By GORDON GLANTZ
GORDONVILLE — You are about to go shopping and you have $24.1 million in your wallet.
When one considers the merchandise at the marketplace where the goods and services of NFL free agents are being bought, $24.1 million could be perceived as a lot or a little.
That is the balance the Philadelphia Eagles, a team looking to build upon its mercurial rise from 4-12 obscurity to a 10-6 record and a first-place finish in the NFC East, have left on their credit card (after taking care of some in-house business before turning their attention to free agency). Teams and players began talking Saturday and the first hints, if not the VIP visits and announcements of signings, can come as early as Tuesday (4 p.m.).
While the next step remains cloaked in mystery, what is clear is that the Eagles – with general manager Howie Roseman spending owner Jeff Lurie’s dough – have a pragmatic plan.
Offense is fine
There was no pressing need to reinvent the wheel on offense after surging to the top of the charts with rookie head coach Chip Kelly’s fast-break attack that didn’t seem to lose much traction with Nick Foles, a less-than-mobile quarterback, behind the wheel.
They brought Foles’ favorite target, Riley Cooper, back on a five-year deal for $25 million. Despite a vibe that it was going to be an either-or choice between Cooper and Jeremy Maclin, who missed last season with torn knee ligament, Maclin was also resigned to a one-year deal.
The downside was that veteran Jason Avant, one of the team’s spiritual leaders, was a cap casualty. Not wanting to have too much money plunked into one position – in this case, wide receiver – Avant was sent packing after eight seasons as an Eagle.
The Eagles also locked up all-pro left tackle Jason Peters for five years and center Jason Kelce for seven, all but assuring that both will finish their careers in whatever shade of green the uniforms morph into over the coming seasons.
The only open spot on offense would be a receiver to replace Avant, which allows the Eagles to most likely address that need at some point in a talent-rich pool in May’s draft.
Meaning, they have set themselves for the obvious. If they are to continue to evolve and get to the next level, the area of greatest need will be the primary focus of both free agency and the draft.
That means defense, defense and more defense.
If you need any more convincing, look at the template of recent Super Bowl champions (Seahawks, Ravens and Giants won the last three).
Before we get to the defense, there could be some surprising signings in other areas.
Kicker Alex Henery seems to inspire no confidence in Kelly, and some good ones are on the market. The list includes Steven Hauschka (Seahawks), Phil Dawson (49ers), Adam Vinatieri (Colts) and … David Akers (Lions).
The most realistic choice could be Dan Carpenter, who made 33 of 36 kicks for Buffalo last year after his career slowly tanked in Miami after making the Pro Bowl in 2009. The issue would be what to do with Henery. A competition would be healthy, but they would be paying both through training camp. It’s more likely a rookie with some leg and a resume is drafted late.
And with trade rumors swirling around DeSean Jackson, another receiver – one with return skills – is not out of the question, either.
Signing one of these receivers/returners isn’t likely, but Roseman might be surprised what he catches if he goes fishing with less bait than one might expect, particularly from the back end of that list. With all due respect to Brad Smith, Cribbs and Hester would be dollar-store upgrades.
Then there is the whole issue surrounding backup quarterback. Could Michael Vick return? Well, how can you pay him more than Foles’ $750,000 to be his backup, even with it clear that Foles will get a king’s ransom next offseason with a close replication of this season?
But how can you pay Vick less? You can’t.
That leaves either the scrap heap – Jimmy Clausen (no team in 2013), Charlie Whitehurst (Chargers), Brady Quinn (Rams) or worse (Tim Tebow) – or the middle-to-late rounds of the draft, or keeping G.J. Kinne as the No. 3, with Matt Barkley moving up to No. 2.
Birds need a safety … or two … or three
But we digress.
The Eagles were the worst team in the league against the pass last year. The pass defense got better as the season progressed, and a lot of those numbers were bloated because they were involved in games where they got comfortable leads and gave up garbage-time yards while clinging for dear life, but it still remained the Achilles’ heel.
A more consistent pass rush would have helped, as would a shutdown corner, but let’s be real.
Even Stevie Wonder could see the most glaring weak spot is safety. The Eagles seemed to concur. They were more than content letting three free agents – Nate Allen, Kurt Coleman and Colt Anderson – walk. Moreover, a few more million can be added to the $24.1 budget if Patrick Chung is jettisoned.
That leaves second-year man Earl Wolff and a practice-squad guy, Keelan Robinson, as the only warm bodies.
Eagles Nation would welcome All-Pro Jairus Byrd, who could not come to terms with the Buffalo Bills before free agency arrived, into the nest with almost the same verve as it did Terrell Owens in 2004.
The need, the obvious upgrade, is that great.
