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How the Philadelphia Eagles were built - and what the Giants can learn

A long-term process of roster development coupled with recent big moves have paid off at the Linc

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NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at New York Giants
Jalen Reagor drops the potential winning TD pass from Jalen Hurts at the end of the game against the Giants at MetLife in 2021
Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Hell is imagined as a place where a pointy-eared, horned Satan walks amidst eternal flames, with plenty of weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth, according to the Bible. But hell means different things to different people. For example, when your Big Blue View Editor-in-Chief asks you to write an article that requires you to say good things about the Philadelphia Eagles.

It was not so long ago that the Eagles beat the New York Giants only because Evan Engram failed to catch a beautiful third down pass from Daniel Jones that would have iced the game. A month later the Giants were clearly the better team and beat the Eagles going away, 27-17. The following year the Giants intercepted Jalen Hurts three times and prevailed 13-7 when Hurts failed to see Devonta Smith streaking past coverage to the end zone and threw instead to Jalen Reagor, who leaped and dropped the ball at the goal line. The gods were smiling upon Big Blue. But since then the Eagles have beaten the Giants four consecutive times, three by lopsided scores, and find themselves in the Super Bowl for the second time in six years as favorites against the Kansas City Chiefs. How did this happen?

A history of front office intrigue

Philadelphia Eagles Introduce Lane Johnson
Howie Roseman and Chip Kelly after selecting Lane Johnson in the 2013 NFL draft
Photo by Drew Hallowell/Philadelphia Eagles/Getty Images

When Marty Schottenheimer stepped down as Kansas City’s head coach after the 1998 season, the Chiefs could have just hired Andy Reid right then and there and saved themselves the pain of cycling through six other head coaches in 15 years. Instead the Eagles hired Reid as head coach in 1999.

Howie Roseman began as an Eagles intern and rose up through the ranks to become General Manager in 2010. The history of his path to Eagles GM in ‘The Philly Cover Corner’ is an interesting read. Reid, however, was given final say on roster decisions when Roseman became GM, according to this story. Reid was replaced in 2013 by Chip Kelly, and after a 2014 season in which they missed the playoffs Kelly demanded and was given control over personnel. With the Eagles at 6-9 15 games into the 2015 season Kelly was fired and Roseman was back in power as GM again, this time with the power to choose his own head coach and make roster decisions. He hired Doug Pederson, and by 2017 the Eagles were Super Bowl champions for the first time.

It didn’t last long, though, as Philly Cover Corner documents. Roseman began a strategy he continues to this day to try to add more Super Bowls: Manipulating the salary cap to the maximum extent possible using signing bonuses and void years to cram as much talent as possible onto the roster in the present. He also traded draft picks for veterans. It didn’t quite work out, as Philadelphia made the playoffs in 2018 and 2019 but didn’t advance past the Divisional Round. Then came the pandemic in 2020. The Eagles collapsed in 2020, Pederson was fired, the salary cap was reduced in 2021, and veterans had to be released because of all the cost deferrals.

Rising from the ashes, one lineman at a time

The 2022 Eagles roster listed by Pro Football Reference contains 60 players, including those on IR. Of those, 29 were Eagles draftees, 18 were drafted by other teams, and 13 were undrafted free agents. That’s remarkably similar to Kansas City’s roster breakdown and much less than the 20 UDFAs on the Giants’ 2022 roster.

NFL: NFC Divisional Round-New York Giants at Philadelphia Eagles
Jason Kelce lined up against Dexter Lawrence during the Giants-Eagles Divisional Round playoff game
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

In some sense the 2021 season was the birth of the 2022 Eagles Super Bowl, but not really. Through the early part of his tenure, when he had a say in personnel decisions, Roseman was building the offensive and defensive lines, drafting edge defender Brandon Graham in 2010, C Jason Kelce in 2011, DT Fletcher Cox in 2012, OT Lane Johnson in 2013, G Isaac Seumalo in 2016, edge defender Derek Barnett in 2017, and edge defender Josh Sweat and OT Jordan Mailata in 2018.

