Eagles Free Agency Preview: 10 Players Philadelphia Must Target

Randy JobstSenior Analyst IMarch 11, 2012

Eagles Free Agency Preview: 10 Players Philadelphia Must Target

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    Last year's late edition of free agency saw an absolute spending spree by the Philadelphia Eagles. The Eagles signed two elite pass-rushers in Jason Babin and Cullen Jenkins. They also signed two key veteran backups in Vince Young and Ronnie Brown as expected. What wasn't expected was when they shocked the NFL world by signing one of the top two cornerbacks in the league in Nnamdi Asomugha.

    This year's free agency won't make Eagles fans jump out of their chair. Less cap space and more talent coming into the season will allow for maybe one or two major signings and several more additions for depth and more competition in training camp.

    There will be at least two major signings and possibly three major re-signings with Evan Mathis a free agent and DeSean Jackson and LeSean McCoy deserving long-term deals.

    Expect the Eagles to sign at least one veteran linebacker to come in and start at either strong side or middle linebacker and another immediate impact veteran player at another position as well. Here are 10 players the Eagles should be targeting heading into free agency.

1. Curtis Lofton

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    The Atlanta Falcons appear set on letting Curtis Lofton walk this offseason. The Falcons signed Lofa Tatupu to compete last year's third-round selection, Akeem Dent, for the starting middle linebacker position.

    Lofton is all but guaranteed to hit the free-agent market and will be the most sought middle linebacker in free agency. The Eagles are one of the most middle linebacker-needy teams this offseason and should at least talk to Lofton once free agency kicks off on March 13.

    Lofton has been an incredibly productive player in just four years in the league. He has 352 career solo tackles and seven forced fumbles. His run support and tackling has never come into question.

    His coverage skills have. It was reported that Lofton would have been removed from the Nickel defense had he re-signed with Atlanta. When you watch him on tape, he isn't that bad in pass coverage. It's a moot point for the Eagles, as both Keenan Clayton and Casey Matthews thrived in the nickel package last year and Lofton wouldn't be on the field in obvious passing situations.

    If it turns into a bidding war for Lofton this free agency, expect the Eagles to back off. There are too many other quality middle linebackers in free agency and one elite one in the draft for the Eagles to overspend on somebody else's middle linebacker. He should be Plan A for the Eagles at middle linebacker, but not without carefully looking at the next four or five quality linebackers available this offseason.

2. Stephen Tulloch

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    If Lofton is the clear cut best middle linebacker available in free agency, then Tulloch should be right behind him. He actually might be higher on the Eagles board for his experience in the wide-9 scheme. According to the Detroit Free Press, Tulloch is expected to hit free agency come Tuesday.

    Tulloch played his entire six years in the wide-9 scheme, which is something that greatly interests the Eagles front office. The wide-9 scheme proved to be too much for both Casey Matthews and Jamar Chaney to handle on running plays. Tulloch has averaged 96 solo tackles a season in his last three seasons.

    His coverage skills, like Lofton, are a lot better then what most experts believe. He will be more of a run-stopping linebacker who will be taken out on passing situations in favor of Casey Matthews in the nickel package. This will keep him fresher than he has been in years past and allow him to really focus on stopping the run.

    The price range of Curtis Lofton and Stephen Tulloch will really determine what the Eagles do in free agency. Anywhere from $8-10 million/year will probably be too much for a two-down linebacker in Juan Castillo's defense. Lofton could command that much cash, but Tulloch's range should be closer to $6 million a year. Last year, he had to settle for a one-year deal from Detroit worth just $3.25 million.

3. David Hawthorne

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    David Hawthorne is yet another really good run-stuffing middle linebacker that his current team, the Seattle Seahawks, are allowing to walk. Hawthorne doesn't possess great speed, but is solid against the run, which is really what the Eagles should be looking for this offseason.

    Like Lofton and Tulloch, he is a couple years under 30, so signing him to a five-year deal would make sense. He can be viewed as a long-term solution to middle linebacker. His price tag should be lower then Tulloch, as he isn't as good in pass coverage and his numbers are a little less than those of Tulloch. Hawthorne has less than 150 combined solo tackles the past two seasons combined. Respectable, but not eye-popping.

    If his price tag is a couple million a year less than Tulloch, then he will be worth a second look, especially if there is a bidding war for both Lofton and Tulloch. He could be a cheaper under-the-radar signing at middle linebacker while everyone else in need is fighting over Lofton and Tulloch.

4. Dan Connor

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    Dan Connor is an interesting prospect at middle linebacker in free agency. He definitely isn't an elite talent in this year's market, but he is a solid run defender who will be looking for a chance to start every week rather then just cash out.

    Injury problems and lack of size will scare interest away from a lot of Eagles fans. He is listed at 6'2, 231 pounds, which is eerily close to Casey Matthews. He has managed to play 16 games once in his four-year career.

    He did fill in nicely for Jon Beason when he tore his Achilles tendon last season. He had 75 tackles last season after taking over for Beason. At 26, he has a lot of potential to be a good starting linebacker for a team that really just needs someone who can hold his own against the run.

    Connor is probably looked as a solid back-up plan if their other targets sign elsewhere or demand too much money.

5. London Fletcher

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    In the right scenario, London Fletcher would be the ideal free-agent middle linebacker for the Eagles. At 36, he isn't the long-term solution, but he should come cheaper than the high-profile free-agent linebackers, and he could mentor a rookie this season as well.

