Eagles plug away with cast of castoffs

Welcome to the land of opportunity: James Casey (right) and Isaac Sopoaga may thrive in a new setting.
Welcome to the land of opportunity: James Casey (right) and Isaac Sopoaga may thrive in a new setting. (ED HILLE / Staff)
Posted: March 21, 2013

PHOENIX - Of the eight free agents the Eagles signed last week, only tight end James Casey had what would generally be considered a stronger 2012 than 2011.

An argument could be made that cornerback Cary Williams performed better last season than previously. But if there was an uptick it was marginal. Linebacker Jason Phillips played primarily on special teams in Carolina and maintained his level of consistency in 2012.

But the other five - linebacker Connor Barwin, safeties Patrick Chung and Kenny Phillips, defensive lineman Isaac Sopaoga, and cornerback Bradley Fletcher - were available at relatively low cost for good reason.

General manager Howie Roseman said that the Eagles executed their game plan in free agency, which was to sign talent to plug their many holes. He may not have envisioned snagging eight players, but Roseman said that it was a buyer's market.

The bidding was low for most of the eight. The free agent's team, in most cases, made little effort to keep its player. Why was that? It's a question Roseman said the Eagles always ask themselves before signing a free agent.

"You're talking about players that you acquire from smart teams in this league, so you have to be a little jaded when you're going into free agency," Roseman said Tuesday at the NFL owners meetings. "And I think we do that. We go in with our eyes wide open."

The Eagles, for the most part, signed veterans ranging from 26 to 28 to contracts with guaranteed money through only the first or second years. So the risk isn't monumental, and there is the potential for the players to rebound from last year's setbacks.

But Roseman was frank. He doesn't expect each roll of the dice to pay dividends.

"As much as you want every one of these moves to work out, as much as you want every draft pick to work out, chances are some aren't going to work out," he said. "We'd like to go 100 percent. It's probably not going to happen in anything we do."

With Barwin, the Eagles believed that playing more on the strong-side last season accounted for the drop in sacks from 111/2 to three over the last two years. Texans coach Gary Kubiak supported that theory and said that some additional weight could have affected Barwin.

"He played a little bigger this year than last year," Kubiak said. "Remember now, he got flipped around, too. He had to play [weakside], [strong-side] because of what we had going on. We lost Brooks [Reed] for a while."

Barwin, 26, was asked to drop into coverage a bit more. Kubiak said that Barwin was probably chipped more by tight ends when he lined up on the strong side.

But if the Texans wanted to keep Barwin, they would have made a greater effort. It was reported they offered a contract, but it couldn't have been that favorable for him. The Eagles signed him to a six-year, $36 million deal, but only $8 million was guaranteed.

Barwin was also expendable because Houston has Whitney Mercilus - its 2012 top draft pick - to play opposite Reed.

The Texans also let Casey walk. He played mostly at fullback last season but was often used as a receiver. The 28-year old caught 34 passes for 330 yards and three touchdowns to put up the best numbers of his career.

But he played a position that Houston doesn't value as much as others and one at which they have a cheaper alternative, Tyler Clutts, waiting in the wings. The Eagles, on the other hand, see Casey's upside and inked him to a three-year, $12 million contract with a little less than $3 million guaranteed.

Asked last week how he planned to use Casey, coach Chip Kelly mentioned Patriots tight end Aaron Hernanadez, who has been an effective complement to Rob Gronkowski.

"I think James' best is yet to come," Kubiak said. "And, yes, I would love to have James in what we are doing. But we've had to get a new fullback four out of five years. That's part of the situation."

The Texans' loss could be the Eagles' gain. As for the Birds' other free agents, Roseman and Kelly can only hope that another team's castoffs will be their treasure.

Contact Jeff McLane at jmclane@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter @Jeff_McLane.

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