Before the 2011 season, the Eagles went on a free agent shopping spree, signing a number of big-name players, creating the biggest splash in that season's free agency period. After winning 12 games over the next two seasons, the front office knew that something had to change. In order to once again become a contender, the Eagles had to build from within by drafting the right players, developing them and retaining them before they hit the open market.
On Thursday, the Eagles announced long-term contracts for both center Jason Kelce (seven years) and wide receiver Riley Cooper (five years) and, in doing so, general manager Howie Roseman demonstrated that not only will homegrown players be rewarded for their production, but that the thought-process of the entire organization has gone through an overhaul.
"A lot has changed here since the 2011 season, I don't think that's a secret," Roseman said on Thursday afternoon. "We've changed a lot of things here and I think we've changed our philosophies starting with that offseason. We've got a lot of work to do. We've got to continue to add good players, but I'm proud of the process that we've had the last couple of seasons. We certainly haven't arrived and I'm not patting anyone on the back. I think we have a good process and a plan. It's not just for next season. It's not just for 2015. It's to try to set ourselves up to contend for a while.
"It doesn't take an expert researcher to go back and look at the teams that are having success and how they are having success ... Most of the times when players are on the free agent market their teams have chosen not to re-sign them for one reason or another. Now, maybe (it's because of) cap room, maybe (it's) because they have a particular player at a position. I don't know if we can go back in history and look at free agency and say, 'Well, there's a team totally built on free agency and it worked.' You have to draft well to extend. You have to extend your own players and you've got to keep supplementing through the draft."
Neither Cooper nor Kelce fit the bill as "big-name" prospects when they were drafted by the Eagles. Kelce was a sixth-round pick out of Cincinnati in 2011, while Cooper was selected a year earlier in the fifth round out of the University of Florida. The coaches developed both players in recent years which culminated in career-best seasons in 2013.
Roseman explained that while the on-the-field talent is the primary factor for why the new contracts were warranted, they are also part of the locker room culture that the team is trying to develop.
"The first thing is the on-field performance. It's the on-field play, that's why he deserves this contract, because of what kind of player he is," Roseman said of Kelce. "When you combine it, and you have a total package that he has, especially at that position, of the off-field, the leadership, the work ethic, being here every day working hard, trying to get better, it makes you feel pretty good about it. Again, it's one of these things where you know the guy, you know what he's made of, you know what motivates him and you're not worried that money is going to change him.
"The way we look at it, it doesn't get much more important than the guy who's handling the football every play. When you talk about all the traits that he has, his fit in this offense, his fit in this building, I come down to breakfast every day and he's here, he's working. It's February, and it's because he loves to be here. He loves the game of football. He has incredible passion for this city, for this football team, and then he's explosive. He's got traits in his body, what kind of player he is, and you put all those things together and that's what we want. That's what we're trying to build a team on."
Cooper is coming off of his best season as a professional, grabbing 47 passes for 835 yards and 8 touchdowns. In his first opportunity as a starter, Cooper demonstrated his unique talent at the wide receiver position, something that Roseman wanted to keep in Philadelphia.
"People like Riley because he brings some physical toughness to your football team," Roseman said. "He can go up and get the football and even when you talk about the wide receiver group in free agency and in the draft, he has some unique skill set at the position. For us, he fits what we do and we know the player, so we're happy to get him done."
These two deals, combined with the team extending Jason Peters' contract through the 2018 season on Wednesday, illustrate that the Eagles want to maintain their core group of players for many years to come. That being said, the idea of going out and signing free agents is not completely out the window. According to Roseman, the Eagles will bring in free agents if they are the right fit, but the organization won't act just for the sake of signing players.
"It's almost like the draft where you don't want to force something," said Roseman. "As much as we want to do things to improve in any way we can, we also don't want to force anything. We look at it, just try to grade the players as they are, not do it because we need a particular position. We have some flexibility. Obviously, the things we've done here in the past couple of days affect it, but we're going to go out and try to do things that make sense for our football team and where we are as a football team and add the kind of players based on our research fit in to what we're doing on and off the field."
The three in the past two days won't change the team's strategy when it comes to the NFL Draft in May. Roseman reiterated that the Eagles will take the best player available, regardless of position. As Roseman stated, the Eagles will do everything that they can to make sure that they are not just a contender in 2014, but for the foreseeable future as well.
"It doesn't change the draft, and you guys are going to be sick and tired of me saying it, but we're going to take the best player, no matter where it is, because we don't know where we're going to be in the future and we're not going to pass on a guy who we have a really high grade on just because of where we stand at this moment," Roseman said. "But it certainly impacts free agency and the amount of cap that we're able to spend in free agency. Looking at the whole picture going forward, because we're trying to keep more pieces than just this right now, and I know right now you're looking at just this year, but we have to look at the whole picture and (we're) trying to contend for a long time and trying to keep other players on this team together, as well as supplement them in the draft and in free agency."