Eagles not likely to go overboard on free agents

The new labor deal may make it riskier for teams to give out big contracts to the likes of Nnamdi Asomugha, above.
The new labor deal may make it riskier for teams to give out big contracts to the likes of Nnamdi Asomugha, above. (PAUL SAKUMA / Associated Press)
Posted: July 17, 2011

Whenever free agency starts, we know the Eagles have big plans. Joe Banner said it back in February. Andy Reid said it. Howie Roseman and Jeffrey Lurie have said it.

After all that saying, fans will expect some delivering once the NFL lockout is settled and free agency and trades really begin. With a labor deal appearing on the horizon, a frenzy of activity is soon expected across the league, and the Eagles believe they'll be in position to take advantage of the compressed 2011 signing period.

Team officials think they have the manpower to negotiate deals on several fronts, with Banner, Roseman, and in-house counsel Aileen Daly all experienced in handling contract talks.

The Eagles will have roughly $16 million to $18 million in salary-cap space once they account for rookie charges and other deductions, a league source said. That would put them around the middle of the pack compared with rest of the league, according to the source. Still, it should be enough for some significant signings.

It's enough to send the sports-talk world reeling with possibilities. Nnamdi Asomugha! Albert Haynesworth! Reggie Bush!

But don't expect a fantasy football-style parade of big names strolling through the NovaCare Complex. For one thing, the new labor deal will slow the growth of the salary cap, making big, superstar contracts tougher to manage.

More important, multiple people within the Eagles have stressed that while they intend to make bold moves, the team still believes in building primarily through the draft, and then adding a few key free agency strikes to supplement their homegrown talent.

The Eagles will certainly add players - they know they have a hole to fill at cornerback, among other needs - and the team has shown a willingness to make bold acquisitions. But they will attempt do so while leaving room to re-sign current players and not relying too heavily on new faces.

It's a quieter and more subtle approach, but one that the team has long followed - as have many of the most successful teams in the NFL, including both of last year's Super Bowl participants.

Of the Eagles' 22 offensive and defensive players who started against the Packers in January's wild-card game, 16 were either drafted by the Birds or signed as rookie free agents (including defensive tackle Antonio Dixon, who began his career in Washington but never played a game there). That leaves six starters that day acquired through trades or free agency: Jason Peters, Michael Vick, Juqua Parker, Ernie Sims, Asante Samuel, and Dimitri Patterson.

When the Eagles invest big in outside talent, they target players who are either in their primes or entering them.

Their last blockbuster trade acquisition, Peters, arrived in 2009 after two Pro Bowl seasons in Buffalo, at age 27. The year before that the Eagles went all-in for Samuel, signing the free agent as a 27-year-old coming off his first Pro Bowl nod.

Each paid dividends.

Vick was a big name signed at 29, but when he was first acquired, the Eagles made a relatively small investment and were counting on him only as a backup, not a central piece of the team.

Asomugha and Haynesworth each turned 30 during the lockout. While that alone won't decide if the Eagles pursue them, their ages will be a factor, especially considering that Asomugha, in particular, will be in line for a large, long-term deal.

Which brings up another issue that will complicate any teams' efforts to hand out big contracts and still keep their own players: The new labor deal will leave less room for escalating contracts.

The salary cap is expected to dip slightly next season as owners claim a larger share of NFL revenue for themselves. And it won't grow as fast as it has in the past, which means big contracts will consume a larger percentage of cap space in future seasons.

Any Eagles spending in the next few weeks will be done with the knowledge that Vick and DeSean Jackson are each out of contract after the season, and LeSean McCoy's deal expires after 2012.

Some cap space might be freed by smaller rookie contracts in the new labor deal, but much of the initial savings will be realized by teams near the top of the draft.

Teams will have to think even harder about the effects of long-term deals like the ones coveted by top free agents. Some may continue handing out star contracts as before, paying top dollar for top talent but leaving less for the rest of their squads. Others may try to readjust salaries to reflect the new cap dynamics.


Contact staff writer Jonathan Tamari at 215-854-5214, jtamari@phillynews.com or @JonathanTamari on Twitter.

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