In March 2017, Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie said that the hiring of Joe Douglas “was the pivotal moment of the last year.”
Douglas, hired the prior May, had already been involved in the team’s offseason decision-making, as evidenced by several atypical free- agent signings Howie Roseman had made. But Lurie’s praise had come before the NFL draft, the greatest infusion of talent for teams, and the event for which Douglas would seemingly have his most input.
But two years later, Lurie’s assessment of the Eagles’ vice president of player personnel was more tepid. In a meandering response last month, he called Douglas and the staff he had assembled “terrific,” but in the next sentence he said, “It’s really not one person.” Lurie focused on the “great team” of “really good people in the whole scouting and the analytics area.”
He then mentioned Andrew Berry, whom the Eagles had recently hired as vice president of football operations. Roseman said in February that the addition wasn’t “a reflection of anyone and their particular roles,” but Berry held the same title as Douglas with the Browns, and the continuation of Lurie’s answer a month later suggested there was more behind the hiring.
“We also at some point are going to lose executives,” Lurie said in Phoenix at the NFL owners’ meetings. “When you’re winning, you’re going to lose executives, and I think we’re in a great position to be able to deal with that.”
Was Lurie already resigned to losing Douglas to a better opportunity or was he foreshadowing a mutual departure? The Eagles had already blocked the Texans from interviewing him for their general manager opening during their Super Bowl run. But that was before last season’s regression and the further sampling of Douglas’ first two drafts.
It typically takes at least three years to give any sort of accurate evaluation on a class, but the Eagles’ 2017-18 drafts are particularly difficult to assess because so many of the prospects have hardly played, either because of injury or the depth of the roster.
The Eagles have been able to sustain the lack of contributions because of the existing nucleus and other moves they have made. But the need for compensation will only grow as the roster ages, and, more significant, once quarterback Carson Wentz is signed to a salary cap-restricting contract extension.
And this year’s draft, which will begin Thursday, only amplifies that necessity. The Eagles have seven picks, with three on the first two days — a first-rounder and two second-rounders. But third-day picks and undrafted signees also carry weight because the roster will need to have a substantial number of players with affordable rookie contracts.
“I’ll steal from my old college coach when he said, ‘You know why this game is the most important one? Because it’s the next one.’ And this draft is the most important draft because it’s the next draft,” Douglas said Tuesday during a sit-down interview with Roseman. “We have a lot of opportunity here with three picks in the top 57 to really get our kind of guy, get some difference makers in here.”
There are a few potential difference makers from the 2017-18 drafts, but for various reasons they have yet to have that kind of impact.
The 2017 group has been especially besieged by injury. Defensive end Derek Barnett, the Eagles’ No. 1 pick, showed obvious talent in his rookie season and in the first four games of last season. But he suffered a torn rotator cuff and was eventually shut down for the season.
Cornerback Sidney Jones was a second-round luxury pick. The Eagles didn’t expect him to play in his rookie season after he ruptured his Achilles tendon before the draft. But his sophomore year was marred by a recurring hamstring strain and he showed only brief glimpses of promise before that.
Fourth-round wide receiver Mack Hollins had an encouraging first year, but he missed all of last season after multiple groin injuries.
The rest of the class has been relatively underwhelming. Third-round cornerback Rasul Douglas has had his ups and downs, but he has warranted the selection so far. Fourth-round running back Donnel Pumphrey is still on the roster, but only after he was released and brought back to the practice squad.
The 2017 draft was a historically deep one for running backs, so in that context getting only Pumphrey, when the Eagles had an obvious need, was disappointing. Roseman makes the final call on picks and various maneuvering throughout the draft, so he bears ultimate responsibility. But Douglas, who is the titular author of the Eagles’ board, clearly overvalued Pumphrey.
Fifth-round receiver Shelton Gibson has similarly fallen short at the NFL level. Sixth-round linebacker Nate Gerry has been a serviceable reserve, while sixth-round defensive tackle Elijah Qualls was released before last season.
Douglas wouldn’t offer specifics on changes he has made since his first draft — “There are changes that we’ve made now that we didn’t do the first year we were here,” he said. But with Pumphrey as the likely example, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the scouting process now placed less emphasis on college production, particularly for prospects from smaller conferences.
