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State of the Eagles: 2021 Primer

Happy New League Year!

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Philadelphia Eagles Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The “legal tampering period” for free agency begins today, which marks the unofficial start of the 2021 NFL league year (the official new league year begins at 4:00 pm on March 17 - Happy St. Patrick’s Day!). To say that the Eagles’ offseason so far has been “interesting” would be an understatement - we’ve witnessed the departure of their only Super Bowl-winning head coach. We’ve witnessed the fall from grace and the eventual exodus of once-heralded “franchise savior” Carson Wentz. And the immortal general manager remains. After all, there are three certainties in life: death, taxes, and Howie Roseman managing the roster of the Eagles.

But enough about Howie (for now). Let’s get into it. In this article:

  • My thoughts on the Eagles’ coaching staff and their “youth movement”
  • The desperate rush to get under the salary cap, which I am now calling “restructurepalooza”
  • What I think the Eagles should do in free agency and the draft
  • The rest of my life story (just kidding)

It’s a Young Man’s Game

I’m a complete wuss when it comes to judging new coaches: I eschew hot takes in favor of the milder, more optimistic “wait and see” or “benefit of the doubt” approach. As someone who only became a true fan in 2006, the only two coaching hires I’ve experienced are Chip Kelly and Doug Pederson. I’ll admit that I was all in on Kelly and was convinced he was going to “revolutionize” the NFL. I had no idea what to make of Pederson, but a few puff pieces about him in the Philly media were enough to make me like the guy and root for him to succeed (which, of course, he did).

Nick Sirianni definitely falls more on the Doug Pederson end of this spectrum. He’s never called plays and assembled an incredibly young staff, which you can either interpret as “embracing new perspectives” or “rewarding inexperience.” Outside of his opening press conference that garnered entirely undeserved criticism, I’ve enjoyed the few videos I’ve seen of him with the Colts offense, where he is undoubtedly more comfortable. He seems to be a likable guy, just as Doug did, and like Doug, I will be rooting for him to succeed. I think the potential is there - although that is admittedly an unknown.

So what do we know about how the Sirianni hire (and his staff) fits into the larger football picture? To me, what we know is largely positive. Consider:

  • We know that the pace of innovation in the NFL is moving faster than it ever has before. To stay ahead of the rest of the league, you need fresh ideas, and fresh ideas are more likely to come from younger coaches than older ones. For example, there is the Cowboys’ hiring of Mike McCarthy, an “old guard” coach whose promise to “embrace analytics” was spending a day at Pro Football Focus headquarters. Now, just because an idea is fresh doesn’t mean it’s good, but by going younger the Eagles are at least attempting to follow a good process.
  • We know that Sirianni comes from Frank Reich’s staff, who in turn came from Doug Pederson’s staff, and brought Doug’s aggressive mentality with him to Indianapolis. One of my biggest fears with replacing Doug was choosing a coach who would punt on 4th and 2 from the opponent’s 40-yard line. Again, there’s no guarantee that Sirianni will be aggressive like Doug or Reich were - he is a first-time play-caller and that will probably come with jitters and growing pains - but there’s a good chance Sirianni saw first-hand the benefits of “trusting the math” and rolling the dice when the situation calls for it.
  • We know that whatever Jeffrey Lurie’s hiring process is for head coaches, it’s a pretty damn good one. John Stolnis covered this topic in-depth, but to summarize it quickly, ALL 4 of Lurie’s hires made the playoffs within their first 2 seasons, and 2 of the 4 secured a playoff berth by winning the division. Moreover, every one of those coaches won that first playoff game - except for Chip Kelly. (And really, if we’re going to play endless hypotheticals about dropped passes against the Saints, who knows what happens if Riley Cooper hauls in that easy completion in the third quarter.) As with the other bullet points here, past success does not guarantee future results - but it should give us some comfort that Lurie seems to know what he’s doing... with head coaching hires, at least.

While the reasons to be nervous about Sirianni are somewhat understandable, I think the reasons to be optimistic about him outweigh any negatives, and I look forward to watching him lead the team in 2021.

You get a restructure! And you get a restructure!

The Eagles entered the offseason with the worst salary cap situation in the league and promptly went to work addressing it by cutting the few older players they had with little or no guaranteed money and restructuring the contracts of others. Howie has formed a habit in the past few seasons of kicking the proverbial can down the proverbial road in the pursuit of another Super Bowl. Those chickens (eagles?) have come home to roost, and Howie took care of that by sending out different birds who will come home to roost a few years from now. This year’s can-kicking class (so far) is:

The Eagles aren’t quite under the cap yet, so more moves are sure to come, which may include trading (or releasing) Zach Ertz, who is reportedly upset with his lingering situation with the Eagles, and restructuring the contracts of additional players, such as Brandon Graham and Derek Barnett. But for now, these restructures combined free up a whopping $30.87M in cap space in 2021 - $30.87M that will need to be repaid at some point in the future.

I can’t really chastise Howie too much on this, as he had little choice other than to restructure contracts in order to get cap compliant, but that doesn’t give him a pass. The current cap mess is an albatross of his own making - a disaster that has seemed to warrant him zero repercussions from Lurie. The Eagles’ owner appears willing to wait and see if Roseman can dig himself out of his own hole like he dug the team out of the hole Chip Kelly created in 2016.

