The 2011 Philadelphia Eagles season has to go down as the most excruciatingly frustrating as I can remember being a fan. Following Vince Young’s infamous ‘dream team’ comment, the free agent-laden Eagles found new and innovative ways to lose games, each one more embarassing than the other. Looking back, one could argue that the Eagles, by allowing a 20+ point comeback at home, allowed the San Francisco 49ers to develop the necessary confidence paired with their talent to become the juggernaut they are today. They were the first team to be victimized by Victor Cruz, who at the time was an unknown, undrafted wideout who had a penchant for running past Nnamdi Asomugha. They were ‘hard-counted’ out of a potential comeback win in Buffalo, and were drilled by a mediocre Seahawks team for their 8th loss of the season only 12 games into a year that had started out with such hope. While the 4-8 record was brutal, those clamoring for the removal of Andy Reid finally saw a light at the end of the tunnel. There was no way that a team with a losing record with such high-price talent would bring back a coach whose players went at length to try and give games away. Not only was Reid most likely on the way out, but the Eagles were setting themselves up to contend for a top pick in one of the strongest drafts in NFL history. The kind of draft where half-a-dozen teams can change the entire fortunes of their franchise with their first round pick alone. With Robert Griffin III dazzling the Big-12 on a weekly basis, Andrew Luck playing like the living embodiment of 21-year old John Elway, and Trent Richardson bulldozing his way to his 2nd National Championship, the amount of star power on the offensive side of the ball was unparalleled in the prior decade. The defensive prospects were just as impressive. Morris Claiborne looked like the next great Bayou Bengal defensive back who could step in and lock down any receiver in the pros. Boston College’s Luke Kuechly was recording 20-tackle performances on a week-by-week basis, and Mark Barron looked like a safety with Brian Dawkins potential. At 4-8, with a roster full of psychologically soft players more focused on individual stats than wins and losses, the Eagles seemed almost guaranteed a top-8 pick at worst.
Somewhere though, the football Gods decided to continue to torment Eagles fans, as the team eked out four, meaningless wins to close out the season to finish with an 8-8 mark. While the members of the team tried to convince fans that these hollow wins signified some sort of renewed urgency and that the team would come out with the same focus on winning the following year, the blase attitude that the team took in the previous 12 games made it difficult to believe. Regardless, those four wins eliminated any opportunity that the Eagles had at locking down one of the premiere offensive talents in the draft, as they went from a potential top-5 pick, to 15th overall.
As the focus of the upcoming entry process shifted from who was going to become the cornerstone of the franchise moving forward with a new coach, to which unexpected pick Andy Reid would try to convince everyone was the smartest choice. With Colts fans rejoicing after their ‘Suck for Luck’ campaign would net them the eventual heir apparent to Peyton Manning and the Redskins boldly put together their draft package for franchise savior Robert Griffin III, the Eagles were relegated to hoping one of a handful of defensive prospects might be available in the middle of the round. While for the better part of his tenure, Andy Reid drafted exceptionally well, the years leading up to 2012, most notably 2010 and 2011, had yielded very little in terms of players ready to make an impact on the NFL level. Highlighted by the passing of Earl Thomas to select undersized defensive end Brandon Graham, and drafting a late-20s fireman who thought of football as a hobby, the dearth of talent and depth on the Eagles roster had directly led to their meddling situation.
Even if the Eagles were to hit on their first selection in the draft, it would take a veritable bounty to start to turn over a roster that had once boasted two, sometimes three legitimate players at some positions. As Jeffrey Lurie had clarified, following Reid’s departure, the 2012 draft would be the first under the control of general manager Howie Roseman.
Knowing this now, I can only imagine how I would have responded entering the offseason, knowing that an inexperienced budding executive with little to no football sense would be responsible for replenishing the talent on the Eagles. I am not sure if I did not pay enough attention, or I had just gotten so used to the mundane drafts of the previous two years, but I had just assumed another year of drafting an offensive lineman or reaching for a specialist to ‘fit a need’.
As the first two names went off the board as expected, my dream player at the 15 slot for the Eagles was Boston College’s Luke Kuechly. I felt he was a talented enough player at an impact position to be drafted higher, but middle linebackers are not always placed at as high a premium as other positions in the draft. Aside from being supremely talented, Kuechly possessed a football sense and awareness that made him the ideal candidate to lead a defense and, as the Eagles were still using the ‘Wide-9′ defensive technique, I felt his ability to make tackles in volume would clean up some of the messes of the prior year.
Things were looking up in that sense for a while, as the first 10 picks rattled off and there was no mention of the stud linebackers name. However, at pick 11, the Carolina Panther scooped Kuechly up. It would be yet another year where I had either no opinion, or a negative opinion on the first player that the Eagles would select. Little did I know that the team was about to begin a string of picks that I believe will shape the franchise over the next decade.
