Philadelphia Eagles' Blueprint for Winning Free Agency
Offensive linemen Jason Peters and Jason Kelce have been re-signed, locking up the core of a top-notch offensive line. Wide receivers Riley Cooper and Jeremy Maclin were retained as well, the former to a team-friendly five-year deal and the latter to a one-year deal at a bargain price.
General manager Howie Roseman’s tremendous ability to manage the salary cap on a yearly basis has put the Eagles in a top-notch financial situation. Per EaglesCap.com, Philly enters the free agency period a full $24 million under the cap, meaning there is money to spend should the team want to get aggressive and grab a big-name player.
The Eagles will have to be careful not to go overboard on their signings, though. No fan will soon forget the miserable "Dream Team" acquisitions that backfired, led by $60 million free-agent cornerback bust Nnamdi Asomugha. But Philadelphia does need some key players, particularly a proven player in the secondary.
Here are five moves that can help Chip Kelly’s Eagles repeat as NFC East champions.
Sign Safety Jairus Byrd or T.J. Ward
The Eagles desperately need to upgrade their safety corps heading into 2014, as this was a definite area of weakness the previous season. Nate Allen is an adequate starter. Patrick Chung will likely be released in the offseason, and Earl Wolff may be a year away from being an effective starter.
The safety market is deep, with a handful of candidates that would immediately improve the Eagles’ defensive backfield. Jairus Byrd and T.J. Ward are the top two players, and each is coming off a Pro Bowl campaign. Byrd is the superior of the two, as he has made three Pro Bowls in five seasons. He’s coming off another spectacular year in which he intercepted four passes in just 11 games.
Ward started all 16 games in 2013, recording two interceptions, a fumble recovery, 1.5 sacks and 75 tackles. He was rated by Pro Football Focus (subscription required) as the third-best overall safety in the league and the best against the run.
Either one of these two players would significantly upgrade the Eagles defense.
Recent reports have indicated Byrd may not be re-signed by the Buffalo Bills. He’s been on the record previously saying that he wants to be the highest-paid safety in the league, per Adam Benigni of WGRZ Buffalo (h/t Chris Burke of Sports Illustrated). That current honor belongs to Troy Polamalu in terms of average annual pay ($9.8 million) and Eric Berry in terms of largest total contract ($50 million over six years).
It’s not unreasonable to expect Byrd to get a deal that exceeds both of those. He’s just 27 years old and in the prime of his career. He missed five games last year due to plantar fasciitis in his feet, but he played all 16 games the previous three seasons.
Byrd could command a five-year deal, checking in at $55 million total. That’s a lot of money, and the Eagles will have to weigh whether he’s worth that money.
Ward shouldn’t command quite as much money. He’s not in Byrd’s class, but he’s still an elite safety. A five-year deal worth $7-$8 million per year sounds reasonable. That would make him the fifth-highest-paid safety in the NFL, just ahead of Antrel Rolle and just behind Eric Weddle.
Should Philly miss out on Byrd and Ward, it increases the urgency to draft a safety in the first round of the 2014 draft.
Sign Defensive End Red Bryant
The Seattle Seahawks' release of veteran defensive end Red Bryant adds a talented player to the open market. Bryant is a classic 5-technique player who excelled during his tenure with the Seahawks. He was rated by Pro Football Focus (subscription required) as the 15th-best 4-3 defensive end in the game in 2013, and he’s best in stopping the run.
Bryant is a 320-pound player who can play both end and tackle in a 3-4 formation. He’s incredibly durable, having played in 47 of the last 48 games. He is 29 years old, but he can still contribute at a high level.
The Eagles have themselves a talented group of defensive ends in Fletcher Cox and Cedric Thornton. Adding Bryant isn’t a necessity, but it does add proven depth on the line. Defensive coordinator Billy Davis could line up Bryant as a 5-technique or 0-technique player in the three-man front. In a four-man front, he could conceivably play all the positions as well.
