The NFL Draft is three months away, but it’s never too early to start looking at the prospects who could be available when the Eagles are finally on the clock.
With nine picks overall and three in the first two rounds, the team has plenty of capital to improve their roster come April. Here’s a look at which prospects they could target with their first round pick (25th overall):
1. Brian Burns
DE, Florida State
The Eagles plan on making some upgrades across the defensive line—that much we know. Exactly how far they go to upgrade defensive end is still up in the air.
Both Brandon Graham and Chris Long are free agents, and a lot of what they decide to do here will be predicated on those two players.
Recent reports indicate that the team will consider breaking the bank for an elite pass rusher in free agency. While I take those rumors with a grain of salt, such a move would be proof of Jim Schwartz’s sway over personnel and the organization’s desire to have an elite pass rush. If they’re as hell-bent on re-stacking the defensive line as they seem to be then we shouldn’t discount the possibility of using a first round pick here.
One player who would make sense is Brian Burns. Burns has arguably the most polished package of pass rush moves in the draft, and that arsenal is underscored by his high-end athleticism and freakish flexibility. From a purely edge rushing perspective, Burns will be able to contribute from day one under Schwartz with the potential to develop into double-digit sack production in the near future.
The catch with a skillset like Burns’ is that he’s a safe bet to be off the board by pick 25, so the team would need to trade up into the 10-20 range to add him.
The way I look at it, any edge rusher who is capable of making an immediate impact won’t be around that late, and if the team is serious about reloading its pass rush then they need to be proactive about finding blue-chip talent.
The knock on Burns is his size. At 6’5” 230 lbs. he is considered lean and lanky for the position, which naturally has led to concerns over his ability to hold up in run defense.
To describe him as weak would be a mischaracterization. He’s strong for his size and plays with good leverage, but to have three-down success in the NFL he’ll need to find a way to bulk up without sacrificing his trademark athleticism. If he can do that then his ceiling is sky high. If not, then he may not be much more than a situational pass rusher—a role that he should be able to fill immediately.
His role in year one would likely be similar to the one Derek Barnett filled as a rookie.
2. Yodny Cajuste
OT, West Virginia
The Eagles need at offensive line is also in flux with the retirement decisions of Jason Kelce and (less likely) Jason Peters.
Either way, the team needs to upgrade their depth and start preparing for the future, and the best way to satisfy that is through the draft. I could see the front office using multiple picks here, and if that’s the case don’t be surprised if one of them is in the first round.
The best option would be to find a prospect who can fill in at guard in the short term, but who projects as a tackle long term. And a player who I think fits that bill who could be around in the mid-20’s is Yodny Cajuste.
Cajuste played five years at West Virginia, three of which as a starter, and excelled protecting his quarterback’s blindside. He has NFL-ready size and is a plus athlete, but his most obvious strength is his quiet footwork—a good place to start for a lineman. His feet are quick, fluid, and fundamentally sound relative to most prospects.
Scouts also rave about his impressive reflexes, high IQ, and solid hand work. He may not quite be the physical specimen of some of the lineman at the top of the board, but it’s hard to find a clear weakness in his game.
Right now his biggest flaw is not being as dominant in the run game as someone with his strength should be, but that’s nothing more than a technical adjustment considering his strength and quickness. No doubt, there are some technical aspects of his game that he needs to refine, but you can’t find me a college lineman who doesn’t have that problem to some degree.
While some may argue that he’s better served at tackle, I believe his physical tools will allow him play inside as well. Depending on how he develops, he has a lot of potential as a run blocker in space, and if he learns to how properly use his leverage/size then he has the strength to become the dominant straight line blocker that you don’t really see on film.
While it’s tough to get a read on the stock of prospects three months out from the Draft, Cajuste feels like he has one of the higher ceilings out of the lineman who aren’t on that first tier. The 2019 offensive line class is historically talented, and that could allow the Eagles to find this type of value way back at 25.
3. Byron Murphy
While the team has a lot of bodies at cornerback (Mills, Jones, Maddox, Douglas, LeBlanc) they would be unwise to enter 2019 with that group as it is. If the team decides not to re-sign Ronald Darby—all indications are that they won’t—then they should consider spending a first round pick on a player whom they think can be the #1 corner that Darby never was.
It can be difficult to gauge where prospects will fall this early in the pre-draft process, but right now it feels like the consensus top prospects: Greedy Williams (LSU), Deandre Baker (UGA), or Byron Murphy (WASH) won’t be available all the way back at the 25th pick (though its not impossible).
