During Howie Roseman’s first months back in charge of the Eagles’ roster three years ago, he put into motion a plan that eventually led to the greatest moment in franchise history. It included not only adding new players in the draft, free agency, and trades, but also retaining the top young talent on the team.
The Eagles re-signed Fletcher Cox, Lane Johnson, and Zach Ertz during the 2016 offseason. All were age 25 when they signed their new deals, and eventually became Pro Bowlers and key pieces on the Eagles’ Super Bowl roster – and their current roster.
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So who’s the next wave of top young talent for the Eagles to grow with franchise quarterback Carson Wentz? They might be arriving this week.
Derek Barnett, Jordan Howard, Jalen Mills, Kamu Grugier-Hill, Ronald Darby, and Isaac Seumalo are the only expected starters on the current roster who will be 25-and-under on opening day. Expand that to 26, and it would include Wentz and Nelson Agholor. Dallas Goedert and Avonte Maddox are both promising second-year players.
Although the Eagles have budding young players on the roster, they’re not at the level that Cox, Johnson, and Ertz were in 2016. But the Eagles have a chance to load the roster during the draft this week with three picks in the first two rounds, five in the first four rounds, and with a significant haul of draft picks expected next season.
“We basically planned it exactly how it’s gone in the sense of we didn’t have as many draft picks,” owner Jeffrey Lurie said. “We’ve had some good young players – really good young players – but volume of draft picks, we believe in volume. We’re not cocky enough to feel that you’re going to draft way better than anybody else. It’s very important to create volume. This draft, we’re going to have good volume – especially in the top of the draft, two twos and two fours to go with our one. And next year, we’re going to have quite a few draft choices. It’s very important.”
The Eagles have had a dearth of high draft picks in recent years, restricting the team from the best way to add young talent. It’s been for understandable reasons: They packaged five picks to get Wentz, they sent a third-rounder in the deal for Darby, and they traded last year’s first-rounder for a collection of picks that included a second-rounder this year. But that left the Eagles with only four picks in the top two rounds in the past three seasons and six picks in the first three rounds.
“If I were to say to anyone in your building that we were going to have to trade a couple of second-round picks and third-round picks to get a franchise quarterback for the next decade, to win a world championship, to win four playoff games during the last two years, I don’t know who wouldn’t sign up for it,” Roseman said. “I’m very proud of what we’ve done. … I watch a lot of other team building in a lot of different sports, and I saw another GM being interviewed, and he talked about how he would do anything to win one world championship and sacrifice things. And when we look at it, we haven’t sacrificed our future to do that.”
Of course, it’s not mutually exclusive. They can have a top-of-the-league roster and still require young talent. Ten of the Eagles’ projected starters will be 29 or older on opening day. There are 12 players on the Eagles’ roster who have been picked for the Pro Bowl; among them, only Wentz and Howard are under 28. This doesn’t appear to be a problem this season or next season, but Lurie likes to talk about how the Eagles consider the short term, midterm, and long term with their decisions. This draft offers a pristine opportunity to add young building blocks so all three of those time periods are better satisfied.
Roseman, the Eagles’ top football executive and the architect of the roster, took umbrage with the notion that there’s any greater importance in this draft because of the need to replenish the roster with young talent.
“I think we have a lot of talent on this team. I think our roster’s really good,” Roseman said. “There’s a part of getting younger, but to get younger for the sake of getting younger doesn’t make a lot of sense to us. We’re looking for good players. And we have a lot of good players. We have a lot of players under long-term contracts, a lot of our core players … that are true Eagles. I think the way we’ve built this team makes a lot of sense. I don’t think there’s any undue pressure on the picks that we have right now. We understand the draft is a crapshoot. We are not going to go 7-for-7 on picks.”
Even if it’s a crapshoot, the best way to acquire top talent is in the first two rounds. The Eagles have a rare opportunity to do so. They have three picks in the top 57 (Nos. 25, 53, and 57) for the first time since 1994. It’s the fifth time since 2000 that the Eagles have three picks in the first two rounds. The good news for the Eagles is they landed a Pro Bowler with one of those picks in three of those four years. They drafted a Pro Bowler in the top two rounds in only five of the other 15 years. This would make sense: More volume at the top of the draft, the better.
“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,” vice president of player personnel Joe Douglas said.
Like Lurie said, the importance of these next two drafts was a part of their team-building approach. One of the advantages of having a quarterback on a rookie contract is that resources can be allocated elsewhere, with more chances to invest big contracts in other positions. When Carson Wentz signs a contract extension, he’ll engulf a greater percentage of the salary cap, and the Eagles will need more contributing players on cost-controlled rookie contracts. Those players will arrive during the next 13 months.
The Eagles own seven draft picks next season, and are in line to add valuable compensatory picks to that mix after Nick Foles, Golden Tate, and Jordan Hicks all departed in free agency. The Eagles paid close attention to the compensatory pick formula when planning their offseason. Their key acquisitions – Malik Jackson, DeSean Jackson, and Howard – didn’t count against the formula. In fact, when Roseman discussed the team’s compensatory pick strategy, he cited the need for them because of those very trades that left the Eagles without high picks in past years. He said they had needed to make some moves that were more “short-term” in nature to capitalize on their chance to compete, and attention must be paid to the long-term roster.
“Over the last three years, we’ve had [six] picks in the first three rounds, due to the quarterback trades that we made, due to trading for Ronald Darby,” Roseman said at the league meetings last month. “So we have to get an opportunity to get some more young players in our system, and this is an opportunity to do that. It’s a way to add more picks. We feel confident that over the next two years we’re going to have a lot more picks than we’ve had over the previous three years.”
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Then Roseman mentioned the reality of building a roster around Wentz during Wentz’s second contract and how the roster will look in 2020 and 2021. The Eagles’ next two drafts will have to, as Roseman admitted, “replenish” the roster.
Add in potential trades for picks and undrafted rookies who will make the team during the next two years, and it’s reasonable to expect a noticeable chunk of the Eagles’ roster to be on rookie contracts. Lurie said that 65 percent of NFL players are in their first-to-third seasons, and he expects the Eagles to be around that number in 2020. The Eagles must hope that a few of those incoming players can become like Cox, Johnson, and Ertz were in 2016.
“There’s probably going to be 20-25 players who are 22 years old, 23 years old on our roster,” Lurie said. “And we planned for that.“