In Part I of my review of the Eagles’ offseason, I addressed the two main arguments for using a second round pick on Jalen Hurts. It’s a long read - over 2800 words - but it sums up likely everything I will have to say about the pick until we see Hurts in action, so go read it if you haven’t already.
The other topic I discussed in that post was the overall vibe that I got from Howie’s offseason moves. In general, they give me the impression that he has a Two Year Plan to get back to the Super Bowl, following these 5 steps:
- Shore up the defense with aggressive moves in free agency 2020 while also freeing up cap space for future years
- Establish a new, younger offensive core in the 2020 draft
- Compete in 2020 and evaluate contributions of older players
- Let go or trade older, underproducing talent in 2021 and plug remaining holes on offense in free agency
- Use 2021 draft to snag an impact player at a luxury position
This post will cover how the Eagles’ other offseason moves fit into, or give credence to, this plan. In this article:
- How applying incremental change to the receiving corps will allow the Eagles to identify what really needed (or needs) fixing
- A pragmatic approach to the Eagles’ new “positionless” secondary
- Why Darius Slay, with all things considered, was the better move than Byron Jones
Let’s start off with everyone’s favorite pre-Jalen Hurts offseason discussion - wide receivers.
Vacuum Cleaners and Wide Receivers
Howie Roseman decided against signing a wide receiver in free agency, focusing on the defense in a series of surprising moves that garnered him some criticism. While I personally would have liked to see him take a flyer with somebody, I can understand the reasoning behind it from a problem-solving perspective.
James Dyson, the inventor of those wildly expensive home appliances, started off by inventing the Dyson vacuum at his home in England. To perfect his design, he would construct a prototype, take notes of what worked and what didn’t, and then change exactly one aspect of the design to try and make it better. By making only one change at a time, Dyson was able to assess how each change addressed the issues he was having with his design. He ultimately built over 5,100 prototypes before his vacuum cleaner design was fully developed.
With this fun anecdote in mind, let’s look at the Eagles’ receivers, and the upheaval they have experienced since the start of the 2019 season:
- Alshon Jeffery missed time throughout the season and was not healthy when he did play, looking slow and ineffective when he was on the field. He hasn’t helped himself by becoming the centerpiece of anonymous criticism of Carson Wentz, either.
- DeSean Jackson, who typically misses a few games a season, suffered an uncharacteristically season-ending injury early in the year, but looked to be the same deep threat he has been when he did play.
- Nelson Agholor significantly regressed back to his early-career form, completing his fall from grace as a legitimate slot receiver in 2017. He was allowed to leave in free agency.
- The Eagles’ backup and practice squad receivers, headlined by longtime Eagles’ roster bubble player Greg Ward, injected some much-needed life into the offense late in the season, though it was a small sample size.
- After the season ended, Doug fired receivers coach Carson Walch (whether by his own initiative or at the request of ownership) and replaced him with Aaron Moorehead, a promising but relatively inexperienced receivers coach from the college ranks.
All of this turmoil raises a lot of questions. What does the Eagles’ offense look like if DeSean Jackson plays 13 games in 2020? Is Greg Ward a legitimate slot receiver, or was he just taking advantage of bad defenses? Can Jeffery still play, concerns about his fit in the locker room aside? Is Moorehead the coach that can turn this position around?
These are a lot of questions surrounding one position group - and unfortunately, the Eagles have had to deal with this scale of questions surrounding their receivers for years. It’s a long-standing problem that hasn’t gone away, and so I think Howie’s thrown in the towel on a “one-offseason fix” in favor of a more measured approach. Obviously, the Eagles don’t have the time to make 5,000 individual changes to the roster to make it perfect, but they can afford to make incremental changes to some degree.
For example, let’s consider the question of how much of the Eagles’ struggles at receiver can be attributed to talent, coaching, scouting, or a combination of the three. If the Eagles replaced their receivers coach and added a couple free agents to revamp the starting lineup, how would you be able to answer this question in 2020? If the receivers fared better, or struggled again, how much would you attribute to coaching, talent, or scouting? It would be impossible to know, because you changed both at the same time. It might be tempting to say, “if the receivers play better, who cares,” but if you don’t know exactly how you solved your problem it becomes difficult to plan for contingencies, such as your starters getting injured or your coach being promoted away from your team.
And so now we return to our Two Year Plan. By only making one major change at the position - replacing Walch with Moorehead - and refreshing the receiver pool with the draft instead of free agency, we can more reasonably assess whether or not Moorehead is an upgrade over Walch, along with how good the scouting was. It also gives Ward (and the other practice squad receivers) an opportunity to show that they aren’t just flashes in the pan. Of course, by leaning on aging veterans, former practice squad players, and rookies to play receiver, the Eagles are taking a risk that they see no improvement at the position in 2020. But it’s a measured risk, one designed to provide much-needed data about what truly ails the position. They’re limiting their possible outcomes, which will allow them to draw reasonable conclusions:
- The young receivers from late 2019 continue to develop, and the rookies show some real progress throughout the season. Conclusion: Moorehead was a strong hire.
- The young receivers from late 2019 regress, but the rookies and JJAW develop throughout the season. Conclusion: 2019 receivers were a one-hit wonder, but Moorehead is a promising hire.
- The young receivers from 2019 continue to develop, but the rookies and JJAW fail to show anything throughout the season. Conclusion: Moorehead was likely an improvement, but wide receiver scouting is questionable at best.
- The young receivers from 2019 regress, and the rookies (and JJAW) fail to show anything throughout the season. Conclusion: 2019 receivers were a one-hit wonder and Moorehead was most likely another swing and miss.
