How Philadelphia Eagles GM Howie Roseman built the best roster in the NFL

ByKevin Van Valkenburg ESPN Senior Writer ESPN logo
Thursday, January 19, 2023
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PHILADELPHIA -- While chatting with players and coaches before a November matchup against the Texans, Howie Roseman, Philadelphia Eagles GM and executive vice president, spotted a group of Eagles fans in the first row of Houston's NRG Stadium.

The fans began chanting his name. Roseman, with noticeable swagger, walked slowly toward them, making a beeline for one fan in particular, a man wearing a Phillies jersey who was holding up a hand-drawn, poster board sign.

"Howie You Are Forgiven!" the top half of the sign read. On the bottom half, the name of Eagles wide receiver A.J. Brown, acquired in a trade by Roseman during the offseason, loomed large over the deleted names of previous Eagles wide receivers: Nelson Agholor, J.J.-Arcega Whiteside and Jalen Reagor. All Roseman draft acquisitions; all no longer with the team; and all universally regarded as busts.

Roseman, stone-faced, hushed the group of fans, then pointed his finger at the man holding the sign.

"I'm F'ing forgiven for your first F'ing Super Bowl?" Roseman quipped. "F you!"

The fans erupted with cheers. Roseman let loose a massive grin. He even posed for a selfie before sauntering back toward the field. The video was posted to Twitter and became a viral moment of the best kind.

It's hard to imagine, with any other NFL franchise, a frequently maligned general manager shouting F-bombs at fans without controversy erupting. Close your eyes and it's easy to picture a tearful apology, or a carefully worded statement expressing contrition. But in Philadelphia, the exchange might as well have been an expression of familial love.

"Howie has been hated and loved, then hated again, then loved again," Eagles center Jason Kelce says. "It just shows you that being the general manager is really hard. There are a lot of things that go into that job. But I've been really happy to see him persevere through all that. It's tough, especially in this city."

Philadelphia (14-3) enters the playoffs with the NFL's best record and is one of the favorites to hoist the Lombardi Trophy next month. The league's most temperamental fan base, one that was openly calling for his firing 21 months ago, has embraced its GM once again.

It is a development very few would have predicted in 2020, when the Eagles went 4-11-1, then cut ties with quarterback Carson Wentz and coach Doug Pederson, the two men handpicked by Roseman in 2016 to be the face of the franchise for the foreseeable future. Getting rid of Wentz despite trading up to get him (and signing him to a large contract extension in 2019) would have cost most general managers their job. Instead, it jump-started one of the most unlikely rebirths in the history of Philadelphia sports. In the past two years, Roseman, who is 47, has assembled the NFL's best roster.

Philadelphia Eagles' Jalen Hurts, left, and Howie Roseman meet before an NFL football game against the New Orleans Saints, Sunday, Dec. 13, 2020, in Philadelphia.
AP Photo/Derik Hamilton

He has earned (for the moment) the right to peacock.

Roseman is wary -- to say the least -- of taking a victory lap. ESPN reached out to him several times throughout the season hoping he would be willing to discuss the things that have shaped him during his eventful, volatile, mercurial 23-year tenure with the Eagles. He repeatedly declined.

"Howie is very sensitive to the unintended interpretations that can come from talking about yourself in a piece like this," a team spokesperson said. "Humble and hungry is his goal right now."

It was an understandable decision. After all, few NFL executives know better than Roseman does how quickly fortunes can change. It has even played out in miniature this season.

Although Philadelphia looked like the NFL's best team for the majority of 2022, a shoulder injury to quarterback Jalen Hurts nearly cost the Eagles the No. 1 overall seed in the playoffs. Suddenly the juggernaut Roseman had expertly assembled looked vulnerable.

It might have been unsettling to some, but not to Roseman.

"He has died and came back many times," says Philadelphia defensive end Brandon Graham, a 13-year veteran and one of Roseman's original draft picks.

