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Eagles Free Agency: Splash or Save?-Safeties

Dec 22, 2013; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Eagles safety Patrick Chung (23) celebrates with safety Nate Allen (29) during the second quarter at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

While the Eagles front office has been relatively quiet since the end of the 2013 season, a fair amount has been made of the team’s approach to the rapidly approaching free agency period. General Manager Howie Roseman has made it clear, on multiple occasions, that the organization will treat the signing of new players with as much scrutiny and attention to detail as every other aspect of running the franchise.

For teams with competent general managers, this approach should come as no surprise. Supplementing through free agency is one of the most important areas of personnel management in the NFL and one cannot help guide their team to the upper-tier of the league without a savvy eye for talent and an ability to construct deals within the confines of the league’s collective bargaining agreement. As far as Roseman goes, the jury is still out on the young Eagles GM. On one hand, Howie appears to share the same expertise of Joe Banner in terms of cap management and assuring the team is in a position where they can be flexible on a yearly basis. Entering the 2014 offseason, the Eagles have the 10th most salary cap space in the NFL and given the success of last season, this is an accomplishment.

Conversely, regarding Roseman, the team’s front office must continue to prove they can continue to pull the right strings as far as player evaluation and acquisition. There were hits and misses last offseason, but for the most part the Eagles came away with a successful haul between free agency and the draft. According to owner Jeff Lurie, Roseman was heading up the 2012 and 2013 drafts as well, both seen as potentially franchise-defining hauls.

For as bright as things are looking for the Eagles moving forward, the worst thing they can do is hitch their wagon to last season and rest on their laurels. Make no mistake, their economical approach to free agents around this time last year is commendable. That being said, for all of the money the team was able to save doing so, they still missed on a few of their targets. Free agency is an inexact science and, as the Eagles have shown in particularly, a bad collection of signings can derail any progress as far as building a contender goes.

Hearing Roseman emphasize caution going into free agency, while probably the smart thing to say from his standpoint, is not necessarily the best approach. The Eagles have to be able to put the 2011 offseason behind them and show they are not afraid to bid on high-profile targets. They key for them is knowing which areas they want to allocate resources to and which ones they feel they can take a more economic approach, like they did last year. In 2013, the Eagles were a total reclamation project and trying to add one or two big-ticket free agents probably would not have proved as beneficial as the multiple solid players the team did bring in. 2014 is different, however. The Eagles look to be knocking on the door of being a legitimate contender and, while keeping an eye on the future is important, being aggressive in free agency has to be a part of that.

This article will be the first of several that break down each position on the Eagles depth chart and what their approach in free agency should be towards it. Making a ‘splash’ on a player or choosing to ‘save’ on that position should not necessarily indicate how important it is or how strong the team is at that slot. There are certain areas on the football field that bringing in a high-priced option does not throw off the chemistry of the team. However, and recent history has shown this, there are other positions where homegrown options have consistently proven to be the ideal path. There’s something to be said for the franchise that is able to bring in solid upgrades at certain positions while they wait on draft picks to develop or a time where a more desirable option presents itself. I’m sure the Eagles did not look at Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher and say, “These two will be our franchise cornerbacks for the next five years.” Instead, they saw two players who, at a favorable price, could do what they were asked of and help the Eagles defense make noticeable strides in 2013. It’s yet to be determined what role either Williams or Fletcher will hold moving forward, but both were huge improvements off the high-priced players starting at cornerback for Philadelphia in 2012. Free agency is a game within the game and knowing when to ‘splash’ vs. knowing when to ‘save’ is just as important, if not more, than being able to sign the biggest check

***NOTE: All players mentioned will be of the ‘Unrestricted Free Agent’ Variety***

Jan 4, 2014; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Eagles safety Patrick Chung (23) sits on the bench after the game against the New Orleans Saints during the 2013 NFC wild card playoff football game at Lincoln Financial Field. The Saints defeated the Eagles 26-24. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

2013 POSITION REVIEW: Once again, the safety position was a point of criticism for the Eagles in 2013. After acquiring him as one of their free agent additions last offseason, former 2nd round pick Patrick Chung was among the most frustrating players on the team. He was constantly out of position and often exacerbated things when he attempted to make up for poor coverage and tackling. Nate Allen was solid, albeit unspectacular. He did enough to escape being the team’s top scapegoat, an honor bestowed to Chung, and turned in his best full season as a pro. Earl Wolff, the team’s 5th round pick in 2013, flashed potential when he was on the field but injuries made him far from a sure thing. Kurt Coleman, Colt Anderson, and Keelan Johnson did very little outside of special teams play.

Allen, Anderson, and Coleman are all set to become free agents. Allen could probably be a cheap option, if he wants to stay in Philadelphia. One has to wonder if a change of scenery could help him recapture the potential he showed before being injured his rookie year. Chung will most likely be cut and the team will eat the approximately $2 million cap penalty to rid themselves of a player that took more of his teammates out of the play than opposing offenses did. Wolff is still a potential surprise at a favorable price tag, but is by no means expected to enter camp as the undoubted starter at the position.

