Joe Banner reveals Eagles considered drafting Akili Smith instead of Donovan McNabb


When you look at the other quarterbacks in that Class of 1999, it’s easy to forget that this was not a no-brainer.

Sure, in retrospect, Donovan McNabb’s career was infinitely more successful than the other quarterbacks in that 1999 draft. 

Daunte Culpepper had a couple big years, but McNabb finished with more wins (98) than the four others combined (69) as well as more playoff wins (9 to 2) and a far better winning percentage (.612 compared to the four others all at .410 or worse).

Looking back 21 years to a pivotal Eagles draft pick, long-time team president Joe Banner said the decision in the Eagles’ draft room in April of 1999 was not clear cut.

On the Eagle Eye Podcast Tuesday, Banner revealed that there were some in the Eagles’ draft room who wanted the team to take Akili Smith at No. 3.

“Donovan McNabb was not a consensus pick,” Banner said.

The Browns wound up taking Tim Couch first, the Eagles picked McNabb second and the Bengals took Smith third. Culpepper went to Minnesota with the 11th pick and Cade McNown to the Bears with the 12th.

Smith only won three games in his brief NFL career.

There were a few of us on Donovan, but Akili Smith was probably the next-highest guy,” said Banner, who was with the Eagles from 1995 through 2012. “We had people who felt very strongly about Akili. We didn’t have Couch (as a top prospect). We had Donovan first when we finished the board, but we had three that we projected as quality NFL starters - Donovan, Culpepper and Akili Smith. We were a little worried about some character stuff with Akili Smith -- not overly, but just a little bit more than the other guys -- and then, ironically, Jon Gruden (who had been with the Eagles through 1997) coached Donovan at the Senior Bowl and was very close with Andy, and Andy trusted him and he was very strong in his recommendation of Donovan. … Andy felt strongly about it, he was the offensive mind of the team. He was a guy that had to base his real career and success as a head coach in his initial years on that. And that cleared the way for us taking Donovan. And really Donovan’s the only one whose career you would feel really good about if you picked him in the top five or seven picks.

The Eagles’ brain trust back then was Banner, executive vice president, Tom Modrak, director of football operations, and Reid. 

Offensive coordinator Rod Dowhower, quarterbacks coach Brad Childress and college scouting director John Goeller would all have been part of that conversation.

One last thing on a key 1st-round draft pick in the 1990s: Banner said the Eagles came very close to not drafting Tra Thomas, who went on to make three Pro Bowls and hold down left tackle here for a decade.

The Eagles took Thomas with the 11th pick in 1998.

We came very close to not picking Tra Thomas,” he said. “There was another tackle in the draft that some people liked more. A guy named Mo Collins that turned out to be not good a player. Huge difference from a Pro Bowl player to a guy who really wasn’t much of a contributor. We really had a tough decision between those two guys.

Banner had some other very interesting things to say about some of those early drafts with the Eagles. He spoke about the Eagles' draft picks he’s most proud of and revealed what running back the Eagles liked the most in that 1998 draft (hint: it wasn’t Ricky Williams.) And he also explained why he was so surprised the Eagles moved on from Malcolm Jenkins.

For the full interview, check out the latest Eagle Eye podcast below.

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