On Eagles roster building and the salary cap

BETHLEHEM, Pa. -- I often get asked about the Philadelphia Eagles and the salary cap. In spite of all they spent on free agents last year, all of the new contracts they gave out to their own players this offseason and the acquisition of middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans, who didn't fit under the Houston Texans' salary cap, the Eagles are still about $14.5 million under for 2012.

"Some of the things we do, I don't know how we pull them off," cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, the major prize of that 2011 free-agent spree, told me after Eagles practice Thursday.

It is hard to figure, and I often hear from Giants fans asking me how the Eagles are always under the cap while their team always seems to be right up against it. So, when I spoke with Eagles GM Howie Roseman on Thursday morning, I asked.

Part of what's going on in Philadelphia is that they've more or less overhauled the roster in the past four years. Roseman pointed out to me that the Eagles played in the NFC Championship Game in January of 2009, and he rattled off some of the names of the players on that team. Donovan McNabb was the quarterback. Brian Westbrook was the running back. Tra Thomas and Jon Runyan were the tackles, Jamaal Jackson the center, Nick Cole one of the guards, L.J. Smith the tight end and Kevin Curtis a starting wide receiver. That's just the offensive side of the ball, and none of those guys is still on the team. Of that team's 11 defensive starters, Trent Cole and Mike Patterson are the only ones on the current roster.

"You either have to rebuild or retool on the fly," Roseman said. "At that moment, we knew that our players were getting up in age and that we had to retool. So we wanted to start building a core group going forward. Obviously, we want to have a great year, but we also want to set it up so that we have a chance every year, like we did in the early part of the decade. And part of that is keeping your talent together, guys you think are really good players and guys you want to have around for a long period of time."

So the current Eagles roster is built mainly of young players whose salaries have been easily controlled to this point. Clearing out older players and replacing them with younger ones is the best way to stay under the salary cap. But as young Eagles stars like Cole, LeSean McCoy and DeSean Jackson have emerged as some of the better players in the league at their positions, the team has been conscious of working to keep them under control. All three of those players signed relatively team-friendly long-term deals this offseason while the team did little in free agency and unloaded the big salary of veteran cornerback Asante Samuel.

But the main reason the Eagles are still so far under the cap is that they know this can't last forever. The ability to roll over cap room from one year to the next is about to start mattering to them.

"I think the flattening of the cap going forward is going to catch up with every team and your priorities are really going to come into play," Roseman said. "If you look at us next year, basically the room that we're under the cap now matches the room that we're over the cap next year. And then the cap is flat again in 2014. So we have an opportunity to keep the team together, but we have to make sure we have the right group."

The Eagles can operate with a long-term focus because they have an owner, Jeffrey Lurie, who appreciates how successful they've been with Andy Reid as head coach and the rest of the current leadership group in place. In today's win-now-or-else NFL, the people who run the Eagles work for an owner whose priority is for his team to be good every year, and with a coach who shares the same priorities.

"Andy's unbelievable in the aspect that he's got one eye on the future at all times," Roseman said. "It seems to me a unique quality that someone can be so focused on winning a world championship right at this moment, but if you tell him, 'Hey coach, this guy may not be better this year, but he'll set us up going forward,' he gets all that. So that's incredibly supportive, and then Jeffrey wants to have a sustained run of success. He doesn't want to be a one-and-done team, and frankly neither do I. We want to set it up so we have a core in place for a run and so that you don't put all your eggs in one basket for one year."

The Eagles believe they are set up in that way. They like the team they have in 2012 and believe it to be capable of very big things. But they also believe they're set up to be capable of big things every year for years to come. As starved as Philadelphia is for its first Super Bowl title, the people running the team are level-headed enough to keep in mind that there's no way to ensure such a thing and that all they can do is put themselves in position to contend for it every year.

"Going forward, it will be a challenge," Roseman said. "I think it's going to be a challenge for a lot of teams, because the cap is going to be flat and salaries continue to rise. So you're going to have to make hard decisions, but it's a good problem to have when you're making decisions on talented guys. We're just happy that the guys we had an opportunity to lock up are going to be here for a while."