Eagles widening lead atop NFC East

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The NFL doesn't hand out a Lombardi trophy for winning the offseason. The Philadelphia Eagles know that better than anyone.

The Eagles won the offseason in 2011.

They were all in. The Eagles brass felt they were this close to having a team that could not only get to the Super Bowl but could finally win it. So they spent and spent and spent in free agency after the lockout, and all that money bought was resentment and hostility and an 8-8 finish. No playoffs. No Super Bowl run. No glistening silver trophy for their barren trophy case.

That was the beginning of the torturous end for Andy Reid in Philadelphia.

Chip Kelly is in the process of building his program. Reid got 14 years. Kelly is in just his second. The Eagles have been active in free agency, but the approach they have taken at Kelly's behest has been drastically different, methodical and smart.

Philadelphia surprisingly won the NFC East in Kelly's first season. It has won the division title for best offseason so far, which has widened the gap between it and the rest of the division.

The  Washington Redskins, Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants better pay attention and act accordingly, because the Eagles aren't playing around.

The best organizations in the National Football League operate under the philosophy that you build your team through the draft and use free agency only to supplement the roster.

The Eagles strayed from that mindset in 2011, and it got them in trouble.

Their approach under Kelly has been four-pronged. First, they extended the contracts of two players they value: offensive tackle Jason Peters and center Jason Kelce, both of whom were entering a contract year. Then, they shrewdly locked up two of their own free agents before the market opened, signing wide receiver Riley Cooper to a five-year, $25 million deal and Jeremy Maclin to a one-year deal worth up to $6 million.

So far, they have signed five players in free agency: Punter Donnie Jones, safeties Malcolm Jenkins and Chris Maragos, linebacker Bryan Braman, and cornerback Nolan Carroll. Jones was on the team last year. Jenkins is expected to start and be the leader of the secondary. All are expected to contribute on special teams.

Then on Thursday, the Eagles traded a fifth-round pick in the upcoming draft to acquire running back Darren Sproles from New Orleans. Sproles turns 31 in June, and he's not the player he was three years ago when he led the NFL in all-purpose yards. He is on the backside of his career.

Nevertheless, a backfield that includes Sproles and LeSean McCoy, who led the league in rushing last season, is enough to keep defensive coordinators busy as both present matchup problems. Sproles is great in space. He has good hands. He can catch the ball out of the backfield or from the slot. He plays so low to the ground that he is hard to bring down.

Like the Eagles' other acquisitions, Sproles can also help out on special teams, which is one of Kelly's requirements. Kelly understands that field position matters. Jones is capable of pinning opponents deep in their own territory. Sproles is capable of giving the offense the ball with great field position.

That matters.

The Cowboys, Redskins and Giants are going to have to adjust. They will need to have speed on defense. They will need to be well conditioned because the Eagles will run a quick tempo. And they will have to be able to put up points on the board, because Philadelphia most certainly will do so.

Dallas hasn't become better on defense this offseason; it has become worse. New York still needs receiver help and must replace Justin Tuck. Washington is transitioning to first-year head coach Jay Gruden.

Philadelphia is out in front in the division, which Jenkins noticed early last season.

"It was apparent by Week 4 or 5 that there was something different about this Eagle team and what Chip Kelly brought to the table," Jenkins said, "and it caught the attention of a lot of people.

"So ... my first impression was that [Kelly] knows how to win, he knows what he's going to win with, and they're trying to get players that fit his scheme, not necessarily the best players but players who will buy into what he's selling. I've been a part of winning teams before, and that's where it starts. It starts with good leadership from top down, from the coaches all the way down to the players.

"I see him trying to build that, and that's why I want to be a part of it."

The building continues. This is only Year 2 of the Kelly era. Free agency will wind down and then there is the draft. Kelly will continue to expand the offense, rebuild the defense and focus on special teams.

There are no champions of the offseason, but with shrewd personnel decisions, Philadelphia has shown the gap between it and the rest of the NFC East is only getting wider.

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