    Eagles fans have stated that they want a more punishing player at middle linebacker. This is why some many fans are still high on combine disaster Vontaze Burfict. Fletcher is a very proven player with enough gas left in the tank to be a solid player for at least one or two more seasons.

    He is outstanding against the run and is very underrated against the pass as well. Playing in the Eagles defense would allow him to be just a two-down linebacker, keeping his 36-year-old body fresh for the whole season.

    Eagles fans have seen him punish their running backs for the last five seasons, where he has averaged nearly 100 solo tackles a year, including last year, where he had 96 tackles, 1.5 sacks, two interceptions, three forced fumbles and eight passes broken up.

    Signing Fletcher gives the Eagles an elite run defender right now while they spend a third or fourth-round draft pick this year on a middle linebacker of the future.

6. Plaxico Burress

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    The Eagles need red zone help badly. They could spend a first-round draft pick on a bigger receiver like Michael Floyd or break the bank on a player like Vincent Jackson, but Plaxico Burress wants to come to Philadelphia.

    Burress isn't the same type of receiver he once was, but he is still capable of being a good receiver for 30 snaps a game and a dominant jump ball receiver in the red zone. He should command a relatively low cap number for 2012, which makes him even more attractive for the Eagles.

    The Giants and Steelers also have Burress' interest, but both of those teams are still fighting to get under the salary cap. This time around, the Eagles can offer a little more money while keeping him in the same role he was used in last season with the Jets, where he had eight touchdowns.

7. Peyton Hillis

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    Not the most likely of the Eagles' free-agent targets, but Peyton Hillis would be an excellent fit as a fullback in the Eagles West Coast offense. He has the versatility that Andy Reid loves in his fullbacks. He can block well and is an excellent receiver and a bulldozer-like runner.

    Hillis is coming off a very down season where he averaged just 3.6 yards a carry and missed six games. In a free-agent market that has two more proven power backs in Michael Bush and Cedric Benson, Hillis' asking price is going to have to go way down from what he might have expected to make following a monster 2010 season.

    Hillis would give the Eagles the power back they have greatly been missing since Duce Staley left while also giving them a back who can catch the ball out of the backfield as well. Players like Charles Scott and Tony Hunt failed in Philadelphia because they were just straight-line runners with no other skill sets. Hillis has much quicker feet than people give him credit for, and he is an outstanding receiver with good run-blocking skills as well.

    He could be the free-agent pickup that most analysts and Eagles fans alike sleep on. Cullen Jenkins was a career 3-4 defensive end who surprised some last season when the Eagles signed him to be a 4-3 defensive tackle.

8. LaDainian Tomlinson

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    LaDainian Tomlinson isn't done just yet. It appear he wants to play at least one more season in the NFL. He will be looking for a complimentary role this season, and maybe even less than the one he had last year with the Jets. He had 75 carries and 42 receptions last season with the Jets.

    It's a little unclear as to what the Eagles will be looking for in a running back this season. They have their starter in LeSean McCoy and a solid reserve in second-year player Dion Lewis. Is Lewis the backup going into the season? Do they want a more capable receiver at running back or someone with more power?

    Tomlinson would be a solid third-down back who still has enough left in his tank to have an impact this season. He should come relatively cheap as well at the age of 32. He should be looking for a Super Bowl contender, and the Eagles would be on the short list after a strong finish to the 2011 season.

9. Ben Grubbs

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    The Eagles have yet to re-sign Evan Mathis to a long-term deal, which is a bit surprising. Mathis is coming off his best season at the age of 30, where he thrived in Howard Mudd's blocking scheme. It's unclear as to whether he is just trying to increase his yearly amount or if he actually wants to test the market. Either way, the Eagles will need a back-up plan at left guard.

    Ben Grubbs is a good option in free agency. He has started just 10 games during his five-year career, but he is the type of player that could do well under Coach Mudd. He has good size at 310 pounds and moves pretty well for a guard as well. He should come at a fair price due to his lack of starting experience.

    The other option at left guard for the Eagles should Mathis sign elsewhere would be current reserve guard Julian Vandervelde. He was a fifth-round selection in last year's draft and did get some reps with the first team in the early portion of training camp. He was well-coached in his college career at Iowa that utilized a similar type of linemen that Howard Mudd likes.

    He would have all summer get accustomed to his fellow linemates, whereas last year's rookie starters, Jason Kelce and Danny Watkins, had just a few short weeks.

    The ideal situation would be if the Eagles re-sign Mathis to a fair five-year deal. Michael Vick was 5-1 as a starter last season with the current starting offensive line. Keeping those five linemen together for the next four or five years is crucial for the Eagles' long-term success.

    You never know how an unknown young player like Vandervelde or a free agent like Grubbs would fit. He and Vandervelde are just back-up plans if the negotiations with Mathis turn sour.

10. Jason Jones

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    The Eagles could use another defensive tackle with some pass-rushing skills to add to their rotation. Fletcher Cox is the name that makes the most sense in the draft, but Jason Jones is a very good possibility in free agency as well. He played three seasons under Jim Washburn while at Tennessee.

    He is a bit undersized, at 276 pounds, for a defensive tackle. He really is more of a rotational pass-rushing specialist at defensive tackle than he is an every-down player. A reunion with Washburn would seem ideal for Jones.

    Signing a versatile tackle like Jones would allow the Eagles to pursue a different position in the first round. Jones should receive plenty of attention from the Rams and Saints as well.