Over the weekend I wrote that you shouldn’t expect the Eagles to go nuts with free agent spending. That’s not to say they won’t be players for some top prospects at key positions. I also wrote that the team also believes in making calculated free agent strikes, and I do think they intend to bring in help at cornerback and possibly along the defensive line. But, I don’t think they’ll overpay for some of the big names that have been thrown around.
In my chat last week on Philly.com, there was a lust from some questioners for players like Nnamdi Asomugha, Jason Babin and Reggie Bush. My sense is the Eagles will be looking for younger, slightly less expensive options who they can sign while still maintaining the salary cap flexibility to address multiple needs.
So, who might the Eagles pursue? Here’s a quick look at what I would consider the Birds’ top two needs as we await the start of free agency. These are my thoughts on the positions, and ideas I've shared when asked about them in chats, but are not based on any inside information at this point. If all goes well, teams could start re-signing their own players by Friday and on July 25 begin going after guys on the open market. (UPDATE: Sports Business Journal is now reporting that it could be about a week between the ratification of the CBA and full free agency; teams would get three days to study the new CBA rules and three days to resign their own players before full-blown free agent signings; with an owners' vote expected July 21, that would put free agency's full open around July 27 or 28).
Cornerback: The biggest question for many fans this offseason, and to me the toughest one to answer, is whether the Eagles make a serious play for Asomugha. My instinct has been no – though I’m not totally convinced that I’m right. The arguments for Asomugha are strong: the Eagles biggest need is at cornerback, and he’s one of the best in the game. And if the Eagles are only going to make one massive signing, he’d be the biggest splash possible. (Also there seems to be a local media consensus growing that the Eagles won't pursue Asomugha, which probably means we're all wrong).
These are the reasons for doubt: he would cost so much that it could hamper the Eagles’ ability to bolster their front seven. Also, Asomugha is 30, an age at which the Eagles are reluctant to hand out big deals, and in general the team puts more value on defensive linemen than corners. There’s good evidence that that approach makes sense. I posted earlier this summer that if you look at the top defenses in the NFL, most have one star corner and one solid complement, if that. Many lacked even one star on the corner, and just had two solid players. For the vast majority of top defenses, having one Pro Bowler (like Asante Samuel) and one solid complement is plenty, provided you have a strong front line. I expect that if the Eagles make one big move, it will be on the line, and they’ll look for a nice complementary corner.
Johnathan Joseph of the Bengals would certainly fit that mold. So might Ike Taylor, a veteran Steeler who could provide a physical complement to Samuel. If I had to guess, I’d bet on the Eagles to move for one of these two. (Taylor, 31, would go against the idea of signing young; if the Eagles chased him, I'd think they would try to get him for either a shorter contract or less guaranteed money; we'll see if that means they get outbid).
Defensive line: Here’s where I would expect the Eagles to make their biggest move, and possibly pursue some of the top names on the market. No, not Albert Haynesworth.
Ray Edwards (who is 26) and Charles Johnson (25) are both young and rising. If the Eagles want to upgrade their pass rush, they could do so for years to come with either of these two.
Babin? He’s 31 and 2010 was his only stand out year. The rest of his career has been only mildly productive. I think the Eagles go younger.
The defensive tackle crop is not particularly deep, though Barry Cofield, of the Giants, is a solid name who could help the Eagles get pressure up the middle. The Eagles have many bodies at defensive end – though not many who inspire confidence – so tackle depth might be more important.
If the Birds get either of the corners named above and any of those pass rushers, they will nab some of the top free agents of 2011, even if their names don’t draw the same attention as some of the others tossed about in the vacuum of the NFL lockout.
As we’ve covered here before, there are many hurdles with Haynesworth. He just turned 30 and didn’t seem to want to play all that hard last season. Not to mention the fact that he’s not a free agent and the Redskins probably want to keep him out of Philadelphia.
The wild card in all this is a potential Kevin Kolb trade, which I figure will get done nearly as soon as the trade window opens. If the Eagles can bring back a starting defensive player in the deal, obviously their free agent shopping list changes.
The team will also need to sign a backup quarterback and possibly a second-string running back if Jerome Harrison leaves. Those moves will probably also be less splashy ones - I don't see Reggie Bush coming to Philly to be a backup.
The good news is this: within a week or so, we'll be able to stop speculating, and start writing about who the Eagles actually chase.