That Winston Justice has a four-year contract extension, is the team's starting right tackle for now and, should all go well, for the future is a remarkable story. It is a testament to Justice, who persevered through some of the harshest treatment a young player has ever received from the media and from the fans. It is a tribute to the Eagles and offensive line coach Juan Castillo, who stuck by Justice and brought out the NFL player in all of that talent.
Justice, the first ascending player signed to a contract extension by the Eagles this season -- and if history is a barometer, there could be more -- was trashed after his poor performance against the Giants in 2007, and then faded into the woodwork for a long, long time. As the Eagles went out and rebuilt their offensive line prior to this off-season, Justice was an afterthought. How could he, the logic went, be a factor at all if the Eagles went out and signed Stacy Andrews in free agency and then traded a first-round draft pick to Buffalo for Jason Peters. Those two, plus Shawn Andrews, were expected to form the core of the offensive line along with returning starters Todd Herremans at left guard and Jamaal Jackson at center.
Things, of course, have not worked out that way.
And Justice, left behind in the thoughts of many entering the season, instead started throughout the summer and has been a solid right tackle for 10 starts in the regular season.
"I think I've come a long way, but I know I have to improve in every phase of my game. My goal isn't to be a starter in the NFL," said Justice. "My goal is to be a great player here."
The Eagles think Justice can get there. Always aggressive and certainly always very interested in spending the dollars to keep their young players intact and to add to a good, developing core of talent, the organization approached Justice weeks ago and got the deal done quickly. Philadelphia has locked up more of its young players than any team in the league, and while not all of those signings have been success stories, most of them have worked out well for both parties.
It has been, in fact, one of the busiest and most extraordinary years for the Eagles in terms of the personnel moves and counter moves they have made. An aggressive off-season has been followed up with a spate of roster additions and subtractions and with the signing of Justice, the Eagles served notice that they aren't done building the roster for the present and for the future.
What the Eagles were able to do, at considerable expense, was lock up another good, young offensive lineman through 2013. Justice has rough edges to smooth out, and nobody questions that. The young man has started just 11 games in his career, 10 this season. He has so many more miles to go to become the finished product. But with Castillo pushing, Justice is aiming to get there.
"I enjoy the work. I see the benefit of working hard. The results are there if you put in the effort," he said. "For me, the big thing isn't the contract. I play in the Glory of God, and I think that my Faith has aided me a great deal in my development. For that reason, more than any other, I am here today."
What does justice's deal mean for Shawn Andrews, who is on Injured Reserve with a back injury? Certainly, the Eagles can't assume that Andrews will return in 2010 healthy and ready to play football. They need to lock up as many of their good players as possible and welcome in the competition next spring. The Eagles are spending large, large dollars and using valuable assets on the offensive line, the cornerstone of a strong attack.
Signing Justice sends another good message to the locker room, too. The Eagles reward those who want to be great players. They want players who want to be here, and Justice fits into both categories.
What's next? The Eagles have to be stretched thin as far as the salary cap goes. They continue to make all kinds of roster moves doing what they have to do for this year, and at the same time keeping their eye on the future. There are other talented players who could be in line for an extension, so keep your attention there for the next couple of weeks. The Eagles are masters at long-term deals with players currently on their rosters.
At the same time, they have to be critical with what they have here, and they showed that side on Tuesday as well. Fourth-round draft pick Jack Ikegwuonu was a roster casualty, waived and replaced with Bengals practice squad player Geoffrey Pope. Ikegwuonu never quite understood in the short time what it took to be an NFL player. He had the chance to come back from that pre-draft knee injury and show this year that he was all business, and instead the Eagles gave him enough time to convince them that he wasn't the right fit.
So, a young and inexperienced cornerback position added a new face in Pope, who at least has some decent game experience. The Eagles have to hope that Asante Samuel and Sheldon Brown are okay for another couple of weeks or longer, lest they turn to players like Ramzee Robinson and Pope in times of need. That safety Macho Harris played so well as a slot cornerback on Sunday night in Chicago helped the Eagles make a roster move on Tuesday.
Another day, another significant couple of moves. Justice is a prime example of why it makes no sense in the NFL to look too far ahead without understanding what a risk it is. You take it day by day in the Not For Long, and you measure success in small mouthfuls. Justice kept his head down, his mouth shut and he reported with a lunch pail to work every day to reach where he has gotten.
With a long, long way to go toward his goal, expect the same from Justice moving forward. He fits into the plans, suddenly. A future nobody really considered suddenly looks bright, a startling transformation even in today's fast-moving NFL.