Eagles have needs to fill in free agency, but not much cap money

The Eagles haven't made an offer to free agent safety Walter Thurmond, according to a source. DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer
The Eagles haven't made an offer to free agent safety Walter Thurmond, according to a source. DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer
Posted: March 08, 2016

HOWIE ROSEMAN laughed last week, when asked how comfortable he is with the salary-cap room the Eagles have available to spend in free agency.

It was not a long, loose, "We're in the money"-type laugh. It was more of a short, tight, "Do you know what that bleeping Chip Kelly did to my lovely salary cap?"-type laugh.

"Have any of you guys seen what the rest of the league has?" Roseman asked his questioners.

According to Spotrac.com, the Eagles enter Monday's "legal tampering" period, two days before the 4 p.m. Wednesday official start of free agency, with $17,460,770 in cap room. That ranks them 21st in an NFL in which, suddenly, 10 teams have more than $40 million to spend against the $155 million cap. Four teams have more than $50 million freed up - the Jaguars ($80.9 million), Raiders ($65.7 million), Giants ($55.77 million) and the 49ers ($53.8 million).

To put that in perspective, 10 years ago, in 2006, the NFL salary cap was $102 million; those four teams would have had more than half a cap to spend, something they couldn't have done even if they'd signed a dozen or more top free agents apiece.

In fact, it isn't entirely clear how a team like Jacksonville will be able to get to the required 89 percent of the cap minimum this year.

So, in bidding against those teams, the Eagles will be at an extreme disadvantage.

"You always want more, but we'll deal with what the reality is that we have, and we'll make the best of it," Roseman said.

It's unclear the Eagles would bid for top-of-the-market talent this year even if they could. Roseman got a very good sense of how disappointing that can be back in 2011, with Nnamdi Asomugha, Jason Babin, Ronnie Brown and others. Kelly banished Roseman to the personnel sidelines in January 2015, then promptly went out and outbid the market for Byron Maxwell and DeMarco Murray.

The history of free agency across the league suggests that the best value is in the middle of the market, the less-flashy names that maybe haven't reached their full potential. Like Connor Barwin, whom the Eagles originally signed to a 2013 deal that guaranteed only $8 million over two years, though that contract subsequently was reworked, as Barwin became a key cog.

Generally, the objective in free agency is to address huge problems, so that you don't go into the draft handcuffed to any particular need. For the Eagles this year, those "glaring problem" positions figure to be offensive line, safety and wide receiver. Expect some sort of signing, at some level, in each area. Roseman indicated last week that fixing the offensive line will be a long-term focus, through free agency, the draft, and whatever else might present itself. (Black magic? Roseman didn't seem inclined to leave any stones unturned.)

New coach Doug Pederson told reporters last week that the Eagles' wideout corps would be addressed in free agency and in the draft. Given the team's youth there, and the draft resources expended the past two seasons (Jordan Matthews in the second round in 2014, Josh Huff in the third round that year, Nelson Agholor in the first round a year ago), an inexpensive, reliable veteran presence would seem to be much in demand.

At safety, the Eagles haven't said much, but they also haven't made an offer to their top pending free agent, 2015 starter Walter Thurmond, a source close to the situation told the Daily News. They don't seem to have a credible Thurmond successor on the roster, unlike at the corner opposite Maxwell, where it's assumed 2015 rookie Eric Rowe will take over for pending free agent Nolan Carroll. It will be at least a mild surprise if Carroll returns.

Thurmond, signed to a one-year deal to play nickel corner in last year's free-agent bonanza, really helped the Eagles out by being able to smoothly move to safety. He got worn down late in the year, and there is some thought that new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz will want a more physical, box safety opposite Malcolm Jenkins.

Who's that? Well, don't expect San Diego's Eric Weddle, or his beard, to arrive at NovaCare this week. Weddle would fit the bill perfectly, except that he's 31 and he's going to get a lot of cash. George Iloka, from the Bengals, isn't 26 until June and is 6-4, 225. Eagles fans have even undertaken a Twitter campaign to persuade him to sign here, but unless they're allowed to chip in money, Iloka probably is headed to one of those teams with the massive cap room.

It's still unclear why in the world the Bengals would let Iloka hit free agency, along with their other starting safety, Reggie Nelson. (Nelson is 32. So, no on him, probably.) Obviously, a player's current team can continue to negotiate as the market begins.

After those two at safety, there's the Browns' Tashuan Gipson, who has been up and down but is still just 25. He's more of a free safety, but if you think Jenkins can do anything - and it sure seems like he can - then you could play Jenkins up and Gipson back.

There's also Arizona's Rashad Johnson, who's 30, and Denver's David Bruton, who is definitely a strong safety and would bring along a ring, along with a nifty Super Bowl 50 tattoo. Closer to the bargain basement are guys like Ryan Mundy, 31, who spent last season on the Bears' injured reserve with a hip injury.

The main out-of-reach guy on the offensive line is probably Kelechi Osemele, who can play tackle and guard, is 26, and would be staying in Baltimore if he weren't about to make bank.

There are plenty of other possible targets, though - the 49ers' Alex Boone, who turns 29 in May. The Steelers' durable Ramon Foster, who is 30. Philly's own Jahri Evans turns 33 in August, but has made the Pro Bowl six times in New Orleans, isn't going to get a huge deal, and would be an improvement on either Alan Barbre or Matt Tobin, the 2015 Eagles starters. Brandon Brooks is just 26 and the Texans really don't want him to hit the market; he will get a lot of money from someone.

Guard-tackle Jeff Allen played for Pederson and for new Eagles assistant offensive-line coach Eugene Chung in Kansas City. Pederson talked last week about how tough and gritty the Chiefs were up front; Allen, 6-4, 306, who joined the starting lineup in October, was a big part of that personality. But he, too, has gotten a lot of notice as free agency has gotten closer, from teams such as the Jags and the Giants, who have all that cap room.

The wide-receiver market is not at all flush. Miami's Rishard Matthews would be a good guy to have around but he's said he wants to sign where he will start, which might not happen here, with Matthews and Agholor on hand. There's Anquan Boldin, who turns 36 in October; Boldin reportedly wants to sign with a team that can win the Super Bowl this season, though it isn't clear he will have that opportunity.

"We've got a lot more work to do here in this offseason," Roseman said last week, as he was being congratulated on signing Sam Bradford and other key returnees.

This next bit might be the hard part.

bowenl@phillynews.com

@LesBowen

Blog: philly.com/Eaglesblog

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