Every year as the NFL draft approaches, I think about 2003, and I scratch my head.
Exactly 10 drafts ago, in the middle of their stretch of going to the NFC Championship Game four times in a row, the Eagles put together one of the strangest selection weekends ever.
The first-round pick, everybody remembers. Jerome McDougle was a defensive end from Miami, and the Eagles were so eager to nab him, they traded up from 30th overall to 15th. The second-round choice was tight end L.J. Smith, from Rutgers. In the third round, the Birds took a big wideout, something they lacked, from Virginia, Billy McMullen. The fourth-rounder was another Miami defensive end, Jamaal Green, who hailed from Camden and was considered a bit of a steal by some draft experts. The Eagles took Southern Mississippi offensive lineman Jeremy Bridges in the sixth round, traded another sixth-rounder (and a fourth in 2004) to Atlanta for linebacker Mark Simoneau, and finished their draft with seventh-round safety Norm LeJeune, from LSU. LeJeune's college position coach had coached Brian Dawkins at Clemson, and he told the Daily News he saw definite similarities.
If that had been the whole story, this would be just another boring recounting of a bad draft. (One that included two bad trades, the burning of a second-round pick to get to McDougle, and the two picks traded for Simoneau, whom the team drastically overrated.) But after they finished selecting players, as usual, the Eagles went out and signed a bunch of guys who hadn't gotten drafted. That year, the undrafted free agents coming to camp included Quentin Mikell, Jamaal Jackson, Greg Lewis, Rod Hood, Reno Mahe and Sam Rayburn, all of whom eventually made substantial contributions. It was the most amazing aversion of draft disaster ever.
Of course, it still would have been way better if the Eagles had taken, say, USC safety Troy Polomalu after they traded up in the first round, instead of letting him go 16th to the Steelers. And a solid UDFA class doesn't much ease the sting of taking Smith 61st overall, in the second round, eight slots before the Cowboys got another tight end, named Jason Witten, in the third.
"I think that just tells you about the nature of the draft process," Eagles general manager Howie Roseman said recently. "You're betting on 22-, 23-year-olds who have to transition to new cities, new people around them, new level of competition, and that's why the success rate in the draft isn't as good as you would hope for, because there are so many variables.
"That's why I think everyone is so interested in it, because the unexpected always happens. You always have someone who comes from [the latter stages or the UDFA ranks] who becomes an unbelievable player. It's an inexact science."
But leaving the draft busts aside, why did so many undrafted Eagles that year become solid players? Usually you might get one guy who actually plays from the UDFA ranks, if you're lucky.
"All of them had a limiting factor that people thought they would have to overcome, and therefore didn't want to expend a draft pick on them," Roseman said.
Roseman didn't want to talk in detail about the Eagles' 2003 decisions. For one thing, his role back then mainly had to do with contracts. For another, the Eagles have changed general managers, from Tom Heckert to Roseman, and turned over pretty much their entire scouting staff a couple of times since 2003. Whatever happened back then is long buried.
Looking back on the stories written right after the 2003 draft is wince-worthy. It seems most experts thought the Eagles did a good job of addressing key needs, better than in 2002, when they surprised everybody taking taking two corners (Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown) and a safety (Mike Lewis) with their first three picks. Of course, the 2002 draft, which also included a third-round running back named Brian Westbrook, turned out way, way, better than 2003.
Here's part of what I wrote: "Most observers felt the Eagles needed to come out of the draft with a possible replacement for Hugh Douglas [gone to Jacksonville as a free agent] at defensive end, a dynamic tight end and a wide receiver. There were other needs-a promising young free safety would have been nice, and some fans still aren't sold on the revamped linebacking corps-but the top three priorities generally were held to be DE, TE and WR, and by the end of the first day, the Birds had proudly bagged one of each."
Sigh. Of course, nobody knew it then, but the Eagles had added a safety that weekend who would become a solid starter and make a Pro Bowl-Boise State's Mikell, a better player than McDougle, Smith or McMullen.
More postdraft excerpts: "When the draft began Saturday, Heckert worked the phones, more urgently as New England took Texas A & M defensive tackle Ty Warren 13th overall and Chicago then took Penn State defensive end Michael Haynes. The San Diego Chargers had the 15th pick. The Eagles weren't particularly worried about them taking McDougle, but Kansas City was picking 16th and Heckert knew the Chiefs were looking to move down. He suspected they might have a deal pending with the Giants, who had made no secret of their desire to move up from the 25th pick to draft McDougle, Warren or Haynes.
"Heckert acknowledged he was surprised to be able to move up 15 spots in exchange for the 62nd pick, near the end of the second round.
"Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi confirmed yesterday that New York would have traded third- and sixth-round picks to Kansas City and taken McDougle No. 16 if the Eagles hadn't moved up and grabbed him at 15.
"The Chiefs ultimately took an identical deal from Pittsburgh, which drafted Southern Cal safety Troy Polamalu 16th. The Giants ended up with McDougle's Miami teammate, defensive tackle William Joseph."
The rearview-mirror view of McDougle now is that his career was forever altered when he was shot in the stomach the night before he was supposed to report to training camp in 2005. That might be true. McDougle had garnered glowing reports in minicamps that spring. But he already had played 2 years in the league by then and he hadn't done much. McDougle had an odd, chesty build for a d-end, and he always seemed to be hurting something.
I thought about Smith this week when Roseman disclosed that the Eagles were re-evaluating how they assess "character." L.J. was a very decent guy, strong upbringing, never caused any trouble. I'm just not sure he was all that fired up about playing football for a living. He never cashed in his full potential, and was out of the NFL at 29.
McMullen at least netted the Hank Baskett for the Eagles when they traded him to Minnesota in 2006. Baskett wasn't a star, except on reality TV, but he came much closer to filling the "big receiver" void than McMullen ever did.