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Lawlor: Offseason Reveals Master Plan


Back in 1998, the Minnesota Vikings spent the 21st pick in the draft on wide receiver Randy Moss. The offense set records and the team went 15-1. The Green Bay Packers had controlled the NFC Central (there was no NFC North back then) for years. Seeing the Vikings pass them by was quite the wake-up call. General manager Ron Wolf responded by spending his first three picks on cornerbacks, with two of them being big, tall players. Wolf built the Packers to handle Dallas in the early 1990s, but now saw Moss and the Vikings as his big problem.

Teams have to be built a certain way and for a reason.

There is no clear target for the Eagles right now. Dallas won the division last year, but hasn't had enough success to be considered anything special. Seattle has been very good, but slipped a little last year. Green Bay is good, but erratic. The Falcons had a terrific season last year. The test for them now is to show they can play that way again. There really isn't one team to focus on.

Howie Roseman, Joe Douglas, and Doug Pederson can build a team based on some general principles. First and foremost, the NFL is a passing league. On offense, you must be able to throw the ball, catch the ball, and protect the quarterback. On defense, you must be able to rush the passer and cover. The theme of this offseason has been improving the passing game, both on offense and defense.

The first and last picks of the draft were defensive linemen. Derek Barnett and Elijah Qualls were good college pass rushers who should help the Eagles get after the quarterback. The Eagles also added linemen Chris Long and Tim Jernigan this offseason. Long is a veteran edge rusher. Jernigan is coming off his best NFL season and brings pressure up the middle. One of the things I love is that the Eagles didn't just rely on one player to fix the pass rush. They brought in a group of players, and guys who get pressure in different ways. The Eagles now have a terrific group of defensive ends and they have their best set of interior pass rushers in more than a decade.

Barnett was an excellent first-round pick. I can't wait to see him on the field with guys like Long, Jernigan, Brandon Graham, and Fletcher Cox. Barnett didn't have great help at Tennessee. The Eagles need him to be part of a good pass rush, not a one-man wrecking crew.

The biggest moves in free agency were signing Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith, a pair of veteran pass catchers. The Eagles then drafted Mack Hollins and Shelton Gibson, a pair of down-the-field receivers who are going to stretch defenses. The goal wasn't to find "a receiver," but rather to improve the receiving corps. That meant adding a group of players. Carson Wentz now has a much better group of weapons. There is a good combination of size, speed, skill, and experience.

Eagles receivers were highly inconsistent in 2016. There were too many dropped passes and not enough big plays. Jeffery gives the team a workhorse receiver to move the chains, and the other three can all run well and create big plays. Wentz desperately needed weapons and now he has them.

Cornerback was the biggest hole on the roster going into the draft. The Eagles signed veteran Patrick Robinson to come in and challenge for a spot, but he wasn't a high-dollar signing. Robinson will have to earn a job. The team kept Ron Brooks for 2017 and he has a good chance to play in the slot.

The Eagles drafted Sidney Jones and Rasul Douglas in the second and third rounds, respectively. Jones has to get healthy before he can play, but he has the potential to be a dynamic cover guy. Douglas will have a shot to play right away. He'll have to earn it, but the depth chart will be pretty open at cornerback. Those jobs won't be given out based on last year. They will be earned this spring and summer.

It occurred to me that Jones and Douglas could prove to be a formidable duo. Look back in Eagles history. Troy Vincent was the gifted cover guy on one side and Bobby Taylor was the bigger, more physical corner on the other side. The deep safety, usually Brian Dawkins, cheated to Taylor's side more often because he felt Vincent would handle his own business most of the time. Jones and Douglas could be a similar duo for the future. Jones has the potential to be a Vincent-type of cornerback, while Douglas could play the role of Taylor. There are no guarantees things will work out that well, but the potential is there.

On Journey to the Draft presented by AAA, here are the six players who benefited most from the Eagles' draft.

The Eagles didn't draft any offensive linemen. They addressed that area in March. The Eagles kept everyone under contract, re-signed Stefen Wisniewski, and then added veteran starters Chance Warmack and Dallas Thomas to really give the group a lot of depth.

Running back didn't get addressed as expected. The Eagles didn't add a star runner to come in and fight for the starting job. They drafted Donnel Pumphrey in the fourth round. Pumphrey is a talented runner, but he is also a weapon as a receiver. He can be devastating on screens, with his ability to hide behind blockers and then make quick cuts in the open field. Pumphrey can also line up in the slot and get open like a receiver would. Beyond that, the play is just starting when he gets the ball in his hands. His 4.48 speed makes him a challenge for defensive backs and just kills linebackers.

The Eagles drafted Nathan Gerry in the fifth round. He was a star safety at Nebraska, but will make the transition to linebacker in the NFL. Gerry might lack ideal size, but he is a good athlete and will have terrific cover skills for a linebacker. He will focus on special teams at first, but eventually could become a quality role player for Jim Schwartz. You could use him to cover athletic tight ends, for example. Gerry might have the right combination of linebacker size and safety speed to be good in a role. The Eagles think he might develop into a starter.

The team made the dramatic move last year to go up and get Carson Wentz. He is the starting quarterback and there is no question about that. The team did make changes behind him, adding veterans Nick Foles and Matt McGloin. That gives the Eagles one of the best quarterback trios in the league.

Wentz stayed healthy last year, but most starters get hurt for at least a game or two. Foles had a 15-9 record as a starter for the Eagles so he is a player the organization trusts if needed. McGloin doesn't have as much experience or success, but that's OK for the third quarterback. He has had some good moments in the NFL and his best days are ahead of him.

The Eagles' improved pass rush and secondary will help them against offenses like Dallas and Green Bay. The improved receiving corps will help them against a stout defense like the Giants or Seahawks. The passing game is the key to success in the NFL and the Eagles focused on that area all offseason.

These changes should pay off in a big way.

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