We are about one month away from the 2014 free agency period in the NFL, and it is as anticipated an offseason as the Philadelphia Eagles have seen in nearly a decade. In his first year at the helm, head coach Chip Kelly has laid a foundation for success, finding a potential franchise quarterback, a solid defensive coordinator, and a number of effective ways to utilize his top offensive weapons like running back LeSean McCoy and wide receiver DeSean Jackson.
The Eagles finished 2013 at 10-6, winning the NFC East and falling to the New Orleans Saints in the Wild Card round of the playoffs. Considering the end of the 2012 season and the personnel on the defensive side of the ball, it was an impressive turnaround.
Now the Eagles will look towards free agency (and the draft in May) to build on this foundation. Many analysts and fans expect the Eagles to focus on the defensive side of the ball. With only the wide receiver position a true need beyond depth on the offensive side of the ball, this is not without merit. The Eagles may go after more offensive talent than speculated, but there will no doubt be upgrades on defense. And there has been no more talked about position than safety.
First, it’s important to note that a lot of Eagles fans overvalue the safety position. Part of this is because the team was led for so many years by All-Pro free safety Brian Dawkins, and part of this is because the team’s play at the position has been so bad since Dawkins left. But safeties are not the most important position on the defense. I’ve seen it argued that improved safety play will make things easier on other player on defense, and while that’s true, it’s also true of every position on defense.
But the bottom line is that it is the least valued defensive position. Safeties make less money than every player on defense. This is a reflection of the value NFL teams place on the position. The franchise tag number for the safety position (calculated by the average of the top five paid players at each position) in 2013 was $6.916 million, nearly $2 million less than the next lowest defensive tag number.
So the idea that the Eagles need a superstar at safety is not exactly true. It would certainly help, but it is more important to get top talent at outside linebacker and cornerback than it is at safety.
What has warped this discussion, as previously mentioned, has been how bad the Eagles have been at safety in recent years. Free safety Nate Allen struggled in 2011 and 2012 as the Eagles defense was in turmoil from top to bottom, and players like Patrick Chung, Kurt Coleman and Jaiquawn Jarrett have left Eagles fans fuming over the lack of talent at the position.
There is no doubt that the position will look different in 2014. Allen is a free agent, Chung is a borderline lock to be released, and Coleman is likely gone too. Second-year man Earl Wolff will look to remain healthy through camp and compete for a starting spot, and Allen may be back after a bounce-back campaign in 2013. But only Wolff’s spot on the team really seems guaranteed this year.
This means that there is a strong chance that the Eagles bring in multiple new players in this offseason. Ideally, Wolff can continue to develop as a depth player, the “third safety” so to speak, with special teamer Colt Anderson as the fourth safety. This would require two new players at the safety position or the re-signing of Allen.
Bringing Allen back is an option. Allen seemed much more comfortable in 2013 under Davis and was, after a rough start to the season, quite serviceable. He was not the issue, and bringing him back would likely be a cheap option that allows the team to spend money at other positions like linebacker.
If not, the team’s hand is a bit forced to take some action in free agency. At the top of the heap are Jairus Byrd and T.J. Ward. Ward is likely to remain in Cleveland with a franchise tag, so he is unlikely to be an option for the Eagles. And Byrd is one of the top players at a position of need for many teams, and it’s hard to imagine the Eagles getting into a bidding war for him with a number of other needs on the roster.
It’s more likely that the team would take an approach similar to the one they took at cornerback last season, signing a mid-level free agent instead. Miami Dolphins safety Chris Clemons is a potential option and certainly an example that reminds of the Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher moves of 2013. It seems likely that the team will also spend a draft pick on a safety, but things with that will become clearer after the free agency period has run its course.
While improving at the safety position is important, the Eagles don’t need to overpay for someone like Byrd or draft the top safety available in the first round to field a quality defense in 2014. If the obvious weaknesses are filled in and youth and depth is added, the Eagles will continue to improve as a whole.