It was late March, the 28th to be exact, in 2017 and as the NFL's Annual Meeting in the Phoenix area came to a close, the Eagles made time for a joint announcement of player signings in free agency. Defensive end Chris Long and cornerback Patrick Robinson were the new Eagles, signed to shore up depth and add some options for a defense in its second season under coordinator Jim Schwartz. Long had name recognition and Robinson was a former first-round draft choice who had been injured for much of his career and neither player, in the eyes of the media and the fans, would provide much of an impact for the Eagles.
End-of-the-free-agency-period signings? Nice to fill out a roster, but what kind of difference could they really make?
We know how that all turned out, right? Long was a vital rotational defensive end for the Eagles, a leader on and off the field, and he helped a turbo-charged pass rush stay fresh and dominating. Robinson won the slot cornerback job, stayed healthy, and was among the best, if not the best, slot cover man in the NFL that season. Both played huuuuuugggeee roles for the Super Bowl LII team.
The story is relevant as free agency winds into another week and April is just around the corner. Most of the media and fans' eyes are on the NFL Draft, which begins on April 29. That's understandable, certainly in light of the trade the Eagles made last week, moving from sixth in the first round to 12 overall, moving up from a fifth-round draft pick to a fourth-round selection, and adding Miami's original first-round pick in 2022. This NFL Draft is going to be a wild ride for a team with 11 draft picks, four in the first two days and a whopping seven on day three.
But free agency isn't over.
There is still quality on the streets, and every day that passes lowers the price. Even with limited space under the $182.5 million salary cap, the Eagles are still in the market. As much as they are focusing on the NFL Draft and sending out representatives to the various Pro Days for the draft-eligible players, they have their board of free agent names very prominently displayed at the NovaCare Complex and, no doubt, are checking in with agents every day.
For a roster that is about to receive an influx of young talent – 20 draft picks in 2021 and 2022 – having a few veterans around on short-term contracts isn't a bad thing. Safeties Anthony Harris and Andrew Adams fit that profile as they shape a new-look defensive secondary. Joe Flacco is part of the dramatically changed quarterback room. The Eagles are going to get back into deep playoff contention by being smart and making moves like the trade last week to bolster their draft resources and by then turning those resources into young and talented players to revamp the roster. Adding a dotting of veterans in to bridge the gap and to play productive football as they look for another big payday helps the process as well.
Obviously, it doesn't work all the time. Age is the undefeated enemy for every player – OK, those not named Tom Brady – and reality is often very difficult to accept. At this point, just about every player still on the market has gotten some interest from teams and they've discussed terms and, well, it just hasn't worked out. Each day that passes without them signing, the players lose that much more leverage. That's why teams, at this point in the offseason, remain patient until the cost works for them.
Free agency has slowed to a trickle three weeks into the process. That's just the way it works in the NFL. But just because the news is slow and just because the names out there aren't going to make huge headlines or sign megadeals doesn't mean teams can't help themselves. The Eagles, as we know, are always on the lookout. They have interest in upgrading every part of the roster. There are players out there who can help a team in 2021 and by the time the NFL Draft rolls around, most of the available players now will sign on with a team.
This isn't to suggest that the Eagles are on the verge of a signing. Instead, it is a reminder that anything can happen and that adding players this late in free agency can pay dividends in a lot of ways. Long and Robinson, circa 2017, are the perfect examples. The moral of the story is this: Don't sleep on free agency and the impact it can have, even with April a couple of days away. Building a roster comes in many shapes and forms, including the late-free agency signings that don't seem like much at the time but sometimes really pan out in perfect ways.