Free Agents, Draft Picks That Could Fill Philadelphia Eagles' Biggest Needs

Andrew KulpContributor IDecember 10, 2013

Free Agents, Draft Picks That Could Fill Philadelphia Eagles' Biggest Needs

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    The 2013 Philadelphia Eagles appear to have surprisingly few holes, at least based on the way they’re playing of late. With a five-game winning streak, the Birds are officially the hottest team in the NFL. Their offense is ranked third overall. The defense hasn’t surrendered more than 21 points in nine straight.

    While the Eagles are 8-5 and still trending up, the playoffs are right around the corner and the offseason isn’t far behind. With that in mind, there is a reason most fans and experts weren’t anticipating this kind of success in Chip Kelly’s first season as head coach. Philly has needs just like everybody else.

    The need that has seemingly disappeared is at starting quarterback, which coincidentally is also the hardest position to fill and the one that often correlates the most with winning. The emergence of Nick Foles has spared the front office from having to focus on signal-callers—at least in the upcoming draft—freeing up numerous other possibilities instead.

    When it’s time for general manager Howie Roseman and the front office to go shopping this spring, they’ll be building around Foles and the 10th-youngest roster in the league. If you think the Eagles are good now, they could become a powerhouse with a strong draft and a couple of quality free agents—if they’re not there already.

    Of course, piling up victories has done a number on the Birds’ draft slotting as well, so don’t expect to see any of the top, top prospects in midnight green in 2014. However, the Eagles will have plenty of money to spend in free agency, coming in at nearly $20 million under the salary cap this season.

    Which brings us back around to the beginning. The Eagles don’t appear to have many glaring holes since Chip arrived and started putting the pieces together, so how will how the organization allocate its precious resources come March? Here are five suggestions.

Wide Receiver

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    With the emergence of Riley Cooper as a legitimate threat, the Eagles suddenly appear to be loaded at wide receiver. That’s not exactly the case.

    Both Cooper and Jeremy Maclin, who missed this season with a torn ACL, are free agents at season’s end. In fact, only DeSean Jackson’s contract currently runs beyond 2014. Jason Avant, Brad Smith and Arrelious Benn will all be unrestricted free agents a year from now.

    Philadelphia will undoubtedly attempt to re-sign one or both of Cooper and Maclin, but there should be competition for both of their services. Maclin is the more talented of the two, although he’s never quite had that true breakout season, and the injury is a concern—he could be looking at a short-term prove-it deal. Cooper, on the other hand, may strike it rich, having emerged as a quality No. 2.

    Regardless of which one comes back, the Birds should look to add another receiver in the draft. Jason Avant has become ineffective as a target, Brad Smith turns 30 and Arrelious Benn can’t stay healthy.

    Eagles fans would love to see Texas A&M’s Mike Evans or Clemson’s Sammy Watkins, but both are likely top-10 picks. Instead, they may have to settle for somebody like in-state product Allen Robinson if the junior enters the draft this year.

    The Penn State product just enjoyed one of the best seasons of any wide receiver in the nation, racking up 97 receptions for 1,432 yards (14.8 YPC) and six touchdowns. He doesn’t have elite speed but runs well for his 6’3”, 210-pound frame. Perhaps Robinson’s best feature is his body control and ability to grab the football at his highest point, as he’s made numerous highlight-reel catches during his collegiate career.

    Robinson looks like an end-of-the-first-round type of talent if he comes out, and his stock could be on the rise. If the Eagles put him on the same field with Jackson and either Maclin or Cooper, Chip Kelly’s offense might be unstoppable.

Outside Linebacker

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    Trent Cole is enjoying a tremendous season at outside linebacker, better than a converted defensive end of eight seasons has any right to. That being said, Cole is no spring chicken at 31 years old, and the Eagles have very little in the way of depth or even traditional 3-4 outside linebacker help behind him.

    Plus, Cole’s cap figure is set to balloon in 2015, the scheduled amount of $11.6 million nearly double his current number of $5.3 million in 2013. There’s no way the team is going to pay him that—no way he’ll even be worth it, for that matter.

    They could always renegotiate a year from now, but the simple fact of the matter is the Eagles need to add pieces regardless. Even the most optimistic person should realize it’s time to start planning for the future.

    That’s where the NFL draft comes in. The upcoming free-agent class isn’t exactly overrun by talented linebackers, and with Cole and Connor Barwin already in the fold, it makes more sense to develop an eventual replacement than it does to add another high-priced player who would be competing for snaps.

