The NFL is a copycat league, and after the 2017 season, the Philadelphia Eagles are playing the role of the cat. Doug Pederson’s team went from last place in the NFC East to league champions in 12 months, exceeding even the wildest expectations of most Eagles fans in the process. While there were those around the league who were looking toward the Eagles as surprise contenders last season — and underlying statistics suggesting Philadelphia was likely to take a step forward — nobody expected to see a parade on Broad Street in February of 2018.
Of course, there are some things teams can’t steal. All the tape study in the world isn’t going to turn a mediocre quarterback into the Carson Wentz we saw last season, with the second-year passer playing like an MVP winner before going down with a torn ACL in December. In a way, though, the fact that the Eagles did end up winning a championship with Nick Foles under center makes their blueprint even more relatable. It’s a lot easier to find someone Jeff Fisher couldn’t do anything with than it is to find a young MVP candidate under center.
Naturally, the league noticed. Nothing the Eagles did was in itself revolutionary, but the way they focused their spending and were willing to take certain risks might very well have steered organizations more aggressively toward the directions I’ll mention below. Let’s identify where the Eagles concentrated their own plans in building their roster, find which teams emulated those plans this offseason, and see if any team seems to be following things particularly closely. And let’s begin with an obvious one.
Paying a premium for a backup quarterback … just in case
How the Eagles did it: Once general manager Howie Roseman wrestled back personnel control after the end of the Chip Kelly coup, his Eagles were heavily invested in quarterbacks. The Eagles re-signed Sam Bradford to a two-year deal and traded up to grab Wentz with the second overall pick of the 2016 draft. In between, they signed former Chiefs backup Chase Daniel to a three-year, $21 million deal with $12 million initially guaranteed, presumably under the logic that Daniel was familiar with Pederson’s scheme from Kansas City and had some untapped upside after throwing just 77 professional passes over six NFL seasons.
One year later, they changed their mind. They cut Daniel, who would eventually receive $11.1 million from the Eagles for a total of one regular-season pass — it was a 16-yard completion! On the same day, Roseman signed former Eagles starter Nick Foles to a two-year, $11 million deal with $7 million guaranteed at signing. You know what happened next. It was a big bet on a player who had nearly retired after a dismal 2015 season in St. Louis and whose decent numbers over 55 passes in Kansas City bore little resemblance to some ugly tape. Foles struggled during his regular-season stint replacing Wentz, but from the second half of the divisional-round victory over the Falcons and on, he etched his name into Philly lore.
Teams that copied them this offseason: The Chicago Bears couldn’t sign Foles, but they settled for the next best thing: Daniel, who signed a two-year, $10 million deal with $5 million guaranteed after spending 2017 on the Saints bench without throwing a pass. The 31-year-old Daniel has still yet to start an NFL game before Week 17 and has an 81.1 passer rating across his 78 career attempts. Daniel presumably gives the Bears a competent veteran behind Mitchell Trubisky and some semblance of an insurance policy if Trubisky struggles mightily or gets injured. At the same time, though, Daniel is one of the few passers Trubisky actually tops in terms of recent experience.
You could also make a case for the Buffalo Bills, who added AJ McCarron, although the former Alabama starter has a more feasible path to starting games in 2018 than Daniel did in 2016. Another team that emulated the Eagles’ plan in 2016 in terms of stacking the roster with quarterbacks would be the New York Jets. Like Philadelphia, Gang Green re-signed last year’s starter (Josh McCown) to a short-term deal for relatively big money. Just as the Eagles traded up for Wentz, the Jets moved up to grab their quarterback of the future in Sam Darnold. While the Eagles spent serious money to acquire Daniel, though, the Jets only guaranteed Teddy Bridgewater $500,000 as part of his one-year, $6 million deal. The Eagles dealt Bradford to the Vikings once Bridgewater went down with his knee injury in 2016; the Jets will likely be shopping Bridgewater this month in the hopes of avoiding that $6 million deal.
Protect your quarterback with an expensively assembled, talented O-line
How the Eagles did it: The offensive line was in place before Wentz even arrived in town. Andy Reid once traded a first-round pick for left tackle Jason Peters all the way back in 2009, while Kelly and Roseman used the fourth overall pick on right tackle Lane Johnson before handing him the biggest contract for any right tackle in football. Center Jason Kelce emerged after being drafted in the sixth round and signed a six-year, $37.5 million extension in 2014, while the Eagles reached out to sign former Texans guard Brandon Brooks to a five-year, $40 million deal in free agency in March of 2016.
