The focus of the NFL scouting combine this week is on evaluating 337 top prospects in preparation for April’s annual entry draft, but when Howie Roseman and Doug Pederson speak with reporters Tuesday in Indianapolis, the draft will be just one of several pressing topics.
The Eagles’ general manager and their head coach haven’t held a news conference since the team made big changes to its coaching, scouting, and medical/training operations. Among those was the replacement of offensive coordinator Mike Groh and wide receivers coach Carson Walch, dismissed a day after Pederson told reporters Groh and Walch would be retained, only for the team to issue a clarification watering down his remarks a few hours later.
The week after the Eagles’ 2019 season ended with a wild-card-round playoff loss to Seattle, Roseman spoke of a need to make the team younger and quicker. With the March 18 start of the league year, and free agency, now less than a month away, Roseman will be pressed to further develop his thinking on this initiative, which could entail a tricky breakup with 38-year-old left tackle Jason Peters, one of the greatest players in franchise history. Thirty-two-year-old safety Malcolm Jenkins might be even more essential to the locker room culture of the current team than Peters; Jenkins has said he will not play this season under the terms of his expiring contract, which calls for him to make $7.85 million in this final season.
The Eagles are hardly in full-scale rebuilding mode, with a 27-year-old franchise quarterback in Carson Wentz, offensive and defensive lines that ought to be better than average even if Peters ends up playing elsewhere, and money and draft picks to improve their most significant weaknesses, at wide receiver and cornerback. This is said to be a historically strong wide receiver draft, and Eagles fans will be avidly tracking those prospects, with players scheduled to arrive in Indianapolis on Monday. The event concludes March 1, and features a revised, modernized set of drills that now will take place in the evening to accommodate TV.
Despite a fairly talented roster, the Eagles have regressed each season since winning Super Bowl LII. Last year it was a divisional-round loss at New Orleans. This year the end came in the first round, at home, with Wentz concussed after a first-quarter hit from Jadeveon Clowney and 40-year-old backup quarterback Josh McCown limping through the second half of a 17-9 loss on a badly torn hamstring.
The Eagles went into their 2019 training camp touted as one of the top two or three teams in the NFC. Instead, for the second year in a row, key injuries dogged them from Week 1, and they underperformed. We don’t know what free agency and the draft will bring. Right now they seem more likely to be viewed in the second class of contenders, below such teams as San Francisco, New Orleans, Green Bay, and Seattle.
Does Roseman really expect to win the Lombardi Trophy this season, or is he hoping to field a competitive team that has a puncher’s chance, while building toward another truly dominant team in a year or two?
This will be the fifth time Roseman has spoken at the combine since his return to power in 2016, at the end of his Chip Kelly-imposed exile. The same holds true for Pederson, hired in 2016, but the coach’s remarks are usually just a prelude to his longer session at the NFL owners’ meeting in March, when we’ll be well into free agency and closer to the draft.
With Roseman at Indianapolis, the focus has tended to be on something other than the upcoming draft.
In 2016, the release of linebacker and defensive leader DeMeco Ryans was a big topic. The Eagles’ trades to move up to second overall in the draft for Carson Wentz weren’t yet on the radar.
In 2017, it was building around Wentz, who was coming off his rookie season. A question Roseman posed then when asked about free agency underscores what a surprise the season turned out to be, the quick development of the Eagles’ only Super Bowl-winning team. “Are we in a position right now where if we sign this one guy, that puts us over the top? We have to be honest about that,” Roseman said.
That was the year Roseman struck gold by signing a bunch of veteran free agents to one-year deals, an approach he has continued with much less subsequent success.
The 2017 remarks also show how some topics seem eternal. Roseman was asked about Peters’ status, at age 35. He dismissed concerns there. He said it was “no secret” that the Eagles needed to be better at cornerback, to improve on Nolan Carroll and Leodis McKelvin.
One thing to keep in mind as you mull all the seemingly wonderful wide receiving options in the upcoming draft: 2017 was touted as a historically strong draft at cornerback. The Eagles ended up with Sidney Jones in the second round and Rasul Douglas in the third.
In 2018, Roseman indicated that the Eagles might retain unlikely Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles, as Wentz recovered from ACL surgery, and of course, they did. Roseman again gave a strong endorsement of Peters, coming off a knee injury that ended his 2017 season after seven games.
Roseman also touted the strength of the 2018 tight end draft class and acknowledged that, holding the 32nd overall pick after winning the Super Bowl, he didn’t expect to see a first-round talent sitting there, and might trade back. The Eagles ultimately traded back to 49th overall, in the second round, and drafted tight end Dallas Goedert.
Last year was all about Roseman’s announcement that the team would not try to franchise tag and/or trade Foles, and would let him pick his own destination via free agency. Right up there in importance was Roseman’s response to the incendiary PhillyVoice story ripping Wentz as selfish, and implying teammates disliked him.
As we look toward this week’s remarks, part of the background is Roseman’s acknowledgment in January that he tried to keep as much of the Super Bowl roster together for as long as he could, but that the time to patch and fill around that group was ending.
The Eagles have been mentioned in speculation about top-of-the-market prospective free agents at cornerback, such as Chris Harris and Byron Jones. It will be interesting to see if the 2019 season changed Roseman’s thinking on free agency from last year at Indianapolis, when he said this:
“When you’re talking about the top guys, you’re bidding against 20-to-25 teams. At the step below, you’re bidding against five or six. It’s just hard to stay in that ballgame, because we have a lot of players on long-term contracts that are making good money.
“It’s hard to be in a situation where we’re going to be the highest bidder for the top free agent. And that’s not really how we want to build a team. We want to give our own top players top-of-the-market deals, and then look to free agency to kind of supplement that.”