Philadelphia Eagles' Top Remaining Offseason Priorities
It seems safe now to say with most of the top players under contract, but for a few minor moves, the Philadelphia Eagles foray into free agency is over. While their offseason has been anything but quiet though, the Birds failed to address what many pundits believed were their biggest priorities.
Aside from signing safety Malcolm Jenkins and trading for running back Darren Sproles from the New Orleans Saints, the Eagles made few moves of consequence at all. That is, of course, aside from releasing DeSean Jackson.
Jackson’s departure didn’t fill any holes. All that did was potentially dig one.
Wide receiver is obviously going to be a huge need as the organization’s eyes turn to May’s draft, which is now just a month away. To what degree is certainly up for some debate, given the lack of blockbuster moves has left the roster aging, depleted or both at a number of key positions.
Fortunately for the Eagles, it would seem this is all part of the blueprint. General manager Howie Roseman has reiterated a number of times this offseason, as he did once more to Paul Domowitch of the Philadelphia Daily News back in February, that the front office wants to build its core through the draft.
They’re certainly giving themselves that chance. The Eagles have a lot of work to do yet this offseason to continue transforming this franchise from 10-6 NFC East champions-turned-first-round-playoff exiters into perennial Super Bowl contenders. Here's where they should start.
Third Wide Receiver
Despite releasing a 27-year-old, three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver, the Eagles aren’t exactly lacking for talent on offense.
Jeremy Maclin is set to return from a torn ACL, and some might argue is a better all-around receiver than Jackson. The organization sent a draft pick to the Saints for Sproles, who caught 70-plus passes in each of the last three seasons. And 2013 second-round tight end Zach Ertz is poised to make a huge leap in Year 2.
With that being said, the departures of Jackson and Jason Avant (also released) created a glaring hole behind Maclin and Riley Cooper at receiver. Philadelphia now must locate a third wideout, not merely out of the obvious need for depth, but to keep its personnel options open.
As of this writing, all appearances are Arrelious Benn and Brad Smith would be the top candidates for the role. Either might make a capable No. 3, but the Eagles probably shouldn’t leave all of their eggs in that nest.
The solution is simple: look to the draft. This is an unbelievably deep draft at wide receiver, of which Roseman has already told Reuben Frank for CSNPhilly.com there would be one the front office likes in every round.
There’s no guarantee a rookie will be able to contribute from Day 1. With that being said, he doesn’t necessarily have to. If nothing else, the Eagles need competition at that third wide receiver spot. Most of all, they just need more talent to develop.
A lot of fans and analysts thought the Eagles would chase Washington’s Brian Orakpo and the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Jason Worilds in free agency, but those two were slapped with the franchise tag. Then the focus shifted to DeMarcus Ware after his release from the Dallas Cowboys, but Philadelphia passed on the eventual Hall of Famer.
The truth is none of the three would’ve been a tremendous upgrade to the pass rush for the money this year.
For one, roughly 75 percent of Trent Cole’s $6.6 million cap hit in 2014 would’ve counted against the cap anyway in the event of his release according to EaglesCap.com—Cole being the player Orakpo, Worilds or Ware presumably were to replace. None of the three were outrageously more productive last season, either.
Cole came on strong toward the end of last season as he grew more comfortable at his new position at outside linebacker, racking up all of his 8.0 sacks over the final eight games of the season. Orakpo, Worilds and Ware finished ’13 with 10.0, 8.0 and 6.0 respectively.
The fact is finding a proven edge-rusher who fit the Eagles’ scheme probably wasn’t a reality in this free-agency class. That doesn’t mean it’s an area that can be allowed to go unaddressed this offseason, either.
Cole turns 32 this season, and his cap hit is set to balloon to over $11 million in ’15. It’s absolutely time to start preparing for life without the nine-year veteran.
The proper method to go about replacing Cole is to draft behind him and begin developing a successor. In the meantime, this rookie can supplement the Eagles’ pass rush in the season ahead by giving Cole and even Connor Barwin breathers in certain situations.
