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Eagles Will Play It Safe(ty) in Free Agency
I get it. The Eagles don't want to get "Nnamdi-ed" again.
If you'll remember, the Eagles paid free agent defensive back Nnamdi Asomugha a ridiculous amount of money to sign with "The Dream Team" in 2011 and that ended in disaster when Asomugha turned out to be a complete bust. Nnamdi couldn't play at all (or maybe just didn't want to play after getting paid) and the Eagles offseason of signing big name free agents was a colossal failure.
Maybe that's why Eagles GM Howie Roseman sounds reluctant to sign any of the free agent safeties who are available on the free agent market, starting on March 11.
We all know that the biggest hole on the Eagles roster is at the safety position. The only safety from last season that is sure to return is 2013 fifth round draft pick Earl Wolff. Maybe 2010 second rounder, Nate Allen returns as a backup. Kurt Coleman and Colt Anderson are nothing but special teamers and the Patrick Chung experiment was an abject failure.
The two top safeties in the draft are Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix and Calvin Pryor, but there is no guarantee that either one will still be available when the Eagles pick at No. 22. Plus, the NFL Draft isn't until May 8, this year. Yes, I know the Eagles haven't drafted a good safety since Ray Rhodes took Brian Dawkins in the second round in 1996, but the safety cupboard is bare on this roster. The Eagles can't ignore the position or sign another Chung-type nobody.
The good news is that the two top safeties on the free agent market were not hit with the franchise tag by their teams. Buffalo's Jairus Byrd and Cleveland's T.J. Ward are widely considered to be the class of this free agent safety crop and both are free to negotiate with teams starting on March 8. Personally, I think the Eagles need to seriously consider signing one of them.
Byrd reportedly wants to become the NFL's highest paid safety and some team might just make that a reality. KC's Eric Berry is currently the highest paid safety at $8.4 million per year and Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu is second at $8.25 million. Is Byrd better than those two? It's debatable, but he's the one who is set to cash in on free agency this offseason and that's all that matters. Byrd has been compared to Seattle's Earl Thomas (who should have been an Eagle...Damn you, Andy Reid), who will make $4.6 million in 2014, the last year of his current deal. Byrd is a three-time Pro Bowler and has 22 interceptions in 73 games over five seasons, which is the most for any safety over that time period. Is he worth $8.5 million per year on a multi-year contract? Maybe. Maybe not. But keep in mind that Roseman paid Chung $3.25 million last season.
While it has been reported locally that Byrd has a connection with Eagles head coach Chip Kelly from their time together at Oregon, you can't discount Byrd's connection with new Cleveland Browns head coach Mike Pettine. Pettine was Byrd's defensive coordinator last year in Buffalo and the Browns did not place the franchise tag on Ward. Maybe that's because Cleveland is targeting Byrd in free agency.
Which Free Agent Safety Should the Eagles Sign?
While Byrd is considered a great pass defender, Ward is considered more of the hard-hitting strong safety type. As a matter of fact, Pro Football Focus rated Ward as the NFL's third-best safety overall and the best against the run. In today's NFL, there is a premium on safeties who can cover, while hard hitting is being legislated out of the game in the form of ridiculous fines for legitimate hits. Still, Ward would be a massive upgrade over the garbage the Eagles had at safety last season. It's just that his game might be too similar to Wolff's style of play.
The same thing could be said about 49ers safety Donte Whitner, who is also a free agent. He will come much cheaper than either Byrd or Ward, but he is also older at 29. Whitner would be a fan favorite in Philly, but if he wants to get paid among the top safeties in the NFL, I'm guessing the Eagles will look elsewhere.
Other, more affordable, safety options available in free agency are guys like Miami's Chris Clemons, New Orleans' Malcolm Jenkins and Indianapolis' Antoine Bethea. These are the guys Rosemen is talking about when he says he is looking for more economical upgrades over blockbuster free agent signings. Not household names, but good players and definite upgrades for the Eagles. They are a step below Byrd, Ward and Whitner in talent, but that just means they can be signed for a reasonable price. If the Eagles sign Clemens, expect to see stories about how the Eagles passed on drafting him back in 2009 in the fifth round when they chose Macho Harris instead. Thanks again, Andy
Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix Draft Profile
If either Clinton-Dix or Pryor are still on the board when the Eagles draft, they would be stupid not to take them. I don't care what Roseman says about taking the best available athlete. This team needs to fill their defensive holes through the draft. The problem is that there is no way of knowing if either will still be there when the Eagles draft at No. 22 and there is a serious drop-off in talent after those two. That means the Eagles absolutely must sign a safety in free agency.
The Eagles have spent tens of millions of dollars re-signing their own players on the offensive side of the ball this offseason, but in the NFL, you have to let the other team have the ball every once in a while. That means the Eagles will need to put 11 players on the field to play defense and they currently don't have 11 players on this roster that are good enough to stop anybody.
The Eagles still have plenty of money left under the NFL's salary cap, though. They not only have about $9 million left under this year's cap, but they also have $17 million available to roll over from last season. The cap is a complicated thing, so I'm trusting that the good folks at Sportrac.com have this correct.
What that means is that the Eagles can sign Byrd if they want to. I just don't think they will. I expect Roseman to follow his blueprint from last season, when he signed second-tier free agents like Cary Williams, Bradley Fletcher and Connor Barwin, all of whom made valuable contributions to the team. Signing Chung and Isaac Sopoaga were disasters, but free agency is a crap shoot, so I'll give Howie a break on those.
I'm guessing the Eagles will sign someone like Clemens, Jenkins or Bethea and draft a safety. They'll bring back Allen and Wolff and most likely either Coleman or Anderson as a core special teams guy and emergency backup safety.
Don't forget, the fans were excited about all the big name free agents the Eagles signed for the "Dream Team" and look how that turned out. That isn't exciting, but building a winning team in the NFL isn't always exciting.