There was no question that Fletcher Cox would be an immediate starter when he was drafted back in 2012. The Eagles needed a player like him up front. It was also expected that linebacker Mychal Kendricks would start right away. The team needed his athletic ability in the middle of the field. Last year, everyone knew Lane Johnson would be the starting right tackle. The Eagles had a hole in the lineup and he had the potential to be very good very quickly.
What about the new rookies? Will any start? What kind of impact will they have?
A couple of points have to be made before the question can really be addressed. The Eagles had strong drafts in 2012 and 2013. The roster doesn't have nearly as many holes as it did in the previous couple of years. Cox and Johnson stepped right into starting roles. That kind of situation just doesn't exist this year. The Eagles' projected starting lineup is set. Obviously things change due to injury and performance (both good and bad), but right now there aren't any expected openings. That wasn't the case in recent years. The better a team gets, the less rookies are looked to for immediate impact.
The Eagles are coming off a division title. That made the regular season a lot of fun, but it pushed the team down in the draft order. Johnson was the fourth overall pick. Cox went 12th. This year, the Eagles were all the way down at the 22nd pick.
First-round pick Marcus Smith II is a player who should become a key starter for the Eagles in time, but don't look for him to unseat Trent Cole right away. Smith has everything it takes to succeed in the NFL, but he will have to learn the Eagles scheme and he will have to adjust to NFL competition. I expect the coaches will mix Smith into gameplans right away to see what he can do. He is instantly the Eagles' most athletic outside linebacker and that is important in the 3-4.
Smith could simply get reps while Cole sits or the coaches could get creative. They could mix Smith into the 3-3-5 looks the team likes to use. Last year, Cole was a defensive end in that set. The linebackers were Connor Barwin, DeMeco Ryans and Kendricks. I'm hoping the addition of Smith will allow for more of a rotation. Smith has the versatility to handle different roles in different looks. I'm sure that is one of the reasons the Eagles were so high on him.
The Eagles traded up in the second round to get Jordan Matthews. He may not technically be a starter, but Matthews could be the primary slot receiver, which is a key role in today's NFL. On some teams that player is a starter. We don't know head coach Chip Kelly's plans for the offense, but he does use a lot of three-receiver sets so Matthews will be on the field a lot.
Jason Avant was the slot receiver last year. He was a key member of the offense despite catching only 38 passes. Avant was the best blocking wide receiver. That may not sound critical, but Kelly would strongly disagree with you. Go back and re-watch the Lions game. A couple of LeSean McCoy's long runs were due to good blocks by receivers. Avant had a key block on one of them.
Matthews was a good blocker at Vanderbilt. He has the size and strength to be a good blocker in the NFL. Just as important, Matthews has the right attitude. He will do anything he can to help the team. If that means blocking a safety or even a linebacker, so be it. Matthews will also get his chance to help as a receiver. He could actually catch more passes than Avant. Matthews is much faster than Avant and also has better run after the catch skills. You want to get the ball to Matthews to see what he can do. Avant was a sure-handed receiver. His specialty was getting open and making the catch. Kelly loves to throw quick screens. Matthews ran a ton of those at Vanderbilt and can contribute right away on screens.
Josh Huff was the team's third-round pick. The Eagles' top three receivers were productive in 2013, but things fell off dramatically after that. The next three guys - Damaris Johnson, Jeff Maehl and Brad Smith - totaled eight catches for the season. Huff isn't a typical No. 4 receiver, though. He comes in as a high pick. He knows the offense from having played for Kelly at Oregon. Yes, there are differences, but the core should be very similar. Huff is a mystery man. The key for Huff is to shine when he does get chances. That will force the coaches to find a way to mix him in. I do think Huff can be a terrific slot receiver in the NFL.
The Eagles really wanted defensive back Jaylen Watkins. They tried to trade down a few spots, but didn't want to go far because they feared losing Watkins. Eventually they decided the risk wasn't worth moving at all and they picked him with the opening selection of the fourth round. I expect Watkins to be a starting cornerback as early as 2015. The Eagles like Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher for this year, but the future is wide open.
It may seem odd that Watkins wasn't a full-time starting corner at Florida, but I project him to start in the NFL. We see this from time to time. Players who go to huge football schools can get overshadowed by someone in college. The NFL is a different story. Cam Wake is a dominant pass rusher for the Dolphins. He was a solid player at Penn State, but nothing special there. He has proven to be a great fit for the NFL. Matt Cassel never started at USC, but he's had a solid NFL career.
Watkins did start 28 games at Florida. He split them between corner, safety and playing the slot. Forget any discussion of him at safety. Watkins has terrific man-to-man cover skills. He needs to play corner. He can play the slot if needed, but with his size and physicality, I think he'll be a good fit for the Eagles on the outside. As for this year, expect Watkins to be mixed into the defense in certain packages. He won't really be needed unless there are injuries, but the coaches will give him a chance to show what he can do.
Tommy Lawlor, goeagles99 on the Discussion Boards, is an amateur football scout and devoted Eagles fan. He is the Editor of IgglesBlitz.com and was a contributor to the Eagles Almanac.
Taylor Hart was taken with the first pick in the fifth round, but he's got a chance to be a key role player. The Eagles have a terrific set of starters on the defensive line, but depth is wide open. Hart will battle 2013 draft pick Joe Kruger for the chance to be the backup at left end. Both guys have good size and athletic ability. Hart has an advantage because he played in a two-gap scheme in college and can fit in quickly. Kruger has the advantage of having been around the NFL for a year. He was on injured reserve in 2013, but did play last summer and got to attend meetings during the season. Hart needs to adjust his body for the NFL. He is 281 pounds now, but will need to be in the 295 range to be an every down NFL player. He could start down the line, but for now he needs to show he can be an effective backup.
The Eagles took Ed Reynolds later on in the fifth round. He's got the toughest situation of any rookie. Reynolds steps into a crowded, competitive battle at safety. Malcolm Jenkins, Nate Allen, Earl Wolff, Chris Maragos, Keelan Johnson and Reynolds will all be battling for playing time and roster spots. Putting extra pressure on Reynolds is the fact he will be hurt by the NCAA's graduation rule. He is in Philly this weekend, but then must leave until Stanford has graduation on June 15. There will be some valuable practices and meetings in that period. I was shocked that Reynolds lasted as long as he did in the draft so I'm very curious to see how he plays.
Beau Allen was the final Eagles pick. He will come in with the chance to fight for a key spot. Bennie Logan is the starting nose tackle, but things are wide open behind him. Damion Square is the current backup. Allen is 330 pounds and a natural nose tackle. He is exactly what the Eagles need for depth. Square won't give up his spot easily. You can bet he got bigger and stronger during the offseason. Allen could prove to be starting material down the road. He isn't an athlete or playmaker, but if you want a big guy who will eat up blocks and do the dirty work, he could be just what you're looking for.
The rookies may not start a whole lot of games, but you can bet they will be important for this team as the Eagles try to take the next step. Going 10-6 and winning the division was a great start, but this team wants more than that. This group of rookies provides depth and competition. That should help to push the Eagles forward.