The story of Roseman's rise -- from never playing organized football growing up in Marlboro, New Jersey, to becoming one of the NFL's most powerful executives -- has been told countless times. It is the stuff of legend within league circles.

The persistence of the teenage boy who handwrote notes begging every general manager around the league to let him get his foot in the door is still evident in Roseman's personality today. But that story is also old hat. A general manager, ultimately, is only as good as his most recent transactions, a truism that got us thinking: What if the best way to explain Roseman, and all that he has learned, is strictly through the moves he made to rebuild the Eagles?


April 24, 2020: Eagles select Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts with the 53rd pick

It's easy to forget, at the close of a season when Hurts has been one of the leading candidates for the NFL MVP award, how controversial it was for the Eagles to select him back in 2020. Wentz was coming off a 9-7 season in which he had led Philadelphia to a playoff berth and had recently signed the largest contract extension in team history. There were some internal concerns about Wentz's attitude and his injury history, but from the outside, it looked like a baffling move.

On draft night, even Hurts had no inkling that he might be a Philadelphia Eagle. In a recent interview on Jason and Travis Kelce's podcast "New Heights," Hurts mentioned that when he saw a Pennsylvania area code pop up on his cellphone, he was convinced it was the Steelers reaching out to let him know he was headed to Pittsburgh.

Eagles fans were equally confused. Some were livid, lighting up the airwaves to share their misgivings and grievances. Why was Roseman grabbing a quarterback instead of addressing holes in the defense? Was he trying to undermine Wentz's already-shaky confidence? Didn't he grasp that it was exactly the kind of gamble that gets most general managers fired?

Roseman's original mentor, former Eagles general manager Joe Banner, viewed it differently. It was proof that Roseman had internalized maybe the most important lesson Banner had tried to instill from the beginning: Don't be scared to change course.

"You have to take your ego out of the equation and take out the fear of losing your job," Banner says. "Those are the two things that not many people in the NFL can do. We tried to make it part of our culture, and I know it is something [Roseman] thinks is important. We're all going to make a bunch of mistakes. And the question is: How costly are your mistakes? Are you willing to admit your mistakes and move on? He could have stuck with Carson Wentz and they would've probably struggled for two or three or four more years. Or he could have said, 'I'm not sure this is the right answer. Let's go grab Jalen Hurts.' He understood the notion that if you fix a mistake reasonably quickly, then the price you pay for it is actually fairly small."

Injured Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts watches from the sideline as the Birds take on the Saints, Sunday, Jan. 1, 2023.
AP Photo/Chris Szagola

It took time for the gamble to come to fruition. Wentz went 3-8-1 over his next 12 starts, was sacked a league-worst 50 times and threw 15 interceptions. He was benched for the last four games of the season, giving the Eagles a chance to see what they had in Hurts. (He showed flashes of promise but also considerable flaws.) By the time Roseman made the decision to fire coach Doug Pederson and trade Wentz to the Colts for draft picks, the calls for him to lose his own job in Philadelphia had reached a fever pitch. Ten days before the 2021 NFL draft, a thunderous "Fire Howie!" chant broke out during a Phillies home game.

Behind the scenes, Roseman continued maneuvering.

"Really good general managers and head coaches don't get stuck on trying to prove themselves," Banner says. "They get stuck on getting it right and winning."

Sept. 11, 2021: Eagles sign tackle Jordan Mailata to $64 million extension

If Banner hadn't taken a chance on Roseman when he was fresh out of Fordham Law School in 2000, it's not a stretch to suggest his NFL career likely never would have happened. At the time, he was viewed as little more than a nuisance.

"I remember I was literally receiving a letter daily from this person, Howie Roseman, and I had no idea who it was," Banner says. "I'm not even sure how, but I was in a conversation with Mike Tannenbaum, who at the time was the [director of pro player development] of the Jets, and somehow we realized that we were both getting a letter from this guy every day. We had a kind of humorous conversation: Is he the most driven person we've ever met, or is he a crazy person? At that point we weren't really quite sure."

