The news that cornerback Asante Samuel was released by the Atlanta Falcons wasn't really a surprise. In his second season with the Falcons, Samuel had fallen out of favor in the defensive rotation and, combined with a large salary and skills that just aren't as razor-sharp as they were in his glory years, made Samuel expendable.
It was a move that brought to light, with some hindsight, the trade that sent Samuel to Atlanta for a seventh-round draft pick. Straight up. Nothing more to it. The Eagles dealt a cornerback who had been to three Pro Bowls in his seasons in Philadelphia, had been named an All-Pro player twice, and who was acclaimed as one of the premier interception machines in the NFL.
For a seventh-round draft pick that April.
It was a trade immediately scrutinized and, understandably, one that continues to be evaluated. Samuel had a fine season in 2012 for the Falcons in their run deep into the NFC playoffs, but he stepped back in 2013, as did Atlanta. Samuel battled a thigh injury to start the season and then was replaced by a rookie late in the year and now, well, he is free to sign with any team in the league.
The Eagles, meanwhile, drafted running back Bryce Brown with the draft pick acquired in the Samuel deal and in two seasons Brown has shown the tremendous ability that he has, as well as the rough edges that need to be refined before he reaches the level his skills say he can touch.
The point here is not to declare a winner in a trade that helped both teams -- the Eagles had to trade Samuel, who had grown disillusioned as the defense loaded up on big-name cornerbacks in 2011 and didn't play well in that season -- and the Falcons were glad to get him as they made their big run in 2012. The point is to check in with Brown, who holds a key role in the Eagles' offense that did so many things well last season.
How does Brown factor into the offense moving forward? Clearly, the running game is fueled by All-Pro star LeSean McCoy, who led the NFL in rushing yards and in total yards from scrimmage with Eagles franchise marks in both categories last season. McCoy's brilliance and durability -- knock on wood, please -- have given the Eagles legs -- pun intended -- but his outstanding play has also limited Brown's development.
With McCoy sidelined during the forgettable 2012 season, Brown stepped in and delivered during a rookie season. In his first start since his high school senior season, Brown tore up the Panthers for 178 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries, and then followed with 169 rushing yards and a couple of more scores in Dallas the next week.
There were concerns with ball security, yes, but the Eagles knew they had a diamond who needed polishing and they worked with Brown on his handle and his awareness in a crowd of defenders.
Brown's 2013 wasn't nearly as eye opening. He carried just 75 times and, even with a 4.2-yard-per-carry average, didn't get into the flow much until his 9-carry, 115-yard, one-touchdown effort against Chicago in Week 16.
There simply weren't many chances for Brown to find his rhythm in the offense, and when he did have a handful of carries, the numbers just weren't there.
But Brown remains a critical piece here. His talents -- which include soft hands in the receiving game -- are too obvious to ignore. McCoy is the central figure in the offense, but every team needs more than one capable running back. The season is too long and the game is too physical, for a team to ride one back for 16 games.
So, then, the development of Brown continues. His best should be on display in 2014. He knows the offense and he gained some confidence late in '13 with his performance. The Eagles may very well add to the mix at running back, challenging Brown and Chris Polk and Matthew Tucker for jobs behind McCoy, but they're also going to hope that Brown's game raises a notch and that his marvelous skills flow freely.
As we were reminded with the news of Samuel's release, the trade game takes several seasons to grade. Brown's time is coming, in whatever role he fits within the offense, and then we can fairly gauge a trade made in 2012 that looks a lot different now than it did at the time.