One of the more common assumptions surrounding the Philadelphia Eagles franchise is that they will use their first round draft pick in the 2014 NFL Draft to select their quarterback of the future. When Chip Kelly was hired, many thought he was starting at a disadvantage due to the fact that he had achieved most of his success at the college level through the use of mobile, athletic quarterbacks. Prior to Nick Foles’ record day in Oakland, owner Jeffrey Lurie made a rare in-season declaration and said that finding a franchise quarterback was his ‘number 1 priority’. Whether Lurie was employing a shrewd use of reverse psychology to motivate his young quarterback or not, most of the first half of Kelly’s first season has come surrounded with conversation of the team’s situation at such an important situation. Many assumed that all three of the quarterbacks on the roster were adequate, but not ideal fits for Kelly’s proposed scheme. Michael Vick, while arguably the most ideal candidate, wasn’t getting any older and his poor habits in the passing game seemed to be irreversible at such a late stage in his career. Nick Foles had achieved moderate success, albeit in a completely different offensive playbook, but lacked any sort of athletic threat that had been present in so many of Kelly’s quarterbacks. Finally, Matt Barkley was Kelly’s first quarterback drafted during his tenure and looked the part of an NFL quarterback prospect, but injuries and physical shortcomings that contributed to his dropping to the 4th round in the 2013 draft made it clear that Barkley was a ways off.
So while Chip Kelly goes through the normal ebb-and-flow of being a first year coach in the NFL, he is constantly pestered by questions regarding the future of the quarterback position. Even after Foles tied the NFL record for passing touchdowns in a game, Kelly has been forced to address what his plans under center will be for the next game and beyond. Kelly has defended Foles, and for that matter all of his quarterbacks, after both good and bad performances and you would be hard pressed to find the rookie head coach indicating any sort of dissatisfaction with what many look at an undesirable situation at the position.
Even if Chip Kelly does fully intend to select a quarterback in the first round, or anywhere for that matter, with four wins through his first nine games, it is becoming less likely that the Eagles will lock down one of the top slots necessary for drafting a franchise-caliber player. If the season were to end today, the Eagles would be drafting 13th overall. To put that in perspective, a quarterback has not been taken 13th overall since 1987 when the Atlanta Falcons drafted Oregon quarterback Chris Miller. Miller had a few solid seasons but his career was cut short due to concussions. What this shows is that teams realize that if you are trying to convince yourself that drafting a player at the 13th overall slot and trying to convince yourself that he is a franchise player is a recipe for disaster. Meanwhile, the last five 13th overall picks include: Sheldon Richardson (NYJ), Michael Floyd (ARI), Nick Fairley (DET), Brandon Graham (PHI), and Brian Orakpo (WAS). Richardson is already an impact player, Nick Fairley and Brian Orakpo are both important contributors on their teams, and Floyd is his team’s second leading receiver. We are all familiar enough with the miscue of drafting Brandon Graham instead of Seattle’s Earl Thomas, but at least we can say that a player as good as Thomas was available at 13.
There is no guarantee that the Eagles will be drafting at 13. It could be a few slots higher or lower. However, with the terrible seasons being had by the Jaguars and Buccaneers amongst others, it is already near impossible for the Eagles to lock down a draft spot high enough to draft a player like Marcus Mariota or Teddy Bridgewater. Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel could be available at a position in the mid-teens, but for arguments’ sake, let’s assume he is not on the Eagles’ wish list. In theory, the Eagles could try to put together a package of draft picks to try to jump up to a spot that could allow them to pick who they wanted like the Redskins did with Robert Griffin III. However, as the Redskins are seeing now, the pressure for Griffin III to live up to the compensation given up for him has already intensified with the young quarterback suffering his season-ending injury in 2012. With the Eagles’ roster in desperation for increased organizational talent, not having to use a first round pick on a quarterback would allow them to address any number of other deficiencies with a prospect who could be the best at his position. Here are five non-quarterbacks that I think would be ideal prospects for the Eagles to possibly target in the 1st round of the 2014 draft.
