Unless the Philadelphia Eagles acquire a good starting middle linebacker in free agency (Tulloch, Lofton, Hawthorne), the player that makes the most sense at #15 is Luke Kuechly, who established himself as a stellar player and athlete with a terrific combine. So terrific, in fact, that he just might have moved out of the Eagles’ range, and into that of teams like Seattle or Kansas City.
Kuechly draws comparisons to 49ers Pro Bowler Patrick Willis, a slightly smaller player who also had a history of tremendous production (though he played in the SEC, not ACC), and went at with the eleventh overall pick. It is very possible that the same could happen with Kuechly, though I personally feel the teams drafting ahead of the Eagles have more pressing needs.
But say hypothetically that Kuechly was off the board by the time the Eagles were on the clock, or say that the Eagles chose not to draft him (whether or not they had signed an MLB in free agency). What position would the Eagles target? If DeSean Jackson leaves or is traded to another team, wide receiver would definitely be a consideration (earlier today, my colleague Steve Fini made his case for why the Eagles should let him go, and instead draft Notre Dame WR Michael Floyd).
Another option is defensive tackle. In a draft deep at this position, Eagles writer Ray Didinger believes that the Eagles will use their first pick on a defensive tackle. While Philadelphia is coming off a season where it recorded 50 sacks and tied for the league lead, it also spent the playoffs watching the New York Giants’ defensive line dominate opposing fronts.
Andy Reid has always emphasized the line and secondary as the keys to an effective defense (which also explains his lack of attention to linebacker), and if the right player is on the board, they won’t hesitate to pull the trigger. While the Eagles have arguably the best line in the league, Jim Washburn’s rotation means that everyone will get significant playing time, so it’s important to have quality talent from top to bottom. The starters are also getting older–Cullen Jenkins, Mike Patterson, Jason Babin, and Trent Cole are all around 30-years-old meaning an infusion of young blood will soon be needed rather than a luxury.
Defensive end is also a possibility, but the Eagles already have five good players there in Cole, Babin, Tapp, Hunt, and Graham, and probably don’t need to target a player with a high pick. Some ends that might be available when the Eagles pick include South Carolina’s Melvin Ingram, but taking a defensive tackle at that spot makes more sense, because of depth and value reasons. If the Eagles pick an end, it probably won’t be until the second day of the draft.
At tackle, the Eagles currently only have Jenkins and Patterson under contact, in addition to project player Cedric Thornton. Antonio Dixon is a restricted free agent, while Trevor Laws and cult favorite Derek Landri are unrestricted. It seems likely that only two of the three will be brought back, though the outlook on who is still murky. Dixon played well in 2010, but struggled to adjust to the Wide-9. He began to show signs of progress versus San Francisco, but he unfortunately tore his triceps in the same game and was placed on injured reserve.
Laws, a second-rounder in 2008, has been mostly underwhelming in his four years here, and has been unable to become anything more than the fourth tackle. Many projected that the Eagles would let him walk, but there are rumors that he has been in contract talks with the team.
Meanwhile, Landri was a pleasant surprise in 2011, thanks to his motor and relentlessness, despite not making himself noticeable with other teams. He has said he wants to return, and he probably well, since he won’t attract much attention from other teams after underwhelming as Carolina’s starter in 2010.
So, assuming that Landri and either Laws or Dixon returns, who could the Eagles draft in the first round?
Dontari Poe is the name that’s skyrocketed to the top of everyone’s big board. At the combine, he showed an incredible combination of strength and speed for a man of his size (6’4, 346), and despite being a prototypical nose tackle, he has the talent to play in the 4-3 as either an under or nose tackle (Landri, Dixon, and Patterson played the nose last year, while Jenkins and Laws were under tackles). Despite his raw ability, he did not live up to his potential in college, often being handled by single blockers in Conference USA. He could fit in with the Eagles because of the depth already present; it’s thought that Washburn might be able to light a fire under him and harness his potential. However, his performance at the combine might have cemented him as a top-10 pick.
Michael Brockers of LSU is another raw player with great potential, who some have compared in terms of upside to the Giants’ Jason Pierre-Paul. He has a high motor, and is similar to Poe in that he doesn’t face the same pressure here as a backup as he would as a starter with other teams. He also may be off the board by the time the Eagles pick, though he didn’t wow at the combine like others did.
Another player who’s been linked to the Eagles is fellow SEC tackle, Fletcher Cox of Mississippi State. Cox was one of the premiere pass-rushing tackles in the SEC, and would undoubtedly fill a similar role in the NFL. Slightly undersized and incredibly quick (he ran a 4.8 40), he would fit in well in Philly as Cullen Jenkins’ understudy.
There are other first-round tackle prospects, including Penn State’s Devon Still and Michigan State’s Jerel Worthy, but the former has underwhelmed in big games, and has drawn questions about his effort, while the latter projects as a reach at #15. It’s very possible the Eagles could pick one of those two as well, though I think it less likely than Poe, Brockers, or Cox.
The Eagles have other options to add depth to their tackle rotation, including signing free agent Jason Jones of the Titans (who previously flourished under Washburn) or spending a mid-round selection on someone like the sleek pass rusher Derek Wolfe out of Cincinnati (a school where the Eagles have had success historically). But if they don’t feel that linebacker or wide receiver is a need, expect Philadelphia to draft a premier defensive tackle when they’re on the clock with the fifteenth pick.