Checking in on division rivals: are the Eagles rebuilding, or contending?

The NFL's dirtiest secret used to be that the salary cap didn't matter.  Back in 2007, 2008, and 2009, the cap would increase so steeply every year, that a perennially cap-tight franchise like the Redskins could give out massive contracts to Albert Haynesworth and DeAngelo Hall, and not measurably change their cap situation.  The cap was so obviously a non-factor, that back in 2009, I wrote about how little the cap mattered on the Matt Cassel extension with the Chiefs. That was Scott Pioli's FIRST major move as a NFL general manager.  As we prepare for the 2013 draft, Pioli is now on television.

Replacing Pioli in Kansas City is Andy Reid, disposed this past off-season as head coach of the Eagles for the crime of having a losing season.  The Eagles hired Oregon head coach Chip Kelly to replace Reid.  One of the major differences between the Eagles and the Redskins is that the Eagles have long operated at a higher standard for winning than the Redskins: the struggles this past season that got Reid fired more or less got Shanahan the sense of urgency within the organization to trade three years of draft talent for RG3.

But those standards don't always predict good things for the Eagles.  That sense of urgency by the Redskins resulted in the selection of maybe the premier player in the NFL (and certainly among players 23 and younger — because that group excludes Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, Colin Kaepernick, and Russell Wilson — although he's second in Approximate Value to CB Patrick Peterson of the Cardinals among 23 year olds), while the Eagles may be in full on rebuilding mode.  

Here's the big question I'm trying to answer today: are the Eagles actually rebuilding?   Because if the dirty secret of the NFL used to be that the salary cap doesn't matter, today the secret the NFL doesn't want you to know is that even the most aggressive rebuilding projects should result in quick turnarounds.  The Raiders completely tore down their team this offseason, but their management will be on the hot seat as quickly as 2014.  Heck, the Redskins managed to improve from a weak team with a rookie quarterback to a playoff contender featuring the rookie of the year to perhaps the premier team in the NFC East in just two months without the benefit of an offseason.  If the Redskins could go from 3-6 to 10-6 with minimal roster adjustment, it would stand to reason that the "rebuilding" Eagles cannot simply be written off in 2013.

Evidence that the Eagles are rebuilding: release/restructuring of the old guard

QB Michael Vick headlined this group when he agreed to cut down his "$100 million" extension to one year at about seven million, the alternative to getting released and heading to a market where he likely wouldn't have found a better fit than he already had in Philadelphia.  But, and starting with the midseason release of DE Jason Babin, the Eagles' salary releases would make you think this team is rebuilding.  They released quality contributors on the wrong side of age 30 such as DTs Mike Patterson and Cullen Jenkins.   They allowed CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to walk in free agency.  And they released their largest contract, CB Nnamdi Asomugha, who will eat a significant part of their 2013 salary cap, which is typically excellent evidence of a rebuild.  The Eagles are going with a 3-4 defense in 2013, and while teams typically see a defensive boost in year one of a scheme change (and the Eagles defense is bound to regress towards the mean anyway), they certainly released players who could have helped in the short term despite being on the wrong side of 30.  The Eagles secondary will move from a talent-loaded disaster in 2012 to talent-lacking disaster in 2013.

Evidence that the Eagles are reloading

Now, here's the tricky part: if we can pencil the Eagles defense as a bit improved in 2013, then the evaluation of their offense gets a bit dicey.  Chip Kelly did not make a ton of personnel changes on offense, which in itself is evidence of a multi-year rebuilding project: taking a year to identify the long term contributors.  But if you're looking at places where the Eagles may improve (as opposed to merely regress) the most, we know that Chip Kelly is going to completely change the offensive philosophy of the Philadelphia Eagles.  NFL offenses have been moving in the direction of up-tempo gameplanning, and Kelly was a master of this at Oregon, and the University of New Hampshire before that.

