Free agency officially starts at 4:00 PM ET tomorrow afternoon, and with roughly $34.8M in cap space (per EaglesCap) pending a decision on Nnamdi Asomugha’s future with the team that could free up $11M more in space, the Eagles figure to be players on the open market. However, this year will be different than the spending spree in the 2011 offseason. The team isn’t expecting to contend for a title next year, nor should they be. Instead, they will likely be targeting younger players who will be a part of the team in the next few years when they (hopefully) will be ready to contend in the postseason again.
With a new head coach in Chip Kelly and a new defensive coordinator in Billy Davis, the team figures to be making schematic changes on both sides of the ball. Changes in scheme would likely mean that the front office, led by GM Howie Roseman and new VP of Player Personnel Tom Gamble, will be looking to acquire new players to fit those schemes. The defense, in particular, figures to undergo dramatic changes. Davis has experience running the “4-3 under” defense, a hybrid 3-4 and 4-3 scheme that usually is a 3-4 look. Here’s an article from Birds 24/7 discussing the scheme. Basically, the front 7 consists of a “one-tech” (3-4 nose tackle) two “three-techs” (3-4 DEs), a strong side LB who lines up outside the TE (3-4 OLB), the “Predator”, a weak-side LB, and a MLB. The predator position is what makes the 4-3 under unique. He basically fills the role of the other 3-4 OLB, but primarily rushes the passer, rarely dropping back into coverage. He typically lines up on the weak side either standing up or with a hand on the ground and is the team’s best pass rusher. The middle linebacker helps play the run on the strong side with the one-tech and one of the three-techs (the strong-side 3-tech must be the better run defender of the two), while the weak-side linebacker is free to use his athleticism make more plays. Since theoretically the NT occupies the center, the 3-tech occupies the guard, and the Predator occupies the tackle, the WLB has plenty of room to fly around and be a productive player.
With that in mind, let’s look at the pieces the Eagles have on their roster already and see how where their areas of need are. First, the offense:
QB: Michael Vick, Nick Foles, Dennis Dixon
RB: Lesean McCoy, Bryce Brown, Dion Lewis, Chris Polk
FB: Stanley Havili
WR: Desean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Jason Avant, Damaris Johnson, Riley Cooper
TE: Brent Celek, Clay Harbor
LT: Jason Peters
LG: Evan Mathis
C: Jason Kelce
RG: Danny Watkins
RT: Todd Herremans
The Eagles intend to hold a QB competition among Vick, Foles, and Dixon, so that doesn’t seem to be an area they’d target in a weak free agent class. The RB group is strong and deep, and Havili (if Chip Kelly wants to utilize the fullback) is capable there. The WR group is mostly small, but again there is talent and depth. There are some rumblings that Kelly wants to upgrade from Jason Avant to a faster and quicker slot receiver, but WR is a secondary need at best. Celek is an average starter at TE, but some believe Kelly will look to add another legitimate receiving threat to pair with him and move on from Clay Harbor. On the offensive line, it looks to be 4/5 of a solid unit, assuming Peters, Kelce, and Herremans return at full strength from their injuries. However, Danny Watkins needs to be upgraded. Herremans’s ability to play both right guard and right tackle will allow the Eagles to target an upgrade at either of the two positions.
In summary, the Eagles’ biggest need on offense by far is an upgrade on the right side of the line at either RT or RG. Secondary needs are TE, WR, and OL depth.
This offseason has one of the deepest offensive tackle classes in recent memory, and if the Eagles are looking to upgrade on the right side of the line through free agency rather than the draft, they’d be wise to do so at right tackle. The group is led by 6’8, 320 lb. New England RT Sebastian Vollmer, who had a breakout season in 2012. At just 28, he would be a massive upgrade for the Eagles in both the short and long terms, and is one of, if not the premier right tackles in the league. Pro Football Focus graded Vollmer at a +28.2 this season, one of the best ratings for an OT in the league.