If it is presumed that if Byrd’s price tag is too ridiculous – he may start off asking for $10-12 million per year and end up “settling” for $9 million – the Eagles can look to T.J. Ward from the Cleveland Browns for around $6-8 million.
Ward played college football at Oregon, including one season with Kelly as his head coach. Byrd was also a Duck, but only when Kelly was the offensive coordinator.
Signing one of the former Ducks at safety makes sense, and could happen, but the Eagles could opt to use free agency address other defensive needs – an edge pass rusher from the outside linebacker spot, a rotational defensive lineman (Matt Shaughnessy from Arizona was being floated before Cedric Thornton was given an extension) who can help stuff the run, and a corner who might be buried on a depth chart elsewhere.
If the Eagles are keeping their master plans close to the vest, it will slowly unravel in the light of day Tuesday.
If they are courting on Byrd and Ward, or maybe even Donte Whitner from the San Francisco 49ers or Antoine Bethea of the Indianapolis Colts, it is clear they are looking to put their proverbial eggs in one basket and look for help in the other areas of need from a draft pool that is deep at almost every position (except safety, where the talent falls off after two obvious first-rounders, Alabama’s Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix and Louisville’s Calvin Pryor).
If they are instead talking to the second-tier group of safeties that includes Chris Clemons (Dolphins) and Malcom Jenkins (Saints), among others, then expect an outside linebacker and defensive lineman in the shopping cart.
They could also try for a 2-for-1 deal at safety, signing Clemons, Jenkins or Mike Mitchell (Panthers), and bringing back Allen (left) or Coleman or taking a chance on a one-year contract for one-time hot prospect Taylor Mays (Bengals), who has the size (6-foot-3, 220-230 pounds) and speed (sub-4.5) and age (26) to warrant a low-risk look. The oft-injured former three-time All-American at USC made just $630,000 last year.
Addressing other needs
If that’s the route Roseman chooses, then what?
Money will be left, and more can be freed up. Beyond Chung ($3.25 million), linebacker Brandon Graham (just under $3.4 million) and third-string tight end James Casey (close to $4 million) can be shed for most their salaries.
One would think Graham and Casey could have some value if shopped in a trade, at least in theory, but the New Orleans Saints and Chicago Bears recently learned – from trying to shop running back Darren Sproles and Hester before releasing them – making trades is easier said than done.
Outside linebacker Trent Cole, who came on strong at the end of last season before disappearing against a rookie left tackle in the playoff loss to the Saints, is due a significant salary bump after the season. Translation: This is likely No. 58’s last year here.
Graham, who was coming on a defensive end at the end of the forgettable 2012 season, does not appear to be the answer now that the team deploys a 3-4 alignment.
The most appealing linebacker on the free agent list was Brian Orakpo, but the rival Washington Redskins more or less took him off the market by placing the franchise tag on him. Next on the list? Jason Worilds re-signed with the Pittsburg Steelers for close to $10 million for one year.
Beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess. The Eagles could have their eye on an unheralded type of guy like O’Brien Schofield (Seahawks) that they can cultivate, but they are reportedly quite high on Travis Long, who spent last season on the practice squad.
Roseman would be happy to have money left in the till to throw at Foles, and others, after next season and kept the team’s core intact.
Don’t overlook the draft
Additionally, there is the draft to consider. The Eagles, at No. 22, have no shot at Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack and little shot at UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr. However, there are oodles of OLB/DE types scattered throughout all rounds of most reputable mock drafts.
If they find themselves without a shot at either safety or edge rusher at No. 22, they could always trade back, picking up extra picks, and come away with a player like BYU’s Kyle Van Noy or Auburn’s Dee Ford and be more than satisfied with the value.
As for cornerback, they Eagles are in a similar place with Cary Williams as they are with Cole, as Williams’ will see a salary increase after this season. A developmental fourth corner could be identified in free agency, but there are also plenty in the draft.
They could come away on Day 2 (second and third rounds) with a player like Ohio State’s talented-but-underachieving Bradley Roby and bring him along. There are also the likes of Nebraska’s Stanley Jean-Baptiste, who is attracting a lot of attention because he is a huge (6-3, 220) converted receiver like Seattle’s Richard Sherman, and Division II standout Pierre Desir (6-1, 200).
While it is not as sexy to throw out names of college players that are largely not known by NFL fans, Roseman is right in his assessment that the best teams are built through the draft.
He learned the hard way in 2011 – as part of the “all-in” spending spree that built a Dream Team that turned into an 8-8 nightmare – of the right path.
The last two drafts have been stellar, and that is still the way to go.
Yet, free agency is not as much a dead end street as it is a “T” intersection. It’s just a question of which way they will turn.
We are soon to find out.
The column originally appeared at http://www.phillyphanatics.com