What Philadelphia Eagles fan doesn’t love playing fantasy GM, plotting out various courses through free agency and the draft that would ultimately result in a Super Bowl Championship?
Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. NFL front offices aren’t merely faced with choices over whom to sign or select on draft day. Difficult decisions must be made about players all over the roster who take into account the real-life consequences of the depth chart and salary cap.
Now, because the Birds have such a young team, they are still a year away from facing some of the challenges that come with sustaining that success over a longer period of time. However, there are quite a few questions that still need answering before the franchise can take the next step.
Which will be the toughest decisions for the Eagles this offseason as they try to continue their climb back into the elite class of the NFC? We investigate.
For the first time since Brian Dawkins departed five years ago, Philadelphia’s safety corps wasn’t a total mess in 2013. Nate Allen was beyond adequate—which sounds like a backhanded compliment, but the former second-round pick was a massive disappointment the previous two seasons—while Earl Wolff held his own until the rookie suffered a knee injury.
The improvements were a step in the right direction, but the Eagles still lack stability at the position. Allen is set to become a free agent in March, and the only holdover from last season besides the largely untested Wolff is Patrick Chung, who will be on the roster bubble this summer.
The front office must sign somebody to pair with Wolff next season, but who?
There wouldn’t be a great deal of outrage if Allen was retained. The four-year veteran took some lumps early on last season, but he was dependable against both the run and the pass in the second half. Allen is due a raise and a long-term extension, but it would be modest compared to most free agents.
Then again, if this season was Allen at the top of his game, it’s an area the Eagles could potentially upgrade. Buffalo’s Jairus Byrd and Cleveland’s T.J. Ward are among the headliners in a deep free-agent class at safety, and either of the former Oregon Ducks would seemingly make sense in Philly given their ties to head coach Chip Kelly.
Either Byrd or Ward could stand to earn nearly twice as much as Allen on the open market, but the club sure could use another playmaker in the secondary.
One thing the Eagles can’t do is bypass all of them and attempt to fill their need through the draft. We’ve watched the front office reach for safeties before (Jaiquawn Jarrett, 2011 anyone?), and pairing a rookie with Wolff in his second year would be risky to say the least.
The Eagles surprised a lot of people by going 10-6, winning the NFC East and reaching the playoffs in Chip Kelly’s first season on the sidelines. The real challenge though will be meeting rising expectations in year two.
What comes after restoring stability to the franchise and returning to the playoffs? Building a legitimate contender.
Fair or not, the Birds will be expected to make the proverbial leap and compete for a Super Bowl next season, and Philly fans won’t take many excuses—not even if Nick Foles misses an extended period of time due to injury. The organization is expected to have a viable backup plan in place.
The question is whether that’s Matt Barkley.
Barkley was selected in the fourth round of last year’s draft, which is about where teams would hope to find a backup signal-caller, but is he ready for that role? Last year, Barkley was clearly No. 3 on the depth chart from training camp on despite the promise of an open competition, and the lack of preparation showed as he struggled when pressed into action.
Barkley completed 30 of 49 passes (61.2 percent) for 300 yards in three appearances last season, indicating he did have some success moving the offense. Negative plays were an issue, though, as the 23-year-old was sacked three times, threw four picks and lost a fumble.
He did not lead a single touchdown drive, finishing the season with a 44.6 passer rating.
There’s really no way of knowing right now whether with another offseason entrenched in Chip Kelly’s program Barkley can elevate his level of play. That being said, the Eagles would be wise to bring in a veteran backup for competition at least. If something should happen to Foles and the Birds can’t win games, that excuse won’t appease many fans.
Philadelphia featured the 10th-youngest roster in the NFL last season, per Jimmy Kimski of Philly.com, which obviously is a great thing when that squad produces 10 wins. Of course, the downside to that—if there is any—is many of these kids are going to start asking to get paid.
With so many players on their rookie deal, the Eagles have been able to keep costs down, but that’s all about to change. Quite a few players will be up for extension next year, such as Nick Foles, Fletcher Cox, Mychal Kendricks and Brandon Boykin. Thankfully, for now it’s just one.
Jason Kelce has made it three years in the NFL, which means he can sign a new contract, and it could be a big one. While Kelce was not on many people’s radar for the Pro Bowl this season, he arguably had the best overall season of any center in the league. Metrics site Pro Football Focus (subscription only) awarded the 26-year-old the highest cumulative grade at his position.
