The 2020 edition of ESPN’s annual “five offseason moves that every NFL team should make” column is here. Bill Barnwell’s predictions were generally good in 2018 and 2019. Will that be the case once again? Let’s take a closer look.
1. Address the secondary.
The Eagles have no choice.
Starting cornerbacks Jalen Mills and Ronald Darby are both going to be free agents, as is starting safety Rodney McLeod. And then there’s Malcolm Jenkins, who said he’s not returning to the Eagles on his current contract. All four starting secondary spots need to be addressed in some form.
The thinking here is that the Eagles are going to retain Mills. A number of fans won’t be happy to see the Green Goblin back since he’s prone to giving up big plays. But Jim Schwartz loves Mills; the Eagles’ defensive coordinator really values Mills’ confidence and toughness. I think the Eagles sign Mills, who only turns 26 in April, to a multi-year extension.
Darby is a safe bet to be gone. The Eagles brought him back on a “prove it” contract last offseason and Darby struggled to both play well and stay healthy. Thus, the Eagles will need a new starting corner. The team isn’t likely to count on Rasul Douglas and Sidney Jones to replace Darby considering neither were even trusted to play a defensive snap in the playoffs. The Eagles seem bound to go with a veteran option at corner. Here’s what Barnwell proposed:
The Eagles’ team-building philosophy doesn’t lend itself to spending exorbitant sums on cornerbacks, but they can’t come back in 2020 with the same questions at corner. At the very least, they need to hope different low-cost options work out. Robinson, a likely cap casualty in New Orleans after two disappointing seasons, would be a good fit to return. Philly already added Trevor Williams, who was a starter for the Chargers in 2017 and 2018 before injuries limited him to special-teams snaps with the Cardinals in 2019. Buy-low cap-casualties like Xavier Rhodes and Trumaine Johnson could interest Philly, as could disappointing first-rounders of the past such as Artie Burns and Eli Apple. Basically, if you’re a cornerback with some upside who is going to come cheap, this team should be interested.
I don’t think how the Eagles have previously (de)valued corner is irrelevant when considering how the Eagles might spend at that position. But, man, those options are pretty uninspiring! The Eagles need to do more than just bargain bin shopping at this spot. And it sounds like they know as much, given the report the Eagles are “set to aggressively pursue a cornerback in free agency.”
Byron Jones, Chris Harris, and Logan Ryan are three corners that’ve already been linked to Philly. I’ve previously shared my thoughts on them HERE and HERE. Jones presents the most viable long-term option for the Eagles but his price tag might end up being the highest paid corner in the NFL. Is he worth that type of money? I’m tempted to say yes. Only 27, elite athlete, versatile, one missed game in five seasons ... and he just passes the eye test:
The Cowboys should probably keep this guy, but if not he'll be highly coveted pic.twitter.com/ARiNvOUAfc— Billy M (@BillyM_91) February 14, 2020
It’s a big risk in terms of financial commitment, though. And the Eagles have been burned by spending big at cornerback in the past (see: Nnamdi Asomugha, Byron Maxwell). The team might prefer a more affordable option like Ryan.
As for the safety position, the thinking here is that McLeod will be gone. Upon re-watching all the big passing plays the Eagles gave up in 2019, he often appeared to be a culprit. McLeod turns 30 in June and the Eagles will be looking to get younger on the back end. With that said, I don’t think the Eagles will be getting rid of both starting safeties. They’ll find a way to make Jenkins happy with his contract situation.
Corner and safety are both positions the Eagles could and should also look to address in the 2020 NFL Draft. It’s difficult to count on rookies as instant starters but the team needs to stock the pipeline.
2. Find a backup quarterback for Carson Wentz.
Josh McCown and Nate Sudfeld are both set to be unrestricted free agents.
The Eagles reportedly talked to McCown about joining the team’s coaching staff but he said he’s not ready to stop playing. That’s weird since he was already retired before the Eagles sign him last summer. McCown turns 41 in July and he’s coming off a significant hamstring injury (six month recovery). Does he really have gas left in the tank? It’s impossible not to want McCown back with the Eagles in some capacity after watching his involvement with the team that was showcased on All or Nothing. Is backup quarterback the right role, though? Can his body handle it?
Sudfeld could be hitting the open market in a year where there’s expected to be an unusual surplus of available veteran quarterback talent. So, not exactly great for his market. Sudfeld’s best bet could be to return as the No. 2 behind Carson Wentz. But is that option even open to him? Do the Eagles want a more experienced backup behind Wentz? And how does McCown factor in?
