Eagles love 1st-round linemen; results not great

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Eagles love 1st-round linemen; results not great

It’s fun to draft quarterbacks, running backs and receivers. Cornerbacks and linebackers, too.

Linemen?

For fans, they’re boring.

You study all the draft guides, read all the mock drafts, memorize the combine results, and sit there glued to the TV and your computer as the Eagles’ first-round pick gets closer and closer.

Which receiver will they take? Which cornerback? Which linebacker?

Eight of the last nine years, you’ve been disappointed.

Because only once in the last nine years have the Eagles drafted something other than a lineman in the first round.

In fact, going back to 1991, an incredible 17 of their 21 first-round picks have been offensive or defensive linemen.

The exceptions: Donovan McNabb in 1999, Freddie Mitchell in 2001, Lito Sheppard in 2002 and Jeremy Maclin in 2009.

That’s four non-linemen in the first round since Buddy Ryan was fired.

Eagles fans know those linemen are important picks, but they’re boring. After all the buildup for the draft, you just want something more interesting.

Since 1991 -- nearly a quarter of a century -- the Eagles have drafted more linemen in the first round than any other NFL team.

They’ve taken 17, ahead of the Rams (14), Seahawks (13) and Vikings and 49ers (12).

Eagles general manager Howie Roseman said there’s a simple reason for this 23-year trend.

“When you talk about getting those guys later in the draft, they just don’t exist,” he said. “There are other positions you look at it and can find a starter in the third, fourth or fifth round, but it’s very hard to find those guys, because there aren’t a lot of men on this Earth who are 330 pounds with 34-inch arms and who can move their bodies.

“We don’t go in saying we have to get a lineman, especially now. We’re talking about getting the best player, no matter what position that player is, we would take him. I think it’s just worked out that way.”

What about those 17 linemen?

The results have been mixed. Actually, worse than mixed.

Of the 17, eight have been offensive linemen, and of that group, three became Pro Bowlers -- Jermane Mayberry had a solid career and went to one Pro Bowl, Shawn Andrews was very good and a first-team All-Pro with two Pro Bowls before all sorts of weird things derailed his career, and Tra Thomas was simply the best offensive tackle in franchise history.

The rest? Antone Davis, Lester Holmes, Bernard Williams and Danny Watkins were all either disasters or close to it, althought last year’s first-round pick, Lane Johnson, appears to be a very promising tackle.

On the defensive side, the results are worse.

Leonard Renfro, Jon Harris and Jerome McDougle were catastrophes, Brodrick Bunkley never panned out, at least not here, and Brandon Graham has yet to pan out and could be traded to a team needing a 4-3 end this weekend.

Mike Mamula started for a few years but certainly didn’t perform like you’d expect from the No. 7 pick. Corey Simon made a Pro Bowl but had a short career. Mike Patterson was solid for a long time. Fletcher Cox, after two years, certainly also shows a lot of promise.

Perhaps Cox and Johnson will end what has really been, for the most part, a two-decade slump for the Eagles when it comes to drafting linemen in the first round.

“I look at the last two years -- Fletcher Cox for us, is a very rare guy -- 6-4, 34-inch arms, runs a 4.9, had a running back background in high school, elite athlete, explosive athlete, powerful player,” Roseman said. “Then Lane was a unique cat, too.

“I think that’s just how it worked out. We’re not going in [saying], 'We gotta get a lineman in the first round.'”

A good chunk of the sample group -- 14 years -- was with Andy Reid as head coach, and he certainly put a premium on building along both lines. Of Reid’s 12 first-round picks, eight were linemen.

“Just being around Andy for so long and just talking to him about philosophy, it’s understandable,” Roseman said. “I do believe games are won and lost along the line of scrimmage on the offensive and defensive lines.”

Stay or Go Part 9: Jalen Mills to Wendell Smallwood

Stay or Go Part 9: Jalen Mills to Wendell Smallwood

In the ninth of our 12-part offseason series examining the future of the Eagles, Reuben Frank and Dave Zangaro give their opinions on who will be and who won't be on the roster in 2017. We go alphabetically — part 9 is Mills to Smallwood.

Jalen Mills
Cap hit: $559K

Roob: Mills has all the tools to be a capable cornerback except world-class speed. He’s fearless, he’s cocky, he’s smart, he’s a hard worker. He just doesn’t have that make-up speed you want your top outside corners to have. I’ve seen enough positives from Mills that I definitely want him on my team. I’m not sure he’ll ever be a starter, but I definitely want him around.

