With a clear head and a strong hand, Howie Roseman on Saturday compiled a 53-man roster that gives his Eagles a modest chance to win some games in their mediocre division; that allows them to develop key positions; and, most importantly, protects the Eagles' most valuable asset, quarterback Carson Wentz.
Winning now, of course, is the least urgent issue. For the first time since 1999, Roseman and owner Jeffery Lurie recognize this.
Remember what Lurie said at the owners' meetings in March:
"We're not one player away. We have lots of holes. And you've got to recognize that first. We have to draft really well over the next few years to accomplish what we want to accomplish early on in Carson's career."
This, of course, came on the heels of Roseman signing receiver Alshon Jeffery to a 1-year deal, which is exactly the sort of "Band-Aid" move that sunk Roseman in his first three seasons as a fully autonomous GM — 2013, 2014 and, after a year in house-arrest exile as Chip Kelly destroyed the franchise, 2016. But, in Roseman's defense, Jeffery fell into his lap at the modest price of $9.5 million, with no future commitment, and Jeffery's presence made Jordan Matthews trade-able, which meant that Roseman finally acquired a viable cornerback, Ronald Darby.
Roseman did some other smart shopping the rest of the winter and spring — shopping that loaded the larder but exactly didn't set the table. It's somewhat astounding that his team, which went 7-9 in 2016 for the second season in a row, will not start a single 2017 draft pick in the opener Sunday at Washington. In fact, only first-round defensive end Derek Barnett and fourth-round receiver Mack Hollins will see significant playing time right away. This hasn't happened since 2007, when the Eagles were a much different animal: defending 2006 division champs with no first-round pick, drafting to stash talent for the future.
This new and rational philosophy explains how all parts of the roster were compiled, but especially how the end of the roster was built.
Consider the case of offensive lineman Dallas Thomas, whom the Eagles cut. In the past, the Eagles would have feared that another team would snatch him up and he would thrive in his new home. They would have feared that he would make them look bad; he would become the next Evan Mathis, who, after five unremarkable seasons with the Panthers, Dolphins, and Bengals, joined the Eagles and went to two Pro Bowls.
Thomas, 27, is 6-foot-5, weights 306 pounds, is athletic, and had played both guard and tackle, though neither to great distinction. The Dolphins drafted him in the third round in 2013 and he played in 36 games, 26 of them starts, before they cut him in October. The Eagles signed him in January as a roster body. By the end of the preseason he was the best swing lineman among the reserves.
That's just because the best backups just weren't swing linemen. Veterans Stefan Wisniewski and Chance Warmack can only play the interior. Halapoulivaati Vaitai, in his second season, can only play tackle. Keeping Thomas would have provided further depth at four positions — both guard and tackle spots — but a roster spot would be occupied by a fifth-year player with a specious future. The Eagles weren't going to keep a player just because he ticked a box. Not this time. That roster spot could be a precious investment.
Instead, the Eagles cut second-year lineman Dillon Gordon, snuck him through waivers and stashed him on their practice squad. Now, they would have a tackle trainee they like much more than Thomas. Gordon, a tight end at LSU, went undrafted in 2016, but he reminds the Birds so much of star tackle Jason Peters (who also converted from college tight end) that they kept Gordon on the 53-man roster last season and made him inactive for 15 of 16 games. That, of course, is the sort of mistake they routinely make; the sort of mistake they would have made had they kept Thomas.
Instead, they cut Thomas, which made it easier to keep a fifth running back.
"I think we're looking and we're trying to balance where the ceilings are of guys, and especially some of the guys that may not be playing [and] may not be active," Roseman said Saturday after cuts. "We don't want to lose a guy that, a year from now or two years from now, we think has starter traits."
This is important because, while undrafted rookie Corey Clement clearly earned the fourth running back spot, the Eagles adore fourth-round pick Donnell Pumphrey, a little guy with a big heart whose profile outpaced his preseason performance. The Birds are convinced that Pumphrey will replace Darren Sproles after this season. They believe Pumphrey might have value this season, too.
Their affection for Pumphrey might be misplaced, but he certainly would have been claimed if the Eagles waived him and he probably would have been peeved enough to sign with some other team's practice squad if he wasn't claimed.
Similarly, the Eagles cut speedy and raw receiver Bryce Treggs and kept rookie fifth-rounder Shelton Gibson, who is even faster and rawer, and who would never have made it through waivers. Treggs, claimed by the Eagles from the Niners after the 2016 preseason, caught three passes in nine games 2016. He was inactive for seven others. The Birds signed him to their practice squad Sunday. Like Pumphrey, Gibson should be more useful on this 53-man roster than Dillon Gordon or Bryce Treggs were in 2016. If they're not more useful, Roseman is fine with that, too.
"When we make the decision to pick them, we have conversations like, 'Hey, this guy may not be ready Day One; this guy may need some time. Here are the things he may need to work on,' " Roseman said. "We try to balance that."
Now, in Corey Clement and Donnell Pumphrey, the Eagles have two rookie running backs who they believe have tremendous futures. They have, in Dillon Gordon, a tantalizing tackle talent they can develop. They have, in Shelton Gibson and Bryce Treggs, two enticingly fast receivers with their immediate futures ahead of them in Philadelphia.
They also have eight capable offensive linemen to protect Carson Wentz; and, if he's protected, the team has a chance to win.