential Ryans brings as a player and leader. But the low price doesn't necessarily mean there is low risk. Let me explain: if for some reason Ryans doesn't work out, because of his two-year-old Achilles injury or any other reason, the Eagles won't have paid a huge price draft wise. But there is still immense risk, because if the Eagles still have a glaring hole at middle linebacker, the gap threatens to undermine their defense and their season. Just one or two key stops last year might have saved one of those fourth quarter leads and got the Eagles into the playoffs. The Eagles need a linebacker who can help get those stops, and if Ryans isn't that guy, it won't matter that he didn't cost much. That's the risk that goes beyond the fourth round pick the Eagles gave up for Ryans.
So how close do the Eagles really think he is to being back to his old self? They said he looked his best late in the season. But ff the Eagles have more doubts than they're letting on, perhaps they are still tempted by Luke Kuechly, or a second-round 'backer. Kuechly has risen on some draft boards, but still should be within reach of a small trade up from 15 overall. He or another young LB could start on the outside and slide in for Ryans as he gets older, or in case of injury. With the Eagles' draft war chest and projections that Kuechly can be a long-time starter in the middle, he might be worth it if there are any lingering doubts about Ryans.
4. Is Jaiquawn Jarrett in over his head?
Faced with question about Jarrett, the Eagles have confessed that in the past they might push someone up their draft board to fill a need, which is what everyone thought they did when they first picked Jarrett in the second round last April to start at safety. The question is, how far did they stretch his value, and is he capable of becoming at least a solid starter?
Conventional wisdom says that after picking Nate Allen in 2010 and Jarrett last year, the Eagles won't go for yet another safety early on, and that a veteran makes more sense in case Jarrett or Kurt Coleman falter alongside Allen. But if the Eagles internally believe that Jarrett was a miss, that they saw enough after just one year, safety suddenly becomes a much higher priority and maybe one worth targeting early in the draft.
5. Do the Eagles need a big target?
Weapons are not the problem for the Eagles offense. Between LeSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin and Brent Celek, Mike Vick has plenty of places to go with the ball. The only concern is that aside from Celek, they all have similar styles: shifty, speedy players who can hurt a defense when they have space to operate. But when the field gets tight near the end zone, there is no big receiver aside from Riley Cooper, who has rarely deployed his size to great effect.
It's unclear if this concerns Reid. The Eagles passed on making a run at Plaxico Burress last year and seem uninterested this time around, too, though that doesn't necessarily mean a big red zone threat is unappealing. Plax had plenty of other issues that scared many teams off.
The draft, though, offers two intriguing options who might be around when the Eagles pick early in the second round (46th overall). Stephen Hill – a 6-foot-4 receiver from Georgia Tech who impressed at the Combine -- and Alshon Jeffrey (6-3, South Carolina) are both big bodies who could be difference-makers near the end zone. If Reid thinks the Eagles need more variety, they could be in play early. Michael Floyd, of Notre Dame, would also fit the bill, but the Eagles would probably have to use their first round pick on him.