One of the most remarkable things Chip Kelly and Howie Roseman learned about Jordan Matthews during the pre-draft process wasn’t how fast he was or how big he was or how well he caught the ball.
It was how smart he is.
“Jordan Matthews blew us away from that standpoint,” Kelly said. “Jordan Matthews could tell you the play that was being run before he ran it. We'd have the tape and he'd look at the screen and say, ‘That is the Ole Miss game. I remember this. It's 3rd and 13, here's the play call. I ran a dig.’ You hit play and that's exactly what happened.”
After each pick over the weekend, Kelly and Roseman had a similar story.
They spoke about how big and fast and strong each draft pick is but they also spoke about how smart they are.
First-round pick Marcus Smith and third-round pick Josh Huff have already graduated from college. Second-round pick Matthews had the highest Wonderlic score of any wide receiver in the draft at 29 and graduated from Vanderbilt in 3 ½ years. Fourth-round pick Jaylen Watkins has “extremely high football intelligence,” according to Kelly. Fifth-round pick Ed Reynolds is on track to graduate this spring from Stanford with a political science degree.
And so on.
The Eagles’ 2014 draft is full of athletes but also full of academic All-Americans, four-year graduates and film study freaks.
That didn’t happen by accident.
“It's the same thing when anyone is interviewing for a job,” Roseman said. “The more qualifications, the more credentials they have for the job, the more appealing normally they are.
“The most important thing is that they've got to be good players, but we look for [intelligence], and when you look at the success rate of players in the National Football League, the guys who play for four years and graduated college have a higher success rate and probably the same stats as the real world.”
Although the Wonderlic standardized test is often considered the most important way to measure the intelligence of NFL prospects, Kelly said the Eagles don’t even pay attention to it.
They’re more interested in football-specific intelligence, and they have their own ways of measuring that.
“It's really the meetings, sitting down and visiting with them and finding out how they can process things,” he said. “Part of our interview process is we teach them things, and they have to give it back to us. Like they are a rookie sitting in the room, here's a coverage, here's a route, here's a protection scheme, and you can find out the give and take that they'll give back to you from that standpoint.
“But the intelligence part from everybody in the league is the same way. I still think [former Cowboys coach] Jimmie Johnson talked about that all the time, that he didn't want dumb players. ‘I need to get smart guys.’
“I think it just makes things so much easier for you in terms of coaching, and you don't have to change things. Like, ‘Hey, we can't do this because they can't process it.’”
One of the hallmarks of Kelly’s offense – and Billy Davis’s defense, too – is that every player is required to learn multiple positions and learn how to function in different formations and sets.
Consider Watkins. He’s a 21-year-old rookie, but the Eagles have already decided he’s bright enough to handle both cornerback and safety in his first NFL camp.
It’s tough enough for a rookie to learn one position. The Eagles aren’t hesitating to teach him two.
“I feel like when you have a bunch of guys with high IQs, have graduated and are mature, they come in with that aspect, are ready to learn and are humble,” Watkins said. “A lot of those aspects come with [intelligence].”
Roseman and Kelly make it clear that they don’t set out looking just for smart kids. That’s not how you build a football team. More than anything, their draft picks must be physically able to perform at the highest level of the game.
But intelligence and the ability to learn quickly and retain and understand are certainly a big part of the evaluation process.
“Intelligence is a huge part of what we're looking for in every aspect that we do, whether it's offense, defense or special teams,” Kelly said. “So the fact that they have a degree proves where they are from an intelligence factor.
“Tony Dungy came to speak to our team when I was at Oregon just to speak to our players about it, and I think he had some statistics that kind of blew our mind that the two teams from 2000 to 2010 that had the most graduates were the Colts and the Patriots, and there was something to it. Teams that are really successful seem to have that.
“I think it shows their intelligence, but I also think it shows you their commitment and people's ability to follow through with goals.”