The year was 2003, April to be exact, and the Philadelphia Eagles were in the midst of a bit of a run. They had reached the NFC Championship Game in each of the two previous seasons and they had a new stadium, Lincoln Financial Field, to open and the expectations were Super Bowl-sized. A good roster had its core intact. But there was at least one glaring hole – created by the departure of Hugh Douglas, who signed with Jacksonville in free agency, taking with him 12.5 of the team's NFL-best 56 quarterback sacks from the 2002 season.
Defensive end was a problem heading into the NFL Draft.
Having the 30th overall pick in what was deemed a weak defensive end crop didn't help matters, either. So, the Eagles made the move to trade up. They sent the 30th pick and the 62nd overall selection (second round) to the San Diego Chargers and moved up to No. 15 overall in the first round. With that pick, the Eagles filled the void, selecting Jerome McDougle from the University of Miami. McDougle, the third of three straight ends that went off the board – Ty Warren to New England, Michael Haynes to Chicago – wasn't the answer. Pretty much like all four ends (although, to be fair, Warren played eight-plus seasons in the NFL) taken in that first round (Tyler Brayton went to Oakland with the 32nd overall pick).
McDougle had two ineffective seasons, with a total of two quarterback sacks, before being shot just prior to the start of Training Camp in 2005. He missed all of 2005 and had just one quarterback sack in the 2006 season, his final with the Eagles. He played four games with the Giants in 2006 and that was it for his NFL career.
Those 56 quarterback sacks the Eagles recorded in 2002? That number dropped to 38 sacks in 2003 (tied for ninth in the NFL). N.D. Kalu led the defensive end group with 5.5 sacks. Brandon Whiting had two. Oh, the Eagles reached the NFC Championship Game once again after the fourth-and-26 miracle in the Divisional Round against Green Bay, but they were shut down by Carolina and another season ended in disappointment.
The moral of the story: Don't draft for positional need.
It comes back to bite you for years to come. It's a mantra that every single team in the NFL believes, and yet sometimes, it's just so hard to avoid when the draft arrives.
The NFL Draft wasn't kind to the Eagles in 2003. In addition to selecting McDougle – Pittsburgh took USC safety Troy Polamalu, a future Hall of Famer, with the next and could you imagine what the back end of the Eagles' defense would have looked like with Polamalu teaming with Brian Dawkins? – the Eagles picked Rutgers tight end L.J. Smith in the second round (leaving Jason Witten on the board for Dallas), Virginia wide receiver Billy McMullen in the third round, Miami defensive end Jamaal Green in the fourth round, offensive lineman Jeremy Bridges in the sixth round, and LSU safety Norman LeJeune in the seventh round.
Lessons from the past serve as important reminders for the present as the Eagles prepare for April 23-25. The goal prior to the draft is to address areas of need so that the team avoids the dreaded "drafting for need." And, by the looks of the roster, the Eagles have built up their defense to the point where, on paper, it is a much-improved group. The offense? The Eagles want to surround quarterback Carson Wentz with as many playmakers as possible, for sure, and think that having a healthy roster of players is the first step toward doing just that.
Late in the 2019 season, when the Eagles were just getting their traction in the NFC East, I asked head coach Doug Pederson about what it would take to get the offense to where he wanted it to be. His answer: "I think getting some pieces back is what we need. We felt pretty good about what we had before injuries took their toll."
With just over a week to go before the draft begins, what do the Eagles need on offense? Depth is always a need for the line of scrimmage. With only Nate Sudfeld and Kyle Lauletta behind Wentz in the quarterback room, that's a position that could be addressed at some point. Running back? With just three on the roster now, it's a position that will be bolstered. Tight end? The Eagles are in great shape with Zach Ertz/Dallas Goedert/Joshua Perkins/Alex Ellis. Wide receiver? Sure, but the Eagles truly do think that DeSean Jackson is going to be an explosive factor this season and that Alshon Jeffery is going to be healthy and in a "prove-it" mentality and that Greg Ward will be another year better in the slot and that J.J. Arcega-Whiteside will take a step from his rookie campaign.
Here's the point, if you haven't already come to the conclusion I'm getting at: The Eagles don't need to force a position in the draft. They can let the draft come to them, if they choose. With eight selections and the understanding that the volume of picks is important, the Eagles aren't in need of that "one player to fill a hole" at the expense of a couple of picks.
I have absolutely no idea what the team is going to do with the 21st overall pick on April 23. I know that Howie Roseman and Andy Weidl and Doug Pederson are going through every scenario and preparing for the unique logistics of the stay-at-home draft. And I think that the Eagles feel that they don't have to "reach" in the draft and they can have flexibility to go up and down in each round because they've got assets in hand and some freedom to move.
That 2003 draft wasn't a good one, and yet the Eagles were able to overcome the lack of production and go deep into the playoffs that season and reach Super Bowl XXXIX in the 2004 season. It serves as a lesson, though, one that is handy to remember at this time of the year: Don't reach for positional needs. Stay true to your board, trust your scouts and the opinions you've formed as a group, and make smart decisions.