Trent Murphy: DE/OLB, Stanford Senior (RS); 6’6″ 261 lbs, 33 tackles, 9.5 sacks, INT, TD
Much like several other prospects on the west coast, Murphy has flown under the radar from a national perspective. With Stanford facing Oregon on Thursday night on national television, the football world should get a good luck at one of the most intense and unique defensive talents in the country. Murphy is the heart of a Stanford team that prides itself on defense and putting the clamps on some of the most high-flying offenses in NCAA football. In his last three seasons at Stanford, Murphy has collected 26 total sacks and 41.5 tackles for loss. Murphy has a flare for the dramatics as well, stepping up in some of his team’s biggest games over the past couple of seasons. In last season’s win against Oregon, Murphy totaled two sacks in a game that Stanford held Chip Kelly’s Oregon team to only 14 points. This season; in games against Washington, UCLA, and Oregon State, Murphy racked up 6.5 sacks and Stanford went 3-0.
In his time in Palo Alto, Murphy has built up somewhat of a cult following. His intensity both on and off the field has drawn the attention of the national media and more and more, Murphy’s name is being mentioned with some of the top defenders in the country. Even without the spotlight, one could argue that his performance against Oregon in 2012 would be enough to attract the eye of former Ducks, now-Eagles coach Chip Kelly. Much like his teammate Zach Ertz, Murphy was an individual talent who threw a wrench in Kelly’s perfect season. Often times, Oregon was able to dominate teams because there were no players on the opposition who could match them from a talent and relentlessness standpoint for an entire game. Murphy was a force for every snap in Stanford’s upset, and if a single game performance could help Zach Ertz get drafted by the Eagles, the same would have to go for Murphy.
Trent Cole has performed admirably at outside linebacker for the Eagles this year. The position change hasn’t been quite as drastic as I would have imagined, but there are still times where you can see the lifelong defensive end struggle with some of the complexities of his new position. Connor Barwin has been forced to play cover linebacker a lot and, for how strong a pass rusher Barwin is, you could argue the Eagles are not necessarily getting the payout for their free agent investment. Murphy is an all-around talent who also happens to be a phenomenal football player that could step on the field and contribute, in and out of the locker room, from the opening week. Murphy is strong against the run, can play coverage, can rush the passer, and even plays special teams. He is a tremendous athlete from an endurance standpoint, often playing every defensive snap for his team. Considering the amount of time the Eagles defense has spent on the field this season, having a player who can deal with the rigors of that many reps should be taken into consideration when using a draft pick.
Murphy has a chance to move even higher up draft boards if he helps Stanford slow down a legendary Oregon offense on Thursday. Even if he says he won’t, I have a hard time believing Chip Kelly won’t at least peak in on his own team and if it’s anything like last season, I would imagine him falling hard for Trent Murphy. Kelly missed out on being able to draft Dion Jordan in 2012, perhaps Murphy could be that type of player for him in 2013.
Current Player Comparison: Washington Redskins DE/OLB Ryan Kerrigan
Jason Verrett: CB, TCU Senior; 5’10″, 178 lbs, 34 tackles, sack, 2 INT, 12 pass deflections
Unlike most years, TCU is not the non-BCS power that people have come to expect from Gary Patterson coached teams. Early injury problems doomed the Horned Frogs from the get-go, and the roster limitations have caught up to them when they faced teams with superior talent. There is one player, however, who has not appeared out-of-place on the field at all for TCU this season, and that’s Jason Verrett. The silky cornerback has made the most of every opportunity in 2013, rapidly climbing the defensive back rankings for the upcoming draft. While most of the other top prospects at his position hail from schools like Florida, Oregon, and Ohio State, Verrett is by no means at a disadvantage from an athleticism standpoint, and may even have better ball skills than most of the others.
Verrett’s performance in an early October contest at Oklahoma, one where TCU lost 20-17, gained him notoriety on a national scale. The normally electric Sooners offense was held to just over 150 yards passing and Verrett chipped in with 6 tackles and two passes deflected. Verrett has since intercepted two passes on the season despite often being gameplanned around by the opposition. It is especially unfortunate that TCU is not the contender that it normally is, as they will not have a high-profile opponent to play in a bowl game this season. Even so, Verrett has put together three strong seasons in Forth Worth. He led the country in pass deflections in 2012 with 22 to go along with six interceptions. Even at a school that does not garner the national attention that Oklahoma or Texas does, Verrett has plenty on tape and his resume to show he is a legitimate prospect.
Bradley Fletcher has performed admirably at the second cornerback position. He is also a serious, weekly injury concern that already has a history of being undependable due to his health. Cary Williams has been solid holding down the top corner spot, and has probably played well enough to stay in the top two corner positions. Brandon Boykin has solidified his position in the slot and appears to be turning into one of the special players at a position that is increasing in importance every year. Even though the Eagles defense has played well over the last five games, they still need to increase their talent level in the defensive backfield. I imagine that Verrett will probably see his stock raise a bit higher at the combine, as he is a truly athletic specimen with ideal cornerback instincts. If the Eagles do not take a quarterback in the 1st round, I would prefer they elect to take a defensive player and Verrett is the sort of cover corner that can add a new element of fear on an improving Eagles defense.
