Raise your hand if you thought the defending Super Bowl champions were going to open the season 4-5.
Okay, put your hand down — you look like an idiot with his hand in the air and his eyes glued to his phone screen.
In the preseason, Philadelphia was considered a wide favorite over the middling NFC East; the first repeat divisional champ since 2005. Early in the season, they were undermanned: Carson Wentz, Alshon Jeffery, and Brandon Graham were all working their way back to 100 percent. Timmy Jernigan remained sidelined on the NFI list. A few early-season injuries — Rodney McLeod; Darren Sproles — also bit into the Super Bowl roster, but nobody was even close to the panic button.
Fast-forward to a Week 10 loss in a primetime must-win against the floundering Cowboys — their third home loss in a row — and everyone from Eagles fans to national analysts are wondering:
What happened to the offensive juggernaut and defensive chainsaw of Lombardian triumph only a season ago?
A lot of things, really. The offensive brain trust lost a lot of talent; red zone and third down success regressed to the mean; a few lucky bounces went the other way. Further injuries have piled up, especially in the defensive backfield and running back stables. On Sunday night, Philadelphia’s defense deployed SAF Tre Sullivan, CB Chandon Sullivan, DT T.Y. McGill, and DT Treyvon Hester for significant reps — all four are UDFAs of the past few seasons. Likewise, the Eagles handed the ball off to 2018 UDFA Josh Adams, 2017 UDFA Corey Clement, and 2016 5th-rounder Wendell Smallwood — not great!
How did things get so dire? Ask Philadelphia’s 2017 4th-rounder, RB Donnel Pumphrey, for whom they traded up. He was outright cut this offseason and then added to the practice squad a few weeks ago. Or Philadelphia’s 2017 6th rounder, DT Elijah Qualls, also cut in the 2018 preseason.
Now, Philadelphia’s hasn’t had to cut many of their recent Draft selections; but they aren’t getting significant production out of those classes, either.
Current GM Howie Roseman reassumed control of the front office in 2016, wresting it back from the ousted Chip Kelly. Roseman quickly brought on Joe Douglas, a respected scouting eye in the league, as his VP of player personnel. Douglas, certainly, would alleviate Howie’s storied struggles identifying NFL talent in the college ranks. Right?
Well, let’s take a gander. 2016 was the Carson Wentz year, and it garnered Howie a good amount of love among NFL pundits.
|2016||1||2||2||QB||Carson Wentz||Eagles||North Dakota State|
|2016||3||16||79||OG||Isaac Seumalo||Eagles||Oregon State|
|2016||5||14||153||RB||Wendell Smallwood||Eagles||West Virginia|
|2016||5||27||164||OT||Halapoulivaati Vaitai||Eagles||Texas Christian|
|2016||7||12||233||DB||Jalen Mills||Eagles||Louisiana State|
Picks are overvalued commodities, in that general managing minds fool themselves into believing they can hit at a higher rate than the average GM. Howie, recognizing the inability of an NFL team to be successful without a blue-chip quarterback, moved mountains to get to a spot where his team would have a shot at either Jared Goff or Carson Wentz. It was a gamble, but gambles need to be made at such a competitive level of football. He deserves credit for putting his chips on the table, and obviously the entire building deserves credit for hitting on Carson.
The Eagles rounded out the class with Isaac Seumalo, who has just begun starting this season and is the weakest cog on an otherwise studly chain in the trenches for Philadelphia. Drafted for his versatility, he struggles with snaps and cannot play center; as an emergency tackle, he offers very little upside.
Big Halapoulivaati Vaitai has played a lot as the swing tackle, but he’s a back-up quality player who lacks starting potential.
You can call Jalen Mills a hit if you like. Given his injury and personal conduct concerns, he dropped into the seventh round despite higher-caliber tape, so the Eagles found value there. Philadelphia has been playing him as an outside corner for his young career, despite the fact that his frame and strengths lend themselves better to slot play. The Eagles would clearly like to improve on him on the outside…if they had the depth to do so.
That brings us to 2017.
|2017||3||35||99||DB||Rasul Douglas||Eagles||West Virginia|
|2017||4||12||118||WR||Mack Hollins||Eagles||North Carolina|
|2017||4||26||132||RB||Donnel Pumphrey||Eagles||San Diego State|
|2017||5||22||166||WR||Shelton Gibson||Eagles||West Virginia|
Philadelphia double-dipped in the 2017 CB pool, but I’m not positive they came up with a hit yet. Sidney Jones has looked promising in his limited play — he’s the slot corner over Jalen Mills — but his size concerns show up when tackling and against bigger receivers. And Jones is a still a cold player: currently nursing a hamstring injury, he has played six total football games since the end of the 2017 calendar year. When will he settle in?
