MINNEAPOLIS -- No executive has put together a Super Bowl roster quite like Howie Roseman, because no one has had a career quite like Howie Roseman.
The Philadelphia Eagles' executive vice president of football operations, whose control over personnel was purposefully murky during the Andy Reid era, was removed from the decision-making process entirely during Chip Kelly's messy 2015 season. The last five years in Philadelphia for Roseman have been a test case of roster construction, interrupted.
Roseman's non-traditional football background, much less his path to this point, has rarely been seen on the Super Bowl stage. He rose from an unpaid internship to his current role with a background blend of scouting, salary cap and contract work.
The Eagles' organizational structure tells a story. The two key VPs reporting to Roseman include Joe Douglas, who heads a traditional scouting department. The other VP is Alec Halaby, a 31-year-old Harvard grad with a job description that has "a particular emphasis on integrating traditional and analytical methods in football decision-making," according to the team. These two voices represent the yin and yang of Roseman's front office, a blending of old-school scouting and newer approaches more publicly advertised in the NBA and MLB. Roseman told me this week he looks for a mix of "objective and subjective" analysis, welcoming when the two sides are aligned and embracing the diversity of opinions when they are not. This marriage of values can be seen throughout Roseman's Eagles tenure.
While 13 of the Eagles' 22 starters have arrived in frenetic fashion since Roseman's reclamation of the throne in 2016, the seeds of this Super Bowl berth were planted in 2012. That was the first year in which Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie streamlined the team's decision-making process with Roseman having more sway than Reid, the first year that Lurie held Roseman accountable for results that are bearing fruit to this day.
The first four picks of that draft -- defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, linebacker Mychal Kendricks, defensive end Vinny Curry and quarterback Nick Foles -- will start on Super Bowl Sunday. Each selection says something telling about the Eagles under Roseman.
The team moved up three spots to grab Cox, giving up a pair of Day 3 draft picks in the process. The Eagles, not unlike the Patriots, are unemotional about making trades when value presents itself. Cox was a top-five talent in Roseman's eyes who fell to No. 12 overall. The Eagles often identify who they want and then get aggressive, famously trading a boatload of assets in a pair of deals to acquire Carson Wentz.
"The biggest regrets I've personally had is when I haven't followed my gut and instincts," Roseman said.
He uses this season's trade of wide receiver Jordan Matthews and a third-round pick to Buffalo in exchange for cornerback Ronald Darby as an example of trusting his gut, even though it was a difficult decision because of Matthews' production and personality. The move up for Cox, now the Eagles' best active player -- with Wentz and tackle Jason Peters injured -- set the table for the dominant defensive line that plays today.
Kendricks' career has experienced peaks and valleys in Philadelphia, but his continued presence and excellent play in 2017 speaks to the team's insistence on value. Kendricks was available for a potential trade when his playing time and effectiveness were at a low, but the Eagles never saw appropriate compensation in return for such a fast, versatile player. When Kendricks requested a trade before the 2017 season, the team flatly said no, according to NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport. Dealing Kendricks for pennies on the dollar could have been catastrophic for a linebacker group that eventually lost starter Jordan Hicks this past October to injury.
Curry is a great example of Philadelphia's obsession with pass-rush pressure and the willingness to pay for it. His five-year, $46 million contract in 2016 raised eyebrows, considering Curry's status as a rotational end who only plays half the team's snaps. But the Eagles clearly view the defensive line as the team's identity and continue to allocate huge resources to it on homegrown talents like Cox, Curry and Brandon Graham or new acquisitions like Tim Jernigan. Philadelphia has made similar investments on the offensive line with high-priced talent like right tackle Lane Johnson, left tackle Jason Peters, right guard Brandon Brooks and center Jason Kelce. The Eagles also prioritize depth here, giving guard Stefen Wisniewski a three-year contract before it was clear he'd even start and drafting current left tackle fill-in Halapoulivaati Vaitai in 2016, when they already had three tackles on the roster.