And if the kid doesn't pan out, there's always next year's free-agent class. Hopefully, there will be a lot more to offer.
Age of the Offensive Line
Sad as it was to learn Evan Mathis was placed on the trade block by Philadelphia after the All-Pro asked to renegotiate his contract, according to the NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, the news does push an important issue to the forefront. The Eagles have an aging offensive line, in particular at guard, where Mathis and Todd Herremans are both on the wrong side of 30.
The offense could get by for another year or two easily with what they have. Mathis was finally recognized as the best guard in football in 2013, and heck, 31-year-old left tackle Jason Peters was signed to an extension just this offseason.
Thinking more long-term though, the Eagles’ willingness to shop Mathis says a lot about the underlying problem with an otherwise quality unit. The bottom is going to fall out for Mathis and Peters eventually. Some would suggest that decline has already begun for Herremans.
The fact that CBSSports.com’s Jason La Canfora suggests the Eagles might be able to get only a fourth-round pick in return for Mathis sort of says it all. No matter how good these guys are, they won’t be at their current levels forever, perhaps even for very much longer at all.
Whether Mathis is on board for ’14 or not, clearly the Eagles are already pondering the future if they’re honestly willing to consider a trade. It may be for the best. Next step: unearthing a quality prospect or two, where a changing of the guard is seemingly right around the corner.
Defensive Line Depth
The 12th overall pick in the 2012 draft, Fletcher Cox, could anchor Philly’s defensive line for years to come. The team sounds content with Bennie Logan at nose tackle for the time being, while Cedric Thornton and Vinny Curry combined to form a strong situational run-stuffer/pass-rush combo at the other end position.
Backing them up on the other hand are a handful of late-round or undrafted prospects, then the natural vegetation of the Delaware Valley.
Even if all three spots are just fine as is, the Eagles desperately need depth behind them. Defensive line is generally one of the most substituted positions on the field, injuries notwithstanding.
Then there are the concerns. A third-round pick, Logan, acquitted himself nicely at nose in his rookie year, but the sample size was still too small to predict he’ll be an impact player.
The Thornton-Curry dynamic is an interesting one as well. Thornton is in midnight green for the foreseeable future, but is completely one-dimensional as a run defender, while Curry seems miscast as a 3-4 end and might be best served by a trade.
In other words, only Cox seems to have his role nailed down. Even he’ll be three years into his rookie contract after ’14, which means it will soon be time to decide what kind of long-term commitment is warranted.
The Eagles will almost certainly draft a defensive lineman, adding one or two undrafted free agents as well. A Day 1 or 2 selection is not out of the question here seeing as the defense could be relying on this new contributor in the season ahead, and perhaps more importantly, beyond.
Safety, cornerback, pass-rusher, linemen—offensive and defensive—wide receiver; these were widely considered the Eagles biggest needs entering this offseason. Their biggest though?
Arguably, some might even say undoubtedly at place kicker.
Look no further than how Philadelphia’s first-round home playoff exit went down against the Saints. The Birds lost by two in a game where the opposing team's kicker knocked down four field-goal tries—including one from 46 yards—while Alex Henery bombed his only attempt from 48. He wasn’t even close.
It’s not as if Henery’s lack of range hasn’t been an issue in the past. Since he was selected in the fourth round of the 2011 draft, two separate coaching staffs have opted to treat the 26-year-old with kid gloves. Henery has only attempted five field goals of 50 or more yards through three NFL seasons, while 17 kickers around the league attempted at least that many in ’13 alone.
Henery’s lack of leg strength has proven to be an issue on kickoffs as well. His 20th-ranked touchback percentage last season resulted in plenty of long returns, not to mention, led head coach Chip Kelly to literally surrender field position with squib and mortar kicks in lieu of kicking deep.
The front office absolutely has to do something though, at the very least, provide some competition. At this point, that’s likely to come from an undrafted free agent this May, but you know what? There almost has to be somebody among the unknown that's better than the vastly disappointing Henery.