That is an absolutely outstanding record of hitting on draft picks on both lines, and it is the single biggest reason the Eagles are in the Super Bowl. Graham, Cox, Johnson, and Barnett were all first-rounders, but Kelce was taken in Round 6, Seumalo in Round 3, Mailata in Round 7, and Sweat in Round 4. The Eagles had a lull during 2019-2020, when they continued to draft on both sides of the line but with less success (e.g., Andre Dillard in Round 1 in 2019, Jack Driscoll in 2020 in Round 4), but they have been back at it the past two years with G Landon Dickerson being added in Round 2 in 2021 and DT Jordan Davis in Round 1 in 2022.

NFC Divisional Playoffs - New York Giants v Philadelphia Eagles
Haason Reddick sacking Daniel Jones during the Giants-Eagles Divisional Round playoff game
Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

While Roseman has built the lines mostly through the draft, he has also gone whole hog with free agents to provide even more depth this year on the defensive side: Edge defenders Haason Reddick and Robert Quinn, and DTs Ndamukong Suh and Linval Joseph. Reddick in particular was a massive addition. He is one of the biggest mysteries of the NFL. Three different teams in three years: Not signed to a second contract by Arizona, a year in Carolina but not re-signed, and now in Philadelphia. Yes, he’s not a great tackler or very good in coverage. But who cares? Reddick is one of the fiercest pass rushers in the NFL:

Data from Pro Football Focus

Including playoff games, 13, 15, and 21 (!) sacks in his past three seasons, and 56, 44, and 80 total pressures. He had a stretch of five games this season with two sacks every week. He completely wrecked San Francisco in the NFC Championship Game. Add the 15 sacks by Josh Sweat, 14 by Brandon Graham, 12 by Javon Hargrave (a 2020 free agent signing), and 9 by Fletcher Cox, and you have a virtually unstoppable pass rush: 87 team sacks including the playoffs.

A miss and a hit at quarterback

NFL: NFC Divisional Round-New York Giants at Philadelphia Eagles
Jalen Hurts scoring in the 2022 Divisional Round playoff game against the Giants
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Like the Kansas City Chiefs during the Andy Reid era, it took the Eagles two tries to find their franchise quarterback. Unlike the Chiefs, it was an accident that the Eagles did. After Roseman regained power in 2016, he traded up with Cleveland from No. 8 to No. 2 (also getting a fourth round pick), giving up 2016 third and fourth round picks, a first round pick in 2017, and a second round pick in 2018. After the Rams selected Jared Goff No. 1, Roseman grabbed Carson Wentz at No. 2. Wentz had gained momentum among the draft cognoscenti with a great week at the Senior Bowl, the combine, and his pro day, allaying concerns about his having played at an FCS school (North Dakota State) and only having started 23 games there.

For a while, Wentz looked great. He was after all the starting QB for the 2017 Eagles team that won the Super Bowl, going 11-2 until he tore his ACL in Week 14. He finished third in MVP balloting that year and was second team All-Pro. After he returned, however, he was never the same: an excellent 78.5 QBR in 2017, but then 62.0, 62.8, and 41.9 the next three years. By Game 13 of the 2020 season, with the Eagles in a four-game tailspin that began with their 27-17 loss to the Giants, head coach Doug Pederson decided to bench Wentz.

Roseman had drafted QB Jalen Hurts at No. 53 in the second round in 2020, a move that was widely criticized at the time since Wentz had been fairly good in 2018 and 2019 after his ACL recovery and the Eagles were seen as having more urgent needs. Hurts provided insurance for Wentz, but actually the Eagles apparently had something different in mind: Their own “Taysom Hill on steroids,” a change-of-pace running threat at QB to substitute for the more stationary Wentz at several points in the game the way the Saints used Hill to spell Drew Brees. That changed as the Eagles’ 2020 season went south. Hurts replaced the struggling Wentz and immediately led the Eagles to a victory over New Orleans. He had ups and downs the rest of the season.

