Now that the 2019 NFL Draft is over and we’re easing into the first of two slow news cycles before training camp opens, I thought now would be as good a time as any to take a step back and assess where the Eagles stand now. Free agency is (mostly) old news, so I won’t really cover that - but I will say I generally approve of the depth Howie added along the defensive line with Malik Jackson, and the signing of Zach Brown was a low-risk, high-reward move. I’ve already written at length about Jordan Howard, and bringing back Jernigan and Darby on team-friendly deals is a smart move for a team looking to compete for a championship now.
I’ve also overcome my fears of Howie “kicking the can down the road” with his restructures. As many astute readers have pointed out here in the comments, Howie isn’t guaranteeing money to players he doesn’t intend to keep - rather, he’s shifting the money of franchise cornerstones like Zach Ertz and Lane Johnson. Furthermore, with the way the salary cap is accelerating, it’s essentially betting on inflation: $5M in cap savings today is worth a lot more than an extra $5M spent years down the road, because by then it will consume a smaller percentage of an ever-rising salary cap. It’s basic economics.
So really, it’s been a solid offseason for Howie and Co., and the draft was no exception. Let’s dig into that topic a little more.
2019 NFL Draft: Reading Between the Lines
Full disclosure here - I am a nerd for many things, but the NFL Draft is not one of them. I do not study tape. I do not conduct research on any prospects. I enjoy reading mock drafts, but I wouldn’t be able to make one myself. And when I watch the draft, I’m more interested in the positions that the Eagles draft than specific players, because I don’t know who the players are (outside of Round 1 prospects and Penn State alum - Go State!). When the Eagles took JJ Arcega-Whiteside with their third pick, my first thought was, “Who?”
My general reaction to the draft: it was solid. When all of the premier defensive line talent was gone by pick #20, I was ecstatic to see them take an offensive lineman. I had convinced myself that I would be okay with Hollywood Brown (I loved his story), but I felt offensive line was a more pressing “big picture” need. To note, I am a BPA guy, but not to a fault - if the BPA is at a position you 100% do not need (like QB), then you trade down. That is essentially how I felt about wide receiver in Round 1. As for the other rounds, I can get behind all of the other picks (except Thorson), but I’m not super stoked about them. More interesting to me was what these picks said about Howie’s near-term and long-term strategy, which I’ll go into more detail here:
In 2020, Jason Peters and Jordan Howard are (probably) goners. I loved the pick of Andre Dillard. Peters is a Philadelphia legend, but he’s getting up there in age. Despite his high level of play on the field, he struggled to finish games in 2018, and if Dillard can be that first player off the bench instead of Big V when Peters comes off the field in 2019, then this pick was already a win. It was a great move to help them win now while also thinking about the future. Most people assume that Peters will retire after this season, but if he doesn’t and Stoutland thinks Dillard is ready to take over, I think he’ll be cut anyway. I know that might sound impossible, considering what he means to the team, but the same thing happened to Celek after the Super Bowl win. The Eagles will need that cap savings to extend Wentz with a massive contract, and a young and talented Dillard, with a year of NFL training under his belt, could represent an honest upgrade over the aging Peters.
As for Howard, a lot of people figured he would be a 1-year rental, since he is on the last year of his rookie contract. I wasn’t so sure at the time: I figured if he played well, he might get an extension. I am less certain of that now with the drafting of Sanders. The guy I wanted in the draft was Darrell Henderson. I thought he was a better complement to Howard and was intrigued by his comparisons to Alvin Kamara. Don’t get me wrong, as a Penn State grad I am a big Sanders fan and think he can develop into an NFL starter, but that’s just it - you don’t draft Sanders to complement Jordan Howard. You draft Sanders to replace Jordan Howard. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Eagles draft another runningback in a later round next year to serve the “change of pace” role as Sanders moves into the 1A role when Howard leaves. And I am fine with this - it was a great blend of “win now” while also planning for the future. Assuming he develops the way Duce thinks he can, Sanders should be the answer at runningback for the Eagles for at least the next four seasons.
We should probably abandon the “next Brian Dawkins” draft pipe dream. I’ve seen a lot of complaints in the comments about the Eagles selecting X player over one of the safeties who were falling in the draft. While I’m sure Howie would take a generational talent at safety in the draft if he fell into the Eagles’ lap when they were on the clock, I don’t think it’s a position they really value in the draft, as opposed to the trenches, or cornerback.
There are 4 general ways to build a roster: the draft, free agency, undrafted free agency, and trades. Acquiring players through these methods is in no way a sure thing, no matter the position. Of course, some positions are more likely to be draft busts than others, as this study demonstrates. This idea of “bust by position” carries over to the other methods of player acquisition as well - any Eagles fan that survived the 2011 season will tell you that. But that isn’t to say that a position that’s likely to bust in the draft (such as wide receiver) will bust at the same rate through free agency. This is what I think Howie looks at when he crafts a roster and considers what positions he wants to draft.
