Consider where the Philadelphia Eagles were four years ago. In May 2014, the Eagles were mere months into Chip Kelly’s tenure as head coach. The team was stacked with talent. LeSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Brent Celek: all in their prime. The offensive line, led by All-Pros like Jason Peters & Evan Mathis, was one of the best in the NFL. The tempo…good dear God, the tempo. The defense? Okay, fine, we won’t laud the defense. The point is this: Chip Kelly inherited, in his rookie year, an NFL roster that was ready-made for success. As a result, the 2013 Eagles went 10-6 before losing to the New Orleans Saints in the first round of the playoffs.
Fast forward to March 2016. The Chip Kelly experiment has magnificently failed. The Eagles, back under the guidance of previously exiled Howie Roseman, have hired their Andy-Reid-approved Doug Pederson to captain the ship. Sam Bradford was the quarterback. DeMarco Murray, coming off a disastrous 2015 campaign, was the lead running back. Your best pass catchers were Jordan Matthews & Zach Ertz. The roster has been unceremoniously dismantled by the now departed Kelly. Things were, to quote the Twitter, #NotGood.
Since resuming control, Howie Roseman has seemingly had a plan in place to return the team to contention. Let’s look at what he has done to date:
- He moved on from over-priced pieces from the Kelly-era:
- Murray to Tennessee: done
- Maxwell & Alonso to Miami: check
- Drafted the “franchise quarterback”:
- While there are some who doubt his ability to be an elite-NFL quarterback, he had a solid rookie year and should be primed for growth in his sophomore season.
- Protecting the QB:
- In the past two off-seasons, the Eagles have bolstered their offensive line in remarkable fashion. Jason Peters, Jason Kelce, & Lane Johnson were in place already. They added Isaac Seumalo & Halapoulivaati Vaitai via the 2015 draft. They acquired Brandon Brooks, Steven Wisniewski & Chance Warmack via free agency. They agreed with UDFAs Dillon Gordon & Tyler Orlosky. This is a deep and talented group that should give Wentz all the time he needs to work.
- Weaponizing the QB:
- Last season saw Carson Wentz surrounded with, perhaps, the worst corps of offensive weapons in the NFL. Darren Sproles, Wendell Smallwood, and Ryan Matthews (when he was healthy) were fine. Zach Ertz had his typically slow start before producing in meaningless December football games. The wide receivers, on the other hand, were absolute dreck. Bringing in Alshon Jeffery & Torrey Smith are noteworthy upgrades by themselves. Drafting Mack Hollins, Shelton Gibson, & Donnell Pumphrey are gravy on the potatoes.
So where do the above moves leave the roster? What does the front office need to do in order to ensure the team grows around a young head coach & QB? How do the Eagles get from now to Super Bowl contention? These are the questions to answer. If the front office is smart, they’ll follow the blueprints laid out by recent Super Bowl champions. Let’s play a little game I am going to call “what’s the lesson…what’s it mean.”
What’s the lesson: Let average players walk.
Too often NFL teams make a habit of extending young players who are just average. Players that, because they have produced on mediocre teams but are, in no way, dominant players. The Patriots, for example, routinely let the Shane Vereens & Brandon LaFells of the NFL walk in free agency: rather than tie money into middling NFL contributors. The Broncos didn’t blink when Eric Decker left in 2014 for the Jets or when Julius Thomas left the following year for Jacksonville. Those players can contribute, sure, but they’re simply not worth your teams money.
What’s it mean?
It means the Eagles need to be comfortable letting some current contributing players go. A player like Jordan Matthews, for example. He has had a productive couple years in Philadelphia, but he was, by a wide margin, the best wide receiver in a bad room. The Eagles have now invested resources to upgrade the position, both in free agency & the draft. They should focus on extending Jeffery (an impact player) and let Matthews walk. Same goes for Beau Allen, Steven Means, Nigel Bradham, etc.
What’s the lesson: Play tag.
Listen, it’s hard to find elite talent in the NFL. The draft, even in the first round, is often a crap shoot. Free agency is full of mediocre guys getting paid (see above and also, ahem, Vinny Curry). When you get an elite talent in the door, you have to keep him for as long as possible. In the four off-seasons from 2012-2016, the Denver Broncos franchised three players: Matt Prater, Ryan Clady, Demaryius Thomas, and Von Miller. They also happened to have won a Super Bowl in 2016 (pre-Miller tag). Since 2007, the Patriots have tagged Asante Samuel, Matt Cassell, Vince Wilfork, Logan Mankins, Wes Welker, and Stephen Gostkowski. They have won two Super Bowls in that time. Tagging players keeps talent in the building. That’s the name of the game.