"Your actions have to speak louder than your words," Roseman said. "Thirty-two teams will say they believe in lines, but sometimes you have to go overboard in that. It's been our priority, certainly the last two years, to build along the lines. And some people may have thought it was excessive at times, but that's gonna be how we roll going forward."
Philadelphia's defensive line made the difference in playoff wins over Atlanta and Minnesota, with waves of fresh pressure washing over opposing quarterbacks because the Eagles were willing to spend to make the group deep in quality. Philly's philosophy is to pay for hurries and quarterback hits, not just sacks. (Bleacher Report's assessment that Curry had the worst defensive line contract in football looks foolish now.)
The great depth and talent on both sides of the line only help to sharpen one another.
"It's hell going against them every day. Sundays are easy compared to training camp," first-team All-Pro tackle Lane Johnson commented on the defensive line.
The final 2012 draft pick still with the team, quarterback Nick Foles, only returned via free agency after confidence-shaking runs in St. Louis and Kansas City. The Eagles' front office knew Foles well after getting great value from their third-round pick with a Pro Bowl season in 2013 and believed he'd fit in coach Doug Pederson's scheme, spending $7 million guaranteed on him after reported interest from the Bucs. It's another example of Philadelphia building strength on strength, just like along the lines.
That 2012 draft set the table for this Super Bowl team before Roseman's hot streak in drafts continued in 2013 with the selections of Johnson and Zach Ertz. Roseman's role grew hazier under Kelly in 2014 and vanished entirely in 2015. When Roseman got another chance to run the team in 2016, he didn't hold back.
The team's ridiculously productive free agency and trade acquisitions over the last two seasons netted 11 starters and key contributors like running back Jay Ajayi, defensive end Chris Long and cornerback Patrick Robinson. They have come via a mix of short-term, low-risk deals (Long, Robinson, linebacker Nigel Bradham, running back LeGarrette Blount) and smart use of big free-agent dollars (guard Brandon Brooks and safety Rodney McLeod). After the NFC Championship Game, Long referenced the bond he has with teammates who also joined Philly this season on short-term deals, as if they're a class of rookies. These limited commitments are often the first step to a bigger contract.
The Eagles were able to get Alshon Jeffery in the building on a one-year deal in March, then gave him the four-year, $52 million extension in December after getting to know him. A similar trajectory played out when defensive tackle Tim Jernigan, acquired practically for free in a trade with the Ravens, earned a four-year extension in November.
This surplus of trades, including the acquisitions of Darby and Ajayi, speaks to the organization's flexibility. And the wheeling and dealing is not a new phenomenon for this season's Super Bowl participants: The Eagles and Patriots have traded more than all other NFL teams since 2010, when Roseman earned his GM title. Running an NFL franchise is a constant balancing act of managing short-term interests with long-term planning. That's why the team felt so comfortable giving Sam Bradford a market-adjusting deal in 2016 before trading up for Carson Wentz the following month. When they were able to acquire Wentz, Roseman did it with the conviction that he could eventually pivot and get a draft pick in return for Bradford. (Although even Roseman couldn't have expected he'd get a first-round pick in return so soon, one that turned into yet another pass rusher with pedigree in Derek Barnett.)
The Eagles are hardly the only front office that goes beyond "draft and develop" as a philosophy, using data to help make decisions, viewing players and their contracts as assets to stockpile. But it is no coincidence that Halaby was first promoted to "special assistant to the general manager" in 2012 during Roseman's first run of the team. When Roseman returned to power in 2016, he quickly elevated Halaby to vice president of football operations and strategy, the type of title rarely seen in the NFL.
While teams are routinely loath to discuss their analytics departments publicly, Roseman noted that "every team" in the NFL uses analytics in some fashion. The implication is that the Eagles aren't so different from the rest, but there's no denying that Roseman hasn't followed the path of a typical NFL decision-maker. His organization reflects that.
No matter the approach, Roseman has helped build a team with a strong foundation on both lines and the flexibility to keep getting better. If the Eagles can win multiple playoff games without Wentz, imagine what they might accomplish with him.