What We've Learned About the Philadelphia Eagles After the Start of Free Agency
If we’ve learned nothing else about the Philadelphia Eagles since free agency opened on Tuesday, it’s that Howie Roseman wasn’t bluffing. The general manager prepared observers for a cautious approach to the spending period, and two days in, that’s precisely what the Birds’ front office has delivered.
The only big move thus far was signing safety Malcolm Jenkins to a three-year deal worth $16.5 million, passing on far more highly touted—and expensive—options in the process. Otherwise, it’s been nothing but minor moves since the market opened, and even those have been few and far between.
The Eagles have a plan that relies heavily on building through the draft and rewarding those players when they pan out. Roseman laid out the organization’s entire blueprint to free agency in a conversation with CSNPhilly.com’s Reuben Frank in February.
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.
The guys that you've drafted, they look around and they say, 'Well, this guy they brought from somewhere else, and they're paying him maybe more than he's worth.' So you have to be very careful in free agency, and I think what worked last year was based on the free-agent market. You've got to really make sure you're in line with what the free agent market is and not try to force anything.
Whether you want to blame 2011’s failed spending spree for giving the Eagles cold feet or accept free agency seldom holds the answers, one thing is for certain. This is the organizational philosophy now, and Roseman is sticking to it.
The Eagles Are Not 'One Player Away'
Many fans have been disappointed by the Birds’ approach, with their hopes that this franchise would use free agency to gear up for a Super Bowl run dashed. Yet clearly, the front office did not believe it was only a big-ticket player or two away from winning a championship.
How do I know that? Because if the Eagles were only one player away, they would’ve gone and got him.
Philadelphia was an estimated $24 million under the salary cap heading into free agency. Granted, that’s actually not as much cash as it seems, but it would’ve been enough to sign one or two star players to huge contracts had management desired.
This team isn’t ready yet.
Tempting as it may be to believe the Eagles were one elite safety, cornerback or outside linebacker from becoming a championship contender in 2014, that very likely is not the case. They could really use one of each of the above, not to mention wide receiver, defensive line and interior linebacker depth.
And as impressive as last season’s 10-6 campaign was, let’s not forget the Birds benefited from a weakened NFC East and a last-place schedule. They’ll have no such luck in ’14, at least as far as the latter is concerned after winning the division.
Given the team’s success, it’s easy to overlook the fact that 2013 was still a rebuilding year of sorts in Philadelphia, and it’s not over yet. It’s not that the Eagles will never spend in free agency again, but right now the front office is more concerned with building an infrastructure that can compete for years to come.
There’s no sense to signing players 28 years old and older to pricey contracts now so that those stars are already fading when the rest of the roster is peaking. You’ll know when the Eagles are ready to go for it if/when they start bringing in the high-priced veterans.
Follow the Money
Outside linebacker and cornerback were widely considered to be among the Birds’ greatest needs heading into free agency, yet management has done next to nothing to address either position. In all honesty though, that really shouldn’t come as a huge surprise.
Despite numerous claims the Eagles could target veteran upgrades, the fact is the franchise has a certain level of financial commitment to players at those spots for 2014. According to Over The Cap, $4.8 of OLB Trent Cole’s $6.6 million cap hit would convert to dead money if released, while the same is true of $3.3 of CB Cary Williams’ $6.4 million figure.
No big names were going to sign in Philadelphia or anywhere else for that matter without the promise of a starting job. More to the point, the organization wasn’t going to eat $8 million in salary-cap space to save $5 million while cutting perfectly serviceable players in the process.
Williams’ contract in particular was signed just last offseason, indicating the team always expected him to be part of its plans for ’14.
Yes, the team needs to improve in those areas. However, it makes sense to let Cole and Williams play out this season since they’re going to count against the cap either way and attempt to draft their eventual replacements in the meantime. Both players can be released in 2015 at far more reasonable numbers.
There’s absolutely nothing not to like about OLB Connor Barwin or CBs Bradley Fletcher and Brandon Boykin in their roles.
If you want to understand the Eagles’ blueprint for free agency, just follow the money. As a general rule, businesses want to get something for their investments. Pro football is no different. Management will make the necessary upgrades, but only when the timing is appropriate.
Fit Is Just as Important as Money
As much as legions of fans wanted Jairus Byrd in midnight green, you can’t fully blame the Eagles for not meeting the New Orleans Saints safety’s demands. Giving up $9 million per year and $28 million guaranteed over six years is a massive commitment, arguably larger than he is worth.
However, there was some questioning as to why the Eagles would settle for Malcolm Jenkins, who was rejected by the Saints this offseason, in favor of somebody like 2013 Pro Bowler T.J. Ward. Ward received a better offer from the Denver Broncos, but the safeties’ deals were comparable.
There’s no denying Ward is the more accomplished and recognized player between the two. Certainly, there must be some explanation for this—and there is.
Simply put, Jenkins is a better fit for Philadelphia’s scheme, which tends to pit safeties in man-to-man coverage on slot receivers and tight ends. Ward may not be a liability in coverage, but he does his best work against the run and up in the box. Jenkins is a converted cornerback who has the preferred size (6’0”, 204 lbs) and athleticism for the role.
Yeah, Ward might be the better player, but he would be miscast in a defense that asks him to turn and run a lot. That’s Jenkins’ forte, while he can also be effective closer to the line of scrimmage.
It was the right kind of versatility for a head coach, as Chip Kelly explained, per Bo Wulf for PhiladelphiaEagles.com.
We really liked Malcolm's versatility. He can line up at either safety spot, can come in and make a tackle and can play man-to-man as well. I had a chance to study him on tape leading up to the playoff game and really liked what I saw. He's a sharp kid and is ultra-competitive. We are really happy to have him in Philadelphia.
None of this is to say Jenkins isn’t talented in his own right. Numbers don’t accurately depict what he meant to New Orleans, where the 26-year-old was a starter for the NFL’s No. 2 pass defense in ’13 and a Super Bowl champion in ’09. Now Jenkins is set up for continued success in a defense that suits his skill set.
Special Teams Weren't Good Enough
Coach Kelly has preached the importance of special teams in the past. Since the head coach’s tenure began one year ago, we’ve seen the Eagles make multiple moves motivated by improving the third unit, particularly on the back end of the roster.
If the Birds’ moves on the second day of free agency were any indication, Kelly wasn’t very pleased with his club’s progress. The team signed linebacker Bryan Braman and safety Chris Maragos to new contracts on Wednesday, two players with a combined seven years service in the NFL and zero career starts between them.
What’s more, Braman and Maragos each received a $1 million guarantee, all but assuring their place on the roster for 2014.
Braman and Maragos may bolster the kick-coverage units, but neither is likely to make much impact beyond that. Kelly did suggest Braman might get a look as a situational pass-rusher, but Maragos is unlikely to see much time in the defensive backfield unless it’s an emergency.
The Eagles did bring back punter Donnie Jones on a three-year contract, so it’s not all bad news for last year’s special teams unit. Then again, I would expect the team to eventually add competition at place kicker, where Alex Henery has worn out his welcome.
The Braman and Maragos signings and eventual kicker coming on board send a clear message to the rest of this roster, in case it wasn’t received already. The special teams unit is important and must improve.
Taking Care of Their Own Was Eagles’ Free Agency
It’s funny. Two weeks ago, Eagles brass was genius. The organization had just extended left tackle Jason Peters, center Jason Kelce and wide receivers Riley Cooper and Jeremy Maclin, taking care of the core impending free agents in this year’s class and next.
How the tides have turned only two short days into free agency. The franchise’s reluctance to spend in free agency has talk-radio hosts and fans mystified. Suddenly, management is cheap and clueless.
Well, the fact of the matter is you can’t have it both ways. When the Eagles re-upped with those players—plus defensive end Cedric Thornton and punter Donnie Jones a short time later—that was their free agency. No team can pay all of its own players along with everybody else’s.
Sure, Philadelphia has plenty of cap space. That doesn’t mean it all has to be blown in one offseason.
Whatever the Birds don’t spend in 2014 can be carried over to the following year. It’s a good thing, too, because quarterback Nick Foles, defensive end Fletcher Cox, linebacker Mychal Kendricks and cornerback Brandon Boykin will all be up for contract extensions in ’15—Foles alone could approach $20 million. Maclin will be a free agent again as well.
Some contracts will be coming off the books, and the salary cap is projected to continue rising. Still, it’s better to be frugal now and have the cap space than miscalculate and lose somebody later.
It’s become quite clear this is not going to be the most exciting free-agent class in Eagles history, but with 20 of 22 offensive and defensive starters set to return in ’14, how can anybody be mad? They're already bringing most of last year's team back.