5 college football players Eagles fans should watch (Saquan Barkley, Quenton Nelson)
Other possible draftees to keep an eye on include Jaire Alexander, Ronald Jones, and Connor Williams.
The NFL season is just past a quarter over and the college one is nearing the halfway point, so what better time to start fantasizing about players that aren’t on the Eagles but could be? The Birds are playing better football than expected, and sit perched with a game-and-a-half lead atop their division. Some needs aren’t as pressing as they seemed a month ago, and some are even more-so. Regardless, the rebuild has accelerated in Philadelphia.
Before the college football season ends, here’s a look at some players that might leave you just as wide-eyed as NFL scouts.
Saquon Barkley, Jr., RB, Penn State
As overzealous as it sounds, Barkley’s cuts, vision, and touch for the big play make him most reminiscent of a faster, stronger LeSean McCoy on the field. The leading Heisman-trophy candidate in the country does it all for the Nittany Lions: against Indiana he returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown and threw a touchdown pass, and he led the Big-Ten in receptions and receiving yards as late in the season as Week 4. He’s well on his way to his third 1000-yard season rushing the football and you can catch his weightlifting videos and reported 4.33 40-yard dash all over the internet.
A realistic target a year ago, somehow acquiring Barkley after his meteoric rise and the Eagles explosive start to this season now would be a coup requiring Howie Roseman’s very best work. Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliott, Leonard Fournette and Christian MccAffrey have proved the position’s days in the top ten are not numbered, and Barkley will be a prospect with the hype to match any of those players. The Eagles have shown a willingness to launch themselves up the draft board, but to do that with zero second-day picks on hand in 2018 would be some true draft voodoo.
Quenton Nelson, Sr., G, Notre Dame
Nelson showed enough to be named a Second-Team All-American in 2016 despite Notre Dame’s disappointing season. A captain this year, he’s spent his third year starting along the offensive line returning the Irish to the national conversation and himself to first-round discussion. A 6-foot-5, 331 pounder, Nelson appears to be this years “drafted-lower-than-he-should-be-because-he’s-a-guard-ready-to-plug-and-play-starter.” He’s also flanked on the left side by tackle Mike McGlinchey, another NFL prospect.
Three different players have already started at left guard for the Eagles this season, following the departure of Allen Barbre, so some surety here would surely be nice. It’s very doubtful the team is anywhere near giving up on Isaac Seumalo, but it’s also unclear whether they envision him at center more than guard in the long term.
Connor Williams Jr., T, Texas
While the Longhorns were thrilling the nation by almost upsetting USC on September 16th, they lost their star left tackle to a knee injury that turned out to be a meniscus tear and mcl and pcl sprains. Williams, an All-American in 2016 and freshman All-American in 2015, had surgery for the tear and it’s unclear if he’ll become available again for Texas this season.
For the Eagles, the injury could push an elite tackle prospect down draft boards to a spot where he’d be available and the team has shown a willingness to bet on their medical staff helping recovering players (see: Jones, Sidney.) Williams is an extremely mobile and athletic blocker the likes of which the team has had great success with along their current offensive line. That line isn’t getting any younger, and the jury on Halapoulivaati Vaitai as a starter is still out.
Ronald Jones Jr., RB, USC
A burner who has run for USC’s track team, Jones had four games with at least a 50-yard run in 2016 and tacked on an 86-yard touchdown against Washington State two weekends ago. While Southern Cal lost that game to fall from the ranks of unbeatens, their starting tailback kept them in it with 14 carries for 128 yards while the passing game was failing to move the ball and Sam Darnold was turning the ball over. Jones could be the most dynamic tailback the Trojans have featured since Reggie Bush, and you can expect to see him light up the 40-yard dash at the combine this Spring.
The Eagles running game looks a lot more figured out than it did a couple games into the season, but there’s room for a feature back among 30-year old LeGarrette Blount, 34-year old Darren Sproles, and the young trio of Wendell Smallwood, Corey Clement, and Donnel Pumphrey. Unlike Barkley, Jones is a realistic prospect for the Eagles even if they keep winning.
Jaire Alexander Jr., CB, Louisville
It’s hard to get noticed alongside Lamar Jackson playing for the Cardinals, but that’s exactly what Alexander did during his sophomore season in 2016. Intercepting DeShaun Watson twice in the biggest game of the season will do that, even if your team loses the game. He had five interceptions on the season, and returned a punt for a touchdown against Florida State as well. This season, he sprained his knee in the opener against Purdue and missed time until this past weekend’s loss to North Carolina St.
It’s hard to predict how confident the Eagles will be in their secondary until Ronald Darby and Sidney Jones return from injury and start to get involved in the picture, but cornerback has been the most frustrating spot on the team for several years. Patrick Robinson has performed extremely well since Darby’s injury in the season opener. Alexander graded out extremely well for Pro Football Focus in 2016 (ranking fifth among all cornerbacks) and their evaluations have lined up with the Eagles’ before, most notably with Derek Barnett, Mack Collins, and Nate Gerry during this past draft.