    With some of the top prospects likely out of reach based on the Birds’ record, one potential target in their range would be Stanford’s Trent Murphy. Murphy (6’6”, 261 lbs.) is wrapping up a senior season in which he recorded 14 sacks, and CBSSports.com’s Rob Rang compares him to Houston Texans stud J.J. Watt:

    Like the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Murphy is at his best attacking the quarterback. While not truly explosive off the snap, Murphy's long legs help him cover ground quickly and he shows surprising flexibility to dip and close around the corner for a man of his size. This body control and length also allows Murphy to consistently defeat the cut blocks which render most players of his height ineffective.

    Why Murphy? It could be coincidence, but Philadelphia’s first draft under Chip Kelly saw the team select four players from the Pac-12 Conference and another from LSU. In other words, they were all players Kelly saw first-hand while coaching at Oregon, just like Murphy.

Safety

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    Just when Nate Allen starts performing at a level where Eagles fans are almost comfortable having him in the defensive backfield, he’s headed for free agency. So are Kurt Coleman and Colt Anderson, too, leaving just rookie Earl Wolff and disappointing Patrick Chung signed through next year at safety.

    Allen has played well enough to merit consideration for a contract extension, particularly in the past two months. According to Pro Football Focus’ signature statistics (subscription only), No. 29 has transformed into one of the most efficient tacklers among all safeties, ranking 11th out of 65 this season.

    If the former second-round pick is not retained, though, Philadelphia will be looking for somebody who can step in immediately. 2014 is not considered a strong draft for safeties, not to mention pairing Wolff in his second season with another rookie sounds like a recipe for disaster.

    More likely, the Eagles would use some of their vast salary-cap space—nearly $20 million under the ceiling in 2013—to go shopping in a deep free-agent class. The headlining name on the marquee will be Buffalo’s Jairus Byrd, a two-time Pro Bowler who tried to escape the Bills this past offseason but was stuck with the franchise tag.

    If Byrd is available, he’ll be in the line to break the bank. The 27-year-old ball hawk has amassed 22 interceptions in five seasons in the NFL. He’s also an Oregon product, which means Eagles head coach Chip Kelly will have first-hand knowledge of the type of person and player the front office would be acquiring.

    Sounds like a fit. The only question is whether or not the Eagles will be willing to sign a safety to a huge contract. Byrd would certainly be worth it.

Backup Quarterback

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    Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

    Provided Nick Foles' production doesn’t fall off a cliff down the stretch, the Eagles would be fools to try to replace him during the offseason. They won’t have a high enough draft pick to land one of the top prospects anyway.

    Philadelphia does need a backup, though. 2012 fourth-rounder Matt Barkley is still in the mix, but Michael Vick will be a free agent. If the organization is serious about winning a Super Bowl, keeping a proven veteran around could come in handy.

    Why not Vick? Obviously, the four-time Pro Bowler would prefer to start, but there may not be much of a market for a 34-year-old quarterback who has two career playoff wins.

    Vick returning to the Eagles on a one-year deal would be a comfortable situation for all parties. He knows the offense, and it looked like there was still a little something left in the tank until a hamstring injury derailed his season.

    The natural progression calls for Barkley to assume the No. 2 job, but the Eagles’ window appears to be open right now. That’s a hugely important role to entrust to a second-year player.

Kicker

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    The Eagles used a fourth-round pick to nab Alex Henery out of Nebraska in 2010, but he has failed to solidify Philadelphia’s kicking game. Henery doesn’t exactly boom all of his kickoffs out of the end zone, and he is in the midst of his worst season knocking the ball through the uprights, converting just 78.3 percent of his tries.

    That doesn’t even tell the whole story. Whether it’s Chip Kelly or Andy Reid before him, head coaches generally don’t trust him from any kind of distance. In three seasons, Henery has four career field-goal attempts of 50 yards or more. He’s made just one.

    Henery only has one year remaining on his rookie contract, but if it expired today, the team probably would at least consider an upgrade. Perhaps it should get an early start by bringing some veteran competition into training camp next summer.

    There are always plenty of kickers on the free-agent market, and 2014 will be no different. Some of the bigger names will likely stay put where they already have job security, but somebody like Nick Folk would seemingly fit all of the qualifications the Eagles would be looking for. He’s 28 and, after years of uneven play, peaked suddenly this season—Folk leads all kickers with a 96.6 percent success rate.

    As Manish Mehta pointed out last month for the New York Daily News, Folk also has plenty of experience winning competitions—six to be exact. The Jets would probably like to keep Folk, but maybe he’d prefer to play for a winner.