But Roseman had unknowingly reached out to a kindred spirit in Banner, who also had never played football at a high level, working as a sports producer and clothing store owner before he was hired by Philadelphia in 1994.

"Maybe that left me more open-minded than others because I'd experienced it personally," Banner says. "I probably thought he had the same qualities that were helping me be successful."

It wasn't just Banner who helped educate Roseman. It was also coach Andy Reid, the two men constructing what would eventually become one of the greatest incubators for executive talent the NFL has ever seen. In addition to Roseman, the Eagles would mold the futures of four other eventual NFL general managers: Brett Veach (Chiefs), Ryan Grigson (Colts), Tom Heckert (Browns) and Jason Licht (Buccaneers).

"Andy built this environment where people were willing to speak up and challenge each other, as long as it was done in a respectful way," says Veach, who worked as an assistant coach under Reid and then as a scout under Roseman during his time in Philadelphia.

"I think that's the biggest thing we all learned. If you believed in something, you shouldn't be afraid to speak up. I think the opposite side of that is a room where everyone is quiet because they're all trying to keep their jobs. Andy and Howie didn't want that."

Traces of that philosophy can be found in numerous moves Roseman has made over the years, but none is more obvious than the discovery of Mailata, one of the NFL's most improbable unearthed gems.

The 6-foot-8, 348-pound Mailata was a rugby league player from Australia and had never played organized football before he showed up at the NFL's International Player Pathway Program pro day. But based on the strong recommendations of Brandon Brown, then the Eagles' assistant director of pro scouting, and offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland, Roseman traded up 17 spots in the seventh round to take a chance on him with the 233rd pick.

Philadelphia knew Mailata was the very definition of taking a flier on a raw prospect. Improbably, over the next two seasons, it became clear the team had found its left tackle of the future. He became a starter at the beginning of 2021, inspiring Roseman to lock him up with a $64 million contract extension that now looks like a bargain. Mailata was an alternate to the Pro Bowl in 2022.

"Howie has been nothing but great to me," Mailata says. "I've got nothing bad to say because of the opportunities he's given me and the patience he had with me when I was struggling my first two years. He told me, 'You have to be patient.' I was learning the game and trying to be patient at the same time, but you bet your ass I was nervous."

Roseman earned the reputation early in his career for being prickly with certain players, particularly after poor performances, but current Eagles say he has matured in recent years.

"After I played poorly in our Thursday game, I walked past him and he said, 'Stop beating yourself up,'" Mailata says. "I said, 'What are you talking about?' He said, 'I know you. You're beating yourself up. You're a great player. Just go back out there and start doing your thing.' I thought, 'You're F'ing right, Howie! You're right.'"

Nov. 22, 2021: Eagles sign linebacker T.J. Edwards to one-year extension

It's not hard to find legitimate criticisms of Roseman. The airwaves in Philadelphia have been filled with them during his tenure with the Eagles, with fans frequently fixating on his somewhat-spotty record in the draft. Mention names like Danny Watkins, Marcus Smith or Jaiquawn Jarrett to any Eagles fan and it likely will elicit audible groans.

Roseman's draft record might be mixed, but his penchant for finding cheap talent elsewhere, through free agency or trades, might be the most underrated aspect of his legacy with the Eagles. His ability to find overlooked players who can fill lineup holes is dynamic and as good as that of any executive in football.

Philadelphia Eagles linebacker T.J. Edwards (57) warms up before an NFL football game against the New York Giants on Sunday, Dec. 11, 2022, in East Rutherford, N.J.
AP Photo/Adam Hunger

"I know he's missed on some draft picks, but nobody is going to be 100% on that," Jason Kelce says. "The thing that I've been the most impressed with is how quickly we move on from down years or bad salary-cap situations. That guy is so good at moving the cap around, so good at finding value. All these things are strengths of his that people are looking past over the years because people tend to focus on hitting on draft picks. There are not many teams that can get out of a salary-cap issue in one year. All of a sudden he does it."

