Tough to say if Eagles drafted for talent or need

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Tough to say if Eagles drafted for talent or need

So the Eagles made a move Thursday night that seemed logical and sensible, if you only take into account that they drafted an outside linebacker.

They certainly needed one.

The fact that it wasn’t Anthony Barr or Dee Ford or Kony Ealy or any other pass rusher affixed with the first-round label seems to smack of desperation, a stroll down the draft-for-need lane that bit this franchise in the rear end several times in the past.

Howie Roseman insisted frequently that the Eagles would stick to their best-available-player philosophy, but when you consider the names he and Chip Kelly left on the table before drafting Marcus Smith, a hybrid pass rusher from Louisville who few draft analysts had going in the first round (see story), you have to wonder if they stayed true to their word.

They had Smith rated higher than Marqise Lee, Bradley Roby, Kelvin Benjamin, Louis Nix and Johnny Football?

Maybe they did, but some respectable names in the draft analyst business certainly didn’t.

Only the folks in the war room at One NovaCare Way know how the names stacked up on their board, but Kelly’s well-known preference for measurables -- height, weight, wingspan, etc. -- seemed to trump the big-game experience and performance against elite competition that Roseman often references as criteria for ranking prospects.

The 6-foot-3, 255-pound Smith (see bio) has a 34-inch arm length and is considered an excellent athlete, but 14.5 sacks against UConn, Florida International, Temple, Kentucky and Ohio leveraged against Lee’s shredding of Pac-12 secondaries or Ealy’s 9.5 sacks against SEC powerhouses just doesn’t seem to compute.

Kelly said the Eagles had targeted six other players, but all six were off the board before they were initially slated to pick at 22 and the price to move up wasn’t one they were willing to pay.

In response, they moved down four spots, adding a much-needed third-round pick and enabling the Browns to get Manziel while planning all along on nabbing Smith.

Kelly said he didn’t think Smith would be around Friday when the Eagles pick 54th, especially after the Chiefs took Dee Ford at 23rd, but NFL Network’s Mike Mayock -- who’s perhaps the best at what he does -- had Smith ranked 53rd overall, eight spots behind Ealy and 12 behind Boise State’s Demarcus Lawrence, another outside linebacker.

If Mayock’s right, the Eagles not only didn’t take the best player available but also didn’t even take the best pass rusher left on the board.

“I applaud the pick,” Mayock said, per the Louisville Courier-Journal, “because it attacks an area of need for [Philadelphia].”

Benjamin went two picks later to Carolina, and Roby three picks after that to Denver. But Ealy and Nix are still on the board. As is Lee.

"We've had them all rated for a long time, and our board is our board. ... We've had since last year to stack the board the right way," Kelly said. "If we liked [Lee], that should have been a discussion a while ago. ... That's what you do rationally. You can't let emotion get into it. I think Marqise is a special kid. I tried to recruit him coming out of high school, and he had a tremendous career at USC, but for us, we think Marcus was the right pick."

So which is it: Best player or need?

Time will tell if Kelly and Roseman were smarter than everyone else and uncovered a double-digit sack producer who exceeded others’ expectations, but they insisted that they’d take the prospect who ranked highest on their board, not the one who filled an immediate hole.

At this moment, it’s hard to decipher which one’s which.

Derek Barnett's college position coach: He can flip switch to 'monster'

Derek Barnett's college position coach: He can flip switch to 'monster'

For family days at the University of Tennessee, former defensive line coach Steve Stripling's wife Gayle would make cookies for the crowd. And every time she did, it didn't go unnoticed by the Vols' best player. 

Every time, without fail, Derek Barnett would make a point to seek her out and say, "Hey Mrs. Strip, thank you for the cookies." 

It's a small thing, thanking someone for cookies. But it's something that seems to exemplify the type of players the Eagles are focused on bringing into the organization, especially with new VP of player personnel Joe Douglas leading the draft charge. And it was the one of the stories that stuck out most to Steve Stripling on Friday morning, 12 hours after the pick was made. 

"He's got that in him," Stripling said to CSNPhilly.com on Friday morning, just before boarding a flight from Philadelphia back to Tennessee, "and then on the football field, I've seen him just be a monster. 

