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Rookies Lane Johnson and Zach Ertz each played arguably their best games of the season in the Eagles' win over the Raiders. (AP)
Lane Johnson has started every game at right tackle for the NFL’s fourth-ranked offense. Zach Ertz has more catches and receiving yards than any other Eagles tight end. Earl Wolff is gearing up for his sixth start in 10 games and Bennie Logan is coming off an impressive starting debut last Sunday.
The common thread? They’re all rookies.
Three of the first four picks from the 2012 draft started in Sunday’s 49-20 blowout, and that doesn’t count Ertz, a second-round pick who played 35 snaps and caught his first career touchdown.
After terrible drafts in 2010 and 2011 that sent the franchise into a downward spiral and ultimately cost Andy Reid his job, the Eagles are finally reaping the rewards of some smarter decisions on draft day.
“This was huge for us,” center Jason Kelce said. “I think the year I was drafted (2011) we had a lot of guys who are no longer with the team, unfortunately. So to see this many rookies contribute and doing well, that’ll be able to balance that out a little bit.”
By all accounts, Johnson, the fourth overall pick from Oklahoma, is coming off his best outing yet against the Raiders. Ertz, a former Stanford star, is on pace for 34 catches and 432 yards, each of which would be third-most ever by an Eagles rookie tight end.
The team dealt Isaac Sopoaga last week to clear room for the promising Logan, a third-rounder from LSU whose two sacks are tied for second-most on the defense, and Wolff is fourth on defense with 49 tackles.
Fourth-round quarterback Matt Barkley has already appeared in three games and rookie free agent Damion Square is part of a defensive line rotation that’s considered the strongest point of an emerging defense that hasn’t allowed more than 21 points in each of its past five games.
“You talk about guys who are extremely hard workers and thirsty for more information and knowledge,” general manager Howie Roseman said, “and they’re staying late and here early and want to work hard and want to be good players.
“That kind of sounds like scout-speak, like it’s normal. But you don’t always have that. Some guys in the NFL, they’re happy to be in the NFL. They feel like they can redshirt. But this group of guys has an urgency to want to play.”
Reid took the biggest hit for past draft mistakes, losing his job after the Eagles went 12-20 in his last two seasons, a record largely due to the inability of high draft picks to make significant contributions.
But Roseman became public enemy No. 1, crushed by his critics as high picks like Brandon Graham, Nate Allen, Danny Watkins and Jaiquawn Jarrett either failed to fulfill their reputations or couldn’t even stick around to see the end of their rookie deals.
Roseman acknowledged past mistakes and rearranged the front office and scouting staff to streamline the process. Last year’s draft class set the foundation for the rebuild. Three of the first five picks from the '12 class -- first-round defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, second-round linebacker Mychal Kendricks, third-round quarterback Nick Foles -- will start Sunday against Green Bay, with the other two -- fourth-round cornerback Brandon Boykin and second-round defensive end Vinny Curry -- will see plenty of playing time.
That means eight of the 22 starters for Sunday’s game, more than one-third of the offense and defense, will be comprised of either first- or second-year players.
“If you can start building on those draft classes and start having some core guys like that and adding to it, and building on it, that’s how you become a really good football team,” Roseman said. “It validates the process. It validates the group that we have.
“You set a barometer. And if you can get three starters from the draft, it’s an unbelievable draft really, when you go back and look. The whole thing is looking back at it two, three years from now and hopefully those guys [are] guys that are here and re-signing and being part of our core.”
In the salary-cap era of the National Football League, teams need rookies to pay immediate dividends and need players still under rookie deals to play significant roles. The Ravens won a Super Bowl last year with their core of high-priced veterans (Terrell Suggs, Ray Rice, Ray Lewis, Haloti Ngata and franchise-tagged Joe Flacco) surrounded by Torrey Smith, Dannell Ellerbe, Joe Kruger, Courtney Upshaw and Ed Dickson.
“You even go back further,” Roseman said. “The Giants, when they made that run in 2007, they drafted eight guys and I think seven of the eight were playing and contributing. You’ve got to have it, especially for our situation and where we were.
“I think we have 32 guys under 25 years old on our football team, which is a lot of our players, and so when you have those guys, they’ve got to play and contribute.”