Can Eagles' top draft picks help transform secondary?

ByTim McManus ESPN logo
Wednesday, May 1, 2024

PHILADELPHIA -- It's been more than 20 years since thePhiladelphia Eagleshad a draft like this.

You'd have to go back to 2002 to find the only other time in the common draft era that Philadelphia selected multiple defensive backs within the first two rounds. That year the Eagles took three DBs, cornerbacks Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown and safety Michael Lewis, despite already having a number of high-profile players likeTroy Vincent, Bobby Taylor and Brian Dawkins in the secondary.

It proved to be one of the most consequential drafts in team history. Those players served as a bridge to the future and patrolled the back end of the defense during the height of coach Andy Reid's successful run in Philly.

The Eagles can only hope history repeats with the selections of cornersQuinyon Mitchell and Cooper DeJean in the top two rounds last week.

"I think we're all a product of our experiences," said general manager Howie Roseman, who was new to the organization and working as a salary cap staffer back in '02. "Obviously those guys played for us in the Super Bowl, and I think that Coach Reid has always done a great job of being a year ahead.

"I think that's one of the lessons that I got to learn from him working with him, for him. So I think from our perspective, obviously that's always in the back of the mind when we're making picks. At the forefront of it is guys that can help the football team right now."

The key difference this time around is that the need is more urgent, even with accomplished players like Darius Slay and James Bradberry in the fold.

The Eagles allowed 35 passing touchdowns last season, the second most in the NFL and second most in franchise history. No team allowed more pass yards (2,383) or pass touchdowns (23) on throws outside the field numbers than the Eagles in 2023.

Lack of speed was part of the issue. With Slay, 33, and Bradberry, 30, deep into their careers, the Eagles knew they needed to act for both now and the future.

"We wanted to create incredible competition at all positions. That was a position that we hadn't addressed a lot early in the draft," Roseman said. "We felt like that we still had some veteran guys on the roster and that we were going to get back ... but we wanted to add some youth."

It took some good fortune for the Eagles to walk away with both Mitchell and DeJean. Mitchell, the playmaking corner out of Toledo, was widely projected to go earlier than No. 22 overall. There was a thought internally that he would be taken at pick No. 15 or sooner. A trade up for Mitchell was considered, but a run on quarterbacks and offensive linemen pushed Mitchell down the board and into the Eagles' laps. It's the latest the first defensive back has come off the board since 1995 (Tyrone Poole, No. 22 overall to Panthers).

If the Eagles had moved up for Mitchell, it would have depleted their resources, making it more difficult to land DeJean. DeJean was largely considered a first-round pick coming in but did not have his name called on Day 1. The Eagles became "obsessed" with acquiring him on Day 2, according to CEO Jeffrey Lurie. So they struck a trade with the Washington Commanders, sending both of their second-round picks -- Nos. 50 and 53 -- along with a fifth-round pick for picks Nos. 40 and 78.

The Eagles had first-round grades on both players, Roseman said.

Mitchell has a chance to start immediately on the outside opposite Slay, considering his talent level and the fact that Bradberry struggled last season following an All-Pro campaign in '22. Interestingly enough, Slay is the player Mitchell models his game after.

"I don't know them personally but I watched [Slay's and Bradberry's] games a lot and stuff like that," said Mitchell, who led the FBS with 15 pass breakups last season. "I really just want to come in and soak everything up from them."

DeJean's role is more difficult to forecast given how versatile he is. Some teams project him as a safety at the pro level, but there's a sentiment in the Eagles building that he can "do it all," leaving open the possibility that he could also line up at outside corner or in the slot.

"The way I was coached at Iowa, I was coached to be perfect and try and be perfect in everything that I do. That's what I'm going to try and do. Perfection is almost impossible but that's something I strive for each and every time I step on the field," said DeJean, who totaled seven interceptions in the past two seasons, three of which he returned for touchdowns. "So I'm excited to get in here, learn this defense, learn from the older guys who are in this building already and just get to work and back to playing football."

DeJean missed the end of last season with a broken fibula but said he has made a full recovery.

If he ends up at safety, he'll be in a room currently led by Reed Blankenship and C.J. Gardner-Johnson. If he's at corner, he'll be part of a young group that has a mix of veterans like Slay, Bradberry and Avonte Maddox, along with fourth-year player Isaiah Rodgers and some up-and-comers like Kelee Ringo, Eli Ricks and Mitchell.

With DeJean coming off a serious injury and Mitchell making the leap from the MAC to the NFL, there's no guarantee the rookie DBs will have an instant impact. But their presence, along with the signing of defensive coordinator Vic Fangio earlier this offseason, offers hope that a return to form for an organization with a proud history of defensive football is within reach.

"Just excited about the competition," said coach Nick Sirianni. "Competition is just going to make everybody better, and we're really looking forward to getting those guys out there."

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