This Eagles offseason has a “Choose Your Own Adventure” type of feel. They need a pair of cornerbacks, at least one wide receiver, a running back, and they have draft needs just about everywhere else. Do they sign top guys at positions of need and try to improve and compete for a playoff spot in Doug Pederson and Carson Wentz’s second year? Do they mostly build through the draft and let the progression come naturally? Do they hedge their bets and go for stop gap upgrades and let rookies develop as backups? Do they go for top tier starters at some positions and internal growth at others? There are arguments for every option, and they will differ depending on what position is being discussed.
Wide receiver might be the most debated. There’s a case to be made to sign a pair of starters and then go after a different position at the top of the draft. There’s a case to be made to sign veterans to short term deals and go and get a top WR in the draft. The Eagles must choose, and choose wisely.
If Howie Roseman’s recent track record is any indication, he’ll make upgrades that aren’t big signings and go after one in the draft. In 2016 he kept to the strategy of signing stop gaps in free agency so he could have freedom in the draft. He signed two quarterbacks then drafted a third. He signed a starting guard and a backup guard, then drafted a third. He signed two cornerbacks then drafted a third, he signed a safety and drafted another. So he’ll probably stick to his plan of signing stop gaps in free agency to not force his hand in the draft.
The Eagles are going to have to be more active at the position this spring than they were last year. By the time free agency hit last year Howie Roseman knew he wanted to go up get Wentz, but he sat out the first and second waves of free agency at WR to help him.
He was right to be patient at first. Marvin Jones, Mohammed Sanu and Travis Benjamin were the first tier of contracts signed, all got over double the guaranteed money of the fourth highest paid WR. None of them were worth the money. The biggest contract of the lot was Jones, who had 482 receiving yards and 2 touchdown in his first four games and 448 yards and 2 touchdowns in his last 12 regular season games for the Lions. With the favorite for MVP as his quarterback, Sanu had 653 receiving yards in 15 games in Atlanta. Benjamin started fewer games for the Chargers than Dontrelle Inman and Tyrell Williams, who were backups last year.
Roseman instead went for really low risk, third wave of free agency moves. Rueben Randle had productive years with the Giants but didn’t make it to the end of the preseason, and Chris Givens and TJ Graham were quickly forgotten. A trade for Dorial Green-Beckham was another low risk move, but he regressed.
Sitting out the top of a seller’s market in free agency is always a wise move, rarely does the player justify the contract. But the second tier of signings that were made did work out. The next three WRs by guaranteed money to move to a new team all had very good seasons. Rishard Matthews moved to the Titans and had the best year of his career, in Baltimore Mike Wallace his best season since 2011, and LaFell had the second best season of his career as one of the replacements for Jones and Sanu in Cincinnati.
Now, with a roster full of young WRs that at best didn’t progress, at worst regressed, the Eagles have painted themselves into a corner. They have to add talent, and can’t wait around for third tier free agent reclamation projects. But what is the best option for the Eagles?
This year’s free agency class is night and day from last year’s, with Alshon Jeffery headlining the position, Kenny Stills a young and exciting option, DeSean Jackson an older but exciting one, and Pierre Garcon and Kenny Britt have better resumes than last year’s top crop of free agents. The next tier of players such as Brandon LaFell, Michael Floyd, Kendall Wright and Robert Woods could be low cost upgrade options, and Torrey Smith, Brandon Marshall, Eric Decker and others may be available.
The Eagles would be justified in signing not just one but two veteran WRs who can be depended to do such things as check to see if he is lined up properly before the snap, know to come back to the QB when he scrambles, get two feet in bounds, or hold on to uncontested passes. And they just might do that, don’t be surprised if the team has three new wide receivers to join with Jordan Matthews.
Already we’ve seen the team get to work trying to add players. They’ve brought back Rasheed Bailey, who had a strong preseason in 2015 with the Eagles, and added raw but physically impressive Dom Williams. At this point in the offseason only players who finished the season as free agents can be signed, and no expectations should be given to any signings in January. But it’s encouraging that the Eagles have wasted no time trying to do what they can in a limited capacity to address the position. Or maybe it’s a sign that the team feels that with a better WR coach they can polish what they have. Hopefully not.
Signing a stopgap implies then going and filling the gap permanently. There should be at least one of the top tier of WRs in the draft of Mike Williams, Corey Davis, John Ross and JuJu Smith-Schuster available for the Eagles. But there’s no guarantee that improves the Eagles in 2017. Four WRs were taken in the first round in 2016, and none of them were impact players in their rookie years. Corey Coleman showed glimpses of his potential, but missed six games and struggled for most of the season. Will Fuller had the most receptions and receiving yards of the 1st rounders, but struggled with drops. Josh Doctson missed 14 games with an injury. Laquon Treadwell was a healthy scratch for 7 and had just 1 reception. Any of them could turn out to be top tier WRs, but they illustrate how little an impact WRs can have in their rookie years, and how quickly plans can go awry. Even Alshon Jeffrey had a bad rookie year. And you know, they drafted one two years ago that was seen as a good pick, and he’s a bust.
This week, we’ll explore all the options available to the Eagles at a position they desperately need help. They won’t be hurting for choices, and we won’t be hurting for opinions on their choices.