BOCA RATON, FL – This is a respite in the season of strategy for NFL teams. The NFL's Annual Meeting takes place through Wednesday, and while there will be the usual kibbitizing between deal-makers and those in charge of shaping team rosters, much of the time here is spent on relaxation, hearing on the state of the league and discussing policy changes for the season ahead.
For the Eagles, the days and nights offer Doug Pederson and Howie Roseman a chance to take a deep breath, because both have been on the go since Pederson was hired as the Eagles' head coach on January 18. The Eagles laid out a detailed blueprint of what they wanted to accomplish in the days and weeks leading up to and through free agency and they appear to have done a thorough job of executing the multi-pronged plan:
- They first zeroed in on the current roster and signed their own, a total of eight players who were Eagles in 2015. Veterans like tight end Brent Celek and safety Malcolm Jenkins had contracts extended. Young core players like tight end Zach Ertz and tackle Lane Johnson were signed to long-term deals. Defensive end Vinny Curry and quarterback Sam Bradford had contract signed before free agency began. Linebacker Najee Goode, a valuable piece on special teams and for depth across the board at linebacker, stayed on with a one-year contract, and cornerback Nolan Carroll had a chance to test the free-agency market before remaining with the Eagles on a one-year deal.
- The Eagles were decisive in free agency, quickly coming to terms with players to help the secondary (cornerbacks Leodis McKelvin and Ron Brooks, safety Rodney McLeod), the linebacker room (Nigel Bradham), the offensive line (Brandon Brooks), the competition at quarterback (Chase Daniel) and, last week, the wide receiver position (Chris Givens).
- At the same time, trades that sent running back DeMarco Murray to Tennessee and cornerback Byron Maxwell and linebacker Kiko Alonso to Miami allowed the Eagles to shed burdensome contracts in the cases of Murray and Maxwell for 2016 and years to come and also improved the Eagles' draft position. The plum of the deals was the one with Miami that bumped the Eagles up from No. 13 in the first round of the draft to No. 8. The Eagles also swapped fourth-round picks with Tennessee in the Murray deal and improved 13 spots in that round.
It's been a strong month for the Eagles, but there is much more work to be done. Everyone acknowledges that. The team is on the lookout to upgrade at every position possible, always, so with that in mind let's discuss the needs the team has as free agency dwindles to a trickle and the focus turns toward April 28 and the NFL draft.
- Offensive line
Brooks will really help the offensive line with his big body and ability to move men off the line of scrimmage. He can be a road grader, but Brooks is also athletic enough to get to the edge in the screen game and help there. Brooks is inked in as the starting right guard, but his addition doesn't end the search for help up front. The Eagles want to challenge Allen Barbre at left guard. They also want to make sure they are protected behind Jason Peters at left tackle and that their tackle picture is strong in the coming seasons.
With nine draft picks ahead, you could see the Eagles using a couple on the offensive line and then really combing the field in the post-draft time period.
- Running back
Murray wasn't a good fit in Philadelphia, but he did lead the Eagles with 702 rushing yards in 2015 and the Eagles need to replace and increase that production from the position. Ryan Mathews needs to stay healthy, Darren Sproles can help in spot duty and Kenjon Barner has some juice. It's fair to say, though, that the Eagles will keep their eyes open for help in the backfield. They want backs who can do it all – run the football, catch it and help in pass protection.
- Pass rush
Curry is going to have a chance to flourish in the Wide 9 alignment used by defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. Brandon Graham returns to where he started in the NFL – putting his hand down and getting off the ball and attacking the quarterback. Connor Barwin will come off the edge and use his length and leverage well to close off the corner, and he could also move up and down the line of scrimmage as an attacking pass rusher.
But are any of those pass rushers in the "elite" category? To date, it would be hard to say yes to that question. And Schwartz wants as many pass rushers as possible, so the Eagles can keep adding to the mix and throwing "fastballs" at offenses. If a pass rusher is on the draft board when the Eagles are picking, they will certainly consider adding him.
- Star status at cornerback
McKelvin is someone the Eagles graded very highly as they anticipated his release from Buffalo. Brooks adds some quality depth. Carroll was tough and aggressive and productive as a starter prior to his injury last season. Second-year man Eric Rowe is an ascending player with a bright future.
But this is a league where wide receivers rule and where offenses spread defenses out looking for the most favorable matchup. Every defense wants more cover players. Every defense wants a lockdown cornerback or three.
Do the Eagles have any player in that "lockdown cornerback" category? Does any team have enough cover cornerbacks? The Eagles have added great competition in the offseason and they have some young players they like, in addition to Rowe – JaCorey Shepherd, Jaylen Watkins, Randall Evans, among them – but the rule of thumb in the NFL is to never pass on a cornerback who fits what you are looking for. Eyes remain open here.
- Franchise quarterback
Bradford is here on a two-year contract. Daniel has a three-year deal. Both are going to have a chance to impress a coaching staff laden with quarterback whisperers – Pederson, offensive coordinator Frank Reich and quarterbacks coach John DiFilippo – and so it's going to be fun to see those two go at it in the spring and summer.
But who is the young, developmental-type quarterback to groom with the big picture in mind? What happens if one of the two highly touted quarterbacks in the draft, Carson Wentz or Jared Goff, are on the board at No. 8 when the Eagles are on the clock?
It's worth watching, for sure. Among Bradford, Daniel, McLeod Bethel-Thompson and a yet-to-be-named No. 4 quarterback on the roster, the Eagles want to find the guy who can led this franchise to greatness for the next 10 years and more.
- Wide receiver
This is always a position to watch and the Eagles have thrown considerable assets at wide receiver over the recent years in the draft. There are a lot of questions about the position beyond Jordan Matthews, who has been very productive in his two seasons. It makes sense to list this as a "need" area until the team can go five or six receivers deep in talent.
- Depth at safety
McLeod is a really exciting addition to team with Jenkins and that duo should be outstanding together. Who is there for depth, however? Chris Maragos is great on special teams and he had some valuable reps last season at safety, but could he step in and start and play at a high level if needed for six games? Is Ed Reynolds ready to take the next step in his career after coming on in 2015? Where does Jerome Couplin fit into the equation as a role player in the secondary?
Yeah, the Eagles are going to keep looking because, you know, you just can never have enough help covering the middle of the field in the spread-'em-out NFL of 2016.