As the Eagles gathered in the weeks following their January 1, 2016 season-ending victory over the Dallas Cowboys, they reviewed the previous season in every respect and then set their sights on improving the roster, building around franchise quarterback Carson Wentz, and making sound football decisions.
By the time the contingent of Eagles staff arrived in Mobile, Alabama for the Senior Bowl, the plan was largely set. The only substantial change made to that point came on the coaching staff, where Mike Groh was hired to replace Greg Lewis as the wide receivers coach.
The Eagles had, by that time, put their plan for March's free agency in place. How it would turn out, nobody knew for sure.
"We have our plan and we're going to execute it and let's see what happens," head coach Doug Pederson said.
They also had a draft pick in the first round thanks to the trade in September with Minnesota that sent quarterback Sam Bradford to the Vikings. It would be either No. 14 or 15 in the first round (it turned out to be 14, thanks to a coin flip held at the NFL Scouting Combine) and Howie Roseman talked at the Senior Bowl about his desire to draft a player in Round 1 who would make a huge impact.
"When we look back and look at our drafts, specifically looking at where we were in the 20s, we've had some good success 20 and higher. I think there is a line where you don't get a difference-maker. This is your opportunity, in the first round of the draft, to find a difference-making player," Roseman said.
Free agency opened in March, and immediately the Eagles sent the message that they were serious about helping Wentz. They inked wide receiver Torrey Smith, who had been released by San Francisco, to a three-year contract. Then they shocked the NFL by signing wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, late of the Chicago Bears, to a one-year contract. Guard Chance Warmack, a former top-10 draft pick, was added to provide competition to the offensive line.
That first day of free agency set the tone for the entire offseason: The Eagles would be aggressive and creative and willing to take on some risk to improve the roster.
That bolt into free agency, and the weeks that followed, put the Eagles where they are now: Just a handful of days away from the start of Training Camp feeling optimistic that they can and will contend in the NFC East.
"The talent in this locker room, I think everyone would agree, is much different than it was a year ago," tight end Zach Ertz said. "The front office was aggressive getting some guys in here who are going to help us. They added some players who are established in the NFL. I've noticed the difference and it has helped raise the level of everyone's play in here."
By signing Jeffery and Smith in free agency, and then adding Mack Hollins and Shelton Gibson in the NFL Draft, the Eagles overhauled the wide receiver corps. It was one that struggled to provide consistent production last season and that, the facts said loud and clear, did not bring enough explosive plays to the offense in 2016.
By signing defensive end Chris Long, trading for defensive tackle Tim Jernigan and then using the 14th pick in the draft on a player expected to provide an immediate impact, end Derek Barnett from Tennessee, the Eagles think they've upgraded the defensive line (which also changed as the Eagles released end Connor Barwin and saw tackle Bennie Logan enter free agency), the foundation of Jim Schwartz's defense.
on a one-year contract, significantly bolstered depth in key areas.
Operating with limited assets – the Eagles were "tighter than normal" within the structure of the salary cap heading into free agency, said Roseman, and they had eight picks heading into the draft – Philadelphia had a resourceful and fulfilling offseason, upgrading the roster enough that, in the minds of the players and the coaching staff, the NFC East is wide open and there for the taking in the season ahead.
Entering the second year with Pederson as the head coach, the Eagles are set to start Training Camp with high goals and expectations.
"I think the players have accepted the challenge," Pederson said as the spring Organized Team Activities and minicamp ended. "When the pads go on and we have a physical Training Camp, we'll know a lot more. But right now I'm excited about what I've seen and how the players have embraced things."
So, there are no promises. But a team that seemed in such disarray as the Chip Kelly years ended with his dismissal with one game remaining in the 2015 season has quickly turned the ship around. The Eagles are headed in the right direction. How quickly they get to where they want to go, well, we're all going to find out together.
Camp is a week away from starting at the NovaCare Complex and the Eagles are in contention in the NFC East. How many really thought that would be the situation as Pat Shurmur coached the Eagles to a 34-26 win over the New York Giants to end the 2015 campaign and the Eagles packed their bags and bused down the New Jersey Turnpike into a very uncertain future.
In a short period of time, the outlook has brightened considerably. Productive moves in free agency, two apparently strong drafts, and a positive player-development program have the Eagles trending onward and upward.