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: Mills really got thrown into the fire as a seventh-round rookie, didn’t he? It wasn’t all good, but it wasn’t all bad either. It’s pretty obvious defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’s loves Mills’ competitiveness. He doesn’t have top-end speed and that’s probably going to prevent him from ever becoming a top-of-the-line corner in the league. But there’s no reason he can’t stick around for a long time. He certainly has the right mindset to be a corner in the NFL and that’s a part of the battle. The Eagles really need to upgrade the corner position, which could greatly reduce Mills’ role, but he should still have one. 

Verdict: STAYS

Aaron Neary

Roob: Neary is a guard who spent the year on the Eagles’ practice squad.

Verdict: GOES

Dave: I’d say there’s a fair to good chance most of you have never heard of Aaron Neary. He’s an undrafted O-lineman out of Eastern Washington who was on the practice squad in 2016. I’d be lying if I told you I knew a lot about him. 

Verdict: GOES

Jason Peters
Cap hit: $11.7M

Roob: Cut Jason Peters at your own risk. You want the $9.2 million cap savings that the Eagles would gain by releasing the perennial Pro Bowler? Find it somewhere else. Because some guys simply should never be released. Peters is an all-time great Eagle and unless his level of play drops off dramatically, he should be allowed to decide when it’s time to go. Only Chuck Bednarik has been picked to more Pro Bowls than Peters in Eagles history. Peters rebounded from a subpar 2015 with a vintage Peters season this past year. Considering that the Eagles have a promising young quarterback who has to be protected and considering that Lane Johnson is one more positive test from a two-year suspension, Peters has to stay. I don’t care what the cap savings would be by getting rid of him. He’s too good and means too much to cut him. 

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: Sure, the Eagles could save over $9 million in cap room if they cut Peters, but who would they get to play? While they’d be fine moving Lane Johnson to left tackle, they’d then be relying on Halapoulivaati Vaitai to play right tackle. And while that might be the plan in coming years, it would weaken the team in 2017. Peters might not be the dominant force he once was, but he had a very good season and he was able to play 97 percent of the team’s offensive snaps, which is huge. He gets paid a lot, but he’s still worth it. 

Verdict: STAYS

Isaac Seumalo
Cap hit: $764K

Roob: I asked Jason Kelce about Seumalo back in training camp and Kelce said he thinks the third-round pick will one day be a Pro Bowl center. Pretty clear Seumalo is the heir apparent to Kelce, it’s just a matter of when the transition occurs. Kelce wasn’t as awful as some people seem to think. He actually finished the season strong. But I think Kelce goes this offseason and Seumalo is your opening-day center in 2017. 

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: Seumalo’s rookie year was a really interesting one. It started with a pec strain in training camp that slowed him down, but eventually ended with his getting some real experience. In all, Seumalo played six different positions in 2016: right tackle, right guard, left guard, left tackle, fullback and tight end. He didn’t even play center, which might be his most natural spot. I think he’ll have a real shot to be the team’s opening-day starter at left guard. 

Verdict: STAYS

Aziz Shittu

Roob: Rookie defensive tackle spent the year on the practice squad. Depending on what happens with Bennie Logan in free agency, the Eagles could be on the prowl for defensive tackle depth this offseason, and Shittu is an interesting guy. He had a good training camp last year coming off a solid career at Stanford and it’s fair to say he has a chance, depending on what the Eagles do in the draft and free agency. Going with my instincts on this one.

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: I actually really liked Shittu coming out of Stanford and not just because I giggle like a schoolgirl every time I hear his name. For an interior defensive lineman, he has some real pass rushing potential. I think he would have been the undrafted guy to make the team over Destiny Vaeao had he not missed the spring because of the silly college graduation/quarters rule. I’d like to see him get a legitimate shot to stick here. It’s a longshot, but I’m going to take a chance with this one. I think he can make the roster. 

Verdict: STAYS

Wendell Smallwood
Cap hit: $601K

Roob: We spend so much time talking about the Eagles’ desperate needs at cornerback and wide receiver that it’s easy to forget they're just as desperate at running back. Assuming Ryan Mathews isn’t back, the Eagles will have a real need for a No. 1 back. You can’t draft or sign every position. So Smallwood could get a real shot at the lead back role. Can he handle the role or is he best suited to be a No. 2? Not sure yet. I like how Smallwood responded when he got double-digit carries against the Steelers, Falcons and Seahawks. Averaged 4.2 yards in those three games. And he had nine runs of 10 yards or more out of just 77 carries. I know Smallwood is a player. I’m just not sure where he’ll fit in. Maybe it’s the No. 28 jersey, but at worst I see him as a Correll Buckhalter-type, a solid No. 2 back who can fill in once in a while as a lead guy. At best? We’ll see. 

