Philadelphia Eagles: Buying or Selling Latest Buzz on the Free Agency Rumor Mill
Technically, free agency doesn’t open until Tuesday, March 11 at 4 p.m., yet the Philadelphia Eagles have already spoken to numerous prospective targets. The question is which reports you can truly believe.
This is year two of the NFL’s so-called “legal tampering” period, a three-day window where teams can begin negotiating with impending free agents. Since rules permit players from signing on the dotted line prior to March 11, though, only some of what we hear is real. Most of it almost certainly is gamesmanship.
As league insider Andrew Brandt points out, there is plenty of incentive for player representatives to get their clients' names in the news. In case you were wondering, those are the sources for plenty of stories this time of year.
There is real work getting done behind the scenes, though, and occasionally, there is even some truth in lies. In other words, we mustn’t so readily discount everything we hear this time of year, either.
So while we still have another day to go before free agency is actually a thing, let’s dissect the reports from over the weekend and see if we can’t determine fact from fiction. You might even be surprised by how much I’m buying of what they’re selling.
It’s no big secret Philadelphia is in dire need of reinforcements at the safety position, and at $24 million under the salary cap, who better than three-time All-Pro and consensus best player available Jairus Byrd? Just don’t get your hopes up—yet.
According to Geoff Mosher for CSNPhilly.com, the Eagles haven’t shown much interest in being the franchise that liberates the Buffalo Bills safety. Then again, that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. As the report indicates, Byrd’s price tag simply might be too high:
Eagles general manager Howie Roseman has cautioned fans about getting excited about some of the bigger names on the free-agent market. If Byrd, a three-time Pro Bowler, is seeking around $9 million annually, the Eagles aren’t likely to be in the running.
Just because Byrd could get expensive doesn’t mean the Eagles aren’t interested, but at their price. In Philly, the 27-year-old Oregon product would be reunited with head coach Chip Kelly, and in all honesty, the team has a lot to offer any free agent.
I’m buying this report because it makes sense for the Eagles to sit back while free agency is still in its infancy. Allow Byrd to field offers, then come in with a competitive number at the end. If this deal could be about more than money, there’s a chance it gets done.
While fans remain hopeful that three-time All-Pro Jairus Byrd from the Bills or rising star T.J. Ward from the Cleveland Browns will be the primary free-agent targets at safety, Eliot Shorr-Parks for NJ.com reports the Eagles could be chasing the more cost-effective Mike Mitchell instead:
Mitchell, a 6-0, 210 pound safety from the Carolina Panthers, is considered one of the better safeties on the market. The five-year veteran had 66 tackles, four interceptions, 3.5 sacks and two forced fumbles last season. He spent the first four years of his career with the Oakland Raiders.
When in coverage last season, Mitchell gave up just 28 receptions for 227 yards and one touchdown -- while picking off four passes thrown his way. By comparison, Patrick Chung allowed five touchdowns last season for the Eagles, and Nate Allen gave up 34 catches.
You have to be careful when projecting what a player did in one defense compared to what he would do in another. While we can certainly all agree Mitchell would be an upgrade over Chung, a difference of six receptions from Mitchell to Allen is not huge, especially considering the Panthers faced 107 fewer pass attempts than the Eagles last season.
Carolina also led the league with 60 sacks, almost twice as many as Philadelphia’s 37. A fierce pass rush always makes the secondary look better.
Then there is the issue of Mitchell’s tackling. According to metrics site Pro Football Focus (subscription only), the five-year veteran was the least efficient tackler of any regular starting safety in the NFL. Allen, somewhat surprisingly, came in 13th out 67.
Language is important here—“interest.” One would think given the magnitude of their hole at safety that the Eagles would have some level interest in just about everybody at this point. We just happened to have heard they have interest in this one.
I would have to imagine Mitchell is pretty far down the list. The team is gathering information on the market right now. Doesn’t mean it can’t revisit Mitchell throughout the process, but is there anybody who’s buying him as the No. 1 target?
Bleacher Report’s own Mike Freeman reports the Eagles could be a landing spot for seven-time All-Pro and likely Hall of Fame cornerback Champ Bailey from the Denver Broncos. One must instantly question where Bailey fits in, however.
The trio of Cary Williams, Bradley Fletcher and Brandon Boykin appear set to return at cornerback for 2014. Williams’ spot is likely protected by his contract, while Fletcher and, in particular, Boykin played well last season. Meanwhile, Bailey battled injuries and appeared in five games in ’13.
Is he willing to compete for a roster spot? Accept the role and money of a No. 4 CB?
There is one other possibility. Bailey told Lindsay H. Jones for USA Today that he would open to playing safety, which maybe you heard is a huge area of need in Philadelphia.
Still, does that really do anything for the Birds? Bailey will be 36 and learning a new position. Where’s the upside? What’s the sense?