Edwards is the best recent example of this. Despite being an All-American at Wisconsin, he went undrafted in 2019, with most teams convinced he wasn't big enough or fast enough to be an NFL starter. But the Philadelphia scouting department saw something beyond his measurables and signed him as a free agent. Over the next three years, the team watched him grow from a special teams demon into a starter and, eventually, a team leader who calls the signals for the defense.

Just as Edwards was blossoming, Roseman signed him to a contract extension worth $3.2 million, securing his services for the 2022 season, an absolute bargain for one of the NFL's leading tacklers.

"I actually thought it was a trick, but it was true," Edwards explains when talking about Roseman's initial call. "It actually felt like a place that cared. Everyone from the top down makes you feel like they are truly in this together and they want the best for you. I think that's pretty rare."

March 14, 2022: Eagles sign free agent linebacker Haason Reddick to three-year, $45 million contract

If Graham squints a little, he can look across the locker room at Reddick and almost see a version of his younger self.

Both men were drafted in the first round, each at No. 13, and both men initially struggled to find their footing in the NFL. Graham battled injuries; coaches couldn't figure out whether Reddick should play linebacker or defensive end. Both men were, for a time, labeled draft busts.

But as their careers evolved, each player blossomed. Graham emerged as an All-Pro in his seventh season (2016); Reddick, who was signed by Roseman as a free agent after stints with the Cardinals and Panthers, earned second-team All-Pro honors this season.

At 34, Graham is now a part-time player and likely is nearing the end of his career. Reddick, 28, was named the NFC Defensive Player of the Month for December, and his 16 sacks ranked second in the NFL this year behind Nick Bosa. But together, they are part of one of the most lethal pass rushes in the game. In 2022, the Eagles became the first team in NFL history to have four players with 10-plus sacks: Reddick (16), Graham (11), Josh Sweat (11), Javon Hargrave (11).

"Howie is a good dude," says Graham, whose 11-sack season was a career best. "For him to stick with me this long, I got nothing but respect. People mature and evolve, and he has too. Look at me, going from a starter to from off the bench, I look at it a different way. I'm the knockout punch coming in. People know what I can do. Now I can do it faster because I ain't out there all the time. I got to live it just as much as I say it. It's maturity as much as situational."

Graham admits he wasn't always sure he was going to be part of Philadelphia's climb back to the top of the NFL, even though he authored one of the most memorable moments in Eagles history: the strip sack of Tom Brady at the end of Super Bowl LII. One of Roseman's strengths is that he's not sentimental, but in 2021, the Eagles elected to sign Graham to a one-year extension to help bridge the gap between eras.

"All players want to know is that you're doing everything you can to win football games. That needs to be the emphasis, and Howie does that," Kelce says. "I don't think he gives up on people, though. I've had downs throughout my career when he could have given up on me, but they've navigated really well when it's time to move on and when it's time to continue to give a guy an opportunity."

As Graham has aged, he has grown to understand Roseman's roster-building philosophies.

"One thing I know, he's not comfortable," Graham says. "He's still making moves. I'm prideful too, and I try not to let it kill me. But I can tell that he takes a lot of pride in putting together a real good team and being strategic. I mean, look at how we got A.J. Brown. That was hype! This whole year has been hype because it's the most trades I've seen since I've been here. It's blockbuster stuff happening every month. It's fun to see."

April 28, 2022: Eagles acquire A.J. Brown via trade with the Tennessee Titans

Earlier this season, ESPN reached out to one of Roseman's contemporaries -- also a current league executive -- to ask whether people around the league trust the Eagles general manager. In a survey of NFL agents done by The Athletic in 2021 and 2022, Roseman was voted the executive they trust the least two years running. The relationship between agents and general managers, of course, is bound to be contentious. Did the same hold true for rival executives?

The contemporary -- who agreed to speak candidly on the condition of anonymity -- intimated that it was true, Howie isn't widely trusted. But maybe that wasn't a bad thing.

