We’re in the midst of the offseason lull and draft coverage will ramp up soon. Therefore, it’s a good time to take a high level look at the roster and see what the team’s “needs” are. Having that framework makes following free agency and the draft much easier (and useful). One big point before we begin:
This year feels completely different from last year (at this time). However, that doesn’t mean the goals aren’t very similar.
One year ago, the Eagles looked like a complete mess, and appeared to be at the very beginning of a long rebuilding process. At least that was the message you got from reading most beat writers. Readers here obviously knew that things weren’t quite that bleak. This year, the general Eagles vibe seems to be that it’s a team that has already “rebuilt”, and are now ready to take the next step towards contending (perhaps not competing with Seattle and San Fran next year, but certainly solidifying a place just behind them). From my point of view, that’s a bit aggressive.
The team took a huge step forward this season (I will probably refer to 2013 as “this season” until FA starts). Most important was the hiring of Chip Kelly. However, a number of players emerged as potentially significant contributors to a contending team. Specifically, Boykin, Lane Johnson, and Zach Ertz all seem to be somewhat reliable pieces that either weren’t with the team last year or still carried a lot of uncertainty (Boykin). Johnson and Ertz both had issues, but given the totality of their performances, I think the odds are very good that both will become strong starters.
While that certainly helps, we can’t let it blind us to the fact that the team still has a lot of weaknesses. The defensive roster is still very much in flux or just plain bad. Most glaring is the lack of talent and depth in the DB corps. However, the LBs aren’t good either and the DL has some holes as well. Special teams was atrocious for parts of last year (outside of Donnie Jones), and the kicker probably needs to be upgraded at some point in the near future. On offense, the scheme obviously works, but Jason Peters and Evan Mathis are getting old, and the WR group is thin and could use some more high-end talent. LeSean McCoy, the Eagles MVP and the guy the offense is built around, is a unique talent. If he were to get injured, the consequences for the offense could be catastrophic.
So…in light of all that, what should the Eagles do?
I’ll go through position groups in more detail later, but for now let’s just focus on a few big priorities.
1) Add talent – This seems so simple, yet it gets glossed over far to quickly by most people. Did you watch the Seahawks this year? Did you watch the Broncos? If the answer is yes, then you must have realized that those teams operated on a much higher level than the Eagles did. Until the Eagles become a “contender”, first priority is to add talent whenever and wherever possible, within the structure of the team of course. So that doesn’t mean go out and buy every FA available. It does mean the team should be flexible and agnostic as to what positions it looks to upgrade.
If it were me, I’d go through every FA, under the age of 28, in the league and see where they would slot on the Eagles depth chart. If they’re an upgrade, I make them an offer. If that ends up just getting you a handful of 3rd stringers, so be it. Fans don’t get excited about those type of signings, but they’re really important, especially in the “build” phase.
2) Backup QB – This has to be a high priority. Michael Vick is gone, he no longer makes sense for the team. As we saw last season, QB depth is vital to any team looking to make the playoffs. It’s extremely rare to find someone who can step in and take your team to a title (Brady and Warner were anomalies). However, you do need someone who can step in and win a few games. Again, not a sexy position to upgrade, but if Nick Foles goes down for 2-3 games next season, it could cost the team a playoff spot. When the FA class shakes out a bit, we can look at potential targets here, but it’s HEAVILY dependent on the contract. As far as traits go, I just want someone who is competent and DURABLE. I’d gladly sacrifice a bit of talent for durability. As I said, you’re almost definitely not winning the title with a 2nd string QB anyway, so the extra talent isn’t going to get you much. Meanwhile, an injury to the 2nd string QB can be a season-killer, as it nearly was for the Eagles this year.
3) DBs….a lot of them – No position group on the team is as weak as the DBs. The CBs are OK, but each of them seems better suited to a #2 role. The Safeties are a bigger concern, obviously, and you can’t count on the draft to fix them. A lot of fans are hoping for a Byrd signing here, but I think it’s too early for a move like that. Rather, I’d look to sign 2-3 mid-level guys to reasonable deals and see which ones stick. That’s a similar approach to last season. Kenny Phillips and Patrick Chung didn’t pan out, but they didn’t cost the team anything either. Hopefully the BPA when the Eagles pick in the draft is a DB, but you can’t count on that. In the meantime, keep adding low-risk players and try to make incremental improvements. That way, when you do find the #1s, the rest of the depth chart is already in place.
4) LBs – Similar story to the DBs, but for slightly different reasons. The Eagles LB corps last season was serviceable, and occasionally very good. Unfortunately, they’re not likely to stay that way. Demeco Ryans is obviously not a long-term solution, neither is Trent Cole. I still don’t see Brandon Graham as a viable starter either (in this defense). That’s a lot of holes to fill, and it’s not going to be done in one offseason. If the team can plug one of those two spots with a long-term guy, even if he’s just above-average, it will have taken an important step. The rush LB will draw most of the attention this offseason, but don’t forget about Demeco’s spot.
5) The Offense – This ties into the first priority, adding talent. Most of the focus will be on the defensive side of the ball, and for good reason. However, it’d be a BIG mistake to forget about the offense. Remember, an above average offense is a NECESSARY condition for winning the SB. The same cannot be said of the defense. The Eagles’ offensive position is more precarious than it might seem. The WR corps is thin, even if Cooper or Maclin return. One injury to D-Jax and suddenly the group looks like a weakness rather than a strength. McCoy is also a HUGE risk factor. The offense is built around him, and the fact that he is so good means there’s just no way to adequately replace him if he goes down. Another weapon or two would help alleviate that risk.
