2012 NFL Free Agents: 7 Players the Philadelphia Eagles Must Target
Over the last six months, the Philadelphia Eagles have experienced a perfect storm of organizational failures comparable to the second Bush administration. The most hotly-anticipated season in franchise history ended with the most mind-numbing 8-8 campaign since the institution of the 16-game schedule in 1978.
The scary part is that it could have been a lot worse. The Eagles were a putrid 4-8 before closing the season with a hollow, four-game winning streak.
To top it all off, it was the arch-rival Giants, a team widely considered inferior to the Eagles before the start of the season, who lifted the very Lombardi Trophy the Birds were supposed to be basking under.
After 13 seasons on an ultimately empty, Andy Reid-captained vessel, Eagles fans are teetering on the edge of the clinical insanity definition so disturbingly outlined by its ironically staunchest advocate, team president Joe Banner.
"The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result," Banner told Comcast Sportsnet in January 2009, after the Eagles lost yet another NFC championship game (1-4 in the Andy Reid era), this one to a wildly underwhelming Arizona squad.
The painful irony in this statement is that for the Eagles under Reid, the result has always been pretty much the same, with a few fresh subplots mixed in from season to season.
While few fans are arguing the decision to give Reid one more shot in 2012, it's painstakingly clear that he's finally on his last leg.
The two-time Sporting News Coach of the Year can either make like his New York antagonist (Tom Coughlin) and respond to his unsettling job security by winning the Super Bowl, or he can make like Wade Phillips (2010 Dallas Cowboys) and stand there like Elmer Befuddled as his talented roster chemically implodes.
If the response is less like Coughlin and more like Phillips, Eagles nation may just burn Lincoln Financial Field and its pompous environmental cooling system to the ground.
So, consider this the calm before the metropolitan storm that will be the 2012 Eagles season.
If there's a bright side for Reid and his perpetually overwhelmed game day staff (looking at you, Juan Castillo), it's that they do have perhaps the most talented roster in the NFL to work with. Even so, it's a roster that can elevate from playoff contender to Super Bowl contender with a few major touch-ups.
Here are seven available players who could provide those long-awaited finishing touches.
I know, I know. He's been an Eagle for four years already.
But Philly needs a healthy, clear-minded DeSean Jackson if its offense is going to return to its prolific levels of 2009 and 2010, when it finished fifth and third, respectively, in points scored and points per game.
Not coincidentally, Jackson had over 1,000 yards in both seasons while leading the NFL in yards per catch (18.6 in 2009, 22.5 in 2010).
His capabilities as a big-play threat also open up the short and intermediate parts of the field for Jeremy Maclin, Brent Celek and Jason Avant.
While there is a rich free-agent talent pool at the wide receiver position (Marques Colston, Dwayne Bowe, Vincent Jackson, etc.), none of them can match Jackson's ability to break open a game at any moment. In 2009, he became the first player in NFL history to be voted into the Pro Bowl at two different positions (wideout and punt returner).
Given his poor showing and bad attitude (which he has since apologized for) in 2011 (58 catches, 961 yards and just four touchdowns), Jackson will likely come at a much cheaper price than most of his counterparts.
Before we move on to external prospects, we have to finish off the in-house slate of quality Eagles targets first.
Quietly, Evan Mathis had a great season opening holes next to Jason Peters for franchise record-setting running back LeSean McCoy (20 total touchdowns, 17 rushing).
At a quick and athletic 6'5" and 295 pounds, Mathis is the perfect type of guard for offensive line coach Howard Mudd's zone blocking scheme.
It took the Eagles almost half the season in 2011 to fully integrate three new offensive linemen (Mathis, center Jason Kelce and right guard Danny Watkins) and another who was playing a new position (Todd Herremans at right tackle).
They'd be foolish to mess with that chemistry now, especially with probably the cheapest quality lineman on the market.
Michael Vick is going to get hurt at some point. He always does.
In seven NFL seasons as a starting quarterback, Vick has played all 16 games just once. In two seasons as the Eagles starter, he's missed three starts each year due to injury.
Andy Reid has also dealt with enough blows to his starting quarterbacks in his 13 seasons in Philly to understand the value of a quality backup.
In 2002 and 2006, the Eagles went 4-1 and 5-0 down the stretch with A.J. Feeley (2002, plus Koy Detmer for a game) and Jeff Garcia (2006) filling in after Donovan McNabb sustained serious injuries.
In 2005, they went 2-5 and missed the playoffs with the venerable Mike McMahon.
Last season, the Birds lost a pair of crucial mid-season games to New England and Seattle with the bumbling, big-talking (#DreamTeam) Vince Young filling in for Vick. A win in just one of those games (ahem, Seattle) would have propelled the Eagles into the playoffs and kept the eventual Super Bowl champion Giants out.
With this glaring example fresh in mind, it would make perfect sense to overpay for a starter-caliber backup like Kyle Orton, who has won his fair share of games (35) and thrown his fair share of touchdowns (80) in seven NFL seasons with the Bears, Broncos and Chiefs.
Considering their adept cap management and resulting cash flow, the Eagles rarely fail when they target a high-profile free agent, as evidenced by the past signings of Terrell Owens (2004), Jevon Kearse (2004), Asante Samuel (2008), Jason Peters (2009) and Nnamdi Asomugha (2011).
While those signings were timely in their own right (especially T.O.), Eagles management would be hard-pressed to find a more ideal free-agent target at a more perfect time than Lions middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch in 2012.
A pure 4-3 middle linebacker, Tulloch has racked up at least 110 tackles in each of the last three seasons, including an impressive 160 with Tennessee in 2010. At 27, he's also in the absolute prime of his career.
You're asking too much if you draft a middle linebacker and expect him to make an impact as a rookie starter. Philly found that out the hard way with Casey Matthews last year. Which is why the free agent pool would be the most sensible route for such an important position.
Tulloch is far and away the best and most viable option.
After finally emerging as a starter in the Panthers' crowded linebacking corps in 2011, Dan Connor displayed the type of sure-handed tackling skills that made him a star and two-time All-American at Penn State. He made a career-high 75 tackles, 54 of which were solo.
While he's not exactly a lightning-quick pass-rusher, Connor wouldn't have to be as a 4-3 outside linebacker.
At 6'2" and with decent speed, he's also a perfect candidate to cover pass-catching tight ends, an area in which the Eagles have struggled mightily since losing Carlos Emmons in 2002.
As an added bonus, Connor also has experience as both an inside and outside linebacker and could easily step in if Jamar Chaney gets injured in the middle.
A hard-hitting, sure-handed safety, Tyvon Branch would give the Eagles a fearsome center field tandem with emerging playmaker Kurt Coleman (four INTs in 2011).
The emerging 25-year-old has had back-to-back strong seasons for the Raiders, including a breakout 2009 campaign, when he recorded 98 tackles to go along with two forced fumbles and a sack.
Again, if they have the desire, Andy Reid and company should have no trouble outbidding the often cash-strapped Raiders for the second summer in a row.
A young, unsung star like Branch would solidify a position that's been in shambles since the departure of Brian Dawkins as a free agent in 2009.