Eagles: 3 defensive prospects worth taking over WR in first round

Just about every mock draft that I’ve seen has the Eagles taking wide receiver in the first round, and for good reason. The trio of Jefferey, Agholor, and Jackson that promised to put the Birds offense over the top last season never came to be, and now Howie and company are primed to clean slate at wideout.

Fortunately for the Eagles, this year’s draft class is loaded at receiver from top to bottom, which has fans and analysts anticipating that the team will draft multiple players at the position come April, starting with round one. While the general consensus has them taking the next best available receiver after CeDee Lamb, Jerry Juedy, and Henry Ruggs — who figure to be gone by 21 — it’s worth exploring the alternatives to wideout with their first pick.

The Eagles need help on both sides of the ball, and the idea that Howie could once again ignore defense is nauseating. He’s spent most of his capital over the past two years trying to surround Wentz with weapons, and it’s time that the front office stops trying to please the quarterback and fan base with more skill position players, and time to invest in a defense that has been completely ignored since 2017.

The list of defensive players under 25 who the team can reasonably expect to contribute long term reads like this:

– Derek Barnett
– Hopefully, TJ Edwards
– Maybe Avonte Maddox? Cre’Von LeBlanc?

That’s it. That’s bad.

While the idea of adding Byron Jones to upgrade a perennially-leaky secondary is exciting, Jim Schwartz’s defense needs a serious injection of youth, and that can’t be fixed by free agency alone. If the Birds decide to wait until the middle rounds to address the receiver spot then here are three defensive players who they should look into with the 21st overall pick.

Xavier McKinney
Safety, Alabama

McKinney is a classic Alabama player — disciplined, athletically gifted, hard hitting — who should plug right in to any NFL defense. He has the versatility necessary to fill a variety of roles in the secondary (he played all over at ‘Bama) and he’s easily the top safety in the 2020 class.

Both Rodney McLeod and Malcolm Jenkins are on the wrong side of their prime, and the team is likely to move on from both at some point in the next few seasons. Nabbing one of their replacements in the meantime and allowing him to be that fifth defensive back in the rotation feels like an obvious move. Though it’s worth noting that this should’ve been the conventional wisdom the past two offseasons as well, yet the secondary went ignored on draft day — hopefully the third time’s the charm.

AJ Epenesa
DE, Iowa

The lifeblood of Jim Schwartz’s scheme is the pass rush. In 2017 the ability of the front four to stop the run while also being capable of generating pressure without blitz help is what allowed that defense to dominate all year long. Over the past two seasons the run-stopping has somewhat remained but the four-man pressure has dissipated, which had a trickle down effect of exposing a secondary that’s been bad for a while now.

Considering there’s no position harder to address in free agency than edge rusher, maybe Howie would be wise to use his first round pick on one. The Eagles had their eye on a handful in last year’s draft but didn’t pull the trigger; if Epenesa is available at 21 the Birds shouldn’t hesitate to draft the near plug-and-play product from Iowa.

Epenesa combines the country-tough, buttoned up technique that we’ve come to identify with the fly-over Big Ten schools (Iowa, Wisconsin, Nebraska etc…) with the necessary athleticism to be the clear second best edge player in the class behind Chase Young.

Epenesa possesses outstanding strength that allowed him to be an elite power rusher and run stopper at the college level, and both traits should easily translate to the pros. The questions that you hear about him regard his average athleticism, and a poor showing at the combine didn’t exactly help his case. With that said, much of the way he wins at the line doesn’t rely on athleticism — so long as he reaches a certain bar athletically, any additional explosion that he adds is merely gravy on top as opposed to being necessary for his success.

Schwartz likes his defensive ends to be well-rounded, and that describes Epenesa to a tee. On top of that there are some evaluators who think his best football came when Iowa kicked him inside to utilize his bull-rush — something we know the Birds are fond of doing with their ends.

I wouldn’t argue with you if you had concerns about Epenesa, but I’m betting on his elite college-level production and obvious physical tools winning the day.

Ross Blacklock

Blacklock is a prototypical one-gap 3-tech lineman that would fit perfect in Schwartz’s system. He’s an explosive, quick-twitch athlete with sound technique and more than enough size to hang in the NFL; physically speaking, he’s the full package.

He played two-gap at TCU but his skillset implies that he’ll be best utilized in Schwartz’s one gap scheme where he can use his elite tools to get upfield and penetrate opposing backfields. His potential as an interior pass rusher should appeal to a team looking for a shot in the arm in that department, and while he can be hit-or-miss in the run game, it’s hard to imagine a player of his ability not developing more consistency in this area.

It’s hard to gauge where exactly Blacklock will land, but it’s hard to deny that the Eagles are a team best positioned to unlock his elite potential. Check out his tape and tell me you don’t want to see what he could look like lined up next to Fletcher Cox.

I realize that wide receiver is the most likely route here, but given the depth at the position in this draft class it’s worth noting that they can find an almost equally exciting prospect at receiver in the second and even third rounds — the drop off seen at wide receiver from one round to the next is smaller relative to other positions. This is an even more relevant point when you factor in the purported depth of receivers in the 2020 class.

Howie and the Birds decision makers claim to use a “best player available” approach — though if you buy that line of BS you’re a fool — and if that’s the case I don’t know how they conclude any of the receivers beyond Lamb, Ruggs, or Juedy is top-20 on their board, but that’s just me.

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