Juqua Thomas began his Eagles career as an afterthought. He had been released by the Tennessee Titans and was invited to the Birds' 2005 training camp after it had already started; the team was scrambling in the wake of the serious gunshot wound suffered by Jerome McDougle.
Thomas progressed steadily over the next two seasons, to the point at which the Eagles made locking him into a 5-year deal a top priority when free agency began yesterday. There's an excellent chance the deal has been pending since agent Kennard McGuire met with Eagles officials a week ago at the NFL Scouting Combine. Since he played for the veteran's minimum last season, Thomas couldn't sign with his current team until the free-agency period officially began.
Terms of the contract were not announced, but a source close to the situation said Thomas should average about $3 million a year, and maybe a third of the total is guaranteed - modest compared with some of the deals being given starting defensive ends around the league these days, but not that bad for a guy who has been a situational player throughout his 6-year NFL career. Thomas has started only two NFL games, both for the Eagles. If he becomes a starter, there are escalator clauses, the source said, as there are for sacks, as well.
Thomas might have been the Birds' most consistent defensive lineman down the stretch last season. He finished with six sacks, and added two more in the playoffs.
"I just love the organization, man, I'm proud to be with 'em," Thomas said in a conference call with reporters. "I feel comfortable there. It didn't make sense to go anywhere else . . . The entire time, this was the focus, coming back to Philly."
McGuire downplayed the idea that Thomas might be missing out on a free-agent bonanza.
"There's always been a market for a situational rusher like Juqua, but that market has remained pretty much the same over the past few years," the agent said. "Their system fits him and they utilize him properly."
The Eagles' defensive line hasn't been as effective as it was projected to be the past two seasons, despite the team spending three of its last four first-round picks there and signing defensive ends Jevon Kearse and Darren Howard to expensive, long-term contracts. The Eagles clearly hope signing Thomas and Trent Cole to extended deals, and hoping for better health and performance from Kearse and Howard, will be enough to provide for a solid rotation at defensive end, at least.
"Juqua gives us a lot of options along the defensive line," general manager Tom Heckert said. "He can play either side and even has the ability to play as a stand-up end on certain situations in Jim Johnson's scheme. He has done a real solid job over the last 2 years, and we're happy to have him continue his career in Philadelphia."
The Eagles have no free-agent visits scheduled and are unlikely to be active in the first phase of free agency. Reports indicate quarterback Jeff Garcia, who will not be brought back by the Birds in the wake of their extending A.J. Feeley's deal, is not lacking for suitors, with Oakland, Denver, Tampa Bay and Minnesota all said to be interested. *