Cincinnati’s Andre Smith is another option, as the 6’4, 325 lb. RT put his early-career weight issues behind him to have a productive year last year. I’m not a big fan of his, though my opinion is clouded by Brandon Graham’s embarrassment of Smith on Thursday Night Football this season. PFF gave him a +26.9 for the 2012 season. He’s an excellent run blocker and a serviceable pass protector.
Miami’s Jake Long is an interesting option. He was one of the best left tackles in the league in his first three seasons after being the #1 overall pick out of Michigan in the 2008 NFL Draft, but injuries and inconsistency have plagued him the past two years. Some are suggesting that a move to the right side could revitalize his career, and if so the Eagles would have a fantastic tandem of tackles that we haven’t seen in Philadelphia since Tra Thomas and Jon Runyan.
Minnesota’s Phil Loadholt is a lesser version of Andre Smith. He’s very good at getting to the next level and blocking in the run game, but does have his struggles in the passing game. He’s a powerful mauler, and if Chip Kelly wants to install a run-heavy offense he could do worse than Loadholt.
The recently-released Eric Winston is a good run-blocker, but his age (turns 30 in November) and mediocrity in pass protection suggest that the Eagles will look elsewhere. There are reports, however, that say that the Eagles have reached out to his agent.
They could also fill the need through the draft, with Texas A&M’s Luke Joeckel and Central Michigan’s Eric Fischer both looking like excellent prospects on the outside.
If the Eagles wanted to keep Herremans at RT and upgrade inside, there are a couple good options. One is Brandon Moore, the New York Jets guard who had the misfortune of Mark Sanchez fumbling after running into his butt. PFF graded him at a +21.3 and he’s strong in both the run game and pass protection. The other is Buffalo’s Andy Levitre, who is a fantastic interior pass protector. He figures to be the highest-paid interior lineman in this year’s free agent class and there will be a bidding war for his services. If the Eagles wanted to upgrade via the draft, they could trade down and target a guard. Alabama’s Chance Warmack (whose OL coach is now with the Eagles) would be an excellent choice, as would North Carolina’s Jonathan Cooper.
Wes Welker and Danny Amendola would both fit into the slot excellently, but the Eagles would do better to allocate their resources elsewhere. Titans TE Jared Cook is a physical freak who has shown flashes of dominance in the NFL, and could kill two birds with one stone for Kelly by giving the Eagles a legitimate second receiving threat at TE and doing some work in the slot. Dustin Keller has had his moments as a downfield receiving threat at TE despite shoddy QB play while with the Jets, but is coming off a season that saw him play in only 8 games. San Francisco’s Delanie Walker is a huge asset in the run game but struggles with drops as a receiver.
I expect the Eagles to acquire one of the right tackles in free agency and move Herremans back inside. My choice would be to shell out the money for Vollmer. The Eagles have plenty of cap space and Vollmer will do wonders for keeping Eagles’ QBs healthy and opening up more holes for Lesean McCoy both now and down the road.
On defense, the Eagles have many more needs. Here’s a look at the roster on that side of the ball:
WDE: Fletcher Cox
NT: Antonio Dixon
SDE: Cedric Thornton
“Predator”: Trent Cole/Brandon Graham/Vinny Curry
SLB: Trent Cole/Brandon Graham/Vinny Curry
MLB: DeMeco Ryans
WLB: Mychal Kendricks
CB: Nnamdi Asomugha (pending him being cut for being terrible at football), Brandon Boykin, Curtis Marsh
S: Nate Allen, Kurt Coleman, David Sims, Colt Anderson
You can write Fletcher Cox in at weak-side DE/3-tech with a pen, and you can do the same for Ryans at MLB and Kendricks at WLB. Cole or Graham will likely serve as the “Predator” and the other will play SLB, with Vinny Curry spelling both. The rest of the defense, however, looks murky at best. Let’s go position by position here.
Cedric Thornton is a nice young player with some upside, but he’s more effective as a pass rusher and would be better served spelling Cox at the 3-tech spot where there is a heavier emphasis on pressuring the QB. There are a few options for them if they decide to pursue a starter there.