"How many people around the league and in the building trust Bill Belichick?" the executive says. "Probably it would be very low. How many people trust what he's doing for the team? Probably very high. It's the same with Howie. When you're so smart, and you make the smart decisions, you don't have a lot of trust in the building."

Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver A.J. Brown (11) looks on during the NFL football game against the Green Bay Packers, Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022, in Philadelphia.
AP Photo/Chris Szagola

That hasn't stopped other front offices from making deals with Roseman, even though he has had a knack for coming out ahead of late. The trade for Brown -- which cost the Eagles only the 18th and 101st picks in the 2022 draft -- now looks like such a fleecing that it might have played a role in costing Titans general manager Jon Robinson his job.

Despite Tennessee never having finished worse than 9-7 since Robinson took over, and even though he had signed a contract extension at the beginning of the year, ownership fired him the week after Brown caught eight passes for 119 yards and two touchdowns in a 35-10 Eagles win over the Titans. It was impossible not to connect the dots, particularly after Brown said he had been hoping he might retire a Titan.

"I wanted to make them regret that decision," Brown told reporters after the game.

Roseman admitted, months after the acquisition of Brown, that part of what motivated him to take a big swing was a mistake he had made in trying to find a No. 1 receiver.

In the 2020 draft, the Eagles had the 21st pick in the first round and grabbed Jalen Reagor, a speedy wideout from TCU. Reagor never found much success with Philadelphia, catching only three touchdowns in two seasons before being traded to Minnesota. But what made the pick even more painful -- particularly for Eagles fans -- is what came right after it. The Vikings, picking 22nd, selected LSU's Justin Jefferson, then watched him bloom into the NFL's best wide receiver.

"I think one of my many weaknesses is that I spend more time thinking about my mistakes than I do any of the successes we may have had," Roseman said in September in an interview with 94WIP, a Philadelphia radio station. "I think it continuously motivates me to get better. Whenever we do something like that, I go back and I look at the process and how we came to that decision. It's obvious, I'm not going to sit here and lie, we'd love to have that moment back. ... That's on me, 100 percent. At the end of the day, I'm responsible for all of that. But I also promise you one thing: If I make a mistake, I'm going to do everything in my power to make it up."

In Week 18, Brown broke the Eagles' single-season record for receiving yards with 1,496, a mark that had held up since 1983.

"This place has been everything I expected," Brown says.

Jan. 21, 2021: Eagles hire Nick Sirianni to be their next head coach

One thing had become clear by the end of Doug Pederson's tenure with the Eagles: The team's analytics department and its coaching staff were no longer seeing eye to eye. Collaboration and communication were, at best, strained. The Philadelphia media were filled with leaks hinting that Pederson was frustrated with constantly being second-guessed by ownership, and the scouting department didn't feel its analysis was being taken into consideration when it came to personnel decisions.

The harmony fostered during the Super Bowl season had completely faded. Although he was initially expected to return, after a series of tense meetings with Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie and Roseman on how to reshape the future of the franchise, Pederson was fired.

Sirianni, a former Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator, turned out to be the savior few predicted. He wasn't among Philadelphia's initial targets, and after he got the job, the reviews weren't particularly glowing. Several outlets implied that Roseman was installing Sirianni as a puppet who would let him and Lurie involve themselves in the game plan.

Philadelphia Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni speaks with referee Alex Kemp (55) during an NFL football game between the Eagles and the Washington Commanders, Monday, Nov. 14, 2022.
(AP Photo/Matt Slocum

In two seasons, Sirianni has gone 23-11 and made the playoffs twice. Along the way, he has earned a reputation as one of the league's most player-friendly coaches. A building once filled with strife is (for the most part) harmonious again. Most importantly, he has turned Hurts into an MVP candidate.

"The relationship with Jalen, I just really appreciate the quarterback-head coach relationship that we have and how it's grown," Sirianni says. "We know more and more about each other, not only in football but in our personal lives, too. That's what's so important to me in coaching and playing; the relationships that you have and the connecting that you have."

