By Matt Santoleri
The Philadelphia Eagles went into last season one of the heavy favorites to come out of the NFC and had serious contender buzz going into the start. The expectations were high for Doug Pederson and Carson Wentz going into 2019 and the emphasis on getting Wentz weapons like DeSean Jackson and Jordan Howard via trade and Miles Sanders and JJ Arcega-Whiteside in the draft, only fueled this narrative.
While there were plenty of bright spots along the way, the drop off in play from players like Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor along with almost no production from JJAW in his rookie season, have left fans clamoring for the Eagles to take a wide receiver at No. 21 in this upcoming draft. I can’t say that I blame fans for wanting this to be a big focus in this upcoming draft and free agency period but I feel like the need for this team in the secondary is equally, if not more important, to address in this years draft.
Getting younger across the board is something this team needs to accomplish in 2020 and after locking up Wentz to do this for the offense last season, figuring out who is going to anchor the back end of this defense for the foreseeable future is a huge priority this season.
First off, lets evaluate where the Eagles secondary is right now. Pro Football Focus, or PFF, evaluated all 8 of the Eagles CB’s who received significant snaps (Darby, Mills, Maddox, Jones, Douglas, LeBlanc, James, and Scandrick) and not a single one of them scored above a 70 rating on the season.
PFF rankings are not the end all be all but in this case they back up the raw counting stats we have to look at like the league leading 16 times the Eagles gave up a pass play of 40-plus yards. With Darby, Mills, and Safety Rodney McLeod, all UFA’s this year and three time Pro-Bowler Malcom Jenkins willing to hold out if he doesn’t see a bump in pay from the $7.6 million dollar base salary he’s looking at in 2020, this team has to and will look different next season. Here are a few players that I would like to see the Eagles use that No. 21 pick in the draft to target.
1. Xavier McKinney S, Alabama
If I had my dream pick for the Philadelphia Eagles it would probably be Oklahoma wide receiver CeeDee Lamb or Ohio State CB Jeffrey Okudah.
But since that’s a highly unlikely thing to happen if the Eagles stay at 21, Safety Xavier McKinney out of Alabama is the next closest thing to a home run. He easily the most versatile secondary player in this draft with the ability to play slot corner, hybrid LB (which we know with Jenkins usage in this role the Eagles value this), and anywhere you would want to line up a traditional safety.
Instinctive in zone coverage with a knack for fighting through the catch point to disrupt passes and solid enough in man coverage while never shying away from contact in the run game.
His 95 tackles, 5.5 TFL, three sacks, three INT, four FF and five PBU’s show how well-rounded McKinney’s game is already without NFL caliber coaching. The Eagles must prepare for life after McLeod right now and Jenkins soon at the very least, and this move gives them the ability to use their 1st RD pick right away plus look towards the future with a natural Jenkins replacement.
2. Kristian Fulton CB, LSU
The one thing we have seen from DC Jim Schwartz is that he isn’t afraid to ask his CB’s to stay on an island and defend 1-1 with little to no help. The problem is that Schwartz just hasn’t had the personnel to fully commit to this and because of that I think giving him a smart and athletic corner like Fulton who has some of the best press man skills of any DB in this class would be a step in the right direction.
While his tackling skills could stand to improve, and under Schwartz they will have to, in SEC play he was PFF’s highest graded CB and he allowed only 41.3% of passes thrown his way to be completed in games against teams from the best conference in college football. Think this fluid and sticky corner would fit in beautifully in green.
3. C.J. Henderson CB, Florida
I know Howie has gotten himself into trouble in past drafting players based on their college output and not how they project at the next level (Rasul Douglas, Donnel Pumphrey, and JJAW to name a few) but CJ Henderson is not the player who will have trouble in the NFL. Long and lanky he has an ideal body composition to play CB in the NFL and the skills to match.
Playing in the SEC he was regularly matched up with talented WR’s, some of which will be hearing their names called right around this very spot, and he matched them in athleticism and agility allowing only 28 first downs on 637 coverage snaps over the past two years at Florida.
Like most of the secondary prospects on this list, minus McKinney, his tackling skills are the area where improvement must be made. His six career interceptions at Florida, despite not getting last season, and 11 pass break ups in 2019 alone make him an intriguing fit as the future lock-down CB this team so desperately needs.
4. Grant Delpit S, LSU
There is a reason why the LSU Tigers went undefeated en route to hoisting that National Championship trophy and while Joe Burrow and the offense had a lot to say about it so did this defense. 2019 Jim Thorpe Award winner, given away to the nations best defensive back, Grant Delpit was a big part in making offense across the country fear playing the Tigers.
Like McKinney, Delpit is an extremely versatile defender who can line up all over the field including the box as a hybrid LB. Good skill in both man and zone and has legit ball skills that should translate to the next level.
He even showed an improvement in the tackling game which was the biggest knock on him coming into the season while further developing the physicality of his game that made him a preseason top 10 pick for most draft pundits. I still think McKinney is the better all around fit as the do it all safety of the future, but Delpit could end up being just as valuable for Philly if he’s the one on the board at 21.
5. Trevon Diggs CB, Alabama
Pretty crazy that Howie Roseman has yet to take a player from Alabama, one of the most consistent college programs of the last 20 years that continuously pumps out NFL caliber talent, so here I go giving Howie another Crimson Tide player to possibly break that streak on. At 6-foot-2, Trevon Diggs is one of the larger CB’s in the top end of the draft board and he tends to play like it in the coverage game.
Really solid length gives him the ability to reroute defenders and showcase good man and zone coverage skills all over the field. He also was a two-way player the first few years of his college career and showed some flashes in the kicking game as a return man. His biggest flaw is in the tackling game where he tends to not use that large frame to be more psychical in getting guys down. Think the pluses in his game outweigh the negatives and his versatility on special teams offers a tantalizing package at 21.
As you can see the options for this team at 21 are plentiful and they have a bunch of different ways to go depending on how they choose to allocate the near 41 million in salary cap space the Eagles are poised to have.
If they decide to lock down Jenkins for a solid deal and or bring back Rodney McLeod than maybe going the CB route with Fulton, Henderson, or Diggs makes the most amount of sense.
If they are unsure about the future of Jenkins and or allow McLeod to walk in free agency, then finding a cornerstone replacement in McKinney or Delpit makes the most amount of sense.
Free agents like CB Byron Jones, CB Chris Harris Jr, and S Anthony Harris highlight the available free agent list but will all cost a good chunk of change to get done. With Wentz’s new deal about ready to go into place the margin for error will get slimmer too.
This means that having players who are big time contributors on cheap and team friendly contracts is imperative. That’s why no matter what the Eagles do in free agency they should be looking to get considerably younger and more athletic in the back-end of their defense, and at least one of the five players
I highlighted here should be hearing their name called at pick 21 on April 23rd in Las Vegas. *