As the Eagles assign grades to the 2019 NFL free agent class and develop their strategy for the league’s New Year that starts on March 13, they’ve got a long list of traits they want to check off. Height, weight, speed, position versatility – all are super important. Football intelligence ranks high. Character on and off the field – the Eagles won’t add a player unless he fits snugly into this category.
And then there’s this one, that maybe some people out there don’t think a lot about, but that is extremely important for the Eagles: Chemistry fit in the locker room.
“We’ve established a culture here that, going forward, fits in with the goals of this football team and this organization,” head coach Doug Pederson said toward the end of the 2018 season. “There is nothing more diverse in sports than the locker room for a football team. You’ve got 53 players on the active roster, plus the practice squad and players who are injured and they come from all different backgrounds and parts of the country – in some cases with us, the world. They all have different stories.
“It all has to work in the locker room. You spend so much time with each other that you create a kind of camaraderie that you may never experience at any other point in your life. Somehow, you have to fit all of those personalities into one and work together to win football games.”
Locker-room fit is a carefully considered component for any player the Eagles bring in. Pederson doesn’t pretend that it’s going to be a kumbaya situation for every player, but he’s going to try. The Eagles invest in background checks, they do their homework on players and their personalities, and they make sure that any concerns are addressed prior to officially adding players. That exhaustive work is why, for example, the Eagles felt comfortable bringing in the likes of running back Jay Ajayi, who had a troubling reputation from his time with the Miami Dolphins, and defensive end Michael Bennett, who had an outsized rep when he played with Seattle, and successfully worked both of them into the locker-room culture.
Ajayi, said to be a me-first player with the Dolphins, understood quickly in 2017 how the Eagles’ locker room worked. He looked around and saw how the players cared for each other and how Pederson treated his guys with respect and understanding, and how the entire organization rallied around the players. In those first few days for Ajayi, his reservations in dealing with the media, as an example, were evident. He was reluctant to trust his time with reporters, but with some help from the team’s media-relations department and from having conversations with teammates, Ajayi loosened up and eventually grew to enjoy his time answering questions with the largest daily media contingent in the NFL.
Bennett, a veteran who certainly operates to the tune of his own intelligent beat, joined a defensive line row in the locker room that included esteemed veterans Chris Long and Haloti Ngata, along with longtime and extremely respected Eagles veterans Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox. It took Bennett some time to feel like he fit in, but he did, and by the end of the 2018 season he was playing some of the best football of his excellent NFL career.
“I think you can look around and understand that not everybody is going to be best friends with every person in this locker room,” Pro Bowl safety Malcolm Jenkins said during the season. “I think it’s probably that way in every work environment. But it’s important that we have everyone aligned with what our goals are as a football team and that we’re all sharing that responsibility. It’s hard to win when you have players – even if it’s one or two or a small handful – who aren’t on board with what the team as a whole wants.
“We’ve had a special locker room since I’ve been here. You know that, as you look to the years that follow, it’s going to change. There is always going to be change. I think it’s very important that we add players who are going to be a good fit into our culture.”
When the Eagles really start digging into the roster when free agency opens, they’re going to be looking for the best football players possible. They want to be younger, faster, stronger – all of that is vitally important. But they want a great mix of personalities in the locker room, too. If you think back to why the Eagles won Super Bowl LII and tick off the reasons – great depth, excellent coaching, confidence, high-level talent – one of the most important was this: Chemistry.
It is a challenge not to be taken lightly. The Eagles want to make it work in the locker room, too, because success from one locker to the next generally translates to wins on the football field.