It remains to be seen if Howie will be able - or willing - to do this. The only way to break the “restructurepalooza” cycle is to eventually take your medicine and eat a bunch of dead money, much like the Cowboys did in 2015. It made zero logistical sense to do this in 2021, as the Eagles still owe Carson Wentz a sizeable chunk of change after his trade to the Colts. But they should be planning to absorb those hits as soon as all outstanding obligations to Wentz are reconciled. This is the “multi-year cap” outlook that helps the rash of restructures make sense IF you consistently view the cap this way. Annual “restructure parties” fly in the face of that outlook unless they eventually stop. Forgive me if I’m skeptical of whether or not Howie plans to do this.

Attacking Free Agency and the Draft

I won’t write much about free agency, mostly because I think the Eagles would be best served sitting it out entirely. Free agent splashes are the last thing a team does in the rebuilding process, and the Eagles have just started rebuilding. Factoring in the salary cap issues mentioned above and the fact that the Eagles have gotten very little bang for their buck in free agency since the magical 2017 run, I don’t really see a sound argument for trying to be a big fish in the free agency frenzy. Could I get behind a low-risk, medium-reward second-tier signing? Sure, give me someone with little or no guaranteed money who can spice up training camp competitions. But I’ll take a hard pass on any budding start coming off a rookie contract who will be marketed as a “building block for the future.” The Eagles don’t really HAVE a future right now, and they won’t find one in free agency.

They can, however, find one in the draft. One of the few bright spots this offseason is the Eagles’ possession of the sixth overall pick, which puts them in position to select some real premium talent coming out of college. Of course, when you have a pick this high you must first answer the obvious question: “Should the Eagles draft a quarterback in the first round?” I was a pretty big emphatic “no” on this in the Carson Wentz trade roundtable, and I’ll expand on that here.

One of the biggest arguments for using a top 10 pick on a quarterback is that the rookie wage scale keeps their salary artificially low, giving a team flexibility to add key talent using cap space that would normally be absorbed by an outsized quarterback contract. This makes it easier to build a strong roster that can make a real push for a Super Bowl.

But rookie contracts don’t last forever. So, in practical terms, when a team spends a top 10 draft pick on a quarterback, what they are saying to themselves (or should be saying to themselves) is: “We believe we will win a Super Bowl in the next 3 years.” Not “we will compete for a Super Bowl,” or “we can win a Super Bowl.” We WILL win a Super Bowl in the next 3 years. It takes a lot to feel like you’re in that position, but it’s not an unreasonable argument to make. Think about the 2016 Eagles when they drafted Carson Wentz:

  • They had one of the best offensive lines AND defensive lines in the league
  • They had a top 5 tight end
  • They had a great pair of safeties
  • They had an athletic linebacking corps

It was easy for the issues at cornerback, running back, and wide receiver to overshadow what the Eagles already had going into the 2016 draft, and hindsight is 20/20. But the fact remains that the Eagles had a decent foundation in place and only needed a few key pieces and some smart coaching to bring that all together - and this was an argument you could have made to some extent back in 2016. As it turned out, the Eagles got those key pieces, smart coaching, and more and won a championship the very next year. But can we say the same about the 2020 Eagles? I’m not so sure:

  • The entire secondary, including Darius Slay at his age, is a question mark
  • The linebackers are replacement-level talent
  • The offensive line is old (although there might be good replacements in the pipeline)
  • The defensive line is a shadow of its former self
  • Wide receiver remains a chronic issue, as do injury concerns across the board
  • The team will lack much of the cap flexibility they had in 2016-2017 to address any of these issues in free agency in a meaningful way

To reiterate, 2016 has the benefit of hindsight, but those bullet points about 2016 were largely as true then as they are today. Perhaps I’m being overly pessimistic, but the Eagles’ current situation feels like it will be much more than a 3-year project... to win a Super Bowl, at least. I see a much slower-developing rebuild, akin to what the Bills have done in Buffalo. And they rode with Tyrod Taylor during McDermott’s first year as coach. Strategically, there seems to be more value in taking a premier non-quarterback talent at six and riding with Hurts (I finally mentioned him!). If he looks like the answer this year - great! You don’t need a quarterback. If he doesn’t, you’ll probably be in a great position to take one in 2022. But by that time you might have a young dynamic playmaker with one year of NFL experience to help the new guy along.

A Brave New Football World

As fun as it is to watch the Eagles when they’re good (duh), I also enjoy the excitement and optimism that comes when the franchise turns a new page. I don’t expect the Eagles to be competitive in 2021, but I expect them to look radically different, and for me sometimes that’s enough. It’s enough to see sparks and hints here and there that great things are on the horizon and to believe that as long as we fans remain passionate, loyal, and patient we will reach the promised land once again. In the moment, losing sucks, but if it’s possible to glimpse the larger plan beyond the loss... well, that’s something I’d pay fifty bucks in beer, wings, and tip at a sports bar to see.

Hopefully, that’s what we’ll see - and maybe more! - in 2021.

Go Birds.

Poll

Are you excited to watch the Eagles in 2021?

This poll is closed

  • 39%
    Hell yes!
    (253 votes)
  • 18%
    Not really
    (120 votes)
  • 15%
    Maybe after a few pregame beers
    (97 votes)
  • 26%
    I’ll talk myself into being excited by the third preseason game
    (167 votes)
637 votes total Vote Now