3 things for Eagles fans to watch for at NFL Combine

The NFL Combine kicked off Tuesday, and the workouts that will draw most of the attention begin Friday. Dreaming about athletic prospects might come naturally, but the 2018 NFL Draft is unfamiliar territory for Eagles fans.

The 32nd pick has never come Philadelphia’s way by virtue of winning the Super Bowl, and the Eagles may have never had their reserves of talent so full entering an off-season. It sounds like a recipe for the Eagles to enjoy snapping up the highest rated player on their draft board that falls to them.

A couple reasons it may not be so simple: the Eagles don’t have a second or third round pick. That’s because they have Carson Wentz and Ronald Darby, which isn’t so bad a reason. But it might make any offers they receive to trade down from their current perch all the more enticing.

The Eagles are well-stocked, but they’re also well-strapped in cap space, and reinforcements will almost exclusively have to come from the draft this off-season. More picks would help that too. Here’s a look at the position groups at the combine the Eagles could use the most help from:

1. Offensive tackles

The Eagles offensive line bulldozed its way to Super Bowl victory this season, and did so without their most decorated player on the field. Jason Peters tore his ACL and MCL after seven games this season, after turning in a relatively healthy 2016. Halapoulivaati Vaitai filled in nicely, but the question of the offensive line post-Peters has been present in Philadelphia for awhile.

The consensus on the group of offensive linemen participating in Indy, particularly tackles, is less concrete and includes less obvious first round grades than in past years. This could mean virtually any of them could fall to the Eagles if teams don’t take a liking. On the other hand, Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson is shaping up to be the highest guard drafted since Brandon Scherff. 

Oklahoma’s Orlando Brown is sure to make a splash measuring in at the combine: he’s currently listed at 6-foot-8 and 360 pounds. But how a man of his size moves will be of even more interest to the Eagles. Staying in the Big XII, Texas’ Connor Williams is hoping to show scouts he more closely resembles his 2016 season than his 2017 one. He only played in five games in the latter and saw his performance dip while dealing with a knee injury.

Ohio State’s Jamarco Jones might be the best fit for what the Eagles are trying to do. N.C. State’s Will Richardson is another player who might be available once the Eagles finally make it up to the podium a second time. His main job at the combine will be convincing teams he’s past a pair of driving while intoxicated suspensions.

From the same state, from North Carolina A&T, Brandon Parker is a four-year starter at tackle who may nevertheless be available late. His family and coaching background is rich in offensive line play, and his athleticism might get him moving up boards at the combine.

2. Linebackers

The Eagles linebackers were as resilient as anything in 2017, overcoming the loss of Jordan Hicks and Joe Walker. Most of the thanks for that sits at the feet of Nigel Bradham and Mychal Kendricks, but with the precarious cap situation it may prove impossible for both Bradham, who is out of contract, and Kendricks, whom the Eagles could free up $4.4 million by jettisoning, to remain.

With that harsh reality, and the similarly harsh one that Hicks, for all his production, has already missed 15 games in three seasons, linebacker could quickly become a legitimate need for the Eagles with the draft the best place to affordably address it. It’s also a position that’s often undervalued in the first round, which might just leave the Eagles with their pick of some talent at 32.

Boise State’s Leighton Vander Esch had outstanding production in his lone season as a starter and saved his best moments for big games. With questions about his position skills and intangibles already answered, the stage is set for the combine to showcase his athleticism and potentially move him towards the top of the linebacker rankings.

From the other end of the country, Alabama’s Rashaan Evans is another possibility already being mocked to the Eagles at the 32nd pick. He’s the kind of aggressive player the Birds defense loves, and he too saved his best moments for the biggest stage in college football (four-and-a-half sacks in the playoffs during his career.) 

3. Tight end

And finally, tight end. The Eagles have had an embarrassment of riches at this position for a few seasons now, but in the aftermath of the Super Bowl that may be coming to an end. The word retirement is being bandied about for club legend Brent Celek. And, even if he doesn’t hang them up, the Eagles will be hard pressed to prevent Celek becoming another cap casualty.

Trey Burton came all the way from undrafted free agent to throwing a touchdown pass in the Super Bowl, but another team is almost sure to offer him money and playing time the Eagles can’t compete with. The Eagles will likely soon be without their biggest blocking band-aid and a receiving mismatch. They’d love to replace both with the same player, but so would 31 other teams in the NFL.

Towards the top of the tight end class, South Carolina’s Hayden Hurst offers both blocking and receiving abilities at the position, but he comes with the caveat of already being a 25-year old player. Hurst has been drafted to Pennsylvania before — the Pirates took him in the 2012 draft as a pitcher. Already much further into his athletic prime than most players, Hurst will have to look the part at the combine.

The Eagles could also turn to the tight end factory that has served them well already with Zach Ertz. Stanford’s Dalton Schultz might be the class of the blockers in this year’s tight end group. His efforts can be seen in the season Heisman candidate Bryce Love had at tailback for the Cardinal. He has limited receiving production, but the build (6-foot-6) to be a threat. The combine will show if he has the rest of the traits.

A late option who definitely has the build: Mississippi State’s Jordan Thomas. Thomas (6-foot-6, 280 pounds) has rare speed for his size and the athletic ability to play basketball and move around the field. He doesn’t have production or experience to match these other traits. But he’s one of the players who seems designed to turn heads at the combine.

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