Whitehair May Not Be So ‘Safe’ After All
(973espn.com) — The fate of Sam Bradford will ultimately determine what the Eagles will do in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft in that there is little doubt that quarterback will be on the docket if the team is unable to bring the veteran back into the fold.
"If I’m the Eagles, my priority is a quarterback number one,” NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said Tuesday during his annual pre-combine conference call with reporters. “I don’t know what they’re going to do with Sam Bradford, but they better figure it out. If they think there’s a franchise quarterback at No. 13, they better take him. My belief is that (Jared) Goff and (Carson) Wentz will not be there. The question then becomes, is Paxton Lynch there?
“If Paxton Lynch is sitting there at 13 — if they believe he’s the guy — they better take him. Even if he doesn’t play one snap this year, I think they have to take Lynch, or maybe a Connor Cook.”
That thought process changes, however, if Bradford is still calling South Philadelphia home next season, especially with a significant salary-cap number.
It's just not tenable financially to have a big-money starter backed up by a high-level draft choice even if it's only for a year or two. And say what you want about Eagles' football operations chief Howie Roseman but one thing he isn't going to do is make a bad financial decision.
So, if Philadelphia brings back Bradford its mentality in the draft shifts dramatically.
“After (quarterback), it’s probably offensive line,” Mayock assessed when asked about the team's needs. “The Eagles need to take two or three offensive linemen in this draft. After that they have to take a couple of defensive backs. …It all depends on the board. If there isn’t anybody at 13 who they’re all that wild about and they can trade down and pick up a second, I’d be all about that.”
If trading down is the scenario, many have speculated that the most logical choice for the Eagles is Kansas State offensive lineman Cody Whitehair, a versatile player who played left tackle in college but projects as a guard at the NFL level.
Much was made about just how poor Philadelphia's guard play was in 2015 after the Chip Kelly-Evan Mathis feud resulted in the release of the veteran. Kelly's fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants plan to move forward with Allen Barbre and Matt Tobin flanking Jason Kelce turned into the disaster many expected and will have the organization carpet-bombing the position at some point in the draft.
The 6-foot-4, 300-pound Whitehair simply isn't worthy of the No. 13 overall spot but dropping a bit to get one of the safest picks in the draft while regaining the second-round pick that the team surrendered in the Bradford trade last year reads like a sound strategy.
Eagles coach Doug Pederson, offensive coordinator Frank Reich and offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland already spent time with Whitehair at the Senior Bowl and will meet with him again at the scouting combine.
“I talked to them quite a bit a couple of times at the Senior Bowl," Whitehair said when asked about the Birds earlier this week. "Hopefully I’ll meet with them here.”
A left tackle in college, most scouts believe Whitehair will hit the ground running on the interior with more than a few making the comparison to Dallas All-Pro guard Zack Martin, who was a stellar left tackle at Notre Dame before moving to right guard in North Texas and excelling from Day 1.
“Probably guard," Whitehair answered when asked about his best position in the NFL, "but at the end of the day, I think I can play both guard and tackle. ... (playing each position) is just a little different, a little different set, getting in a three-point (stance), more than likely, but I felt like it’s been a smooth transition.”
For the Eagles, a projected offensive line with Whitehair next to a hopefully rejuvenated Kelce with Barbre and Andrew Gardner competing at the other guard spot, and Lane Johnson back to bookend Jason Peters for his one last dance makes a lot of sense and would signal a drastic improvement.
That scenario took a bit of a hit Thursday, though, when Whitehair managed just 16 reps on the 225-pound bench press at the combine, the second-worst showing of the O-Linemen participating. The fact that he was measured with very short arms (32.38 inches) also hurts because it's usually the prospects with lengthier arms who struggle on the bench.
As a comparison Martin was able to put up 225 pounds 29 times back in 2014 and most of the other recent top-tier offensive line prospects like Ereck Flowers (37 reps), Greg Robinson (32), Cam Erving (30), Taylor Lewan (29), Laken Tomlinson (25), Jake Matthews (24) and Brandon Scherff (23) also dwarfed what Whitehair accomplished on Thursday.
Couple that realization with the fact that Whitehair was overpowered at times during Senior Bowl week and it's becoming more and more evident that the ex-Kansas State star may not have the functional football strength right now to be the kind of "safe" selection many have painted him as.
-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973ESPN.com. You can reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter @JFMcMullen