Trent Cole performed better than many had predicted switching from defensive end to outside linebacker in 2013, but he'll be 32 in October. Brandon Graham excelled at times after making the same transition, but he has lobbied for a trade and is in the last year of his contract.
Connor Barwin is the prototype jack-of-all-trades 3-4 outside linebacker, but the Eagles don't have young, developmental talent in the pipeline that screams "future starter," unless you believe general manager Howie Roseman's recent praise of Travis Long.
Even an optimist would admit that the Eagles need edge rushers. And yet, aside from Barwin and a few minor acquisitions, the team has done little to address a position of great importance after Chip Kelly spearheaded the move to a 3-4 last offseason.
The way Roseman tells it, there just weren't many outside linebackers in free agency and last year's draft who were worth the asking price. And according to many NFL talent evaluators, scouts and analysts, there won't be many in this week's draft.
"You're always looking to add pass-rushers," Roseman said last week. "There's no doubt about it. But at the same token, you don't want to sign or draft someone that you don't think is a good player and that you don't think is worth the resource that you put out there -- whether it's a pick or money."
Some teams press the need because, as Roseman said, impact pass rushers are so valuable in today's pass-heavy NFL but remain so rare. The Eagles were once one of those teams, selecting edge linemen like Jerome McDougle, Victor Abiamiri and Graham before they should have.
But Roseman has been preaching the best-available gospel for the last few years, and if what he says is true, the Eagles may sit out the outside linebacker market for another year.
"When you look at every draft, we'll be sitting here every year saying the pass rushers are going to go early," Roseman said. "That's normally what happens. You don't sit in the third and fourth round and go, 'Man, I can't believe that pass rusher is still on the board.' "
The Eagles hold the 22nd pick in Thursday night's first round. There is really only one 3-4 outside linebacker they would likely have interest in at that spot, but UCLA's Anthony Barr is expected to be long gone.
"I don't think he's sliding," NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said. "I think that's more of a media perception. I think he could go as early as 11 to Tennessee. I think Dallas would love him at 16."
Barr has ideal size (6-foot-5, 255 pounds) and speed (4.66-second 40-yard dash) for an NFL-ready outside linebacker. The NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah, who was once an Eagles scout, has Barr as his sixth-best overall prospect, behind only Buffalo's Khalil Mack among outside linebackers.
"I think his best football is ahead of him," said Mayock, who added that "I don't think there's any way he gets into the 20s" in the draft.
If Barr, the son of former Eagles running back Tony Brooks, were to drop into the teens, would the Eagles have to consider trading up?
Two NFL scouts from teams that employ 3-4 schemes said Barr didn't pop up on their draft boards until the second round. Each had the same main gripe: He was often outmuscled in college.
The Eagles may have other prospects to consider after the first round, but if Roseman's prediction holds up, the outside linebackers who will be available each round may not match their grades.
Boise State's DeMarcus Lawrence could be a solid value in the second round with the 54th overall pick, but he has character issues, having been suspended three times. Georgia Tech's Jeremiah Attaochu set a school record with 311/2 career sacks, but he isn't as athletic as other comparable prospects.
The versatile Kyle Van Noy of Brigham Young is expected to go in the second round.
"There's been a buzz about him the last month or six weeks," Mayock said. "The buzz has been he does everything well. I'm not sure he has one outstanding trait where you go, 'Wow, that's awesome.' "
Barwin is that type of player and the Eagles would certainly take another one of him. Van Noy could project as more of an inside linebacker, though.
Many analysts expect Auburn's Dee Ford and Missouri's Kony Ealy to be drafted by 4-3 teams, but only half the league runs a traditional even-man front. If either falls to the Eagles in the second round, they would be hard pressed to pass him up.
They could conceivably find a place for a Ford or Ealy, or Scott Crichton of Oregon State or Will Clarke of West Virginia, two other highly-rated defensive ends. Cole finished last season with eight sacks, despite a slow start and sometimes playing two-gap football on the line.
"When you look at his production over the last couple of years vs. the better pass-rushers in the NFL, it's pretty good," Roseman said. "I don't think he gets enough credit for his transition into this defense and the production he had."
But the Eagles have to look to the future. Casey Matthews was the fourth outside linebacker last season, but his spot on the roster was most likely taken by free-agent addition Bryan Braman. Josh Kaddu, who spent two quiet seasons with the Dolphins, was signed in the offseason. Long, an undrafted rookie last season, spent most of 2013 on the practice squad.
They're all long shots to be Cole's successor, but they may be all the Eagles have if they sit out another draft at edge rusher.
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