Roseman decided not to draft competition for Hurts in 2021, a year with a weak quarterback class in the draft. Instead he turned the weak quarterback class into assets, trading Wentz to the Colts for what became a 2022 first-round draft pick plus a 2021 third round draft pick. That’s an impressive haul for a QB who had failed, but in the Colts Roseman found a willing buyer, Frank Reich, Wentz’s former offensive coordinator. How impressive would not become clear for two years, but in the near term, Roseman traded that third-round pick to Dallas to jump past the Giants and grab wide receiver Devonta Smith in the 2021 draft.

New head coach Nick Sirianni and offensive coordinator Shane Steichen had to figure out how to maximize Hurts’ talent. They implemented a heavy RPO and zone read offense that gave Hurts choices to hand off, pass or keep it. In 2021 Hurts led the NFL in RPO plays and yards gained:

Data from Pro Football Reference

He also led all NFL QBs in designed rushing plays off zone read options (ZONE in the chart below) and yards gained on designed runs (DYDS):

Data from Pro Football Focus

He only finished 20th in passing yards, though, and had 11 INTs to go along with his 17 passing TDs. That summarizes the dilemma faced by his coaches: Can Hurts beat teams with the pass or only with the run?

If at first you don’t succeed...

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at New York Giants
Devonta Smith catching a TD pass that Julian Love thought he could intercept in the 2022 game at MetLife.
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The one major blemish on Roseman’s record as GM was his failure to get good wide receivers. He drafted Nelson Agholor No. 20 in 2015. He can be forgiven for that one, because the best WRs (in retrospect) left on the board, Tyler Lockett and Stefon Diggs, didn’t go until Rounds 3 and 5, respectively. Then in 2019, he took J.J. Arcega-Whiteside with the No. 57 pick in Round 2, leaving D.K. Metcalf, who was taken No. 64, on the board. (He wasn’t the only one - two other teams drafted WRs other than Metcalf in between.) Finally, in 2020 he used the No. 21 pick for WR Jalen Reagor, when Justin Jefferson was there for the taking (and was taken with the next pick by Minnesota).

Roseman finally began to atone in 2021 when he used that third round pick from the Colts to get Devonta Smith. But 2022 was his crowning glory. Through another minor trade with the Colts and a big trade with the Saints, Roseman wound up using the first round pick he had gotten for Wentz to trade with Tennessee for WR A.J. Brown. Here is the final tally of assets obtained by the Eagles, Colts, and Saints in these trades:

Courtesy of CBS Sports

It’s fair to say that Roseman is the winner just on the basis of the players he has already obtained, never mind the extra first- and second-round picks he still has in his pocket. Amazing.

The improvement in Jalen Hurts’ performance in 2020 (no good WRs), 2021 (with Smith), and 2022 (with Smith and Brown) has been dramatic:

Data from Pro Football Reference

How much of that improvement is Hurts’ own development as a passer, and how much is due to the wide receivers he has to throw to (never mind Dallas Goedert, a good receiver at TE, and the league’s best offensive line)? There’s no way to really know. If only the Giants had similar intel on how Daniel Jones would perform with elite receivers and an elite offensive line.

Shoring up the back end

NFL: NFC Divisional Round-New York Giants at Philadelphia Eagles
James Bradberry intercepts Daniel Jones during the Giants-Eagles Divisional Round playoff game
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The most vulnerable part of the Eagles’ defense at the start of training camp was the secondary, which even the Giants, with their anemic passing game, had been able to take advantage of in 2020. Roseman had begun the rebuild that year, sending a third and a fifth round pick to Detroit for CB Darius Slay. That move did not thrill Eagles beat writers from The Athletic because Roseman had stated a need for the Eagles to get younger but gave up assets for a 29-year-old CB whom he signed to a three-year deal. One compared it to “Fresh fruit. It’s a high-quality product until it starts to spoil, so you need to get use out of it now.”

But Slay is still there and still starting (even though he got beat for Kenny Golladay’s only Giants TD). To further shore up Philly’s defensive backfield, Roseman went to work over the summer, making another deal with his favorite trading partner, New Orleans. This time he sent fifth- and sixth-round picks to the Saints for CB Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, who is playing S as an Eagle. Then Roseman waited for Giants’ GM Joe Schoen to release CB James Bradberry and his $21.9M cap hit after futile attempts at a trade. Roseman jumped when Bradberry hit the market and signed him to a $7.25M one-year deal.