Let’s use the 2017 roster as an example, since that is a Super Bowl championship roster and I wouldn’t be shocked if Howie uses that team as a guide when he shapes the current roster. The 4 safeties the Eagles carried that season were Malcolm Jenkins, Rodney McLeod, Corey Graham, and Chris Maragos (who was on IR and primarily a special teams ace). All of those players were free agent acquisitions, and all of them (minus Maragos) played at a high level - relative to their role - throughout the season and the playoffs. To me, Howie probably believes safety is a position he can address safely through free agency without taking a perceived risk in the draft. (This is an idea I actually want to explore more in a separate post, so watch out for that.)
Now, if you looked back at that study I linked, you’ll notice that defensive backs are one of the “safest” picks in the draft, meaning my thoughts above on an analytics-driven front office might just be blowing smoke. My response to that is: that group includes ALL defensive backs, and the Eagles have spent a significant amount of recent draft capital on cornerbacks. Furthermore, the hit rate for defensive backs actually increases as you get to Day 3. My guess is that Howie has no problem taking late-round flyers of the Jaylen Watkins and Earl Wolff mold, knowing that they are a statistically safer Day 3 pick than other positions, and fully confident that if he strikes out in the draft he can find starting-level talent in free agency that are less likely to be big-money busts than, say, offensive tackles.
So to sum up all of that, if the Eagles really do find their “next Brian Dawkins,” I’d hedge my bets he’ll be signed during a new league year free agency frenzy as opposed to holding up a fresh “#1” jersey on draft day.
Howie’s draft theme of “win now but plan for later” is something I hope becomes a trend. I touched on this earlier, but I felt pretty much all of the Eagles’ picks not only bring something to the table for 2019 but also can play a big role for the team down the road (I guess that second part is more obvious):
- Andre Dillard, OT: Potentially first tackle off the bench to spell Peters in 2019; left tackle of the future in 2020 and beyond
- Miles Sanders, RB: Primary “change of pace back” for Jordan Howard in 2019; starting rusher in 2020(?) and beyond
- JJ Arcega-Whiteside, WR: Big third-down/red zone target in 2019-2020; Alshon Jeffery replacement in 2021(?) and beyond
- Shareef Miller, DE: Depth edge rusher in 2019; rotational pass rusher in 2020 and beyond
- Clayton Thorson, QB: Scout team QB in 2019; Nate Sudfeld replacement/trade bait in 2020(?) and beyond
Saying the Eagles’ last two picks offer value to the team in 2019 is a stretch, but you get the idea. This wasn’t strictly a “rebuilding” draft (as it shouldn’t have been), but it wasn’t a super-aggressive “impact player” draft either. I felt it struck a nice balance, and it’s a strategy I’d like to see the Eagles continue to utilize in future drafts.
Team Barometer: May 2019
Overall, the Eagles have had a decent offseason. They surrounded Carson Wentz with more weapons, (hopefully) found their long-term replacement for Jason Peters, and strategically cleared cap space to prepare for Carson’s next contract, which will likely be north of $35M in annual value. They also addressed their need for quality depth at linebacker, defensive tackle, and cornerback (by bringing Darby back) to help make sure the defense can withstand the punishing NFL season.
On the flip side, their shallowest positions are crucial: defensive end and offensive guard. For a team that prides itself in building a team through the trenches, this should represent a serious concern. I do have faith in Stoutland’s ability to develop younger players like Matt Pryor, as well as Doug’s creativity in hiding weaknesses, so perhaps the fears about OG are overblown. But there’s no hiding the lack of depth at defensive end, where the Eagles rotate heavily to keep everyone fresh. It’s already shallow now, and if either of the starters miss significant time due to injury, Schwartz’ whole “generate pressure without blitzing” defense will be in trouble. There’s also the fact that the Eagles are banking hard on the development of their young cornerbacks - which they have to do at some point, as Howie correctly observed - but if there’s even mild regression among two or more players, that could also derail the defense. (I don’t even want to think about what would happen if we saw injuries on the DL coupled with regression among the CBs. That’s a season-ending scenario.)
So, the team barometer on the whole (for me, at least) is pretty good, but not awesome. How about you? How do you feel about the “state of the Eagles”?
How do you currently feel about the state of the Eagles?
This poll is closed
Awesome! Let’s get another ring.
Pretty good. A few concerns, but I think they’ll overcome them.
Meh. I would have liked to see more in the offseason.
Not great. I thought it was a really underwhelming draft/FA haul.
Awful. But I’m a Negadelphian who hates fun and hoards Debbie Downer awards.