Helman: Eagles' Big Win Offers Cowboys Valuable Lessons On Roster Building

FRISCO, Texas – I understand that you probably don't need a refresher about what happened Sunday night in Minnesota. If you're reading this website, you likely don't want one.

I understand that, but bear with me for the next few hundred words. Upsetting as it might have been to watch the Philadelphia Eagles win their first Super Bowl, there were some interesting dynamics on display Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium. There were also a few lessons I think the Cowboys would be wise to learn if they want to celebrate another Super Bowl of their own.

What other conclusion could you come to watching the Eagles' 41-33 play out? It was almost like cruel and unusual punishment – not just that the Eagles won the Super Bowl, but the way they managed to do it.

Their backup quarterback, acquired for a very manageable salary, dissected New England to the tune of 373 yards and an MVP performance. Their running backs, both of whom were acquired for small prices, combined for 147 yards and a touchdown. The two cast off wide receivers that they signed last offseason combined for eight catches, 118 yards and a touchdown.

At every level of the field, it seemed like the Eagles got contributions from someone the Cowboys would never dream of employing. After all, for several years here in Dallas we have been warned about the dangers of the open market.

And let's be totally fair to the Cowboys for a second. I still believe that free agency is not a smart way to build an NFL roster. Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones loves to point out that the open market rewards average players like good players and good players like great ones.

I still think he's right about that, and I still think the draft is the surest way to make a contender in today's NFL. I think the Eagles probably agree, too.

Check out their roster, and you'll see that they've spent draft capital in all the important spots. Carson Wentz was the No. 2 overall pick, and they paid a pretty penny to trade up and draft him. Zach Ertz, who scored the game-winning touchdown on Sunday, was a second-round pick.

The Eagles' disgusting defensive front, which – other than Carson Wentz – was the biggest reason for their success this year, was largely constructed via the draft. Fletcher Cox and Vinny Curry were both top 60 picks back in 2012. Brandon Graham was a first-round pick way back in 2010. Derek Barnett was drafted 14th overall this past year.

Clearly, the Eagles value the draft as much as anyone else. But it's the moves they made outside the confines of the draft that have pushed them into this position.

Go back to what I said at the top of this column. The Eagles watched Wentz struggle without much in the way of skill players throughout his rookie season. Not trusting the draft to be the solution, they took the matter into their own hands. They signed Alshon Jeffery to a team-friendly, $11 million prove-it deal. Then they turned around and signed Torrey Smith to a one-year, $5 million deal with two team options. For $16 million, they found two receivers who accounted for 93 catches, 1,219 yards and 11 touchdowns – both of whom played a sizable role on Sunday night.

Look across the roster and the story is the same. Philly signed LeGarrette Blount off his Super Bowl campaign for $1.2 million to bolster their running back corps. They signed Nick Foles as solid insurance for Wentz on a two-year, $11 million deal.

As nasty as their homegrown pass rushers are, they signed Chris Long, a talented veteran pass rusher and a fantastic locker room presence, for just $2.2 million per year. Long started just one game for Philly this season, but his five sacks would have been third-best on this Cowboys roster.

Savvy free agent spending is one thing, but it goes a bit further than that. The Eagles' decision to trade up for Wentz is well-documented, but you can't forget their willingness to be bold with other portions of their roster.

Jay Ajayi is the obvious example. Weeks after losing Darren Sproles for the season, the Eagles decided they needed a complement to Blount in their backfield. For the low cost of a fourth-round pick, they acquired a veteran running back with 19 starts and 1,924 rushing yards on his resume.

Then there's Ronald Darby, who Philadelphia acquired from Buffalo as one of their starting cornerbacks in exchange for wide receiver Jordan Matthews and a 2018 third-round pick.

My personal favorite is even more under the radar. In the weeks leading up to the 2017 NFL Draft, the Eagles acquired Baltimore defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan and the Ravens' third-round pick in exchange for their third-round pick.

So, in essence: the Eagles acquired a nightmare defensive tackle, who tallied 29 tackles and 2.5 sacks en route to a $48 million contract extension. All they had to surrender to get him was 20 places in the draft order.

That's the big thing here. We're not talking about big money contracts. The Eagles have given out plenty of those over the years. Some of them have worked, ala Malcom Jenkins, Brandon Brooks and Rodney McLeod. Some of them haven't, ala Demarco Murray and Sam Bradford.

I don't care about any of that, because the Cowboys have firmly established they aren't interested in handing out huge contracts to outside free agents. And the bottom line is I think that's a smart attitude.

But, as the Eagles have proven, there can be a grey area. You can focus on signing your own and building through the draft and at the same time look for bold and inventive ways to improve your roster.

In the span of one offseason, the Eagles improved themselves from 7-9 and last in the NFC East to 13-3 and Super Bowl champions. The interesting thing is that they didn't have to hand out an obscene amount of money to do it. They simple saw opportunities and took them.

That should be an encouraging thought for both the Cowboys and their fans. In the unpredictable world of the NFL, you're never as far away from the top as you might think.

It should also be a reminder. It takes a lot to win a Super Bowl, and the odds are you're not going to build a championship roster through the draft alone. The Cowboys have the makings of a really good roster. To get it where they want to be, they'd do well to go just a bit bolder.

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