The Eagles' decision makers, minus head coach Andy Reid, will fly to Indianapolis this week to watch and listen to the best draft-eligible college football players in the country at the annual scouting combine.
Although many of the elite players opt against going through the workouts at the RCA Dome, the combine is still a worthwhile tool for NFL teams to evaluate future draft picks.
"The physicals are probably the most important thing, and just to meet these guys in person, that's probably the biggest thing we get out of this," Eagles general manager Tom Heckert said yesterday. "You get to see guys move around, especially the small-school guys, so it's definitely worthwhile."
Heckert is in command at this combine because Reid is on a leave of absence while dealing with the much-publicized personal problems of his two eldest sons, Garrett and Britt.
All 60 of the interviews the Eagles will conduct with players at the combine will be taped and available for Reid to watch. The Eagles also will have an opportunity to conduct 30 more interviews at the NovaCare Complex before the draft on April 28-29.
The primary purpose of the combine is to give teams a look at the college kids, but the next nine days are critical from another standpoint as well. That's how much time the Eagles have to negotiate with their own free agents before they hit the open market March 2. Heckert said that what happens in free agency can dictate what a team wants to do in the draft.
"We have plans for a billion different scenarios, whether we get certain guys back or whether we get guys in free agency that we are targeting," Heckert said.
The Eagles have 10 unrestricted free agents, and it seems likely that many of them will be going elsewhere.
"We'd love to have almost all of our guys back, but from a realistic standpoint, that's probably not going to happen," Heckert said.
Most Eagles fans want to see wide receiver Donté Stallworth and quarterback Jeff Garcia return next season, but the team seems to think the price may not be right for either to remain in Philadelphia. One of the obstacles confronting the Eagles during this free-agent season is that they no longer are dealing from a position of strength in terms of salary-cap space.
The Eagles have an estimated $8 million in cap room, which ranks among the bottom third in the league. More than half the teams in the league have twice as much salary-cap room as the Eagles, and Heckert thinks that's going to lead to some crazy spending on the open market.
"Obviously, we never want to overpay for players, but I think there's a common ground you can come to and you can say you're willing to go this high," Heckert said. "But after that, you have to have your options open and move on if you think it's just too out of the price range."
Stallworth, 26, is coming off a season in which he caught 38 passes for 725 yards and five touchdowns during the regular season, then contributed six catches for 141 yards and two touchdowns in two playoff games. He also missed four games with hamstring problems.
"Donté is obviously a young guy that has had some injury concerns," Heckert said. "Realistically, the guy caught 38 balls and it's tough to gauge where that market is."
Heckert is confident that if the Eagles don't get Stallworth back, the team will still have a good enough receiving corps next season.
"Before we traded for Donté, we were kind of thinking that the guys we had before the trade were who we'd go with," Heckert said. "I think it's probably more apparent to us now that those guys can play. With Hank [Baskett] and Jason Avant, they proved that they can play."
With A.J. Feeley on board as a potential backup to Donovan McNabb at quarterback, the Eagles also feel as if they can survive the loss of Garcia if he decides to sign elsewhere and become a starter again. The Eagles would likely go with two quarterbacks or bring in a young player to be the third quarterback if Garcia does leave.
Another position that a lot of Eagles fans would like to see improved for next season is linebacker, but it doesn't appear as if the team is going to be a player in the free-agent market at that position.
"I know the linebackers have taken a lot of heat," Heckert said. "Some guys had up-and-down years. But we think we have players, even guys that aren't starters who possibly could be starters. We're thinking the glass is half-full rather than half-empty."
Jeremiah Trotter will be back at middle linebacker, and the Eagles like the job that Omar Gaither did at weakside linebacker after replacing Matt McCoy in the middle of last season. They also have not given up on McCoy developing into a starting player and are hopeful that last year's third-round pick, Chris Gocong, can push Dhani Jones for the starting job at strongside linebacker in 2007.
"Some guys need to step up their game a little bit and we'll be OK," Heckert said.
It appears as if the two free agents the Eagles would most like to have back next season are backup safety Quintin Mikell and backup defensive end Juqua Thomas. Both were outstanding in reserve roles last season and are considered two of the team's best special-teams players.