The 2022 preseason is over, which is a good time to overreact to everything that is new for the Eagles this season. Because it is never a bad time to overreact!
Seriously though, the Eagles are entering Year 2 of what I would describe as “improved vibes.” Since we’re all still counting the days until the regular season begins, it’s worth taking a moment to step back and revisit how it started. Later we’ll look at how it’s going.
The 2021 Eagles did not beat a team with a winning record and got manhandled in the playoffs. On the surface that doesn’t seem good. Yet they unequivocally had a good season!
A five-win improvement is cause enough for celebration, and on top of it they made the playoffs. While making the playoffs in the first year of a rebuild was a little ahead of schedule, it also wasn’t entirely empty calories. The Eagles were clearly head and shoulders above the bad-to-mediocre teams they played, winning by an average score of 31-15. Not bad for a team with the youngest coaching staff in league history (I am not going to fact check that claim); a team midway between a youth movement (eight offensive players who started at least nine games were 25 or younger), and an aging roster (nine starters to begin the season were in their 30s).
Things went so well for the Eagles that four front office members were hired as assistant GMs by other teams, and defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon, who many would have been fine to see fired, was somehow a finalist for the Texans’ head coaching vacancy. Given the improved expectations for the Eagles and the state of the Texans franchise, that statement might be true again at the end of the season. Weird!
But that was last year. This year there was further work to be done.
Heading into the offseason, if you had a pulse and could play defense, the Eagles could probably use you. It would also help if you were on the younger side, as the youngest of keystones Darius Slay, Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, and Javon Hargrave is 29 this season. The 2021 Eagles defense finished 31st in sacks and sack rate, 21st in pressure rate, and 16th in knockdown rate, though they were seventh in hurry rate.
Five different players started multiple games at linebacker. Three starters in the secondary were 30-plus, and three were free agents at the end of the season. Any kind of a building block at every position on defense was needed, and the draft has been a wasteland for the defense since Howie Roseman returned in 2016. The most recent draft pick to start the season at the top of their depth chart is Avonte Maddox, who was drafted in 2018, and only three others began the season as starters: Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox, and Derek Barnett, the former two being drafted a decade ago.
The offense needed less help, but still needed help nonetheless. Another starting-caliber WR was a priority. They also needed a long-term replacement for Jason Kelce, who will be 35 this season and had considered retirement. To a lesser extent, a long-term replacement for Lane Johnson, who is 32 and has missed 13 games in 2019 and 2020 with injuries, would be a bonus. But with Johnson still playing at an elite level and physically healthy all last season, that is a lower priority. And finally, they needed a backup pass-catching TE. After the Zach Ertz trade, Jack Stoll averaged 28 snaps a game, but he caught just four passes.
The Eagles had limited cap space in free agency, but did enter the draft with 10 selections. One could be forgiven for being hesitant that the front office would have a second consecutive solid offseason. It’s not hard to look good coming off a four-win season, but taking a nine-win team and improving can be difficult. But for the second straight offseason, the Eagles had a coherent plan that lacked the defining high-profile “look how smart we are” moves from years past that were actually not at all smart. They simply had a good offseason.
For the second straight year, the Eagles’ first draft pick was one of the best players in college football, from the best team in college football, and in the best conference in college football. Last year it was Heisman and National Championship winner Devonta Smith; this year it was Chuck Bednarik Award (best overall defensive player) and National Championship winner Jordan Davis. And for the second straight year, they again took a good player from the best team on Day 2 of the draft, getting Nakobe Dean in the third round this year after drafting Landon Dickerson last year in the second round.
It seems obvious that a team should use their best draft picks on really good players from top teams that are NFL prospect factories, but the Eagles haven’t. Between the inception of the College Football Playoff for the 2014 season (the 2015 draft) and the 2020 draft, the Eagles have drafted just two players from teams that made the playoff: Jalen Hurts and Sidney Jones. And prior to 2021, Howie Roseman had drafted just four SEC players in the top 100: Fletcher Cox, Bennie Logan, Jordan Matthews, and Derek Barnett. In the last two drafts he’s doubled both totals.
For the second straight year they made an A+ addition to their receiving core after years of Fs. After finally hitting on a WR draft pick, they could have easily convinced themselves they can now identify talent in the draft. Instead of drafting someone who was far from a sure thing, they traded for a sure thing in A.J. Brown, who is just 25.
Also for the second straight year they weren’t trying to build a team around Carson Wentz and instead just drafted good players. Probably just a coincidence!
Free agency was equally levelheaded. Able to make a signing that wasn’t just at the margins, the Eagles wasted no time in upgrading the pass rush. In back-to-back seasons for different teams, Hasson Reddick put up double-digit sacks and averaged a QB hit a game. One-year deals were given to Kyzir White, Zach Pascal, and James Bradberry to be stop gaps at the least and potentially be multi-year solutions: White is 26; Pascal is 27.
The Eagles were not going to walk into training camp with every short and long-term need addressed on paper; no team does. But with limited salary cap space in free agency and the fact that they left the draft with just five draft picks (though with six players acquired), the improvements the Eagles made were (PRESEASON OVERREACTION ALERT) fairly impressive. Certainly there were things to quibble about: Drafting a player in the second round who would need an injury to see the field, drafting a guy who had retired due to concussions, not signing a safety until June and trading for one in August, and releasing Fletcher Cox and then turning around and paying him $14 million for one season. Nothing is perfect.
But after three seasons of steady decline, we’re entering a second year on the up. The team is more talented, and in several areas deeper than it was last year, with the Eagles in the conversation for the best roster in the league top to bottom.
The vibes are good. The football better be.