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Big-picture Birds keeping an eye on the future

The Eagles had more than two months to prepare for the eventuality that Lane Johnson would be suspended, and yet the personnel department did nothing in terms of adding an offensive lineman either as a replacement or insurance.

The Eagles had more than two months to prepare for the eventuality that Lane Johnson would be suspended, and yet the personnel department did nothing in terms of adding an offensive lineman either as a replacement or insurance.

If standing pat weren't enough proof that the team has realistic expectations for this season, and won't mortgage the future at the expense of developing or fully evaluating its youth, there have been several other moves that support the notion, starting, of course, with Carson Wentz.

The decision to trade Sam Bradford, who will return to Philadelphia with the Vikings on Sunday, and promote Wentz into the starting quarterback spot was done for myriad reasons, but mostly to get on with the future.

That the future could come so quickly seemed improbable, but Wentz proved to be at a level beyond his years, and a 3-0 start suggested that perhaps the Eagles were farther along than had been projected. But two straight losses, especially an all-encompassing defeat at the hands of the Redskins, substantiated the preseason belief that the roster had holes.

Does that mean the Eagles can't topple 5-0 Minnesota or navigate through a difficult remaining schedule - opponents have a 43-21 combined record - and contend for the postseason? No. Wentz gives them their most formidable presence at quarterback in a decade and it's not as if the lineup is without talent.

But he is still a rookie, and the Eagles are weak at too many key spots to think that a new right tackle would turn the squad's fortunes. Halapoulivaati Vaitai will start in Johnson's place for the second straight week, not because he's the best option, as coach Doug Pederson said, but because the powers-that-be see something in the fifth-round rookie.

Is he ready? No. Could he be benched by the half? Maybe. Will he develop into a starter? Who knows? But there's only one way to find out. And the Eagles are seemingly willing to roll the dice because as much as it may seem on a micro level that they can compete, this season ultimately should be about the macro.

"Are you always constantly looking? Yeah, but I'll go to battle with the guys we have," Pederson said Friday. "It's our job as coaches to make sure our guys are ready to go, too, on game day and prepared.

"Even as young as we are in certain positions, those guys are getting valuable reps . . . and they've been put in some tough situations these last couple of games. Things that they're going to learn from as we go throughout the year."

The Eagles aren't what you'd call a young team, especially at the top of the depth chart, and that's partly because they had to expend high draft picks to get Wentz. But they are a team on the cusp of transition. They have their quarterback, and a few other key starters, but they are still without foundational pieces.

If Andy Reid's old adage - give him a quarterback, two tackles, two edge rushers, and two cornerbacks and he could figure out the rest - was applied here, the Eagles would still need a tackle (presuming Lane Johnson gets his act together), a defensive end, and two corners.

It's almost remarkable how much Pederson's first team resembles Reid's in 1999. But there are significant differences.

"I think back then there was sort of a weeding out process of that roster. Some of the guys ended up leaving the team," Pederson said in June of the 1999 team that he was part of. "I have said this before this year and I feel this way: This team today is better than that team."

Pederson might have more overall talent on his roster - partly because the Eagles spent in free agency this offseason - but Reid was handed a team that already had a tackle (Tra Thomas), an edge rusher (Hugh Douglas), and corners (Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor). He also had a transformative safety in Brian Dawkins.

Reid kept 11 leftover starters from the 1998 team. Pederson, by comparison, has kept 14. But how many of the 14 will be here next season, let alone in three? Left tackle Jason Peters, left guard Allen Barbre, defensive end Connor Barwin, linebacker Mychal Kendricks, and cornerback Nolan Carroll are likely to be cast off next offseason. Maybe even center Jason Kelce.

Running back Ryan Mathews and cornerback Leodis McKelvin don't count among the 14, but their futures beyond 2016 aren't guaranteed. The same could be said of wide receiver Nelson Agholor, despite his relative youth.

About 10 starters are virtually guaranteed to return in 2017 - Wentz, Johnson, guard Brandon Brooks, tight end Zach Ertz, receiver Jordan Matthews, defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, defensive ends Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry, linebacker Jordan Hicks, and safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod.

Reid added nine new starters in 2000. But he made few changes over the next three seasons as he built his core and began to reach NFC championship games. There were only four new starters in 2001, four in 2002, and five in 2003.

There are legitimate questions about the investments executive Howie Roseman made in what he believes will be foundational parts of the Eagles' future - namely, Johnson, Curry, and Ertz. And there have to be more hits in the draft than in a dubious recent history. But the franchise appears to have its quarterback.

The Eagles just need to build more around Wentz. Just don't expect them to make any rash trades before a Nov. 1 deadline. That is, unless they beat the Vikings and Cowboys the next two weeks.

Then, maybe, all bets are off.