A couple days ago, our fearless leader BLG linked a couple SBN articles that analyzed the roster construction of the teams playing in the AFC and NFC championship games. This article did a great job of showing that there are multiple ways to build a championship-caliber roster-as well as detailing how freakishly similar the AFC and NFC teams are to each other. I liked the style of the article, so I decided to use it as a template to see what separates the Eagles’ roster from that of teams like the Seahawks, Patriots, Broncos, and 49ers. I look at this exercise as a way to try to tease out how much roster makeup played a part in the Eagles not advancing past the first round of the playoffs, as opposed to things like execution and coaching.
The author of the SBN articles, Jason Chilton, opines there are 5 "pillars" upon which successful rosters are built: dominate the draft, shop smart, win your extensions, dodge dead money, and catfish(ing). I think he presents compelling reasons for each, so I will post them verbatim:
Dominate the Draft - You're just not going to find a consistent contender who isn't at least in the top third of franchises on Draft Day. The draft can be the only shot at replacing some truly elite players who'll be allowed to hit free agency, and it remains by far the best way to acquire talent that fits with the system you're trying to deploy on each side of the ball. Another element of the draft is playing up even more in the current slow-growth salary cap era - it's a phenomenal source of cheap labor. The league salary structure dictates that half of your team will be making less than $1 million a season - ensuring that those guys are productive youngsters rather than another team's bargain-bin castoffs means drafting well on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
Shop Smart - Free agency isn't a perfectly efficient market, but bidding against 31 other teams on established guys is a much tougher environment in which to wring out excess value. Rare is the team that rides a massive free-agent splurge to sustained success - smart outfits use free agency to fill holes and wrangle bargains on under-appreciated talent while only dropping big money on truly exceptional players who fit the system.
Win Your Extensions - A key component of smart salary cap management is knowing when and how to extend your own players before they hit the open market. Smart teams reach out early and lock up their true difference-makers with deals that properly deploy guaranteed dollars. Their stars get financial security in a game where your career can be over in an instant, and the club saves money compared to the market rate while managing annual spend and insuring that they're paying for a player's most productive years. GMs that blow it on extensions (*cough Jerry Jones cough*) end up paying future dollars for past glories and putting their teams on the express elevator to Salary Cap Hell.
Dodge Dead Money - What's worse than paying a player more than he's worth? Paying a player who isn't around at all. An offshoot of shopping smart and winning at extensions means that you limit the portion of your cap dedicated to guys who will never see the field for you again.
Catfish - No, this isn't a plan to lure Manti T'eo to your squad by putting the team video guy in a wig and having him engage in some dubious SnapChatting. Even the draft isn't a sufficient resource to fully stock your team with the number of rookie- and veteran-minimum salaries you'll need to stay fiscally sound. The ability to bottom feed successfully by snapping up contributing undrafted free agents and veteran-minimum guys isn't as glamorous as nailing a Top Ten draft choice, but it's a skill that every successful GM needs in his toolbox.
We all probably have a rough mental image of what the Eagles’ roster will look like in this exercise; of the four teams the SBN articles profiled, the Eagles will probably be something closer to the 49ers and Seahawks than the Broncos and Patriots. The parallels are numerous: excellent bellcow running back, young quarterback with minimal cap hit, and smart contracts engineered by a good GM. Let’s dig deeper and take a look, using the methodology Jason employed in his excellent articles. If you didn’t read his (you should!), I’ll include his key for explaining the spreadsheet images (with changes made where necessary).
- The 'Acquired' box adjacent to each player's name details how they arrived in Philly - draft choices or UDFAs are in purple with the year and round of their selection (lighter purple for draft choices who have received a contract extension since being drafted), free agent signings are in blue with the year that they joined the team, and guys who came in via trade are noted in bronze.
- The '2013 Cap Figure' box shows how much each player counts towards the 2013 salary cap (figures courtesy of the wizards at OverTheCap.com), and are color-coded to represent the 'bang for the buck' that each player is delivering relative to his cap hit. Green is a relative bargain (a few guys earn a bright green for delivering a ton of excess value), yellow is about league-average, and red indicates a guy who's costing more than he's delivering on the field.
Now, let's visualize the Eagles' offensive and defensive rosters (click to enlarge)!
Dominate the Draft
The way I see it, recent Eagles draft history can be split into three main segments: 2005-2009, 2010-2011, and 2012-2013. The first period of drafts was mainly engineered by Andy Reid and Joe Banner; it is very apparent how much more proficient they were scouting offensive talent versus defensive. The fact that only one defensive player drafted from 2005-2009 started on defense for the Eagles in 2013 (versus 5 on offense) should really hit this point home. Another noteworthy observation is the Eagles found offensive talent in all three days of the draft during this era, including "theSeans", both taken on day 2 consecutive years. Hitting on first-round picks is important, but the ability to find talent in later rounds (Brent Celek, Trent Cole) differentiates playoff contenders from champions.