However, if one of them is still around in the late teens then Howie should consider trading up a few picks to get his man.While it’s possible that Byron Murphy is the first corner taken, he’s generally been rated as the third prospect at the position, which is why I chose to profile him over the other two.
Murphy looks poised to continue the trend of Washington defensive backs being taken in the first round. He’s an exciting athlete with polished technique and mirroring skills in man-to-man coverage. He uses impressive instincts and a high-IQ to limit separation and make plays on mistakes thrown in his direction.
While the main knock on Murphy is his lack of size (5’11”—182), he more than compensates for that with aggression and physicality. Any concerns over his ability in the run game stems from the fact that he’s short, and not actual game tape, which is why I expect this to be a non-issue in the NFL.
However, there’s an argument to be made that you can’t fully compensate for height and length in the passing game. Like many of the league’s “short” cornerbacks, Murphy could have trouble with your 6’5” receivers who prefer to play above the rim. Obviously height isn’t everything, but it’s a factor that any team should consider here.
Murphy has the physical tools to start from day one, and his ceiling is that of a true lockdown-corner. Like I said, don’t be surprised if his stock soars leading up to the Draft.
If he was available at 25 then it would be hard to say no to this kind of talent, but again, that’s unlikely. If he (or one of the other top corners) begins to slide past the 14th pick then Howie should consider trading up before a run of teams who need corner help—Tennessee (19), Pittsburgh (20), Seattle (21), Houston (23).
4. N’Keal Harry
WR, Arizona State
A lot of mock drafts thus far have the Eagles taking a wide receiver, and while they obviously need to add one or two, the number of mocks containing such a pick isn’t indicative of the probability that they actually do so.
The Eagles need help—both immediate and long-term—at a number of positions, and wide receiver just isn’t that high up on the list. Nonetheless, it remains a possibility. The team could use this pick to fill the Mike Wallace/Golden Tate void in year one, with the obvious hope that the player develops into a #1 receiver down the road.
One such option who may be available with the 25th pick is N’Keal Harry. At 6’4” 215 lbs. Harry has the size that you covet in most receivers and the hands to complement. His combination of catch-radius and catch-rate show a receiver who quarterbacks should be comfortable targeting in tight coverage.
What’s truly exciting about Harry is how well-round the rest of his game is. He appears to have the requisite speed, quickness, and strength to operate as a vertical threat, work the middle of the field, and make defenders miss in space. However, like most receivers his stock will largely be determined by his times at the combine.
What makes Harry so intriguing is that he appears to be the type of player who can be deployed in a variety of roles, similar to Agholor. He’s even capable of returning punts, although he likely won’t be asked to do so in the NFL.
If Harry tests well leading up to the draft then he could be gone by 25, but as it stands right now he remains a strong possibility if the team decides to go with a receiver in the first round.
5. Mack Wilson
The Eagles’ need at linebacker has a lot to do with Jordan Hicks’ health concerns and Nigel Bradham’s struggles in pass coverage. Between the two, the Eagles weren’t bad at linebacker in 2018 by any means, but the team could benefit from the addition of a reliable playmaker in the middle of the defense.
One player who may be around at 25 who is capable of playing three downs from day one is Mack Wilson. Following the lineage of ‘Bama linebackers, Wilson has decided to declare for the NFL a year early and for good reason—this dude could have been playing on Sunday’s last year if he was able to.
At 6’2″ 240 lbs. he has the size and strength to hold up in the middle while possessing the speed and athleticism to harass opposing offenses in every way possible. He’s extremely effective at blitzing the quarterback, and he’s very fluid in coverage. In fact, cover ability may be his most exciting trait. He has 4.5 speed (I can’t wait to see what he runs at the combine) and his loose hips and natural instincts allow him to mirror his counterpart with ease for a linebacker.
The knock here is his aggressiveness. Wilson is accused of occasionally over-shooting angles of pursuit when working sideline-to-sideline and sometimes going for the big hit instead of wrapping up the ball carrier. With that said, his aggression probably leads to more positive plays than negative. At the very least it’s something that NFL teams will monitor.
Is it fair to say that the impact Leighton Vander Esch had on the Dallas defense could be a factor here? He and Jaylon Smith were a big reason why their defense was able to take such a huge step forward last season, and the Eagles would be wise to look for someone whom can make a similar impact in 2019. If that’s their plan, then Mack Wilson would be the ideal candidate.