Bradberry and Gardner-Johnson have greatly solidified the Eagles’ back end, as the Giants found out when none of their receivers could get open during the Divisional Round playoff game. Philly has also gotten good play this year from slot corner Avonte Maddox, a 2018 fourth round pick, and rookie undrafted free agent Reed Blankenship.

Probably the weakest position group on the Eagles is their off-ball linebackers. T.J. Edwards, a 2019 undrafted free agent, has become a plus player against both the run and the pass. The other starting ILB, Kyzir White, an unrestricted free agent signing, is no more than an average player. Both Edwards and White are free agents in 2023. The Eagles added Nakobe Dean, who dropped in the draft after an injury, in Round 3. Dean has performed well in limited action.

Where the Eagles spend their money

Compared to the Kansas City Chiefs, who have eight contracts with annual average spending above $10M, and the Giants, who at the moment have three, the Eagles are big spenders of the highest order:

Data from Over The Cap

That’s 11 players over the $10M mark in annual average value and another six between $5-10M. You might guess that this is not sustainable. You would be correct. Roseman makes it work by deferring larger costs to later years including void years, by staggering the biggest cap hits for different players in different years so the bill doesn’t come due all at once, and by having large amounts of money non-guaranteed.

He has also benefited by having his quarterback not only on a rookie contract, but a second-round contract at that. Hurts will have to be signed to a second contract in 2023 because as a Round 2 pick there is no fifth-year option to exercise. If he has a big game on Sunday night and the Eagles become Super Bowl champions, how much will he command?

Darius Slay has a $26.1M cap hit in 2023, but releasing him would create $22M in dead money and save only $3.7M, and there is already $13.8M spread over void years in 2024/2025/2026. Lane Johnson’s 2023 cap hit is $24.2M, and he has $22M and $22.9M cap hits in 2024 and 2025 plus a $2.4M 2026 void year. Every one of the Eagles’ 13 highest 2023 cap hit players already has void years in his contract.

This is how Roseman created a juggernaut with seemingly no weaknesses. Like Wimpy in the old Popeye cartoons, Howie says, “I will gladly pay you in 2026 for a Super Bowl Championship in 2023.” Wimpy may have intended to pay for that hamburger on Tuesday, anticipating that he would come into some money by then. Likewise, Roseman operates on the principle that as the cap rises each year, he’ll have more money to work with and those void years won’t seem so onerous. When we see how many 2022 season big-contract Eagles are no longer on the 2023 team, we’ll start to get an idea of whether he has sold the future for the present. That may be a trade that Eagles fans would gladly make.

Is Nick Sirianni a great head coach?

NFL: OCT 03 Chiefs at Eagles
“How dare you ask that question about me?”
Photo by Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Most of us outside Indianapolis knew little about Sirianni when he was hired by the Eagles. Sirianni was Romeo Crennel’s wide receivers coach at Kansas City in 2012 but was let go when Andy Reid took over in 2013. (A beautiful piece of symmetry, each head coach having been let go by the team they will be facing Sunday night.)

Sirianni then spent 2013-2017 with the San Diego Chargers, including stints as quarterbacks coach and wide receiver coach. In 2018 he became the offensive coordinator of the Indianapolis Colts for Reich, for whom he had worked in San Diego. That’s more of a coaching portfolio than the Giants’ Mike Kafka, now a seemingly hot head coaching candidate, has.

Here’s how Sirianni’s tenure with the Colts stacks up against his years as Eagles’ head coach, from Pro Football Reference:

Data from Pro Football Reference

Sirianni has generally been above the 50th percentile in various offensive coaching categories, and higher with the Eagles than with the Colts. There’s not much more you can say since he had different jobs with the two teams as well as different players.

Zach Keefer, Colts beat writer for The Athletic, said:

While Sirianni didn’t call the plays in Indianapolis — Reich handled those duties — he played a massive role in the offensive game plan each week, working hand-in-hand with Reich. The two worked with three different starting quarterbacks in three seasons, molding their multiple offensive system to fit the very different talents of Andrew Luck, Jacoby Brissett and Philip Rivers. Sirianni was also instrumental in the development of several young players on the roster, particularly wide receivers. There’s no doubt a strong endorsement from Reich, one of the more respected coaches in the game, helped his candidacy.

