Free agency doesn't open for nearly two months, but that's not stopping Philadelphia Eagles fans from coveting some of the talent that's primed to hit the market.
When the curtain rises on March 13, the Birds and their nearly $20 million in cap space will undoubtedly be players. Last year, the team made numerous moves, targeting many mid-range players to fill a number of needs.
With fewer holes to fill this spring, will the Eagles make a big splash?
They sure could. There are some big names on the market that would fill some major voids, as well as plenty of ancillary pieces that could help fill out the roster. We run down which free agents might help Philly at every position in this primer.
The Eagles will go into 2014 with Nick Foles firmly entrenched as the quarterback, but what about behind him? Matt Barkley is still something of an unknown quantity despite appearing in three games last season (30/49, 300 YDS, 0 TD, 4 INT).
Ideally, Michael Vick would return to Philadelphia in a backup role, but the four-time Pro Bowler is still intent on starting in the NFL at age 34. Even as a No. 2, the Eagles may be unwilling to meet Vick’s financial demands.
As always, there are numerous veteran backups available should they choose to go that route, although this year’s class offers little in the way of dependability.
Seattle’s Tarvaris Jackson might be the best fit. Jackson runs well for a quarterback, which would open up the read-option if he were pressed into action. At age 31, he’s old enough to have run out of opportunities to start, but not so old that he has nothing left. Finally, Jackson comes relatively cheap, earning less than a million dollars last season to act as Russell Wilson's insurance.
Of course, who knows whether Jackson would leave Seattle. Seems like a cushy job.
If he’s coming in for the minimum and strictly as a reclamation project, it might be worth taking a chance on Josh Freeman. The Eagles could salvage the former first-round pick’s career and sell him off a year later.
Looking over the list of free agents, one could easily become comfortable with the thought of Barkley taking over should anything happen to Foles.
LeSean McCoy led all backs in touches in 2013, and with a $9.7 million cap hit next season, expect more of the same. The Eagles aren’t looking to spend here.
The team is also blessed with two competent players behind McCoy in Bryce Brown and Chris Polk, so it would be somewhat surprising if they went out and did anything except maybe in the draft.
Perhaps, if the coaching staff felt there was a dimension they aren’t getting from their backup running backs—a quality receiver out of the backfield for instance—the team might be tempted to scour free agency. It’s still slim pickings, though.
LaRod Stephens-Howling is interesting in that respect. The former Arizona Cardinal has 58 career receptions out of the backfield at 9.4 yards per catch with three scores. He doubles as a kick returner, with his three touchdowns eighth among active players.
Stephens-Howling suited up just once for Pittsburgh all season last year, however, and he has not taken a kick to the house since 2010. At 5’7”, 170 pounds, the five-year veteran isn’t good for much else.
I just can’t see the Eagles doing anything here.
The Eagles might want to worry about their own receivers first. After the club re-signs Jeremy Maclin and/or Riley Cooper to new deals, they already have one of the highest payrolls at the position in the NFL.
And if neither of them return? That seems unlikely, but what the Birds lacked from their No. 2 receiver last season was the ability to get open within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. Cooper had just 16 receptions in that range compared to 30, 28 and 40 from Maclin the previous three seasons.
If Maclin isn’t coming back to keep the sticks moving, Philadelphia’s long-awaited Anquan Boldin acquisition could come to pass. The man turns 34 next season, but he amazingly just posted his best season since 2006 with the 49ers. He makes a living catching passes in traffic and could be a reliable possession receiver for the Birds for a season or two.
In terms of low-cost solutions to replace Maclin and Cooper, Carolina’s Brandon LaFell would be an intriguing option. A third-round pick in 2010, LaFell has never recorded more than 677 yards in a season despite relatively good health, but then again, Cam Newton isn’t the most accurate quarterback, either.
At 6’3” with a 4.5 40 time, LaFell might realize his potential in another situation.
The Eagles’ best bit in this situation is to at least re-sign Maclin, as he’s proven he can produce at a high level in the NFL. Under Chip Kelly, he may prove to be a Pro Bowl-caliber receiver.
In all seriousness, there’s really no reason for the Eagles to invest in any other big-name tight end at the moment. Chip Kelly was thrilled with the job Brent Celek did this season, particularly as a blocker, while Zach Ertz flashed some potential that led the Birds to use the 35th-overall pick on him in last year’s draft.
The front office could save a couple million dollars if they release James Casey, though. However, I'm not saying they should, as he contributed to special teams and saw more time as a blocking tight end down the stretch. Is that worth $4 million per year, though?
Maybe, but some would say that’s not anything the club couldn’t get from New England’s Michael Hoomanawanui at or around the league minimum. Heck, bring back Jacksonville's Clay Harbor, who the Eagles reluctantly released following training camp last summer.
Personally, I would try to find a way to keep Casey, but it may come down to a financial decision.
As has been the case all over the offense, the Eagles are set along the offensive line. Even the reserves are largely accounted for. Allen Barbre did a tremendous job filling in at tackle last season, Dennis Kelly is a floater who can line up on the outside or at guard and the club recently signed David Molk to push Julian Vandervelde for the backup center job.
