PHILADELPHIA — The Philadelphia Eagles’ most important free-agent signing in the offseason was second-page news on the day he signed.
Mark Sanchez’s one-year contract with the Eagles had already been reported by the time the team officially announced it on March 28. His arrival as the backup quarterback to Nick Foles received a fair amount of attention considering Sanchez’s history, but not long after his news conference later that morning it became an afterthought.
DeSean Jackson was released less than an hour after Sanchez met with reporters and the conversation shifted from the former New York Jets quarterback and the then-unlikely proposition that he could supplant Foles to the discarding of a Pro Bowl wide receiver in the prime of his career.
Eight months and nine wins later, the former has proved to have more of an impact than the latter. Sanchez has gone 3-1 as a starter — and helped steer the Eagles to another victory in relief of the injured Foles — and has been steady enough for Chip Kelly to ride him for the rest of the season, whether Foles returns or not.
Considering the investment — one year for $2.25 million — Sanchez’ contract could be the best value any NFL team got from a free-agent addition this year. In fact, after 12 games, it’s safe to say the Eagles hit close to 1.000 in free agency and did so without opening the vault.
They weren’t sexy signings at the time, but Sanchez, safety Malcolm Jenkins (three years), safety Chris Maragos (three years), linebacker Bryan Braman (two years), cornerback Nolan Carroll (two years) and offensive lineman Andrew Gardner (two years) have made valuable contributions this season.
Jenkins has been the most reliable safety the Eagles have had in five years. Maragos, a former Seahawk, and Braman have been key cogs on arguably the best special teams in the NFL. Carroll has given the defense versatility as the sixth defensive back in its dime package, and Gardner has unseated Matt Tobin as the starting right guard after Todd Herremans’ season-ending biceps injury.
“When you bring in a guy, you’re always hoping and optimistic that those are the kind of things that are going to happen,” Eagles general manager Howie Roseman said Monday, “seeing guys that have the ability to fit into the scheme and blossom because of it.”
Darren Sproles wasn’t a free agent, but he was acquired in a trade just two days after the start of the new league year and was targeted by the Eagles for the same reasons. The running back/returner had the prerequisites for scheme and culture fit. The 2013 class wasn’t a failure by any means, but there have been fewer misses this year.
“I think everybody just understands what we’re looking for better in a player . in terms of what we’re looking for not only from a size-skill standpoint, but type of practice player they are, type of team player they are,” Kelly said. “Hopefully we’ll get better as this continues to go along, but I think the first year we did a pretty good job, too.”
The Eagles batted around .500 in free agency last year.
Linebacker Connor Barwin and punter Donnie Jones have played beyond expectations. Cornerbacks Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher have been acceptable considering their tame contracts. Tight end James Casey hasn’t played up to his deal, but had his role was reduced when Zach Ertz was drafted. Nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga, safeties Patrick Chung and Kenny Phillips and receiver Arrelious Benn (trade) were strikeouts.
The 2014 group has seamlessly slipped into a locker room that endured the coaching and culture changeover in Kelly’s first year. Success has a way of making everyone get along, but the Eagles would say winning is a direct result of finding the right players for the system.
Roseman spoke of the “synergy” between coaching and scouting. Kelly and his staff have specific directives on the type of players they want for each position and it has been the job of the personnel department to funnel the pool down into a thimble, the GM said.
“We’d rather know a lot about a little than a little about a lot,” Roseman said. “What our coaching staff does a great job of is articulating by position what they’re looking for. . That is by definition the personnel staff – find players that fit your coaching staff and fit the systems they have in place.”
As much success as the Eagles have had in free agency, they haven’t been as accurate in the draft. The verdict on the 2013 class isn’t in yet, but it looks promising with three starting or starting-caliber players. The jury on the 2014 draft is out, as well, but it the early returns are discouraging.
Ultimately, the Eagles want to home-grow their talent. The moves they made to retain their own free agents were as significant as the new additions, if not as precise. But four (tackle Jason Peters, center Jason Kelce, receiver Jeremy Maclin, Jones) out of six (receiver Riley Cooper and safety Nate Allen) isn’t bad.
And whether Sanchez keeps winning or not, the Eagles have already gotten more production out of a backup quarterback than most teams.