The Eagles’ front office gathered after the 2016 season and set into motion a plan that would transform the Birds into a team that would achieve the NFL’s best record and secure the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs for the first time in 13 years.
On Jan. 2 last year, the Eagles were hours past the finish of a 7-9 season. They were overflowing with optimism about Carson Wentz, who would be the foundation of almost all of their decisions. They saw the need to support Wentz by rectifying their shortcomings. That required investing in weapons to bolster an underachieving wide receiver corps and fortifying offensive line depth so injuries would not derail the season. There was also an ongoing focus on the defensive line after they returned to the 4-3 scheme and an understanding that they had to upgrade the secondary.
The Eagles view roster-building as a continuum – it’s not limited to the busiest days of the offseason calendar. The first day of free agency and the draft weekend are clear pressure points, but the seeds of the Eagles’ 2017 roster also took them from the league meetings in Phoenix in late March to the flight home from Green Bay after the preseason opener in August to the NovaCare Complex offices as Halloween approached.
The net result is a 53-man roster for the Eagles’ home playoff game on Jan. 13 with 23 players who were not in the organization last year – a 43.4 percent turnover. It stretches from a big-ticket free agent such as Alshon Jeffery to an under-the-radar signing like Corey Graham; from a high draft pick such as Derek Barnett to Corey Clement, who was signed as an undrafted free agent; from acquiring players via trade such as Tim Jernigan, Ronald Darby, and Jay Ajayi, to poaching a player off a practice squad, such as Jake Elliott.
During the 2017 calendar year, Howie Roseman and Co. made more than 130 roster moves, issued more than $160 million in salary obligations, and celebrated their first division title since 2013. Here’s how they put it together:
In Roseman’s first comments after last season, he alluded to a period when the Eagles led the NFL in explosive plays and noted that he doesn’t have a “DeLorean time machine to go back in time and get some of those guys back.” He conceded that improving at wide receiver was “one of the things…we need to look at.”
The unknown of a rookie’s development and the hole at the position led to the determination to be aggressive in free agency. The Eagles targeted Jeffery, a former Pro Bowler and perhaps the gem of the free-agent class, but they didn’t know if they could afford him. They were tight on salary cap space, although director of football administration Jake Rosenberg has adeptly navigated the cap’s complexities and structured deals to make them work for the Eagles. It also helped that the market was not as fruitful as anticipated, leading Jeffery to prefer a one-year deal and gamble on himself rather than accept a long-term deal. Jeffery was intrigued by Wentz and felt comforted by some familiar faces in Philadelphia. The Eagles signed him to a one-year deal on the same day they signed Torrey Smith, who they hoped would provide a deep element and veteran leadership. It took only one day to revamp their wide receiver corps with two established veterans.
Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie said they would have had little interest in the 27-year-old Jeffery if he was in his 30s, but they viewed him as a young receiver they would potentially be able to re-sign. (They reached a contract extension in December.)
The Eagles also re-signed guard Stefen Wisniewski and signed guard Chance Warmack during the first week of free agency, two moves that received less attention but were important to the front office. The executives saw how injuries depleted the offensive line last season and wanted to make sure they had enough depth.
“It would be a disservice for us to not also talk about our offensive line because it starts up front, and if [Wentz] doesn’t have time to throw, it doesn’t matter who we have on the outside,” Roseman said.
They also sought to upgrade at backup quarterback, signing Nick Foles to a two-year, $11-million contract. They were so motivated to bring in Foles that they absorbed a $7 million cap hit on Chase Daniel’s contract.
Before the Eagles shifted their attention to the draft, they made two additions at the league meetings in Phoenix in late March that proved significant to the defense. They signed defensive end Chris Long for two years and cornerback Patrick Robinson to a one-year deal the same day. Long has five sacks and four forced fumbles; Robinson has been the Eagles’ slot cornerback and a key part of the secondary. Both players are respected veterans in the locker room and represent how the team has turned to experienced players in depth roles as opposed to unproven players.
It turned into one of the most productive months of free agency in recent memory. The Eagles will likely start five players they acquired in March in Saturday’s playoff game.
The Eagles entered draft season with big holes at cornerback and running back. They solved their need at defensive tackle by moving down 25 picks in the third round to acquire Jernigan, whom the Eagles viewed as a starting-caliber player who fit their scheme. The price was relatively discounted because Jernigan entered the last year of his contract, but the Eagles treated Jernigan like a foundation piece when they gave him a lucrative contract extension in October.
