Five key acquisitions who sent Eagles back to the playoffs
WHEN A TEAM reboots itself, it starts with a new coach, who usually has an extensive background on one side of the ball or the other. That coach installs an offensive or a defensive scheme. He hires a coordinator to run the other half of the equation.
The general manager acquires players to fit the schemes.
Chip Kelly ran the Eagles' offense. Bill Davis ran the defense. Howie Roseman hired the players.
Neither Kelly nor Davis nor Roseman played a snap all season.
What matters happens on the field, and what was happening on the field for the Eagles the past two seasons was the result of a roster of walking disappointments: overhyped cornerbacks Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie; disruptive defensive end Jason Babin; maybe even backup tight end Clay Harbor.
All were replaced this spring.
Their replacements helped put the Birds back in the playoffs.
* 1. CONNOR BARWIN, outside Linebacker
Middle linebackers DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks have taken turns stepping into the spotlight this season. Trent Cole's conversion to outside linebacker from defensive end has been a welcome revelation for the Birds. But, simply, the defense does not work without Barwin.
He is listed as the leftside linebacker, but Barwin will line up on either side, usually on the second level, sometimes at the line of scrimmage. He will jam a receiver at the line, cover a tight end, force a runner back into the middle of the field or, his favorite thing: rush the passer. Davis last month said Barwin is irreplaceable in the scheme. That's why the Birds made Barwin a priority in their free-agency planning.
"When we were transitioning from a 4-3 wide-nine scheme to a 3-4, two-gap scheme, we needed guys who could play in space," Roseman said. "We liked him for a long time, had scouted him heavily at the University of Cincinnati. He was a guy we looked at right away in free agency. He's done exactly what we've looked for: Set the edge. Rush the passer. Play in space. With outstanding leadership, especially the way he works in the building."
Barwin's quirky personality is inclusive and collegial, unlike Babin, who was abrasive and divisive. Barwin's importance justifies his contract - 6 years, $36 million - but his importance outstrips his statistics. He has five sacks and an interception with a career-high 51 solo tackles, but those numbers won't get him a Pro Bowl invitation.
However, considering his hybrid role in an undermanned defense that struggled for its legs early in the season, Barwin belongs in the conversation for team MVP.
* 2. BRADLEY FLETCHER, cornerback
Fletcher's arrival was overshadowed in light of the signing of Cary Williams, whose 3-year, $17 million deal and whose depth of personality made Williams a more magnetic presence.
Fletcher signed for 2 years and $5.25 million. He often has been the better player.
"Fletch was a guy we targeted because he had great length, because of his ability to tackle, to match up with big receivers guys in the NFC North," Roseman said. "In part, because of how he played a guy like Calvin Johnson from Detroit. How he redirects receivers at the line of scrimmage. We hoped he would be able to come in and at least compete for a starting spot."
Fletcher might have been the top addition had he not missed three games because of injury (concussion, pectoral muscle). He has two interceptions, forced a fumble on special teams (which Williams recovered). He and Williams have done things DRC and Asomugha never did in Philadelphia.
At a much better price.
* 3. BENNIE LOGAN, nose tackle
The Eagles this season made picks in the second and third round of the draft they didn't think they would be making. First, even though they had added James Casey to assist Brent Celek, they couldn't resist tight end Zach Ertz. Then, after they had signed free agent Isaac Sopoaga, Logan fell into their lap.
"Bennie was one of those guys we thought would not be available when we were picking," Roseman said. "We thought he was a heck of a player: length, powerful guy, wore the No. 18 jersey at LSU [a revered number issued by team vote]. He did a really good job out of training camp. When we saw what we got through the first eight games of the season from Bennie, we needed to have him on the field more."
With that in mind, the Eagles traded Sopoaga at midseason, got a little financial relief and watched their defensive line stiffen in the middle. Since the trade, Logan has played 49 percent of the Eagles' plays; Sopoaga played 41 percent. Logan has 32 tackles in the eight games since the trade; Sopoaga had 18 in the eight games before he was traded.
* 4. DONNIE JONES, punter
Like Logan and Ertz, Jones fell into the Eagles' lap. He had produced well for the Texans, so the Eagles were surprised when Drew Rosenhaus let them know Jones would be leaving.
"We'd always watched from afar, and we liked him," Roseman said. "We took for granted this year that he would be re-signed by Houston. He's been a huge addition for our football team. He's an underrated part of our defensive improvement. Again, with great character."
Jones, 33, set team records with 40.5 net yards per punt and 33 punts downed inside the 20-yard line . . . for $905,000.
* 5. ZACH ERTZ, tight end
Veteran starter Brent Celek acted as a sixth lineman much of the season, which put him at risk for even more erosion than usual. Enter Ertz.
He caught 16 passes for 167 yards and four touchdowns against Oakland, Arizona and Minnesota, all games in the second half of the season, when the Birds went 7-1 down the stretch. A second-round pick, Ertz, at 6-5 and 250 pounds, is seen as the tight end of the future.
"When we draft a player, especially early in the second round, we're hopeful we get contributions Year 1, but they are long-term decisions," Roseman said. "On draft day, we didn't want to force a position. That wasn't a need position; we already had Casey. But we thought Zach was a guy who could stay in Philadelphia for a long time."
The same is as true of the other four players, too.
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