My favorite is Ricky Jean-Francois. He hasn’t gotten an abundance of playing time in San Francisco, but when he’s been on the field he’s proven to be an excellent run defender and he’s very versatile. Tom Gamble knows him well from their time together in the Bay Area, he’s only 26, and he won’t break the bank. He will, however, play hard and get his nose dirty as a strong-side run stuffer, which is exactly what the 4-3 under needs.
Oakland’s Desmond Bryant (he of the now-famous mug shot) would be another option here. He played DT in a 4-3 last year but could also serve as a 3-4 DE. He’s had productive periods as both a pass rusher and run defender, but hasn’t put the total package together for an extended period of time yet. He’s just 27 though, and at 6’6, 311 he’s got plenty of upside.
Alan Branch (6’6, 325) played in a 4-3 under scheme while in Seattle, and proved to be an excellent run-stuffer in 2011. His play took a little bit of a dip in 2012, but he still played very well. He also played under new coordinator Billy Davis in Arizona in 2009 and 2010, although he wasn’t all that productive. His teammate in Seattle, Jason Jones, is a good interior pass rusher (18 pressures this season), but hasn’t proven he can handle a full-time starting role.
The Eagles will also need a nose tackle on 1st and 2nd down in the new scheme. Antonio Dixon is there currently, but he has no experience playing the position and is likely going to be there for depth. The Eagles will probably be looking for a nose tackle in free agency as a result.
If the theme is staying young on defense as the team rebuilds, there are two main candidates in free agency: Jacksonville’s Terrance “Pot Roast” Knighton and Tampa Bay’s Roy Miller. At 6’3, 330 Knighton has the tools to be an elite NT and has shown flashes of that kind of ability. However, he’s been inconsistent and has struggled at times. He’s a Temple product, and the Eagles might want to take a chance on his upside. Miller is a solid, but steady player. He doesn’t give you much of anything as a pass rusher, but he can tie up blockers and help stop the run on 1st and 2nd downs.
In addition to the needs in the front 7, the holes in the back 4 are even more egregious. Assuming the Eagles move on from Asomugha, they will need either 3 or 4 new starters in the secondary, depending on how you feel about Brandon Boykin and Nate Allen. I’m of the opinion that Boykin will fare best in the slot and that the Eagles should add 2 corners between free agency and the draft. I think Allen can be a decent 3rd safety and might be able to hold his own as a starter with the right partner, but I’d still like to see two new safeties on the field in 2013. Colt Anderson is a good special-teamer and Kurt Coleman and David Sims could be good on STs, but they all need to be kept far, far away from the starting lineup.
There are an abundance of options at both corner and safety this offseason. First, the corners:
My personal favorite is Brent Grimes. He was excellent for the Falcons in 2011, holding opposing QBs to a 62.5 passer rating when being targeted. However, he tore his Achilles’ tendon in the season-opener and missed the rest of the year. He thrives in zone coverage, although he is also a good man-to-man cover corner. He is turning 30 in July, but he could be an anchor to build the rest of the secondary around and provide some much-needed stability on the back end.
Sean Smith of the Miami Dolphins is an interesting name, and he’s already been linked to the Eagles. He has excellent size and athleticism at 6’3, 218 and isn’t afraid to be physical with receivers. He’s a young (25) and very aggressive player, and he does his best work when matched up against big WRs. He does have his struggles with quick ones, however. The Eagles do need someone to stop Dez Bryant and Hakeem Nicks, and a change of scenery might do Smith some good.
Keenan Lewis is another guy I really like for the Eagles in free agency. He led the league in passes defensed last year with 16, and while he didn’t have any interceptions he had a solid season for the Steelers. He could fly under the radar because he’s only had one year as a starter, but he could be a very nice addition to the secondary in free agency.
Greg Toler is another guy who will probably fly under the radar once free agency starts. He’s physical and has pretty good coverage skills, and he played under Davis in Arizona his first two seasons in the league. He’s 28, but PFF rated him as a +6.8, ahead of both Smith and Lewis as well as Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Aqib Talib among the free agent class.