Lastly, Jason Peters is now 32 years old. Evan Mathis is 32 years old. Todd Herremans is 31 years old.
Moral of the story here is that nobody should be surprised if the Eagles take an OT in one of the first two rounds this year. If that’s the BPA, I have absolutely no problem taking an OT in the first round, even if he sits a year behind Peters (or Johnson before he switches sides).
As I said, I’ll take a much more detailed look at the roster soon, and I think I’ve come up with a good way to visualize things. In the meantime, be hopeful, but realistic. There are a LOT of holes in this team, and barring an amazing draft, it’s going to take more than one offseason to fill them.
Geez man – you make it sound like the Eagles are one of the worst teams in the league in terms of talent, and that Chip performed a miracle. The DBs are competent. The LBs are competent. The WRs, if Maclin comes back healthy and Cooper returns, are above average. Sure, if one goes down they become a weakness but you can say that about every team. If the Broncos lost D Thomas or Decker last season they would have been in trouble.
You telling me that Kendricks and Barwin aren’t above average? Can’t have stars everywhere. And Demeco Ryans still has 2 solid years left. To me, 2 years in the NFL *is* long-term.
The safeties project to be mediocre at best right now. Definite upgrade needed there. And a legit pass rusher, either from DE or LB, is needed. And a backup QB, unless Barkley showed something to Chip outside of the games last season that we didn’t see.
O-lineman typically play well into their mid-thirties. So I’d hate to see the BPA be an O-lineman (but I’m always for taking BPA). My concern with them is that they didn’t pass the eye test (at least to me eye) often last season. Too much pressure. Fortunately it didn’t equate to sacks as often as it could have, but pressure regardless. Hopefully Peters gets back to his old form.
This team is 1 year away from legit contention, not 3 or 4 years. Call me an optimist but I don’t see the junior college level team you seem to see : )
I don’t think I disagree with you on most of that. Obviously, you can’t have stars everywhere, but you do need a lot of above-average starters. I don’t think the Eagles have that many right now, at least on defense. I really don’t see both Maclin and Cooper coming back, but if they do, fine, WRs aren’t a problem.
The OL I highlighted specifically because of what you said about their timeline. I’ll have more later (hopefully today), but realistically the team is at least 1-2 years away from actual contention. The problem with that, of course, is that in 2 years both Peters and Mathis will be pushing 35 years old. Maybe they can play at a high level, but you have to assume replacements might be needed. I’d much rather have the BPA be a DB, but if it’s OL, that’s fine.
Kendricks and Barwin are a great start, but I’m not that high on Ryans. He was OK last year, and might be OK again this year, but that spot clearly needs a long-term solution.
Overall, not EVERY position I identified needs a long-term guy. Some of them definitely do though, and it doesn’t really matter which ones. So while I identified a lot of holes, conceptually, it’s fair to say that the team is only a couple of “impact” guys away from contending. Those guys aren’t that easy to get though, and after you do, you still have to find adequate players for the remaining spots.
I really think they’re only 1 year away. Long-term rebuilds just don’t happen in the NFL anymore. Seahawks and 49ers did it quick. We can too. I fully expect the Eagles to be in playoffs this year again, and in the NFC Championship game. Next year, the Bowl. Mark it down. You heard it here first! : )
One of the biggest questions for me is how we should value leadership and locker room presence. With the right models, we can see all sorts of positive qualitative and quantitative effects on organizational performance across various fields. In my field (education policy), there’s a lot of talk about the importance of “distributed leadership,” which basically means that there’s value from having culture-carriers, etc. among the employees (in addition to the top-level leader).
All this is to say that I find the Ryans and Avant situation particularly interesting. They’ve been singled out by the coaching staff as important leaders, both on and off the field. I think they both should be replaced from a pure talent and age standpoint. But I’m also worried about the effects of pulling them both at once. Are there others who can step up and take their place? If there are candidates for these roles, what level of risk are we willing to tolerate that these candidates won’t step up?
Great point. I’m all for keeping Ryans, but not as a starter. I think he’s a perfect restructuring candidate, so I expect him back at a salary more in line with his level of play (currently adequate, but probably not for much longer).
Avant I’m not as high on, but only because I think he’s fairly easy to replace (production-wise). Adequate MLBs are much harder to get than Avant-level WRs. I’d rather churn the WR corp a bit and see if they can find some upside, which is fairly easy to do at that position.
Interesting write-up. I think you’re a little too pessimistic on the back-end of the roster. If the Eagles re-sign one of Maclin/Cooper, then our WR core is actually pretty good. WR/OL are positions where you can develop guys late in the draft and have them contribute. For example, Barbre played well in relief of Peters this year. The team likes Matt Tobin. Dennis Kelly has played snaps. We could not draft a single OL this year and still have sufficient depth for the entire 2014 system. Conversely, if Kruger is legit competition at DE, the only DL position we need to address is NT…and we can sign a stop-gap veteran like Pickett or Soliai.
We don’t know which developmental players will hit. That’s how Seattle really found their success.