Left guard was the only place the Eagles tried to get by for relatively cheap last season, but Philly had plenty of depth with Stefen Wisniewski, Chance Warmack and swing tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai, who grew in strides after Peters went down with a serious knee injury in October. The offensive line came in handy after Wentz went down with his own knee injury; Foles, who had struggled to stay healthy during his career, was sacked just twice across 106 postseason pass attempts.
Teams that copied them this offseason: We can start with the San Francisco 49ers, who have their own talented young quarterback in Jimmy Garoppolo. The Niners re-signed Daniel Kilgore at center but then traded him to Miami after signing Giants center Weston Richburg to a five-year, $47.5 million deal with $30 million due over its first three years. Coach Kyle Shanahan saw his offense take flight in Atlanta after the Falcons signed Alex Mack, so it shouldn’t necessarily be a surprise that the Niners targeted Richburg.
San Francisco then swapped massive right tackle Trent Brown for Notre Dame’s Mike McGlinchey, who they took with the ninth overall pick. The 49ers don’t have any guarantees at guard, but they can choose between three former first-round picks in Jonathan Cooper, Joshua Garnett, and Laken Tomlinson, the latter of whom was signed to a three-year, $16.5 million extension this offseason.
If you consider both draft capital and free-agent acquisitions, few teams have spent more on their offensive line over the last four seasons than Tomlinson’s former employers. The Detroit Lions drafted Tomlinson with their first-round pick in 2015 before using their first-round selections in 2016 (left tackle Taylor Decker) and 2018 (center Frank Ragnow) on offensive linemen. The right side of their line includes a pair of highly paid free-agent acquisitions in guard T.J. Lang and tackle Rick Wagner, with Wagner coming in just behind Johnson among three-year compensation for tackles. Matthew Stafford isn’t a young quarterback at this point, but I’m sure he appreciates the efforts nonetheless.
There are other expensively-assembled lines, but one more that comes to mind in terms of recent investment would be the Oakland Raiders, who already had a trio of big-ticket free agents in guard Kelechi Osemele, center Rodney Hudson and left tackle Donald Penn. Last June, the Raiders re-signed one of their own by giving guard Gabe Jackson a five-year, $55 million deal. After a dismal season, though, new coach Jon Gruden added to the bunch by using the 15th overall pick on raw tackle Kolton Miller, who should start on the right side before presumably taking over for the 35-year-old Penn in the near future. Derek Carr can’t ask for much more.
Add defensive linemen, and then keep adding defensive linemen
How the Eagles did it: During Roseman’s first tenure in charge, the Eagles used first-round picks on end Brandon Graham and star tackle Fletcher Cox, along with a second-round pick on Vinny Curry, all of whom were signed to extensions. They found a useful rotation tackle in 2014 seventh-rounder Beau Allen, but infamous first-rounder Marcus Smith never found his stride in Philadelphia and was cut during the offseason. Veterans Bennie Logan and Connor Barwin also left.
To that Allen-Cox-Curry-Graham core, the Eagles added a handful of contributors from all kinds of places last offseason. They signed Chris Long to a two-year, $4.5 million deal, then moved down 25 spots in the third round to acquire Tim Jernigan from the Ravens. Roseman finished up by using his first-round pick on Tennessee defensive end Derek Barnett, giving the Eagles seven regular contributors for their rotation. Each of them would play at least 40 percent of the defensive snaps, with Graham topping the group at just 64.6 percent.
Teams that copied them this offseason: No team emulated the buy-in-bulk approach more than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who got some help from Eagles leaving the nest. The Bucs signed both Allen and Curry to multi-year deals, where they’ll step in for the departed Robert Ayers and Chris Baker. The Bucs made higher-profile moves in trading for Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul and using their first-round pick on nose tackle Vita Vea, who will rotate with Allen alongside star interior disruptor Gerald McCoy. Tampa finished the collection by signing Bears defensive lineman Mitch Unrein, who started 17 games over the past two seasons.
The Jacksonville Jaguars have already gone all-in with their defensive line in recent seasons, but they added to the bunch by using a first-round pick on tackle Taven Bryan. The Minnesota Vikings added to an already-dominant line by signing Sheldon Richardson to a one-year deal. There’s also the Eagles themselves, who doubled down on their own habit this offseason. Philly cut Curry and let Allen leave for Tampa, but they re-signed Jernigan, traded for Michael Bennett and signed Haloti Ngata to a one-year, $3 million deal.
