Being a Philadelphia Eagles fan means rarely being surprised by anything. It means having a greater patience for emotional and often illogical arguments about the state of the franchise, and it generally means expecting the worst from everyone, from the front office to the players to the fans themselves.
Understanding all of that, I’ve still found myself surprised by the gut reactions from Eagles fans so far in the free agency period of 2014. They’ve abandoned nearly all optimism from 2013 by decrying the lack of big-name signings on the defensive side of the ball. With big names like Jairus Byrd, DeMarcus Ware and Darrelle Revis available, many Eagles fans and commentators talked themselves into the Eagles as big-time buyers in this offseason. But the positions and money never worked, and the Eagles have had a relatively quiet first two days.
Flash isn’t worth any wins, but there is something to be said for a team that can fill a hole in free agency with the right pick-up. The Eagles didn’t do that beyond grabbing middle-of-the-road safety Malcolm Jenkins. But did they need to? There is a case to be made that this free agency period didn’t mean all that much to the Eagles, and a good debate could be had on the topic. Sadly, that’s not what has happened. Instead, Eagles fans have seemingly lost their minds over the last two days, asking and demanding ridiculous things out of the front office.
These are all actual questions I have either seen or heard on social media or the radio from Eagles fans.
“Why were the Eagles afraid to spend?”
The Eagles weren’t “afraid to spend,” as I heard Philadelphia sports talk show hosts claim this week. The decisions, or lackthereof, had nothing to do with the franchise being haunted by 2011. None of the contracts signed by the Eagles in 2011 (Nnamdi Asomugha and Jason Babin being the two big ones) were big enough that they had long-term effects on the Eagles’ cap room, so it’s hard to imagine any scenario in which the team was scared off by those moves. The issues in 2011 and 2012 were much bigger than one offseason splurge on free agent talent.
The most amusing thing I heard was one sports radio host claiming that the Eagles needed to sign Jairus Byrd without worrying about his cap implications because the franchise “is good at managing the cap, so they will figure it out.” This line of reasoning essentially implies that a general manger who understands the salary cap well can sign any free agent at will because they must be so good at cap management that they would never get into trouble. This line of reasoning ignores the nuance of cap management that would cause a general manager to not sign a player because his price tag was too high. And yet, because some radio hosts are willing to ignore it, a segment of Eagles fans are willing to ignore it as well.
“Why didn’t the Eagles address the secondary?”
The Eagles entered free agency with two starters at cornerback and a solidified slot corner. Darrelle Revis ended up on the market, but he is the contract-troubled distraction Eagles fans imagine DeSean Jackson to be, so it’s easy to see why the team may have had qualms about putting up big money to bring Revis in as a short-term upgrade over Cary Williams.
The safety position is the least important on the defense, based on the way teams spend their money on average. With Jairus Byrd getting overpaid by New Orleans and T.J. Ward not a fit for Billy Davis’ scheme, the Eagles went with a cheaper, better fit by signing Malcolm Jenkins. Jenkins is a cover safety who can cover receivers in a pinch, lending Davis the versatility he often desires.
The Eagles have been disastrous at the safety position for five seasons. But the problem isn’t that Philadelphia lacked a bona fide stud; rather, they lacked two competent players. Having two competent safeties, while not easy, will go a long way towards improving the Eagles defense. It will give the team more stability, and if the Eagles do not spend wild amounts of money looking for a playmaker, they can set aside funds for more important defensive positions like pass rusher.
“Why didn’t the Eagles address the pass rush?”
This question actually has a relatively simple answer. The market for the pass rush, unlike the secondary, was not strong in free agency this season. The only two players worth looking into as starters at the offseason’s start for now and the future were Washington’s Brian Orakpo and Pittsburgh’s Jason Worilds. Both ended up returning to their respective teams on a franchise tag and a transition tag, respectively. And some would even make a case that Worilds was a flash in the pan. Needless to say, it wasn’t a strong class.
Now, DeMarcus Ware became a free agent just around the opening hour of free agency when Dallas cut him and his $16 million cap hit. There is a case to be made that he would have been a fit with the Eagles due to his tremendous success at the 3-4 rusher position in years gone by. There may be legitimate questions about whether or not Philadelphia made a play for Ware. That said, he is 31-years-old and far from a long-term solution at the outside linebacker position. Ultimately, the Eagles were so limited in their options that Ware was the only one they could even consider, and he had a lot of suitors. Ware was also interested in trying to win now, and quickly hopped on the Denver Broncos bandwagon along with Ward and cornerback Aqib Talib.
“Why focus on these backups?”
The Eagles added two special teamers in safety Chris Maragos and outside linebacker Bryan Braman. Both are projected as depth players who will fit nicely on the team’s special teams units. Philadelphia felt as though they were let down by special teams in 2013, and Maragos and Braman are competition for those depth positions. Maragos will take the place of (or challenge if they are brought back) safeties Colt Anderson and Kurt Coleman, while Braman will challenge linebacker Casey Matthews. Both are minor signings in the grand scheme of things, but important for anyone who views all 53 positions as important.
“Will the Eagles do more before the draft?”
I would imagine that there is at least one more safety on the way. Nate Allen could be brought back, as he was a league average safety last year and would at least allow the team to not feel obligated in drafting a safety this year. Anderson and Coleman could be retained to compete with Maragos and Keelan Johnson for backup spots. The team can also look to Chris Clemons for help, though he is being looked at by other teams. Saints restricted free agent Rafael Bush is also an option, as New Orleans likely doesn’t have the money to match a contract offer.
Beyond those positions, depth signings are still potentially available. Some depth on the front seven could help, especially behind nose tackle Bennie Logan and inside linebackers DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks. The backups on the offensive line could also be challenged, especially center Julian Vandervelde.
Looking past free agency, there are potential trade partners out there, but I’m reluctant to view the Eagles as a team trying to give up draft picks in a deep draft. I think the franchise still views itself as being a few pieces away, so it’s hard to imagine a scenario where the team deals picks to move up in the first round. That said, stranger things have happened with this franchise. The team will undoubtedly improve between now and training camp, but it doesn’t seem likely that too much of that improvement will happen on the open market.