They were not finished addressing the defensive line. Roseman has learned to avoid the urge to address need in the first round, a strategy that had led to the franchise’s most notable recent draft errors (Danny Watkins, Marcus Smith). Roseman landed Pro Bowlers in three of his four previous selections in the top half of the draft (Wentz, Lane Johnson, and Fletcher Cox) and the fourth, Brandon Graham, has played at a Pro Bowl level the last two seasons. Drafting at No. 14, Roseman didn’t focus on a position of need in the first round, instead picking Derek Barnett. He and Jernigan will be key parts of the defensive line in the coming years. If the draft fell differently, maybe the Eagles would have selected a cornerback in the first round and a running back in the second round and have two Day 1 starters. Instead, neither of their top two picks started.
On Day 2, they drafted cornerbacks Sidney Jones and Rasul Douglas. Jones was a risk because there was no guarantee he would play in 2017 after tearing an Achilles tendon, but the Eagles viewed him as potential premier cornerback, Lurie said. That meant they would be light at the position entering training camp while they were bullish about the long-term investment.
They also looked uncertain in the backfield. In a deep running back draft class, the Eagles picked only Donnell Pumphrey, who profiled more as a Darren Sproles-type rotational back. Clement signed after the draft and has developed into a key reserve. The Eagles knew they needed someone who could carry the load, and LeGarrette Blount remained on the market in May.
It was a patchwork solution, but it was the best the Eagles could do at that time of year. Blount rushed for 766 yards, helped carry the Eagles early in the season, and will be part of the game plan Saturday.
Even with the upgrades at wide receiver, it was apparent early in training camp that Nelson Agholor deserved to be on the field. He was best when he played the slot – the spot that Jordan Matthews occupied the last three seasons.
It was also apparent that cornerback could be a problem.
After the preseason opener, Roseman decided to package Matthews and a third-round pick for cornerback Ronald Darby. Agholor’s summer emergence and the additions of Jeffery and Smith made the Eagles suddenly flush at wide receiver. They paid a steep price, considering the third-round pick was more valuable in a deal than Matthews, but they viewed Darby as a starter who was under contract for 2018, too.
By acquiring Darby, the Eagles shifted Robinson to slot cornerback – a spot where his veteran savvy and quickness made him a better fit than he was on the outside.
The Eagles also signed Corey Graham during training camp, giving them versatility in the secondary with three safeties Jim Schwartz trusted. Malcolm Jenkins was freed to play differently because of what Robinson provided in the traditional nickel formation and what Graham offered in three-safety packages. Both veterans signed one-year, low-cost contracts and the Eagles know the batting average is never 1.000 on those transactions. But they hit on Robinson and Corey Graham, and it has played a big part in the defense’s success.
Before the season opener, Lurie said the Eagles were improved, but he didn’t know how injuries or chemistry would affect the team. He wanted the Eagles to compete strongly in Wentz’s second year. He stopped short of putting a playoff-or-bust label on the team, and most preseason expectations fell well short of the Eagles’ eventual 13-3 finish.
When the injuries arrived, the Eagles mostly turned to veterans. Dannell Ellerbe offered a running-down middle linebacker after Jordan Hicks’ injury. Offensive tackle Will Beatty gave the Eagles an experienced reserve following Jason Peters’ injury. The Eagles knew Kenjon Barner could return punts when Sproles went down. They wanted Bryan Braman to contribute some of the special-teams ability lost with Chris Maragos’ injury. The exception was signing Elliott off Cincinnati’s practice squad after kicker Caleb Sturgis’ Week 1 injury even though Elliott had not kicked in a game.
The biggest in-season move, however, came at the trade deadline on Halloween. The Eagles were 7-1 and looked like contenders, and the backfield could use an upgrade. So the Eagles surrendered a fourth-round pick for Jay Ajayi, who is only 24 and still has another year left on his contract. Ajayi quickly showed he’s the Eagles’ best running back, so much so that he could become the workhorse Saturday. It was a move necessitated, in part, by the team’s success.
“I think you take into account where you are,” Roseman said in October. “It’s certainly different when you are 7-1 than if you’re having a losing season. But at the same time, we are not going to do anything that puts us in a bad spot going forward.”
It will be tough for Roseman when the Eagles enter this offseason without second-, third-, or fourth-round picks. It will be easier knowing those picks were sacrificed in deals for Wentz, Darby, and Ajayi – all 25-or-under players who will be the projected starters next season. They were central characters in the Eagles’ nine-month roster reconstruction. Whenever this season ends, there will be pressure on the front office for an encore.
“I see us as a team with an excellent blueprint, great opportunity, terrific direction,” Lurie said before the season, “but we’re in Year 2 of the plan.”