6 Big Splashes the Philadelphia Eagles Could Realistically Make in Free Agency
According to resources like EaglesCap.com, the Philadelphia Eagles are a healthy $20 million under the salary cap heading into this offseason. With that kind of scratch, the organization could be among the biggest spenders when free agency opens on March 13.
That being said, the Birds will most likely take a restrained approach to the marketplace this spring. Some of that $20 million should go toward re-signing their own impending free agents such as wide receiver Jeremy Maclin and punter Donnie Jones, or extending center Jason Kelce. It would be wise to carry over a bit of cap space into next year as well.
General manager Howie Roseman has also said the Eagles have learned their lesson about going on free-agent shopping sprees. The front office is trying to supplement the existing talent on the team, not build a contender that way—that’s what the draft is for.
Finally, when you look at the current state of the depth chart, there are very few places where the franchise can make a splash. The Eagles have starters penciled in and signed at quarterback, running back, tight end, all five spots on the offensive line, defensive end, inside and outside linebacker and cornerback.
There are limited spots for expensive free agents.
Because the club is $20 million under the cap though, and the roster does have a couple of glaring needs particularly at nose tackle and safety, Philadelphia will be a player in free agency. We take a look at areas where the Birds could make a splash, meaning by potentially bringing in a big-money starter this offseason.
With only Patrick Chung, Earl Wolff and Keelan Johnson currently signed through 2014, the Eagles must add a veteran safety. Why not pick up the best player on the market?
Very few players who hit free agency under the age of 30 are as decorated as Jairus Byrd. In five seasons with the Buffalo Bills, Byrd has been named a Pro Bowler/All-Pro three times, including each of the last two seasons. Since entering the league in ’09, the former second-round pick has averaged 4.4 interceptions and 2.2 forced fumbles.
He’s the playmaker Philadelphia’s secondary has sorely lacked on the back end.
Byrd will only turn 28 next season, so there should be plenty of good seasons ahead. There’s also a familiarity with Eagles head coach Chip Kelly from their days at the University of Oregon.
The Bills are said to be working to re-sign Byrd, although contract negotiations turned bitter last year. Still, an AP report via ESPN.com says the team has not ruled out using the franchise tag again. At 5’10”, 203 pounds, Byrd is also a bit undersized.
Then there’s the cost of doing business. Byrd is likely to break the bank with a deal in excess of $8 million per year—up there with Kansas City’s Eric Berry ($8.3M) and Tampa Bay’s Dashon Goldson ($8.2M). Even though it’s a need, that might be too rich for the Eagles’ blood.
For a number of reasons, Cleveland Browns safety T.J. Ward seems a like an alternative to Jairus Byrd in Philadelphia. Though not as decorated as Byrd—Ward just attended his first Pro Bowl over the weekend—the fourth-year veteran’s stock is still rising around the NFL.
Ward’s skill set is different from that of Byrd's. He’s not nearly the caliber of ball hawk, with just five interceptions in his career. Instead, Ward is often at his best when playing near the line of scrimmage. He’s a strong run defender and can even get after the quarterback a bit, with 1.5 sacks this season.
He is a fierce hitter over the middle though, a solid tackler and more than adequate in coverage.
At 5’10”, 200 pounds, Ward lacks ideal size as well, although he’s only 27, a former second-round pick and has the same Oregon ties as Byrd that make folks think the Eagles could be in pursuit.
The assumption that Ward is going to be a lot cheaper is where the disconnect begins, however. Byrd will set the market for safeties when free agency opens, which Ward is likely to benefit from greatly. His price tag seems unlikely to fall below $7 million per year if teams truly believe he’s separated himself from the rest of this year’s deep safety class.
Ward also claimed, per NBCSports.com, he would “definitely” like to return to the Browns, although dysfunction within the organization may have changed his mind since December.
Whether the Eagles ever enter talks with either Ward or Byrd could say a great deal about the organization’s strategies in free agency overall. The front office has a chance to capture one of the top available players at a position of great need, but are they willing to spend that kind of money?
Here’s an example of how a team can avoid the high-priced free agents who set the market, yet still make a “splash.”
Carolina Panthers safety Mike Mitchell brings with him considerable more risk than either Jairus Byrd or T.J. Ward and, therefore, figures to come much cheaper. Yet after the season Mitchell just had, he’s turned into one of the more intriguing players available.
A second-round pick in 2009, Mitchell was a classic Oakland Raiders selection back when Al Davis was alive and running the show. The Ohio University product was off of most team’s radars—Mitchell wasn’t even invited to the NFL combine—but Davis fell in love with a 6’0”, 210-pound safety who ran a sub-4.4 at his pro day, among other impressive measurables.