Invest in young players on short-term deals, and trust that you’ll find a way to re-sign them
How the Eagles did it: I just mentioned Jernigan, whom the Ravens traded away for what amounted to the 169th pick in a typical draft because they didn’t think they could re-sign him. The Eagles dealt for Jernigan and found a way to re-sign him, although the four-year, $48 million extension they handed him was restructured after he underwent back surgery.
Likewise, the Eagles convinced Alshon Jeffery to turn down a long-term deal from the Vikings to sign a one-year, $9.5 million deal to serve as Wentz’s top wideout. Jeffery battled through a torn labrum and impressed the Eagles, who signed the former Bears standout to a four-year, $52 million extension in December, although just $14 million of that deal is guaranteed. Next on this list might be Jay Ajayi, who the Eagles acquired for a fourth-round pick during the 2017 season.
Teams that copied them this offseason: The Los Angeles Rams went with a higher-risk version of this plan by trading for both Brandin Cooks and Marcus Peters. They’ve already re-signed Cooks, and while it seemed like the Rams would wait to re-sign Peters until the 2019 offseason, the move to lock up fellow 2015 first-round pick Todd Gurley after three seasons suggests that Peters could sign an extension sooner rather than later.
The New England Patriots also went this route, although it’s less clear whether they intend to re-sign their additions. Bill Belichick moved down from 95 to 143 in acquiring the aforementioned Trent Brown, who is entering the final year of his rookie deal and is the favorite to start at left tackle in Week 1. The Pats also dealt a 2019 third-rounder for a fifth-round pick and Browns nose tackle Danny Shelton; while they declined Shelton’s fifth-year option for 2019 at $7.2 million, they could still choose to bring the former first-round pick back if he shores up the league’s second-worst run defense.
Throw some cornerbacks at the wall and see what sticks
How the Eagles did it: With the Eagles spending heavily on both sides of the line of scrimmage, rebuilding their receiving corps, and investing in free-agent safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod, cornerback seems like an obvious place for Philadelphia to cut back and save money. Indeed, the Eagles did not have a cornerback with a cap hit of more than $1.2 million in 2017, and that was second-round pick Sidney Jones, who redshirted until Week 17 while recovering from a torn Achilles.
Instead, defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz managed to get contributions from all kinds of places. Jalen Mills, a 2016 seventh-round pick, made one side of the field his own and started all season. The Eagles traded for Ronald Darby, but the Bills corner missed half the season after dislocating his ankle during the season opener. Schwartz then turned to rookie third-rounder Rasul Douglas. In the slot, Philly got a career year out of free-agent addition Patrick Robinson, who was on a one-year deal for $775,000. All but Robinson return for 2018.
Teams that copied them this offseason: Let’s start with the Green Bay Packers, who overhauled their cornerback depth chart by signing former flame Tramon Williams to a two-year, $10 million deal and used their first two draft picks on Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson. They’ll team with 2017 second-rounder Kevin King. While the youth movement isn’t a guarantee — we’re only a couple of years removed from the Packers using their top two picks in 2015 on Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins — it’s a badly needed infusion of talent for a team that has been burnt by bad cornerback play since letting Casey Hayward leave for California.
The Kansas City Chiefs also qualify here, although the move to trade Peters to Los Angeles deprived a team that was already struggling at cornerback of their best player at the position. They’re rebuilding by signing former Raiders cornerback David Amerson to a one-year, $2.2 million deal and trading for cornerback Kendall Fuller as part of the Alex Smith trade. Fuller excelled in the slot in Washington but might move outside in Kansas City if the Chiefs prefer to use incumbent Steven Nelson on the inside.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers could also be in the discussion, although the decision to give the ageless Brent Grimes a one-year, $7 million deal makes it a stretch. Otherwise, the Bucs have devoted significant draft capital to cornerback, including 2016 picks Vernon Hargreaves (first round) and Ryan Smith (fourth round) before drafting Carlton Davis and M.J. Stewart in the second round this year. Hargreaves struggled last season, and the moves to draft Davis and Stewart may be telling.
Rebuild the weapons for your young quarterback
How the Eagles did it: This wasn’t quite as big of a deal as it seemed to be last offseason, in part because the Eagles were able to recycle Nelson Agholor as an effective slot receiver. In the end, though, just over 46 percent of Philadelphia’s targets during the regular season went to receivers who weren’t on the team in 2016, with Jeffery racking up 120 targets and Torrey Smith picking up 67. The Eagles ranked sixth in the league in terms of new target percentage, way behind the top-ranked 49ers, who were up over 80 percent under Shanahan.
Teams that copied them this offseason: The Chicago Bears are the obvious favorites here, given that they will likely be starting a new tight end in former Eagles third-stringer Trey Burton and as many as three new wideouts — Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel and second-round pick Anthony Miller — joining the organization. Unlike the Eagles, who had significant turnover at running back, the Bears should be fine with their one-two punch of Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen.
While the Baltimore Ravens added a bunch of weapons, it wasn’t until draft day that they realized GM Ozzie Newsome had been spending his last offseason building for a young quarterback. The Ravens signed Michael Crabtree, John Brown and Willie Snead to overhaul their wide receivers this offseason, then supplemented oft-injured tight end Maxx Williams by using a first-round pick on Hayden Hurst and a third-round selection on Mark Andrews. Four of Baltimore’s top five targets from a year ago are no longer in town, with Javorius Allen as the lone exception.
Who stands out?
What I found after looking through the Eagles’ plan is that there isn’t really one team following Philadelphia wholesale as much as there are teams stealing elements of Philly’s roster-building structure. The closest we got to teams following Pederson and company in multiple ways was even split by sides of the ball.
On offense, the Chicago Bears seem to be the closest match to what the Eagles were doing. They hired the Chiefs offensive coordinator by grabbing Matt Nagy, who took over once Pederson left for Philadelphia. The Bears traded up for their quarterback of the future in the 2017 draft and then surrounded him with new weapons in 2018. They also added Daniel for depth. Chicago doesn’t have the offensive line that Wentz enjoys in Philadelphia, but you can see the similarities in planning here.
Defensively, meanwhile, we’re looking at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the closest thing to what the Eagles built last season. Tampa is building its defense around a rotation of defensive linemen and a series of young, cheap cornerbacks, Grimes aside. Defensive coordinator Mike Smith is even a former head coach like Schwartz, but he hasn’t been as effective of a defensive signal-caller. Smith inherited a defense that ranked 18th in DVOA under Lovie Smith in 2015, and while he took them to 13th in 2016, Tampa fell to dead last last season. Schwartz, meanwhile, inherited the 17th-ranked defense and has subsequently delivered fourth- and fifth-placed finishes in DVOA.
Can the Eagles keep it up?
Finally, it’s also worth wondering whether the Eagles can keep producing division-winning seasons with this strategy. For now, I think they can. Wentz is still going to be a relative bargain for two more seasons, as his salary will more than double in 2020 as a result of either his fifth-year option or an extension. The scenario under which Wentz isn’t worth paying a significant amount of money in 2020 is both remote and even more worrisome for Philadelphia.
Once Wentz gets his raise from $8 million to more than $20 million per season, the Eagles will have to make some allowance elsewhere. Their offensive line will be in line for a refresh — Peters will be 38 and likely out of football, while Kelce will be turning 33 — but I don’t think Pederson and Roseman will want to play it cheap along the line of scrimmage. The core of this team is going to be Wentz and the big boys up front on either side of the ball.
At that point, then, the Eagles will have to cut some of their luxury spending elsewhere. Jeffery will have just $1 million remaining in guarantees on his deal, although cutting him could be complicated if the league doesn’t negotiate a new CBA before then. Jenkins and McLeod will both be entering the final year of their respective deals, and the Eagles could move to save money there. It’s tough to see Nigel Bradham on the roster with a $9 million cap hold in 2020.
The key to any plan in the NFL, of course, is drafting and developing young talent. Look at the Seahawks, who looked to be in a dominant position after winning the Super Bowl during Russell Wilson‘s second season in 2013. They made it back to the Super Bowl the following year, but the wheels slowly came off as they whiffed on a number of trades and draft picks. Once Wilson and the rest of Seattle’s stars got expensive, there were no rookie-contract players coming through at a similar level to fill in the holes in the roster. Now, with most of that core either retired or playing elsewhere, the Seahawks’ plan to save money along the offensive line and invest in their defensive stars looks like a mess. We won’t know whether the Eagles can keep this up as a long-term proposition until we get there.