So there is every indication that Sirianni is a good coach. But it’s not unreasonable to suggest that those high percentiles since coming to Philly have something to do with the talent he inherited and has been given. Julian Love certainly thinks so. Brian Daboll had just about the closest thing you can imagine to a controlled experiment in the NFL: Come to a new team that has been terrible for years, with a roster full of holes, not only no cap space to bring in coveted free agents but a cap situation so bad your GM has to release one of the team’s best players. Now, take that team from 4-13 to 9-7-1 in one season.

Really, it will take a few years, especially if Roseman has to gut the team of some of its bigger contracts, for us to know just how good Sirianni is. But if he wins Sunday night he won’t care what anyone says.

Lessons for the Giants?

  • Isn’t it obvious? Prioritize the offensive and defensive lines. Philadelphia may have the best, and deepest, OLs and DLs in the NFL. Their OL completely neutralized the Giants’ DL twice this season. It does that to many teams. Their DL continually harassed Daniel Jones twice as well as knocking Brock Purdy out of the NFC Championship Game. If Kansas City’s OL can’t do better Sunday night that game will be over quickly. The Eagles have been building both lines continually since Howie Roseman arrived. The OL is completely home-grown. The DL is partly draftees and partly free agents. Joe Schoen got off to a good start in 2022 by drafting two DLs and three OLs. Giants fans hope that at least two of those players will become as good as their Philadelphia counterparts. Now he has to continue the job in the 2023 off-season. And in 2024. And 2025. And...
  • Sirianni and Roseman seem to feel that they have their franchise QB in Hurts. Daboll and Schoen give the impression that they think they have their franchise QB as well in Daniel Jones. The 2022 QBR rankings would seem to support that, with Hurts finishing fourth and Jones sixth in the NFL:
Data from ESPN

If so then the Giants need to bring Jones back for 2023, however they accomplish it. It’s too bad Daboll didn’t have two years of Jones the way Sirianni has had with Hurts before deciding, but so be it. But equally, if 2022 turns out to have been fool’s gold and Jones regresses in 2023, then the Giants need to have the courage of their convictions and move on. Having a young QB drafted on Day 2 or even early on Day 3 waiting in the wings, as the Eagles did with Hurts, would make the decision easier.

  • The Giants’ wide receiver corps looked better by season’s end than it did a month or so into the season, when Marcus Johnson and David Sills were getting lots of snaps. But however much Hurts has grown as a passer over three years, throwing to Devonta Smith and A.J. Brown has to be a lot better than throwing to Jalen Reagor. The Giants shouldn’t be lulled into complacency by the emergence of Isaiah Hodgins and the return next year of Wan’Dale Robinson. Since the free agent pickings are slim this year, they need to draft a wide receiver no later than Day 2. Or use draft assets to make a bold trade the way Roseman did. (Tee Higgins, anyone?) Unless you’re Patrick Mahomes, you need great receivers.
  • The Eagles’ defense was much better with James Bradberry paired with Darius Slay than it had been the previous two years. Adoree’ Jackson is a very good CB. He will be better in 2023 as a CB2 than he was this year as a CB1. But that requires the Giants to find a CB1 in the draft. There are several tall long-armed ones who can play man defense. They shouldn’t pass up a potential shutdown CB if one drops to them. If Aaron Robinson returns and is effective, great. If Cor’Dale Flott shows more of the glimpses we saw late in the season, even better. Having too many good CBs is a nice problem to have. The Giants need a starter in the slot anyway, so there’s room.
  • Maybe you can’t argue with success, but Howie Roseman’s mortgaging of the future with deferred cap hits is a very risky approach. Signing bonuses are now an entrenched part of NFL team finances, and it’s fine to pay the player up front while having the cost to the team grow as anticipated increases in the salary cap from year to year take place. For my money, though, I’ll take Schoen’s seemingly more fiscally responsible overall approach to team building. Once in a while, when you think a Super Bowl can be had, take a chance on a free agent to get you over the top. But as an overarching