Eagles juggle present, future to build around Wentz

Eagles juggle present, future to build around Wentz

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Wentz

As is often the case this time of year, pandemic or no pandemic, the Eagles are being judged by what they didn't do rather than what they did.

Yes, they added an ascending defensive tackle (Javon Hargrave) and a cornerback who was a first-team All Pro selection three years ago (Darius Slay).

But they also bowed out of the bidding for the top-rated corner in free agency (Byron Jones), and they passed on an opportunity to get one of the league's top wide receivers (DeAndre Hopkins).

And maybe, most egregiously in the eyes of many fans, they had the audacity to let popular three-time Pro Bowl safety and team leader Malcolm Jenkins walk out the door.

Meanwhile, 1,200 miles to the south, the New Orleans Saints gobbled up Jenkins quicker than it takes to down a bowl of Cajun seafood gumbo, handing him a four-year, $32 million deal with $16.2 million in guaranteed money over the next two years.

The Saints also signed 33-year-old wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who helped the San Francisco 49ers get to the Super Bowl last season, to a two-year deal that could be worth as much as $19 million.

The Eagles, meanwhile, whose wide receiver corps had a grand total of 146 receptions and 11 touchdown catches last season, apparently are going to wait for the draft to find Carson Wentz some pass-catching reinforcements.

Before you start contemplating ripping up your season tickets or placing general manager Howie Roseman's picture back up on your dartboard, understand that the difference in the offseason approaches between the Eagles and the Saints has nothing to do with competence or a commitment to winning and pretty much everything to do with the ages of their quarterbacks.

With 41-year-old Drew Brees at the helm of their offense, the Saints are on the clock. Their focus is on winning now because they have no idea what the future is going to hold when Brees finally retires, which very well could be after this season or next.

The Eagles quarterback, Carson Wentz, just turned 27 in December. Barring something unforeseen, the organization expects him to be leading the offense for at least the next decade, maybe longer.

Roseman and the Eagles have a broader plan right now than the Saints. Like the Saints, they're trying to win now while at the same time also build a young team that will grow and flourish around Wentz over the next five or six or seven years.

"That's the biggest challenge that we have and that I personally have," the Eagles GM said last week. "Balancing what we're doing today with where we're going to be two-three years from now.

"That puts me in a situation where sometimes I have to be the bad cop. Where we are now, we're trying to do everything we possibly can to win a Super Bowl in the next couple of years.

"But we also realize that, because of the nature of this game and because of how often you're dealing with injuries and other things that come across your plate during the season that you don't anticipate, that you really can't put all of your chips in the center of the table when you have a 27-year-old quarterback.

"So we're trying to balance being in a position where, every year we give our team an opportunity to compete and get in the tournament and then try to be as hot as we possibly can. We're trying to balance that and, at the same time, look at it and see areas that maybe we can grow together with the team, and other areas where maybe the best way to improve the talent level in the next couple of years is to get some other guys from other teams."

Former Eagles president Joe Banner understands what Roseman is trying to do. He is trying to execute the same organizational strategy that the Eagles used in the early 2000s when Donovan McNabb was the quarterback and Andy Reid was the head coach.

Sustainability. Try to be competitive every year. Give yourself a chance to be in the Super Bowl hunt every year.

From 2000 through 2010, the Eagles made nine playoff appearances, won six division titles, and were in the NFC championship game five times. The fact that they never won the Super Bowl during that period doesn't mean the plan was bad.

"When you look at the Eagles and the Saints, I think both teams are doing everything they can right now to win this year," Banner said. "I think both of them are among a small group that can legitimately look at themselves and think they have a chance to win the Super Bowl.

"Have the Saints been a little more aggressive this offseason? Probably. I'm sure there's a greater sense of urgency there because of the age of their quarterback.

"But I think the Eagles have made some very good moves. In Hargrave and Slay, they've signed two potentially real difference-making players."

The Eagles wanted to keep Jenkins for one more year but weren't willing to guarantee him any money beyond this year.

They are trying to get younger and cheaper. They didn't want to guarantee money beyond this year to a 32-year-old safety for the same reason they probably won't restructure All-Pro defensive tackle Fletcher Cox's massive contract despite his $22-plus-million cap numbers the next three years: They don't want to push any more money into the future and hinder their cap flexibility once Wentz's cap number jumps into the mid-30s next year.

The rash of injuries the Eagles suffered the last three years also likely factored into their reluctance to give Jenkins a contract extension. They have overhauled their medical, training, and strength and conditioning staffs. And they are trying to cull some of the age from their roster.

Ironically, Jenkins has been one of the most durable players in the league -- he didn't miss a game in six years with the Eagles and played every snap in 2018 and 2019. But again, he's 32. He has played in 178 NFL games. He has taken more than 12,000 snaps.

"People can say what they want, but when your team gets old, your exposure to injury is much, much higher than when your team is younger," Banner said. "We've all seen the injuries they've had the last few years, including the Super Bowl year. The best way to fix that is to get younger."

Said Roseman: "We're trying to figure out ways so that we're not in a bad [cap] situation not only this year, but going forward. We're trying to balance all of those things."

Many fans were perplexed that the Eagles didn't make more of an effort to get Hopkins, the three-time All-Pro wide receiver. The Arizona Cardinals acquired Hopkins, who turns 28 in June, and a fourth-round pick from the Houston Texans for running back David Johnson, a 2020 second-round pick, and a 2021 fourth-round pick.

Hopkins is one of the league's two or three best wideouts. Over the last five seasons he averaged 100.8 catches, 1,318 yards, and 9.2 touchdown receptions per year.

While Roseman said that the Texans' asking price from the Eagles was "different" from the one the Cardinals paid, the real reason the Eagles backed away from trading for Hopkins was that the wideout wanted his current contract, which still has three years to run, torn up and redone.

Despite Hopkins' difference-making talent, Roseman felt that if he did that for Hopkins, it would set a bad precedent in the locker room.

Banner, who repeatedly refused to renegotiate contracts that had multiple years left on them when he was the team's contract guy, thinks Roseman made the right decision, even if Eagles fans don't.

"You have to factor it in," he said of the ripple effect of tearing up a contract with three years left on it. "You don't want to send the message that you value someone who's been playing for another team more than you value your own guys. There's a real sensitivity to that kind of stuff in the locker room.

"Obviously, you come across situations that may or may not warrant an exception. But people that dismiss that aren't on the phone with the agents on a regular basis.

"You can lower your head and plow through it. And some GMs obviously are willing to do that. But you're going to leave a lot of players that you really want to be happy, and players that you want to lead the rest of the organization, unhappy. You rock the boat pretty significantly. I believed strongly in that when I was in that position, and I think it's smart for Howie to believe that.

"The locker room matters in terms of how it's feeling about things. And it's also fairly fragile. You can mix in the wrong person or make a couple of the wrong decisions that send the wrong message, and all of a sudden, what was a good, strong locker room becomes more of a question mark."

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