If the Eagles changed everything about their receiving corps in one offseason, they wouldn’t be able to legitimately draw any of these conclusions after the 2020 season. And while it sucks that half of these outcomes are bad, remember for Howie this isn’t about 2020. It’s about 2021. Any properly identified deficiencies can be addressed next offseason.
A Secondary Concern
Now let's shift to the other side of the ball that saw the most change this offseason. The Eagles spent the majority of free agency improving the defense, and outside of the Javon Hargrave signing, they almost exclusively focused on the secondary. While the focus on that position group shows they know where they need to improve on defense, the approach has certainly been unconventional, as they’ve acquired multiple players that project as slot corners or as corner/linebacker/safety “hybrids.” This move towards a “positionless” secondary will raise some eyebrows, but honestly with how bad the Eagles have been in pass coverage since Asante left, what difference does trying something radical really make? Generally, you don’t want to change for the sake of change, but when you’re starting at the bottom I’m game to try anything once.
The most significant of these "positionless" moves is the projection of Jalen Mills to the “Malcolm Jenkins role,” and while he does not have quite the same talent level as Jenkins, he’s generally sticky in coverage with his one weakness being speed (or lack thereof), so it’s possible he fits well there. As for the other positions, Nickell Robey-Coleman is a solid addition for the slot, although Avonte Maddox does not come without concerns as the starting outside corner. Rodney McLeod returning to form at his age feels like a reach, but to hearken back to the Dyson anecdote, it seems that Howie is comfortable letting new defensive backs coach Marquand Manuel take a crack at these players before giving up on them entirely. That’s a gamble I’d be willing to take, since Manuel is experienced in running the Cover 3 zone scheme Schwartz likes, as opposed to the primarily man coverage scheme Cory Undlin made a name for himself running in Denver. Any players that aren’t up to the task can be replaced in 2021.
And finally, no discussion of the Eagles’ secondary can take place without mentioning the blockbuster trade for Darius Slay. Overall, I’m a fan of the move - I think Slay will play better with the Eagles than he did with the Lions, and his absolute takedown of Matt Patricia tells me his attitude will fit nicely with Philly. The fact that his extension is extremely team-friendly is just gravy. The somewhat significant assets the Eagles exchanged for Slay can’t be ignored, especially when a comparable cornerback in Byron Jones was on the market, but I still think it was the right move for the following reasons:
- The whole “they could have just thrown more money at Jones” argument is kind of silly to me. It’s totally possible the Eagles beat the Dolphins’ offer and he decided to spend his late 20s in Miami anyway. We praise players that take less money to come to Philly, and yet when a player takes less money to go somewhere else it’s a bogus excuse? I’m not buying it. It also seems like Jones was more interested in getting rich and enjoying the South Beach lifestyle than he was in joining a competitive team, since the Dolphins are in the middle of a massive rebuild. This is absolutely a legitimate approach to playing a sport that causes brain damage, but any guy with that kind of motivation is not someone I’m shelling out above market value to sign.
- Keeping the picks would have theoretically made it easier to trade up for CeeDee Lamb, either directly from 21 with the Falcons or a “stepping stone” kind of move from 21 to say, 19, and then 16. I’m upset as anyone that the Cowboys took Lamb, but the Eagles can’t just force the Falcons to trade with them because we want them to. Thomas Dimitroff has never traded down in the first round, and even if he did he may have asked for unreasonable compensation, given that the Eagles were firmly stuck in a seller’s market. Everyone tosses out these wild trades the Eagles “could have” made without any consideration to the essentially negative leverage they had in any negotiations. If the Falcons had stood firm at the Eagles’ first and second round picks, and Miles Sanders for Lamb, would you make that trade? I sure wouldn’t.
Ultimately, Lamb is an unknown quantity in the NFL. Yes, he is young and projects to be a superstar, but giving up that kind of capital for Slay instead, who has a proven record of success in the league, seems to me like a wiser use of resources when you’re trying to walk the fine line of significantly improving the team without hitting the reset button and starting over. In a vacuum, I’d rather have Jones and Lamb over Slay and Reagor, but not at the price it would have cost to make that a reality, both in cap dollars and trade compensation. The path the Eagles took improves the team now while giving them more flexibility to build on that improvement in 2021.
At the beginning of the offseason, Howie said that “hope is not a strategy.” And he’s right - it’s not. Which is why to some his moves this offseason are confusing. Moving towards a “positionless” secondary, trading draft picks for a 29-year-old corner coming off a down year, not signing any wide receivers, not trading up for CeeDee Lamb, and using your second-round pick on a backup quarterback all seem to rely on a lot of hope for 2020. And, in the constraints of 2020, that is a fair assessment. If you want the Eagles to compete for a Super Bowl this season, you’re going to have to hope that most - if not all - of these moves pay dividends immediately.
But when viewed as part of the Two Year Plan, the hope starts to subside and the strategy shines through. 2020 becomes less about the Super Bowl and more about targeted improvement while taking a season to seriously assess longstanding issues. Can reworking the structure of the secondary get the most out of the players on the roster? Have the issues with wide receiver been more about talent, scouting, coaching, or a mix of the three? Will the changes in the medical staff yield a healthy team? How good can the Eagles be when they actually are relatively healthy? These are all questions the Eagles need to answer if they want to hoist the Lombardi trophy again, and they aren’t questions you can answer in a single offseason. You need to put it all on the field and let it play out. Which is why this offseason hasn’t really been about 2020.
It’s been about 2021.
How would you grade Howie’s approach to the offseason for 2020 - and beyond?
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