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Top-rated pass-rushers scarce in draft

Eagles general manager Howie Roseman said good 3-4 outside linebackers are 'hard to find.'

Stanford linebacker Trent Murphy plays against Stanford during the first half of the Rose Bowl NCAA college football game on Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2014, in Pasadena, Calif. (Danny Moloshok/AP)
Stanford linebacker Trent Murphy plays against Stanford during the first half of the Rose Bowl NCAA college football game on Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2014, in Pasadena, Calif. (Danny Moloshok/AP)Read more

ASK HOWIE Roseman and Chip Kelly about the likelihood of finding a difference-making pass-rusher in the draft and they sound like a cash-strapped parent bracing his kid for a pork-n-beans Christmas.

"You're always looking to add pass-rushers," Roseman said. "By the same token, you don't want to sign or draft someone you don't think is a good player."

"You can't force it," said Kelly. "You can't say he's the best defensive end or outside linebacker available, so let take him. Then all of a sudden he's yours and you're like, 'Whoa. I don't think we improved ourselves.' "

Both Roseman and Kelly know the Eagles must improve their pass rush this season. They had just 37 sacks in their first season in Billy Davis' two-gap 3-4 scheme, and frankly, it took every bit of Davis' blitzing creativity to come up with that many.

Eighteen of those 37 sacks came on plays in which the Eagles rushed five or more players. Just 17 came on passing downs, which goes a long way in explaining why they had so much trouble getting off the field last year (they finished 24th in third-down defense).

The free-agent market didn't have a lot of pass-rushers who interested the Eagles. Most of them were overpriced or on the decline or both.

And while the draft is deep at many other positions, 3-4 outside linebacker isn't one of them. The draft's two top-rated 3-4 'backers, Khalil Mack and Anthony Barr, are expected to be long gone by the time the Eagles are on the clock tonight with the 22nd pick.

"Pass-rushers go early," Roseman said. "You seldom sit there in the third or fourth round and say, 'Man, I can't believe that pass-rusher is still on the board.' Because they're hard to find. Every team is trying to find ways to get pressure on the quarterback."

That doesn't mean the Eagles won't come out of the draft with a pass-rusher. They almost certainly will.

Probably not in the first round, unless Barr unexpectedly slides into the mid-teens and they trade up. But they could take someone like Dee Ford of Auburn or Demarcus Lawrence of Boise State or Trent Murphy of Stanford in the second round, or Louisville's Marcus Smith or Georgia Tech's Jeremiah Attaochu in the third round, or Alabama's Adrian Hubbard or Texas' Jackson Jeffcoat in the fourth.

Some draft analysts, including ESPN's Todd McShay and Mel Kiper, have suggested that Barr could slide to the Eagles at 22. But that doesn't seem likely.

"I don't think he's sliding," the NFL Network's Mike Mayock said. "I think that's more of a media perception. I think he could go as early as 11 to Tennessee. I think Dallas would love him at 16.

"This draft is not deep in edge-rushers. Barr has only played the position for 2 years and needs to get stronger at the point of attack and needs to learn the position from the perspective of learning how to pass rush. But he has great talent. He's the prototype 3-4 outside linebacker. I don't think there's any way he gets into the 20s."

Even in a lean edge-rushing class, the Eagles may be able to find a sackmeister. Much like quarterbacks, pass-rushers don't necessarily need first-round soil to grow.

Of the 16 players who recorded the most quarterback sacks in the league last season, 10 were drafted in the third round or lower. When the Eagles selected Trent Cole in the fifth round of the 2005 draft, I doubt they looked in their crystal ball and saw 79 sacks from him in nine seasons.

The pass-rush pool for teams that play a 3-4 scheme like the Eagles comes from two sources:

1) outside linebackers from college teams that play a 3-4; and

2) 4-3 defensive ends who might be able to make the conversion to 3-4 outside linebacker.

The fact that more and more college teams have switched to a 3-4 to combat the proliferation of spread offenses has been helpful to 3-4 teams like the Eagles.

As far as sifting potential 3-4 edge-rushers from the pot of 4-3 ends, Roseman has the benefit of having two veteran personnel people on his staff - senior adviser Tom Donahoe and vice president of player personnel Tom Gamble - who spent significant chunks of their careers with 3-4 teams; Donahoe with the Steelers and the Bills, and Gamble with the 49ers and Colts. So they both have experience at 4-3 end-to-3-4 linebacker projections.

"We are fortunate to have people on our scouting staff and coaching staff who have scouted and taught this scheme for a long time," Roseman said. "We have a lot of discussion about guys who are making the transition [from 4-3 end]. When you look at college football now compared to 5 years ago, there are a lot more people running 3-4 [or] multiple fronts. So that makes it a little easier than it was 5-10 years ago."

Roseman said the Eagles grade outside linebackers on three things: their pass-rush ability, their ability to set the edge against the run, and their ability to play in space.

But as teams continue to throw the ball more and more, pass-rush ability is trumping everything else, particularly dropping into coverage. Last season, Cole, who was making the switch to a 3-4 after spending his first eight NFL seasons as a 4-3 end, dropped into coverage on just 13.6 percent of the snaps he played, compared to 25.6 percent for the Eagles' other outside linebacker, Connor Barwin, who had spent the previous two seasons in a 3-4 scheme.

"The NFL has become such a pass-first league," Mayock said. "If your sub-package is on the field 60-70 percent of all the snaps, it doesn't matter as much as it used to [if a linebacker can drop into coverage], because if you're a 3-4 base team, you're probably a four-down [lineman] team in your nickel, which is what the Eagles do.

"It's gotten to the point that, regardless of what position a kid played in college or what scheme he played in, it's about how good he is at getting to the quarterback. With his hand in the dirt or standing up, it doesn't matter."

Even if the Eagles are unable to find an immediate-impact edge-rusher in the draft, Roseman thinks the Eagles' pass rush will be better this season. While the Eagles finished 20th in the league in sacks and 31st in sacks per pass play, they did finish seventh in hurries with 213. Then again, close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.

Roseman thinks Cole, who had all eight of his team-high sacks in the second-half of the season, will be better in his second year in Davis' defense, even if he does turn 32 in October.

He thinks Brandon Graham, who had a sack, hit or hurry on 14.4 percent of his 167 pass-rush opportunities, which actually was better than both Cole (13.2) and Barwin (10.0), will be better in his second season with Davis.

And he thinks there could be some young, developmental players on the roster, including Travis Long, who spent last season on the practice squad, who could emerge.

"Travis had a knee injury his senior year [at Washington State, ACL tear] and kind of got overlooked [coming out last year]," Roseman said. "He's bulked up in the offseason. We had a chance before games last year to watch him get better each week in his drops.

"He's shown the ability to rush the passer in the Pac-12 [9 1/2 sacks in 11 games as a senior]."