In my last column, I wrote about Chip Kelly’s long post-season silence, even amid the controversy over releasing star WR DeSean Jackson. The weeks since January 4th have felt like an eternity of baseless speculation, what-ifs and angst over every conceivable draft pick.
There have been so many mock drafts that a bunch of writers in Philadelphia have started an #MDMD competition, where they draft mock drafts into teams of mock drafts, which will compete against each other in, I don’t know, some kind of recursive fantasy football league.
Our long national nightmare is over. The draft is underway (though only the first round has finished as we go to press). But even before that, the Eagles dropped two juicy chunks of red meat for fans: a 12-minute Chip Kelly press conference (his first since DeSean was cut), and the signing of an undrafted free agent who’s a genuine stud.
Neither item would be very dramatic in December, but this time of year it’s life-saving nourishment for that pack of ravenous wolves we call the press.
The draft is full of misdirection, bluffing and carefully cultivated false hopes, like a game of poker where you can trade cards, and Chip Kelly (& his GM Howie Roseman) did a masterful job of concealing their hand. You can tell by the wide range of contradictory predictions based on “hot inside information.”
Depending on who you read, the Eagles were sure to trade up for Johnny Manziel (even though they have Nick Foles, a young and inexpensive QB who led the NFL in passer rating) or Anthony Barr (the UCLA RB who converted to OLB) or Odell Beckham (a speedy WR with the same physical limits as DeSean Jackson) or safety HaHa Clinton-Dix.
Or they were guaranteed to trade down into the second round to get an extra pick or two, and take big wide receiver Cody Lattimer from Indiana (who played in a spread offense) or Jeremiah Attaochu, a raw pass-rushing OLB who could replace Trent Cole in a year, or Kelvin Benjamin, a huge WR who isn’t very good at route running, blocking or catching footballs. [Ed. note: Wouldn’t Benjamin look good in Raider Silver & Black?]
No, that’s not it, they were obviously going to stay put with the 22nd pick in the draft and pick either of two WRs — Marquise Lee of USC or Brandin Cooks of Oregon State.
Or Beckham or Barr if they fell. Or cornerback/safety Kyle Fuller of Virginia Tech.
Even Chip’s general principles were disputed. He’ll pick a bunch of Oregon players, Terrance Mitchell and Josh Huff and DAT, of course, and Colt Lyerla. No, he actually prefers Pac-12 players who did well against the Ducks, such as Cooks and Lee and Bishop Sankey. No, he just wants bigger guys who beat up little guys.
Some of this is media invention, such as the Manziel speculation, which was constructed by reporters twisting Chip’s words at his recent press conference. (Coach Kelly spoke at the Eagles’ 18th annual Playground Build event.)
But much of it was, in fact, artful dodging by the Eagles’ front office, undoubtedly leaking contradictory information to different reporters to muddy the waters.
The reality is that it’s almost impossible to predict what the Eagles’ choice in each round will be until the teams ahead of them pick. Manziel did in fact fall to pick No. 22, surprising almost everyone, but despite endless speculation about Chip’s love for mobile quarterbacks, the Eagles ended up trading the that pick (as I predicted) to a QB-hungry team drafting behind them, in return for a slightly lower pick and an extra 3rd-rounder in a very deep draft.
As for Oregon players, the very astute Jimmy Kempski has DE Taylor Hart listed as a 5th round possibility for Philadelphia — and no one else. (The Birds brought him in for a workout/medical exam.) DAT did not have a great year, and may just be too small to make it in the NFL. Further, the Eagles recently traded for Darren Sproles, who plays the same TAZR position.
Terrance Mitchell isn’t as big as Chip would like and too much of a zone coverage specialist. Colt Lyerla is, well, Colt. Josh Huff would be a good pickup as a slot receiver and special teams contributor, if he falls to the 5th-7th round. But he may not last that long.
Before the draft even began, the Eagles found a player who fits every one of Chip’s dream qualities — aside from football prowess.
Alejandro Villanueva is a 6’9″, 277 pound WR converted to DE — similar to Dion Jordan — who happens to be a genuine war hero. He hasn’t played organized football since 2009, because he has been fighting with the Army Rangers in Afghanistan, where he won a friggin’ Bronze Star. He’s obviously a long shot to make the team, but you know he can follow a program and isn’t afraid of working out.
After all that talk and speculation, the Eagles ended up drafting Johnny Manziel with their No. 22 pick — sort of. They traded the No. 22 (which Cleveland used to draft Manziel) for a high 3rd-round pick and a No. 26, which they used to draft Marcus Smith.
Who? Marcus Smith is a slightly undersized but very accomplished OLB from Louisville. Better pass rushing was the Eagles’ No. 1 need, and Chip surprised everybody with a smart choice that has a very high probability of filling that gap.
OK, a few of the savviest draft watchers called this — Mike Mayock of NFL Network, Tommy Lawlor of Iggles Blitz (who mentioned him in a trade-down scenario hours before the draft), and Mike Kaye of Bleeding Green Nation (who called him months ago) — but the fans at the Eagles’ draft party were completely baffled.
Smith is a classic Chip Kelly pick — smart, good character, accomplished and coachable with a big upside.
Here are a few interesting facts about Marcus Smith:
1) He’s versatile. Like last year’s No. 1 pick — Lane Johnson — and Chip Kelly himself, Smith is a high school quarterback who converted to a less glamorous position.
2) Smith was second in the nation in sacks (with 14.5) and No. 1 in sacks per game (at 1.12).
3) Marcus played in one of the few 3-4 defensive alignments in college, and is probably the most complete 3/4 ROLB in the draft; he can rush, cover, defend the run and set the edge. On a conference call, he said he dropped into pass coverage about half the time last year. The Eagles are finishing a conversion to the 3-4 defense that Kelly installed at Oregon, and have a strong LOLB in Connor Barwin, so he’s a perfect fit.
4) Smith has already graduated, meaning, a) he’s smart, and b) he can join the Eagles’ off-season program on Monday. Last year, Zach Ertz was set back considerably by having to go back and finish his studies into June, due to PAC-12 rules.
5) The Eagles tried to trade up (presumably for Brandin Cooks) but the price was too high. There were 6 players the Eagles were targeting at #22 and all were gone by that time.
My editor is already yelling at me to finish this column, delayed for the late first-round draft pick, so I need to wrap this up. [Ed. note: ‘preciate it, Mark]
In my view, Chip and the Eagles started the draft with a bang, drafting exactly what they needed and picking up an extra 3rd-round pick in the process.
I can’t wait to see what they do in the rest of the draft!
Mark Saltveit’s newest book is “Controlled Chaos: Chip Kelly’s Football Revolution” (Diversion Books, NY) has been recently released. He is the author of “The Tao of Chip Kelly” (2013) and writes on science, religion, wordplay and political scandals. He is also a standup comedian and the world palindrome champion.
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