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How Jets GM Joe Douglas should replicate the Eagles, Part 1: Building around homegrown talent

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NFL: Super Bowl LII-Philadelphia Eagles vs New England Patriots John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

The Jets are not going to turn into carbon copies of the Philadelphia Eagles simply because they hired Joe Douglas. The new general manager has been around the league for a long time and has his own ideas. I am sure there are things his old boss Howie Roseman did in Philadelphia that he disagreed with. He will do those things differently now that he is in charge of his own team.

With that said, the Eagles do a lot of things right so I am sure Douglas will borrow some of the philosophies he liked from his time in Philadelphia.

Over the next few days I will share philosophies the Eagles have that I think Douglas should bring to the Jets.

What follows is the first.

Building around homegrown talent

It feels like every single general manager in the NFL pays lip service to the concept of building through the Draft, but few truly adhere to it. Douglas’ predecessor Mike Maccagnan came from a college scouting background, but it sure didn’t feel like he was committed to building through the Draft. During his tenure the Jets were regularly short on Draft picks and among the leaders in free agency spending.

There’s nothing wrong with a timely free agent signing. In fact one of the biggest reasons Douglas earned plaudits in Philadelphia was how effective the Eagles have been in free agency. In today’s NFL I think few would recommend an approach like Ted Thompson had as Packers general manager where free agency was barely ever utilized.

But the outside additions were there to supplement a core of homegrown talent, not serve as a substitute for it. The Eagles already had their core in place, and it was comprised of players they had drafted and developed.

A great article by Robert Mays of The Ringer that came out before Super Bowl LII discussed the benefits.

Shortly after the firing of Chip Kelly in late 2015, the Eagles extended their homegrown talent.

In the span of four days in January 2016, Philly inked Ertz and right tackle Lane Johnson to massive extensions. A week later, defensive end Vinny Curry was given a five-year deal with $23 million in guarantees. In June, Cox secured his record- and bank-breaking $103 million extension.

This was a stark contrast to the approach of the previous regime, which imported a lot of underperforming high priced talent.

Eleven days after trading longtime Eagles star LeSean McCoy to Buffalo for linebacker Kiko Alonso in March 2015, Kelly brought in running back DeMarco Murray on a five-year, $42 million contract. “It was obvious from the beginning that he didn’t want to be here,” one member of the 2015 Eagles says. At the time, Murray was coming off an 1,845-yard rushing campaign with the Cowboys; he went on to average a meager 3.6 yards per carry in Philadelphia, finishing with just 702 yards.

Kelly’s roster machinations didn’t end there. The Eagles allowed wide receiver Jeremy Maclin to bolt for Kansas City in free agency, electing instead to sign cornerback Byron Maxwell to a six-year, $63 million deal that quickly turned into an albatross. Kelly also sent quarterback Nick Foles, a 2015 fourth-round pick, and a 2016 second-round pick to the Rams for Sam Bradford, his $13 million salary, and a 2015 fifth-rounder. “Guys were getting shipped in and out of here,” tight end Zach Ertz says. “It was kind of a revolving door, the quarterback position in particular.” As longtime stalwarts were kicked to the curb and new faces continued to arrive, even Philly’s established players began to wonder who might go next. “If nobody knows who’s gonna be here, if nobody feels safe, if nobody has security, it’s hard to invest in each other,” Jenkins says.

There was another example in recent Eagles history of high priced imports failing to deliver.

In addition to ensuring that the Eagles’ core of young stars would remain intact for the foreseeable future, Roseman’s flurry of signings was designed to deliver a message to the locker room. The Dream Team fiasco of 2011—which included an offseason haul of expensive free agents like Nnamdi Asomugha, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and Jason Babin—had taught this Eagles front office plenty of lessons about the right way to construct a roster. Eschewing draft picks in favor of collecting big-money outsiders can change the entire complexion of a locker room. “Whenever you’ve been with another organization, you can’t help it: You’ve seen the business side of football,” Kelce says. “So even if you’re not thinking about it, it’s almost an unconscious thing.”

This time Philly took the opposite approach and re-signed their own players. Whenever a team signs a homegrown player to an extension I hear fans discuss how that signing, “sends a message to the locker room.” I’m not sure one signing really has that impact, though. When it becomes the organization’s operating philosophy and happens continually, that’s a different story. It can become a motivator for players on the team.

“Once you start investing in a core group of guys … if you’re one of those guys, you say, ‘OK, they want me here, and I have ownership of what’s happening here,’” Jenkins says. “And if you’re not one of those guys, you see, ‘OK, if I invest time, and I play well, and I perform, this team notices that.’”

Once you have a core of leadership that understands the organization’s culture, it is easier to acclimate outsiders as Mays noted.