In a small, but mutually beneficial trade, the Eagles moved a 4th and 6th round pick to the Seahawks to swap first round selections and the Eagles ended up with the 12th pick. With all the flashy names already off the board, I was confused as to which player the team was targeting. I had narrowed down the possibilities to two potential defensive line prospects. The first was Michael Brockers from LSU. Brockers was an athletic stalwart up the middle with room to grow and experience in a defensive unit with several future pros. The other was Mississippi State’s Fletcher Cox. I had seen Cox play against South Carolina during the 2011 season. While the Bulldogs lost the game, Cox was a disruptive force, recording two sacks and four tackles for loss. Unfortunately, the rest of his season did not mimic the same dominant effort, and the inconsistency scared me as far as NFL defensive linemen went. Honestly, I would have felt the same way about either player had they picked them. The Eagles opted for Cox, who at 6’4″, 300 lbs would be stepping in and playing defensive tackle in the ‘Wide 9′.
I did feel that Cox had a bit more potential to turn into an all-pro caliber player than Brockers did. While I was still upset that none of the players I had preferred fell to the Eagles, it was nice to see them take a player that, if coached the right way, could become a fixture on the Eagles defense. With Jim Washburn still on the Eagles staff and after the Eagles had finished a season where they had a ridiclous amount of pressure on the quarterback, things looked bright for the young man. Entering the 2nd round, my biggest concern was at the linebacker position. Andy Reid detested the idea of drafting linebackers that high in the draft, but with how the team had performed the year prior, all signs pointed to Reid breaking his trend. The two players I wanted for the Eagles were Bobby Wagner from Utah State and Lavonte David from Nebraska. They were leaders of their respective defenses who played a hard-nosed game with an emphasis on maintaining gap control and tackling effectively. With both players available at the team’s first 2nd round selection, I was much more hopeful than in the first round that the pick would yield one of my desired targets.
That was not to be however, as the team pulled the trigger on undersized, albeit speedy, linebacker Mychal Kendricks from Cal-Berkeley. I was too frustrated to consider the prospect, as Wagner was taken the pick after by the Seahawks and it felt like another wasted draft. On paper and film, Kendricks appeared to be the type of linebacker who excelled in the Pac-12 due to his speed and aggression. However, this combination would not be enough to compensate for his size in the NFL. That added to the fact that the Eagles were still playing a 4-3 defense, where Kendricks would be forced to take on more blockers, made the pick a puzzling one.
The Eagles had another selection in the 2nd round, courtesy of trading Kevin Kolb. At 51, there was still a bounty of solid players available. The Eagles moved down in the 2nd, netting a 4th round pick and sliding down to the 59th overall pick. With the selection, the team drafted Marshall DE Vinny Curry. With 23 sacks over his last two seasons at Marshall, Curry’s production and frame seemed ideal as a rotational pass rusher in the 4-3 defense. Another added bonus was the fact that Curry was a noted Eagles fan, and it was always enjoyable to see athletes who actually embraced the idea of playing for any of the Philadelphia teams. At that point, with two out of the three picks being generally positive with an extra fourth round pick in the bank, I was fine with the draft to this point.
Entering the third round, there were several who thought that the Eagles might take a quarterback. With Michael Vick coming down to earth following his 2010 campaign and always an injury risk, there were thoughts that Reid might pick a player in a middle round and try to groom him into a starter by the time Vick’s tenure came to an end. There were two names that stuck out as potential targets of players who might have a chance to turn into starters. The first was Russell Wilson from Wisconsin. After seeing him suffer around mediocre talent at N.C. State for the first part of his career, Wilson dazzled at Wisconsin, leading the team to a Rose Bowl berth and nearly leading an undefeated campaign, were it not for a couple of Hail Mary passes. The other, who ironically through one of those Hail Mary passes that beat Wisconsin, was Michigan State’s Kirk Cousins. After hearing him on an interview on one of the sports talk radio stations in Philadelphia, I had become enamored with potentially bringing in Cousins. He had a quiet confidence and commanded respect during conversation. Sometimes one does not have to see a quarterback play to know that, at the very least, he has what it takes to command a huddle in the NFL. That was the case with Cousins and, were either him or Wilson available at the team’s 3rd round selection, I was nearly certain that Reid would pull the trigger.
