Good morning, Eagles fans. I'm writing this from Orlando, where I've spent the last few days at the NFL Annual Meeting. Jeffrey Lurie, Howie Roseman, and Doug Pederson all took questions here, offering updates on the Eagles between free agency and the draft. When the team brass returns to Philadelphia, they have 2½ weeks before the players arrive for the offseason program and four weeks before the draft. There was much discussed during the last 48 hours — look for more stories in the coming days on Philly.com.
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— Zach Berman
At the league meeting one year ago, Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie stressed a "very patient, disciplined approach" and noted how the Eagles must "have multiple drafts in a row, hopefully, where you're surrounding that quarterback on all sides of the ball."
One year later, he spoke at the league meeting as a Super Bowl champion. That shows the Eagles' success last year might have happened sooner than anticipated. When Lurie was asked what changed, he pointed to Carson Wentz's development.
"I'd almost backtrack and say again, going forward, we've still got to get better, and I'll always say that because I think it's true," Lurie said. "But I think a couple things happened. Our young quarterback grew tremendously from Year 1 to Year 2, became arguably one of the very best in all of the NFL. And our players, as a group, were bonded in incredible ways, incredible ways supporting each other, and our coaches seem to be able to work incredibly well with every position group. You can't predict that going in. I know we've got really good teachers, I know we've got a really good staff. … Football's hard to predict."
This was a theme throughout Lurie's 30-minute news conference. He's bullish on Wentz, was impressed with Doug Pederson's coaching job, and can't find enough compliments to describe Howie Roseman's roster-building. But Lurie also noted how the Eagles must get better because the NFC is loaded. It's hard to find someone who appreciated winning the Super Bowl more than Lurie. This offseason has been about figuring out what's needed to repeat.
In Howie Roseman's first public discussion of the Eagles' offseason moves, the Eagles' top executive explained that the team is trying to load up for 2018 while also recognizing their salary-cap situation in 2019 and 2020. That's one of the reasons the Eagles added veterans such as Haloti Ngata, Mike Wallace, and Michael Bennett — all players age 30 or older who will help in 2018, but won't compromise the team's long-term salary-cap outlook or take up spots on their long-term depth chart.
The Eagles had success last year with older veterans such as Chris Long, Corey Graham, LeGarrette Blount, and Patrick Robinson. There are some teams that avoid players on the wrong side of 30, but the Eagles seem to recognize value in short-term deals with those players.
"You're still looking for production," Roseman said. Ngata, Wallace, and Bennett "are extremely productive when you put on the tape. They also, obviously, have pedigree. They've won. And that's a big part of what we're trying to do is surround our team with guys who've won and at the same time have a chip on their shoulder to win again. … We talked about where we are not only at this minute, but what we're trying to do in not only 2018, but in 2019 and 2020."
It's not advanced team-building to try to win short-term and long-term, but the best way for the Eagles to do that is to not add burdensome salaries when they know they already have big-money players on the books and will likely need to pay Carson Wentz a massive contract. The Eagles don't want to lose the window they have with this core, but they also don't want to throw all their chips on the table to repeat while jeopardizing their 2019 and 2020 efforts. They haven't added a contract this offseason that will jeopardize their future years, and they've also kept themselves in a good territory for the compensatory-pick formula. This was all by design, as has been described in past editions of Early Birds.
"It's obvious, we've got six picks this year," Roseman said. "We're trying to get more picks as we go forward the next couple of years because we have a lot of guys under contract, a lot of guys making money. So as we looked at 2018, 2019, and even peeking at 2020, we're trying to figure out how we could be a really good team in the short-term and in the long-term."
The Eagles have five young, promising cornerbacks on their roster: Jalen Mills, Ronald Darby, Sidney Jones, Rasul Douglas, and Daryl Worley. It's more depth than the franchise is used to at the position. But not all outside cornerbacks can play slot cornerback, and the Eagles must replace Patrick Robinson in that role. It's going to be one of the big questions during offseason workouts and training camp. Doug Pederson first mentioned Mills when he was asked who would take on that role.
"That's an area that we'll have to address this spring," Pederson said. "We've got some guys, whether it's Jalen Mills moving in there, whether it's Worley moving in there, whoever that might be, we got some young guys."
One option the Eagles have is playing Mills on the outside in the base formation and moving him inside in nickel situations. Some coaches don't like moving a player back-and-forth, but it sounds like the team thinks Mills has that versatility.
"I think he's comfortable enough," Pederson said. "He understands. He's a versatile guy. If you ever needed him to play a safety spot he can go back. He's that type of athlete. He's not just one position. … For a guy that was drafted where he was, late, he's been a real, real, big bright big spot for us these first two years."
Playing Mills in the slot is one way to get Jones on the field. Pederson's one-hour interview on Wednesday only reaffirmed the team's high expectations for Jones in 2018.
That's not going to happen. Jeffrey Lurie is interested in bringing back the kelly green jerseys as alternates, but he needs the league to approve the use of a second helmet. Lurie does not want to wear the kelly green uniforms with their normal midnight green helmets, and the league does not allow for multiple helmets. Once that happens, the Eagles will likely add the alternates. But it doesn't sound like it will be in place this season. "They very much know we want this, and we want it badly," Lurie said, referring to the NFL. "We're waiting."
I'll start with Rodney McLeod. They're not moving on from him, nor should they. He's a really good safety. I don't know why some Eagles fan seem down on him. I think too much is made out of that one play in Cincinnati in 2016. McLeod has terrific range, is a good tackler, and is a smart player. He's also durable: He's missed only two games in his career. He was far from perfect and he wasn't an elite player at his position, but he was a high-level player. McLeod and Malcolm Jenkins will start at safety again, although it's unknown who will be the third safety.
Cornerback will be interesting, as I stated above. The Eagles have Jalen Mills, Ronald Darby, Sidney Jones, Rasul Douglas, and Daryl Worley. Unless there's a trade, my guess is Mills and Darby continue to start in the base defense, with Mills bouncing inside to the slot in the nickel and Jones playing on the outside. Training camp and the preseason will determine those jobs. Jones is obviously the wild card. It's technically an open slate, although Mills and Darby have the most starting experience.
No, I don't think the Eagles should draft a punter. They're already limited with draft resources, and I don't think that's the best way to spend the pick. However, I don't expect Cameron Johnston to be the only punter in training camp. Look for the Eagles to sign either a veteran or an undrafted rookie to compete with Johnston, whom the team had in camp last summer. Pederson indicated on Tuesday they could go in that direction.