NFC East Draft Needs: What Will the Eagles Do?
The NFL Draft is a no-holds-barred, high-stakes affair.
And the stakes don't get much higher than in the first round, where the right selection can transform the make-up of your franchise with a rising superstar such as Odell Beckham, Jr., or handcuff your team with a dud such as Ron Dayne.
In the NFC East, Chip Kelly kicked off the 2015 season with a number of head-turning moves to bolster his offense, and many indications suggest he's not yet done shaking up this side of his roster. Some, therefore, expect his division rivals to respond in turn by also bolstering their offenses with early picks in this year's draft.
But with above-average play by most of the teams in the NFC East on the offensive side of the ball in 2014 -- if you don't count Washington's football team, that is -- the more than likely scenario on day one will be to see a renewed emphasis on the defensive end by these teams instead.
Biggest Needs: Running Back, Defensive Tackle
Last season, new offensive coordinator Scott Linehan surprised the league and relied on a run-heavy gameplan to lead the Cowboys to a 12-4 record and a first-place finish in the NFC East. And on the back of DeMarco Murray's 1,845 yards on the ground and 12 touchdowns, Dallas' running game flourished as they ranked ninth in the league in Adjusted Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP is our signature football metric, and by factoring in on-field variables such as down-and-distance, it works to add context to traditional box score statistics and ultimately quantifies a player or team's production above or below league average.
With the Cowboys offense revolving around the running game and Murray's jumping ship to join Dallas' division rival in Philadelphia, the logical conclusion is that Dallas must then select a running back with their 27th overall pick.
Widely considered as two once-in-a-generation prospects at running back, many are projecting Dallas to call either Todd Gurley or Melvin Gordon's name on April 30th as their first-round selection. Todd Gurley has drawn comparisons to Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch with his powerful running style. Gordon himself has a good case for being the NFL's next great running back.
Thus, both Gurley and Gordon make for perfect candidates to take over the lead back position DeMarco Murray vacated this past offseason.
However, with an incredibly deep and talented class at running back this season, and with their imposing offensive line garnering much of the credit for Murray's success on the ground last year, a strong argument can be made that the Cowboys can afford to wait for a running back such as Jay Ajayi, Ameer Abduallah, or even Duke Johnson to fall to them at the 60th overall pick on day two.
Indeed, the Cowboys have more pressing concerns on their defensive line that must be addressed. During the past few seasons, Dallas has ranked near the bottom of the league in generating pressure on the quarterback. Last season Dallas ranked 28th in the league with just 28 total sacks and fell to 23rd in the league in Adjusted Defensive Passing Net Expected Points (NEP), allowing 69.70 points more than a league average team would have in the same circumstances they saw.
It becomes clear, therefore, that with a number of game-changing interior defensive lineman projected to be available at the end of round one, Dallas would be better served choosing one of these playmakers to begin shoring up their needs on the defensive side of the ball.
With his size and knack for getting to the quarterback, 6' 2", 320-pound defensive tackle Malcolm Brown out of Texas presents the perfect cure for what ails Dallas' passing defense. Brown demonstrated his prowess in penetrating the backfield last season at Texas as he led the team with 15 tackles for loss, 14 quarterback pressures, and 6.5 sacks to go along with his 72 total tackles. Considered a top-five prospect at his position with a first-round grade, Malcolm Brown would be a steal for Dallas long after fellow defensive tackles Leonard Williams and Danny Shelton have come off the board.
Potential Picks: DT Malcolm Brown (Texas), RB Todd Gurley (Georgia), RB Melvin Gordon (Wisconsin)
Biggest Needs: Cornerback, Safety, Wide Receiver
As Chip Kelly continues to turn over the roster and mold the Eagles into the image of his former Oregon Ducks team, nearly every analyst has predicted a Marcus Mariota-Chip Kelly reunion. But with the trade of Nick Foles for Sam Bradford -- a quarterback well-versed in the uptempo style Chip wants to run in Philadelphia -- and the recent signing of Tim Tebow, the use of a first round pick on this position seems unreasonable.
If you're looking for reasonable, Chip Kelly is not your man.
But in the event that Chip Kelly can be reasoned with and convinced not to go after Mariota, there are two areas of need that will likely be addressed by the Eagles on day one.
Ranking in the bottom-12 in points allowed and 20th in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play (allowing 0.09 points per play), Philadelphia has a clear need to address in the secondary. Beyond this, the trade of DeSean Jackson to Washington last year and the departure of Jeremy Maclin (and his 1318 receiving yards, 10 touchdowns, and 111.2 Reception NEP, which ranked 10th in the NFL last year) to Kansas City this offseason has also left Philadelphia relatively thin at the wide receiver position.
Should the Eagles choose to shore up their cornerback position and find a young stud to pair alongside Byron Maxwell, the two likeliest candidates are UConn's Byron Jones and Wake Forest's Kevin Johnson. Both players are more than capable athletes as Jones and Johnson both rated in as top-performers in nearly every NFL Combine event they participated in. On this note, Jones actually shattered a Combine and world record in the broad jump with his 147-inch leap.
Displaying great instincts and coverage abilities during their collegiate careers, where Jones edges out Johnson is their size. While Jones stands at an ideal 6' 1" and 199 pounds, Johnson is a bit undersized for the position, possessing a lanky 6' 0", 188 pound frame. Indeed, Chip Kelly has already shown strong interest in Jones, as he met with the cornerback prospect at UConn's Pro Day a few weeks back.
