By now I'm sure most of you have read about or heard analysts discussing the Eagles draft picks and rookie free agents. I think we should turn the focus to how the players will fit onto the roster and how they can impact the team.
Let's start with receiver Jeremy Maclin, the Eagles' first-round pick. I didn't talk about him much in the last few months because I just didn't think he was a realistic target. The Eagles were lucky to have him fall a bit and then moved up two spots to get him. I know that Maclin has a lot of Eagles fans excited. The team added a playmaking receiver.
I have to warn you. Don't expect Maclin to be DeSean Jackson, Part 2. That is an unfair standard. Jackson had a very good rookie year. That was an anomaly. Very few rookie receivers play like that. Maclin has the talent and ability to be very good, but don't expect him to catch 60 passes and have a huge impact on the passing game.
While Maclin is very talented, he has a tough adjustment ahead of him. Let's compare his situation to Jackson's. Maclin played two years at Missouri. Jackson was at Cal for three seasons. Maclin played in the spread offense. Jackson played in a pro style attack that threw the ball downfield. Maclin played with Chase Daniel, a great college quarterback, but someone with limited physical skills. Jackson played with pro style quarterbacks that had strong arms and threw the ball with a lot of zip.
Maclin has to learn how to run precise routes and get open. He didn't do that in college. The spread offense features a lot of screen passes to the wideouts. Most of the passes thrown are 10 yards or less. The goal is to spread out the defense and throw the ball quickly so that the receiver can make a play. In theory, that sounds somewhat like the West Coast offense, but in reality it is very, very different. Pro teams run standard routes like the slant, the dig, the out, the post, the corner and the go route. You aren't going to get five screen passes thrown to one wide receiver in a game. Teams will use that on a semi-regular basis, but that is more like five times in a month.
The transition to the pro game will be tough, but Maclin is very bright and he's got a strong supporting cast. Donovan McNabb can be a tremendous help for a young player. Maclin can pick the brain of guys like Kevin Curtis, Reggie Brown and even Jackson. That said, I still think Maclin isn't going to get as much time on offense as some fans might be expecting. Don't look for him to challenge for a starting job this season.
I think the Eagles will use Maclin creatively. My guess is that he will be the primary return specialist. That would let Jackson concentrate solely on playing receiver. Safety Quintin Demps can concentrate solely on playing defense. He'll be competing for a starting spot so giving his kickoff return duties to Maclin would make sense. Maclin will get used on offense. He's too much of a dynamic playmaker not to get touches.
The key thing with Maclin is getting the ball in his hands. He is elusive, fast and has a great burst. He can turn any play into a long gain or possibly a touchdown. I think the Eagles will do several things. They will throw him a screen pass or two each game. He's comfortable with that play and it fits his skill set. Maclin can play quarterback when the Eagles use the Wildcat formation. He did that at Missouri. I also think he'll be used plenty on reverses and end arounds. Maclin had 91 carries in his two-year college career. He averaged more than 7 yards per carry and ran for six touchdowns. It doesn't matter how they do it, but the Eagles do need to try to get him the ball three to five times a game on offense.
The rookie who could have a significant impact this year is second-round pick LeSean McCoy. He will likely be the primary backup at running back. The Eagles will give him a chance early in camp to show what he can handle. If he struggles, they will adjust and split those reps between Leonard Weaver and Lorenzo Booker. If McCoy shows that he's ready, the Eagles will use him.
A lot of people think Andy Reid is against playing rookies. That isn't the case. He gives them a chance to show in the camps and preseason what they are ready for. Those who can handle it are mixed in right away. Duce Staley got hurt in 2001 and Reid put fourth-round pick Correll Buckhalter in as the starter. He did well and the team used him even when Staley came back that season. L.J. Smith had two passes thrown his way on the opening drive of his rookie season. Both were in the end zone. Last year, Jackson started because Brown was hurt. Once Brown came back, Jackson remained as the starter. He was simply too good to pull out of the lineup.
McCoy has a good opportunity in front of him. He won't have a huge adjustment to the NFL from a scheme standpoint. McCoy played in a pro style offense at Pitt. He ran mostly out of the I-formation. He can catch the ball, on screens or out in space. His blocking needs work, but he at least knows what needs to be done in a conventional passing game.
There are a couple of areas that McCoy does need to work on. He swings the ball when he runs. Our old buddy Tiki Barber did this for most of his career and he had a major fumbling problem. The coaches will need to get McCoy to hold the ball high and tight. Fumbles will earn him a spot in the coach's doghouse. McCoy also has to break the habit of always trying to go outside. He's a bit like Reggie Bush in that sense. He needs to be more of a north-south runner. This is something the coaching staff can work on as well.
At Pitt, McCoy was the heart and soul of the offense. Without his big plays, the offense would struggle. His situation with the Eagles couldn't be more different. He'll get five to eight carries a game and maybe a pass or two. All he needs to do is get upfield. The big plays will be expected to come in the passing game or from Brian Westbrook. If McCoy can bust a big run, that's great. He won't have the pressure of carrying the offense on his back.
McCoy has tremendous potential. If he listens to the coaches and plays up to his ability, the sky is the limit. He reminds me quite a bit of former Eagle Charlie Garner. McCoy will be a lot of fun to watch. He can make some incredible cuts and moves. We know McCoy is a very talented runner. He has to show the coaches that he can be an effective blocker and receiver and that they can trust him not to turn the ball over. If that happens, he could get decent playing time in 2009 and really help out the running game.