"He has that ability to be quiet, unassuming, polite, respectful, all that, and then on the football field, he's a warrior. When he walks on the football field, he's different, totally different." 

Barnett, 20, is a pretty quiet and reserved guy. Some fans thought he didn't look pleased to be picked by the Eagles with the 14th pick on Thursday night, but that's not true. That's just his demeanor — off the field. 

On the field, Barnett is a relentless technician with an exceptional motor that powered him to 33 sacks at Tennessee, breaking Reggie White's long-standing record. 

"If you get to know him, he doesn't say much," Stripling said. "He's very quiet, but on the football field, when he says something, everyone pays attention. He just has that built into him, to play hard and he's a grinder and focused and all those things."

Stripling joined the Volunteers' coaching staff as an associate head coach and defensive line coach for the 2013 season. That was the year spent recruiting Barnett out of Brentwood Academy in Brentwood, Tennessee. After Barnett's 2016 season, Stripling, 63, took a job as the director of football program development, but he was Barnett's position coach for all three years of his college stay. 

And from the time Barnett arrived on the Tennessee campus in 2014, it didn't take long for the coaching staff to realize something was special about him. 

Stripling recalls a play that the coaching staff has shown "a thousand times" since it happened back in 2014. During the first or second day of Volunteers' two-a-day camp, Barnett, then a freshman, showed that relentless style for which he's now become known. Barnett lined up as the team's right end as the ball broke to the left and the carrier jetted down field. From out of nowhere, Barnett chased him 40 yards downfield and delivered a sideline hit. 

Before that play, Tennessee knew Barnett was good. After that play, it knew he was special. 

"Usually when a freshman gets to camp, they're just trying to fit in, learn their way," Stripling said. "But it was from Day 1." 

The Tennessee defensive line room tried to live by an acronym: EAT — effort, accountability and technique. Barnett represented all of those facets. 

But perhaps more than anything, the technique part of his game is what really stands out. The use of his hands and his ability to bend as a pass rusher are the traits that vaulted him into the top half of the first round. 

And Barnett credits "Coach Strip" for a lot of it. 

"I’ll you what, he was hard on me," Barnett wrote about Stripling in the Players' Tribune. "From the very first day I arrived on campus, he was on me to refine whatever physical talents I had so that I could become a well-rounded football player."

In addition to working with Tennessee coaches, Barnett has also spent time in the offseason working with former NFL defensive lineman and pass-rush guru Chuck Smith. 

Barnett (6-3, 259 pounds) didn't perform well at the 2017 combine in Indianapolis. Even though he was dealing with the flu, he wanted to show more. But on Thursday night, that lackluster performance didn't seem to bother Douglas, who raved about his technique and even dropped some scouty lingo with the phrase "ankle flexion." 

Stripling, meanwhile, compared Barnett's bend as a pass rusher to former Colts great Dwight Freeney. 

"I think that's athletic ability to me, even though it's not a 40-yard time," Stripling said. "It's the ability to get low, reduce the surface and turn the corner. And I think that's one of his strong suites."

And then there's something Barnett has that simply can't be coached: instincts. Barnett, according to Stripling, has the unique ability to leave his gap responsibility at exactly the right time, when necessary to make a play: 

"I would say, 'Derek, how did you know the ball was going there?' He'd say, 'I just knew it.'"

For Stripling, Thursday night at the Ben Franklin Parkway was quite a thrill. A college coach since 1977, this was the first NFL draft he had ever attended. Hours after the Eagles used their 14th pick to take Barnett and hours after the hoopla surrounding the event had faded, Stripling sat up late with Barnett, his mother Christine and the rest of the family, reminiscing and reflecting. 

A little earlier in the night, when Barnett's name was called, Stripling happened to be seated near a group of inquisitive Eagles fans. 

"They were saying, 'who is this guy?'" Stripling recalled. "And I said, 'you're going to love this guy. He's going to work hard, he's going to be tough, he's going to make plays, you're going to love him.' I'm excited for him, it's going to be a good fit."

Eagles should have top-10 defense with Derek Barnett, improved cornerback play

Eagles should have top-10 defense with Derek Barnett, improved cornerback play

The scene at the Art Museum was insane. The noise, the energy, the enthusiasm. Electrifying.

