With the NFL Scouting Combine on the immediate horizon, NFL Network's Mike Mayock took to the phone lines Tuesday to help preview this year's crop of incoming NFL talent. With a record 97 underclassmen entering the fray this year, Mayock said this year's draft is as impressive as he's seen in a long time.
"This is probably the deepest and best draft class that I've seen in 14 years," Mayock said on a conference call with NFL reporters. "That's been reinforced by most of the general managers and scouts that I've talked to throughout the league. I had one GM tell me the other day that having a top-20 pick this year is very similar to having a top-10 pick last year. I think there's more depth. I think there are certain positions that are stacked this year. You can get a quality player through three or four rounds."
With much of the focus on the emerging Eagles offense last season, the performance of a once-underachieving defense went unnoticed by some. But after the team spent three of its first four picks in last year's draft addressing the offense, there stands the possibility that the Eagles will turn their focus to the defense early and often this time around.
"I thought their defensive coordinator and their defensive staff did a phenomenal job last year because they had a group of guys that they just signed off the street as free agents and that defense went from very much a below-average defense to a playoff defense by the end of the season, without a lot of talent," Mayock said. "So I think Billy Davis and his guys did an excellent job. Now, when you go from there, now what? Well, (defensive tackle) Bennie Logan was a good pick last year. I think they're solid in that front-three area. They've got to get another edge guy. (Linebacker) Trent Cole had a heck of a year. He's a tough guy, he's getting a little bit older. (Linebacker) Connor Barwin is solid. But they need an edge guy at some point in this draft, in my opinion. And then on the back end, I think that's really the biggest need of this defense. They need people everywhere. I love (cornerback Brandon) Boykin, but I think he's best inside. They need a safety or two. They need a corner or two. I think they need to really concentrate on the back and on an edge rusher."
As for those specific potential areas of need, Mayock addressed the potential fits at No. 22, when the Eagles will select in the first round. Buffalo's Khalil Mack and UCLA's Anthony Barr are considered to be the premier 3-4 outside linebackers in the draft (Jadeveon Clowney notwithstanding), but Mayock would be surprised if either were available for the Eagles.
"I think Mack's a top-10 player. I actually think he's a top-five player," Mayock said. "I think Barr's got considerable upside and will be off the board before the Eagles pick. The one guy who's kind of interesting, and it might be a little bit high, is Dee Ford from Auburn. He's kind of that edge-rush guy. He doesn't have as much length as you might like and he might be more comparable to Bruce Irvin, who, remember, Seattle took at No. 15 two years ago. But he's a guy with some real edge burst and he's a guy who would fit what the Eagles do."
Meanwhile, at safety, there are two early frontrunners to be first-round picks: Calvin Pryor of Louisville and Hasean (Ha-Ha) Clinton-Dix of Alabama.
"I would have no problem with any team taking any one of them (10th overall)," Mayock said. "They're different flavors. To me, Calvin Pryor is like a bigger, stronger Bob Sanders. He flies around, he hits people, he explodes everywhere. I think he's better in the box than he is on the back end, and that may be just because of the way that Louisville asked him to play. Clinton-Dix, on the other hand, has better range. I think he's more of a deep-half guy. He tackles well. He can invert into the box. I think he's a complete player. Both of those guys, I wouldn't even blink if they went at No. 10, but it depends on what flavor you're looking for because they are different type players."
After Pryor and Clinton-Dix, Mayock says there are also plenty of safety options in the middle of the draft.
"Deone Bucanon from Washington State is probably a third-round guy," Mayock said. "Terrence Brooks from Florida State, third round. Ed Reynolds from Stanford is a third- or fourth-round free safety. They're three guys that I like. One of my favorite safeties from this draft is Jimmie Ward from Northern Illinois, but I'm not sure he's getting out of the second round."
If this year's draft is indeed as loaded as Mayock says, then the Eagles' espoused change in draft philosophy is sure to serve them well. The last two drafts, which imported the likes of Fletcher Cox, Mychal Kendricks, Nick Foles, Brandon Boykin, Lane Johnson, Zach Ertz and Bennie Logan, among others, marked a shifting of the guard to "best player available." In the years prior, the front office admittedly placed more emphasis on positions of need.
"I don't think it's one or the other," Mayock said. "I think it's a common sense approach to ... let's say we're picking in the second round at No. 46. You're picking at a number, you know what your team needs are and you know what your board says as far as the next best player available on your board. If you're picking 46th and the 21st-best player on your board is still sitting there, yet you've got a player at a position of need that's ranked 47th, I think you're crazy if you don't get the guy that's ranked 21st. You're just diluting your overall team talent. I think some teams still subscribe to best player available at a position of need and I think that's what the Eagles used to be, and I think you get in trouble there."
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