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April 15, 2018

Eagles 2018 NFL Draft preview: Defensive end

Leading up to the 2018 NFL Draft, we'll be taking a look at each of the Philadelphia Eagles' positional groups. We'll determine if the Eagles are likely to select a player at that position with one of their six picks, as well as note some players who make sense. Today we'll look at defensive end.

Previous draft preview positional analysis

Quarterback | Running back | Wide receiver | Tight end
Offensive tackle | Interior offensive line

The Eagles are loaded at defensive end, at least for the 2018 season. A look at their depth chart at DE.

 LDEBrandon Graham Chris Long Steven Means
 RDEDerek Barnett Michael Bennett  

In 2019 and beyond, the Eagles may not be so deep. Why? Well, three of the above players are now at least 30 years old.

  1. Brandon Graham is in the final year of his deal, and he turned 30 this month. He wants a new contract, which is going to be costly, and the opinion here is that the Eagles should get one done with him. Graham is still in his prime and has relatively low mileage for a player his age on a team that is projected to contend for a Super Bowl over the next few years. The belief here is that both sides will come to an agreement, but we'll see.
  2. Chris Long is now 33 years old, and he reportedly contemplated retirement this offseason. Clearly, he is in the final stages of his NFL career.
  3. Michael Bennett replaced Vinny Curry in free agency, and is facing extremely odd (and perhaps flimsy) "injury to the elderly" charges stemming from an alleged incident at the Patriots-Falcons Super Bowl. Bennett will turn 33 in November.

In short, the Eagles would be wise to keep loading up their DE pipeline, but that's highly unlikely to happen early in the draft.

In the 2017 NFL Draft, there were six edge rushers taken in the first round:

 PlayerTeam Overall 
Myles Garrett Browns 
 Solomon Thomas49ers 
 Derek BarnettEagles 14 
 Charles HarrisDolphins 22 
 Takkarist McKinleyFalcons 26 
 Taco CharltonCowboys 28 

That edge rusher class was loaded with talent. In 2018, there may only be two edge rushers that come off the board in the first round. They are North Carolina State's Bradley Chubb and UTSA's Marcus Davenport, both of whom will be long gone when the Eagles pick at 32.

Here are some edge rushers who may make sense for the Eagles a little later in the draft:

Duke Ejiofor, DE, Wake Forest (6'3, 264)

In 2016, Ejiofor had 50 tackles (17 for loss), 10.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries, 4 batted passes, and a pick. In 2017, he tore his labrum in his right shoulder, which likely occurred the first week of October. Playing hurt all season, Ejiofor's numbers dipped, as he had 43 tackles (17 for loss), 7 sacks, 1 forced fumble, and 1 batted pass. He reportedly had successful surgery to repair his labrum early in February.

Because of his injury, Ejiofor did not work out at the Combine, which for his purposes was probably just as well, since he's not thought of as a special athlete.

Ejiofor doesn't have an explosive first step at the snap, but he does a great job winning with his hand fighting, and he possesses good instincts. He does not have any elite pass rush moves, like Derek Barnett's dip and bend around the edge, but he has a well-rounded repertoire of moves.

A highlight reel:

At Wake Forest, Ejiofor also played inside on obvious passing downs, like Graham and Bennett have done over their careers. He could be a player who the Eagles like as a long-term successor to Bennett.

If Ejiofor were to slide to the fourth round due to athleticism concerns or because of his injury, I could see the Eagles having interest.

Round projection: 3

Uchenna Nwosu, LB, USC (6'2, 251)

Nwosu's best fit in the NFL is probably as a 3-4 OLB. On the season, he had 75 tackles, 9.5 sacks, and an absolutely absurd 13 pass breakups, the majority of which were batted passes at the line of scrimmage. Nwosu is basically a volleyball player in a football uniform.

A highlight reel:

So if his best fit is as a 3-4 OLB, why would the Eagles have interest? Well, they brought him in for one of their 30 allotted pre-draft visits, which was interesting. If Nwosu were to slide to one of the Eagles' picks at the back of the fourth round, it would be reasonable to select him there as situational pass rusher in sub-packages.

Round projection: 4

Kylie Fitts, DE, Utah (6'3, 263)

Fitts had an injury-riddled career at Utah, after transferring from UCLA. However, when he played, he was a productive pass rusher. In his first season at Utah (his third in college after a nothingburger season at UCLA and then a lost season of eligibility after his transfer), Fitts had 7 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, and 10 pass breakups.

In one game before being lost for the season in 2016, Fitts had a sack and a half, as well as three tackles for loss. And then in 2017, he had three sacks in another injury-riddled season, as he had ankle issues.

Obviously, there are major durability concerns, but there is also real upside, as Fitts showed impressive athletic measurables at the Combine: 

A quick highlight reel:

The Eagles have shown that they will take chances on players with injury concerns, and Fitts could be a high-reward player if he can stay healthy.

Round projection: 5-7

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