Expect Eagles to spend on defense during free agency

Posted: March 10, 2014

The Eagles begin free agency in a familiar position: with money to spend and with holes to fill.

The Eagles don't want to build their team in March, but financial flexibility and an aggressive approach is how the team signed Jevon Kearse and acquired Terrell Owens in 2004. It was also the impetus to get Nnamdi Asomugha and Jason Babin to headline their ill-fated 2011 free-agent class.

General manager Howie Roseman insists that the Eagles will not approach the offseason thinking they're a player or two away from title contention. Even after winning the NFC East in coach Chip Kelly's first season, Roseman continues to emphasize a long-term approach and talks about the perils of high-priced acquisitions.

Roseman, however, also admitted "unique situations call for unique action." The Eagles have about $24 million in cap space, and there could be available players who would qualify as "unique situations."

Buffalo's Jairus Byrd, a 27-year-old all-pro safety, is the type of enticing free agent that would thrill Eagles fans.

The big question in the NovaCare Complex, however, is not only how the team evaluates a player's skills but also that player's value.

"Keep this in mind: Free agency is not free," said ESPN analyst Bill Polian, a former NFL general manager. "It costs two things that you never get back: time and money."

NFL teams are able to negotiate with agents, but they cannot talk to players or reach deals until 4 p.m. Tuesday.

Don't look for the Eagles to exhaust that cap space this week. Money is reserved for incoming rookies, and the Eagles need to carry cap space into next season with the understanding that extensions will be due for their promising 2012 draft class.

"There's a number that we'd like to have," Roseman said. "But at the same time, if there's a player on the free-agent market, or on our team, and we felt like the value was right to do a deal now, we would do it. But we're certainly not going to mortgage the future in 2014 and have to be in a situation where we're cutting multiple players on our roster to have to get under."

Expect the Eagles to come out of free agency with defensive upgrades, including at least one safety. They could also look for help at cornerback and outside linebacker while bolstering the depth on the defensive side. They may even add a backup quarterback.

Kelly would like the team to get bigger. Special teams must also be a priority, although that could come via the draft.

Roseman does not want to enter the draft looking to plug needs. The Eagles used March to fill needs last offseason, when they gave out about $30 million in guaranteed contracts, spread among eight players.

The strategy worked with players such as linebacker Connor Barwin and cornerback Bradley Fletcher, who played better than the contracts they earned. For safety Patrick Chung and defensive lineman Isaac Sopoaga, the strategy did not work; neither player fulfilled the role he was signed to fill.

The Eagles are likely to take a similar targeted approach this year.

The money that matters is guaranteed money. Roseman is also cognizant of how free agency goes over in the locker room. If the Eagles pledge to their homegrown players to build from within but spend big on players from elsewhere, that message could ring hollow. A big-ticket free agent might become the highest-paid player in the locker room.

Then again, this is also a great time for the Eagles to strike. The teams with a significant financial advantage in the NFL are those with starting quarterbacks on rookie contracts. If Nick Foles continues to excel, this will be the last year he'll play for such a cost-effective salary ($615,000) without being eligible for an extension.

The need for cap space in the future is reason for being careful with contracts, but knowing more money will be allocated to their current players in the years to come may be a good reason to take advantage of this season's cap room now.

"The number that it shows on our cap sheet right now, we look at it differently," Roseman said. "We look at next year and where we are and what we're trying to do, and trying to fit all those things in place."


Who's Available for the Birds?

With $24 million in cap space, the Eagles are capable of being aggressive in free agency. They have needs in the defensive backfield and at edge rusher. Here are players to watch at positions of need.

        Cornerbacks

Alterraun Verner, Tennessee   5-10   187   25   

One of the top players on the market, Verner could command big money. He's one of the few whose production and potential would merit such a deal.

 Brandon Browner, Seattle   6-4   221   29   

Browner would need to miss the first four games next season with a suspension and will be 30 when the season begins. But it's hard to find cornerbacks with his size and ball skills.

Aqib Talib, New England   6-1   205   28   

The talented cornerback played his best football in 2013. It would make sense for both parties to reach an agreement.

Vontae Davis, Indianapolis   5-11   204   25   

The Colts paid big to acquire the former first-rounder in a trade and it would be imprudent to let him walk - especially when they have cap space.

Walter Thurmond, Seattle   5-11   190   26   

A former Oregon player on the Super Bowl champions, Thurmond was a nickel cornerback in Seattle and is good enough to start elsewhere.

Outside linebackers

Shaun Phillips, Denver   6-3   255   32   

The Philadelphia native played defensive end for the Broncos on a one-year deal last year after starting his career as an outside linebacker. The Eagles pursued him last season, and Phillips wasn't interested.

O'Brien Schofield, Seattle   6-3   242   26   

Schofield has been a reserve throughout most of his four-year career, but he has experience in Bill Davis' defense and some nice pass-rushing skills.

Mike Neal, Green Bay   6-3   285   26   

A former second-round pick, Neal moved from defensive line to outside linebacker last season. He didn't drop in coverage often, but he has size and versatility.

- Zach Berman


zberman@phillynews.com

@ZBerm

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