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State of the Eagles: Post-Draft Edition

Howie cleared the bar of not screwing up free agency and the draft, so that’s good

NFL: NFL Draft Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been almost 2 months since my last post, where I outlined my thoughts on how the Eagles should handle their offseason. You can click that link for a refresher, but it basically boiled down to this:

  1. Be boring in free agency
  2. Don’t draft a quarterback

In other words, don’t screw up. It was a pretty low bar to clear, but that’s what we are after several seasons of roster mismanagement as Howie Roseman tried in vain to chase another ring. The one bright side to all of that was Howie’s past failures made that first task really easy to achieve. The Eagles had no option other than to restructure a bunch of contracts one last time to become cap compliant, and then sign a few cheap veterans to fill some holes in the roster.

What about that second part about quarterbacks? We’ll get to that, so sit tight. Here’s what’s in this article:

  • My overall thoughts on the draft process and picks
  • Building a franchise is a lot like building a structure - but do you start with the quarterback, or finish with one?
  • The 8 ways the 2021 season might turn out, and why that matters to the quarterback position

Feel free to skip to whatever section interests you the most. Otherwise, let’s get started!

Draft Notes

After free agency came the draft. I’ve never been much of a draft nerd, but I’ll offer some brief thoughts about how it transpired:

  • The trade - with Dallas! - to get ahead of the Giants and draft DeVonta Smith was masterful. Howie has several weaknesses as a general manager, but navigating the draft board isn’t one of them. I was especially pleased with the move because the two cornerbacks (Horn and Surtain) were my “consolation targets” if Smith were gone, but they both came off the board first. Howie did the right thing by targeting Smith and getting aggressive to make sure they drafted him.
  • The second day was a little less exciting for me. I thought passing up on cornerback in the second round for an oft-injured center/guard wasn’t the best move, even if it was understandable. On one hand, the cupboard is almost bare in the secondary, with the exception of some aging talents in Darius Slay, Anthony Harris, and Rodney McLeod. Additionally, the Eagles have the league’s best offensive line coach in Jeff Stoutland who has developed a strong track record of being able to cultivate starting-caliber lineman out of Day 3 picks. On the other hand, I will never really fault the Eagles for wanting to build through the trenches, and Dickerson is so good of a prospect that he was projected to go in the early second round in spite of his injuries. If the Eagles want to retain elite offensive line after their older players are let go or retire, they will need to spend some high picks there eventually. They can’t count on Stoutland to turn lead into gold across the board. Milton Williams feels a bit like the Davion Taylor pick - lots of upside with little production - but if they’re going to take that kind of risk, at least they did it with a defensive lineman.
  • I felt the third day of the draft was much better. They finally drafted a corner with their first pick of the day after opting to go defensive line in the third round. While drafting corner may have come late, perhaps the Eagles have confidence Gannon can develop talent there, much like Stoutland develops lineman? It will be interesting to watch, as McPhearson certainly has production and upside but will need some polishing to his game before he can become an effective corner in the NFL. As for their other picks, Gainwell is an exciting player that feels like a steal at 150, I once again won’t argue against drafting linemen when they went defensive tackle and defensive end back-to-back, and then they rounded out the draft by double-dipping at linebacker. My only real criticisms are they probably could have swapped where they picked lineman and linebackers that late in the draft, and with so many picks I expected them to maneuver the draft board a bit more on Day 3. Like with the McPhearson pick, I’ll be looking to see how much of this defensive draft strategy is influenced by Gannon, if at all. Did he convince Howie he could develop these later round prospects? Or was this a draft truly free of strong coaching influence after 5 years of oversight by the more highly-regarded Jim Schwartz? Hopefully we’ll get our answer this season.

Let’s rewind to the first night of the draft. Thankfully, Howie did the right thing and took DeVonta Smith over Fields or Jones. I cannot understate how crucial it was for the Eagles to avoid drafting a quarterback in 2021. Why? Because quarterbacks are franchise keystones, not cornerstones.

Keystones and Cornerstones

In a figurative sense, the words “cornerstone” and “keystone” are often used interchangeably. But their literal meanings in masonry are quite different. In construction, the cornerstone is the first stone laid down, which was incredibly important in past eras since it would determine the exact location of the entire building. In contrast, the keystone is the last stone installed, because it is the stone that completes an arch and gives it the structural integrity to hold it together and bear loads (this is how Pennsylvania earned its nickname of “the Keystone State” back in colonial times). If an NFL franchise is like a structure, then the quarterback is either the cornerstone or the keystone, and whatever he is will drive your draft philosophy.

If you believe the quarterback is the cornerstone, then if you like a guy, you take him, regardless of the state of your roster. You could be Super Bowl ready or in the middle of a rebuild, it doesn’t matter. If you need a passer and there’s one in the draft that you have graded out as being a franchise quarterback for the next decade-plus, you go get your guy and make it happen, and build around him if needed.

If you believe the quarterback is the keystone, then the state of your roster is critical when considering whether or not you draft one with a top pick. Ideally, the team should be in a position where you can just “drop the guy in” and compete for a Super Bowl within the next three seasons. You don’t need all of the pieces in place, but you need probably 80% of your core roster, along with harmony between your front office and coaching staff. If you don’t meet those criteria, you pass on a quarterback, no matter how high your pick is and who’s available once you’re on the clock.

