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Why stars are aligning for Philadelphia Eagles to draft an impact pass-rusher

PHILADELPHIA -- The Eagles descend on the NFL combine in Indianapolis this week holding three first-round picks, opening up all sorts of possibilities.

They could offer up the bulk of their draft cache to make a serious run at a veteran quarterback such as Russell Wilson or Deshaun Watson. They could chase after a star receiver to pair with DeVonta Smith. They could package some picks to move up and snag a blue-chip prospect like Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton, or push picks back to 2023 as a failsafe in the event Jalen Hurts is not the answer at quarterback.

Whatever the plan, it's a good bet it includes securing a difference-making pass-rusher.

The Eagles build from the inside-out. They're transparent about that both in their words and actions. Since Howie Roseman first became general manager in 2010, Philadelphia has used seven of its 11 first-round picks on offensive or defensive linemen. That philosophy dates to the early days of coach Andy Reid, who once reportedly told the team, "I want two offensive tackles, a quarterback, two pass-rushers, two corners, and I’ll figure the rest out."

The Eagles' offensive line is pretty stacked, but the defensive front is another story -- particularly when it comes to edge rushers. Derek Barnett, the 14th overall pick in the 2017 draft, is a pending free agent. He failed to elevate after a promising rookie year, had more personal fouls (3) than sacks (2) last season, and is unlikely to be re-signed. Fellow starter Brandon Graham is expected to be back on the field at some point during the ramp-up to the 2022 season, but he'll be 34 next month and is coming off a ruptured Achilles. Even with Josh Sweat (7.5 sacks) having a career year and Tarron Jackson flashing at times as a rookie last season, this position is screaming for help.

Fortunately for them, they've come to the right place to find it. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper has seven edge rushers in his list of the top 25 prospects, including Michigan's Aidan Hutchinson (1st), Oregon's Kayvon Thibodeaux (5th), Michigan's David Ojabo (11th), Georgia's Travon Walker (16th), Florida State's Jermaine Johnson II (22nd), Penn State's Arnold Ebiketie (23rd) and Purdue's George Karlaftis (25th).

Pass-rushers tend to fly off the board, and this April's draft will likely be no exception, but the depth at the position should allow top-end talent to fall to where the Eagles are picking in the first round (Nos. 15, 16 and 19 overall).

The experts tend to agree. In his latest mock draft, Kiper has Philadelphia taking Ojabo with the 16th pick.

"He's got a big-time get-off," said former Eagles scout/NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah. "He can bend better once he gets to the top of his rush than Karlaftis. He just needs to be a little stronger, more consistent, and kind of earn more reps to play the run, which he didn't get a ton of there at Michigan."

Todd McShay is thinking similarly, giving the Eagles Walker at 16 in his latest mock draft for ESPN.

ESPN draft analyst Jordan Reid projected Johnson to the Eagles at 15 last month.

"I think Jermaine Johnson is definitely somebody who could intrigue them. I think I did see Howie Roseman on the sideline so he got a close-up view of what Jermaine was able to put together," Reid said following Johnson's stellar showing at the Senior Bowl. "His power, his explosiveness and then his repertoire of moves that he strung together through the week stood out."

The Eagles finished second-to-last in the NFL last season with 29 sacks. Those stats speak to a number of things, like the declining play of Fletcher Cox, who is poised to make $15 million this season and was the subject of trade talks prior to November's deadline, as well as the soft coverage defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon deployed in the back end, allowing quarterbacks to get the ball out quickly.

But the lack of firepower off the edge really hurt them. Barnett and Ryan Kerrigan are likely on their way out, Graham is on his way back in, and the Eagles could very well bolster the position around he and Sweat by way of the draft and free agency.

ESPN's Kevin Seifert has six pass-rushers in the top 20 of his ranking of top free agents.

Philadelphia ranks 13th in cap space with an estimated $22.7 million, but with holes at corner, safety, receiver and linebacker, those resources need to be spread out. What makes the most sense is to sign a mid-level defensive end in free agency, then pounce on a legit difference-maker in the first round come April.

The Eagles have plenty of those prospects to pore over this week in Indy.