INDIANAPOLIS – The Eagles are setting their sights higher than the free-agent scratch-and-dent bargain bin this year.
Does that mean a run at the top of the market, an attempt to sign, say, Dallas cornerback Byron Jones, or Denver corner Chris Harris?
General manager Howie Roseman didn’t say that Tuesday, when Roseman spoke at the NFL’s annual scouting combine. Roseman did acknowledge that he is no longer looking to plug holes with vets on one-year deals, as has been the case the past two offseasons.
Roseman spoke of shifting focus from the three-year window that began with the 2017 Super Bowl team to what he sees as a new three-year window, from 2020 through 2022. But he said that doesn’t mean rebuilding, in the sense that the Eagles won’t be trying to win the Super Bowl this coming season.
“We’re not talking about a total rebuild, we’re talking about a retool period, and injecting some youth,” Roseman said, as part of an answer about anticipating having 10 picks in the upcoming draft, double the Eagles’ total in 2018 or ’19. “We’ve got a lot of highly paid players on our team -- good players, that’s why we paid them -- and so you have to supplement them with some good young players.”
Having 10 picks this year in a strong wide receiver class does more than allow the Eagles to potentially stock up at that critical position, and maybe at other spots as well. It also gives them ammunition to trade up in the draft, should the player they really want not be available, say, when their selection arrives 21st overall in the first round, or 53rd in the second, or wherever.
“As we sit here, we would love to say that we’re going to be having 10 picks, but there were moments in the last two drafts, when there were guys within [trading up] reach, that we would want to move up [for], and we just didn’t have the ammunition to do it,” Roseman said. “So if there is a guy still that we thought was an incredibly high value, and we could go up and go get him, we couldn’t take that off the table.”
In free agency last offseason, the Eagles wanted to maximize their chances at gaining 2020 compensatory picks. That affected how they looked at the market. They should get three of those picks this spring – a third-rounder in compensation for losing Nick Foles, and fourth-rounders for Jordan Hicks and Golden Tate. Getting extra picks in 2021 won’t be a focus of this year’s free-agent strategy, when the market opens March 18.
“If we can get the right free agents, we’re not in a mode now where maybe we try to find the undervalued older guys that we tried to find over the last couple of years,” Roseman said. “We’re trying to build this over a period of time, we’re not kind of in this one-year window.”
Roseman said this offseason might be “I guess, kind of similar to how we looked at free agency in maybe 2016 and ’17,” when the Eagles might not have made the splashiest moves but signed such stalwarts as right guard Brandon Brooks, safety Rodney McLeod, and linebacker Nigel Bradham, all of whom became long-term starters.
Despite the “retool, not rebuild” distinction, at times, Roseman seemed to be hinting that the 2020 team could take a step backward, as younger players take over for aging vets. This much-anticipated draft class might produce the dominant wide receiver that fans have yearned for, but that player will be a rookie in 2020, new to Carson Wentz, the Eagles’ offense, and the NFL.
But it’s also true that when Roseman spoke at the 2017 combine, his remarks did not reflect expectations of a 13-3 season and the first Lombardi Trophy in franchise history. That year, too, Roseman thought he was at the start of a three-season window.
“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 back then. The implication was that he did not believe one big free agent would make the Eagles dominant. Instead, Roseman made a number of smaller moves, nearly all of which worked out. But he ended up trading draft picks to win the Super Bowl. His roster inevitably got more expensive, and some holes weren’t adequately filled in the draft or in free agency.
“Over the last two years, coming off the Super Bowl, we had a different amount of resources going forward, and we were looking at our team-building over that ’17, ’18, ’19 period, and we knew at ’20 we were going to have to change that a little bit,” Roseman said Tuesday. “Now we’re looking at it over the course of a window. Not that we don’t want to win this year -- we desperately want to win this year -- but more over building this team over 2020, 2021, hopefully 2022.
“It’s hard to look three years out, really, but [we want to] keep our eye on that. I think that maybe changes the complexion of some of our decisions this offseason, that it’s different from coming off the Super Bowl or coming off losing to the Saints in the divisional round.”
In each of the five combine media sessions Roseman has held since he returned to power in 2016, he has been asked about improving the cornerback position, which has been a weakness for the last decade. Tuesday he was asked if you have to shop at the top of the market to get a difference-maker at corner.
“I don’t think you have to go to the top of the market necessarily on anything,” he said. “I think we’ve got to combine free agency and the draft, and also how we want to build our team for 2020 and 2021 and try to figure out the best avenues to do that, but you know, I think the biggest mistake we can make is saying that we have to do something. We get in a position where we don’t set boundaries and we do something that hamstrings us going forward.”