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Free Agency Or Draft? It's No Contest

Posted Mar 1, 2017

We’re in the position now, after two months of silence, to truly get our engines revved up at the thought of the 2017 Eagles season. What are they planning to do with a roster that won seven games last season? What is the plan they have put in place since the season ended with a win over the Dallas Cowboys? ...

We’re in the position now, after two months of silence, to truly get our engines revved up at the thought of the 2017 Eagles season. What are they planning to do with a roster that won seven games last season? What is the plan they have put in place since the season ended with a win over the Dallas Cowboys?

The Eagles’ brain trust is in Indianapolis at the NFL Combine, and the workload is heavy. The Eagles want to visit with as many players as they can – teams are permitted to have 60 interviews with prospects, and coaches are able to have informal conversations with players along the way, too – and they want to evaluate the apples-to-apples athletic talents in events like the 40-yard dash, the bench press, the three-cone drill as well as the various position-specific events.

Beyond that, the Eagles have a coin flip to attend on Friday that determines whether they pick 14th or 15th in the first round of April’s draft and they have the responsibility of taking further steps in preparation for the NFL free-agency period, which begins on March 9.

Whew. Fun stuff. And very, very important.

In the context of the big picture, though, let’s make sure we understand the hierarchy of free agency and then the NFL draft: The draft rules. Free agency works to fill in a hole or two and to add depth to a roster, but the game-changers happen very rarely in free agency.

Of course, we’ve seen free agency make a huge impact in the past. Ricky Watters was an impact running back for three seasons after he signed with Philadelphia in 1996. The Eagles signed cornerback Troy Vincent in 1996, luring him away from the Miami Dolphins after Miami made him a transition player. The Eagles front-loaded the contract, Miami didn’t match, and Vincent went on to have a terrific, Hall-of-Fame career in Philadelphia. Jon Runyan became the highest-paid offensive lineman in NFL history when he signed with the Eagles in 2000.

The Eagles helped themselves get over the top and defeat the NFC Championship Game bugaboo when they signed defensive end Jevon Kearse and linebacker Dhani Jones and traded for wide receiver Terrell Owens in the 2004 offseason. Asante Samuel was a strong free-agent signing in 2008, and the sure-handed and daring cornerback helped the Eagles reach the NFC Championship Game that season.

Even last year, the Eagles got it right when they signed safety Rodney McLeod, linebacker Nigel Bradham and offensive guard Brandon Brooks, and all three of those players figure to be key starters this season.

Long-term winning is created, though, when teams draft well, and they develop their talent, and they retain as much of the core as possible. The Eagles have advanced themselves tremendously in these areas after three seasons of mostly-misses in the Chip Kelly draft era, and they look to continue the solid roster-building work. The 2016 NFL Draft provided franchise quarterback Carson Wentz, offensive linemen Isaac Seumalo and Halapoulivaati Vaitai, running back Wendell Smallwood and cornerback Jalen Mills, all of whom saw enough action last season to get the team excited.

The Eagles also locked up some key players – defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, tight end Zach Ertz, safety Malcolm Jenkins, to name three – and can proceed into 2017 knowing they have projected starters in many key positions.

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So as we gear up for the start of free agency, just how much can we expect from the Eagles? According to what Howie Roseman said on Wednesday from Indianapolis, the Eagles have approximately $12.5 million available to spend. There is going to be, it is clear, a lot of competition in a league where teams are flush with salary-cap space.

So maybe it’s best to have low expectations for free agency, and that’s fine from this perspective. The Eagles need to take the disciplined approach and build around Wentz and the core for the long term through the draft. Maybe Howie Roseman and Joe Douglas will create more space within the cap and perhaps they will add a player or two in free agency. We’ll see the plan unfold on March 9.

But in the large and more important picture, the Eagles have to nail it in the draft. There are exceptions to the rule, of course, but the overwhelming majority of teams that win the Super Bowl get there because most of their key pieces are home-drafted, developed and retained. The Eagles, who have struggled to get major contributions at the top of the recent drafts – 2014 No. 1 pick defensive end Marcus Smith and 2016 first-round selection wide receiver Nelson Agholor haven’t been high-production players to date – hopefully made a turn toward the good last year when Roseman returned to oversee the personnel side of things. It was a strong first step toward establishing a long-term core of young players the Eagles now need to expand.

This is a time for everyone to enjoy. The offseason slumber is over, and for that we all rejoice. The word of caution is here, though: Approach what’s ahead realistically and understand the challenges the Eagles face. Free agency should be used to fill in a blank or two, and nothing more. As we’ve seen in the past – 2011 and 2015 come to mind, specifically – relying on free agency to change the fortunes of a team doesn’t really work. It’s the draft that matters most of all, and that’s where the Eagles must be great.

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