While the bulk of attention this offseason will be paid to the front office’s plan for Nick Foles, they’ll be faced with more important tasks throughout the spring and summer that will greatly impact the makeup of our roster in 2019. Howie and Doug have a handful of decisions to make regarding current players, and how to best address the team’s needs moving forward.
The Eagles salary cap isn’t as strapped as some people will lead you to believe, but depending on who they chose to retain, it’s fair to say that they won’t be making any major splashes in free agency. Instead, I expect the majority of improvements to come through the draft and by mining for veterans on cheap contracts.
The Eagles have nine picks overall, and three in the first two rounds. While drafting the best player available is supposedly Howie’s MO, there’s no reason he can’t balance that with the need for players who can have an impact right away—those aren’t mutually exclusive, and part of the team’s struggles at the beginning of the season can be traced to their inability to accomplish this in last year’s draft.
The four positions Howie should keep an eye on come April’s draft are OL, WR, DE, & CB (in no particular order). I’ll put RB in that category too, but it’s pretty unlikely that we’ll use a first round pick on a back.
The offensive line was rated as one of the best in football for the second season in a row, but between Jason Kelce flirting with retirement and the uncertainty of Jason Peters’ future, this position group could quickly become the clear-cut biggest need on the team, if it isn’t already.
While the coaches like Matt Pryor, and Jordan Mailata shows promise relative to his expectations, the Eagles offensive line is shallow; Vaitai looks like nothing more than a backup at this point.
Even if Peters restructures and Kelce comes back for another season, the team is guaranteed to spend draft capital on the position on top of shopping for backups in free agency. My guess is, if either of Kelce or Peters are gone then Howie will use his first pick on a lineman he likes, and if he doesn’t feel comfortable with waiting until the 25th pick he’ll look to trade up.
Peters carries a $10.6 million cap hit next season, and virtually all of that money can be saved by releasing him. The argument that this money could be better spent elsewhere has been around for a while, but after Peters’ stellar performance on an island with Khalil Mack, the future Hall of Fame tackle has a legitimate claim to every penny he’s earned. And with Wentz’s health becoming an area of mild concern, I don’t know if the front office would be wise to let Peters go without a viable replacement.
Best case scenario: Peters restructures, Kelce returns for a final season, the team uses a high pick on a lineman for the future, and is able to find capable depth in free agency.
Worst case scenario: Kelce retires and Peters’ production/health falls off a cliff; leaving a week 1 offensive line of Lane Johnson, Brandon Brooks (assuming his rehab goes well), Isaac Seumalo, and some combination of Vaitai, Pryor, rookies, and stop-gap free agents. That’s too much uncertainty for me.
This position group is due for a serious influx of youth, and in my opinion the team shouldn’t hesitate to use a high pick here.
Options in the draft: David Edwards, Wisconsin; Cody Ford, Oklahoma; Greg Little, Ole Miss.
2018 was a tale of two seasons for the corner backs and defensive backfield as a whole.
What initially looked on paper to be a solid group of corners quickly proved to be the opposite. Between poor play, injuries, and the inability of the pass rush to bail them out, the group of Darby, Jones, Mills, & Bausby were porous.
Insert Avonte Maddox, Rasul Douglas and Ce’Von LeBlanc and the rest is history. They weren’t great—I’m not even sure they were good—but they were certainly better than the initial bunch.
All of Jones, Mills, Maddox, and Douglas will be back on cheap deals, and LeBlanc is likely to be retained as well. Between the five of those guys I think we’ll have a starting nickel, #2 corner on the outside, and reliable depth. But when it comes to covering Amari Cooper, Odell Beckham, and Michael Thomas I don’t have confidence in any of our current players.
I like Ronald Darby, but he isn’t a true #1 corner and some team out there will be willing to offer him the kind of money he wants in free agency, it just won’t be Howie.
I’ve wanted the Birds to add a lockdown corner for a while, and this may be the offseason they finally do it. If they free up the cap space they might be willing to spend big but there aren’t any true lockdown corners on the market. Instead, it’s more likely that they make a trade for one; Jalen Ramsey and Patrick Peterson are two players that come to mind.
Depending on how the offensive line shuffle plays out, Howie may be willing to use a first round pick on a corner he likes—though that’s obviously less safe than adding a Peterson or Ramsey.
Regardless of how they decide to address the position, I’d be surprised if the team felt comfortable heading into 2019 with the same group of corners as last season.
Options in the draft: Trayvon Mullen, Clemson; Kris Boyd, Texas; Byron Murphy, Washington; Amani Oruwariye, Penn State; Deandre Baker, Georgia.
Obviously the biggest question surrounding defensive end is how the team will approach Brandon Graham’s impending free agency.