Verdict: STAYS

Dave: Smallwood might not be the true answer at the running back position, but he proved enough to earn a roster spot next year and a role in the offense. I’m not sure if his ceiling is very high, but he got better throughout the year, specifically as a blocker. He’ll be back for Year 2. 

Verdict: STAYS

Villanova's Tanoh Kpassagnon ready to put himself, Wildcats on NFL map

Villanova's Tanoh Kpassagnon ready to put himself, Wildcats on NFL map

MOBILE, Ala. — A couple days ago, Tanoh Kpassagnon received a text message from one of his school’s most famous alumni, Brian Westbrook.

On Tuesday morning, as he readied himself for the week of Senior Bowl practices leading up to Saturday’s game, Kpassagnon kept Westbrook’s message at the forefront of his mind.

“Just embrace the moment,” Kpassagnon said, relaying Westbrook’s message. “Don’t take anything for granted, and I belong here.”

Kpassagnon, 22, has a chance to join an elite group in April. There haven’t been many Villanova football players taken in the NFL draft, especially recently, but the big defensive lineman has a good chance to join the list.

In addition to Westbrook, Kpassagnon has also received some advice to help him through the pre-draft process from Hall of Famer Howie Long, the most famous Wildcat to make it in the NFL.

“It would be really cool to represent my school like that,” Kpassagnon said.

The last Villanova football player to be drafted was OL Ben Ijalana in the second round of the 2011 draft. Ijalana is one of just three Wildcats drafted since the early '80s. Kpassagnon is listed as a third-round prospect by CBS Sports.

Despite the Wildcats’ recent success on the football field at the FCS level, Villanova is, of course, known for its basketball program. Kpassagnon wants to do his small part to help the football team gain some recognition.

Coming out of Ambler's Wissahickon High School, the interest in Kpassagnon was lukewarm at best. But once Villanova showed interest, some other CAA schools followed. Ultimately, Kpassagnon settled on going to Villanova, which made his mother happy because he would be staying close. And ultimately, he thinks going to a small school was best for him.

“Definitely,” he said. “I know some other programs, they kind of pass by guys if you’re not ready yet. And definitely coming in as a freshman, I wasn’t ready. Villanova really took the time to develop me. My coaches really believed in me, saw what I could do. I think going to Villanova was a blessing.”

A blessing can sometimes be a curse, though. While Kpassagnon tore up his level of competition, being named the CAA Defensive Player of the Year, he’ll have to shake off the small school and FCS stigma.

That starts this week, which Kpassagnon said is probably one of the most important weeks of his life.

What does he need to show NFL teams?

“I can hang with the big boys,” said Kpassagnon, who was stuck on the South team as an FCS player. “... Villanova has kind of a reputation for basketball, not football, even though our football program is awesome. I kind of have to show that I can hang with the SEC guys, bigger schools.”

This season, Kpassagnon played against Pitt tackle Adam Bisnowaty, who is also at the Senior Bowl. Kpassagnon is looking forward to facing him and some other top tackles this week.

Physically, hanging with the big guys won’t be a problem. Kpassagnon is one of the biggest. At Senior Bowl weigh-in on Tuesday morning, he came in just shy of 6-foot-7 and 280 pounds. He was listed at 290 all season but said the 280 wasn’t a surprise and that he played at that weight all season. NFL teams want him to bulk up some more, so maybe he’ll be able to do it before the combine in early March.

But for now, Kpassagnon's focus is on showing NFL teams that he belongs. That starts with a good week of practice at the Senior Bowl.

“One of my best friend’s dads told me this going into college,” Kpassagnon said. “You want the coach to say your name at least once or twice per practice, for something good. I sort of took that with me to college and I’m trying to bring that here. I’m going to try to make a play or two each practice.”

When asked if the coaches will pronounce his name correctly, Kpassagnon smiled and said he’s heard it every way imaginable.

tawn-o pass-N-yo

This week, he has a chance to put his name and Villanova football’s on the map.