Free agency has been a wild ride for the Eagles so far. From the signing of two new wide receivers, to saying goodbye to players like Connor Barwin, the road, although only just beginning, has already thrown up some interesting curveballs. Through all of the rumors, reports and releases however, lies the future of the Eagles draft direction. A direction that has been drastically impacted because of the last few weeks.
Here’s a breakdown of how each roster move could influence the Eagles draft strategy:
The number one need is cemented:
The Eagles decided to let Nolan Carroll walk into free agency and as a result, they will now face him twice a year as he puts on a Dallas Cowboys uniform. This means that two of their starting cornerbacks from 2016 are no longer with the team. The only remaining starter is Ron Brooks..who didn’t exactly set the world on fire in his limited snaps last year.
The need is glaring for the Eagles, but will they address that in the coming weeks, or instead rely on a draft littered with NFL ready talent? Jalen Mills seems to be the only long-term answer at the position, as the Eagles seek to get younger and create stability on the outside. With the need for a star receiver revoked, but the need for a starting corner pushed forward, the Eagles would be inclined to draft a defensive back in the first round.
Of course, former CFL standouts, Aaron Grymes and Mitchell White will be competing for starting roles, and the lack of depth at the position plays into the favor of a man who has already impressed DB coach Corey Undlin, and a recent Grey Cup champion. But in a realistic scenario, the Eagles want to add starting depth at the position. So regardless of who it is that lines up on the outside during week one, adding star power from top to bottom is of the upmost importance.
As of right now, CB is down to its bare bones and it feels as if the Eagles are setting up to bring in more than just one potential star during the draft. Cornerback is a position that was a glaring need last year that has only been exasperated in the last few weeks. The writing is on the wall and the draft is littered with talent..but the question becomes how many of the team’s first few picks will be spent on improving the secondary?
Releasing Chase Daniel and signing Nick Foles:
Although this is technically a direct swap at the backup spot, it’s important to note that the team are still seeking a third quarterback. Pederson expressed his desire to have another signal caller who can develop under Wentz and complete one of the league’s most developmental quarterback environments. The man formerly of this position was Aaron Murray, who has since been released by the team.
Nick Foles comes in and directly replaces Chase Daniel as the backup to Carson Wentz, meaning that the Eagles are still looking for a third QB..even if it is just for the training camp and preseason games. This shouldn’t impact the draft strategy too much and the team will likely target an undrafted free agent or someone with previous experience (CC: McLeod Bethel Thompson). But it’s still a position that will be filled by the front office in the coming months that is worth keeping an eye on, with the team looking to establish continuity.
Signing Alshon Jeffery & Torrey Smith:
Perhaps the most impactful signings of the period so far were the additions of wide receivers, Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith. The duo who combine for 9,070 yards and 63 touchdowns in their careers act as an instant upgrade to the Eagles receiving corps, surrounding the future of the franchise with an intimidating arsenal when you factor in Jordan Matthews.
The Eagles were widely tipped to draft a wide receiver with their first round pick this year, but the addition of two dominant threats outside completely changes that landscape. However, the team could still have a desire to bring in a star.
Jeffery’s contract is a one-year deal for now. Sure, he could sign a long-term deal during the season, or be franchise tagged for the next two years, but if they are willing to do so, they might as well sign him long term. Smith’s deal is for three years, but could be voided after a year, with no penalty. Then there’s Jordan Matthews, who is entering the final year of his contract.
The receiving corps is in great shape for now..but with a tight salary cap, the chances of retaining all three next year seem slim. Drafting a receiver would not only give the Eagles a longer term outlook and give Wentz a secure weapon to grow with, but also add even more star-power level depth at the position..which is never a bad thing. The question is, how highly do the Eagles prioritize this given the holes that other offseason moves have forced open?
The wide receiver talent in this years draft is remarkable, which means the team could well spend a mid-round pick on bringing in someone like Cooper Kupp or Chris Godwin. Wide receiver is not the prominent hole it once was, but that doesn’t mean the position will be completely removed from their draft board.
Signing Chance Warmack and re-signing Stefen Wisniewski:
These moves may not carry the glitz and glamour of an Alshon Jeffery or a Torrey Smith, but they’re just as valuable to a team who struggled to balance their offense during the rookie season of Carson Wentz. For a team to put all their chips on a young quarterback, sure, surrounding him with weapons is important..but in a passing league where mobile quarterbacks are all the rage..protection is everything..and that’s something that the Eagles are well aware of.
The team have made a conscious effort to build from the ball out over the last two years. From signing the likes of Zach Ertz, Brent Celek and Lane Johnson to huge extensions, to bringing in Brandon Brooks at right guard, the Eagles are fortifying the trenches just as Pittsburgh, Oakland, New England, Atlanta, Dallas and Green Bay have done before them.