If neither McCown nor Sudfeld return, Case Keenum is a realistic option the Eagles should consider. Chase Daniel will be available and he obviously knows the scheme. Barnwell mentioned Marcus Mariota but I’d think he wants to go somewhere where the starter is actually in jeopardy of losing their job. Barnwell also mentions the Eagles trading for Nick Foles as an unrealistic option ... and, yeah, that’s not happening.
3. Add speed at wide receiver.
This should really be the No. 1 priority.
We saw how much of a difference having a legitimate deep threat in DeSean Jackson made for the Eagles in Week 1 last year. Heck, even adding Shelton Gibson to the offense contributed to some chunk plays in Philly’s sole playoff game. Speed matters!
Look no further than this year’s Super Bowl teams: the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers. They were the two fastest teams in the league this past season, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. That’s no mere coincidence.
If we’re describing the Eagles’ offense as “slow and plodding” for the third year in a row, that’s going to be extremely disappointing. It’s imperative for this team to improve in the big play department.
How can the Eagles do that? They could look to acquire a proven option via free agency and/or trade. But the 2020 NFL Draft provides the most natural option for the Eagles to find a young, long-term option to pair with Wentz. Henry Ruggs III is the no-brainer fit if he’s on the board at the Eagles’ pick at No. 21. If he’s not, the Eagles could be looking at adding someone like Jalen Raegor or KJ Hamler at some point.
Just get someone who’s actually fast, Eagles.
4. Depth along both lines.
Let’s start with the offensive line.
Jason Peters and Halapoulivaati Vaitai could both leave in free agency. If that’s the case, the Eagles will need a swing tackle behind Andre Dillard and Lane Johnson. Perhaps Jordan Mailata or Matt Pryor could be that guy. But I think it’d be nice to sign an experienced vet like LaAdrian Waddle in order to hedge their bet on the young guys.
As for the interior, Pryor showed some potential while playing guard late in the season. He could be the top backup to both Brandon Brooks and Isaac Seumalo. Seumalo figures to be Jason Kelce’s short-term replacement at center but the Eagles lack a long-term option to take over in the middle of the line. The team should look to draft and develop a center/guard type.
Now to the defensive line.
The Eagles aren’t going to be looking for a new starting defensive end. Brandon Graham isn’t going anywhere and the team is high on 2017 first-round pick Derek Barnett. Vinny Curry is a free agent but the Eagles could be counting on some of their young guys to step up. Josh Sweat, Genard Avery, Joe Ostman, Shareef Miller, and Daeshon Hall (likely to begin the season on PUP?) are all under contract. They’re all far from proven options but if the Eagles are true to their stated goal of getting younger, they’re going to have to create opportunities for players to establish themselves.
Defensive tackle isn’t an immediate need with projected starters Fletcher Cox and Malik Jackson returning. But Cox turns 30 this season and Jackson recently turned 30 himself after missing almost the entirety of the 2019 campaign due to injury. The Eagles need to address the interior defensive line in the 2020 NFL Draft.
5. Pick up Derek Barnett’s fifth-year option.
Barnett is an interesting player in the Eagles’ roster construction puzzle.
The 2017 first-round pick clearly hasn’t established himself as an elite pass rusher; he only has 14 total sacks through his first three seasons. Here’s how Barnett has ranked in Pro Football Focus’s pass rush productivity stat since entering the league:
2017 — 46th out of 120
2018 — 52nd out of 109
2019 — 60th out of 124
Injuries have also been a concern considering he’s missed 15 out of 54 possible games and has had to play through a number of nagging issues.
And then there are the penalties. Barnett’s eight flags were tied for third most among NFL edge rushers last year.
Despite all of this, the Eagles remain high on Barnett. Schwartz has effusively praised the 23-year-old defender:
“Yeah, both my daughters wear Derek Barnett jerseys to the games, so that tells you how much I think of him. Derek is always a guy that plays with a chip on his shoulder. It’s one of the things that makes him successful.”
One could argue the Eagles would be better off investing in another pass rusher (like impending 24-year-old free agent Yannick Ngakoue) but I don’t think that’s the route the team will go.
I do expect the Eagles to pick up Barnett’s 2021 fifth-year option prior to this year’s May 30 deadline. The option will be worth at least $10 million and will be only guaranteed for injury ... up until the start of the 2021 league year.
The Eagles will be counting on Barnett to really step up in 2020 after having a full offseason to be healthy unlike he did heading into 2019.
Overall, not a bad assessment from Barnwell. I’d add that the Eagles need to figure out their linebacker situation with Nigel Bradham and Kamu Grugier-Hill potentially not returning. The team should also probably focus on getting the leaker(s) out of the building.