Rasul Douglas saw the field for his first significant reps of 2018 against the Cowboys, filling in for an injured Jalen Mills. He was up and down, again struggling in a phone booth with quickness and failing to make downhill tackles with consistency. While the transition from his WVU responsibilities to the Eagles’ scheme was a steep one, his inability to win starting reps over the struggling Mills (and struggling Ronald Darby, on the opposite side) speaks to how poorly he’s developed over the past two seasons.
Derek Barnett was lost for the season with shoulder surgery. The 14th overall pick has been solid, but not world-beating, with 7.5 sacks across 21 career games thus far. Philadelphia really needs him to live up to his high capital to save this class: Mack Hollins is also IRed, Pumphrey is on the practice squad, and Shelton Gibson and Nate Gerry only crack the special team roster on game days.
Early returns on 2018 are obviously tough to define, but a quick look over the class: TE Dallas Goedert looks like a strong player, but he’s struggled to get volume (and thus provide impact) behind Zach Ertz. CB Avonte Maddox is impossible to evaluate, as he’s been playing safety for the depleted Eagles instead of his true role, nickel corner. DE Josh Sweat, OG Matt Pryor, and OT Jordan Mailata all have seen little to no playing time this season.
|2018||2||17||49||TE||Dallas Goedert||Eagles||South Dakota State|
|2018||4||30||130||DE||Josh Sweat||Eagles||Florida State|
|2018||6||32||206||OT||Matt Pryor||Eagles||Texas Christian|
Fully finished paying the piper for the Carson Wentz trade, Howie has also run out of leeway for pulling off the move. Besides Wentz, who would you call a clear “hit” out of these past classes: an undeniable starting caliber player? Perhaps Sidney Jones, Derek Barnett, and Dallas Goedert? You could also tout the value of Jalen Mills and Halapoulivaati Vaitai as players who have outperformed their draft position. I’d hear those arguments gladly; but they don’t really solve the problem.
Howie has struggled to draft high-impact players.
Now, using picks to acquire established players — players you know are good — is also an excellent way to leverage that aforementioned idea: that general managers overestimate the value of a draft pick. That’s how you get Michael Bennett for a fifth, Jay Ajayi for a fourth, and even Golden Tate for a third (though obviously it’s early to call that one). Ajayi was a huge part of the Super Bowl season, while Bennett has been Philadelphia’s most productive pass rusher in 2018.
But in this upcoming class, Philadelphia has no choice but to spend their picks on cheap rookie players. Staring down the barrel of 2019 free agency, which includes players like Tate, Ronald Darby, Brandon Graham, and Jordan Hicks, the Eagles are projected the second-tightest cap room at -$11.5M per Spotrac. Roseman deserves heaps of credit for his handling of tight cap situations in recent years — and Philadelphia can easily open space with high-impact options like Nick Foles and Jason Peters at their disposal — but he’s fast approaching a wall you can’t go around, over, or under: the elite QB.
Carson Wentz will be eligible for his first extension in the 2019 offseason (though Philadelphia will likely keep him at the cheap 2019 figure, of course). The 2020 season will be the first to see heavy cap numbers coming from the stud QB, which will immediately limit Howie Roseman’s ability to work other contracts, attract marquee free agents, and make otherwise large expenditures.
Rookies are cheap, especially under the current CBA structure (which will be renegotiated around 2020, I believe). As such, the lopsided advantage of rookie contracts may be evening out soon; these next few draft classes (and their contracts) become all the more important. Roseman, Douglas, and the entire Eagles front office must begin drafting more starting-caliber players if they intend on remaining competitive on a yearly basis after the Carson Wentz extension.
Philadelphia isn’t necessarily wont for starters, yet. There is (unproven) youth at OT for the departure of Jason Peters and (shaky) youth at CB for the departure of Ronald Darby. The same could be said, though to a lesser degree, of EDGE, as both Brandon Graham and Chris Long may not return next season.
But running back glares as an unaddressed need, with current young players failing to impress at every turn. Philadelphia will boast of a first rounder in the teens, where no running backs are likely to be valued. Their two second rounders, as well as their third-round selection, could be used to target one of Alabama’s Damien Harris, Iowa State’s David Montgomery, and Oklahoma’s Rodney Anderson, barring health concerns.
Is anyone behind Jordan Hicks ready to step in at MIKE linebacker? It doesn’t seem that way. This is where that first-rounder could come in handy, for a player like Alabama’s Mack Wilson or LSU’s Devin White. Looking even further into Carson Wentz’s second contract, the depth at SAF and WR come into question: could Philadelphia go early for a centerfielder like Alabama’s Deionte Thompson, or deep threat like Arizona State’s N’Keal Harry?
It’s a well-kept secret: that despite his excellent roster management on the waiver wire and the trade block, his aggressiveness as a trader, and shrewdness as a cap manager, Howie Roseman’s drafting struggles from his first stint at GM seem to have remained. They aren’t as dire, but they still fester. Roseman could put them to bed by fielding a young, dynamic team around his soon-to-be-nine-figure QB; and he must, if he wants to turn that massive investment in Carson Wentz into more Lombardi trophies.