The 10 Biggest Keys to Philadelphia Eagles' 2012 NFL Free Agency Strategy

Randy JobstSenior Analyst IFebruary 26, 2012

The 10 Biggest Keys to Philadelphia Eagles' 2012 NFL Free Agency Strategy

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    The Philadelphia Eagles are so close to another serious run at a Super Bowl title or titles Andy Reid can almost taste it. The offense is explosive, the offensive line is on the cusp of becoming great and the pass rush is truly elite. It's safe to say that the Eagles aren't your "fixer-upper." The Eagles just need a couple upgrades to get back on top of the NFC East and possibly get Coach Reid another shot at that oh so elusive Lombardi Trophy.

    The Eagles will head into free agency with a decent amount of cap space. The potential re-signings of DeSean Jackson, LeSean McCoy and Evan Mathis could lower the amount considerably but the Eagles should have enough cap room to bring in at least one or two quality starters still in the prime of their careers.

    We all know that Howie Roseman and the entire Eagles front office already has a plan in place. They proved it last year when they brought in two Pro Bowl-caliber cornerbacks in Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Here are 10 keys for the Eagles strategy heading into free agency.

1. DeSean Jackson Situation

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    DeSean Jackson sets up the Eagles entire offseason plan. Whatever happens with DeSean will affect the next set of moves for the Eagles. Will he be re-signed or play with the franchise tag through the 2012 season? Will he get traded for draft picks or possibly even a starting middle linebacker?

    I think the Eagles want Jackson signed for the long-term but at the same time they won't overpay for a receiver that drops way too many passes and has a history of concussions. If the right offer is out there and the Eagles can't get Jackson and his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, to get realistic, they will pull the trigger and make the trade.

    If Jackson isn't an Eagle in 2012, then they will most likely go after a big-time receiver in free agency like a Vincent Jackson or Marques Colston. If he stays they will bring in Plaxico Burress for red-zone help and on critical third downs.

    The Eagles don't want to overspend in free agency on a veteran receiver, they could use their extra early-round draft picks to trade up and take a player like Michael Floyd or Justin Blackmon in the top 10 of the first round of the 2012 NFL draft.

    Once the Eagles figure out what to do with DeSean, the rest of their plan for free agency can take shape. Look for that to happen before free agency kicks off on March 13th.

2. Re-Sign Evan Mathis

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    The Eagles offensive line had a major learning curve in a short amount of time last season under new line coach Howard Mudd. The Eagles front five went through some major turnover last season. Jason Peters was the only player to stay at the same position from 2010 to 2011. Jason Kelce and Danny Watkins were rookies that earned starting jobs very early in 2011 while Todd Herremans was moved from left guard to right tackle.

    Evan Mathis was the final piece to the Eagles new offensive line. Mathis was signed to a one-year deal during training camp to give the Eagles a versatile backup on the line who can play both tackle and guard but he turned out to be one of the better guards in the entire league.

    Now that one-year deal is up for Mathis and the Eagles need to sign him long-term and keep their solid group intact for the next four or five years, potentially. Now starter from the line is over 30 years old yet and this group should get even better if they can all stay together for the next four or five years.

    Mathis is a perfect fit in Mudd's blocking scheme and broke out as an elite guard this past season. He should want to be back and the Eagles should also want him back. I would be shocked if Mathis wasn't back next season.

3. Sign LeSean McCoy Long-Term

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    LeSean McCoy has grown tremendously as a running back in each of his three seasons with the Eagles. He has gone from a good versatile back to one of the top three backs in the entire league. He catches the ball well out of the backfield, he is one of the most elusive runners in the game and he has become outstanding in pass protection to boot.

    McCoy is the total package at running back and is now entering his prime at 24. He is also in the final year of his rookie contract that will pay him $575,000 this season. He needs to be given some financial security before he risks serious injury during the 2012 season.

    Sound familiar? DeSean Jackson went through this in 2011 as the Eagles failed to sign him long-term prior to the season. The Eagles would be wise to extend him through the next five or six seasons before he starts thinking about testing the market next spring.

    McCoy has been nothing but a team-first player since he was drafted. He deserves to be signed long-term and the Eagles offense isn't the same without him. He finished with over 1,600 total yards and 20 total touchdowns in 2011. The Eagles would be wise to take care of Shady long-term.

4. Bring in a More Athletic Full Back

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    I expect the Eagles to go in a different direction at full back in 2012. Owen Schmitt has done a nice job filling in for Leonard Weaver after he suffered a horrific knee injury in the first game of 2010. He is a decent blocker who can catch the football a little bit out of the backfield, but he isn't much of an offensive weapon.

    Last year the Eagles spent a seventh-round draft pick on a athletic full back in Stanley Havili. Havili spent the 2011 season on the practice squad but should push for a spot on the roster if he can demonstrate some ability as a lead blocker. Havili was used more as a receiver and a runner than a blocker while at USC.

    Jerome Felton is the same type of player but a little bit better of a lead blocker. Felton was waived by the Carolina Panthers last November but was claimed by the Indianapolis Colts. The Eagles put a claim on Felton but didn't win out as the Colts were higher on the waiver order.

    Felton isn't expected back in Indianapolis this season and should get a decent offer from the Eagles in free agency. He is the exact type of full back the Eagles should be looking for this season.

5. Offensive Line Cuts

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    The Eagles have rebuilt the starters on their offensive line to better suit Howard Mudd's blocking scheme, but they only have one backup, Julian Vandervelde, who fits the scheme.