2010-2011 is kind of a "gray period" in Eagles draft history because the amount of control (and subsequent blame) Joe Banner and Howie Roseman had over these two drafts is highly debatable. What is incontrovertible is that these two drafts were nothing short of abject failures. A grand total of 3 players from those two drafts started for the Eagles in 2013, a Matt Millen-esque hit rate that could have crippled the franchise for years if not compensated by excellent recent drafts. I would say the only true "value find" of this era was Jason Kelce; while Riley Cooper was great in 2013, I feel this was more a product of Chip’s machine than his own talent.
The last two drafts have been solely the product of Howie Roseman as GM, and as we all know, they appear to have been back-to-back home runs. Five 2013 starters were tabbed in the 2012-2013 drafts, with a number of other important role players (Brandon Boykin, Zach Ertz, Earl Wolff) mined as well. These drafts weren’t just important for getting players on the field; 4 out of 5 of the players ranked "exceeds league average", while the sole "league average" starter (Lane Johnson) has extremely high upside. As stated before, finding value picks beyond day 1 is what masterful GMs and scouting squads do, and the 2012-2013 drafts produced day 3 finds (Boykin, Wolff, Brown) at a much higher rate than previous drafts.
While Howie Roseman probably had some role in drafting strikes like Danny Watkins and Jaiquawn Jarrett, the last two drafts fall squarely on his head and bode well for the future of the franchise. If the Eagles can get one more bumper crop of contributing players in the 2014 draft, the nucleus for a 5-year window of dominance will be firmly in place.
Free Agency has been relatively kind to the Eagles in recent years, with the glaring exception of 2011 (we’ll get around to that in the dead money section). The majority of free agents that started or contributed in 2013 were acquired last offseason, which is a testament to how barren the defensive cupboard was post-Andy. While I feel only one of these acquisitions was an unabashed success (Connor Barwin), the fact that the secondary was 75% free agents in 2013 and still functioned at an average level is pretty impressive. The dangers of free agency were on display in whiffs such as Patrick Chung (cutting him will be addition by subtraction at its finest) and James Casey (despite coming on as a run blocker at the end of the year, $4 million is simply too much for a glorified fullback). One area the Eagles seem to have mastered is trades-both 2013 starters that were the product of trades were linchpins (Jason Peters and DeMeco Ryans).
Win Your Extensions
Not only was the draft class of 2012 excellent, but that offseason also showed Roseman’s mastery of contract extensions. Out of the five contract extensions dealt that offseason, three of them produced "above league average" 2013 players, with 2 of those (Shady and Mathis) being well above league average. While I feel a couple of guys under extension outstayed their welcome in 2013 (Jason Avant, Todd Herremans), the work the birds have done to keep home-grown offensive talent in town paid dividends in the worst-to-first turnaround of 2013. Mainstays like Shady, DJax, Celek, and Peters were all extended in a team-friendly yet fair manner, which allowed the largely free-agent driven defensive overhaul before the 2013 season.
Dodge Dead Money
Ahh…2011, the offseason gift that keeps on giving. The bulk of the $13.4 million in dead money the Eagles incurred in the 2013 season is a direct result of bad drafting and free-agent whiffs that happened that fateful year. The poster children of the 2011 offseason, Mile Marker 24 (Nnamdi Asomugha) and Backdraft (Danny Watkins) got paid a collective $6.2 million dollars to not play for the Eagles in 2013. For those keeping count, that is more than the entire dead money cap hit the 49ers incurred in 2013 ($5.6 million). The only large slug of dead money the Eagles accumulated in the year 2013 was from trading Isaac Sopoaga, and the marginal move up in the draft that came from dealing him takes some of the sting out of that miss. While the stench of the 2011 free-agent binge will have mostly cleared from the air in 2014 from a dead money standpoint, it stands as a stark reminder why winning teams aren’t built out of big-ticket free agents.
While the Eagles haven’t had Arian Foster-levels of success finding guys who fell through the cracks, they have had some luck. One of the best defensive players of 2013 (Cedric Thornton) was signed after the draft by the Eagles, and Chris Polk (UDFA 2012) should be a solid back-up RB for years to come. Both of these guys were signed during the era of Howie, so that bodes well for the future of finding hidden gems to bulk up the Eagles’ roster.
After going through this exercise, I have confirmed my null hypothesis: roster management was an asset, not a liability, in the Eagles’ 2013 season. The bad defensive drafting of the Reid-Banner era and the personnel overhaul necessated by the switch to the 3-4 defense was counterbalanced by wise 2013 FA pickups and great 2012-2013 drafts. Conversely, the Chip Kelly offense trampled all over the league in its inaugural year in large part due to great recent draft hauls and prudent contract extensions doled out to key offensive cogs. In the past two years, the Eagles have managed player personnel at just about a platonic ideal. Combine masterful management with a genius head coach, and I think a follow-up fanpost in the near future detailing "How did the Eagles build a championship roster?" is inevitable :)
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