The Philadelphia Eagles have a legitimate chance at becoming contenders in the NFC in 2017. Back in February, I wrote about three key areas Philly needed to address before the upcoming season: receiver, cornerback, and depth on both lines. Free agency solved, or at least significantly upgraded, two of those areas.
In terms of receivers, the Eagles signed Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith. Both fill a niche role at the position while improving the unit as a whole. The Eagles also added Chance Warmack to the offensive line. Warmack’s been a little inconsistent in his career, but the Eagles’ offense offers a more natural fit for him and he has experience with the coaching staff.
Overall, the Eagles had a successful early off-season. Now they need to solidify the roster with an equally-successful draft.
Philadelphia Eagles 2016 NFL Draft: Top 3 Needs
Cornerback Should Be the Priority
The Eagles’ defense played well for the first few games of the season, but the secondary was soon exposed as a weak spot. By the end of the season, the Eagles were rotating three rookies and a veteran at the outside positions, with Malcom Jenkins playing slot corner.
Thus far, the only major change to the secondary was the departure of Nolan Carroll. His opposite, Jalen Mills, made a lot of mistakes in his first season – but also showed a lot of potential. Mills could develop into one part of an impressive duo should the Eagles use an early pick on a corner.
Luckily, there are quite a few options this year. Marshon Lattimore headlines the group; but there are others like Tre’Davious White, Marlon Humphrey, and Adoree’ Jackson. Any would be an upgrade.
The key here is allowing Jenkins to return to the safety position where he flourishes. Jenkins, along with Rodney McLeod, offer a very potent, ridiculously-underrated safety tandem. So fixing the corner spot also boosts the safety position.
Therefore, if the Eagles don’t draft a corner in the first round, they must take one in the second. It’s simply too big a need to ignore.
Ryan Mathews is Unreliable – and the Darren Sproles Train is Getting Old
In February, I mentioned that the Eagles needed to focus on acquiring wideouts. They did that, so now it’s time to address the running back position. Ryan Mathews hasn’t played a 16 game season for Philly, and there’s no reason to expect that to change. He’s a good player, but reliability is important. Wendell Smallwood might have the ability to become a feature back, but that’s not the safest bet – which leaves Darren Sproles.
An incredible and versatile player, Sproles was one of the few players on the Eagles’ offense that consistently performed well in 2016. Very few NFL players have a similar skill-set. Naturally, that has made Sproles an invaluable asset during his time in Philadelphia. But he’s also 33 years old.
Now, because of Sproles’ nature as a gadget player, there’s a decent chance he plays for a couple more seasons because he’s not getting the same amount of reps as a player like Ezekiel Elliott for the Cowboys. However, preparing for the future now will prevent this from being a major problem in a season or two.
Draft Options at Running Back
Cornerback is still the priority, but there are three very impressive running backs coming out of this draft: Leonard Fournette, Dalvin Cook, and Christian McCaffrey. Fournette is considered a pure runner, but he showed significant improvement in both blocking and receiving in his last season at LSU. It’s naive to think that Philadelphia would discount his level of talent because he may not be a natural fit. Simply put, some players are worth tailoring the offense to.
Alternatively, Cook is considered to be the most polished and complete back in this draft. Plus, he would fit Doug Pederson‘s west coast offense perfectly.
Finally, McCaffrey could offer the Eagles a direct Sproles replacement. He has an uncanny shiftiness about him that may translate well to the NFL level. Still, the Eagles probably have more need for an every-down back – and it’s unclear if McCaffrey can be that.
Establishing a more consistent run game, in conjunction with Philly’s new receivers, will give the Eagles a significantly-improved offense. If the Eagles have the opportunity to draft one of these backs, they should.
Further Securing the Trenches
The Eagles added a few pieces on both lines in free agency, but they still need some fine-tuning. Chance Warmack has a strong chance at securing the left guard spot, meaning the Eagles will have some impressive protection up front. That said, Jason Peters is 35 and Lane Johnson has had two suspensions. The Eagles need to have insurance policies for both.
Last season, the Eagles drafted a pair of linemen in Isaac Seumalo and Halapoulivaati Vaitai. Both played in spurts and both filled in adequately, but there’s room for improvement. Philly should draft a spare tackle or guard in a later round.
With that being said, the O-line is in good shape. The more pressing need is on the other side of the football. Defensive tackle Bennie Logan left for Kansas City, but the Eagles added Timmy Jernigan as a potentially great replacement. Jernigan had five sacks last year for Baltimore – a good amount considering Baltimore generally used their linebackers to pass-rush.
Unfortunately, the Eagles didn’t find a strong replacement for defensive end Connor Barwin in free agency. Barwin was never a solid fit in Jim Schwartz’s system, and the Eagles’ current options at the right end spot don’t quite stack up to the rest of the line. Vinny Curry is probably better suited to a depth role, so Philly should address this need in the draft – probably in the third or fourth round.
Running back, corner, and line depth are the major areas Philly should focus on in the draft, but there are a few other spots that could use improvement.
For one, outside linebacker Mychal Kendricks didn’t perform particularly well in Schwartz’s new defense last season. Finding a true outside linebacker in the draft could turn the Eagles’ linebacker corps into a serious strength considering the seasons Jordan Hicks and Nigel Bradham had in 2016.
Additionally, while the Eagles did acquire two talented receivers in free agency, neither are on long-term deals. Adding a solid receiver like Travis Rudolph from Florida State or a similar player out of the mid-rounds could secure the position beyond the 2017 season.
Ultimately, the Eagles already look like a better team than their 2016 roster, so shoring up these positions should at least build a foundation for a championship-caliber roster in future seasons.