Good morning. I write this from Mobile, Ala., where I’m covering the Senior Bowl. The Eagles have a contingent here evaluating draft prospects as the offseason accelerates into the next gear. We’ll have coverage on Philly.com throughout the week.
— Zach Berman
The Super Bowl matchup is set, and the Eagles aren’t in it. Does that mean the Eagles underachieved?
The Eagles built this roster trying to repeat, so if you’re of the Super Bowl-or-bust mindset, then it’s a season of underachievement. But the Eagles also lost more than a dozen players to season-ending injuries, rebounded from 4-6 and 6-7, and made the second weekend of the postseason. They were one of the last eight teams standing. In fact, coach Doug Pederson said there was a point in the season in which the Eagles overachieved.
“I think I look at it obviously as the head football coach and, one, the number of injuries to starters to start the season who missed games. That was real. That was a real thing,” Pederson said. “Then as the season went on, beginning to lose a couple more starters, to eventually having about 13 or 14 guys down. But the fact of the matter is, yeah, we were 4-6 at one point after 10 games.
"And then to make the run — I want to be playing our best ball in the months of November and December into January, and I think that’s what we were doing. You really don’t know a whole lot about your football team in the month of September, especially coming out of training camp when you’re trying to evaluate a bunch of guys. So as the season progressed, we began to sort of overachieve just a little bit.”
Behind the scenes, the feeling in the organization was how impressive a job Pederson did in 2018, including raves about how he held the team together.
The season must be viewed in the context of the injuries and the way the Eagles rebounded, although that doesn’t completely let them off the hook. Most teams deal with key injuries, even if they’re not at the same volume as the Eagles.
The reality is the Eagles were inconsistent through the first three months of the season, and at times, they were not a particularly good team. That’s part of this season; they underachieved early, and though they rebounded late, it was the reason they were playing on the road and not at home. They should have been better than 9-7, but there’s no shame in being one of the last eight teams standing.
“Our goal is to win a world championship,” top executive Howie Roseman said. “We put a lot of time and effort into trying to repeat, so at the end of the day, there is only one team that stands up with that trophy and has that parade, and we wanted to bring that back to Philly.
"By the same token, the character that this team showed and Coach talked about it last year, about the new norm of playing in January and building a more consistent winner, which was one of our goals when Coach Pederson came here. We are proud of that. But at the same time, our expectations are high. We want to continue to be playing the last game in the year and winning that game.”
The big question for the Eagles during the next month is what will happen with Nick Foles. (I wrote a primer about what’s next for Foles over the weekend.) But one under-the-radar question is how much longer Foles wants to play, considering Foles was close to retiring in 2016.
For teams that want to invest in Foles, this will be something to explore. Foles turned 30 on Sunday, but quarterbacks are excelling deeper into their careers than ever before. So there could be a long shelf life for Foles — if he wants it.
“This is something my wife and I always talk about,” Foles said. “We pray about it, what the good Lord wants us to do. Whatever we decide, whatever contract we sign, we will always honor that contract years-wise, and then we go from there. I’ve never had a set — I want to play until I’m 40; I want to play until I’m this. It’s more so a faith thing: ‘God, if this is what you want me to do.’ If this is where my heart’s led, I’m in doing it for the right reasons. I’ll continue to do it. If I can’t find the right reasons to play this game, then I need to pursue something else.”
That doesn’t seem like a problem right now. Foles said he’s “loving” football and has been “energized” by the Eagles locker room. He’s also matured as a player and as a person since he contemplated retirement. In fact, Foles said he grew more during the past year than he ever had in his career. That could be a good sign for what’s to come, even if it likely won’t be in Philadelphia.
“I’m really starting to understand how I want to play this game,” Foles said. “My game’s changed, seeing it, seeing what’s important. Really, just being myself. That’s the thing that’s so hard in this league at times: Young players try to be something they think they should be based on what everyone else wants.
"I think the thing I’ve realized is I’m just going to be myself and be genuine. It’s been a lot easier playing the game that way.”
Lane Johnson is going to the Pro Bowl after all. The Eagles right tackle is an injury replacement for Dallas’ Tyron Smith, making him a two-time Pro Bowler. However, this is the first time he’ll be playing in the game because the Eagles’ Super Bowl run kept him from playing last season.
Injuries kept Johnson from matching his superb 2017 season in 2018, although he had a strong finish to the year and has established himself as one of the elite offensive tackles in the NFL regardless of side. Johnson felt snubbed when he didn’t make the initial Pro Bowl roster, telling reporters that he drove to the team facility overnight and slept in the team facility. He backed up his play in the next game by holding Houston’s J.J. Watt without a sack.
Johnson and Malcolm Jenkins will play in the game. Zach Ertz, Fletcher Cox, and Brandon Brooks will not play.
Where do you feel the Eagles free agent & draft priorities will focus? – Dan, via email
I’ll explore this more in depth during the next few months, especially right before free agency in March and the draft in April when I’ll offer a focused forecast. But speaking generally right now:
I think they will focus on getting younger and faster; I think defensive line is going to be a major priority in the draft; I think they’ll look to add youth to the interior offensive line; and I think they’ll look for a dynamic running back to lead their backfield, and my guess is that will happen in the second round of the draft. There are other spots that I can see them adding to depending upon who returns, including safety, wide receiver, and linebacker.
I think the Eagles will let some talented young players leave in free agency, although injuries to players such as Ronald Darby, Jay Ajayi, and Jordan Hicks might complicate their market value. I’d try to bring Hicks back; I still think he can be a key piece of the defense. Darby would make sense if there’s an injury discount, but I still think there’s a good market for him.
There are some aging players who must make decisions about their futures, including Jason Peters, Jason Kelce, Darren Sproles, and Chris Long. Those should come in the next six weeks, too, and would obviously affect the Eagles' plans.