INDIANAPOLIS - The NFL's free-agent season opens Friday, and to the fans of a certain football team desperate for an elusive Super Bowl title, this means that the missing links are about to be available for the right price.
We're talking, of course, about the Eagles, a team with a fascinating free-agent history, albeit not always an eventful one. With another chapter about to unfold, it's important to remember two things: This isn't a great free-agent class, and the Eagles have less salary-cap room than two-thirds of the teams in the league.
They also have a philosophy that has worked well for them.
"I think it's really clear that the right strategy - and I don't say this as an absolute rule - is to draft really well, keep your own players, and find selective situations" to sign free agents, Eagles president Joe Banner said Friday at the NFL Scouting Combine. "You don't try to win a Super Bowl through free agency. You supplement a well-put-together quality team with some free agents."
One of the Eagles' greatest strengths in free agency in the past has been making decisions about their own free agents. In most instances during Andy Reid's tenure as head coach and chief decision maker, they have made the right calls in that department.
Fans weren't happy when the Eagles let Hugh Douglas, Corey Simon and Duce Staley walk away, but none of those decisions came back to haunt them. Jeremiah Trotter might have been able to help the Eagles in the 2002 NFC championship loss against Tampa Bay, but the sting of that decision would have been far worse if Trotter had helped turn around the moribund Washington Redskins.
If the Eagles let wide receiver Donté Stallworth and quarterback Jeff Garcia walk away, those decisions will likely be every bit as unpopular as the ones mentioned above. Time will tell whether they'll be similarly as harmless to the team's long-running success.
The only truly obvious mistake the Eagles have made in dealing with their own free agents in the last eight years was the decision not to re-sign defensive end Derrick Burgess, who has gone on to register 27 sacks and become the only Pro Bowl representative for the awful Oakland Raiders the last two seasons.
Anyway, the Eagles have more decisions to make about how to proceed in this free-agent market, including what to do with 11 of their own players. Some of those decisions have already been made. Others will be made as the free-agent process unfolds.
The Eagles also must decide whom they want to pursue from the outside, an area in which they have had mixed results during the Reid era. Offensive tackle Jon Runyan was the first big free-agent signing the Eagles made with Reid in charge, and he probably remains the best one. Along the way, they've also signed such players as Jevon Kearse, Carlos Emmons, Nate Wayne, James Thrash, N.D. Kalu and Shawn Barber.
Now it's time to formulate the roster for another season. With every starter except Stallworth expected back next season, the Eagles don't figure to be overly active in this free-agent market.
Here's a position-by-position educated guess at how the Eagles might view free agency:
Quarterback. The decision here is obviously whether to re-sign Jeff Garcia, who led the team to the playoffs last season after Donovan McNabb was lost to a midseason injury for the second straight year. The Eagles want Garcia back, but with A.J. Feeley signed for another season and a viable option as a backup, they're not going to overpay to keep him. If the Eagles don't re-sign Garcia, they're likely to add a young quarterback in the draft.
Running back. Brian Westbrook proved in the second half of last season that he could carry a heavy load and be the focal point of a balanced offense. Correll Buckhalter did a solid job in the No. 2 role after returning from a severe knee injury that kept him out for two straight seasons. Buckhalter will test the free-agent market, and the Eagles will probably try to find his replacement from a second-tier group of free-agent running backs like Miami's Sammy Morris, Tennessee's Chris Brown, Houston's Ron Dayne, and Pittsburgh's Najeh Davenport. It's possible Buckhalter could return if the Eagles decide he's their best option as Westbrook's understudy after reviewing the list of other candidates.
Wide receiver. It's no secret that most Eagles fans want Stallworth back as the team's speed receiver. At this point, it's obvious Stallworth is going to see what's on the open market. It would be mildly surprising if he didn't give the Eagles an opportunity to make him an offer at some point in the process, but the team has not held any negotiations with Stallworth's agent, Drew Rosenhaus. It's a weak group of wide receivers on this year's market, which is one reason a lot of people think Stallworth could land a huge contract elsewhere. An interesting player among the free agents is Dallas' Patrick Crayton.
Tight end. L.J. Smith can be a free agent after next season, and he's better than any of the free-agent tight ends in this year's class. If the Eagles are looking for a tight end to replace Smith, the answer is in the draft, not this free-agent class.
Offensive line. The Eagles don't need help in this department.
Defensive line. The Eagles know they need their defensive tackles to play better next season. They still believe that Mike Patterson and Brodrick Bunkley, the team's last two No. 1 draft picks, can solve the problem. With Darwin Walker, Sam Rayburn and LaJuan Ramsey also returning, they probably won't look for help in free agency.
For the first time in five years, it appears as if the Eagles will also shy away from trying to find help at defensive end. They're going to re-sign Juqua Thomas, and he'll be part of a rotation that includes Trent Cole, Jevon Kearse and Darren Howard with Jerome McDougle possibly hanging around as the fifth defensive end.
Linebacker. This position may have been the Eagles' biggest weakness on defense last season, but the answer to their problems probably isn't in free agency. Baltimore's Adalius Thomas is the best of the free-agent crop, but he's going to command a lot of attention, and it seems likely that he'll sign with a team that runs a 3-4 defensive scheme similar to the one in which he's had so much success over the last two seasons. Indianapolis' Cato June is also available, but he's an undersized outside linebacker on a team that, like the Eagles, struggled to stop the run last season.
Secondary. The Eagles need help in the depth department because they could lose four free agents. Safety Michael Lewis and cornerback Rod Hood will not return. The Eagles want safety Quintin Mikell back and will probably try to get him re-signed before Friday. Cornerback Will James also could get a decent offer to return as the nickel cornerback. This is an area that the Eagles will likely address on the first day of the draft rather than in free agency.
How should the Eagles approach free agency? Who would be a perfect fit in Philadelphia? Have your say at http://go.philly.com/eaglesforum.EndText