Current Player Comparison: Kansas City Chiefs Brandon Flowers (generous), Miami Dolphins Brent Grimes (pessimistic)
Allen Robinson: WR, Penn State Junior; 6’3″, 205 lbs, 66 rec, 1043 yds, 6 TD
As much as we all want to imagine that Jeremy Maclin will return from his knee injury next season and revert to his old self, the NFL is not a place for fairytales. Maclin is no doubt a talented receiver and a fixture on the Eagles over the last few seasons, however with him entering his free agency offseason, the Eagles can possibly get out of a situation with a receiver whose health was starting to become a legitimate concern. Depending on what the market is like for Maclin, it is possible that the team will be able to bring him back at a discount. However, with Maclin not signing an extension with the Eagles and the wide receiver position always being a popular one on the free agency market, it is possible that we’ve seen the last of Maclin on the Eagles. Meanwhile, while Riley Cooper has taken a step this season and Jason Avant has done a great deal for the Eagles, there is still a lack of dynamic talent outside of DeSean Jackson at the wideout position and Robinson could be an instant contributor.
A lot of people look at a player like Texas A&M’s Mike Evans as the perfect receiver prospect for the Eagles. While I have no doubt that Evans could contribute for Philadelphia, him and Zach Ertz are not too different as far as measurables and skill-set. I would rather see Ertz become a bigger part of the offense and the Eagles strengthening another position instead of brining in a duplicate. In the midst of the last few seasons of Penn State football, while the program is mired in scandal, Robinson has had all the looks of a gamebreaking receiver whose best days are ahead of him. The big, physical target has 143 receptions the last two seasons, with a whopping 17 resulting in touchdowns. For as great as DeSean Jackson is, his height has been a problem in the past in the red zone and Robinson appears to improve as his team gets closer to the endzone. His dramatic Hail Mary catch in the Nittany Lions miraculous comeback win over Michigan earlier this season has solidified his spot in Penn State lore. Even though it is not certain that Robinson will declare for the upcoming draft, it will be difficult for the young man to ignore the hype that surrounds premiere wide receiver prospects.
The tall wideout would compliment Jackson perfectly, and has the type of frame to block downfield: a must in Kelly’s offense. He has spent the last couple of seasons being the focal point of a pro-style offense with a coach who many see as the next NFL great in waiting. Robinson is an aggressive receiver with a catch radius that allows him to outduel defenders for many of his targets. He does not have the sort of straight line speed that have allowed players like Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald to be drafted in the top 5 of the draft. That does not mean he is a questionable athlete, as he is an explosive jumper, comes out of his breaks with a purpose, and can fight for balls that some smaller receivers cannot. I am not a fan of Penn State football personally, but they have produced quality professional players for decades and I can only imagine Bill O’Brien will continue to adequately prepare his players for the next level. With USC’s Marqise Lee an injury liability, Sammy Watkins probably too high-profile a prospect, and Mike Evans a potential duplicate of Zach Ertz, Allen Robinson is the receiver prospect who looks like he could be the best fit for the Eagles.
Current Player Comparison: Kansas City Chiefs Dwayne Bowe
Lamarcus Joyner: S, Florida State Senior, 5’8″, 190 lbs, 43 tackles, 3.0 sacks, INT, 3 forced fumbles
For all the love surrounding Jameis Winston and the prolific Florida State offense, someone has to get them the ball back every time. The Seminoles defense has been nothing short of spectacular this season, and Joyner is a huge reason why. At just 5’8″, the former cornerback has turned himself into one of the most exciting players on one of the country’s best teams. He is the defense’s emotional leader and one of the driving forces in the locker room as Florida State looks poised to return to the BCS Championship game for the first time since 2000.
A lot of people might have issue drafting such a short player to play the safety position. Considering the safety’s role as last line of defense, many would prefer having a player who had the height to bat down balls that might get over a shorter player. That being said, the best secondary in the league is led by a safety who is 5’10″ and positioning himself for a serious run at defensive player of the year. If Seattle is able to put together a defensive backfield with enough height to mask the stature of Earl Thomas, there’s no reason the Eagles cannot.
