The Eagles added a number of key pieces via free agency last season, and it was general manager Howie Roseman’s first opportunity to go after the Chip Kelly-type player. In this space, we’ll take a look at the free agent signings that were on the 53-man roster at some point this year, evaluate their season and speculate on their chances of having an impact in 2014.
CB Bradley Fletcher: B+
Fletcher started 14 games this year for the Eagles, and was probably their most consistent outside corner. He had two interceptions on the season, including a key one against Drew Brees in the playoffs. His ability to track the deep ball (which he did on that play) and adjust is an area where he really excels. He isn’t a speed demon, but a tough physical corner that always seems to be around the ball (Pro Football Reference credits him with 16 pass breakups and two forced fumbles). He won’t be labeled a shutdown corner, but a solid No. 2 guy and sure tackler that should reprise his role as a starter next year. Per his contract, Fletcher also returns as the cheapest defensive back in 2014.
CB Cary Williams: B
Cary “Scones” Williams was the highest paid free agent the Eagles signed (he had an average salary of $5.67 million per year) and started all 16 games this year for Philly. He brought an edge to the defense that was sorely lacking the past couple seasons. Williams is known for his “tough guy” attitude, but generally backs up his trash talking on the field. He isn’t a true No. 1 corner either, but has been a key contributor to a much-improved cornerback unit (59 tackles and three interceptions). The Eagles may look to add depth at cornerback, but Williams also has a pretty good chance of returning as a starter.
CB Analysis: The secondary woes were more a result of the poor play at the safety position, and defensive coordinator Billy Davis probably had to keep his coverages more “vanilla” than he would have liked. With upgraded play at safety next year, the Eagles cornerbacks should find even more success. It will also be interesting to see what Philadelphia decides to do with slot cornerback Brandon Boykin. He could (and probably should) get a shot outside, but the guess here is that he plays one more season in the slot before making the jump. In reality, the Eagles are starting two No. 2 cornerbacks, and an upgrade of Fletcher/Williams certainly wouldn’t hurt. I’d expect Roseman to target someone in the mid or late rounds of the draft.
S Patrick Chung: D
Chung probably ended up as the most disappointing free agent signing, and conceivably the most disappointing player on the team. He was surprisingly the only safety to lock up a starting position at the beginning of the year, only to see his spot taken by rookie Earl Wolff. A knee injury to Wolff was the sole reason Chung was inserted back into the starting lineup.
Chung would consistently blow coverage responsibilities, get himself turned around, and be fooled by play action. There really is no silver lining; he was just bad. Perhaps he never fully recovered from a shoulder injury he sustained early on in the season, and that was a contributing factor to his poor play. Either way, it would be absolutely shocking if he retained his starting position. The Eagles can cut him loose for $3 million, or keep him around for depth purposes.
NT Isaac Sopoaga: D+
Sopoaga lasted eight games in Philadelphia before he was shipped off to New England (along with a 6th round pick), in exchange for the Patriots 5th round pick. It became fairly clear Sopoaga was finished when he only recorded seven tackles in eight games (compare that to Eagles current rookie nose tackle Bennie Logan, who logged 19 tackles and two sacks in nine starts). In fact, he was a healthy scratch for the Pats in their final two games. Sopoaga was most likely a good stop-gap nose tackle for the first half of the season as Logan became more NFL ready, and it will be interesting to see what kind of player the Eagles will grab with that extra 5th round pick in the draft.
LB Connor Barwin: A-
Barwin will never be a “change the game” or elite type player, but he is darn near close to it. He registered seven batted passes on the season, good for first in the NFC and second in the entire NFL. Widely known as the “jack” player, Barwin moves all over the field, and according to Bill Davis, he “makes the scheme go”. He has the ability to rush the passer (five sacks, one forced fumble), drop into coverage (one interception), and is one of the best outside linebackers at setting the edge in the run game.
Barwin has also been instrumental in building the chemistry of the team, including getting the defensive players together outside of the locker room for weekly meals. He is a flat-out high character guy that the Eagles covet and will want to have around for the foreseeable future. Barwin would greatly benefit from a pass-rushing OLB that can really get after the quarterback. Look for the Eagles to add a player in the draft that would complement his abilities, most likely in the first or second round. Barwin is very simply an essential piece to the defense moving forward.
P Donnie Jones: A
“Donnie Football” (as coined by legendary Philly.com beat writer Jimmy Kempski) was arguably the Eagles most important off-season signing. Time and time again, he came up huge in critical spots in games (the 70 yard punt against Washington in Week 11 that pinned the Skins inside the 5-yard line is one that comes to mind). He also had a 56-yard punt against Dallas in Week 17 that led to Brandon Boykin’s game-winning interception. Jones is scheduled to be a free agent again, and it should be an absolute no-brainer to re-sign him. Based on the Eagles current free agents, it wouldn’t surprise me to see him get the franchise tag.
TE James Casey: B-
James Casey was considered one of the better free agents available last season, and many marveled at his versatility and what he would be able to do in a Chip Kelly offense. Kelly described Casey as a “new toy”, but he never really panned out that way. He was primarily utilized as a special teams player, but did, in fact, see a significant increase in offensive snaps during the stretch run of the season for blocking purposes.
Casey was probably the biggest beneficiary (in terms of playing time) of the tweaks Chip made to the running game. He often used Casey as a “sift” blocker that would come across the formation to account for the unblocked edge defender in the zone read. The Eagles essentially paid Casey $4 million in guaranteed money to be a glorified special teams player, and that’s just too much for that type of role. I’d expect Kelly to get a little more creative next season (with three tight end sets) to get Casey more involved in the passing game. Either way, Casey should definitely be back with increased responsibilities next season.
Injured Free Agents
There are two other free agent signings from 2013 that didn’t even see the field this year due to season ending injuries. Wide receiver Arrelious Benn tore his ACL last August, but had previously compiled 59 receptions, 862 yards and five touchdowns in his three-year stint with Tampa Bay. He can’t really be relied on at this point because he never seems to stay healthy (he showed up on the IR list early in the 2012 season as well), but the former 2010 second round pick certainly has potential. Since it seems WR Damaris Johnson won’t work out in Philly, Benn could provide depth at the WR position.
The other injured free agent was linebacker Jason Phillips, a special teams ace for the Carolina Panthers in 2012 when he had a team leading 16 tackles and a forced fumble. Phillips would be a welcome addition to a very mediocre Eagles special teams unit (ranked 25th according to Football Outsiders), and could bolster the inside linebacking corps.
Final Analysis: B-
All in all, the Eagles 2013 free agent class was a mixed bag. The players that graded more positively will continue to remain key pieces to the team moving forward, while some didn’t work out at all. Overall, the jury is still out just because it is unknown what the Eagles will do in the off-season. One reassuring factor for those that did play this year is their ability to stay (relatively) healthy. Barwin, Williams, and Jones played all 17 games, while Casey played 16 and Fletcher 14.