The NFL Draft is rapidly approaching and with it comes plenty of speculation surrounding the Eagles and how they will approach such a crucial part of the new Carson Wentz era. In what may be the most important offseason in recent franchise history, the Eagles have pressing needs to fill after a free agency splash and all the tools to do so. But it’s those roster spots after the Draft has come to a close that could prove to be just as pivotal.
The Eagles have become renowned for finding undrafted gems in recent years, and with a new focus on “low-risk, high-reward” players, the attention to detail could be more intense than ever.
The direction really saw new life last offseason. Without a second or a fourth round pick, the Eagles fell reliant on undrafted free agents to bolster the roster. After the signing of last year’s slew of free agents, Howie Roseman had this to say. “We were extremely aggressive. I would say more aggressive than we have ever been before.”
Of the sixteen undrafted free agents signed last offseason, four would go on to feature prominently on the 53-man roster. Destiny Vaeao, Byron Marshall, Bryce Treggs would all play significant snaps during their rookie season, be that through simple rotation or due to injuries. But they weren’t the only ones in that class to stick to the roster.
The initial ten man practice squad was made up entirely of undrafted free agents from that year. Not all were signed in the initial battle royale following the draft, but the likes of Byron Marshall, David Watford, Aziz Shittu and former NDSU teammates of Carson Wentz, Andrew Bonnet and C.J Smith found themselves sticking onto Doug Pederson’s first roster.
With the roster limit now moved to 90 for the offseason, the Eagles have wasted no time in filling it out with even more undrafted talent. Former preseason hero Rasheed Bailey returned to the Eagles, while a fellow preseason standout made his return earlier in the year of the way of Aaron Grymes. Grymes was also joined by another CFL cornerback in Mitchell White.
It’s easy to say that many of the undrafted free agents currently on the Eagles roster are “expendable”, but if you look at their contributions in 2016..it’s clear just how much of an impact they had. If we’re to look at some of the notable players who were overlooked during the draft and started their career as an undrafted free agent, it’s surprising to see just how integral they are to the Eagles.
One of the more notable undrafted free agents in the NFL, Peters is now a nine-time Pro Bowler. Now not everyone in that position will reach the same heights, but Peters at age 35, still played in a staggering 97% of offensive snaps during a 2016 season which many had anticipated to be one of regression. Instead, Peters was one of the only constants on an Eagles offensive line where depth became the name of the game.
After 2016, the former Rams Safety is regarded as a dominant NFL Safety, but it’s easy to forget that he went undrafted back in 2012. In his first season under Jim Schwartz, McLeod set a career high in tackles (83), interceptions (3) and ticked off his first ever NFL sack, batting down seven passes in the process. While Jenkins overtook slot duties during 2016, McLeod became the last line of defense and certainly did not disappoint, embodying everything that Philadelphia and Schwartz’s scheme represent.
Burton finally broke out in 2016, receiving for 327 yards and his first NFL touchdown as the third Tight end on the roster. Behind Ertz and Celek, Pederson utilized the athleticism and versatility of Burton in new ways throughout the season, as he built up a strong rapport with Carson Wentz. He also played in 62.7% of special teams snaps, an integral part of Fipp’s unit. In 2015, Trey Burton led the Eagles in special teams tackles. For Burton, who went undrafted out of Florida back in 2014, it was an experience that very much shaped his future, as he revealed to us an exclusive interview.
“I don’t know if I’d be in the league right now if I didn’t have Celek, Ertz and James Casey in my rookie year. I can’t really describe what they mean to me on and off the field but I owe so much to those guys. For their work ethics, their attitudes and on top of that how they treated me throughout this whole process. Being a fourth tight end doesn’t happen that often in the league, especially an inactive fourth tight end. The encouragement I’ve received from them, the knowledge, the wisdom, the friendship off the field. You’ve got a guy in Celek who is one of the all time greats in Philly, maybe the best tight end Philly has ever had. The way he’s treated me, I have the upmost respect for that guy and would do anything for him. I’m extremely thankful for him.”
The Eagles placed a tender on the athletic tight end, keeping him around for at least one more season.
After leading the NFL in receiving yards during the preseason, Turner was able to stick onto the Eagles practice squad and battle his way to some opportunities later in the year when both depth and consistency became thing. The slot wideout out of Louisiana Tech ended his rookie year with 126 yards on 9 receptions.
The impact of Bryce Treggs was felt well and truly in his Eagles debut as he hauled in a 58-yard bomb against the Giants. After that however, his season stagnated. It’s unclear whether or not Treggs will be on the roster come September due to the additions of Torrey Smith and Alshon Jeffery, but he did play in 11% of offensive snaps for the Eagles last year.
An undrafted rookie back in 2011, the now-free agent has become a staple of Fipp’s special teams unit. Playing in more special teams snaps than anyone else on the entire roster in 2016, he had a huge role to play. Many had hoped he would receive some rotational DE snaps under Jim Schwartz, but that would not be the case. Braman is currently a free agent after a 2015 campaign in which he made some dominant defensive plays in limited opportunities, and being the most tenured special teams player in terms of snaps a year later.
He may have only rushed the ball 19 times for 64-yards, but the undrafted rookie who stuck around after being signed by the team during the offseason was able to flash plenty of potential in his first carries as an NFL running back.
It’s rare to see someone’s style adapt and evolve in a one-game period..but that’s exactly what we saw from Marshall against the Ravens. He then responded by averaging 4.2 yards per carry against the Cowboys in the final game of the year.
The Eagles backfield is ripe with uncertainty as of right now..but there’s one thing that should be a lock..and that’s Marshall’s spot on the active roster.
The undrafted DT found himself beating Aziz Shittu to a spot on the final roster and then earning snaps alongside Beau Allen throughout 2016. With Bennie Logan’s future anything but clear, Vaeao made sure to capitalize on every opportunity given.
Ending the year with 15 tackles, 2 sacks and a forced fumble, Vaeao was just as disruptive as he was during the preseason..which is exactly what the Doctor ordered. Vaeao’s bursts of tenacious play might not be enough to sway the Eagles into handing him a starting role, but Destiny Vaeao was easily one of the unsung heroes of 2016.
We could go on and on, but the point is that there is tremendous value to be found in undrafted rookies..and the Eagles have experienced that first hand. They may not have found a Malcolm Butler or an Arian Foster just yet, but with an abundance of draft picks and salary cap limitations, there is absolutely a chance that many of the names mentioned above could feature heavily throughout 2017.
Aaron Grymes and Mitchell White are more than prepared and suited to battle for a roster spot, as former coaches explained to us earlier this year, while the likes of Paul Turner and Rasheed Bailey will embrace the new level of competition.
With such a deep draft in terms of overall talent, especially at positions of need, it goes without saying how important this period will be for the Eagles. But on that same note, it also means that some incredibly talented players will slip through the cracks due to a logjam at certain positions. The Eagles will be well aware with this, given their new direction with Joe Douglas and Andy Weidl at the helm. So don’t overlook those sleeper undrafted rookies who often bounce around rosters..because you never know, one may just turn into a nine-time pro bowler.
Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports