Should the Philadelphia Eagles Pursue Jairus Byrd or T.J. Ward in Free Agency?

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Should the Philadelphia Eagles Pursue Jairus Byrd or T.J. Ward in Free Agency?
David Richard/Associated Press

It's no secret that the Philadelphia Eagles are expected to show interest in prized free-agent safeties Jairus Byrd and T.J. Ward this offseason.

After all, safety was arguably the weakest position on the Eagles in 2013. Nate Allen turned in a decent season, but he's scheduled to hit free agency. The combination of an ineffective Patrick Chung and an oft-injured Earl Wolff needs significant improvement moving forward.

The Eagles could look to the draft for a safety. They probably will, too. Many mock drafts have the Eagles selecting Louisville safety Calvin Pryor with the 22nd overall pick in the first round. He's a physical, playmaking safety who would instantly become the team's best safety since Quintin Mikell left after the 2010 season. They could also look to trade up for Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix or pursue a player like Northern Illinois' Jimmie Ward in the second round. 

But if the Eagles don't sign a starting-caliber safety via free agency, the draft becomes that much more important. That's when mistakes happen, like the Eagles reaching for Temple safety Jaiquawn Jarrett in the second round in 2011. 

Basically, the Eagles have to add at least one potential starter at safety through free agency. The big question is whether the Eagles will break the bank for Byrd or Ward, or whether they'll settle for a lesser player like Chris Clemons (MIA), Malcolm Jenkins, Louis Delmas or Bernard Pollard. 

Should the Eagles sign Jairus Byrd or T.J. Ward?

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First, let's address the two Pro Bowl safeties. As of now, Byrd is expected to hit free agency, according to Eliot Shorr-Parks of NJ.com. Ward's status is still unknown. 

Here's what the Eagles know about Byrd. He's 27 years old, which puts him in the prime of his career. He struggled with plantar fasciitis in his foot last year, causing him to miss five games. Other than that, he's been healthy throughout his career.

He's a playmaker, as he's recorded 22 interceptions during his five years in the NFL, including a league-leading nine as a rookie in 2009. He allowed a 35.0 passer rating last year, the second-best mark among all defensive backs in the NFL. Oh, and he's solid against the run and a pretty efficient tackler. 

But he's also publicly stated his desire to become the highest-paid safety in the National Football League, per Chris Burke of Sports Illustrated. That means he could earn a contract in the area of $10 to $11 million per season. That's a ton of money.

The Eagles have had some bad luck with big-name signings in the past, notably Nnamdi Asomugha during the 2011 offseason. As we all remember, the former Oakland Raiders superstar signed a five-year, $60 million deal before turning in two dreadful seasons that led to his release after 2012. 

It's understandable for the Eagles to wonder how Byrd's personality and huge contract would affect his presence in the team's locker room. The Eagles have made all the right signings over the past few years, inking Michael Vick, LeSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson, Riley Cooper, Jason Peters, Evan Mathis, Jason Kelce, Todd Herremans and Trent Cole to long-term contract extensions. Each player has either been homegrown or signed primarily because of his success in Philly.

Meanwhile, the Eagles have been relatively conservative during free agency, especially when it comes to big contracts to players from opposing teams. They've spent money, but they've focused on signing mid-range players like Cary Williams, Bradley Fletcher and James Casey.

The biggest deal they've given over the last two offseasons has been to outside linebacker Connor Barwin, and that was $36 million with just $8 million guaranteed. By signing players to smaller deals, they've been able to avoid setting the franchise back like they did with the Asomugha signing, which included $25 million in guaranteed money. For example, when a player like Isaac Sopoaga or Patrick Chung disappoints, it's not a big deal because the Eagles haven't invested more than a couple of million dollars per year on that player. 

But the negative has been a lot of misses on low-risk, low-reward deals, particularly at the safety position. Over the last few seasons, the Eagles have desperately tried to upgrade by signing marginal starters or veteran has-been players like Jarrad Page, Marlin Jackson, O.J Atogwe, Kenny Phillips and Patrick Chung. None of them have come remotely close to panning out the way the franchise hoped. Drafting hasn't worked either, as Macho Harris, Nate Allen, Jaiquawn Jarrett and Earl Wolff have not appeared to be the long-term answer. 

It has reached a point where the Eagles need to stop focusing on adequate players like Clemons or Jenkins and go all-in on a stud. That's what they need to do this year. Only the target shouldn't be Jairus Byrd. The player the Eagles should try to sign is Cleveland's T.J. Ward.

Ward is the clear-cut second-best safety on the market. Also 27 years old, he earned his first Pro Bowl selection in 2013. He's impressive against both the run and the pass, and he's a very sound tackler. Pro Football Focus rated him as the third-best safety in the National Football League in 2013. 

Ward would likely command a deal upward of $8 to $9 million per year in free agency. That's reasonable. That's more than reasonable, in fact. A five-year deal worth $40 to $45 million wouldn't mortgage the future for the Eagles, especially if they can load the back of the contract and keep the guaranteed money at a minimum. 

Sign Ward and the Eagles should be more than okay at the safety position in 2014, with Nate Allen (if re-signed), Earl Wolff and a likely mid-round draft pick. 

According to Geoff Mosher of CSNPhilly.com, General manager Howie Roseman is approaching free agency at a much more cautious rate than a few years ago, which makes total sense. But that doesn't mean the Eagles can't make a splash if they really like a player. Signing Ward, who is 27 and just turned in his best season, isn't nearly the risk that it was to sign Asomugha, who was 30 and already past his prime. 

With more than $26 million in available cap space, per spotrac.com, the Eagles are equipped to make a run after Ward if they desire. And they should. The Eagles desperately need playmakers. The Pro Bowl safety would immediately become the best player on an improving secondary. 

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