Nick Sirianni says Eagles ‘sure as hell value’ RB position post-Saquon Barkley signing


ORLANDO, Fla. — The question came from the back, from a voice positioned far enough beyond the crowded table that Nick Sirianni had to turn in his chair to answer. Does the NFL still value the running back position? A familiar question, both tested and timely, given the understood connection to a head coach whose organization just paid someone more annually than any running back in franchise history.

“We sure as hell value it,” Sirianni said.

For the first three seasons of Sirianni’s tenure with the Philadelphia Eagles, that value showed up more on the stat sheet than the budget sheet. They finished with top-eight rushing offenses each season. They cycled through two running backs — Miles Sanders and D’Andre Swift — who secured their first Pro Bowl selections while earning less than $2.2 million per year. So, when Swift signed a three-year, $24 million deal with the Chicago Bears, it seemed logical to suggest the Eagles would continue to be thrifty in the backfield.

Saquon Barkley proved to be the exception. General manager Howie Roseman signed the former New York Giants star to a three-year contract with a base salary totaling $37.75 million. At the NFL’s annual meetings, Roseman pushed back on his history, saying, “Our history’s a little different than maybe is being portrayed.”

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Roseman, who started working in the front office as an intern in 2000, pointed out how he was on staff when the Eagles signed Brian Westbrook to a five-year, $25 million extension in 2005. Roseman was the director of football administration under then-Eagles president Joe Banner. Roseman was also the general manager with then-coach Andy Reid when the Eagles signed LeSean McCoy to a five-year, $45 million extension in 2012.

Roseman laid out a history that says the Eagles have been willing to spend substantial sums on running backs they’ve deemed worth it. And Barkley, Roseman says, is worth it.

“We think he’s a special person,” Roseman said of the two-time Pro Bowler. “And so when you’re trying to find those guys, they’re hard to find, especially on the open market.”

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Barkley, the No. 2 overall pick in 2018, supplies the Eagles with their first true all-purpose back since McCoy. Barkley is an every-down option who totaled more than 79 percent of the offensive snaps in three of his six seasons with the Giants. He’s a dual-threat weapon who amassed 352 total touches in 2018 and 2022, his most productive years.

Barkley is also one of the NFL’s most elusive backs. He tied for 14th in average yards after contact last season (2.0), a metric that reveals one of the limitations of the Eagles’ run game in 2023. They tied for the fourth-most rushing yards before contact per attempt (2.8), and they tied for the fourth-fewest rushing yards after contact per attempt (1.5).

Sirianni, who is repairing his offensive system with newly hired offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, is now entering the enviable task of fitting Barkley into the scheme. Sirianni likened the project to when the Eagles traded for A.J. Brown in 2022, which preceded two years in which Brown set the team record for single-season receiving yards.

“Guys like that, however you use them, they’re going to do a good job,” Sirianni said. “We’re obviously working on the ways we’re going to use him now. Our offensive staff’s working hard at that. Just really excited to add a player of his caliber to our team.”

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Moore’s influence should be evident in the passing game. The former Los Angeles Chargers and Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator is partly known for brandishing the versatility of his backfield. Austin Ekeler and Ezekiel Elliott both logged 50-plus-catch seasons with at least 400 receiving yards while playing for Moore. But Sirianni suggested the new offensive staff is still too early into its scheme-building process to project such an expectation.

“To say, ‘Hey, he’s going to get 50 catches, 60 catches, 70 catches — we’re way too early for that,’” he said. “No offense, like, this offense looks different than Kellen’s offenses in Dallas. This offense looks different as far as offenses in Indy or early on here in Philadelphia. … You also have to remember, you’ve got to share it with some other guys that are really good players, too. You never know how that’s going to look, how that’s going to play itself out.”

Sirianni on working relationship with Moore, Fangio

Sirianni is entering his third month working with Moore, who was partly hired to remove the “staleness” from an offensive system that foundered during the team’s 1-6 stretch at the end of the 2023 season. Sirianni offered no details about how exactly he and Moore were fusing their offensive philosophies. He only said they’ve been going through their film collections, playbooks and teach sheets, talking through, “How can we do this better?”

Sirianni has long framed Moore’s addition as a “meshing” of offensive systems, not a full-on surrender of offensive oversight. Still, a sullen Sirianni at the end of the 2023 season acknowledged the fallibility of his system and the need to “bring a guy in with new ideas that’s not part of this family of coaches.”

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It’s clear Sirianni also believes in the parts that helped make the Eagles a No. 8-ranked offense in 2023. Of the nine new coaches, only two, beyond Moore, involved changes to the offensive staff. But Sirianni intimated he’s still released plenty of responsibility to Moore, whom Sirianni said is “doing a good job of leading the offense.”

“I would say as of right now I haven’t been in (the offensive room) as much,” Sirianni said. “I obviously have other obligations.”

Meanwhile, it seems Sirianni is giving Vic Fangio full autonomy over repairing the defensive system. Hiring Fangio, a former NFL head coach entering his seventh coordinator job in the league, was a notable shift for Sirianni. He’d initially hired Jonathan Gannon, a first-time coordinator. Once Gannon was hired to be head coach of the Arizona Cardinals, Sirianni replaced him with Sean Desai, who was only in the defensive coordinator role for one season in 2021 with the Bears.