When the Cardinals picked Temple's Haason Reddick at No. 13, the reality hit everybody that the Eagles could snag an elite cornerback like Marlon Humphrey, Tre'Davious White or Gareon Conley. They could get a stud tight end like O.J. Howard. They could even grab a projected top-10 pick like linebacker Reuben Foster or defensive tackle Jonathan Allen, who both plummeted through the first round.

They were going to get a stud.

The minutes wound down, and then commissioner Roger Goodell walked to the podium and announced the name "Derek Barnett," and ... it wasn't like people booed, but the reaction sure was muted.

It was just like ... "OK then."

I don't know why Eagles fans wouldn't be thrilled with this pick (see debate for/against Barnett at No. 14).

Barnett is not Jerome McDougle, Jon Harris or Marcus Smith. He's not another Eagles first-round defensive end bust.

He's a 20-year-old kid with boundless upside who played at a high level against the best competition in college football, and his speed and relentless effort fits perfectly into defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz's scheme.

And he just happens to fill a crucial need on a defense that desperately needs pass rush help.

He's exactly what the Eagles needed.

I think pass rush was just as big a need for this team as cornerback, and this draft is so deep at corner that going defensive end in the first round and corner in the second or third round made perfect sense.

So let's look at what Schwartz has to work with as he enters Year 2.

Up front, he has Fletcher Cox, Tim Jernigan and Beau Allen inside and Barnett with Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry and Chris Long outside. The Eagles will miss Bennie Logan, but on paper, that's a very good defensive line.

At linebacker, budding star Jordan Hicks and Nigel Bradham will get the lion's share of the snaps. Mychal Kendricks is still a de facto starter, but I still don't think he'll be here by opening day. And even if he is, he'll play only 15 to 20 snaps per game.

You have two very good safeties in Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod, and that really leaves cornerback as the one big giant question mark on defense.

But whoever the Eagles run out there — I would guess Jalen Mills and whoever they draft on Friday, with Ron Brooks back in the slot if he's healthy — will be an upgrade over Nolan Carroll and Leodis McKelvin. Anything would be an upgrade over Nolan Carroll and Leodis McKelvin.

When I look at this group, I see a top-10 defense.

And if you think that's crazy, consider this: The Eagles were only three yards per game away from being a top-10 defense last year, in their first year in Schwartz's scheme, with Connor Barwin playing out of position, a terrible set of cornerbacks and huge issues getting to the quarterback.

Consider this: The 2016 Eagles limited opposing QBs to the fifth-lowest completion percentage in the NFL, allowed the fifth-fewest first downs, allowed the eighth-fewest TDs and ranked third in the red zone.

This was a better defense a year ago than people realized.

What was its biggest issue? Allowing big pass plays.

The Eagles allowed a ridiculous 27 pass plays of 30 yards or more, second-worst in the NFL (one fewer than the Raiders).

Big plays killed this team a year ago, and that's a combination of a lack of pass pressure and terrible cornerback play.

Greatly reduce those big plays and this is a playoff defense.

The Eagles have already jettisoned their starting cornerbacks, and Mills and a rookie will be an upgrade. And now they've addressed their pass rush.

How much difference will Barnett make in Year 1? No way to tell yet. But I have to think a rotation of Graham, Barnett, Curry and Long will be more productive than Graham, Barwin, Curry and Marcus Smith.

The Eagles haven't had an elite defense since Jim Johnson's last season, when they ranked fourth in the NFL in points allowed and third in yards allowed.

That team won a couple playoff games, reached the NFC Championship Game, and was one fourth-quarter, fourth-down stop on Tim Hightower away from Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa.

That was 2008. That was nine years ago.

It's no coincidence that the last time the Eagles had an elite defense was the last time they won a playoff game.

It's been a long, sad eight years since. Years filled with coaching changes, a lack of stability at quarterback and defensive play that Eagles fans had to be largely embarrassed by.

How do you go from Brian Dawkins, Trent Cole, Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown celebrating playoff wins to Nnamdi Asomugha waving his arms at Kurt Coleman after allowing yet another touchdown bomb just a few short years later?

Sad. This is a city that loves offense but loves defense even more.

I'm not sure this is ready to be an elite defense yet, but drafting Barnett is going to help the Eagles continue becoming a pretty darn good one.