Aug. 30, 2022: Eagles acquire safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson from Saints in exchange for draft picks

Gardner-Johnson never thought of himself as someone who needed a dose of humility. His swagger felt like part of his DNA. In his mind, it helped him thrive in the cutthroat world playing cornerback, first at the University of Florida, then with the Saints. But after a promising rookie season, Gardner-Johnson's standing with New Orleans became tenuous.

He was involved in a fight with a teammate during practice. He got into another altercation during a game. He became frustrated over his contract situation, held out during training camp and eventually stopped speaking to coaches. When Roseman called to inquire about his availability, the Saints were happy to let him go for a fifth-round pick and two sixth-round picks.

It could have been a risk, bringing in a malcontent and asking him to play a major role on one of the NFL's best defenses. But Gardner-Johnson saw it differently. With cornerback Darius Slay on one side and James Bradberry on the other, there wasn't going to be a spot for him in the lineup unless he humbled himself and committed to playing off the ball as the Eagles' deep safety. In New Orleans, he had played mostly in the slot.

"I mean, I ain't even gonna cap with you, you got two other corners [in Philadelphia] that can cover better than me," Gardner-Johnson says. "I think I was covering all down in New Orleans, but when I got a chance to play with some lockdown corners, I just figured I'd play my role."

The result? He tied for the league lead in interceptions (six) despite playing only 12 games because of a lacerated kidney. He played every defensive snap in the Eagles' regular-season finale against the Giants.

"I get treated very, very, very, very, very, like, better than I was in New Orleans," Gardner-Johnson says. "And I ain't saying nothing bad. I'm just, you play better ball when you're around better guys and you're around better athletes. This is the result of it."

Philadelphia Eagles general manager Howie Roseman looks on prior to the NFL football game against the New York Giants, Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023, in Philadelphia.
AP Photo/Chris Szagola

Roseman is no stranger to the idea that a little humility can lead to a rebirth, something every veteran player knows well. In 2015, then-Philadelphia coach Chip Kelly won a power struggle with Roseman, gaining final say over the roster, including having final decision-making power over the draft and free agency. Publicly, the team announced that Roseman was being promoted to the role of executive vice president of football operations, still overseeing the salary-cap and scouting departments, but neither the media nor the players bought it. Around the league, the move was widely viewed as a demotion.

Most NFL executives would have taken the hint, punched up their résumé and tried to rebuild their reputation elsewhere. But Roseman put his head down, trudged into the office each day, studied the salary cap and made phone calls around the league, asking for advice about how he might grow from the setback.

"I give him credit for his resilience," agent Leigh Steinberg says. "I talked to him several times during that period. Even though he'd lost his power, he never lost touch with a lot of people in the game. He stayed on the phone. I think he wanted to learn from what happened and do a brutal self-assessment. And he handled himself with dignity and class, and as a result, I think a lot of people were rooting for him to come back."

When Kelly was fired by Lurie near the end of the 2015 season, it wasn't a huge surprise that Roseman gradually reclaimed his old role, although he wouldn't officially be named general manager for a second time until 2019. He had earned his second chance. When the Eagles won the Super Bowl in 2017, Kelce couldn't resist addressing the elephant in the room during the celebratory parade, declaring that Roseman had returned "a different man" and "an underdog."

Roseman's arc is, in many respects, the perfect Philadelphia story.

"In this city, you've got to have thick skin," Kelce explains. "And you have to be self-confident. And self-aware. The city can be very loud telling you when you're great and when you're bad, but you have to be firmly aware of what you think is right, what the coaches think is right and what the players think is right. It's a city that can be hard for a lot of reasons, but I truly believe it's going to make you better.

"Every day in this building, you better come ready to go, every time you step on the field, you better come ready to go. Because it doesn't matter if you're undefeated, if you have a s--- game, somebody is going to let you know. You ain't just coasting through a season like you're the Chargers. There is a sense of urgency here on the East Coast, and in Philadelphia, with sports teams. It can be hard. But it can also be incredibly rewarding."