Sirianni brought up Fangio’s experience frequently, often saying, “Vic’s done it for a very long time.” The rhetoric suggests Sirianni has more confidence in Fangio’s abilities as a play caller and game planner. Sirianni lost such faith in Desai during the 2023 season, which led to a midseason demotion that resulted only in more dysfunction under de facto defensive coordinator Matt Patricia.

“I hired Vic to do a job. … He’s in charge of the defense,” Sirianni said. “Every product that goes out on the field, whatever products out in the field is ultimately my responsibility. My name’s on that. So, I’ll have some ideas here and there. But, obviously, Vic’s done this at a high level for a very long time, and I’m excited what he brings.”

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Eagles seeking to regain ‘toughness’ on defense

Desai introduced the word “palpable” as the defense’s mantra during his first team meeting in 2023. The way the word was delivered — clumsily and needlessly complicated — in retrospect was indeed an apt description for how a No. 2-ranked defense in 2022 plummeted to No. 26 in 2023 amid myriad dysfunctions, blown coverages and missed tackles.

Roseman and Sirianni seem like they’d settle for simpler terms like swagger or toughness. Philadelphia’s defense indeed often lacked energy during its toughest stretches last season, and Roseman said the team’s recent signings of defenders such as defensive back C.J. Gardner-Johnson and linebacker Devin White — two players with intense on-field demeanors — represented how the Eagles were “looking to regain our swagger and mentality.”

Sirianni summoned the memories of plays made by Gardner-Johnson, who spent one season with the Eagles in 2022, and how he “was willing to throw his body around and play physically tough and play mentally tough, too.”

“Physical play, it just brings that juice,” Sirianni said. “It’s the alley-oop, it’s like a big 3-pointer, whatever sport you want to compare it to, the energy that it brings to the sideline and your team and the momentum that it builds.”

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C.J. Gardner-Johnson, one of the league’s biggest trash-talkers, tied for the NFL lead with six interceptions during his one season in Philadelphia. (Eric Hartline / USA Today)

Sirianni is a coach who often wears his own emotions on his sleeve. There were times in 2023 when sideline outbursts became frequent, and he acknowledged he needed to be calmer in certain crucial scenarios. But it’s clear Sirianni still values the emotional factor of a team entering his fourth year as a head coach.

“We want to be the toughest team at all times,” Sirianni said. “In stretches, we’ve been that in these past three years. We want to make sure that’s who we are.”

No official decision on Kelce’s successor

Sirianni did not formally name Cam Jurgens the team’s starting center for the 2024 season.

“I don’t have to make that decision … for a long, long time,” he said.

Indeed, the Eagles could still supply the roster with more interior linemen in the upcoming draft, free agency or the trade market. But Jurgens, a second-round pick in 2022, has been considered Jason Kelce’s heir apparent. Kelce himself has mentioned on his podcast, “New Heights,” that Jurgens will replace him this season.

It’s not unusual for a head coach to publicly resist awarding starting jobs for positional vacancies before practices even begin. Sirianni’s hesitation is also indicative of the uncertainty surrounding right guard. It’s still unclear who would replace Jurgens.

Sua Opeta, who started six games while Jurgens dealt with a foot injury, signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during free agency.

Matt Hennessy, who signed a one-year deal with the Eagles, will be a consideration. But the 2020 third-round pick also logged the majority of his snaps at center (1,138) in three seasons with the Atlanta Falcons.

Sirianni called Tyler Steen, a third-round pick in 2023, a “great option” due to his versatility. Steen, who was primarily a left tackle at Alabama, made one start at right guard while Jurgens was dealing with his injury. Steen, Sirianni said, is a “really good player” with “a lot of different qualities,” and the Eagles are “excited about his development.”

“It’s a long way away from being a finished product at the offensive line because there’s so much time to add guys,” Sirianni said.

Sirianni on Huff and Pickett

Bryce Huff, Edge: Sirianni hesitated to estimate just how much Huff’s workload will increase with the Eagles. His new contract warrants an expanded role. Huff’s three-year, $51.1 million deal makes him the 17th-highest-paid edge rusher in the NFL, according to Over the Cap. Huff, who turns 26 in April, had a breakout season while playing as a pass-rush specialist in 2023 with the New York Jets. He recorded 10 sacks and 10 tackles for loss while playing just 42 percent of the defense’s overall snaps.

The Eagles have been exploring trading their top pass rusher, Haason Reddick, but until a deal is complete, there remains a potential snap-share logjam along the defensive edge. “We’ll see,” Sirianni said. “There’s so many things that will play out. I know how good of a pass rusher he is. That’s what got him paid the amount of money he got paid. We’re really excited to add him to our roster, knowing how much he can provide help for us to get after the passer. But we’ll see how the reps play themselves out.”

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Kenny Pickett, QB: Sirianni and Roseman stated Pickett’s role simply: Jalen Hurts is the “franchise quarterback” playing on a five-year, $255 million contract. Pickett will be the backup. It was prudent for the Eagles to clearly define the expectations for the 2022 first-round pick, since a lack of clarity partly contributed to the tension that resulted in the Pittsburgh Steelers trading him.

The Eagles see promise in Pickett. Roseman scouted him during the 2022 draft cycle. Sirianni said, like Gardner Minshew in 2021 and 2022, the Eagles could now be “set for a couple years” at backup QB. “I’m really excited about the things he can do,” Sirianni said. “I’m excited that we have a piece in place there. But his job is to be the backup, and his job is to support Jalen and help him in any way that he can and be ready to play if he needs to play.”

(Top photo: Nathan Ray Seebeck / USA Today)





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