For a while it appeared that Graham would be due for a massive pay day, but that’s no longer the case. I’m not sure what a desperate team will be willing to throw his way but it shouldn’t be much more than what Philly should offer to bring him back. He’s not dominant but he’s still a high level, three-down end.
The question is how much money he would be willing to leave on the table to return to the city where he’s spent his entire career. And how much will Howie be willing to pay for a defensive end who turns 31 in April?
Chris Long also has a retirement decision to make, while the Eagles can save $5 million by releasing him. Though that number isn’t too big in the grand scheme of things considering what he provides. The question of age vs. building for the future still remains.
The team isn’t barren at the position, obviously a healthy Derek Barnett satisfies one side of the field with Michael Bennet manning the other. The coaches and many fans have high expectations for Josh Sweat, but Schwartz needs more than three bodies in his rotation.
If only one of Long or Graham returns then I would expect the team to add a player through the draft. Truthfully, they’ll probably use a pick here even if both return considering the two of them and Bennett are on the wrong side of 30.
Schwartz’s scheme relies on getting pressure with just the front-four. Through our 5-1 run to end the season the defense had a blitz rate around 9%. While that may anger fans and pundits, it’s not likely to change.
This season we’ve seen the impact that a slight drop in pass rush productivity can have on a defense, and while it stepped up late in the season, it wasn’t at the elite-level of 2017 and the secondary was exposed because of it. I think Howie and Doug are willing to invest another first round pick at the position—the front office has shown a willingness to allocate plenty of money and draft capital to Schwartz’s front-seven and I don’t see any reason for that to change now.
Options in the draft: Montez Sweat, Mississippi State; Zach Allen, Boston College; Brian Burns, Florida State.
I don’t expect Golden Tate to return. Beyond the inability to fully mesh him into our offense, he’ll probably get solid money in free agency and there’s no way the front office entertains matching such an offer. The compensatory third round pick the team would get in 2020 by letting him walk also factors into the decision.
With Jeffery and Agholor both under contract this isn’t really a pressing need for 2019, but with Agholor’s contract up after next season the team would be wise to start preparing for the future.
Obviously this upcoming season’s performance will largely shape his value on the open market, but in a world where he posts a career year it would be unlikely that Howie re-signs him with so much money already in Jeffery.
Mack Hollins and Shelton Gibson will be on the final years of their rookie deal, but at this point there’s no reason to expect contributions from either player beyond special teams and depth.
The team could use their first round pick on a receiver to operate opposite of Jeffery and allow Agholor to remain in the slot. This would satisfy their need to replace Wallace/Tate while also preparing for a potential Agholor-departure.
It’s also possible that Howie looks for a cheap veteran—a la Mike Wallace—in the event that their top picks are better spent elsewhere. Although I guess the most likely outcome is that they do both, considering they’ll probably look to add more than one receiver.
Options in the draft: Kelvin Harmon, NC State; N’Keal Harry, Arizona State; Marquise Brown, Oklahoma.
While good players can be had all throughout the draft, this is most true for running backs. Every year, three down backs are found somewhere in the middle rounds, and usually one late round pick turns out to be a diamond in the rough. This is why some executives like Howie elect not to spend first round picks on the position—the drop off in prospect-level from round 1 to 4 isn’t as big as other positions.
That aside, if 2018 has made one thing clear to me it’s that the Eagles need a three down back who is talented enough to produce yards on his own.
I’ve always been a fan of the committee approach—and the Birds had success with it on their Super Bowl run—but if the committee isn’t healthy or well-meshed then you might as well not have a running game.
The offense clearly lacked juice at running back despite some success late in the year. A lot of our early season woes were a result of pass happy game plans that stemmed from a running game that didn’t earn respect from opposing defenses.
The argument can be made that the Saints didn’t ride neither Kamara nor Ingram on the way to their victory, it was the Drew Brees and Michael Thomas show, but don’t tell me that the presence of two dynamic running backs didn’t impact our game plan and deflect attention from Thomas.
Sproles is flirting with coming back for another season; a lot of the offensive success at the end of the year can be traced back to him returning to the lineup, and I don’t think there’s a single person in Philly who wouldn’t love to have him back.
Ajayi, on the other hand, appears to be on his way out of town. Because of his injury history he won’t be terribly expensive, but I don’t expect the Birds to allocate much capital for a player who’s missed more games than he’s played since being traded here.
Clement, Smallwood, & Adams will all be in training camp on the final year of their rookie deals. All three have a legitimate chance at making the team and contributing, but if Sproles returns and the team adds a true bell cow someone will be the odd man out.
Like I said, it’s unlikely that the team uses a first round pick on running back, but a second round pick wouldn’t be out of the question. If there’s an affordable option for Howie to pursue in free agency then I’m all for it. Either way, I think the years of frugality at running back in the post-McCoy era are coming to an end.