PHILADELPHIA — The price of success in 2022 was high for the Philadelphia Eagles.
After their dominating 14-3 regular season and a trip to Super Bowl LVII, the rest of the league wanted a piece of what they built. The Arizona Cardinals plucked defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon to be their head coach. The Indianapolis Colts did the same with offensive coordinator Shane Steichen. And the personnel was picked apart, particularly on defense, with seven starters — safeties C.J. Gardner-Johnson and Marcus Epps, defensive tackle Javon Hargrave, running back Miles Sanders, guard Isaac Seumalo, and linebackers T.J. Edwards and Kyzir White — all exiting in free agency.
Normally, general manager Howie Roseman works to extend key contributors before they hit the market, but the organization made the decision to put negotiations on ice during the season, not wanting to disrupt team chemistry by giving new deals to some and not others. The Eagles had 19 unrestricted free agents as a result.
“We understood that could cost us at the end, but we thought it was worthwhile because of the opportunity to potentially win a championship,” Roseman said at the scouting combine last month. “Unfortunately, we came up short [against the Kansas City Chiefs].”
But this offseason hasn’t been all about loss. Philadelphia was able to re-sign All-Pro cornerback James Bradberry; reworked Darius Slay‘s deal after a departure seemed inevitable; brought back stalwarts Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox and Jason Kelce; and added players including running back Rashaad Penny, quarterback Marcus Mariota, corner Greedy Williams and linebacker Nicholas Morrow. The Eagles have an ascending quarterback in Jalen Hurts and return a strong supporting cast led by A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith along with one of the top offensive lines in football.
But the Dallas Cowboys have gained ground on them in the NFC East when considering the plethora of Eagles departures combined with the additions of Brandin Cooks and Stephon Gilmore.
Whether Philly can hold on to the top spot in the division and remain a contender for the Lombardi Trophy hinges in part on the following questions:
Will the loss of Gardner-Johnson come back to bite the Eagles?
If their 2023 season goes sideways, there’s a good chance fingers will point back to their decision-making around Gardner-Johnson and the dominoes put in motion as a result.
According to a source with direct knowledge of negotiations, the Eagles offered him a multiyear deal early in free agency, but Gardner-Johnson didn’t take it, feeling it was well below his value. Philly moved on and struck a deal with Bradberry and reworked Slay’s deal. With the money the Eagles had set aside mostly spent, Gardner-Johnson opted for a one-year deal worth up to $8 million with the Detroit Lions.
Gardner-Johnson finished last season tied for the league lead in interceptions (6) despite missing five games with a lacerated kidney and was an impact playmaker in the No. 1 pass defense in the league. So why wasn’t there a bigger push to keep him? The sense here is the Eagles were reluctant to commit big money to Gardner-Johnson due to uncertainty over how reliable he would be over the long term.
But there’s risk in letting him walk, too, as Philadelphia is now hitting the reset button at the safety position. And instead of re-upping a 25-year-old player who continues to show signs of improvement, they retained older vets Bradberry (29) and Slay (32), who joined Kelce (35), Cox (32) and Graham (34) as Eagles who received new deals this offseason.
Reed Blankenship did well in spot duty at safety as a rookie, but the Eagles need to look to the outside for veteran help. Adrian Amos, Terrell Edmunds and Taylor Rapp are among the remaining free agents. It’s worth noting Roseman didn’t acquire Gardner-Johnson from the Saints until August last year, so there’s plenty of time to rework the position, but it seems unlikely the results will be as good as they were with Gardner-Johnson in 2022.
How big of a drop-off will there be at running back?
Miles Sanders signed a four-year, $24 million contract with the Carolina Panthers, cashing in on a career year in which he rushed for 1,269 yards and 11 touchdowns.
The Eagles went the less expensive route and inked the explosive but oft-injured Penny to a one-year deal worth north of $1 million while re-signing efficient rotational back Boston Scott.
“I feel like this is a great place for me to refresh, restart my career,” said Penny, the former first-round pick of the Seattle Seahawks. “Playing with a finalist MVP at QB, great running back room, great weapons at receiver and arguably the best O-line, I’m definitely excited to get to work.”
There’s an argument to be made that the need for a top-end back is lessened due to the factors Penny mentioned, including operating alongside Hurts, whose running ability forces defenses to play honest. It’s not hard to picture Penny barreling through large holes and having explosive plays in this offense.
His track record, though, suggests injuries will be a factor — Penny has missed significant time with a torn ACL, a calf injury and a broken fibula during his five-year career — and it would be a mistake to suggest Sanders’ production was all about the system. There’s talent in the current running back room led by Penny, Kenneth Gainwell and Scott, but it could use some beefing up.
Former Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott has also expressed interest in joining the Eagles, sources told ESPN. Elliott had a career-low 876 rushing yards in 2022, but he scored 12 touchdowns and remained a top short-yardage back and pass protector.
The Eagles will likely want to see how the draft plays out before adding another veteran to the group. The most realistic way Elliott ends up in Philly is if the Eagles exit draft weekend without a back and Elliott can be had at a bargain later in the offseason.
Texas standout Bijan Robinson stirred excitement among the fan base recently by posting a picture from Philadelphia on Instagram, presumably while on a pre-draft visit. The Eagles have two first-round picks this April — Nos. 10 and 30 overall — and would likely have to use the former to nab Robinson, the unanimous All-American and Doak Walker Award winner. That would be out of character with how the Eagles normally build their roster. But there’s a school of thought that Philly should go all-in on offense and allow that side of the ball to carry the load in 2023 while the defense retools.
Whether it’s a big splash like Robinson or otherwise, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Philadelphia address the position again between now and the start of the year.
Can the young talent step up?
The defense lost both starting safeties, both starting linebackers and an impact starting defensive tackle in Hargrave this offseason. While the second wave of free agency and the draft (the Eagles hold six picks overall) can help build up the roster, Philly will have to rely on some young players already on the team to step up.
Two prime candidates are linebacker Nakobe Dean and defensive tackle Jordan Davis, former teammates on Georgia’s powerhouse defense who served as role players during their first season in Philadelphia. Dean played mostly on special teams while Davis started off strong before a high ankle sprain slowed him.
Dean is a favorite to take over one of the starting linebacker spots, and Davis should see an elevated role in the middle of the Eagles’ defense with Hargrave now in San Francisco.
Meanwhile, 2022 second-round pick Cam Jurgens is the front-runner to replace Seumalo at right guard.
“Those guys are ready to play. They’re ready to contribute,” Roseman said. “We knew when we were drafting them last year, we were drafting them because they were the best players, not necessarily because they were guys ready to fill spots at a position of need. We look at our team this year knowing those guys can take a step forward and be part of it.”