The Eagles currently have seventeen offensive linemen on the roster and although the long-term futures of Jason Kelce and Jason Peters are often called into question, the Eagles have sustained depth throughout the line. From Isaac Seumalo to Halapoulivaati Vaitai, the Eagles have turned a weakness into a strength.
They may seek to add an extra piece or two in the later rounds of the draft, but they were expected to do that with the assumption Wis was leaving, prior to the Warmack signing. The need is now minimal and the Birds have an abundance of talent along the offensive line..pushing that need down the list of priorities and opening up the middle of the draft for some playmaking talent.
Bringing back the core:
The Eagles decided to bring back both Jaylen Watkins and Trey Burton for 2017, which will be huge for Fipp’s special teams unit. The duo both played in over 50% of the Eagles special teams snaps last year, as well as having a huge impact at their respective positions.
Burton finally broke out in 2016 after rising up the depth chart since arriving in Philadelphia. Amassing 320 yards and a touchdown, Burton was able to contribute heavily in the absence of Zach Ertz and create matchup nightmares during 3-TE sets. A swiss army knife at tight end is always useful..and securing the future of the tight end spot with Ertz and Celek locked to long-term deals ticks yet another need off the draft board, and of course opens up plenty of offensive gameplanning opportunities.
In a similar vain, Watkins had the same impact in 2016. After switching from cornerback to secure his spot on the roster, Watkins filled in for Malcolm Jenkins when the veteran was called to take over slot duties. Watkins actually played in 37% of defensive snaps for the Eagles in 2016, amassing 32 tackles in that time and ensuring that the Safety position isn’t left as a sole responsibility for Rodney McLeod.
Again, this move ensures that Safety isn’t a pressing need for the Eagles, eliminating the desire to add depth or starting talent to the position. With Jenkins and McLeod as the starters, Watkins joins Maragos as a role player on special teams, who can do more than hold his own on Defense.
The defensive front:
This is where things get extremely interesting. With Connor Barwin released and Bennie Logan joining former Eagles Head Coach, Andy Reid, in Kansas City, the Eagles are in a strange spot. Logan and Barwin were two of the key players on the Eagles defensive front during 2016 and combined for a total of 1,180 defensive snaps. The decisions to let Logan walk into free agency and to part ways with Barwin may be seen as necessary from a financial perspective, but now the Eagles face the same challenge as their offensive line faced one year ago.
At Defensive tackle, the team are said to be working on an extension for Beau Allen, while naturally being excited about UDFA Destiny Vaeao, who had two sacks in his rookie year. While both players rotated frequently into the frame in 2016, combining for 66% of defensive snaps, whether either can be regarded as a long-term starter is another question.
It took a while for Fletcher Cox to heat up last season, as he went on to amass 4 of his 6.5 sacks that season in his last five games. The question is, when Cox receives that same kind of attention from interior offensive linemen and offensive coordinators, will Beau Allen or Destin Vaeao be able to step up to the plate as Bennie Logan did? Then of course, there’s the depth.
At defensive end, the pressure is mounting now for Vinny Curry. Entering the second year of his large extension, Curry simply has to flourish in the way many expected him to last year. If he doesn’t, there’s no guarantee that his future is completely secure. Beyond the NJ native, Marcus Smith, Alex McCalister and Steven Means make up the rest of the depth.
While Means flashed during his opportunities on the field and Marcus Smith was finally able to show some hope of potentially still developing into a player worthy of a first-round pick, defensive end is now a position with huge question marks lingering over it.
So as we head toward the draft, the Eagles tread into unfamiliar waters. The Jim Schwartz Defense became a staple of the team’s persona in 2016, with a ruthless pass rush embodying the Philadelphia attitude. Without Barwin or Logan, there’s no guarantee that the team will have the same success due to a drop-off in talent and stability. So how highly do the Eagles prioritize filling those holes?
Without much in the way of cap room, they would almost certainly need to fill these holes through the draft..and these needs aren’t quiet either. Versatility is a huge factor for Schwartz and drafting someone such as Alabama’s Jonathan Allen could fix two problems at once..but the depth won’t be there throughout the year.
The Eagles are going to need to invest heavily in the trenches when the draft rolls around and it’s clearly one of the team’s most prominent holes now. But is it outstanding enough to warrant drafting in the first round? If it isn’t, then the second or third round picks almost absolutely have to aid in healing these new wounds.
Electing not to tender Kenjon Barner:
The effects of this move won’t be as severe as others aforementioned, but the Eagles are now running back lighter if they choose not to bring Barner back later. The team still have a fair amount of RB depth, but parting ways with the former Oregon Duck places more of an emphasis on Sproles and Mathews, whose futures are anything but certain.
The team could be looking to add some running back talent throughout the draft and although electing not to tender Barner isn’t the most shocking move this offseason, it could push that need just a little bit higher as the Eagle are forced to rely on a realm of uncertainty in Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles.
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