There are certain positions that, if the prospect is special enough, it is ok to look past certain shortcomings. On a roster that has seemingly been without a leader on the defensive side of the ball, the safety position has brought leadership in the past and Joyner could be the type of prospect to unite the defense. He demonstrates fantastic instincts and awareness on the field, knows where the ball is at all times, and is arguably the top playmaker on his defense in terms of forcing turnovers. Joyner is apparently a workout warrior and as intense a practice player as there is in the college ranks. He has pushed the rest of his physicality to the brink to allow himself to compete at the highest level, even though he is shorter than most. Joyner has had to overcome his height during his entire journey to playing safety at the highest level possible, moving forward, I would site that extra motivation as a bonus, and not a negative.
Nate Allen has played somewhat better this season, Earl Wolff looks like he could be a starter for some time to come, and Patrick Chung cannot stay healthy. Once upon a time, the Eagles passed up on a potentially special safety who was a little on the short side but managed to excel at one of the top programs in the country. If Joyner is available at a reasonable slot when it comes time for the Eagles to pick, passing up on the Florida State safety could be as big a mistake as it was the first time.
Current Player Comparison: Baltimore Ravens Matt Elam
Hopeful former player comparison: Indianapolis Colts Bob Sanders
Khalil Mack: DE / OLB, Buffalo; Senior, 6’3″ 248 lbs, 54 tackles, 11.0 TFL, 7.0 sacks, forced fumble, 4 pass deflections
While Trent Murphy might be the pick that could produce a solid contributing player faster, Mack has the sort of size / frame / athleticism / explosiveness that turn into franchise players. Arguably, outside of the quarterback position, the pass-rushing outside linebacker in the 3-4 defensive scheme is the most important football player on the roster. He is the player on the defensive side of the ball who affects the opponents’ entire gameplan and is the only one with the potential to affect every single play. It is more difficult for offenses to gameplan around the premiere pass-rushers coming from the linebacker level. DeMarcus Ware (prior to the 4-3 switch), Clay Matthews, Aldon Smith, Von Miller, etc. are among the most feared players in the league regardless of position. It would be a substantial gamble to use a high pick on a player like Mack hoping for that sort of output, but Mack looks like he has the tools to do just that.
Mack has the size, speed (a reported 4.54 40-yard dash), and playmaking ability to dominate in the MAC. The question that will arise as the draft approaches is if Mack can raise his game to another level and bring that type of production to the NFL level. One promising quality that Mack has demonstrated at Buffalo is a relentless motor that only furthers his uncanny display of athleticism. The DE/OLB made the most of his ‘audition game’ in 2013 against Ohio State. Mack tallied 9 total tackles, 2.5 sacks, and a 47-yard interception return for a touchdown in a game that had Buffalo within one possession for the majority of a 20-point loss. One could argue that, outside of attending a marquee school with heavy media exposure, Mack has done everything possible to position himself toward the top of the draft board. The question for the Eagles will be, how long do other teams wait before getting past the fact that Mack attended Buffalo?
Different teams that run the 3-4 seem to approach pass-rushing in different ways. The Packers, when Matthews is healthy, allow him as many clear paths to the quarterback as they can. They know he is their best pass rusher and him spending most of his time in the backfield is the key to their success on defense. Teams like Seattle seem to have their pass rush come from various positions along the front seven. With a secondary that covers as well as they do, they do not need one isolated rusher to be the focal point of their opponent. Instead, they can keep the offense guessing by blitzing from various spots and having several players sack the quarterback.
It was reported last draft that Chip Kelly wanted to draft Dion Jordan or Lane Johnson with the 4th overall pick. When the Dolphins leapfrogged ahead of the Eagles to take Jordan, the decision became moot and Kelly was able to solidify the tackle position for hopefully years to come. While Kelly had the type of personal relationship with Jordan that held extra weight for the rookie head coach, Jordan was still a unique prospect at the same position as Mack. Jordan played in the Pac-12, not the MAC, so the comparison might be unfair. However, at such an important position for the franchise’s future, it could be worth the risk to take a player that can represent the Eagles’ pass rush for the next decade.
Current Player Comparison: Denver Broncos Von Miller (hopeful), Houston Texans Whitney Mercilus (realistic)
Depending on where the Eagles draft, these players could be non-factors for them moving forward. That being said, this draft is rich in other positions besides quarterback. If the Eagles did not have to use a first round pick on a signal caller, they could add a very dynamic talent to their roster. Any of the five above players, amongst others, could help an Eagles team that, while showing some promising signs, still needs to address some of the positions that their old roster was unable to fill.