It was the NFL offseason, and the Eagles were coming off a 7-9 season, and so they set about improving their roster.
They needed more talent and more depth, particularly at wide receiver and in the secondary, if they were going to compete for a division championship again, and Howie Roseman, their executive vice president of football operations, believed it was worthwhile to overspend at quarterback. So in early March, once free agency began, they signed two veteran cornerbacks and a backup quarterback. Two weeks later, they signed two veteran wide receivers. In May, among the undrafted rookie free agents they signed was a running back who went on to see a fair amount of playing time for them. And they made a trade for a promising young player in the hope that a change of scenery would allow him to flourish in a manner he hadn't for his previous team.
Then they went 7-9 again.
If that offseason strategy sounds familiar, it should. The Eagles followed it in 2017 to spectacular results. They signed a pair of cornerbacks: Patrick Robinson and Corey Graham. They signed a backup quarterback: Nick Foles. They signed two veteran wide receivers: Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith. An undrafted rookie running back, Corey Clement, became a weapon, scoring six touchdowns during the regular season. And they traded for two promising young players, Ronald Darby and Timmy Jernigan, who have thrived here. When the Pro Football Writers Association named Roseman its NFL executive of the year last week, the vote should have been unanimous and instantaneous.
But the Eagles followed a similar formula the previous year, 2016, and it didn't work quite as well. The two cornerbacks they signed were Leodis McKelvin and Ron Brooks. The backup quarterback they had to have was Chase Daniel. The veteran wide receivers, both brought in on short-term deals, were Rueben Randle and Chris Givens. The undrafted rookie running back was Byron Marshall; he averaged 3.4 yards over just 19 carries and did not score a touchdown. And that promising young player who perhaps just needed a change of scenery to thrive? Dorial Green-Beckham.
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There are two interesting aspects to these disparate outcomes. The first is that Roseman's overarching approach remained the same from one year to the next. There's a reason it did. As Kevin Clark of TheRinger.com recently noted, the steady rise of the NFL salary cap and the ability to roll unused cap space over from one year to the next have given teams more spending power. Roseman, more than most player-personnel executives around the league, has been willing to wield it, and it allowed him both to clear away certain contracts/players (e.g. Daniel and his three-year deal that could have been worth up to $21 million) and to absorb the risks that came with signing others. Take Jeffery. He joined the Eagles on a one-year deal that could have topped out at $14 million, but he had a solid season and agreed to a new four-year contract that could earn him $52 million. Now the Eagles have a productive, established wide receiver at a reasonable cost.
The same principles and possibilities would have applied to the moves that Roseman made during the 2016 offseason, too. So why didn't they work? That question leads to the second interesting aspect of the Eagles' approach: the variables.
"I don't know," coach Doug Pederson said. "Some of it could be a better player, the quality of player that you get."
Pederson's answer was pretty simple, but it is correct, at least in part. Jeffery and Smith are better receivers than Randle and Givens were. Clement is a better running back than Marshall. Robinson and Graham have been better, healthier players than McKelvin and Brooks. The Eagles took a chance on Jernigan, and now he's one of the foundations of their defensive line. They took a chance on Green-Beckham and cut him last June. More, the personalities and professionalism of these recent acquisitions – and Chris Long and LeGarrette Blount deserve mention here – made for a more cohesive locker room environment, despite so much roster turnover.
"The leadership and quality of guys we brought in this offseason was invaluable," safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "Between Patrick Robinson – who bet on himself this year and took a minimum deal to play for the Eagles, seeing that the locker room was a good locker room – to Alshon, who could have played anywhere and decided to come here – to Torrey, Chris, LeGarrette, all those guys are huge contributors on this team, all of which are big names in this league and could have been anywhere. They decided to come here, and it's been a huge part of how we've been able to take the foundation we built last year and really outfit it to become a top team in this league."
Again, though, consider the variables. In May 2016, the Eagles hired Joe Douglas to be their vice president of player personnel; there's no telling how much he has contributed in making these decisions. And any team can acquire only those players who are available to be acquired. Blount, for instance, was just out there, waiting for a call, and with so much freedom under the cap, the Eagles could afford to call him. In another year, they might have called a different running back, one who might not have fit in as seamlessly as Blount has.