    Tackle Winston Justice and center Jamaal Jackson are two of the most expensive reserve linemen in the NFL and shouldn't be Eagles for much longer. Justice is due over $3 million in salary this season while Jackson is due over $1.7 million.

    I fully expect the Eagles to spend two mid-round draft picks on a offensive tackle and a center who can also play guard to finish out the depth chart.

    Both player will clear about $5 million in cap space which will be crucial should the Eagles need to sign a big-time wide receiver or middle linebacker.

6. Darryl Tapp

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    Darryl Tapp will be another cap casualty this offseason for the Eagles. Tapp is set to make over $2.5 million this season which is a high number for a player with just 5.5 sacks the last two seasons. The player behind Tapp on the depth chart, Phillip Hunt, will be a major reason Tapp gets released.

    Hunt was signed from the CFL last season and despite showing a great deal of potential in preseason, needed a lot of work on his technique. He came on strong in the final four games, picking up two sacks including a safety against the Miami Dolphins.

    Hunt should rotate in on Trent Cole's side at defensive end this season while Jason Babin will split reps with Brandon Graham on the other side in Jim Washburn's rotation. That would give the Eagles two solid veterans in the prime of their careers rotating out with two rising stars that will eventually replace Cole and Babin.

    The Eagles could also draft another defensive end to give them more depth at the position and a player that would take Brandon Graham's spot in the rotation after he replaces Babin in a year or two.

7. Filling out Defensive Tackle

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    The Eagles will have a tough decision or two to make at defensive tackle. Mike Patterson is already under contract, Cullen Jenkins re-structured his in order to retire as an Eagle and Antonio Dixon is a restricted free agent that no team will spend a second-round pick in order to sign away from Philadelphia.

    The Eagles also have last year's undrafted rookie, Cedric Thornton, under contract but he was mainly on the practice squad last season. Trevor Laws and Derek Landri are both free agents and both could make cases why they should be brought back.

    Laws is the more versatile of the two as he can line up as a defensive end and a tackle. Landri can't but he did have a knack for getting into the opponents backfield last season.

    The Eagles could sign both and bring them all into training camp along with Thornton and eventually cut one of the three. The Eagles could also sign neither and draft someone in the first or second round like Fletcher Cox out of Mississippi State or Brandon Thompson out of Clemson. Both are great fits for Washburn's aggressive line scheme. This is a very real possibility if the Eagles sign a middle linebacker in free agency. Even if they don't, they still could spend one of their second-round picks on a tackle.

8. Sign a Worthy Middle Linebacker

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    Middle Linebacker is a position of need going into 2012, but the Eagles shouldn't overpay on someone who isn't much of an upgrade over Chaney and not an upgrade over potential first-round draft pick Luke Kuechly.

    Atlanta Falcons Curtis Lofton and Detroit Lions Stephen Tulloch are the premier middle linebackers that might hit the free-agent market. Lofton has been a tackling machine against the run the past three years, racking up nearly 300 solo tackles in the past three seasons. Tulloch makes the most sense as he has played his whole career behind the wide-nine scheme that the Eagles now employ. It made sense last year in free agency when Tulloch had to settle for a very humble one-year contract from the Lions.

    Either player would be major signing for the Eagles and would greatly improve their run defense that at times in 2011 was atrocious.

    There are several other available middle linebackers in free agency, but none of them are much better, if at all over Jamar Chaney. None of those players will be any better than Luke Kuechly in 2012 and he should be much better in the long run as well.

    Andy Reid has never been willing to spend a first-round draft pick or a big contract on a linebacker but he will have to change that type of thinking this season unless he is willing to take another chance with Chaney in the middle in 2012. If either Lofton or Tulloch are available, expect the Eagles to break the bank in order to acquire their services. Either player would put the Eagles in the top 10 and maybe the top five against the run.

9. Asante Samuel

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    Asante Samuel is done as a Philadelphia Eagle for three major reasons. One, he can't tackle and that is a huge concern for new defensive backs coach Todd Bowles. Two, it forces Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to play the slot and Joselio Hanson only to play in dime packages. Hanson is one of the best slot corners and needs to be the primary slot corner for the Eagles while Rodgers-Cromartie doesn't cover well in the slot. Three and most importantly, Samuel is due to make $9.4 million in 2012.

    The Eagles will try to shop around Samuel once again and try to get the highest draft pick they can get. Last year the Eagles tried to trade Samuel last August but the deal fell through after the Eagles wanted a first-round pick. Reportedly the Eagles were offered two second-day draft picks.

    Don't expect the Eagles to get offered a second and a third-round pick this time around as Samuel's salary has gone up over $3 million since then and he is another year older, now 31 years old.

    The Eagles will try to at least get a third-round pick out of Samuel, which would give them five draft picks in the first three rounds.

10. Plaxico?

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    I firmly believe that Plaxico Burress will be an Eagle next season unless they sign either Dwayne Bowe or Vincent Jackson. The Eagles need red-zone help and Burress would be a cheaper alternative than a Jackson or Bowe. As long as the Eagles have a capable starter opposite of Jeremy Maclin as Burress isn't an every down receiver anymore.

    Even if DeSean Jackson is re-signed, especially if DeSean is re-signed, Burress should be picked up to help inside the 20. He had eight touchdowns in 2011 in his first year back from prison, most of which came in the red zone. Expect the same type of numbers or better in 2012 wherever he plays.

    Burress wants to play in Philadelphia, and Andy Reid should want him to as well. The only thing that would stop this from happening is if the Eagles sign someone like Vincent Jackson to replace DeSean or if they trade up in the first round to take Justin Blackmon or Michael Floyd. Even if they do, there is still a really good shot they bring in Burress for extra red-zone help.