What’s the going rate for the best center in the league? Perhaps more than you think.
Based on average salary, Carolina’s Ryan Kalil is the highest-paid center in the NFL at $8.1 million per season, followed by Eric Mangold for the New York Jets at $7.7 million, according to Spotrac.com. Then there’s a steep drop-off to Seattle’s Max Unger at $6.4 million.
Still, that’s a hefty price tag for anybody.
The Eagles have to pay Kelce, though. Jason Peters, Evan Mathis and Todd Herremans are all in their 30s, so other parts of one of the league’s best offensive lines should start to deteriorate much sooner than the center. Plus, the chances of upgrading the position are slim to none.
Without the accolades or draft pedigree of Kalil or Mangold, it’s difficult to envision Kelce breaking the bank the highest-paid center in the league. It would not be a surprise to see him pull down a new contract that tops the next tier however.
As far as Eagles fans should be concerned, it will be worth every penny. There's no reason to let this linger into next year, when Kelce is scheduled to reach free agency. Get it done.
It’s a shame the way things have worked out for Brandon Graham in Philadelphia. The 13th overall pick of the 2010 draft was enjoying a promising rookie season until suffering a devastating injury that required offseason microfracture surgery. The recovery was long, and since making it back, Graham continues to find new roadblocks in his path.
Following the injury, the organization signed Jason Babin, who was ahead of Graham for two seasons. In 2013, the defense switched to a 3-4 scheme and added Connor Barwin to play outside linebacker. Trent Cole has been able to hold down a starting job through it all.
Graham just hasn’t been able to get a fair shake. In signature stats by Pro Football Focus (subscription only), the four-year veteran registers as seventh in pass-rush productivity, yet he only plays on roughly a quarter of the defensive snaps. While it might not be fair to describe him as disgruntled, Graham has made it no secret he wants to start, per Reuben Frank of CSNPhilly.com.
The thing is, he probably could start for a lot of teams, especially in a 4-3. With just one more year remaining on Graham’s contract, should the Birds grant his wish and move while they can still get something in return?
It really depends on what the return is. Moving him for anything less than a mid-round pick would probably be a mistake, seeing as the defense has depth issues at outside linebacker and no immediate replacement. There’s no real salary cap benefit to moving him, either.
That said, there’s no way Graham comes back in 2015, and he’s not an ideal fit for the Eagles’ scheme anyway. If another team is willing to tender a legitimate offer, it would be foolish not to listen.
That seems like what would be best for both parties involved, but it’s going to take another franchise recognizing Graham’s value and willing to part with something of substance. Graham had 3.0 sacks and a forced fumble in limited playing time last season, so we’ll see.
When Jeremy Maclin tore his ACL in training camp six months ago, Eagles fans and analysts panicked. Surely, the team would sign somebody, anybody else to play wide receiver across from DeSean Jackson before leaving the duties to fall on Riley Cooper.
Fast forward to January, when all of a sudden many people seem to feel Cooper has become indispensible. The 2010 fifth-round pick finished with 47 receptions, 835 yards and eight touchdowns in the regular season. In particular, he was a big-play threat, finishing third in the NFL with 17.8 yards per catch and sixth with six receptions of 40 yards or more.
Maclin is expected to be 100 percent healthy in 2014, but both he and Cooper are free agents. That’s a problem, because the team likely only has enough cap space to sign one.
A surprising number of people believe it should be Cooper, despite the fact that he’s the more marginally talented of the two. In fact, he really only had three good games last season. Cooper posted all three of his 100-yard performances and six of his touchdowns in a five-game stretch between Weeks 6-10 last season. The rest of the time, he was average at best.
Maclin historically has posted better production throughout his career and without the benefit of an accurate quarterback like Nick Foles and in Chip Kelly’s system. Imagine what kind of numbers the former 19th overall draft pick could pull off in the league’s No. 2 offense.
The Eagles certainly don’t need both Maclin and Cooper. Philadelphia went with three wide receivers on roughly 70 percent of its snaps last season, but that number figures to decrease with the implementation of more two-tight end sets as Zach Ertz’s role grows.
If they can only take one, Maclin seems like the logical choice. Cooper has trouble gaining separation within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage and has limited ability, while Maclin can make plays anywhere on the field. He can also be signed to a short-term deal, which means the front office isn’t forced into a huge commitment.