Good morning, Eagles fans! The draft is over, the 90-man roster is nearly filled, and hope springs eternal for a team that has undergone significant change this offseason. Reporters got their first glimpse of Nick Sirianni as head coach and of one of his practices during rookie minicamp last week. Much of the session felt the same — there is no reinventing football — but there was certainly a different feel to the proceedings.
Sirianni has already been presented with a challenge: Getting veterans to the NovaCare Complex to learn his new systems even though the players’ union was advising its body to boycott workouts over lingering COVID-19 concerns. But the coach, like some of his other colleagues around the NFL, was able to work out an agreement with team leaders: Show up for an abbreviated period of meetings and light on-field instruction, and full team workouts and mandatory minicamp will be canceled.
Phase 2 began Tuesday, and most of the Eagles roster was in attendance for a week of mostly teaching of scheme. Phase 3 will be two weeks long and much of the same, although there will be opportunities to increase the intensity of practice.
The team will break until the start of training camp in late July. The spring will be significantly shorter than normal. But compared to last year, when it was entirely virtual, Sirianni should be a step ahead of first-year coaches from a year ago. Challenges remain, of course, one of which is what to do about Zach Ertz (see: below for more on the tight end). But Sirianni should have a solid base to work upon when camp starts in two months.
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Zach Ertz is still an Eagle. Could he remain one for another year?
No. Well, yes. Anything is possible. But with Ertz skipping workouts this spring, and June 1 fast approaching, when a release would save the Eagles salary cap dollars, there is seemingly increasing momentum toward the tight end and the only NFL team he’s played for parting ways.
Of course, a separation has already dragged on longer than most anticipated. If Eagles general manager Howie Roseman held firm on compensation in a trade for the last two months, what’s to say he doesn’t value Ertz enough to bring him back for another season? We’re talking about a three-time Pro Bowl tight end who is just one down season removed from earning such honors.
But the end of Ertz’s tenure in Philadelphia has seemed all but inevitable since his tear-filled final news conference with reporters after last season. He made it clear in August before the opener that he wanted a new contract. Talks broke down, however, and Ertz publicly voiced his displeasure with the Eagles front office. He would then have the worst season of his career — for various reasons, some outside his control — and fall behind Dallas Goedert on the tight end depth chart.
Ertz knew his likely fate in January. With his salary (he’s slated to earn $8.5 million in the final year of his contract), his age (30), and the ascending Goedert, signs pointed to a trade once the league year opened in March. But nothing happened.
Plenty occurred, however, behind the scenes. The Eagles dangled Ertz on the market. But, because of his contract, regression and the belief from some teams around the league that he would eventually be released, there was relatively little interest. Roseman then gave Ertz’s representation permission to shop his client.
But the GM’s asking price, initially a third-rounder per NFL sources, was too rich for interested parties, league sources said. And when possible suitors moved on and signed other tight ends, or they ran out of salary cap space, the market dried up. The draft offered a chance to move Ertz, but there were never any serious discussions about a swap.
“This isn’t a guy in the twilight of his career,” Roseman said after the draft. “He’s a guy still in his prime. A year ago at this time, everyone was talking about where he ranked with the top tight ends in the league. So we feel really good about the kind of player he is, and we have to do what’s best for our team as well.
“And, again, we have a lot of respect for him, and [he] continues to remain a member of the Philadelphia Eagles. If something changes, we’ll update you guys.”
Sirianni said last week that he had spoken to Ertz, but other than praising him, the coach didn’t respond to a question of whether the Eagles continuing to hold on to the tight end was doing him a disservice.
Ertz’s intentions are clear: He doesn’t want to play in Philly anymore. He hasn’t participated in virtual meetings with Sirianni and his staff, didn’t show for voluntary workouts that began Tuesday, and isn’t expected to report for the remainder of the offseason program, a source close to the tight end said.
Mandatory minicamp, which was originally slated for early June, has been cancelled, so Ertz won’t be required to show until training camp in late July. That gives the Eagles time to work on a trade. Or maybe they simply cut him with a post-June 1 designation, which would decrease the dead money hit from approximately $7.7 million to $4.2 million and allow the Eagles to spread the expense out over future years.
But Roseman would get nothing else in return for Ertz, a homegrown player who became one of the best pass catchers in franchise history, was ranked among the NFL’s best tight ends for nearly a decade, was a key cog in the team’s championship run, and caught the game-winning touchdown in the Super Bowl.
When put that way, it wouldn’t shock if Roseman was intent on retaining Ertz, who would be hard-pressed to hold out considering how much he stands to make in 2021. But as the Eagles saw with Carson Wentz, it makes little sense to keep a player who doesn’t want to play for you.
What you need to know about the Eagles
From Les Bowen: Eagles modify spring schedule; vets are in the house, but there’s no mandatory minicamp.
From EJ Smith: The Eagles trade for cornerback Josiah Scott, a 2020 fourth-round pick buried on the Jaguars’ depth chart.
Thumbs up or down: Eagles beat writers weigh in on Ryan Kerrigan signing.
Les traveled south for the following deep dive: DeVonta Smith’s character was forged from his mom’s values in a tiny Louisiana town.
From yours truly: Nick Sirianni’s offense might not be best-suited for Jalen Hurts.
From the mailbag
Do you expect Miles Sanders to have more of a featured role in this new offense? I thought he would be the additions of Kerryon and Gainwell make me think maybe this staff isn’t as high on Sanders as I am? — The Gold Standard via Twitter (@Gold_Standard17)
Gold, if that’s your real name, thanks for the question. I don’t think the additions of Kerryon Johnson and Kenneth Gainwell represent a lowering of opinion from the Eagles on Miles Sanders. I think it speaks more to questions about backups Boston Scott and Jordan Howard, however. Sanders didn’t have the second-year explosion some expected. Some of that fell on his shoulders. But a lot landed on Doug Pederson, Carson Wentz, and the overall dysfunction of the Eagles offense.
Still, Sanders rushed for 837 yards, averaged 5.3 yards a carry, and scored six touchdowns on the ground in 12 games. He remained the Eagles’ biggest home run threat. But he took a significant step back as a receiver and caught only 28 passes for 197 yards (7.0 average) after catching 50 passes for 509 yards (10.2 average) as a rookie. Wentz contributed to some of the regression, but Sanders dropped a number of passes as well. His catch percentage was just 53.8, which is terribly low for a running back.
Another concern with Sanders, and maybe it factored into the Eagles’ thinking as it relates to Johnson and Gainwell, is his durability. He was resilient in his first year despite various nagging injuries, but he missed four games last year.
We don’t yet know much about Nick Sirianni’s system. Pederson leaned heavily on the pass, and mostly took a by-committee approach to doling out touches to running backs. But Sanders was the closest he had to a workhorse. The Colts offense, under coach Frank Reich, was among the most balanced in the NFL over the previous two seasons. Will Sirianni employ a similar approach? Is that why the Eagles are stockpiling running backs?
It remains to be seen. But the Eagles have to feel pretty good about what it’s in the stable, and that starts with Sanders.