Should the Eagles go after a wide receiver with their 20th pick, Central Florida wideout Breshad Perriman would be an ideal option for this team. Another physical speciman in this year's draft, Perriman is widely considered as the fourth-best wide receiver in another deep class, behind only Amari Cooper, Kevin White, and DaVante Parker. Perriman has been flying up the draft charts with his Pro Day performance in which he measured a 4.24 40-yard dash time, 36.5 inch vertical leap, and 127-inch broad jump. While still raw in his route running, at 6' 2" and 212 pounds, Perriman has the size, speed, and explosiveness to excel as a wide receiver in the league and step right into the role left behind by Jeremy Maclin.
With the options likely available to the Eagles at the tail end of day one, it becomes evident that the Eagles would best be served to address the cornerback and wide receiver positions before they look to acquire yet another young quarterback. But as we've already seen with Chip Kelly, anything is possible when it comes to this roster.
Potential Picks: QB Marcus Mariota (Oregon), CB Byron Jones (Connecticut), CB Kevin Johnson (Wake Forest), WR Breshad Perriman (Central Florida)
New York Giants
Biggest Needs: Safety, Offensive Tackle
With a stellar last few offseasons revamping their skill positions on offense, including the signing of Rashad Jennings last offseason, stealing Shane Vereen away from the Patriots this offseason, and drafting budding superstar Odell Beckham, Jr. in the first round of the 2014 draft, the front office must now turn their attention to the defense.
Tied for 22nd last season in defensive points allowed and falling in the bottom six in Adjusted Defensive NEP (including a bottom-10 ranking in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP), the defense will need reinforcements in the secondary if the Giants hope to improve last year's 6-10 record. Coupled with the loss of long-time starting safety Antrel Rolle to the Chicago Bears -- which only serves to exacerbate these problems -- it's easy to see that the Giants have a definite need at safety that will likely be addressed with the ninth overall pick in this year's draft.
Indeed, with the below-average play of their safeties last season, and with the Giants' three current safeties under contract having just 35 NFL snaps under their collective belts, the situation is ripe for the right safety to jump right in and make a significant impact on this team.
Widely regarded as the top safety in this year's draft, Landon Collins could be just the right man for this job. With defensive coordinator Steve Spagnulo's aggressive style, which aims to funnel the defense toward stopping the run, Landon's downhill nature, alongside his excellent open-field tackling and big play making ability would fit perfectly into this scheme.
However, some draft pundits argue that the Giants should not use such a high draft pick at safety with so many other options available on day two and three of the draft. Should the Giants agree with these sentiments, a likely pivot for them would be to select the top lineman in the draft, former Iowa offensive guard Brandon Sherff.
Given that this team ranked in the top 12 in both quarterback hits and sacks allowed last season, the Giants can probably wait on selecting an offensive lineman, but at the same time, one could make the argument that, with so many weapons at Eli Manning's disposal this season, ensuring their franchise quarterback stays upright will also be a top priority for the Giants this season.
Potential Picks: SS Landon Collins (Alabama), OG Brandon Sherff (Iowa)
Biggest Needs: Safety, Linebacker, Offensive Tackle
Ranking in the bottom quartile of the league in points scored (301, 26th) and points allowed (438, tied for 29th) and nearly last in Adjusted Defensive NEP (116.13, 30th), Washington needs help. A lot of help.
The attractive option from a public relations standpoint would be to sweep the entire Robert Griffin III experiment under the rug and select Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota as the new face of this franchise. But with needs on both sides of the ball at almost every position, trading down from their coveted fifth overall position in exchange for extra draft picks to rebuild this team with would be the sensible thing to do.
Washington's front office has been called many things. Sensible is not one of them.
While a large amount of media attention has been placed on Washington's anemic offense -- with the firing of Mike Shannahan and the failures of Griffin taking front and center -- their defense was actually much, much worse.
Their secondary was a mess last season and was the worst unit in the league, according to our metrics. Their Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play of 0.27 was a full 0.08 points per play worse than Tampa Bay's defense. To put that number into perspective, Washington's cumulative Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP of 150.51 was more than 35.00 points (five touchdowns and extra points) worse than 31st-ranked Tampa Bay's of 114.97 over the course of the season.
While the signing of Chris Culliver from the 49ers should certainly help, they're going to need to address the lack of any playmakers at both safety positions before things begin to improve.
To make matters worse, Brian Orakpo and his 254 career tackles and 40 sacks will be heading to the Tennessee Titans next season, creating another hole on the defense that needs to be filled. While edge-rusher Ryan Kerrigan has proven himself more than capable of generating pressure on the quarterback, pairing another pass-rushing outside linebacker next to him will be imperative if Washington even hopes to improve their passing defense next season.
In the likely event that Washington indeed stays at the fifth overall pick, the best fit for them would be outside linebacker Dante Fowler, Jr. out of Florida. Fowler has the speed, power, athleticism, and size to dominate at the position, with many projecting him to be a perennial Pro Bowler. This selection would allow them to fill the large void left at linebacker by Brian Orakpo's departure and would give them another strong, competitive pass rusher to pair alongside Ryan Kerrigan.
Should Fowler not make it past Gus Bradley and the Jaguars with the third overall selection, outside linebacker Vic Beasley out of Clemson would be a more than acceptable consolation prize. Regarded as one of the top athletes in this year's draft, grading out as a top performer in every event he participated in at the NFL Combine, Beasley would also give Washington the pass rushing prowess necessary to take pressure off their less than capable secondary.
Potential Picks: OLB/DE Dante Fowler, Jr. (Florida), OLB/DE Vic Beasley (Clemson)