The Eagles can’t give him any promises at cornerback, and it’s a deep free-agent class at safety. I’m selling on Bailey all the way.
If you tell any NFL executive that there’s a 6’7”, 270-pound 27-year-old free agent out there and that the player has racked up 21.0 sacks and three interceptions over the last three seasons, 100 percent of them are going to show interest. The Eagles front office is no different.
That being said, it’s not always as simple as that. Tim McManus of Philly Mag reported Friday that the club had interest in Cincinnati Bengals all-purpose defender Michael Johnson but immediately expressed concern talks would never advance very far:
Money is the big issue here. Chris Burke of SI.com has Johnson rated as the top edge rusher in this crop. From what we hear, several clubs agree. A team like the Vikings, who are coached by former Cincinnati defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and blessed with tons of cap room, might be willing to pay top dollar. The Eagles would probably have to go out of their comfort zone to get him.
Sure enough, money was the big issue here. Less than 24 hours after his initial report, McManus reported Philadelphia was out of the running:
No dice on Michael Johnson. There are a few teams in the mix as negotiations come down to the wire, and the Eagles are not among them. Looks like the Cincinnati edge rusher is going to get paid pretty handsomely. Out of Eagles' desired price range.
Several factors likely contributed to the Eagles valuing Johnson less than other suitors; a scheme change, just 3.5 sacks last season and the amount of money already tied up in Connor Barwin and Trent Cole in 2014 were all deterrents.
That being said, I’m buying everything about this story. It’s only logical the Eagles would at least inquire about Johnson, and it makes sense another team with fewer questions would be willing to offer far more money. Good job, good effort, Birds.
Speaking of free agents that Eagles fans may want to refrain from growing an attachment to, CSNPhilly.com’s Geoff Mosher would add Oakland Raiders defensive/outside linebacker Lamarr Houston to that list. Word is the Birds did inquire, but Mosher warns, "Don’t get too excited."
Not unlike Cincinnati’s Michael Johnson, cost is expected to be the primary hang-up.
While their situations may be similar, the two players are not entirely comparable. Johnson can rush the passer, defend the run or drop into coverage, whereas Houston is more of a pure defensive lineman at 6’3”, 300 pounds. It’s an area of need for Philadelphia, but with Fletcher Cox, Cedric Thornton and Vinny Curry sure to see valuable time on the ends, it's not a position to break the bank over.
There’s really not much else to add here at this point. There only appears to be legitimate interest in Houston insomuch as the Eagles have some level of interest in every quality free agent.
Odds and Ends
There are currently no specific reports to indicate the Eagles have contacted Cleveland Browns safety T.J. Ward. However, Mary Kay Cabot’s report for the Cleveland Plain Dealer indicates teams numbering in the double digits have contacted Ward.
That’s a big sell on Ward to Philadelphia, as it means the organization would have to outbid multiple suitors. The current regime comes across as reluctant to overpay.
While there’s nothing quite in the way of a “report” so to speak, Green Bay Packers DE/OLB Mike Neal’s name has been coming up a lot among Eagles scribes. Perhaps most famously, Philly Mag’s Tim McManus mentioned Neal as a potential alternative to Michael Johnson.
Neal is a player I’ve mentioned a few times, so I’m inclined to agree he could be a fit here. He’s 6’3”, 285 pounds and has played both defensive end and outside linebacker in a 3-4, registering 9.5 sacks in 27 games over the past two seasons as a part-time player. The Birds need depth at both positions, and a pass-rusher in particular, so Neal seems a natural fit.
Geoff Mosher for CSNPhilly.com was having a busy weekend, in case you didn’t notice. He reports (among other things) that the Eagles continue to hold discussions with punter Donnie Jones. Jones won two NFC Special Teams Player of the Week awards for consecutive performances in 2013 and set a Birds single-season franchise record with 33 punts downed inside the opponent's 20-yard line.
So why isn’t he under contract already? Perhaps because of a little-known rule in the collective bargaining agreement that prevents Jones from signing anything more than a one-year deal worth the veteran minimum prior to the beginning of the new league year, according to PhiladelphiaEagles.com.
Once that’s out of the way, what’s to prevent Jones’ return?
No hard news reports on the Jenkins front as far as Eagles fans are concerned, but Mike Kaye for the SBNation blog Bleeding Green Nation took notice of the New Orleans Saints safety’s many new Twitter followers over the weekend. Jeff McLane for the Philadelphia Inquirer and Les Bowen for the Philadelphia Daily News are among the prominent Eagles beat writers that suddenly became interested in what’s on Jenkins’ mind over the weekend.
At 6’0”, 204 pounds and just 26 years of age, Jenkins certainly fits the profile of the type of free agent the Eagles are likely to target for their secondary. As a so-called “mid-tier” free agent, the price could be right as well. Per my own predictions, Jenkins will be starting at safety for the Birds in 2014.