Let’s face the facts: the Philadelphia Eagles front office didn’t do what a lot of fans wanted, what many pundits thought it should during the first two weeks of free agency. Of the over 150 players to change locales since the market opened on March 11, the Birds signed just one new player of consequence in safety Malcolm Jenkins—two if you count trading for running back Darren Sproles.
Yet the truth is that Philly was wise to tread lightly in free agency. After re-signing or extending seven of their own this offseason, the Eagles found themselves in a position that’s quite unique to the NFL, returning 21 of 22 starters from last year’s 10-6 club—continuity that bought the organization ample time to continue building through the draft rather than gamble precious resources on overpriced veterans.
Coming off of a first-round playoff exit, it’s not that the Eagles couldn’t have used the upgrades heading into 2014. The problem is that trying to fill too many holes through free agency is a fool’s errand.
After all, there is a reason every last person who reached free agency was allowed to do so in the first place. It stands to reason that if the majority of the players available were so valuable to their previous employers, they wouldn’t be available at all. They would be under contract.
Best-case scenario, an unrestricted free agent’s asking price or existing deal was simply too rich for the team that previously owned his rights. Even then, the organization that’s already had this player under contract—often for numerous years and would know this individual better than anyone—has made the determination that he is not worth the money. That in itself is telling.
In a small number of cases, maybe the player isn’t thrilled with the location or current direction of the team. Usually, it’s about cold, hard cash.
Again, that’s the best-case scenario.
More often than not, a free agent is a flawed product at best, damaged goods at worst. The player in question is nearing the end of, or already past, his prime. He is experiencing current or repeated health problems. He was a one-year wonder. He excelled in a particular scheme that made the most of his skill set. He would be miscast as an every-down player. Many times, he was never all that great to begin with.
Exactly who or what sure thing did the Eagles miss out on?
That’s not to say quality players can never be unearthed in free agency. Every once in awhile, a star lives up to the hype and, more importantly, the paycheck. However, a good portion of the time, those big-money contracts become an albatross for the organization while an aging player with eroding talent is never quite the same as he struggles to pick up a new scheme.
So-called “mid-tier” free agents actually might have greater odds at being worth the investment. Then again, that’s partly because there is inherently less risk involved. Chances are the number of years and guaranteed money are both low, so there is a lot less to lose if and when a signing doesn’t pan out.
Jenkins is an example of the mid-tier strategy at work. While the New Orleans Saints put all their eggs in the Jairus Byrd basket, awarding the three-time All-Pro safety (who’s undersized and has plantar fasciitis) six years and $28 million guaranteed, the Eagles were happy to pick over their scraps and sign Jenkins to three years at $8.5 million guaranteed.
Byrd is the superior player in many respects, but will his body start to break down before the end of that contract? Does he have the kind of impact on games to warrant that enormous deal at all?
In general, it’s far better when a coaching staff can get their hands on a player right out of college, while he’s still an impressionable rookie. For starters, young kids aren’t as ingrained in habits that might not translate to a new system. Furthermore, they are athletes who have yet to peak in their development.
And although the draft is notorious for being a crap shoot, making a mistake there is far less costly in terms of pure fiscal fallout. Thanks to the rookie wage scale implemented in 2011, even the first overall pick won’t set a franchise back against the salary cap for years to come like an ill-advised free-agent signing can.
The Eagles would certainly be wise to begin the search for replacements for several of their own aging veterans, especially for a defense that ranked 29th overall and 32nd against the pass in ’13. Trent Cole, DeMeco Ryans and Cary Williams will all be in their 30s at season’s end.
That being said, all three were serviceable last year, and at least in Cole’s and Ryans’ case, free agency did not have much to offer in the way of definitively better options. The Eagles also would have been forced to eat a significant amount of dead money against the cap if they cut either Cole or Williams.
Why try to replace these players with expensive veterans who may be on the downside of their careers or don’t fit the scheme? Players who want to be paid largely on the basis of past performance and therefore are not likely to match or exceed the contracts they sign?
Players who, in many instances, were not necessarily going to be better than what Philadelphia already has on its roster?
This idea that the Eagles should have pushed all their chips to the center of the table and bet big on free agents when there are already quality veterans here is a misguided one. Building through the draft is the best route whenever possible, and as long as the front office can pull off another quality class this May, the franchise's patience will eventually pay off.