No one thinks the Eagles were lacking in talent under Reid, even as the numbers said they were lacking in production, and the weakest part of the Eagles last year on offense was their offensive line.  But injuries struck hard on that offensive line, and they'll return a group that already probably understand's Kelly's offensive concepts better than most offenses because a lot of my film study suggests that Reid had been taking college concepts from coaches like Kelly and implementing them since 2010 at least, when the goal was getting productivity from Kevin Kolb.  If you are hoping the Eagles will be down in the short term because of a steep learning curve to Kelly's offense, I think that ignores why Kelly's system was so effective in college: its remarkable simplicity.  Any of Philadelphia's quarterbacks can excute this gameplan on limited practice because its, for lack of a better term, user friendly.

Kelly's offense is spread, sure, but every team in the NFL that's not consistently running two backs still (essentially, this is just the Shanahan tree now) is running the spread offense as it's base set, and college-style coaches like SF OC Greg Roman as well as Kyle Shanahan have taken spread concepts and college coaching techniques, and have worked them into the pro style system.  By my count, the last of the coaches who refused to adapt to the wide open (Pat Shurmur) was fired following the 2012 season (Shurmur is now an assistant on Chip Kelly's staff).  Kelly's system is about getting the best players on the roster in great matchups, if not wide open.  The orthodoxy that the read option (which is a great weapon for doing such, as the Redskins know) is a necessary staple of his offense is a media creation.

The best quarterback on his roster is Nick Foles, who likely will not run the read-option, but will run a highly-uptempo offense that will put up big raw numbers.  The trick for defenses against Kelly is in the efficiency numbers.  The Duck offense always put up big points, but had widely varying offensive efficiency numbers while the Ducks defense was much more consistently top ten.  There's a good bet the Eagles will be top five in points scored, as as long as they can avoid the turnovers that plagued them in past seasons, an offense that is near the top of the NFC in total offense doesn't exactly have the components of a rebuilding project.

The truth is in the roster

The Eagles simply don't have the young talent they have had in past years.  When you look at under 24 year old talent, the Eagles have LB Mychael Kendricks, and DL Fletcher Cox, their top two picks from last year's draft, who will now be major contributors in the new scheme.  Then they have a pair of rotational running backs, Bryce Brown and Dion Lewis, who are just 22 and 23 respectively.  They have Brandon Boykin, the Georgia product who may be the team's slot corner.  But, relatively speaking, that's a good drafts worth of talent, but not an elite core to build around.  Every team with a full slate of picks could go out into the draft this April, and match the draft the Eagles had last year.

If we expand the core by two years, the Eagles have one of the best players in the league in Shady McCoy, which means the team is loaded at the running back position in a way that reminds you of the kind of backfield talent Chip Kelly had at Oregon.  Jeremy Maclin is just 25 as he heads into a contract year.  And Brandon Graham is an excellent foundational defensive player.

But the Eagles roster is not talent-loaded with youth, and if you take the running back position out of it, it's arguably talent void.  That's one of the reasons they offered a massive contract to OLB Connor Barwin, who may not start as a first year player, but means that the Eagles felt they had to go outside the organization to get Trent Cole's eventual replacement.  Barwin may be able compete with Cole now, but he will never be Cole in his prime, one of the truly underrated players of the last five years.

Lacking the pipeline to seamlessly replace the talent that was released by the Eagles this offseason, the number one goal for the upcoming draft is to get foundational talent…which by definition means the Eagles are rebuilding.  There are plenty of bells and whistles here for Kelly to make use of in year one, and no one thinks the Eagles are void of talent.  But a lot of talent is already in prime or perhaps on the backside of prime (talent like Cole and OL Jason Peters, Todd Herremans, and Evan Mathis), and none of those players may have the longevity to be part of the next Super Bowl type Eagles team.  The foundation of that next Eagles team is going to be the current draft.  And when, heading into draft season, the foundation of your next great team isn't yet on your team, that means you're rebuilding.  

In the Eagles case, it's rebuilding with a caveat, but — significant to Redskins fans — rebuilding nonetheless.

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