Wilson was taken with the 75th pick by the Seattle Seahawks. With Seattle having taken both Wilson and Bobby Wagner, I was becoming extremely jealous of their selections and felt as if they were doing it at my individual expense. My spirits brightened as the picks continued, as it became clear that Cousins was going to be available when the Eagles made their next selection. When it was announced that they would be taking a quarterback, I can almost remember leaping out of my seat in excitement, being so certain that it would be Cousins. That was not the case though, as the Eagles went an entirely different direction, taking senior quarterback Nick Foles out of Arizona. The lumbering, goofy looking signal caller out of Tucson had racked of outstanding passing totals in his college career, albeit in a pass happy system. Despite the numbers, I was floored with disappointment, as the gimmicky offenses of some of the lesser teams in the Pac-12 division often disguised a lower grade of talent. Nothing about Foles as a prospect excited me and the pick felt like Reid must have just submitted the wrong name. Now shooting two for four in the draft, things had taken a much bleaker turn as far as yielding a noteworthy class.
Usually after the third round, positions are taken out of the equation. Unless the Eagles really needed a kicker and the best one in college football history was available, the general strategy, as far as I’m concerned, is to take the best player available who has something to bring to the table. Whether it is someone with special teams capabilities, someone who can play multiple positions, or any variation of intangibles, teams are hoping to get lucky with some of these picks and find players who overcome odds to contribute. It was in these later rounds where the Eagles draft class, albeit unexpectedly, rounded into fine form.
With the 4th round pick acquired from the Packers, the team selected Brandon Boykin out of Georgia. Having watched SEC football since I could remember, I recall several of Boykin’s exploits, both defensively and in the return game. He was an undersized corner who made up for his slight stature with world-class athleticism and playmaking. He was a strong, built prospect who had played against some of the top talents in the college football world. Boykin was a player that I was fairly surprised fell to this point in the draft and was thrilled when the team nabbed him.
In the fifth round, the team selected a towering lineman out of Purdue by the name of Dennis Kelly. While he was far from the All-Americans that litter the best offensive lines in the NFL today, he was an offensive lineman from a Big-Ten school. Knowing nothing about the prospect and playing the odds game, I could not be disappointed with the selection. With the previous year’s offensive line being one of few bright spots for the Eagles, Kelly would not be expected to play significant time and he would be learning from some of the best in the game while he matured as a player.
In the 6th round, the Eagles made a pick that excited me a great deal. Wideout Marvin McNutt from Iowa was a talent that seemed almost out-of-place in the Big Ten. His route running and sure-handedness were not his strengths as much as his penchant for making spectacular, acrobatic catches. Also, at 6’4″, McNutt was a tall receiver who could potentially serve as a red zone option that the team seemingly lacked for the years leading up to the draft. For a 6th round pick, my expectations were pretty high for McNutt.
Not quite as high as my expectations were for their 7th round pick. Having followed college football and the recruiting trail since I first started following sports, I often overvalued players who had high rankings coming out of high school. This could not have been the case more so than it was for Kansas State running back Bryce Brown. Many saw Brown as one of the best high school running back products ever to make his way to the college ranks. Coming out of Kansas, following his equally talented brother linebacker Arthur Brown (currently on the Ravens), Brown’s recruitment was extremely bizarre. Ultimately, he committed to play for Tennessee and Lane Kiffin. After Kiffin bolted for USC, Brown decided to leave the program as well, following Arthur to Kansas State. Continuing with his unconventional track to the pros, Brown did not even finish his final year in Manhattan, leaving the team in September 2011. Brown entered the draft as an early-entry and he would have to try to convince a team based on talent alone. With LeSean McCoy turning into one of the budding stars in the league, the Eagles did not have to waste a high round pick on a running back. However, the second I found out that they drafted Bryce Brown, I envisioned a draft steal the likes of which I had never seen before. Brown had not lost the talent or the physicality that made him a top high school recruit. In fact, with little wear and tear from a limited college career, Brown was a prospect that could even enjoy more longevity than most running backs. I was thrilled with the pick and just begging that the young man had what it took to make the team.
With the draft wrapped up, I could say without hesitancy that I was satisfied with who they picked, where they picked. There were players who looked as if they were certain to at least contribute, and a couple of players who, if a couple of things bounced correctly, could turn into impact players. Little did I know at the time that, at least to this point, the draft class of 2012 would be the most significant since 2002, when the Eagles drafted Lito Sheppard, Michael Lewis, Sheldon Brown, and Brian Westbrook.
Fast forward a little over two years. Andy Reid is gone. Howie Roseman has been in charge of the last two drafts. The year following the 2012 draft was as miserable, if not more than the year leading up to it. In lieu of the misery though, Eagles fans got an opportunity to see what I could not at the time, that this draft class is something special and may represent the future core of the Eagles, if they aren’t already.
Fletcher Cox wasted no time making an impact on the Eagles defensive line. As a 4-3 defensive tackle, he recorded 5.5 sacks in 15 games (9 starts) during his rookie season. While some worried that the switch to a 3-4 defensive scheme might negate some of the talented young man’s skills, after working out a few issues in the preseason, Cox has demonstrated, albeit in one game, that he can still be disruptive and at times dominating from the 3-4 defensive end position. He has already recorded a sack in his first game of the 2013 campaign and was a fixture in the Redskins backfield in the team’s first win of the season.
