In 2011, the Philadelphia Eagles put on a clinic about the wrong way to approach free agency in the NFL. They threw millions upon millions of dollars at expensive free agents like cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha and defensive end Jason Babin, and what do you know, they wound up with a team stocked with prima donnas.
In 2013, the Birds demonstrated the correct way to approach free agency. They signed moderately priced players from winning programs who were versatile and brought the right attitude to work—guys like outside linebacker Connor Barwin and cornerback Cary Williams. They weren’t flashy signings, but they improved the club both on and off the field.
This spring, the Eagles are heading into free agency with roughly $20 million in cap space, which is enough to sign a prize free agent, maybe two, if they wanted. This organization learned its lesson too recently to do that though and will likely stick to the bargain bin despite calls from fans for some expensive free agents.
With that in mind, whom will the Eagles target when the curtain rises on free agency on March 11? We sifted through the bargains so you don’t have to and came up with the names of nine players whom general manager Howie Roseman could go after.
With Michael Vick as good as gone, the Eagles need a third quarterback. They could look to the draft for somebody with upside, but with so many greater needs, the pick might be more valuable elsewhere.
If the Birds opt to go with a veteran instead, it should be somebody who can at least “battle” Matt Barkley for the No. 2 job this summer. Of this year’s crop of free agents, I like Colt McCoy for a pseudo-competition.
McCoy, 27, at least has some semblance of a pedigree as a former third-round pick who at one time was being groomed as the quarterback of the future by the Cleveland Browns. Barkley would be expected to come out on top, but this would at least provide a challenge—if McCoy didn’t wind up being the better option.
The San Francisco 49ers did swap late-round picks with the Browns to acquire McCoy last year, so they may keep him on as the backup. If he does hit the market, however, there’s a former starting NFL signal-caller available for cheap.
There was quite a bit of hoopla surrounding James Casey when he signed with Philadelphia for three years, $12 million last offseason. Then the club took Zach Ertz in the second round of the draft, and Casey was relegated to third-string duties.
That’s quite a bit of coin for somebody who played on 157 offensive snaps in 2013. The Eagles could save a couple of million by releasing him and signing a cheaper alternative. Since he was used primarily as a run-blocker when deployed, the team will be looking to replace that aspect of his game.
Dante Rosario was one of only five tight ends in the NFL last season who received a better cumulative run-blocking grade from metrics site Pro Football Focus (subscription only). Actually, Rosario was second, even ahead of Brent Celek despite playing only a quarter of the snaps.
It’s unlikely the Chicago Bears are too hung up on retaining Rosario, who’s 29 and has bounced between five different teams in the last three years. He’s perfect for the Eagles though, being OK with limited playing time and contributing on special teams for a fraction of the cost of Casey.
The Eagles did everything in their power to find a roster spot for Clay Harbor last year. They even gave the 2010 fourth-round pick a look at outside linebacker during offseason workouts.
Ultimately, there was a numbers crunch at tight end, and the 26-year-old Harbor had to be released. Now he’s a free agent, and if Philadelphia drops James Casey in a cost-cutting move, a roster spot would be wide open for Harbor.
He landed on his feet and wound up playing 16 games for the Jacksonville Jaguars last season, setting a career high with 292 yards receiving on 24 receptions and scoring two touchdowns. That’s more than enough production from a third-string tight end.
In truth, he may not be the greatest fit for the role with the heavy emphasis on run-blocking and special teams. However, he knows the offense, and it’s not like he’s incapable of handling those roles.
Nose tackle can be such a difficult position to fill in a 3-4 defense. Players are hard to find in the draft, and teams that have a good one don’t let them go. Last offseason, the Eagles signed Isaac Sopoaga to handle the role, but he was shipped away at the trade deadline once it became clear they could get just as much out of rookie Bennie Logan in that spot.
Logan performed well—he was visible at least—but is still considered undersized for the position. The Eagles like him a lot though, and because defensive coordinator Bill Davis mixes in a lot of hybrid looks, the team might give him another year to develop and see what it has.
In which case, Philadelphia will need some sort of alternative in case nose tackle becomes too much for Logan. Look no further than Indianapolis Colts tackle Aubrayo Franklin, who at 33 is nearing the end of his career but could still serve as a viable backup or two-down starter.
The connection with Franklin would be vice president of player personnel Tom Gamble, who held a similar position with the San Francisco 49ers while Franklin was the nose tackle there.
Franklin has spent the past three seasons with three different teams but started at least half the season at each stop. He can still play enough that the Eagles could get by for another year without investing too much money or a high draft pick on the position.
In broad terms, the Eagles need more consistency from their pass rush. They could also use improved depth at defensive end and outside linebacker.