Of course, a year later the Eagles drafted Dallas Goedert, one of the most productive Division I-AA tight ends in recent history, with their first overall pick and he has already exceeded expectations. Not because he did well as a receiver, but because he showed an aptitude for blocking, something he rarely did at South Dakota State.
But that goes back to the premise of drafting players for more than just their college statistics.
“Very rarely does a player fail because of physical ability,” Douglas said. “All of these players are being discussed and drafted for a reason. There’s all a prerequisite of talent. I do think intangibles come into play quite a bit when you talk about success and failures.”
The rest of the 2018 class, aside from fourth-round cornerback Avonte Maddox, mostly falls under the category of “to be determined.” Maddox’s talent was obvious, but what gives him additional worth is his versatility. He could conceivably play one of four positions — slot or outside cornerback, free or strong safety — at some point in his career.
Fifth-round defensive end Josh Sweat was a slight gamble considering his knee injury history. He played sparingly before an ankle injury ended his season.
The Eagles are optimistic about the potential of their final two selections from 2018 — fifth-round guard Matt Pryor and seventh-round tackle Jordan Mailata — but both could remain developmental prospects for another year if the starting offensive line stays healthy.
There isn’t one formula for drafting success. The Eagles have done fairly well over the last decade under Roseman’s stewardship, especially when compared with other teams. But Douglas, who spent most of his formative scouting years with the Ravens under general manager Ozzie Newsome, was brought in partly to bring another viewpoint to the process.
In terms of roster-building, philosophically speaking, Douglas and Roseman have their similarities. NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah, who worked under both as a scout, said they have a shared belief in “building in the trenches.”
But Jeremiah, during a conference call Thursday, went on to highlight the strengths of each executive, and in his descriptions their differences are just as clear.
Douglas is “big on the person, not just the player,” Jeremiah said. “Really, really digging on those guys and finding out who are the real tough guys. That’s something that’s kind of been his calling card as a scout for a long time.”
Roseman didn’t take a traditional scouting path to heading a personnel department, so he might not be as concerned with the nuts and bolts of a prospect. But his strengths lie in maximizing value.
“He understands the board in terms of supply and demand at certain positions,” Jeremiah said, “ … and being able to say, ‘Hey, I know we like this guy, but we can still get him or we can get somebody else we like just as much and we can get a little something extra.”
In theory, the styles should complement each other. Douglas and Roseman spoke about their shared traits of passion and of a willingness to set their egos aside for the betterment of the team. But they conceded that there are as many tough conversations.
“There’s a lot of things that Joe is; being a yes man isn’t one of them,” Roseman said. “I think that that’s really been the best part of our building, is that we have a lot of opinions, a lot of strong opinions, we have a lot of good people in our building and nobody is just agreeing just for the sake of agreeing.”
Roseman’s voice, though, is the last to be heard when a final decision is made. He’s on his fourth vice president of player personnel and other prominent members of the Eagles front office have left during his time in personnel. Of the group — Jason Licht, Tom Heckert, Lou Riddick, Ryan Grigson, Joe Banner, Tom Gamble, and Ed Marynowitz — only Grigson left for a job with more authority.
Douglas’ fingerprints were all over the Eagles’ 2017 offseason. He had direct links to several acquisitions, and the signing of established veterans to short-term contracts was something Roseman hadn’t done to quite that extent before. Lurie’s statement that Douglas was the “best move of the offseason,” if hyperbolic, had some prescience as the Eagles went on to win the Super Bowl.
But the following August, after Lurie extended Roseman’s and coach Doug Pederson’s contracts through 2022, the owner, when asked about Douglas’ contributions, downplayed his role.
“I won’t talk about anyone else’s contract today,” Lurie said, “but Joe is a valued member of our staff and contributes, as do many, many people that never get written about.”
Lurie has fostered a collaborative environment, and the Eagles’ recent success corroborates the public face of harmony Roseman and Douglas presented Tuesday. But neither got to where he is by being passive.
“There’s no doubt when there’s passion,” Roseman said, “there’s passion.”
Douglas smiled and agreed.
“There is passion,” he said.