Each new addition has a story similar to Jernigan’s—of receiving a gesture that made him feel both wanted and welcome. That culture of inclusion helped new faces acclimate immediately, and it’s defined the Eagles’ success this season. “If you a have a foundation and a core group of guys that have been here for a long time, leaders who know the team, know the organization, they understand what’s expected,” center Jason Kelce says. “When you add the new pieces in, it’s very easy for those guys to understand quickly what’s going on.”

That leads us to the natural comparison of what happened with the Jets under Mike Maccagnan. High priced imports were a staple of the Maccagnan Era.

Maccagnan gave Trumaine Johnson one of the richest cornerback contracts in league history. Upon signing the deal Johnson proclaimed, “I bring leadership.”

Once he actually started playing for the Jets, that wasn’t evident.

One of the benefits of being so bad for so long is the Jets have started assembling a core of premium young talent picked at the top of the Draft. Leonard Williams, Jamal Adams, Sam Darnold, and Quinnen Williams have the potential to be a pieces the Jets can build around. Depending on how they perform, less decorated young players like Marcus Maye, Chris Herndon, and Robby Anderson might join them.

It is the first time in more than a decade the Jets have had building blocks like this.

Of course the financial terms have to make sense. You don’t want to repeat the saga of giving a marginal starter like Brian Winters a payday simply because he’s homegrown.

But there is a lot of logic in locking up homegrown talent when possible. Muhammad Wilkerson situations aside, paying big money to your own players is less risky than giving megadeals to players from other cities.

Unlike imported players, these guys have shown they can thrive on your team. They fit into your locker room. They have shown they fit your team’s system. There are many instances where high priced talent fails because the new team cannot replicate the conditions that led to the player’s success on the old team. And as pointed out in the Mays article, these guys are more likely to take ownership of the locker room and embrace leadership roles because they understand the team’s culture.

When you bring in outsiders, it makes sense to invest small at first. Leave yourself some wiggle room to get out of the deal. If the import takes to your team, then you can give him big money, and he can work his way into a leadership role.

Mike Maccagnan didn’t have much of an opportunity to build around a homegrown core. He inherited a team that had produced little in the way of recent young talent. Still I can’t shake the stark difference in the way he treated two of his players last year.

In free agency he essentially gave Johnson a blank check to come to the Jets. I don’t have a source who can confirm that. It’s an educated guess. I just don’t see how a contract could be structured in such a team unfriendly way unless the Jets did minimal negotiating.

So the Jets just gave a cornerback with a career total of zero All Pro teams and zero Pro Bowl appearances whatever he wanted.

A few weeks later the Jets drafted Sam Darnold. He was picked to be the centerpiece of the franchise for more than a decade. Darnold missed the start of training camp because the contract negotiation on his rookie deal was acrimonious. The issues were not about the salary Darnold would make. Instead the Jets and Darnold dug in over relatively minor issues such as offsets and forfeiture language.

Just for a second forget about whether you think Darnold was right to care so much about those relatively minor provisions.

Think about Mike Maccagnan’s operating procedure. He didn’t think structuring Trumaine Johnson’s deal in a way that could protect the team a little bit was a battle worth fighting. Mind you, Johnson could have gotten just as much money even if the deal was structured in a friendly way for the team.

A couple of minor provisions on the contract of the new leader of the franchise? That was a hill Maccagnan was willing to die on.

While these negotiations were just a slice of the Maccagnan Era, I would argue that a comparison of the two moments provide a window of the previous regime’s thinking. Importing was prioritized over building within. Give outsiders whatever they want. Play hardball with your own.

The Eagles’ mindset has been the opposite for decades starting with Roseman’s mentor Joe Banner. Under Banner the Eagles pioneered the practice of locking up young players as early as possible.

Considering the fact the salary cap has risen by at least $10 million for six straight years, signing players early can be a great money saver. If you wait a year to strike a deal, the cap will likely have gone up. When the cap goes up, a player’s market value goes up with it. Better to get a deal done early.

Just this week the Eagles struck an early extension with their young quarterback Carson Wentz, and one expert noted it will likely bring long-term savings.

That brings us to another benefit of working out early extensions. The player has less leverage and is more likely to take a discount. A player two years away from free agency has a lot of uncertainty. That is a lot of time to potentially suffer a career-altering injury. Or there could be a multi-year performance slide that diminishes his market value. The certainty of a big money long-term deal right now can sound very appealing, even if it risks leaving some money on the table over the long haul.

The Jets have taken the opposite approach with Leonard Williams. Williams is looking at a $14 million payday this year playing on his fifth year option. After the season he is either going to hit the open market where he will have numerous suitors or receive the lucrative franchise tag. There isn’t much incentive for him to leave money on the table in negotiations with the Jets. A year ago that might not have been the case.

With that in mind, I think Douglas would be well-advised to emulate his former employer. If Adams, Darnold, Q. Williams, and others perform to their capabilities, the Jets should aggressively look to make sure they will remain in green and white for a long time. It is the type of smart business practice that helped the Eagles build a Super Bowl core.