Mike Neal provides all of the above.
A second-round pick in 2010, he hasn’t panned out quite how the Green Bay Packers thought he would, starting just 11 games in four seasons. Ten of those occurred last season, largely due to injuries to the defense.
At 6’3”, 285 pounds, Neal was a man without a position. When he was drafted, he was a linebacker. Now, he’s the size of a defensive end. He played both for the Pack in 2013.
That’s OK. Eagles head coach Chip Kelly loves versatility, and Neal demonstrated that with 5.0 sacks, an interception and a forced fumble last season. He also had 4.5 sacks in 2012 despite limited playing time, so he’s shown a knack for rushing the passer.
I can’t imagine Neal will come with a high price tag. He’s not a starter or even really a linebacker. He’s a football player though, and Philadelphia’s defense could use a few more of those.
Trent Cole and Connor Barwin formed a fine one-two punch at outside linebacker, but there were no reserves beyond Brandon Graham, who could be moved in a trade this offseason. The Eagles will look to the draft for pass-rushers, but if Graham is out of the picture, they need help now.
Unfortunately, the free-agent landscape at outside linebacker is barren. If it’s a warm body you need though, Philadelphia could do worse than Parys Haralson.
He spent last season on a one-year deal with the New Orleans Saints after missing 2012 due to injury. He came back in 2013 to register 3.5 sacks and a pass breakup.
Now 30, Haralson was never the most feared pass-rusher, registering a career-high 8.0 sacks in 2008. However, he can drop into coverage and understands the role. Prior to joining the Saints, he spent seven seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, where Eagles vice president of player personnel Tom Gamble was previously employed.
According to Pro Football Talk, Haralson reportedly suffered a torn pectoral muscle in the playoffs, so that’s a situation to monitor. If so, it should knock his price down a little, so much so the Eagles might be able to bring him to camp to compete for a roster spot. He would be worth the look.
On one hand, Roc Carmichael performed admirably when called upon to fill in at cornerback. Plus, the Eagles are expected to come away from the draft with at least one corner, if not two.
That being said, he didn’t play well enough that he couldn’t stand some competition, and you can’t approach free agency as if the draft already happened. If nothing else, the Eagles need to upgrade their depth at the position for next season.
Colts cornerback Cassius Vaughn is a player of interest. An undrafted player unearthed by the Denver Broncos in 2010, he spent the last two seasons with the Indianapolis Colts, starting 15 games and recording four interceptions.
He is only 26 and has decent size (5’11”, 199 lbs.) for the position. The Eagles have a lot of former employees working in the Colts front office, so if he’s not retained, they should be able to get a reasonable amount of input on the signing. In the long view, he might not make the team, but if nothing else, Vaughn creates competition.
As of now, the only safeties on Philadelphia’s roster who are signed through next season are Earl Wolff, Patrick Chung and Keelan Johnson. Wolff performed well in his rookie season, but Chung will only make the team if there’s an emergency, and Johnson spent most of 2013 on the practice squad or inactive.
The Eagles will look to the draft for help, but they may want to improve their depth as well after watching Chung last season. Taylor Mays could provide that and more.
A second-round pick in 2010, he is better known for being an epic draft bust than a decent backup safety. The San Francisco 49ers dumped him off on the Cincinnati Bengals after one short year for a future seventh-round pick.
Mays turned out to be a decent pickup by Cincinnati in a defense that found ways to use his natural size (6’3”, 220 lbs.) and athleticism (4.4 in the 40-yard dash). The Bengals moved him around like a chess piece, using him at safety, cornerback and even linebacker. He also contributed on special teams.
Eagles head coach Chip Kelly would have seen a lot of Mays during their days in the Pac-12 and knows exactly what the soon-to-be 26-year-old brings to the table. With that kind of versatility, Mays could become an important cog in Philly’s defense.
As far as bargains go, Nate Allen is going to be expensive. Unlike most of the players on this list, he is probably looking at starter money, which my best estimate puts around upwards of $4 million per season.
However, compared to what it will cost to sign some of the big names floating around—Buffalo’s Jairus Byrd and Cleveland’s T.J. Ward—Allen would be considered cheap. For a team that’s been burned by high-priced free agents in the recent past, he may be the perfect fit.
Allen was able to shake the bust label with a solid 2013 campaign, but if that was his ceiling, the Eagles can upgrade. However, they would prefer to build through the draft, so going out and throwing tons of money at a veteran might not be part of the plan.
With Earl Wolff as their only viable safety on the roster right now, they need a veteran starter. Allen knows the defense, and he got the job done last season. It’s not the sexy signing everybody is hoping the team makes, but it would work as a short-term solution.