The Eagles’ 2014 draft class was not one of the bright spots of the season last year. As a group, they had one of the lowest snap count totals among teams in the NFL, and as individuals, only Jordan Matthews and Beau Allen impressed.
Several picks struggled immensely just to get on the field. And it wasn’t because the incumbents in the secondary were too impressive to yield their spots.
Summer is a time for optimism across the league, and the Eagles’ young players are no exception. For some, the focus is on building on last year’s foundation, but for others, 2014 is an aberration to be placed firmly in the rear-view mirror.
Fair or not, this draft may ultimately be judged by the way Marcus Smith goes. For both the draft and Smith, year one wasn’t promising.
All the Eagles’ talk about wanting to give rookies one role to learn wasn’t reflected in their treatment of Smith, who was punted from position to position throughout the season, never with great success.
Getting stronger was a need for Smith, and he put on muscle over the off-season, but an injury hampered him heading into OTAs. August will be a big month for Smith. The opportunity is there, with the departure of Trent Cole.
The word “bust” is hovering, but one of the players ahead of him, Brandon Graham, has successfully come back from that brink to become a productive player.
Matthews was the bright spot of the 2014 draft, and his success helped make up for Smith’s lack of contribution. It felt like the team had a first round pick having a great season.
However, Matthews was mostly limited to the slot last season, and had the benefit of working against defenses occupied with Jeremy Maclin’s Renaissance. He still rode those advantages to a club rookie record for touchdown catches.
This year he will have to thrive outside the shadow of Maclin and become one of the leaders in a very young receiving corps counting on he, Huff and Nelson Agholor to match other young receivers around the league in their ability to produce quickly.
As just mentioned, Huff is being counted on in the same way Matthews is this year. But he doesn’t have quite the same rookie season to build on. It was a slow adjustment to the NFL for Huff in year one.
He showed flashes of his ability with the ball in his hands, highlighted by his kick return touchdown. But too often he was plagued with drops or a key fumble, and it limited his ability to produce as he finished the season with just eight catches for 98 yards.
This off-season, Eagles coaches have continually expressed their heightened expectation and excitement for Huff to take a leap in his second year, and it makes him one of the leading candidates to fill the void left by Jeremy Maclin.
Watkins didn’t see extensive playing time until the final game of the 2014 season, when the Eagles were locked out of the playoffs and Bradley Fletcher was sidelined.
With all the turnover in the Eagles’ secondary this off-season the chance is there for Watkins to impress and make a job his own. It seems his best chance will come at safety, where he has been training along with fellow converted cornerbacks Malcolm Jenkins and Walter Thurmond.
Thurmond is probably the favorite to become the second safety, but with Earl Wolff still sidelined by injury, and an unsettled cornerback spot across from Byron Maxwell, the opportunity is there for Watkins to see greatly increased playing time this year.
Hart made the 53 man roster last season, but not much else, as he never took a snap. Like Smith, he reportedly dedicated the off-season to getting stronger, and the Eagles like what they see.
But it’s harder to project playing time for Hart. Defensive line is one of the Eagles’ deepest positions, with Fletcher Cox, Cedric Thornton, Vinny Curry and Brandon Bair all established ahead of Hart, and 2015 draftee Brian Mihalik in to compete for a roster spot.
Reynolds didn’t make the team in 2014. There hasn’t been a lot of news this summer about him, and it will likely be an uphill battle against players like Watkins and Thurmond to make the roster.
The other defensive backs ability to contribute at safety and corner could prove impossible to overcome, with the emphasis Chip Kelly places on versatility.
Allen was the nicest surprise of the 2014 class. The best rookie contributor to the team, after Jordan Matthews, and perhaps Trey Burton on special teams, Allen established himself as an important part of the defensive line rotation behind Bennie Logan.
There weren’t a lot of additions to the roster at this spot this off-season, so Allen should have every chance to improve himself as a player and enlarge his role on the field.