Other corners the Eagles could look at are Detroit’s Chris Houston, Jacksonville’s Derek Cox, San Diego’s Antoine Cason, and St. Louis’s Bradley Fletcher. The Eagles could take Alabama’s Dee Milliner at #4 in the draft as well, or they could spend a Day 2 selection on corner help as well.
There are a solid group of safeties available in free agency this year, headlined by San Francisco’s Dashon Goldson. He’s a true free safety, as he was only in the box for 12% of his snaps. He can cover the deep ball well while also breaking up on short and intermediate routes, but he does struggle with his tackling, missing one of every 6.6 attempts. Tom Gamble knows all about him from their time together in San Fran, and he’ll be able to decide whether Goldson is worth his $8M per year contract demands.
Kenny Phillips is a guy I really like for the Eagles. He’s had some injury struggles in the past, but in limited time last year with the Giants he was playing very well. He didn’t miss any of his 16 tackle attempts and only allowed 14 total yards on the 7 times he was targeted while in coverage. Having a sure tackler on the back end would be a welcome change in Philly, and the Eagles could get a real bargain if he stays healthy.
LaRon Landry is unique in that he’s one of the very few traditional strong safeties in free agency. He has massive arms and routinely brings the lumber on opposing players, but struggles in coverage. He was a dominant force for the Redskins in 2008, but struggled with injuries for a few years until he played a full season last year in New York. If the Eagles do sign him, they need to realize that he’s best served as a run defender in the box and limit his coverage time to hide his limitations.
Finally, Houston’s Glover Quin is an interesting player if the Eagles decide to move Brandon Boykin outside. Quin moved into the slot and covered slot receivers on passing downs for Houston, and his skill-set there as a former CB is invaluable. PFF rated him as the 5th-best slot corner in the league, and his versatile play in the slot and as a safety is a nice attribute to have.
Other safeties the Eagles could target in free agency are Detroit’s Louis Delmas, Miami’s Chris Clemons, New England’s Patrick Chung, and, if they’re looking for veteran help, Baltimore’s Ed Reed or Green Bay’s Charles Woodson. In the draft, Texas’s Kenny Vaccaro, Florida’s Matt Elam, Florida International’s Jonathan Cyprien, LSU’s Eric Reid, USC’s TJ McDonald, Georgia’s Baccari Rambo, and South Carolina’s DJ Swearinger could all be options in the first 3 rounds.
The Eagle are set at kicker and long-snapper with Alex Henery and Jon Dorenbos among the league’s best at their positions and figure to give Damaris Johnson and Brandon Boykin another year at the return spots. However, they could use a new punter as both Mat McBriar and Chas Henry struggled last year. Houston’s Donnie Jones and Oakland’s Shane Lechler would both be punting upgrades for the Eagles in free agency.
Let’s bring it full circle now. The Eagles need an offensive lineman, a 3-4 DE, a NT, 2 CBs, and 2 safeties this offseason. They don’t have to fill all of those positions in free agency, but they also can’t leave all their work for the draft. If it was up to me, here’s how the offseason would go:
I’d make my first move signing Sebastian Vollmer to play RT. He strengthens 2 positions on the line by allowing Todd Herremans to play RG, and a Peters-Mathis-Kelce-Herremans-Vollmer unit would be one of the best offensive lines in the league. Next, I’d bring in Brent Grimes to shore up one of the CB spots. If he’s fully healthy from his Achilles’ injury, the Eagles will have one of the most underrated CBs in the league. I’d try to sign Keenan Lewis to play across from him, as he could be a really good #2 CB. If he goes elsewhere, I’d call Greg Toler. I would also make sure to acquire Ricky Jean-Francois to play 3-4 DE. At safety, I’d definitely sign Kenny Phillips. Dashon Goldson would be a great partner for Phillips, but assuming the Eagles find his price too high I’d look for another safety in the draft. Finally, I’d bring in Pot Roast Knighton at NT and take a chance on his upside. I’d then go for Dion Jordan in the 1st round at #4 overall and look for a safety in round 2.
What do you guys think the Eagles should do in free agency? Sound off in the comments.
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