Jury still out on Eagles' free-agent signings

Connor Barwin sacks Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)
Connor Barwin sacks Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 02, 2013

Eight games isn't nearly enough to evaluate the Eagles' 2013 free-agent class, but it was enough time for the team to decide that Isaac Sopoaga wasn't worth his weight or the $3.25 million they had already paid the nose tackle.

Sopoaga, who was traded to the Patriots on Wednesday, hasn't been the only free agent who failed to make an impact thus far this season. Tight end James Casey has played just 5 percent of the offensive snaps and has only two catches. And safety Patrick Chung has been inactive in four of the last five games because of a nagging shoulder injury.

But the Eagles have gotten production from a number of veterans they signed this offseason - namely, linebacker Connor Barwin and cornerback Bradley Fletcher - although it will likely take 16 games before they assess if they received good return on their investment.

The Eagles, burned by past mistakes, clearly wanted to avoid signing any big-name free agents. So they sprinkled their money around, signing second- and third-tier talents, mostly on defense. Some had an extensive history of injuries, suggesting they were merely stopgaps as the defense transitioned from a 4-3 front to a 3-4.

Only Barwin makes enough in guaranteed money to ensure his return next season. But general manager Howie Roseman still handed out approximately $30 million in guaranteed contracts and the Eagles are still around $19 million under $123 million salary cap.

Roseman declined to talk to The Inquirer for this story.

Coach Chip Kelly was asked about the Eagles' free-agent additions and whether he considered the process an inexact science.

"I think everything is an inexact science," Kelly said Thursday. "I think sometimes you miss on a draft pick. . . . You always analyze at the end of the year, saying, 'What did we do good? What did we do bad? If this guy isn't exactly what we thought he was, why is that?' And evaluate the whole process. And that's an ongoing thing."

Here's an update on how the Eagles' key free-agent signings have performed through eight games:

Connor Barwin (six years, $36.6 million, $8 million guaranteed): He has consistently made plays. He leads the team with 41/2 tackles for loss, is tied with end Fletcher Cox for the most sacks with three and has seven pass breakups. Barwin occasionally gets lost in the running game, but he's the only outside linebacker who can effectively drop into coverage.

James Casey (three years, $12 million, $5 million): It's difficult to gauge his progress because he's played only 27 snaps on offense. Casey has helped on special teams, but the Eagles didn't sign the 29-year-old because he could help out on kickoffs. Rookie Zach Ertz has taken most of his time, but the overflow at tight end warrants questioning the Casey acquisition.

Patrick Chung (three years, $10 million, $4 million): He had never played more than 13 starts in a season and had lost his starting spot midway through his final year in New England. Even before his injury, Chung was inconsistent, making plays in run support but also missing tackles and assignments in coverage.

Bradley Fletcher (two years, $5.25 million, $3.35 million): The Eagles bet on Fletcher, who had multiple knee injuries over his career, and the minor gamble has paid off - so far. He's not quick and lacks skills to play man-to-man defense, but has used his size and toughness to lead the Eagles with 12 pass breakups.

Jason Phillips (two years, $1.46 million): Signed mostly to help out on special teams, the inside linebacker tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during training camp.

Kenny Phillips ($150,000 in workout bonuses): Another injury-prone safety. The Eagles didn't have to pony up much cash to see if Phillips had anything left. He didn't, and was cut during the preseason.

Isaac Sopoaga (three years, $11 million, $4.75 million): The nose tackle was traded to the Patriots with a six-round draft pick in exchange for a fifth-rounder. The Eagles are pushing the young talent narrative: They dealt Sopoaga because Bennie Logan, Clifton Geathers and Damion Square are deserving of more time. But if Sopoaga was playing even halfway decently, they would have kept him after paying $3.25 million for eight idle games.

Cary Williams (three years, $17 million, $5.75 million): The cornerback has been up and down. Like Fletcher, he lacks the speed to match up with top receivers, but he can contend if he's allowed to play physically. Williams made waves in the preseason but has settled into the locker room - for the time being.

Scouts' take, Part II

The jury is still out on the Eagles' 2012-13 draft classes, but most of the top picks have contributed, some more than others. While the team's brass has been positive about their prospects, it is interesting to see how other teams view the Eagles' young, homegrown talent.

Here are evaluations from two senior NFL scouts on several players (Part I ran last week):

Nick Foles, QB. "A really good backup that can step in and start. Has enough moxie to win games. Not the guy that you want starting 16 games, but you'll consider yourself lucky to have him if your starter went down. One of the better backups in the NFL. Above-average arm strength with solid anticipation, which allows the ball to get there a little quicker. Shuffles feet well in pocket despite size. Limited runner."

Fletcher Cox, DE. "A better fit in their previous scheme, which allowed him to attack as a gap penetrator. Having to play more square negates his ability to get off, which was already an issue because he's late off the ball at times. All in all, he's still a good player."

