Why the Philadelphia Eagles Must Be Cautious in Free Agency

Andrew KulpContributor IFebruary 21, 2014

PHILADELPHIA, PA - SEPTEMBER 30:  Wide receiver Ramses Barden #13 of the New York Giants catches a pass in front of cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha #24 of the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field on September 30, 2012 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images

Coming off of an NFC East championship and carrying an estimated $20 million in salary-cap space, per EaglesCap.com, there is a feeling the Philadelphia Eagles are in position to make a splash in free agency this offseason.

Fans expecting the team to take the logical next step and compete for a Super Bowl want the team to fill its holes quickly by spending.

The fact of the matter, though, is that throwing tons of money at problems is seldom the best course of action in the NFL. There are more cautionary tales than success stories throughout history when it comes to signing expensive, big-name free agents.

Free agency is meant to supplement the existing talent on the roster, not as a means of building a championship contender. Despite exceeding expectations in Chip Kelly’s first year on the sidelines, the Eagles are still very much in the process of laying a foundation for the future.

General manager Howie Roseman has been making the media rounds this winter in an apparent effort to get out in front of the issue. He is adamant that the organization take a measured approach to the rebuilding process.

In one interview with CSNPhilly.com’s Reuben Frank, Roseman expressed the importance of cultivating a winning culture:

It's hard to get that when, for all intents and purposes, you're bringing in a bunch of independent contractors. Every person we bring in, whether it's a free agent or a draft pick, they're going to have to fit into our culture, and I think you see here it's about team building, it's not about collecting names.

Look no further than 2011, when the Birds went out and signed every big name they could get their hands on.

Cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, defensive end Jason Babin and defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins headlined the costly additions who came to Philly, along with safety Jarrad Page, offensive linemen Ryan Harris and Evan Mathis, tight end Donald Lee, wide receiver Steve Smith, running back Ronnie Brown and, of course, quarterback Vince Young.

Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

Young described the roster the Eagles cobbled together as a “Dream Team.” What transpired was more emblematic of a nightmare.

Philadelphia posted a 12-20 record over the next two seasons, missing the playoffs both times. The bottom fell out in Year 2 of the experiment with a 4-12 finish that got Andy Reid fired after 14 seasons as head coach. Of all the free agents signed in '11, only Mathis remains, and he has far exceeded expectations.

It was no fluke things worked out that way. The emphasis was on bringing in as much talent as possible rather than finding the right fits.

If only it were that simple.

I mean, what is a free agent, really? I’m not being existential. What are the factors that cause a player to become a free agent—besides the obvious of his contract running out? If this is such a coveted player, why did his own team not retain him?

The player in question is asking for too much money. He’s getting up there in age. He was a product of the scheme. He is a replacement-level talent to begin with.

Only one of those answers has nothing to do with the player’s ability—money. But even in the rare instances when an elite, scheme-proof player who’s still in his prime becomes an unrestricted free agent, the marketplace inflates his value.

Bidding wars inevitably raise the price tag to such a point where in almost every case, the player can never live up to his contract.

And there are fewer of these types of players available than you think. More often than not, Roseman explains, the bidding wars are over merely good players:

I'd say if there was a player who was kind of in the right age group as a free agent, played an important position who we thought could be around for a long time, we would certainly be open to [a lucrative, long-term deal].

But you see there are fewer and fewer of those players available in free agency, so what happens is good players get great player money, pretty good players get really good player money, and then it throws around the whole structure of your roster.

Meanwhile, the Eagles are at a delicate stage, and the front office should take care not to back itself into any corners with moves made this offseason.

$20 million may seem like a lot of room under the cap, and that number could increase slightly with additional cuts, but it doesn’t go as far as you think.

The team may hope to sign some of its own impending free agents such as Jeremy Maclin, Riley Cooper, Cedric Thornton, Nate Allen and Donnie Jones, or perhaps extend Jason Kelce long-term. Money must be set aside for the incoming draft class as well.

January 26, 2014; Honolulu, HI, USA; Team Sanders quarterback Nick Foles of the Philadelphia Eagles (9) passes the football during warm ups before the 2014 Pro Bowl against Team Rice at Aloha Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

And just because the Birds are $20 million under the cap this year doesn’t mean they will be in 2015. The organization must plan ahead for when players such as Nick Foles, Fletcher Cox, Mychal Kendricks and Brandon Boykin are all due for extensions.

The Eagles are more concerned with homegrown talent these days, and rightfully so. Building through the draft is the key to sustaining a winning program in the NFL, and filling out the roster with expensive free agents who eat up cap space makes that difficult to accomplish.

None of this is to say the Eagles shouldn’t sign any free agents at all. They found several solid contributors at discount prices in last year’s market, including Connor Barwin, Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher.

But when the team passes on Buffalo Bills All-Pro safety Jairus Byrd at $10 million per year in favor of Miami Dolphins safety Chris Clemons at a fraction of the cost, the reasons are going to be plain to see.

Roseman and the Eagles are just going by the blueprint, and it says to build the foundation of a winning team through the draft.

Expensive free agents aren’t going to transform the Birds into contenders overnight, although they might have a heavy impact on the culture or salary cap down the road.