With a 10-6 record and division championship in Chip Kelly’s first season on the sidelines, the Philadelphia Eagles appear primed to become contenders for at least the next several years. They’ve got the NFL’s most explosive offense led by 24-year-old Nick Foles, a bunch of promising young players from recent drafts and perhaps the key ingredient, plenty of flexibility under the salary cap.
According to the invaluable resource EaglesCap.com, the Birds fall just under an estimated $20 million in salary cap space for the upcoming year. It’s not so much money that the front office can afford to spend lavishly on every big-name free agent to hit the market this spring, but that figure is more than enough to keep most of the important pieces in place and make upgrades where available.
No doubt, Philadelphia’s front office is already well into the process of allocating money for certain ventures. Let’s take a sneak peak at the blueprint.
Hit the MAC Machine
First things first, which is the Eagles re-signing some of their own impending free agents, and the No. 1 priority this offseason should be convincing Jeremy Maclin to return.
Maclin suffered a torn ACL at training camp in July, forcing him to miss the entire 2013 campaign. Riley Cooper stepped up in the starting wide receiver’s absence and posted reasonably good numbers (47 REC, 835 YDS, 8 TD), but Maclin has the potential to “blow up” in Kelly’s offense.
The 19th overall pick in the ’09 draft, and widely considered a top-10 talent at the time, Maclin has to see the numbers DeSean Jackson and LeSean McCoy put up in this offense and salivate. The soon-to-be 26-year-old has been on the cusp of 1,000-yard seasons before, but that much and then some might be a foregone conclusion next year.
Maclin appeared to be on the verge of reaching another level after 2010, when he posted career highs in receptions (70), yards (964) and touchdowns (10). For various reasons though, he fell short of that the past three seasons, but it’s not for a lack of potential or ability.
Maclin could be looking for a “prove-it” deal from the Birds, a short-term contract that gives the player a chance to raise his value, then cash in a couple years down the road. The team would be wise to oblige and see if he can finally make the leap to stardom under Kelly.
The Eagles will also want to use some of that money to re-sign a few other key players, most notably punter Donnie Jones and defensive end Cedric Thornton.
Taking Care of Their Own
In addition to signing free agents—their own and others once the market opens on March 11—the Eagles have at least one young player under contract who’s worth locking up for the long-term.
Jason Kelce is entering the final year of his rookie deal, which means it’s time to start talking extension. A sixth-round pick in 2011, Kelce was elevated to starting center at his first training camp and never looked back. The only bump in the road was season-ending ligament damage in 2012, but he returned this year to have what many felt was a Pro Bowl-caliber campaign.
At 26, Kelce is one of the keystones of an offensive line that was widely considered one of the best in the league this past season, particularly when it comes run blocking. He helped pave the way for McCoy’s rushing championship with 1,607 yards, and it’s only a matter of time until he’s recognized as one of the top players at his position.
Remember, under the collective bargaining agreement, most players cannot negotiate an extension to their rookie deal until after their third season. That means players such as Foles, Mychal Kendricks and Brandon Boykin are all a year away from their payday, which makes the timing perfect to do Kelce.
Make a Splash
General manager Howie Roseman indicated to CSNPhilly.com’s Reuben Frank recently that the Eagles are trying to build the team “the right way,” so don’t expect them to run out and sign everybody like it’s 2011 all over again. In general, it’s wise to build through the draft and only supplement that talent with free agents.
Having said that, one area where the Eagles have a chance to do a little supplementing is at safety, where right now only Patrick Chung, Earl Wolff and Keelan Johnson are under contract through ’14. Chung will be on the roster bubble, while Johnson spent most of last season on the practice squad, leaving Wolff as the only truly viable option at the position.
The Eagles will no doubt add a safety or two in the draft, but pairing a rookie with Wolff—a fifth-round pick entering his second season—is a mighty big leap of faith for a contending team. They need a proven veteran in the mix.
The club could just bring back Nate Allen, who is coming off of a fine season. If that was Allen’s ceiling though, the Birds can upgrade, especially in this deep free-agent class of safeties.
The Eagles have a chance to add a real impact player to their secondary. Jairus Byrd, 27, was just named an All-Pro for the third time, he wants out of Buffalo, plus as an Oregon product he has ties to Chip Kelly. Byrd could cost upwards of $8 million per season, but it would be so worth it for a player who’s averaged 4.4 interceptions and 2.2 forced fumbles per season over his five-year NFL career.
It’s not like Philadelphia has numerous holes to fill this spring. A veteran backup quarterback and perhaps another pass-rusher will be on the radar, but with most of the starters expected to return, the front office could splurge on one player.
Save Some for a Rainy Day
The Eagles would be wise to not spend all the way up to the cap, as league rules allow them to carry over any unused money into the next year. That’s important, because the team has a lot of young talent that will be up for new contract in the coming years.
The problem is that might mean letting some assets go. Cooper, for instance, is hitting free agency at exactly the right time as he’s coming off of a year where he looked like a viable deep-threat in Kelly’s offense. He finished third with 17.8 yards per catch, sixth with six receptions of 40 yards or more and 16th with eight touchdowns.
With Maclin back in the mix though, Jason Avant, Arrelious Benn and Brad Smith all under contract, plus the opportunity to replace Cooper—a former fifth-round pick himself—with another late-round flyer, he’s a luxury at this point.
Based on free-agent contracts awarded to wide receivers in recent years, Cooper could be looking at something in the range of $5-6 million per year over four to five years. That’s a lot of money for a wide receiver who had a quarter of his production in 2013 come against the Oakland Raiders.
If it comes down to either Maclin or Cooper, it’s a no-brainer. Maclin has more talent and has accomplished more in the NFL.
The fact is, the Eagles can’t sign everybody, nor should they. It’s always a good idea set aside a rainy-day fund in the NFL, because teams never know when they’ll want to sign a blue-chip free agent or hand out a massive extension to a franchise player.