Matt Barkley, QB. "Ball comes out quick but poorly at times, though it usually reaches target. Pre-snap reads aid decision-making in short passing game. Lacks ideal size and doesn't have plus arm for position. When he can't step into throws, particularly across field, defensive backs are brought back into plays. Could thrive in a movement-based NFL offense like the West Coast. Does a good job of changing the speed on his throws to ensure accuracy."

Vinny Curry, DE. "A good rotational backup. Try-hard, effort player that is most effective rushing from the interior. A classic Jim Washburn guy. Will remind you a lot of William Hayes with the Rams."

Earl Wolff, S. "A good fourth safety that can get you by as a starter, but ultimately you will be looking for more. Better near the box than as a single high defender. Like most young defensive backs, he plays with his eyes in the backfield and is late getting over the top in coverage."

The Linc's turf

In light of the Eagles' 10-game losing streak at Lincoln Financial Field, it has been suggested by some that the team would be better served switching to a turf field to play to the strengths of Chip Kelly's up-tempo offense.

Eagles president Don Smolenski recently said that while the team has occasionally looked into the idea, it is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future.

Kelly's Oregon teams played on the artificial surface FieldTurf. It was installed in 2010, Kelly's second season as head coach, and his Ducks teams sometimes looked as if they were running on a track and their opponents in quicksand.

Smolenski said that Kelly has not approached the team about a switch to turf. He said that it would be difficult to gauge if the Eagles would garner any advantage since both teams play under the same elements.

One other reason cited for a possible switch has been the condition of the grass, especially after Saturday Temple games. Smolenski said the Eagles are not ending their relationship with the school.

The Eagles, of course, played on one of the worst Astroturf fields for years at Veterans Stadium. Owner Jeffrey Lurie had said before the Linc was built that there was never a question that the new stadium would have grass. The experience at the Vet is probably one reason he hasn't considered going back to turf.

Inside the game

The Eagles are only halfway through the season, but their rookies have played essentially the same amount of games as they did last year in college if you include four preseason games.

Each had a different take on hitting the rookie wall, although most said they felt fine physically.

"I feel better than I did in college because [Oklahoma] used to run us down," tackle Lane Johnson said. "We wore pads four days a week."

The NFL allows for teams to have only 14 practices in pads during the regular season. Several of the rookies said that the Eagles' strength and conditioning and sports science staffs have been beneficial.

"The mental side is tougher than the physical side right now, but our coaches do a great job of having me focus each week on the game plan," tight end Zach Ertz said. "Honestly, I haven't hit a rookie wall and I don't plan on it."

Safety Earl Wolff, though, admitted that he had never felt as worn down as he did earlier this week.

"My body hurts all over," he said Tuesday.

Michael Vick revealed after Sunday's game that he had suffered a groin injury in the first two games of the season. He recently said that it was the first time he had suffered the injury.

The Eagles quarterback has already missed two games with a hamstring injury and aggravated it Sunday against the New York Giants. Vick said he has never had a hamstring strain as serious. The 33-year-old will miss Sunday's game at Oakland and has now missed 15 games over the last four years because of injuries.

Rather than have Alex Henery attempt a 50-yard field goal on Sunday against the Giants, Kelly went for it on fourth and 10 and failed.

The coach said that he had Dave Fipp nearby and that the special-teams coach advised him not to try for the field goal based on Henery's pregame warm-ups. Henery said he made some of his attempts kicking into the north end zone from that distance, but not all of them.

"It just depended upon the wind, he said. "I made a 55-yarder, but then if you catch the wrong gust at the time, you could be short."

Inside the locker room

LeSean McCoy, asked about Raiders quarterback Terrelle Pryor, said that he tried to recruit the Western Pennsylvania native to Pittsburgh when he was there, but "we couldn't afford him. . . . I'm joking." . . . Fresno, Calif., native Mychal Kendricks said he knew exactly what he was going to do once the Eagles landed in San Francisco on Saturday. "First thing I'm doing after I touch down is sink my teeth into an In-and-Out Burger - maybe two of them," the linebacker said. Kendricks said he had reserved 43 tickets for family and friends to attend Sunday's game in Oakland.

By the Numbers

9th

NFL ranking for an Eagles rushing defense that has not allowed a 100-yard runner this season. The Raiders enter Sunday's game averaging 138.9 yards a game on the ground.

41.4

Completion percentage for Nick Foles when he has not been under pressure in the pocket. He has completed 12 of 29 passes for 151 yards and one touchdown and been sacked once.

27

Numbers of teams that have a defensive player with more than three sacks. Connor Barwin and Fletcher Cox lead the Eagles, who are 28th in the league in sacks per pass play, with three sacks each.

jmclane@phillynews.com

@Jeff_McLane

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