If Philly can bring in Bryant on a reasonable deal—maybe three years at $4-$5 million per season—it makes the defensive line significantly better.
Sign Nose Tackle Paul Soliai
Philadelphia drafted nose tackle Bennie Logan in the third round a year ago to solidify the interior part of its defensive line. He played well enough as a rookie that the team traded away veteran Isaac Sopoaga to the New England Patriots.
Logan was pushed around in the NFC Wild Card loss to the New Orleans Saints, however, as the Saints accumulated 185 rushing yards in that contest.
In short, he is an up-and-coming player who can contribute as a 0-technique nose tackle, but he’s a bit undersized.
The Eagles may want to upgrade their defensive tackle position. Paul Soliai is a free agent, and he’s unlikely to return to the Miami Dolphins in 2014. Soliai was miscast as a 4-3 defensive tackle, but he’s much more suited to play the traditional nose tackle role in a 3-4.
He is 30 years old and is coming off a season in which he rated as the 20th-best interior tackle, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). He has been remarkably durable over the years, missing just one game since 2010.
Soliai doesn’t offer much as a pass-rusher, but he is a huge body (340 pounds) that can plug the middle of the line. He averaged 30-35 snaps per game last year in Miami, meaning he saw action in less than half of his team’s defensive snaps.
He’s not suited well for passing downs, but the Eagles may want to invest in a player like Soliai to spell Logan and to anchor their line on obvious running situations. A projected contract of two years at $4 million per season might be reasonable.
Sign Wide Receiver Ted Ginn Jr.
The Eagles’ wide receiver position is shaping up to be the most intriguing position of the offseason. Free agents Maclin and Cooper have already been re-signed, but No. 1 receiver DeSean Jackson is now the subject of trade rumors, per Jimmy Kempski of Philly.com.
Veteran slot man Jason Avant will likely be released due to his $4 million cap hit in 2014.
Even so, the team has frequently been linked to receivers in the NFL draft, most notably Florida State’s Kelvin Benjamin as a first-round prospect.
Head coach Chip Kelly doesn’t need to add a player to his receiving corps heading into the season, but a former top-10 pick like Ted Ginn Jr. fits the mold of a fine acquisition. Ginn never lived up to his potential in Miami, and he’s coming off a season in which he put up his best numbers since ’08 (36 receptions, 556 yards and five touchdowns for the Carolina Panthers).
Ginn is hitting free agency, and he’s not likely to get a big offer. He’s a No. 3 receiver at best, although he does provide the dual threat of being able to return punts and kicks. He is a similar player to Oregon’s De’Anthony Thomas in that he’s a multi-dimensional threat who can make defenders miss with his speed.
Adding Ginn to two-year deal to be the fourth receiver and returner makes sense.
Sign Depth at Inside Linebacker
Philadelphia transitioned well to a 3-4 defense a year ago. Pass-rushing outside linebackers Connor Barwin and Trent Cole performed well, and inside ‘backers DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks each performed at a high level.
Kendricks is a future star with Pro Bowls on his horizon, but Ryans is entering his ninth season in the league. He may be a surprise release heading into 2014, as his $6.8 million base salary and $7.8 million average pay per year make him the eighth-highest-paid inside linebacker in the NFL, per OvertheCap.com.
Even with Ryans and Kendricks, the Eagles need proven depth at the position. Philly can’t expect to stay nearly as healthy in ’14 as the team was this past season, simply because that’s extremely difficult to replicate. The returning backups on the roster are players like Casey Matthews, Najee Goode, Jason Phillips, Jake Knott, Josh Kaddu and Emmanuel Acho. None are experienced starters.
Inside linebacker doesn’t project to be an important enough position for general manager Howie Roseman to target in the early rounds of the NFL draft. He may take a flier on a player in the later rounds to compete for depth, but the team should still invest in a veteran with experience as a starter.
Possibilities include Pat Angerer, Joe Mays, Stewart Bradley or Darryl Sharpton. All are hitting free agency and have experience playing inside linebacker in a 3-4 defense.