Eagles reach deals with 5 free agents on first day

ASSOCIATED PRESS James Casey, who can play fullback and tight end, played minor league baseball.
ASSOCIATED PRESS James Casey, who can play fullback and tight end, played minor league baseball.

Eagles grab a quintet on Day 1

Posted: March 14, 2013

JUST AS FANS started to get good and worked up about the Eagles' inactivity in the early hours of free agency, the team dropped a load of signings on the reeling Twitterverse.

Five new Eagles joined the roster, though they weren't the splashy, top-of-the-market guys some fans always seem to want, in the face of solid evidence that trying to build a winner that way doesn't work.

The signings reflected what general manager Howie Roseman and new coach Chip Kelly said in the weeks leading up to the opening of the market: The Eagles need players, as they transition from the Andy Reid era to new systems. It's unlikely they are done with free agency - 49ers defensive lineman Ricky Jean-Francois is visiting today, a league source confirmed, and there undoubtedly are other irons in the fire.

But the Eagles are no longer trying to get rich quick, as they did when they dominated free agency in those frantic days following the lockout in 2011. It somehow seemed appropriate that the walking symbol of all those dashed hopes, cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, finally got his long-anticipated release on the day the team started charting its new course.

This time, the Eagles are looking in free agency for role players and youngish guys with upside, not for building blocks. Their woeful 2012 special teams seem to be an early focus.

Safety Patrick Chung, formerly of New England, who signed for 3 years, might be the only signee so far who figures to be an every-down starter (though he is a strong special-teams player, as well). Cornerback Bradley Fletcher (2-year contract) started 26 games for the Rams after arriving as a third-round draftee from Iowa in 2009, four of them last season. He tore his right ACL and LCL his rookie year and was the Rams' Ed Block Courage Award winner in 2010, before tearing the right ACL again in 2011. The Eagles see Fletcher (6-foot, 200) at least competing for a starting job. Ditto nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga (3-year deal), who turns 32 in September, and started nine games for the 49ers last season. Jason Phillips (2-year contract), 27, a former Raven and Panther, figures to play on special teams and as a linebacking reserve. He is 6-1, 240.

The most interesting signee of the bunch might be former Texans fullback/tight end James Casey (3-year contract), who turns 29 in September. Casey is an ex-minor league baseball player who got a late college football start, as a Rice freshman in 2007. He left a year later for the draft, and the Texans took him in the fifth round. He caught a career-high 34 passes for 330 yards and three touchdowns last season.

Casey (6-3, 240), who also has value on special teams, fits the H-back hybrid style popular in the league right now. He was not as hot a free-agent commodity as Titans tight end Jared Cook, who stirred the interest of many Eagles fans before signing Tuesday with the Rams.

"He lines up at fullback and blocks linebackers. We put him out wide at receiver," Texans quarterback Matt Schaub said in a story in the Texans' game program late last season. "He's in the slot for us. He lines up at tight end. We can just move him around so many different spots and he can run all those different routes that we do as an offense. He creates mismatches for other teams."

That story narrated how Casey lost his mother in a fire at their trailer home in Azle, Texas, and ultimately came to live with the high school's trainer, Todd "Doc" Urbanek, and his wife, Betsy. The Urbaneks and Casey's future in-laws, the Hendersons, raised money for him.

"When I lost everything, I didn't have money, I didn't have ways to get clothes, but they started some kind of fund in the city," Casey was quoted as saying. "They raised a bunch of money, and people got together clothes and stuff that I could use and then they sent me some money to buy clothes and football and baseball gear. The whole city of Azle helped me out. People bought me cleats for football season. Doc bought me baseball cleats and baseball gloves. When you have a tragedy like that, it's great to see mankind, human nature, just people wanting to help out."

Given Casey's situation, getting drafted out of high school as a pitcher in the seventh round by the White Sox and offered a $120,000 signing bonus precluded college football. But he washed out of baseball after 3 years and ended up sending letters and game film to colleges, as a married 21-year-old, looking for a football scholarship. Rice was his only offer. Before he left, Casey graduated as a triple major in economics, managerial studies and sport management, despite attending only six semesters.

How much Sopoaga (6-2, 330) plays might depend on how much the Eagles use their nose tackle. Antonio Dixon also is in the mix there. Sopoaga, a 49er since they drafted him in the fourth round from Hawaii in 2004, is familiar to both Eagles player personnel vice president Tom Gamble and defensive coordinator Billy Davis, who worked for the 49ers during Sopoaga's tenure. Gamble drafted Jean-Francois in the seventh round in 2009.

Chung (5-11, 210) turns 26 in August, and played at Oregon when Kelly ran the Ducks' offense. He started eight games for the Pats last season, intercepting two passes. It's fair to say he didn't fulfill expectations as a high second-round pick, 34th overall, in 2009, at least partly because of injuries. Chung hasn't played 16 games since his rookie season.

The only big name to attract confirmed Eagles interest was former Dolphins offensive tackle Jake Long. A source close to the situation said the Birds are definitely involved with Long, but might not be front-runners, an assessment borne out by his visit last night with the Rams.

Long, 27, the first player taken in the 2008 draft, has been a left tackle for the Dolphins, but with Jason Peters presumably recovered from Achilles' tendon surgery, the Eagles would probably want Long to play the right side, should he not sign in St. Louis and make his way here.

Birdseed

Eagles free-agent offensive tackle King Dunlap reportedly signed with the San Diego Chargers . . . Patrick Chung might be the first Eagle of Jamaican-Chinese heritage . . . The Eagles are expected to introduce James Casey and Isaac Sopoaga at a NovaCare news conference Wednesday.


On Twitter: @LesBowen

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