With the 22nd pick in the fifth round of the 2017 NFL draft, the Eagles selected West Virginia wide receiver Shelton Gibson.
Most inside the Eagles’ draft room immediately knew of the pick, but as Gibson’s name was announced on their TV monitors, there was the obligatory round of applause. The room was sectioned off with the main conference table for organizational decision-makers and several outer tables for support staff.
Some in the peanut gallery nodded their heads with approval, caught up in the enthusiasm, despite the little they knew about Gibson’s receiving ability. But as the clapping subsided, Trey Brown, then the Eagles’ director of college scouting, offered an aside to a couple of staffers situated nearby in the back.
“He can’t catch,” Brown said.
A reply — and an understatement – came from one of the pair.
“That ain’t good,” he said.
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A few weeks later, the Eagles would see first-hand what Brown, who left the Eagles in 2018, had said moments after they drafted Gibson. He couldn’t catch, at least consistently enough to be a productive NFL receiver, and it remained that way until he was released two years later.
While the Gibson miscalculation wasn’t an anomaly for a third-day choice, it does call into question the Eagles’ recent draft process, especially when you factor in the seemingly disregarded evaluation from their director of college scouting.
They certainly weren’t the only ones. Interviews with almost a dozen Eagles employees involved with the draft, both past and present, paint a similar picture of the team’s methods. For nearly a year, a systemic, meticulous approach is taken to building the draft board. But when the actual selecting of players begins, the process is anything but workmanlike.
The Eagles aren’t alone. The draft is a moving target. The permutation of possibilities, with 32 teams, 1,500 eligible prospects, and tens of trades, are endless. And they aren’t alone in striking out more than they hit, despite the narrow lens many fans have of their particular team’s drafts.
But the four drafts since Howie Roseman regained his power over the personnel department have been dubious if not yet near-final assessment. There have been starters, several more projected, and a couple of promising prospects in the pipeline, but the Carson Wentz selection stands alone as the success story of the group.
Of the misses, or the potential ones, several have been a product of the decision-making process, more so than the initial evaluation — specifically the Sidney Jones, Donnel Pumphrey, Andre Dillard, and J.J. Arcega-Whiteside selections.
The information obtained on the drafting of the aforementioned four players, including Gibson, came from team and NFL sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were either not permitted to speak publicly about the Eagles’ draft process or because they still work in the league.
Roseman has overseen nine drafts since becoming general manager in 2010. He had little to no involvement in 2015 after then-coach Chip Kelly wrestled authority over personnel. But Roseman has said that he used the year off to reassess his approach and to focus less on “trying to win the draft.”
“It’s kind of reliant on having a lot of good people and hearing everyone’s voice, and trying to be collaborative,” Roseman said last week. “But at the same time, also making sure that we are doing what’s right for the team and having the kind of vision, a big-picture vision, because – you’ve heard this a lot from us – but we are not just trying to collect talent, we’re trying to build a team.”
But are there too many voices? Roseman has the final say, but significant weight during the previous three drafts was given to vice president of player personnel Joe Douglas, coach Doug Pederson, and in certain cases, even owner Jeffery Lurie. Andy Weidl was promoted to Douglas’s position after he left last offseason for the New York Jets’ GM job.
The Eagles typically prefer to have unanimity in their choices, at least among their hierarchy, but some sources view it as more groupthink. When there was a split of opinion, as there was with Arcega-Whiteside, the greater influence of one vs. the other tipped the scales.
This year’s virtual draft will look much different than any before because of the coronavirus restrictions. Roseman will run the Eagles’ show from his home office, but he said technological advances will make it possible so that every prominent figure involved in the draft will be able to communicate remotely.
“We’ll have different rooms – big groups, small groups; trainers; coaches; obviously, Jeffrey, Coach Pederson,” Roseman said. “As we get kind of closer to it, we’ll have the same people doing a lot of the same things that they have done.”
The Eagles will use Microsoft teams to divide responsibilities, but a process that could be best described as controlled chaos – especially when there are as many as 30 people in one room — may be streamlined with just Roseman ultimately at the wheel.
The board isn’t black and white. The Eagles don’t list prospects numerically and select the next available name when they’re on the clock. Using the system Douglas brought to the franchise in 2017, they rank players on five tiers and give them numerical grades with evaluations that give additional weight to how they project to the Eagles’ schemes and preferences.
Most of the grades fall somewhere in between 7.0 and 5.5. The numbers come with “alerts” based on size, character, or medical issues, for instance. “Day 1″ starter is the top tier, and prospects who fall into that category are listed according to their grade, usually somewhere between 7.0-6.7.
There could be, for instance, several prospects with a 6.7 grade at various positions, but there is an overall ranking, and one within each position. There is wiggle room and subjective choices will be made based on need, etc.
The Eagles’ personnel staff had done its homework on Dillard before last year’s draft. Scouts Anthony Patch and Ryan Myers, based on the West Coast, did most of the early legwork on the Washington State tackle. They spent time with him and interviewed countless sources familiar with him.
Douglas and more of his staff sat down with Dillard at the Senior Bowl. And the coaching staff got in on the act when offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland conducted phone interviews with him closer to the draft.
The Eagles didn’t think he would fall far enough in the first round for a move up from the No. 25 pick. But 10 defensive linemen went in the first 19 picks — earlier than the team had projected — and Dillard was still was on the board at No. 22. The Eagles pounced.
Roseman, though, had never met Dillard face-to-face before he made the pick. A native of the state of Washington, Dillard never had been to Philadelphia, let alone a metropolis as large. While he showed some promise in the four games he got to play as a rookie, Dillard struggled to adapt to the new environment and the NFL locker room.
The Eagles selected running back Miles Sanders, an overwhelming favorite in the building, with their first pick in the second round the next day. They were up again four picks later but had expected to take a receiver based on the way their board was stacked.
Of the receivers left on their board, Parris Campbell had the highest grade of the outside receivers. DK Metcalf had a similar grade, but he had been flagged as a medical alert and was further down the board.
Mecole Hardman was next ahead of Arcega-Whiteside – they had similar grades – but Hardman went to the Chiefs the slot before the Eagles. The clock started. The head honchos huddled. Two lobbied for Campbell based on his ranking. One argued for Arcega-Whiteside, and the last holdout went along. Roseman made the final decision based on the side with more clout.
Two years earlier, the Eagles had only one second-round pick. Defensive end Derek Barnett went in the first round and as the No. 43 overall pick neared, the Eagles had their sights set on running back Dalvin Cook. But the Vikings traded up two spots ahead and took the Florida State product.
The Eagles weren’t left to scramble – the draft is always unpredictable – but the next best prospect on their board had a medical alert. Jones had a “Day 1” grade, but he had ruptured an Achilles only a month earlier and would likely miss most of his rookie season. The Eagles took the gamble.
But Pederson still wanted a running back. Alvin Kamara and Kareem Hunt were gone by the time the Eagles selected next in the third round. They took cornerback Rasul Douglas, even though Weidl was a proponent for Pittsburgh running back James Conner, who went six places later.
Running backs were flying off the shelves and Pederson wanted one. After the Eagles drafted receiver Mack Hollins early in the fourth round, Roseman traded up seven spots later in the round for Donnel Pumphrey.
When the announcement came, the draft room erupted into applause.
“He’s like a Darren Sproles,” someone said.
When Pumphrey showed up for his first official physical with the Eagles, one member of the medical staff looked at the scrawny running back and saw zero resemblance to the muscle-bound Sproles.
“That ain’t no Darren Sproles,” he would later say.
Pumphrey, who had the NFL label tattooed on his leg not long after being drafted, would never play a snap in the NFL.