NOTABLE ‘SPLASH’ OPTIONS: Jairus Byrd (BUF), T.J. Ward (CLE), Donte Whitner (SF)

NOTABLE ‘SAVE’ OPTIONS: James Ihedigbo (BAL), Chris Clemons (MIA), Antoine Bethea (IND), Charles Woodson (OAK), Bernard Pollard (TEN), Malcolm Jenkins (NO), Mike Mitchell (CAR)

When it is all said and done, fans will probably be most up in arms about the team breaking the bank on a safety. For all the griping about letting Dawkins go and not drafting Earl Thomas, the team has made it known that they are emphasizing the safety position with a new level of intensity going forward.

Dec 22, 2013; Orchard Park, NY, USA; Buffalo Bills free safety Jairus Byrd (31) takes to the field before a game against the Miami Dolphins at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

All of the ‘splash’ options, especially Byrd and Ward, seem to be ideal matches for a team starving for help at the position. Both players attended Oregon while Chip Kelly was coaching there. They are both just finishing up with their first NFL deal and have plenty of football ahead of them. Both players, and Whitner to a certain extent, have an impressive all-around game and have shown consistency throughout their short career.

Last year, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed Dashon Goldson, another former 49ers safety, to a five-year/$41.5 million deal. Due to it being a year later, one would have to expect the number for either Ward or Byrd to be somewhere in this department. In Goldson’s first year as a Buc, he carried a $9 million cap number with him. If Byrd or Ward were to be somewhere in this area, they would represent almost half of the Eagles projected cap space for the 2014 season.

As far as some of the more low-key options, the crop is a mixed bag. There are players similar to Byrd and Ward who, despite being young, apparently did not do enough for their organization to warrant a long-term extension worthy of their desired price tag. Then, there are some older players who have already played through contracts and are now seen as more of the one-year, fill-in options.

Dec 8, 2013; New Orleans, LA, USA; Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) carries the ball in front of New Orleans Saints free safety Malcolm Jenkins (27) in the first quarter at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Sports

The Eagles could be without a player worthy of a starting safety position within a matter of a few weeks. Chung, Allen, and Wolff are the only players who have shown they can do enough to stay on the field in a starting capacity and its likely that at least one of Allen and Chung will be playing elsewhere next year. The 2014 Draft class is fairly deep at the safety position, so this will certainly impact what the team does in terms of free agents. If they have already decided they will take a safety in the first few rounds, a strategy that goes against their ‘best player available’ approach, they most likely would not make a major expenditure on someone like Ward or Byrd.

Recently, CSNPhilly.com’s Reuben Frank spoke with Howie Roseman and penned an article documenting the nature of their conversation. The GM indicated quite clearly that the position is one of priority, but the following series of quotes sheds some light on how the Eagles value pursuing safeties via free agency.

“I think, ideally, you don’t want to go into the draft with a huge hole, because that puts you more susceptible to forcing things or kind of pushing guys up…Even if you’re not doing it naturally, it just happens because you look at the depth chart and you go, ‘I don’t have someone at that position. Who’s in the draft?…I don’t think that’s what we’d like to do, ideally. I think we’d like to go into the draft like we have the last two years, with a clean slate [and an] open mind. Whoever’s going to be there, we’re gonna stick to our board, and even if it’s a position where it looks like we have a lot of depth, in a year or two it may not be the same way.”

This philosophy fully supports the organization’s commitment to selecting the best player available in the draft. Last offseason, the team signed players like James Casey and Isaac Sopoaga only to draft players at the same position months later. The Eagles had nothing against either of their free agent pickups, but felt Zach Ertz and Bennie Logan were the top target on their draft board when their selections came around.

VERDICT: SAVE

Dec 8, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery (89) is tackled after a pass reception by Miami Dolphins strong safety Chris Clemons (30) during the second quarter at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

This decision might disappoint Eagles fans, who are still clamoring for a prolific safety, but all signs seem to be pointing in this direction. Ultimately, there are a few players on the ‘save’ list who might end up being close to as effective as Ward, Byrd, or Whitner and will be had for a fraction of the cost. My expectations are, given the fact that the team will most likely have to add multiple safeties, the Eagles will opt for one of the younger options coming off their rookie contract. Teams pining for a safety in free agency are fortunate this offseason, given the quality of some of the secondary options. Especially Jenkins, Mitchell, and Clemons look like players who could end up being potential long-term fixtures at a nice price. The Saints and Panthers are not in the best salary cap positions and the Dolphins just committed big money to Clemons’ counterpart, Rashad Jones. Bethea continues to be a dependable player who is finishing up a eight-year stint with the Colts. Even Ihedigbo and Pollard, players in their late 20s, are still considerably more effective options than Chung on the back-end.

Ultimately, while I do think the Eagles will make at least one ‘splash’ by the time free agency is all said and done, I don’t think this is the area will they will do so. The talent discrepancy between the second-tier options and the players at the top of the list is too close and the Eagles are too far off to have one player make the difference. I would have no issue with the team hanging on to Nate Allen and Earl Wolff is not going anywhere. However, this team is focused on fostering inter-squad competition and throwing a huge number at an individual works against that mindset. Byrd especially seems intent on getting paid and, especially in the case of a player like Clemons, a player with more on his mind than dollar signs should be how the team goes about improving the safety position.

Topics: Chris Clemons, Donte Whitner, Football, Howie Roseman, Jairus Byrd, James Ihedigbo, Malcolm Jenkins, Mike Mitchell, Nate Allen, NFL, Patrick Chung, Philadelphia Eagles, T.j. Ward

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