What's next for the Eagles?
After a surprising, 10-win season in Chip Kelly's first season, the Eagles must plot a strategy to make the team stronger.
YEP, THAT really happened. The Eagles won 10 games and went to the playoffs in Chip Kelly's first season, setting franchise records for points, net yards, touchdowns, passing yards and fewest turnovers. Had they covered a late-game kickoff better last Saturday, they might be preparing for another playoff game this week.
But they didn't, and they aren't.
So, what now?
Eagles general manager Howie Roseman is happy not to be running around the country interviewing coaching candidates right now, as he was a year ago. There isn't much anybody can say in early January about what might happen in free agency or the draft; free agency begins March 11, which is as distant to where we are now as Nick Foles' seven-touchdown game in Oakland, and the May 8-10 draft is as far away from today as the start of the season, back in September. But Roseman feels, with considerable justification, that he has the right people and the right process in place for the team to move forward this offseason.
Roseman recalled a moment amid the hubbub of Saturday's wild-card round game when he, team chairman Jeffrey Lurie and Eagles president Don Smolenski reflected on where they'd been a year earlier.
"It seems like a lifetime in some ways," Roseman said. "It's exciting to think about the potential we have here, with this coaching staff and this football team. By the same token, we've got to get better."
Roseman said he sees "a 180" from where things stood a year ago, though "in my experience, when you pat yourself on the back, you get a swift kick in the ass."
While Kelly controls roster decisions, Roseman makes the calls on money. The Eagles apparently have about $20 million in cap space, and are blessed by the fact that as a third-round draft pick, Foles cannot receive a contract adjustment until after next season. The quarterback who compiled the NFL's best passer rating in 2013 and was the NFC Offensive Player of the Month in November will play in 2014 for $615,000.
What will be the Eagles' attitude toward free agency this year? Wary, but interested, it seemed from talking with Roseman. The 2011, let's-just-take-one-of-everything debacle remains very fresh. But a year into Kelly's tenure, the Eagles are in a better position to assess exactly what they need in his schemes.
Last year's free-agent acquisitions mostly were boilerplate, highlighted by the extremely useful addition of linebacker Connor Barwin. There was nothing that demanded bold-type headlines. Roseman seemed to indicate Monday that going second-tier isn't necessarily his template going forward, though that tends to be where value often lies. It could be that if you do all the research and end up paying big for one high-end guy, at a key position, you aren't necessarily making the mistakes of 3 years ago all over again.
Asked how he avoids the temptation of reaching for that "one piece" that could put a competitive team over the top, Roseman said: "I don't think we just added one piece [in 2011]. I think we went over and above the one piece . . . I think we have to learn from that moment. I would say we're going to continue to try to build this team the right way, and there are no quick fixes in the National Football League. It's such a team sport that one player's not going to make the difference. We have to build this so, hopefully, we're competing for a long time. I think you'll see a markedly different approach from the last time [the Eagles were in the playoffs] both in free agency and the draft, because I feel we did that [stretch to fill holes] in the draft as well.
"No matter where we are right now, or what we finished with, we've got to keep the process right and build onto a young team, hopefully have a good core group of players we can build on and with, and do things the right way."
There probably won't be as much roster churn as there was when Kelly and defensive coordinator Bill Davis came in, and pieces clearly were missing from what they needed. Kelly's staff, Davis in particular, did an amazing job of taking players who would not have been drafted into this setup - such as stubby, 2010 first-round pass rusher Brandon Graham - and finding ways to make them productive. But some of these projects, including Graham, might have been short-term. (Graham said Monday his goal is to start. Hard to see that happening here right now.) It's great to be smart enough to find ways to fit square pegs into round holes. It's much better to have all the right pegs for the holes to begin with, and that will be a bigger concern this offseason.
On Monday, Kelly offered up his oft-used adaptability example of how Denver coach John Fox ran one offense successfully with Tim Tebow at quarterback, and another with Peyton Manning. What Kelly didn't say was that the Broncos went out and got Manning, to replace Tebow and make them a more viable Super Bowl threat.
Trent Cole was an exemplary soldier, transitioning from defensive end to rush linebacker in his ninth NFL season, notching eight sacks, though they all occurred in four games. Cole is 31, and has a $6.6 million cap figure in 2014. The Eagles desperately need an edge rusher who can cause the kind of havoc Cole was causing, say, 5 years ago.
The Eagles might be able to survive another year with Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams on the corners, but drafting a corner with a very high pick and bringing him along under them sure seems like a plan. At safety, one has to think the Eagles will look at free agency, at the draft, at local flea markets and yard sales, and possibly on Craigslist. When Roseman was waxing nostalgic Monday about Brian Dawkins, as detailed in yesterday's Daily News, what he really seemed to be saying was "where do you find a guy like that, anyhow?" This long-term need becomes a bigger crisis, the better the team gets. Re-signing Nate Allen isn't going to hurt and might help, but the other spot back there needs a difference-maker. Earl Wolff is a wonderful third guy, and Patrick Chung should be invited to continue his career elsewhere.
It's probably not safe to assume kicker Alex Henery is gone - he really has been pretty accurate, even if his range has been lacking. But it certainly is safe to assume the Eagles will take a hard look at other options in the spring and summer. Also seems safe to assume they'll bring back punter Donnie Jones.
On offense, there are fewer concerns than with the defense. One is, even if Jeremy Maclin returns to the fold, you know Kelly covets a bigger, faster weapon, probably something you'd have to draft in the early rounds. Is it possible feelings will be bruised somehow among the DeSean Jackson-Maclin-Riley Cooper (if he signs here) trio? Yep. Too bad. Venerable slot receiver Jason Avant is one of the team's most cherished leaders, and he's an excellent blocker, but Avant seems to have lost a step he could not afford to lose.
It's also worth noting that the Eagles' ballyhooed offensive line got pushed around by both Dallas and New Orleans at the end of the season, and that its linchpin, Jason Peters, turns 32 this month.
Kelly said Monday that with no coaching staff to assemble this season, "we can spend a little more time on the personnel aspect of things - and our personnel department has done a great job of articulating what we're really, truly looking for - and then those guys going out and finding it."
The Scouting Combine starts Feb. 19.
The Eagles have signed all eight practice-squad players who finished the season, plus big wideout project Ifeyani Momah from last year, and Josh Kaddu, a free-agent linebacker from, of all places, Oregon.