If there’s one spot it might make sense to add a little more insurance, it’s at the guard position, where both Evan Mathis and Todd Herremans are in their 30s. Herremans struggled at times last season.
Who knows, maybe the front office can identify the next Mathis, a journeyman free agent who won a job on the Birds’ line in 2011 and morphed into the best guard in the NFL practically overnight.
Let’s not pretend to be able to predict who that is, but Kansas City’s Jon Asamoah sounds like an interesting project. A third-round pick in 2010, Asamoah lost his job this season, so the Chiefs are unlikely to retain him. He’ll only turn 26 this summer, though, and at 6’4”, 304 pounds, he appears to be the athletic lineman Chip Kelly prefers for his scheme and up-tempo pace.
Can he play? Asamoah was a three-year starter in KC, so it’s not like he’s a lost cause. Give him a shot on the cheap and let him learn from Mathis.
The Eagles are fairly stocked up at defensive end. Fletcher Cox is developing into a force. Cedric Thornton and Vinny Curry form a nice combo, one a dominant run-stuffer and the other an impressive pass-rusher.
Where the line could use some help is at nose tackle, particularly if the Birds want to play a true 3-4 defense. Bennie Logan worked hard and showed room for improvement as a rookie, but at 309 pounds, he still seems undersized to start at that spot.
Luckily, there are a ton of options about to hit the free-agent market—if the Birds are willing to spend the money.
Miami’s Paul Soliai would be a great fit. He has scheme versatility, which the Eagles will love because they don’t play purely one front, and he’s not a liability against the run or rushing the passer. The only downside is Soliai is 30, and he’ll be expensive—his cap hit was $7.3 million in 2013—but you can’t teach 6’4”, 340 pounds.
On the cheaper end of the spectrum, the Colts’ Aubrayo Franklin would be a reasonable short-term solution. At 34, Franklin is a shell of the player he once was, but he has an Eagles connection. Vice president of player personnel Tom Gamble worked in San Francisco’s front office when Franklin was a player there.
Of course, if Franklin is nothing more than a body at this point, like Isaac Sopoaga was last year, there’s no point.
Still, there are players available who can help the Eagles up the middle. After the way the New Orleans Saints ran the ball down their throats in their first-round playoff loss, it’s clear the Birds need it.
Eight inside linebackers are on the Eagles’ roster at the moment, so it’s safe to say the coaching staff can piece together something behind DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks next season.
Outside linebacker is another story. Connor Barwin has been invaluable to the Eagles, but Trent Cole is hit or miss on the other side, and the only other player on the depth chart is Brandon Graham. The defense clearly could use some depth here, not to mention the fact that Cole or Graham may not be on the roster beyond 2014.
Don’t expect big money to be spent here, though, with so much wrapped up in those three players. The Eagles will likely look to the draft, but in the short term, somebody like a Parys Haralson would be worth a look.
Now with the Saints, Haralson is another player with a Tom Gamble tie from his days in San Francisco. He only had 3.5 sacks last season, so it doesn’t exactly satisfy Philly’s need for another pass-rusher. However, he knows the position and can fill in adequately.
Haralson will be 30 and is clearly on the downside of his career, but he would come at a bargain. His cap hit was $1.2 million in New Orleans last year.
The Eagles are set fairly well at cornerback, at least for 2014. Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher handled outside duties last year, and it’s difficult to envision the team playing roulette there after they both did fine jobs. Brandon Boykin has slot duties on lockdown.
Depth there was a serious concern last year, especially in the final game of the season, when Roc Carmichael was called on for one snap and surrendered a big pass on 3rd-and-12. No doubt, the Birds will look to draft behind the talent they have, but a functional reserve wouldn’t be a bad idea.
Easier said than done.
On the low end of the spectrum, Arizona’s Antoine Cason is an interesting name. At 6’1”, he fits the bill of the taller corners Chip Kelly likes, and although Cason never quite panned out, he had enough talent to go to the Chargers in the first round in 2008. He also managed to pull down two interceptions in limited playing time with the Cardinals last season.
It’s unlikely the Eagles will spend much given they need to commit at least one roster spot to a draft pick, but Cason might be able to be had for around $1 million.
Here’s where the money gets spent.
The Eagles basically have one safety on the roster in Earl Wolff. Patrick Chung was a disaster, Keelan Johnson spent most of last year inactive or on the practice squad and everybody else is a free agent.
The team could look to retain Nate Allen, who was surprisingly functional last season. Allen had long since been chalked up as a draft bust, but playing in a defensive scheme that actually made sense, he stopped giving up big plays over the top and played the run decently.
Still, if that was Allen’s ceiling, there is room to upgrade—and the top two safeties on the market just happen to have ties to Chip Kelly.
Buffalo’s Jairus Byrd and Cleveland’s T.J. Ward both played for Oregon while Kelly was there, which might be irrelevant if they weren’t both very good, young players. Byrd is a three-time All-Pro including each of the past two seasons, and Ward just earned his first Pro Bowl nod.
Both players could cost upwards of $8 million per year, so it will be interesting to see if the Eagles are willing to go that route when they could sign players for cheaper—Allen, for instance.