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Tough free-agent lessons might move Eagles to head of the class

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist
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Doing things the smart way this offseason, the Eagles might next extend LeSean McCoy. (Getty Images)  
Doing things the smart way this offseason, the Eagles might next extend LeSean McCoy. (Getty Images)  

Don't tell me the Philadelphia Eagles didn't learn a hard lesson last season. They did, and they're proving it as we speak.

They extended the contracts of offensive lineman Todd Herremans and defensive end Trent Cole. They signed DeSean Jackson to a five-year deal. And they're talking about an extension for the team's best player, running back LeSean McCoy. Put them together, and what do you have?

Uh-huh, smarts.

A year ago the Eagles spent their money on top-shelf free agents from other markets -- with guys like Nnamdi Asomugha, Jason Babin and Cullen Jenkins at the head of the class. Their intention was right, with the Eagles trying to load up to catch Green Bay, but the execution was not. With each addition, players like Jackson wondered why they weren't first in line at the bank -- and their disappointing play reflected it.

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The Eagles weren't so much a bad club as a dysfunctional one, out of sync until the end when they pushed through to four consecutive victories. I know what you're thinking, which is: So what? Well, so one coach at the annual NFL scouting combine told me he thought the Eagles were one victory shy of becoming the Giants; that had they made the playoffs, it might have been them, not New York, that represented the NFC in Super Bowl XLVI.

Well, they didn't, and it's up to coach Andy Reid and the front office to fix things. They got a head start Wednesday by satisfying some of their key players, something coach Andy Reid termed "a big priority for us." It's essentially what they did not do in 2011, and it had a ripple effect -- with the club lacking the chemistry that held the Giants together through the playoffs.

The Giants were the anti-Eagles in last year's free-agent rush, with the addition of former San Francisco center David Baas their biggest catch. In essence, they did next to nothing, but pay attention, class: Neither did New England, Green Bay or Pittsburgh, and those four teams are your Super Bowl finalists the past two years.

If there's a lesson there, it's one that was pounded into the Eagles last season. Yes, they added talent. Yes, they had playmakers on both sides of the ball. But, no, they did not have the cohesion needed to win the division, make the playoffs or produce a winning season. In fact, it took them three quarters of a season before they finally, mercifully, started to look like a reputable team.

And by then it was too late.

"Mistakes," James Joyce once wrote, "are the portals of discovery."

You don't have to remind Reid. He knows, and he understands. And he determined to make amends by rewarding those on his roster who deserve it most, which is why Herremans and Cole were first in line. Herremans is an invaluable offensive lineman who can play guard or tackle. Cole is one of the game's best and most consistent pass rushers, and locking them down to long-term deals sends a message to teammates that good work can and will be rewarded.

Jackson was next, with the Eagles taking the first step last month by designating him their franchise player. The move was made to protect themselves -- and Jackson -- while they talked about a long-term deal. Critics scoffed that that deal would never happen -- or that the Eagles were more interested in trading him -- but they stepped up with a contract Wednesday that pays a little under an average of $10 million a year, or a substantial hike over the $600,000 Jackson earned last season.

That leaves McCoy, one of the game's premier backs, and I don't know when and how it happens. I just know the Eagles will make him a deal he can't refuse, too ... because they can and they will and they must. They learned the hard way, and if you don't learn from mistakes you don't learn, period.

The Eagles learned.

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