It’s a yearly tradition. Experts mock players to teams. Fans of teams say it would never happen. Usually it doesn’t—mostly because there’s only one draft. But sometimes it does.
The recent battle is between the Philadelphia Eagles’ fan base and Micah Parsons, the Penn State linebacker who has everything the Eagles could need: size, hitting power, zone awareness, sideline-to-sideline range. As a potential top-10 pick for his high ceiling, Parsons’ fit with the linebacker-needy Eagles feels all too easy.
So why wouldn’t general manager Howie Roseman draft Micah Parsons early? Because of “analytics.”
As always, throwing analytics around as a bucket term is a dangerous game. There’s a lot of data out there, and it can be leveraged in different ways. For Roseman, who has his background in cap analysis and roster management as opposed to personnel evaluation, data helps guide his decisions when he decides where to dedicate the Eagles’ resources—both cash and draft capital—to build the roster. Mike Tannenbaum shared with The Ringer a piece of advice he gave Roseman back when he was first starting with the Eagles: “My advice was to study creating value in building rosters,” he said. “In studying how to be efficient with resources.”
So Roseman manages the Eagles’ roster—and has for the last several years, with a Chip Kelly-sized blip on the radar in 2015. And with his resources, he has historically attacked premium positions. The Eagles are famously invested in a quarterback, the most important position in sports—so much so that Roseman shirked a major analytics-backed trend when he traded up in the draft to select Carson Wentz.
Their positional spending details their other priorities. On the 2021 cap, no team has put more money in the trenches, as the Eagles are first in both offensive line and defensive tackle spending (seventh in EDGE rusher spending), and stunningly, no team has spent more money on wide receivers in 2021 than Philadelphia. (Their leading wide receiver this year was a second-year practice-squad addition with 539 yards).
That money has to come from somewhere. For the Eagles, it’s taken from the running back room, where they have the sixth-lowest cap hit; and the linebacker room, where they have the ninth-lowest. Of course, the Eagles spent a second-round pick at running back last season in Miles Sanders, and entered this season with him as the titular bell-cow back. That helped keep overhead down. But at linebacker, the Eagles had rookie Davion Taylor, selected outside of the top-100 picks and considered a developmental prospect by most evaluators; a UDFA in T.J. Edwards; a late-round safety convert in Nate Gerry; a journeyman free agent in Duke Riley; and a CFL convert in Alex Singleton.
The running back position held its own this season. The linebacker position did not.
Anecdotally, the premium positions in the league are QB, EDGE, CB, WR, and OT—and the Eagles have spent wild money at those positions. Public models, like PFF’s Wins Above Replacement, put positions like safety and tight end even higher above the offensive and defensive trenches. The Eagles’ internal analytics department has likely developed their own models of redefining positional value. But the one thing that most of these perspectives agree on is that running back and linebacker aren’t premium spots.
Running back production is largely explained by offensive line production, as the best running games have their engine in the offensive front and run-blocking approach. Linebacker production against the run, similarly, is conditional on the success of the defensive line—no caliber of linebacker play can withstand guards and tight ends’ free access climbing to the second level. The passing-down value of linebackers is perhaps still understated—the best answer to play-action passing attacks with crossing patterns and quality tight end athletes may be elite coverage linebackers like San Francisco’s Fred Warner. But as it stands, linebackers are considered the most replaceable position on the defense.
The Eagles certainly do need replacements. Starting LB Nate Gerry is one of the worst coverage linebackers in the league, and before he left with injury, was seeing more targets than most linebackers, too. Riley, Edwards, and Singleton all brought little more to the table. Parsons could become that coverage linebacker—he’s been strong in zone coverage for his career—but is often blitzed on passing downs because of his size.
And even if he were an elite coverage linebacker prospect, Roseman is still unlikely to put such a precious resource in at the linebacker position. The sixth overall pick is expected to earn $4.65M per season over a four-year deal, which would present a massive competitive advantage at premium positions that require more capital to complete top contracts. The highest-paid wide receivers see $18M APY; offensive tackles see $16M; off-ball linebackers only see $13M. Your surplus value is less in the accounting books, even if you ignore the difference in positional value entirely.
That simply isn’t Roseman’s way. He’s only ever spent two picks on Day 2 at linebacker: Taylor last season and Mychal Kendricks in 2012. But eight picks have gone to the position on Day 3, where Roseman typically drafted seniors with multiple seasons of starting experience. Parsons is a one-year starter and left school after only two years, opting out of his true junior season. This isn’t even the sort of player Roseman wants at linebacker, even if he were to spend the pick at the top altogether.
So there you have it. It isn’t going to happen.
Or is it?
Who knows, really? Nobody thought Sanders would be on the table, and the trade-up for Andre Dillard was anti-analytics as well. Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie has lauded Roseman for his more collaborative approach since returning to the helm of the Eagles’ team operations. With the poor roster that Roseman has constructed in consideration, he may not have the control over the draft room that we believe at this time. And if he doesn’t, the Eagles could land anywhere.
But Roseman won’t love Parsons’ profile before he sits down to watch the film, and he won’t want to spend the pick on him even if he loves the tape. For as long as Roseman’s at the helm, Parsons is a long bet to wear midnight green.