Philadelphia Eagles News

First-Round Hits Add Star Power To Roster

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They were lacking star power. As the Eagles assembled in the days following the 2015 season, the 7-9 mess that ended with a change at head coach and an organizational reshuffling on the football side, it became very apparent that one of the things the Eagles desperately needed was more blue-chip players.

Who were the difference-makers to build around on that roster? Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, offensive tackle Jason Peters, safety Malcolm Jenkins, and running back/return man Darren Sproles were voted into the Pro Bowl on a roster that just didn't stack up against the best in the NFC.

Two short seasons later, the Eagles have a roster that has improved by leaps and bounds. Intelligent moves by the personnel department headed by Howie Roseman and Joe Douglas have helped the Eagles vault to a 6-1 record to start 2017, and a couple of very good – to this point - drafts have infused the Eagles with an expanded base of good, talented, young players.

And the star power has emerged.

The first-round picks are making a difference on this football team.

"Hitting on those guys at the top of the draft sets the tone for the rest of the draft," Roseman said on Wednesday. "It really kind of sets it up in a nice way. When you make those picks, because they are the leaders of the draft class, you want to make sure they have the right intangibles, can overcome adversity, and have all those factors that you look for in addition to their on-field talent.

"A number of guys that we've taken in the first round had some early adversity and they've overcome it and they're playing well."

As 2015 concluded, the Eagles looked back and saw that they had mixed results in the previous handful of first rounds. Brandon Graham (2010) showed flashes after overcoming a knee injury in his rookie season, but had changed schemes and fronts from a 4-3 under Andy Reid to a 3-4 with Chip Kelly as head coach. Graham was about to make the move back to hand-in-the-dirt defensive end, so how would he fare?

The team's 2011 first-round draft pick, offensive guard Danny Watkins, was long gone, a big blow to the team's development in subsequent seasons. In 2012, Roseman traded up in the first round and the Eagles selected Cox, who had established himself as a prime-time player by 2015. Lane Johnson, the first-round pick in 2013, had the talent and the fit and all of that, but also had faced a four-game suspension and had another suspension on the way.

Marcus Smith, the defensive end/linebacker taken late in 2014, had not found a home in the defense by the end of 2015. Wide receiver Nelson Agholor, the 20th overall pick in 2015, was just coming off a rookie season hampered by a high ankle sprain.

There were, in short, too many misses in the first round of the draft.

That has changed in dramatic fashion for the 2017 Eagles. Graham has become a standout defensive end. Cox is a game-changing defensive tackle. Johnson is perhaps the best right tackle in the NFL, with his off-field problems behind him. Smith didn't make it and was released as the Eagles cut down to 53 players in September and now plays in Seattle, but the Eagles have more than made up for his lack of productivity.

Agholor has done a 180-degree turnaround and is a major part of the passing game.

"Brandon overcame adversity with his knee injury as a rookie and then the way he's come through the different schemes on defense and having Lane out there every week makes such a difference for us. Early in his career, he was viewed as someone who hadn't fulfilled his potential and is currently one of the best players on our team and, at his position, is one of the best players in the National Football League," Roseman said.

"The way Nelson has improved internally, the way he just came back here in the spring with a smile on his face and left everything that happened in the past behind him and then stepped up and is playing so well for us, it's made a big difference."

So has making the right calls at the top of the drafts in 2016 and 2017. Roseman engineered a well-documented series of moves to get the Eagles to No. 2 overall in the 2016 draft, from which the team selected quarterback Carson Wentz after the Los Angeles Rams took Jared Goff at the very top. Wentz's rapid and remarkable development in just 23 career starts has vaulted the Eagles to the best record in the NFL through seven weeks.

  was the easy selection after a record-setting college career, and Barnett has worked right into the very strong defensive end rotation. He's played in 44 percent of the defensive snaps with 11 total tackles and 2.5 quarterback sacks, including two on Monday night in the win over Washington and a shared quarterback sack the week before in Carolina.

"He was close in the early part of the season," Roseman said. "He's a good player and he'll continue to get better and better. He's one of those guys who, we expect, will make a big jump from Year 1 to Year 2 as he gets bigger and stronger and has a real offseason to develop."

Suddenly, the production from the top of the draft has made a difference. The star power is back. The Eagles are rocking and rolling at 6-1.

It is not a coincidence.

"It's so important to get it right at the top of the draft," Roseman said. "The hit rate is 60 percent, but the percentage goes down the deeper into the first round you go. There are never 32 first-round grades in a single draft, so you have to make the right decisions on when to stay where you are and trust your board, or when you want to move out of the first round.

"With Carson in 2016 and then Derek in 2017, we feel like we've been able to get two pieces that we think are going to be key for us moving forward, and we feel like we followed up those picks by adding some other players who are already helping us and who are going to be a big part of things to come.

"It starts at the top of the draft, no doubt. You need to get that right."

The Eagles have done that, and see where it's helped get them. Just like that, in a span of two seasons, the roster has an entirely different feel, a much more promising look, and some star punch up and down the 53-man lineup.

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