I’ve already come and said that I see quarterbacks as keystones. This is because quarterback is a high-pressure, highly psychological position. As a quarterback, you need to great pre-snap and post-snap processing skills. You need to make quick decisions in real time and take care of the football. You’re also the public face of the franchise and bear all of the social and cultural pressure that comes with that role. That’s a lot to put on anyone’s shoulders, let alone a young kid. Any shortcomings of your roster or coaching staff - especially on offense - run the risk of “ruining” that quarterback before he really had a chance to develop and prosper. We’ve seen it before: David Carr got murdered behind a porous offensive line in Houston, Alex Smith was a veritable bust until Jim Harbaugh took over the 49ers, and it turns out all Ryan Tannehill needed was to not be coached by Adam Gase. And beyond that, many other countless “busts” at quarterback could be because they were thrown into a tempestuous situation with little to no support?

By passing on a quarterback with their first pick, the Eagles are betting on the keystone approach over the cornerstone approach. In other words, instead of gambling on a top-rated quarterback prospect in 2021, they’re gambling on everything else.

Howie Roseman and the Eight Seasons

As I see it, there are 8 general ways the 2021 season can play out:

  • Coaches are good, Jalen Hurts is good, roster is promising. This is the most desirable scenario for the Eagles, as it means they can focus their several high picks in the draft on completing a roster and competing for a Super Bowl in 2022 or 2023.
  • Coaches are good, Jalen Hurts is good, roster is bad. This is the big hedge on the “cornerstone” approach. In this outcome, the Eagles again have several high picks they can use to try and give Hurts and the coaches a winning roster. There’s less risk here since he was a second round pick.
  • Coaches are good, Jalen Hurts is replaceable, roster is promising. I don’t have the heart to accept that Jalen Hurts might be bad, so we’ll call him “replaceable” here. This is the most direct “keystone” approach, as the Eagles have the draft capital to move up and select their next franchise passer in 2022 to augment a roster on the rise.
  • Coaches are good, Jalen Hurts is replaceable, roster is bad. This is what the start of a multi-year rebuilding process looks like, although again the Eagles have the draft capital to shorten that project by a season or two. In this scenario, passing on a quarterback in 2022 is probably also preferable.
  • Coaches are bad, Jalen Hurts is good, roster is promising. Basically, the 2021 Eagles are the 2020 Los Angeles Chargers. I’d love to see a guy like Sirianni succeed with the Eagles, but if he’s clearly the weak link on the team they should pull the plug and start fresh with a new coach and an embarrassment of riches in the draft.
  • Coaches are bad, Jalen Hurts is good, roster is bad. More or less the same scenario as the last one, except the rebuilding process might take an extra season.
  • Coaches are bad, Jalen Hurts is replaceable, roster is promising. Pretty simple path forward here: fire the coach, hire a new one, and then go get his quarterback in the draft.
  • Coaches are bad, Jalen Hurts is replaceable, roster is bad. The unholy trifecta. They’ll have to blow it all up and start over again... but at least they have the draft picks they need to jumpstart the process.

No matter what scenario above occurs, there is a clear path forward for each one of them. That would not be the case if the Eagles take a quarterback at #12 this year. It just adds a variable and creates a whole new set of “What-Ifs”: What if he struggles and is replaced by Hurts, who thrives? What if Sirianni is bad, but the new quarterback makes him look competent enough to “keep him around” (like Watson with Bill O’Brien)? Or what if Sirianni is good and the quarterback makes him look bad? All of these “what-ifs” are possible with Jalen Hurts, but the calculus is different when it’s a first-round pick as opposed to a second-round gamble. It will be much less painful to move on from Hurts next season if he isn’t good. That path becomes harder to take if he’s your top pick in the draft. By focusing on building a roster in which a quarterback should thrive, the Eagles can accurately assess both Sirianni and Hurts while setting themselves up well for a myriad of contingency plans if either (or both) of them fail.

Closing Thoughts

Howie dug the Eagles into an double-digit-loss hole over the past few seasons. He’s done a lot to try and get them out of it this year, but that doesn’t mean he gets a pass for digging it in the first place. That being said, his moves this offseason do make me excited for this “transition year” into a new era of Eagles football. Will Sirianni be a good coach? Will DeVonta Smith make a push for OROY? Is Jalen Hurts our next franchise quarterback? Can Gannon work magic with the mid- and late-round defensive picks? All intriguing questions, and ones that are only possible because of the smart and calculated moves Howie made this offseason.

If only he had been like this every year since they brought home the Lombardi.

Poll

When should a team spend a Top 10 pick on a quarterback?

This poll is closed

  • 42%
    If the roster is a mess, focus on other positions first. The quarterback should be one of the last pieces to complete a roster.
    (932 votes)
  • 57%
    It doesn’t matter how bad your roster is - if you see someone you think is "the guy" you go get him, and build around him.
    (1272 votes)
2204 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Grade Howie’s offseason.

This poll is closed

  • 1%
    A+
    (53 votes)
  • 8%
    A
    (222 votes)
  • 33%
    A-/B+
    (888 votes)
  • 34%
    B
    (915 votes)
  • 13%
    B-/C+
    (360 votes)
  • 5%
    C
    (135 votes)
  • 1%
    C-/D
    (45 votes)
  • 1%
    F
    (44 votes)
2662 votes total Vote Now