With the combine over, Eagles' attention shifts to roster changes | Early Birds

Good morning, Eagles fans. I’m writing this newsletter during the week between the combine and the start of free agency. Get ready for a busy period on the offseason schedule. The roster will undergo some notable changes during the next 10 days. Follow along on Philly.com for the latest updates as the Eagles make cost-cutting moves before adding to their roster.

This is the fourth offseason edition of the Early Birds newsletter, which will come every Wednesday for the next few months. If your friends haven’t subscribed to Early Birds, it’s free to sign up here. I want to know what you think, what we should add, and what you want to read, so send me feedback by email or on Twitter @ZBerm. Thank you for reading.

— Zach Berman

Camera icon David Maialetti / File Photograph
Nigel Bradham (53) is the most notable of the Eagles’ pending free agents.

Prepare for the most activity of the offseason

There were two prevailing thoughts I had after speaking with Howie Roseman at the combine last week:

  • The Eagles don’t plan to maintain the status quo after winning the Super Bowl.
  • The Eagles plan to lose many of their pending free agents.

Few would blame the Eagles if they tried to preserve what they had last year. Roseman kept insisting that the Eagles need to find creative ways to improve — this isn’t a shocker; most executives say such things — and admitted he must be careful not to let sentimentality get in the way of transactions. (He’ll be tested with Brent Celek’s contract.) When Roseman was asked about re-signing Nigel Bradham, he noted that the Eagles cannot empty the vault. Bradham is the most notable of the Eagles’ 14 pending free agents.

Don’t expect a roster overhaul or even activity that compares to recent offseasons. But I wouldn’t expect them to be silent, either. The Eagles know the value of role players in roster building, and they could lose key role players such as Trey Burton, Beau Allen, Patrick Robinson, Corey Graham, and LeGarrette Blount. It’s not out of the question that they sign a few back to the roster, but if they’re priced out on their free agents, they might choose for veteran replacements instead of waiting for the draft or focusing entirely on internal options.

Something else that was clear was that the Eagles want to upgrade special teams. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Eagles made moves similar to 2014, when they brought in players like Chris Maragos, Darren Sproles, Bryan Braman, and Nolan Carroll with hopes of improving that unit, especially if they lose Burton, who has been one of their best special teams players for the past four years.

Relive the Eagles’ Super Bowl championship season with our limited edition commemorative book

Don’t fret about the salary cap

Yes, the Eagles are about $10 million above the NFL’s salary cap entering next week. But I won’t sound the alarm about it. The Eagles entered the last two offseasons tight against the salary cap, and they found ways to navigate it. Roseman and Jake Rosenberg, the Eagles’ director of football administration, have planned for this. They didn’t wake up the morning of the Super Bowl and realize what the 2018 payroll will be. The Eagles will renegotiate some deals and get out of others.

“We had anticipated what was going to go on in this offseason certainly last year,” Roseman said last week. “Some of the moves we made were with that in mind. From our perspective, we attempted to look at the free-agent classes over a two-year period and felt like we would try to balance where our resources would go.”

This doesn’t mean the Eagles will be big spenders. Look around the NFL: There are seven teams with more than $60 million of cap space. But the Eagles don’t need to be big spenders because there are no glaring holes to address, such as wide receiver last year. My guess is their activity will be more on the margins, and I think they’ll be able to make those moves.

By the way, that does not mean the Eagles sit out the first week of free agency. I asked Roseman whether, at this point in the building of the roster, the Eagles won’t pursue Day 1 free agents. He said that because of the legal tampering period, those signings are not always the marquee players on expensive contracts. There could be targeted signings at relatively low costs that are made on Day 1. One example was Chance Warmack last March.

Prospects to remember

With the Eagles picking No. 32 in the draft and possibly trading back to acquire more picks, it’s hard to pinpoint realistic candidates for their first-round pick. But for the sake of the newsletter, there were a few players who could be taken in that area who seemed to help themselves at the combine. Here are three:

  • Leighton Vander Esch, Boise State: The 6-foot-4, 256-pound linebacker ran a 4.65-second 40-yard dash with a 4.15-second 20-yard shuttle and a 39.5-inch vertical leap. Those athletic numbers were impressive, and they go along with notable college production — he was the Mountain West defensive player of the year. Vander Esch is the type of player who could find a role on defense and on special teams if he fell to the Eagles.
  • Da’Ron Payne, Alabama: I don’t know whether Payne slips to the Eagles, especially with the way the Alabama defensive tackle performed in Indianapolis. He ran a 4.95 40 at 311 pounds with a 1.67 10-yard split. (The Eagles value that second number for defensive linemen.) The Eagles prioritize building along the lines and need a third defensive tackle next season; Payne helps against the run and has pass-rush potential.
  • Mike Gesicki, Penn State: It might be a stretch to think Gesicki could go in the first round, but it’s hard to find a tight end with his athletic numbers. Gesicki, who is 6-5 and 247 pounds, was the top tight end in just about every category — 40 (4.54 seconds), vertical leap (41.5), broad jump (10 feet, 9 inches), three-cone drill (6.76 seconds), 20-yard shuttle (4.1 seconds), and 60-yard shuttle (11.33 seconds). And it’s not like he’s just a combine standout: He had 57 catches for 563 yards and nine touchdowns last season. The Eagles might need a second tight end to pair with Zach Ertz. Gesicki and Ertz would give the Eagles dangerous receiving options in two-tight end sets.
Camera icon Chris Knight / AP File
Penn State’s Mike Gesicki posted impressive performances at the combine.

What you need to know about the Eagles


 From the mailbag

I wouldn’t rule it out, but I think the Eagles owe it to Jalen Mills — and themselves — to see how Mills develops as a cornerback. He improved from Year 1 to Year 2. The Eagles don’t need Mills at safety right now. He’s proven that he’s a starting-caliber cornerback in the NFL. The question this season might be whether he needs to play the slot. It’s something he did in college, although it’s a different story in the NFL. Mills is the type of player who could have a second life in the NFL at safety, if needed. For now, I think he stays at cornerback.

I think the Eagles will be active adjusting contracts — and unloading contracts, if necessary — because that will be the only way to be salary-cap-compliant. But I don’t think it will be all that difficult, and it’s something they expected. If you’re asking how active the Eagles will be this offseason, my answer is less active than usual and more active than many think. They’ll have a hard time competing for big-money players because other teams have significantly more cap space. Frankly, I don’t think those are the players they need, so it shouldn’t be a concern. But I can see them going after players on one-year, show-me deals or veterans signing low-money contracts for defined roles and a chance to win. Also, you can never rule out Howie Roseman scanning the trade market. My guess is they’ll find creative ways to upgrade the roster, but they won’t stand pat.

Good question, and I don’t have a firm answer for it. I think losing Nigel Bradham would be a big loss, but that’s the reality of the NFL. The Eagles need two high-level linebackers. If Jordan Hicks is healthy and Mychal Kendricks is healthy and plays as he did last season, the Eagles will be fine at that position. But that’s not a given. Depending how the draft falls, I can see the Eagles adding a linebacker early. They have a long-term need for a starting-caliber player there. It’s a position they haven’t addressed early in the draft in recent years. It’s a good time to take one if the market is right. I also think they can examine the trade market. But if they’re going to invest money in the free-agent market, they might as well pay for Bradham. So I think they draft and/or trade for someone if Bradham leaves. If Bradham stays, I can see the Eagles trying to move Kendricks and addressing the third linebacker in the draft.