With the NFL Draft just ten days away, the excitement surrounding the future of the Eagles continue to grow. Their 14th overall pick has been linked with just about every first round prospect possible, but names like Christian McCaffrey, Corey Davis, Dalvin Cook and Mike Williams continue be mocked to the Birds in the first round. Others see the team’s dire need for secondary help after parting ways with both Leodis McKelvin and Nolan Carroll, while some are simply just hoping Howie Roseman’s “Best player available” sentiment rings true. But there is one direction the Eagles should absolutely pursue, regardless of who is and who isn’t on the board..Defense.
The phrase “Defense wins championships” often echoes around Bars and television sets..but just how true is it? A great video was released by the guys at SB Nation was released in preparation for Super Bowl 51, shedding light on just how much emphasis has been placed on Defense in recent years by the league’s most successful teams.
In the first round alone, the last ten teams to compete in the Super Bowl have drafted on the Defensive side of the ball 62% of the time. It’s arguably even more eyebrow raising that half of those picks were spent upgrading the defensive line..an area that lacks depth and consistency in Philadelphia.
Only 14% of players drafted in the first round by the teams in the last five Super Bowl’s have been those in offensive skill positions (QB, RB, WR, TE). What does that say? Teams of that caliber aren’t fooled by the glitz and glamor of skill players projected to go in the first round. There is also another takeaway, but we will get onto that later.
One of the ten teams to have competed in the Super Bowl within the last five years is of course the Baltimore Ravens. A team where the Eagles new Vice President of Player Personnel refined his craft as a talent evaluator..helping build their franchise around Joe Flacco. Of the eight drafts that have passed since the Ravens picked Flacco in the first round, five have seen first round picks spent on a Defensive player. A total of 15 defensive players have been drafted in the first three rounds by the Ravens in that same span.
If we were to focus on the Patriots and Falcons (as the SB Nation video does), a lot more becomes obvious. The two teams combine for a record of 79-49 in the last four years..and that includes two disappointing years and one mediocre year for the Falcons.
Atlanta were coming off of a conference championship loss to San Francisco when fortunes began to work against them. But in the space of four years, they have gone from a 4-12 team suffering numerous injuries on both sides of the ball, to a Super Bowl contender..once again surrounding Matty Ice with sustainability and talent.
In the last four years the Patriots and Falcons have picked Defensively with 83% of their first round picks in that span. Neither team has drafted an offensive skill position player during the same period. The teams also combine for a total of 67% defensively minded picks in rounds 2/3, 15% more than the NFL average. What’s even more interesting here, is that 39% of those picks have been defensive backs.
The NFL Draft is historically deep this year when it comes to cornerbacks, with first round talents projected to go in the heart of Day two due to the sheer abundance of talent. From the projected round one prospects of Marshon Lattimore to the likes of Brendan Langley and Cameron Sutton..the Eagles could find extreme value in the mid rounds when it comes to DB’s..a trend also followed by both teams.
Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford were drafted back-to-back by the Falcons in 2013 and have been instrumental in the team’s impressive rise. For the Patriots, drafting Dominique Easley and Malcom Brown in the first round of the 2015 and 2016 Draft bought a missing ruthlessness to their defensive tackle spots. Bolstering the trenches, the Patriots have gone from allowing 134.1 rushing yards per game in 2013, decreasing every season to a stunningly low 88.6 yards per game in 2016..the lowest franchise total since 1990.
In the remaining rounds of the draft, the two teams combine for a total of 13% more offensive lineman than the league average..a trend that could also be replicated by the Eagles. Halapoulivaati Vaitai was taken in the fifth round last year, standing in for the suspended Lane Johnson after enduring a trial by fire against Washington. The Eagles have taken a “build from the ball out” mentality over the last two years..and it’s paying off. From Chance Warmack and Stefen Wisniewski, to Isaac Seumalo and Brandon Brooks, the team have revitalized a unit that lost its spark at the end of the Chip Kelly era.
The one concern that many of you will have at this stage is a simple and logical one. The reason that the last ten Super Bowl teams haven’t drafted skill positions in the first round anywhere near as often is due to the fact that they have a franchise quarterback. That point is very true. It can also be argued that they have stars on offense..but there’s one thing I think needs to be said in response:
The Eagles have done a tremendous job in bolstering their offense through prove-it deals. Be it the new tandem of Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith, or the likes of Chance Warmack..the team have been ticking off needs all offseason long in the run up to what many regard as the most important draft in this five-year window.
Sure, there is the flashiness of a potential star wide receiver..or the explosiveness of a downhill running back, but when we look back at how the most consistent teams in the league surround their quarterbacks in the draft after their arrival..Defense is always the number one priority.
Lest we forget how the Eagles double dipped at cornerback in 2002, deciding to add a skill position player in round 3 who would turn out to be arguably the greatest running back in franchise history.
The future is most certainly bright for the Eagles..but two of their biggest needs also happen to lie on Defense, cornerback and defensive line..not to mention their lack of depth beyond Jordan Hicks and Nigel Bradham at linebacker. If the Birds want to really challenge for the NFC East in 2017..the aggressive Jim Schwartz Defense will need to be firing on all cylinders to support an Offense that could be set to make some huge waves, after a positive first season under Pederson was followed by an impressive offseason. But for that to happen, the Eagles need to draft like a championship winning team. And what’s that old sentiment that echoes around Bars? “Defense wins championships.”
Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports