Philadelphia Eagles: Jaiquawn Jarrett

The Eagles’ 2011 draft has long been filed under “D” for Disaster – ever since owner Jeffrey Lurie specifically absolved general manager Howie Roseman of blame for the picks made while then-coach Andy Reid had final say on personnel decisions.

Thornton
It is the top of the draft – first-round pick Danny Watkins and second-rounder Jaiquawn Jarrett – that rightfully draws the criticism. But the Eagles found the anchor for their offensive line, center Jason Kelce, in the sixth round of that draft. Kelce signed a seven-year contract last week that will keep him with the Eagles through 2020.

On Monday, the team signed defensive end Cedric Thornton to a one-year deal. Thornton was in that 2011 class, too. He wasn’t even drafted, signing with the Eagles as a rookie free agent. Over the course of several defensive coordinators and a major scheme change, the 6-foot-4, 309-pound Thornton emerged as a reliable starter at defensive end.

Thornton was an exclusive rights player (the term “free agent” really doesn’t fit), so it was all but a foregone conclusion that he would re-up with the Eagles.

The youth and flexibility along the defensive line give the Eagles plenty of options. They have Thornton, 25; nose tackle Bennie Logan, 24; and end Fletcher Cox, 23, at the top of the depth chart. Cox, their 2012 first-round pick, is the only one making a premium salary. Clifton Geathers, Damion Square and Vinny Curry rotated in and played situationally.

Thornton drew praise all season from coach Chip Kelly and defensive coordinator Bill Davis. He was ahead of the curve in converting from the 4-3 scheme to the 3-4 that Davis brought in. Pro Football Focus ranked Thornton third in the NFL among 3-4 defense ends as a run-stopper. Only Houston’s J.J. Watt and the Jets’ Sheldon Richardson graded higher.

Thornton’s emergence gives the Eagles the luxury of addressing other areas as needed. But his relative affordability doesn’t prohibit them from upgrading at the position if their draft board dictates they should take a defensive end.

The 2011 draft didn’t go well for the Eagles, but that class provided them good players on both lines.

Eagles should be in win-now mode

January, 31, 2014
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PHILADELPHIA -- It is a word the Eagles hated using for years and it's a word that doesn't really apply to the franchise now, just one year into Chip Kelly's tenure.

Rebuilding.

In evaluating the decline of the team in Andy Reid's final years, Eagles owner Jeff Lurie and general manager Howie Roseman have said the big mistake was thinking the team was always one move away from a championship. In trying to make that one decisive win-now move, the Eagles instead made mistakes that weakened their infrastructure.

[+] EnlargeHowie Roseman
Howard Smith/USA TODAY SportsGM Howie Roseman has said the Eagles will avoid lavish free-agent deals.
But it would also be a mistake to go too far the other way. The Eagles are not a rebuilding team right now. They were 10-6 and are defending NFC East champions. They have an offensive team with key skill players in the prime of their careers: LeSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson and Brent Celek. The offensive line, which is vital to the team's success, has three starters over the age of 30.

The goal should be simple: Keep adding talent around those core players until the Eagles are at the elite level of the teams that will play in the Super Bowl Sunday. That means using every tool available, including spending money on free agents when it is warranted.

The Denver Broncos weren't exactly thinking about a five-year plan when they signed Peyton Manning two years ago. The Seattle Seahawks splurged on a quarterback in free agency that same offseason. They signed Green Bay's Matt Flynn to a three-year, $26 million contract.

Manning had one of the great seasons ever and will start for the Broncos Sunday. Flynn is back in Green Bay as a backup. Russell Wilson became Seattle's starter and quickly emerged as one of the top young quarterbacks in the NFL.

If the Broncos had ruled out high-priced, quick-fix free agents, the Patriots would be in the Super Bowl. If the Seahawks had avoided drafting a quarterback that high after signing Flynn, San Francisco or New Orleans would be preparing for Tom Brady.

This isn't to say the Eagles should go crazy and throw big money at every flavor-of-the-month free agent on the market. But they also shouldn't rule out the occasional bold move. Yes, they were burned by Nnamdi Asomugha a few years back, but Reid's era of success was made possible partly by acquisitions like Hugh Douglas (in a trade, with a new contract included), Jon Runyan and, well, let's just admit it, Terrell Owens.

Roseman has said repeatedly that the Eagles will avoid huge free-agent deals. That would seem to rule out difference-making players like Washington linebacker Brian Orakpo and safeties Jairus Byrd of Buffalo and T.J. Ward of Cleveland.

And that's fine, provided the Eagles are able to obtain high-quality players in other ways. Seattle got 16-1/2 sacks in the 2013 season from free-agent pickups Cliff Avril (two years, $13 million) and Michael Bennett (one year, $5 million). Smart shopping is the key, whatever the price tag.

The key point is that the Eagles didn't make a mistake by signing marquee free agents. They made mistakes in player evaluation in both free agency and the draft. You don't stop drafting because you selected Danny Watkins and Jaiquawn Jarrett, so you shouldn't rule out free agency because you signed Asomugha and Vince Young.

The Eagles made huge strides in one year because Kelly made excellent use of the considerable offensive talent he inherited, and because his overall approach in all phases reinvigorated a stale franchise. To make those next steps toward a championship-caliber team will require better players in a few key spots.

If Byrd, Orakpo or some other elite player can further that process, the Eagles shouldn't hesitate to go after him. There is no rebuilding, only building, and that process should be constant. The well-run organizations of the last decade understand that. The Eagles should know -- a few missteps aside, they're one of them.
PHILADELPHIA -- Bad drafts don’t happen in a vacuum, and neither do good ones. The Eagles’ 2013 draft class is an example of what it looks like when everything -- scouting, drafting, coaching, development -- works the way it is supposed to.

The Eagles took tackle Lane Johnson with the fourth pick in the draft, tight end Zach Ertz in the second round and defensive tackle Bennie Logan in the third. All three were contributors in their first season and look like very good choices.

[+] EnlargeZach Ertz
Bruce Kluckhohn/USA TODAY SportsZach Ertz and the other top picks in the Eagles' 2013 draft class were valuable contributors during their rookie seasons.
But what if they had taken defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, who excelled in Carolina, in the first round, then took linebacker Kiko Alonso in the second round and either cornerback Tyrann Mathieu or offensive tackle Terron Armstead in the third?

The point isn’t that, with hindsight, the Eagles should have done that. The point is that there are different ways to assemble the puzzle pieces for a good draft. And the larger point is that a draft class can sink or rise depending on the coaching that it gets.

For a number of reasons, the Eagles under Andy Reid lost that hands-on teaching and development element. Were the 2010 (Brandon Graham, Nate Allen) and 2011 (Danny Watkins, Jaiquawn Jarrett) draft classes really as bad as they looked? Or were all those players undermined by the dysfunction that had crept into the NovaCare Complex – constant change at defensive coordinator, Jim Washburn’s wide 9 defense, Howard Mudd’s idiosyncratic offensive line approach, etc.?

Case in point: If the Eagles had taken safety Earl Thomas or defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul instead of Graham in the 2010 first round, would they be the players they became in Seattle and New York? Or would they have the same lost look on their faces that became common among Eagles defenders in the Juan Castillo era?

The Eagles weren’t alone in ranking Watkins as a first-round pick. Was everyone in the NFL that wrong, or was Mudd precisely the wrong guy to coax the best out of a raw rookie from Western Canada? Maybe a little of both.

Chip Kelly and his coaching staff helped make this 2013 class look good, and there’s proof. Kelly’s staff also made the 2012 class better. Fletcher Cox improved steadily as he made the transition to the 3-4 defensive techniques. Mychal Kendricks grew into a turnover machine. Vinny Curry may not really fit the new system, but he was productive when used as a pass-rusher in defensive coordinator Bill Davis’ defense. Brandon Boykin was a revelation playing nickel cornerback.

You might have heard that Nick Foles had a pretty good year.

Like Reid, Kelly brought in a bunch of smart, energized teachers for his position coaches. Over time, Reid’s group aged and moved on. Kelly’s staff is just about to hit its stride here.

“Now that we've got at least a year of experience, it'll be a little bit different here in the offseason,” Kelly said. “We're all not living in a hotel and spending basically 20 hours a day here because we've got nowhere else to go. There's a lot of differences to it. ... I think we've laid a foundation, but you've got to build something upon that foundation.”

A little later, a look at the 2013 draft class.
Is it impossible to find two competent NFL safeties? The Philadelphia Eagles certainly have made it look that way over the past few years.

The release of Kenny Phillips Sunday afternoon, as first reported by Pro Football Talk, continued a sorry trend that began with the departure of the beloved Brian Dawkins after the 2008 season. A team that once prided itself on dominating safeties -- from Bill Bradley and Randy Logan through Wes Hopkins and Andre Waters to Dawkins and Michael Lewis -- just cannot seem to find anyone to play the position.

The roll call is depressing to Eagles fans: Marlin Jackson, O.J. Atogwe, Sean Jones, Macho Harris, Jarrad Page, Jaiquawn Jarrett, Nate Allen and Kurt Coleman.

The latter two started last year in a secondary that surrendered a league-high 33 touchdown passes. General manager Howie Roseman flipped the secondary after the season, parting ways with corners Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and signing four veteran DBs.

Three of them -- safety Patrick Chung and corners Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher -- started Saturday night in Jacksonville and appear to be the starters going into the regular season.

The fourth was Phillips, who had a history of knee trouble. He was unable to play Saturday because of a quad injury. Like Jackson and Atogwe, he was a known injury risk that backfired on the Eagles.

That leaves Allen, who managed to play in 15 games (13 starts) last season without recording an interception, a sack or forcing a fumble. In three seasons, Allen has two sacks and five interceptions -- which would have been a good month for Dawkins.

Rookie Earl Wolff, a fifth-round pick, rotated in with the first team. But he and Chung were embarrassed on a 63-yard touchdown run by Jacksonville’s Jordan Todman.

With Phillips gone, Roseman has few options on the roster. He can scan the waiver wire this week, as teams cut their rosters to 75 by Tuesday and to the final 53 by Saturday.

Or he can attempt a more ambitious solution. Eagles fans are already clamoring for Jairus Byrd, the two-time Pro Bowler who just signed his franchise tender in Buffalo. If the Bills decide to shop the unhappy safety, Roseman should at least consider it.

Byrd and Chung played together at Oregon, where a guy named Chip Kelly was the offensive coordinator.

With the release of Phillips and linebacker Jamar Chaney, who tweeted about being waived, the Eagles' roster was down to 76. It must be at 75 by Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET.

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