Assessing the free agent market

Stephen Tulloch's experience with the wide-nine defense could make him a good addition to the Eagles. (Duane Burleson/AP)

Now that the smoke has cleared from the end of the franchise tag window and we have a slight breather before the start of free agency, let’s take a look at what the landscape looks like for the Eagles, bearing in mind that there is still time for change before the league’s shopping period officially opens March 13:

Linebacker: All of the big names we’ve heard about for weeks remain in play. Stephen Tulloch and Curtis Lofton are still unsigned. The Lions tagged defensive end Cliff Avril and Atlanta used their tag on cornerback Brent Grimes. The teams, though, still have a window to sign their linebackers, who were important pieces of the defense in each city.

After them, guys such as David Hawthorne and Dan Connor also seem likely to hit the market. Count me among those who think the Eagles would do well to sign a veteran linebacker who can come to the team with fewer question marks than even a first round rookie.

Even if the Eagles sign a free agent, I could still see them going for a young linebacker in the draft who could eventually step in as the veteran ages. London Fletcher, who is up there in age but still productive, might fit that plan well, if he can be had for a relatively short contract.

Bottom line is it looks like there will be linebacker options on the market once free agency begins. The Eagles should take advantage on the open market, in the draft, or through both.  

Wide receiver: The opposite scenario looms at wide receiver, where a potentially star-studded crop of free agents was significantly trimmed. This only becomes a priority position if all the nice talk about wanting DeSean Jackson for the long-term and his wanting to be in Philadelphia for a long time turns out to be just talk. But the movement around the league could impact Jackson and the Birds.

Vincent Jackson is the biggest name available, followed by Marques Colston, but Wes Welker and Dwayne Bowe were both franchised. That means teams looking for wide receiver help have fewer options and maybe the limited choices will entice someone into offering a good package for Jackson. On the other hand, if the Eagles unload Jackson for draft picks, they will have fewer options to choose from as a replacement.

Running back: As others have pointed out, the Eagles’ dance with DeSean could have implications for LeSean McCoy if the team can’t lock up their talented running back by the end of this coming season. Say DeSean plays this year under the franchise tag (a real possibility) and for whatever reason the Eagles don’t ink McCoy. Then they’ll head into next offseason with two young offensive weapons at the end of their contracts and only one franchise tag to use to keep them from hitting the open market and driving up their prices. The obvious play then (based on recent performance) is to ensure you keep McCoy, but then the team would have to let DeSean walk for nothing, which is exactly what they wanted to avoid this year.

The Eagles would be smart to avoid that dilemma by signing McCoy before we reach that point. Just because McCoy and Jackson have the same agent and face similar scenarios (young, talented offensive weapons taken in the second round and currently underpaid) it shouldn’t be as hard to do a deal with McCoy. First, he has fewer red flags and question marks than DeSean. Shady has improved every season, has answered any durability question you can ask, and has never caused any public headaches. You don’t need to make any oblique arguments in his favor such as “he opens things up for other people” or “he doesn’t have the numbers, but he has an impact.” No. Shady has an impact and the numbers both and it’s all plain to see.

Second, unlike DeSean, who, you’ve heard a million times, has a unique skill set, there are comparable young running backs to measure McCoy against. Arian Foster is 25 and coming off of two monster seasons running and receiving. He got a five year, $43.5 million deal. Ray Rice is also 25 and has had three big years as a dual threat. He got the franchise tag, but the Ravens will obviously try to get him locked up long term. Once that happens, the rest of the math should be easy: look at the going rate for a young, star running back, and pay it to Shady. There’s no question about his standing in the game or how much he’s really worth to the Eagles on the field. A deal should be straight forward, if both sides act reasonably.

Safety: The Eagles still believe in Nate Allen and hope in year three he will really show what they think he can do. He’s your starter heading into the season. It’s also highly unlikely that they give up on second round pick Jaiquawn Jarrett after just one year, so he’ll get a chance and the question becomes whether you add a veteran to the mix just in case. The pickings here are slim, though. Michael Griffin, Dashon Goldson and Tyvon Branch have all been hit with the franchise tag and Thomas DeCoud just resigned with Atlanta. LaRon Landry is left to headline the free agent class, but it seems the Eagles attack him – and burn him -- every time they play the Redskins. Not exactly a sign of respect.

After that you’ve got guys like Brodney Pool and Dwight Lowery, as Jeff recently wrote, but are any of those type of guys really that much of an upgrade over Kurt Coleman?