SANTA CLARA — This Sunday, the 49ers will play the team they aspire to become — the Philadelphia Eagles.
The Eagles are elite. They’re 6-1, which is the best record in the NFL. But they were middle of the road the past two seasons. They won seven games in 2015 and seven games in 2016. What were the key components of their rapid ascension, and how can the 49ers learn from their example?
“I think they stuck with their plan,” 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan said on Wednesday. “I think they hit pretty well on some draft picks. They’ve been able to stay healthy. The veteran players that they’ve had there, they kept and they’ve continued to perform.”
Call that the rough outline. Eagles head coach Doug Pederson will provide the details. Pederson is in his second season as the Eagles head coach, so he’s relatively inexperienced, and he’s a former offensive coordinator. He and Shanahan have those things in common.
“With us, it starts right down the middle,” Pederson said on a conference call Wednesday morning. “We started with (defensive tackle) Fletcher Cox a few years ago. We were here when we drafted Fletcher.
“(Defensive tackle) Tim Jernigan was a free agent we picked up. And then Jordan Hicks who, prior to his injury, was a solid Mike linebacker. And then you build right down the middle with two safeties.”
Peterson was describing how the Eagles built their defense. The 49ers are building their defense the same way — from inside out.
They drafted defensive tackle DeForest Buckner in 2016. He’s the best player on the team. They also drafted middle linebacker Reuben Foster this year, spent a first-round pick on free safety Jimmie Ward in 2014 and a second-round pick on strong safety Jaquiski Tartt in 2015. The 49ers seem to be following the Eagles’ blueprint on defense.
What about on offense? How much emphasis did the Eagles place on building their offensive line?
“It’s very important,” Pederson said. “A year ago, we picked up Brandon Brooks and Stefen Wisniewski, and we drafted Isaac (Seumalo) and Big V (Halapoulivaati Vaitai). You have to begin there and start with that foundation.
“We had two bookend tackles — (left tackle) Jason Peters obviously as an All-Pro, and (right tackle) Lane (Johnson) is definitely capable and has shown great strides this year. It starts there. And then with (center) Jason Kelce in the middle, the great communication he has.”
Like Pederson, Shanahan inherited quality offensive tackles — Joe Staley and Trent Brown. Shanahan also inherited a veteran center — Daniel Kilgore. But Kilgore has never been to a Pro Bowl. Jason Kelce has been to two.
The biggest difference between the Eagles’ and 49ers’ offensive lines is the guards. The Eagles are paying Brandon Brooks $7.2 million this year and they have him under contract through 2020. He is part of their foundation.
The 49ers are paying their starting guards — Laken Tomlinson and Brandon Fusco — $2.6 million combined for 2017. Fusco will be a free agent after this season and Tomlinson will be a free agent after next season. Both may be placeholders until the 49ers find needed upgrades.
To match the Eagles in developing a roster, the main position the 49ers have to upgrade is their quarterback. The 49ers have rookie C.J. Beathard, who’s trying to prove he’s the franchise guy. The Eagles have second-year quarterback Carson Wentz, who is their franchise guy. He’s the fourth-highest-rated passer in the NFL.
“Carson, he was going to be our third quarterback a year ago behind Sam (Bradford) and Chase Daniel,” Pederson said. “But (Wentz) was put into the starting role obviously with the (Bradford) trade.
“Then, (Wentz) became part of the leadership group. I think he’s one that continues to get better each week. I wouldn’t say he’s the cherry on top but, as everybody knows in this league, you’ve got to have a quarterback to give yourself a chance.”
What does Pederson think the 49ers have to do to give themselves a chance?
“It’s about acquiring talent,” Pederson said. “In the offseason moving forward they will address that and continue to add the talent they need on that roster. I believe there are seven first-round picks on that roster right now (actually, there are 10), so they’re beginning that. They’re young players and they’re going to get better with time. The more they’re in their system and learn their offensive and defensive schemes, they’re going to get better over time.
“They just have to trust their plan, stick to it, be patient. You can’t do it overnight because we’re limited to the amount of draft picks we get each spring and undrafted free agents. And the cap — we’re up against that sometimes, too. Patience is a virtue. But at the same time, it’s about winning football games in this league.”