Why the Eagles should ignore big names and buy low at wide receiver

Why the Eagles should ignore big names and buy low at wide receiver

It won't be a surprise if the Eagles go after a big name wide receiver.

The team's receivers were a disaster last year. There's the fact that among the Eagles' receivers, Jordan Matthews' 11 yards per catch led the group (minimum 10 catches). Matthews' also led the receivers in touchdowns with four. The team dropped 24 Carson Wentz passes, the fourth-most for a quarterback last season.

So Alshon Jeffery or DeSean Jackson would be a no-brainer, right? Maybe not.

At the moment, the Eagles' cap situation isn't ideal. Surely they'll take a few more steps to clear space, but signing a high-priced receiver isn't the right way to allocate that money.

Jeffery and Jackson have their pros and cons. Jeffery had two elite seasons in 2013 and 2014, but his last two seasons have been mired by injuries and a PED suspension. Despite being 30, Jackson still has the ability to stretch the field, but his red flags are well-documented. According to Spotrac, Jeffery is scheduled to become the sixth-highest paid receiver, while Jackson will be the 19th-highest paid.

Sure, there are other options. Veteran Kenny Britt enjoyed a renaissance season under new Eagles receivers coach Mike Groh in L.A. and he's still only 28. He's also coming off a 1,000-yard season and could cash in on that. There's also Kenny Stills, who is only 24 and coming off a season where he averaged 17.3 yards a catch and caught nine touchdowns for Miami. Terrelle Pryor is still learning the position but finished with 77 catches for 1,007 yards and four touchdowns for the Browns.

Any of those guys makes the Eagles' offense better immediately. But in reality, just about any decent receiver would make this group better. Howie Roseman is better off buying low in free agency and building the receiver corps through the draft.

CSNPhilly.com Eagles Insider Reuben Frank recently highlighted the lack of success the Eagles' have had in signing free-agent receivers. The list is basically Irving Fryar and a bunch of guys. While the occasional trade (Terrell Owens) has worked out, the Eagles have been better off drafting receivers.

Looking ahead to the draft, this receiver class is extremely deep. There may not be the elite talent of the 2014 receiver class, but there are plenty of intriguing players to explore. In the first round, Clemson's Mike Williams or Western Michigan's Corey Davis could be available to the Eagles. Oklahoma's Dede Westbrook or Eastern Washington's Cooper Kupp could be there in the second. Even in the middle rounds, guys like Louisiana Tech's Carlos Henderson, Western Kentucky's Taywan Taylor and ECU's Zay Jones could be impactful.

As far as free agents go, the Eagles have other options beyond the big names. Kamar Aiken of the Baltimore Ravens is an intriguing name. The 27-year-old had a breakout 2015 (75 catches, 944 yards, five touchdowns) followed by a disappointing 2016 (29 catches, 328 yards, one touchdown). He lost snaps to a healthy Steve Smith, free-agent signee Mike Wallace and former first-round pick Breshad Perriman. The Eagles can buy low on Aiken and hope his production is similar to 2015.

Kendall Wright, also 27, had a breakout season in 2013 (94 catches, 1,079 yards) but has fought injuries and inconsistencies over the last few seasons in Tennessee. Then there's Brian Quick from the L.A. Rams, another 27-year-old who hasn't quite put it together. He had a career year in 2016, hauling in 41 catches for 564 yards under new Eagles receivers coach Mike Groh.

The Eagles' best bet would be to take a flyer and buy low on one of these receivers and dig deep on this draft. Aiken or Wright and two rookies could help overhaul the position and create serious competition.

Can the Eagles count on Roseman to deliver the next Irving Fryar? The safer bet is him delivering the next DeSean Jackson ... instead of the actual DeSean Jackson.

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.