With most of free agency done, it’s time to start thinking about the NFL draft.
The Eagles have about one more month to interview prospects, check out pro days, dig into backgrounds and re-stack their board as they see fit before the first round on May 8. They have six total picks.
General manager Howie Roseman and coach Chip Kelly have emphasized taking the best overall prospects and not reaching from their board to fill immediate needs, but their needs happen to coincide with the strength and depth of this year’s draft.
Here’s a list of their top five needs as they enter the home stretch. (CSNPhilly.com’s Reuben Frank will provide his top five on Thursday).
Consider this: The Eagles are a Malcolm Jenkins injury away from Earl Wolff and Nate Allen starting at safety again. Doesn’t sound very exciting, does it? Even with Jenkins, the Eagles have solid but not spectacular weaponry at safety at a time when the position has taken on more importance than ever. Wolff played fairly well for a rookie, but he’s not an accomplished playmaker. Defensive coordinator Billy Davis needs a weapon who can cover, tackle, move around and -- if possible -- generate some pass rush on select blitzes. If Ha Ha Clinton-Dix or Calvin Pryor are there at No. 22, either is a no-brainer for the Eagles.
2. Inside linebacker
This is an under-discussed need for the Eagles. This is probably DeMeco Ryans’ last year and Mychal Kendricks is still a question mark in certain coverage assignments. Ryans is clearly more of a run-down linebacker who played far too many snaps last year. What the Eagles really need is another coverage linebacker who can team with Kendricks and strengthen the Eagles across the middle in the nickel. Just like nickel corners have become starters in the pass-heavy NFL, coverage linebackers have become equally as important. Remember, the Eagles weren’t beaten deep very often last year. Most of the yards they allowed came across the middle and underneath. A big-time coverage linebacker would cure plenty of this defense’s ills, and you can find them down in the draft much easier than you can find pass rushers or shut-down corners. Montana linebacker Jordan Tripp, who visited the Eagles, could do the job.
3. Wide receiver/Tight end
This need trumped outside linebacker and cornerback the minute DeSean Jackson became a free agent. The Eagles made a bold move in cutting ties with the 27-year-old three-time Pro Bowler after already discarding Jason Avant, leaving themselves paper thin at wideout. Fortunately for them, there’s about a dozen of receivers in this year’s crop who scouts think can make an immediate impact and become highly productive. If they’re seeking a Jackson clone, Oregon State’s Brandin Cooks is small but has tremendous speed and a penchant for going up to get the ball despite his size. If Chip Kelly wants someone bigger, he’ll have plenty to choose from, such as Kelvin Benjamin in Round 1 or even some other options in Rounds 2 and 3. Don’t be shocked if Kelly gets another tight end early and re-designs his offense around more two tight-end formations with Zach Ertz. Brent Celek probably has one year left and James Casey isn’t a real field stretcher.
4. Outside linebacker
The Eagles were inconsistent in the pass rush last year, and they can’t wait eight games for Trent Cole to rediscover his path to the quarterback. If they had a more well-rounded rush linebacker opposite Connor Barwin, they could be more selective with the blitz. There isn’t an abundance of these guys in the draft, so Kelly may be thinking about getting Brandon Graham more involved this year if he’s convinced Graham’s an upgrade over Cole. As for the draft, if UCLA’s Anthony Barr slips to No. 22, he should be an Eagle, no questions asked. If not, Ohio State’s Ryan Shazier or Auburn’s Dee Ford would fit the bill. You can find some situational pass rushers deeper in the draft, but are they any better than Graham?
The addition of Nolan Carroll gives the Eagles depth at corner. Carroll will push Bradley Fletcher to start opposite Cary Williams, but the outside corner group as a whole lacks a true playmaker. Even though Brandon Boykin had six picks last year, the Eagles are married to the idea of him manning the slot permanently. The team really needs to think beyond 2014 with this position, so the Eagles shouldn’t hesitate about going corner early in the draft. There could be five taken in the first round, so it’s not far-fetched to believe a really good one could fall to the Eagles at 22, someone like Michigan State’s Darqueze Dennard or TCU’s Jason Verrett. The team has also shown interest in Virginia Tech’s Kyle Fuller.