Mychal Kendricks could be the crowned jewel of the class. While the impressive young man did what he could as a 4-3 linebacker, Kendricks skills seem much more suited to one of the two inside linebackers in the 3-4. His speed, instinct, aggression, and pursuit make him a threat all over the field. He seemingly gravitated toward the ball against the Redskins and with a recovered fumble and a few jarring hits on Robert Griffin III, the future seems exceedingly bright for Kendricks.
Nick Foles was the star of the 2012 preseason. He captured Eagles’ fans imagination and was envisioned as the team’s eventual starter following what was the assumed departure of Michael Vick. His comeback win against the Buccaneers in 2012 was probably the highlight of the season and, had the team hired any other coach besides Chip Kelly, all signs pointed to Foles taking over. Even with Kelly taking over as head coach, Nick Foles did everything he could to convince management that he was still the right candidate for the job. One could argue that, were it not for an untimely red zone interception in his preseason start against the Panthers, Foles would have continued to push Michael Vick for the starting job throughout the preseason. Fortunately for Foles, gone are the days in the NFL of the backup quarterback being a glorified clipboard holder. In Chip Kelly’s fast paced offense, where the quarterback is exposed to a great deal of physicality, Foles must be ready at any time to step in for Vick and run the offense without missing a beat. Foles is no olympic sprinter, but he does have the capability to maintain the tempo of the offense and brings elements of accuracy and decision making that Vick may lack. One game in, it appears Kelly made the correct choice tabbing Vick as his starter. With that said, many, myself included, expect Foles to play significant time at some point this season.
Brandon Boykin unseated long-time nickel back Joselio Hanson in his rookie year and has not conceded the position since. He continues to make up for his lack of size with an aggressive physicality and otherworldly athleticism. Boykin provided the first major highlight of the 2013 season with his first career interception off Robert Griffin III, no less. With Billy Davis implementing a blitz-happy system where defensive backs are utilized more in the pass rush, expect to hear Boykin’s name more and more when it comes to making plays both in the backfield, and in coverage. He also has put his return skills on display multiple times in preseason and regular season action. I would be hard pressed to believe that, at some point or another, he won’t return a punt or kick to a touchdown in his Eagles career.
Dennis Kelly was forced into starting action last season when four of the team’s five starting linemen fell to injury over the course of the season. The versatile Kelly showed an ability to play guard or tackle and has a similar athleticism to the starters on the Eagles. When Kelly returns from his back injury, which many expect to be in time for the team’s week 4 showdown with the Broncos, I expect him to become a rotational fixture on the line, as the reps continue to increase for the starting unit.
I was disappointed that McNutt did not turn out to be a player. He never really seemed to grasp any of the more complex offensive concepts that the NFL required of their receivers. He is currently a member of the Miami Dolphins organization.
Last, but certainly not least, we round out the class with Bryce Brown. After LeSean McCoy was forced out of action due to injury last season, Brown would be given his first opportunity to show the NFL what sort of talent he possessed. It did not take too long for the thoroughbred back to thrust his name onto the NFL scene. His first two games, Brown rushed for a combined 347 yards and four rushing touchdowns. His explosive, downhill running style provided the perfect contrast to the shifty, flowing nature of McCoy. In fact, were it not for a somewhat troubling case of fumblitis, Brown would be entering this season as a legitimate 1A option to McCoy. Most every player, and Chip Kelly himself, knows that Brown is vital to this team’s success in 2013 and beyond. He is a rare talent with a nose for the endzone and a knack for dealing the impact, rather than succumbing to it. Brown was limited to only nine carries in the team’s week one win against the Redskins, while LeSean McCoy stole the show with 31 attempts. Mark my word, as long as he can hold on to the ball, Brown will see his carries, and output, increase at a steady rate. By season’s end, the combination of McCoy and Brown could make up the most lethal running back tandem in the league by a long shot.
With only one full season removed from the draft being held, nothing is set in stone with these players. Between injuries, inconsistency, or any number of unforeseen circumstances, any of these players’ careers could be derailed or veer in a different direction. Some may turn out to be more successful, while others may be more a flash in the pan. What is for certain at this point, is that these players seem to embrace their roles as leaders of the new Eagles and each one of them that is still on the team has impacted the organization in a positive way at least once in their young career. They’ve all taken their lumps and had to overcome a great deal of adversity. Even after all the turmoil of their rookie years, not only are they all still on board, but they are prominent figures on the collection of players that will be counted upon to turn things back on the right track. Between the current group of veteran players, head coach Chip Kelly and his staff, and this impressive group of young men, I would say the future is in pretty good hands.