Mitchell predictably busted out in Oakland but landed in Carolina on a one-year deal where that potential was finally realized. The 26-year-old racked up 4.0 sacks, eight passes defended, four interceptions and two forced fumbles in 14 starts last season.
Now Mitchell is back on the market, no doubt surrounded by some skepticism. Was he a product of a great defense in Carolina? Is he a one-year wonder?
It’s difficult to say what the market will be—and the Panthers will do everything they can to re-sign him—but no doubt it will be a lot cheaper in terms of money and commitment than Byrd or Ward. If the Eagles can land Mitchell on a low-risk contract, they could not only find themselves a bargain, but perhaps even a better safety altogether.
Okay, enough about safeties for a while. That’s not the only hole the Eagles could attempt to spend their way out of. If they want to run a true 3-4 defense, they’re going to need a true 3-4 nose tackle. Bennie Logan filled in nicely as a rookie, but he’s a tad undersized for the position at 309 pounds.
At 6’4”, 340 pounds, Miami Dolphins defensive tackle Paul Soliai is a classic 3-4 nose. Soliai is a huge presence against the run, in particular, because he takes up so much space and is difficult to move off of the line of scrimmage, something Philadelphia lacked up the middle this season.
Soliai is not limited to playing nose tackle in a 3-4, though. The Dolphins switched to a 4-3 this season, but the seven-year veteran remained effective. That’s important for the Birds, who also like to play a hybrid defense known as the 4-3 Under that requires versatility from their linemen.
There are a couple knocks against Soliai though. For starters, the 2007 fourth-round pick turned 30 during the season. And while he’s one of the better run-stuffers in the league, he’s far less effective at rushing the passer, with just 4.5 sacks for his entire NFL career.
Soliai’s last contract was $12 million over two years. That’s a lot of coin for a two-down player.
Big space-eating interior linemen don’t grow on trees, however. Very few of them are ever allowed to reach free agency, and there’s always a premium on the position in the draft. Since Soliai has shown a willingness to sign short-term contracts, the Eagles might be in play.
Paul Soliai is nice, but the signing would lack upside, which is why it still probably falls on the unlikely side as far as the Birds are concerned. B.J. Raji, on the other hand, fills that void in the middle of the Eagles defense while adding the potential to develop into a great player.
What happened to Raji is something of a mystery. The ninth-overall pick in 2009, the 337-pounder reached superstar status early in his career. He helped the Green Bay Packers win the Super Bowl in 2010, went to the Pro Bowl in 2011 and has even starred in State Farm commercials with quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
The production has fallen off of a cliff though, and it actually began in his Pro Bowl season. He hasn’t recorded a sack in either of the last two seasons despite playing 30 games, and that’s with a position change in the middle, as the Pack tried to jump-start Raji by moving him from nose tackle to end. Numbers aside, he hasn’t made much of an impact in a while.
Raji will only turn 28 this year, so there has to be something left in the tank, one would think. Could the Eagles be the franchise to tap into his potential once again?
It’s an interesting option for the Birds to consider. Raji may be looking at some kind of “prove-it” deal, either a straight one-year pact or a structured contract where he only sees the money in future years if he sticks on the roster. That sounds perfect for a team looking to build through the draft, but it could have a great, young player fall right into their laps.
Raji has the scheme versatility the Eagles love, along with the size up front they so desperately need. He still won’t come cheap, probably starting around $5 million per season—even Isaac Sopoaga got three years, $11 million out of Philly last year—but Raji could be well worth the investment.
After the season Donnie Jones just had punting the football for the Eagles, even winning the team a couple games with his clutch kicks, fans may want to consider how much of a splash specialists can make.
That’s not to say Philadelphians aren’t clamoring for a new kicker already. 2011 fourth-round pick Alex Henery brings nothing in particular to the table. Two coaching staffs have only trusted him to attempt five career field goals from 50 yards and beyond, and the eyeball test tells us he can’t consistently boot the ball out of the end zone for touchbacks on kickoffs.
The Birds will no doubt bring in some competition, but they may not want to hedge their bets at all. Going out and signing a player like Graham Gano—somebody who’s not just going to compete, but will win the job outright—would be best.
Gano led all kickers in touchback percentage in 2013, and by a healthy margin. Seventy-eight percent of his kickoffs resulted in kneel downs—only Denver’s Matt Prater came within 10 percent, and he was aided by altitude.
The downside is Gano has struggled with accuracy throughout his five-year NFL career, hitting just 78 percent. Then again, at least he has the range to attempt one from 50 yards, as he’s done 17 times already, hitting 11 of them.
Gano might be wishful thinking, though. The Carolina Panthers would no doubt love to retain the soon-to-be 27-year-old’s services, even if it takes a cool $2-$3 million per year. If they somehow let him reach free agency though, the Eagles should give strong consideration to swooping in.
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