Tight end Cornelius Ingram fell all the way to the fifth round. Reportedly teams were concerned about his ACL. The Eagles at that point probably felt like Ingram was too good value-wise to ignore. He is a very athletic, very talented player. The focus is on making sure his knee is sound and able to go.
Reid said the Eagles would use Ingram in the post-draft mini-camp. They'll work him in aggressively and see what he can do. If his knee holds up, Ingram could really help. I don't think he can take the starting job from Brent Celek this year. Ingram was in the slot or out wide most of the time at Florida. He needs to work on his ability to play in-line. His blocking will likely need a lot of work. Still, you can't ignore his ability. Use Ingram as the No. 2 tight end. Get him the ball down the field. Line him up out wide and throw a slant pass to him. Hopefully he can help in the red zone as well.
Defensive back Macho Harris is a player I loved watching this past season. He isn't the biggest or fastest, but he's got good instincts and is a playmaker. There is always room for a guy like that in the secondary. I'm not sure whether the coaches want him at safety or cornerback. He can handle either spot. He played corner at Virginia Tech. At the very least, he could be a terrific special teams player. The Hokies put a great deal of emphasis on special teams. Harris can help cover and also has return ability.
Wide receiver Brandon Gibson has an uphill battle to make the roster, but I like his size and skill set. He is over 200 pounds. He played in a pro style offense for most of his career. He understands the importance of running routes and working to get open. He's very good on crossing routes. Gibson is so-so athletically, but he's got very good hands. He is experienced and a good fit for the West Coast offense.
The Eagles took a pair of offensive linemen, Fenuki Tupou and Paul Fanaika, in the fifth and seventh rounds respectively. Tupou played left tackle at Oregon, but will move to the right side in the NFL. He has some ability and will challenge for the backup spot on the right side. Fanaika played guard at Arizona State. He is a good run blocker with a nasty streak. He's big and has long arms. The Eagles may try him at tackle, but I don't think he has the footwork or athleticism to play there. He isn't a gifted pass blocker.
The Eagles' final pick of the draft was linebacker Moise Fokou. He stood out to me last summer when I was watching tape of Maryland's players in preparation for the season. Fokou is a good athlete. He's got playmaking ability. He should be in the mix at weakside linebacker. He has the kind of cover skills you want in someone at that spot, but needs to work on his ability to shed blocks. I think Fokou is still raw as a linebacker, so he might be more likely to end up on the practice squad than the roster. We'll see how he adjusts to the pro game this summer.
Here are some thoughts on a couple of the college free agents added by the Eagles. The most interesting player is running back Walter Mendenhall of Illinois State. This young man did not have the typical college career. Mendenhall started off at Illinois. He was redshirted for the 2004 season. The coaches moved him to linebacker in 2005. He played as a reserve and on special teams. The next year they moved him back to offense. He got two carries in the season opener, but didn't touch the ball the rest of the year. 2007 rolled along and it was his junior season. They left him on offense, but he only got touches in one game. He had four carries for 57 yards in a game at Minnesota. At the end of that season, Mendenhall decided he needed to transfer if he was ever going to get on the field.
Mendenhall headed off to Illinois State for the 2008 season. He began as a backup. The coach was being loyal to guys who'd been there already. The starting runner got hurt late in the year and Mendenhall got the job. He rushed for 225 yards in his first start. He ran for 560 yards and scored seven touchdowns in the final four games of the season, when he was the primary ball carrier. He led the team in rushing for the season.
If he has talent, why couldn't Mendenhall get on the field? At Illinois, he was stuck behind future NFL backs like Pierre Thomas and Rashard Mendenhall (his brother). They also let the quarterback run quite a bit. That ate up even more carries. Could Walter be the Matt Cassell of running backs? That has to be what the Eagles are hoping.
Mendenhall has NFL size at 6-0 and 225 pounds. He has good speed. He is strong enough to break arm tackles. He has pretty good vision and he can make some impressive cuts, especially for a big guy. He has quite a bit of potential. He made the Big Ten's All-Academic team a couple of times so hopefully he's a smart, high-character guy who understands what is at stake and will work his butt off so he can have a shot to earn a roster spot or a place on the practice squad. I'm very intrigued by Mendenhall. He is the kind of runner that the Eagles could use. Weaver and Kyle Eckel may fill the role of the big back in 2009, but Mendenhall could be the long-term answer at that spot, if he works hard and plays well. He won't get a ton of touches in the camps or preseason so he has to take advantage of every chance he gets.
Marcus Mailei has a shot to be the fullback of the future. He started for three years at Weber State. He can run, block and catch. The Eagles liked him enough that they brought him to Philadelphia for a pre-draft visit. He has the talent and experience to challenge for a roster spot this year. The big question for him is whether he can handle the jump from FCS football to the NFL.
Safety Reshard Langford was a four-year starter at Vanderbilt. He's most comfortable playing the run and lining up in the box, but he did have 11 career interceptions. Langford is a good hitter and tackler. He has a good combination of size and athletic ability. Anyone who starts four years at an SEC school has a chance to make an NFL roster. Remember that Quintin Mikell wasn't drafted back in 2003, but he's been a fixture on the Eagles roster since the day he got to Philadelphia.
The Eagles brought in quite a few good players last weekend. They added playmakers who are fast, skilled and versatile. I can't wait to see these guys on the field. Get 'em signed, keep 'em healthy and 2009 could be a lot of fun.