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July 05, 2022

John McMullen: The Eagles’ path to A.J. Brown: ‘What a long, strange trip it's been’

Eagles NFL
052222AJBrown Andrew Nelles/USA TODAY NETWORK

A.J. Brown

What a long, strange trip it's been isn't just a hackneyed high school yearbook quote from the kid. Nor is it the Grateful Dead lyric that "inspired" the phrase during the latest run-in with some "Pineapple Express.”

It also sums up the Eagles' search for a veteran wide receiver this offseason that ultimately landed the organization on the dynamic A.J. Brown.

Lost in the bask of a true WR1 for Philadelphia are all the twists and turns it took to get there, which have already been downgraded to footnote status.

The earliest inkling that the Eagles were going the proven route instead of crossing their fingers in the draft yet again was the real and very serious trade talks for Calvin Ridley before a gambling app derailed the idea.

The deviation toward Christian Kirk followed until getting outbid by Jacksonville. From there the Eagles were dismissed by Allen Robinson, who understandably wanted to play for the Super Bowl champion Los Angles Rams, and Robert Woods, who preferred Nashville when the Rams gave him the gold watch for a job well done in the form of the opportunity to choose his next destination.

An 0-for-4 never looks good until you get that fifth at-bat and hit the game-winning home run.

When draft night arrived it certainly seemed like the Eagles would be forced to use a premium pick at the position for the fourth-consecutive year. Howie Roseman, however, went a little rogue by fending off his lieutenants and sending a first-round pick to Tennessee for Brown.

The back end to the deal was the massive four-year, $100 million extension that the Eagles had to give Brown, a receiver arguably more gifted and certainly a better fit than the others Philadelphia was moving toward earlier in the process.

The Brown deal dwarfed Kirk's eye-popping four-year, $72 million deal with Jacksonville that served as the reset for the WR market like a portal on “Stranger Things.”

The Eagles were very serious about signing Kirk after the potential Ridley deal went up in smoke until the Jaguars went where no one thought they would go for a good but not great receiver. A team source confirmed Philadelphia's early interest in Kirk before the bidding got way out of hand and described the situation as not losing out on the player but wishing godspeed to him for getting such a great deal. In many ways, Kirk was the rare example of Roseman failing to forecast correctly where the WR market was headed.

"I think every year a position kind of becomes, I like that word, the 'boom,' it's like the new mining town, right? You have pass rushers, you have offensive linemen and now you got wide receivers," Roseman said back in the spring. "You have got to make a decision on what your priorities are on building the team and whether you're kind of going to go with the flow or you're going to kind of figure out what's the most important thing for your team.

And if there's some value in being different and figuring out what now is kind of the next area."

In hindsight, Kirk was no anomaly and just the start of what became the summer of the WR. Washington’s Terry McLaurin was the latest to get the bag last week when he signed a three-year extension worth up to $71 million. The AAV of the deal was $23M, making McLaurin the 12th NFL receiver to cross the $20M barrier.

The Eagles, of course, ended up making an even bigger commitment than that to Brown, a literal 180 from what Roseman described leading up to the draft when he essentially advocated the idea to zig when everyone else is zagging.

"Coach [Nick Sirianni] and I talk about this all the time. If we're going to be the same as everybody else, we're probably going to finish in the middle of the pack," said Roseman. "And sometimes, you got to take risks and you got to kind of stand out there and do something different than everyone else.

“That doesn't mean there aren't right decisions to make at that position, but, at the same time, if you're doing the same thing everyone else is doing, you're probably a step late."

It’s hard to argue that the Eagles weren’t a step late from a value standpoint because they had to pay a premium for Brown to right the wrongs of previous draft mistakes (think J.J. Arcega-Whiteside and Jalen Reagor).

On top of that, the organization upset some people around the league because of it, according to long-time former Packers executive and former Eagles consultant Andrew Brandt, one of the top moneymen in the industry for many years.

"There are a lot of teams cursing the Eagles right now because it's one thing for Devante [Adams] and Tyreek [Hill] to get those massive extensions. A.J. Brown was only in a rookie deal and that's different," Brandt recently told me.

The missing context to that angst is that the Eagles essentially took their own in-house philosophy outside the NovaCare Complex with Brown: identifying young talent they want to build around early in the process for team-friendly extensions in a proactive fashion.

Last season served as the perfect example of that philosophy when Roseman got extensions done early with four players from his 2018 draft class: Jordan Mailata, Josh Sweat, Avonte Maddox and Dallas Goedert. All of those deals already look good from the Eagles' perspective.

The penalty for misevaluating the WR position and needing Brown so badly for the Eagles was two-pronged with team friendly turning into market value.

Maybe even a tad more than market value to be fair, raising those eyebrows Brandt mentioned.

Smart executives, however, understand waiting on financial matters never makes things cheaper in the NFL unless the evaluation is wrong and the player underperforms (think Carson Wentz). Players with Brown's resume are going to get more money moving forward not less, so overpaying in today's market will quickly turn into value in the years ahead if the aforementioned evaluation is correct.

The trick in the modern NFL is not about being different or going along with the crowd, it’s about getting in on the ground floor with good young players.

John McMullen is a contributor to and covers the Eagles and the NFL for Sports Illustrated and JAKIB Sports. He’s also the co-host of “Birds 365,” a daily streaming show covering the Eagles and the NFL, and the host of “Extending the Play” on AM1490 in South Jersey. You can reach him at Follow John on Twitter.