What’s it mean?
If any of the Eagles upcoming free agents should be “too valuable to lose”, then they shouldn’t hesitate to slap ’em with the franchise tag. Alshon Jeffery? Timmy Jernigan? Lookin at you, boys. If nothing else, it gives the team a chance to extend the player on a more team-friendly contract or offers them extended time to trade the player.
What’s the lesson: Wheel & Deal
There is no front office that trades with the regularity the Eagles do. However, the Patriots are a close second. During the spring of 2016, through a series of draft season/day trades, the Patriots turned DE Chandler Jones and fourth round draft pick into the following: Joe Thuney (starting RG on the SB51 team), Marcellus Bennett, Malcolm Mitchell, Devin Lucien, and Deatrich Wise. Later that year, as we know, they acquired cornerback Eric Rowe for a conditional 2018 draft pick. Prior to their recent Super Bowl title, the Denver Broncos acquired Vernon Davis from the 49ers in a swap of 6th/7th round selections. These are franchises that make and win trades. These are trades that add contributors to championship rosters.
What’s it mean?
Howie Roseman likes to deal and no amount of Joe Douglas-ing is going to change that fact. He has made trades a la the Patriots & Broncos above in the past, no doutbt. Trading Sam Bradford to an exposed Minnesota Vikings franchise for a 2017 first round pick & 2018 fourth round pick was, in no uncertain terms, masterful. However, I do think the front office missed an opportunity to upgrade their roster by trading current roster assets during the draft last month. Seriously, what are Jason Kelce, Jordan Matthews, and Mychal Kendricks still doing on this Eagles roster? Personally, I don’t see a way all three of them are on the roster when the Eagles break camp in a couple months. Maybe one…maybe two…not all three. Roseman may again be waiting to see if preseason injuries create an opportunity to trade these guys.
What’s the lesson: Dollars and sense.
When I say this, I mean knowing the value of roster development and having common sense. The Patriots are infamous for not overpaying players or reaching in the draft. Where the Patriots are especially brilliant is in allocating resources only to key positions on the football field. Look at their salary breakdown on spotrac.com when you get a chance. Roughly 49% of the Patriots allocated 2017 salaries are allocated to the secondary & offensive line. Stop the pass. Protect the (HoF) QB. This doesn’t need to be difficult. Pass catchers (WRs & TEs) account for another ~25%. Defensive line: almost 13%. Running back? Just over 8% and not all those guys will make the roster.
The Patriots haven’t drafted a running back since 2014. Over that same time, they’ve drafted 9 OL, 7 DL/EDGE, 4 LBs, 4 DBs, 4 WR/TEs, 2 QBs. You see where they prioritize positions when they build a roster. It makes sense in today’s NFL.
What’s it mean?
It seems like this is where Joe Douglas is going to have an impact on the front office. You can see it in the philosophy of the front office moves this off-season. The Eagles moves, detailed above, have focused on solidifying the OL, boosting the WR corps via FA & the draft & improving the pass rush & cornerback positions. They addressed the hole at the RB position with a fourth round pick. They didn’t spend money on RBs in free agency: despite the need & relatively low cost of the names on the market. A high cost running back, at this time, is not something the Eagles have to have. There are pieces in place that are suitable for the team’s success. Given the relatively short careers of most running backs, grabbing one with an early pick last month would have been a waste of resources. The team should be focused on building a championship caliber foundation and, in my opinion, should not draft/acquire an elite running back until they are ready to make a final push toward a Super Bowl. This is the organizational philosophy that is reminiscent of the one employed in Foxborough.
If the Eagles are smart, they’ll stay the course. Despite this off-season being comparatively boring, for Eagles standards, they seem to have run on an even-keel: making responsible organizational decisions. Reasonable short-term deals for free agents, drafting key positions, trading for low-risk/high-reward contributors. So long as the front office continues to practice patience and follow the blueprints detailed above, they should have lasting success in today’s NFL.