NFL analysts like to say that a move is “paying dividends” for a team, or that an investment in a draft pick or player is paying off. Well, we’re now in tax season, and that’s a reminder that you pay taxes on dividends, not every investment pays off, and that in order to get a good return on investment you have to invest in the first place.
This offseason the Eagles are dealing with all of those lessons.
This one is obvious: the Eagles have thrown money and draft picks at the position, and save for one glorious year it hasn’t worked out. There’s no simple fix here, and the reasons for failure contradict themselves.
For draft picks, the problem isn’t just that the Eagles evaluations have been awful. It’s also that they haven’t made many. From 2011-2014 and 2016-2019, when Howie Roseman was the GM, the Eagles have drafted just six WRs:
2012: Marvin McNutt
2014: Jordan Matthews, Josh Huff
2017: Mack Hollins, Shelton Gibson
2019: JJ Arcega-Whiteside
During that same time frame the Seahawks and Ravens have drafted 10, the Patriots and Steelers 9, the Cowboys 8. And it’s not like the Eagles have had a stable core during this time that has justified only using a few picks. Can’t keep the cupboard stocked if you’re not buying groceries. As it stands now the Eagles very likely could draft two receivers, not because they want to but because they have to.
For veteran acquisitions, the issue isn’t so much talent evaluation, as the players they’ve signed or traded for have for have been legitimate players who had played well in the roles they were signed to perform. The problem is that the Eagles operated on the assumption that the best case scenario was reality. To fill the deep threat role the Eagles have signed players in their 30s (more on that later) and had no fall back plan when they got hurt. And then to replace them they added slot receivers, an issue compounded by their inability to draft the position well.
Stop restructuring contracts
They say the NFL is a copycat league, but the idea is to copy the good that other teams do. Since winning the Super Bowl, the Eagles have taken a page from the Cowboys, one they should rip up. In the past two seasons they’ve restructured eight contracts: Fletcher Cox, Alshon Jeffery, Zach Ertz, Malcolm Jenkins, Brandon Brooks, Brandon Graham, Jason Peters, and Lane Johnson (who signed an extension a few months later). They also gave Jason Kelce a nominal one year extension that was basically a restructure. That is quite a lot.
Eventually, you run out of road to kick that can down, and the Eagles are now at that dead end. They have painted themselves into a corner with Alshon Jeffery. On the eve of the 2019 season, the team converted the bulk of his $11.75 million salary into a bonus, and guaranteed his 2020 salary of $12.75 million. The move made little sense at the time, and has quickly aged to the point of regret. The 2019 cap space wasn’t used on anyone, and that $12.75 million for 2020 would be better spent elsewhere.
For years Howie Roseman and the Eagles and were ahead of the pack on salary cap maneuvers. Not anymore. Roseman knows he needs to modify his ways in the draft this offseason, he needs to reevaluate his cap maneuvers too.
Defensive depth, or lack thereof
On offense there are a bunch of backups you wouldn’t want to see gone. Dallas Goedert could start on a lot of teams, and Andre Dillard looks ready to take over a starting job. We’d all like to see Greg Ward and Boston Scott build on the seasons they had. If Jordan Howard returns the Eagles will have a very good backup RB.
The defense is a different picture. Here is a list of Eagles defenders who did not start more than 6 games, in order of defensive snaps played: Rasul Douglas, Vinny Curry, Josh Sweat, Kamu Grugier-Hill, Sidney Jones, Hassan Ridgeway, Anthony Rush, TJ Edwards, Marcus Epps, Cre’Von LeBlanc, Craig James, Bruce Hector, Daeshon Hall, Albert Huggins, Genard Avery, Duke Riley, and Rudy Ford. The team also signed CB Trevor Williams, who played two games for the Cardinals, and LB Alex Singleton, who played in Canada.
This list doesn’t include Malik Jackson, who got hurt, or Avonte Maddox, because as the slot corner his games started is a nominal distinction dictated by the personnel grouping for the first play of the game. Those guys are starters, even if Maddox doesn’t play on the first play of the game.
Josh Sweat had a nice season, he’s carved himself out a role that hopefully he can build on. Vinny Curry also had a really nice year, but he’ll be 32 when the season starts. Other than them, is there anyone to be excited about?
Yet again the Eagles are in a hole they dug. We all know that the draft evaluations at CB have been poor. But the front office has done little more than marginal moves at safety and linebacker, the lack of anyone waiting in the wings is now a problem. The team has already moved on from Nigel Bradham and should do so with Rodney McLeod, but they have no in-house replacements, and not a lot of cap space to work with.
Stop relying on older players
Branch Rickey, the legendary Brooklyn Dodgers GM who practically invented the minor leagues and broke the color barrier, used to say that it was better to move on from a player a year too early than a year too late. It is a philosophy that has always worked in every sport.
During the Andy Reid era, the Eagles followed this philosophy, they were notorious for getting rid of players about the time they turned 30. In the Doug Pederson era, they’ve forgotten about that and embraced older players, signing or trading for Chase Daniel, Leodis McKelvin, Stephen Tulloch, Chris Long, Corey Graham, Patrick Robinson, LeGarrett Blount, Haloti Ngata, Michael Bennett, Mike Wallace, Golden Tate, DeSean Jackson, Josh McCown, Orlando Scandrick, Andrew Sendejo, and Zach Brown. They also kept depending on Darren Sproles to be healthy, and it sounds like bringing back Jason Peters in 2020 is an option. All were 30 or older.
Some of these moves worked out, but when they did they were low cost role players, and except for Vinny Curry last year, limited to the ones signed in 2017.
The Reid era Eagles would have made some of these moves, but the key is that they didn’t make nearly as many. In a similar Super Bowl contender three year period of 2002-2004, the Reid Eagles brought in LeVon Kirkland, Blaine Bishop, Dorsey Levens, Antonio Freeman, Marco Coleman, Hugh Douglas on his second stint, Jeff Blake, and Terrell Owens. This list of players isn’t any better, but it is at least shorter.
The good news here is that the Eagles are projected to have 10 draft picks this April, and not a massive amount of cap room, which is going to force them to fill a lot of holes with young players.