ray diddy's take:
This is a more difficult process than in years past due to the uncertainty surrounding the league’s collective bargaining agreement. The current deal expires in March and if the owners and players can’t work out a new contract, the league will go forward without a salary cap.
It sounds like a license for teams to go on a wild spending spree, but it really isn’t. The clubs may have more money to spend, but they will have fewer good players to spend it on. That’s because more than 200 players who would have been unrestricted free agents under the old system now will be restricted free agents which means their team have first rights of refusal.
In other words, some of these potential free agents may not be free at all. But for the sake of discussion, we’ll put them on our board.
Let’s take the needs in order:
1. Defensive end
Enough with the tag team system at left end with Juqua Parker, Chris Clemons and walk-ons such as Jason Babin. The Eagles need a player at that position who will be a force in big games – a player the other team has to account for in the same way they account for Trent Cole on the right side.
It is no accident that Cole’s production typically tails off late in the season. It is because other teams slide their protection to his side which means he has to fight through double-teams week after week. Look how much better the Dallas defense was this season when Anthony Spencer blossomed as a pass rush threat to go along with DeMarcus Ware.
The thought of Julius Peppers lining up at left end for the Eagles is tempting, but I’m not sure it is practical. While he is supposed to be an unrestricted free agent, it is more likely Carolina will put the franchise tag on him and then trade him for a huge package of draft picks. My guess is the price will be more than the Eagles are willing to pay.
But there are other possibilities, including Dwan Edwards (Baltimore), Jimmy Wilkerson (Tampa Bay) and Anthony Hargrove (New Orleans). Green Bay’s Aaron Kampman is an interesting name. He was a Pro Bowl end in 2008 (9.5 sacks) but the Packers switched to a 3-4 scheme this season, so Kampman was forced to play linebacker. He would probably welcome a chance to return to the end position and he would have that opportunity in the Eagles’ 4-3.
Another name to keep in mind: Minnesota’s Ray Edwards. He is overshadowed by teammate Jared Allen (14.5 sacks), but Edwards is only 25 and has already proven he can play left end. He had 8.5 sacks this season for the Vikings.
The Eagles’ linebackers could not hold up against a good running attack, and they could not cover even pedestrian tight ends. Fred Davis, a Washington backup, had 12 catches for 121 yards and two touchdowns in two games against the Eagles. The Cowboys’ O-line pounded them into the ground.
The return of Stewart Bradley will help, certainly, but it won’t solve all the problems. The Eagles could approach this one of two ways: Either they could keep Bradley in the middle and shop for better outside linebackers, or they could shift Bradley to the strong side (where he excelled in college and, frankly, seems the best fit) and look for a middle linebacker.
In the first scenario, I’d pursue Nick Roach, a 6-1, 235-pounder with Chicago. Roach is young (24), aggressive and a natural playmaker. He isn’t a marquee name, and the Bears did not exactly dominate the NFC North this season, but Roach played well.
If I moved Bradley to the strong side (where he could use his size to jam the tight end), there are two potential free agents at middle linebacker – Gary Brackett of Indianapolis and DeMeco Ryans of Houston. Ryans is younger (25), but Brackett (30) shows no signs of slowing down, and he is one of the smartest inside linebackers in the game. He is never fooled, never out of position.
The secondary was exposed in the last two games against the Cowboys. The corners were awful, the nickel (Joselio Hanson) was turned inside out and the safeties couldn’t cover or tackle. The Eagles need to do some major repair work here, but the good news is there could be an abundance of available players pending the CBA.
They aren’t going to replace Asante Samuel, but they need to impress upon him the need to tackle once in a while and play the defense called rather than play for the interception all the time. The Eagles could use another solid cover corner – Sheldon Brown looked all of his 30 years by season’s end – but the more immediate need is at safety.
Quintin Mikell is a tenacious overachiever, but his play fell off without having Brian Dawkins next to him. The Eagles never found an answer at free safety. Macho Harris was a rookie and played like it. Quintin Demps was hurt most of the year. Sean Jones, who played well in zone schemes with Cleveland, but his lack of speed was exposed with the Eagles where he was asked to cover more ground.
There could be as many as a dozen good safeties available in free agency. The best of them is Nick Collins, who intercepted 13 passes the last two seasons for Green Bay. He is only 26 and is a natural free safety.
Indianapolis has a very good pair in Antoine Bethea (free safety) and Melvin Bullitt (strong safety). When All-Pro Bob Sanders went down with an injury, Bullitt, a 6-1, 200-pounder from Texas A&M, stepped in, and the Colts never missed a beat.
Two other names to keep in mind: Danieal Manning, a nickel back and kick returner with Chicago, and O.J. Atogwe, a talented safety buried in the mess that is the St. Louis Rams. Atogwe had a league-high 27 combined interceptions and forced fumbles in his first three seasons as a starter.
Some E-mailers have mentioned Dawan Landry of Baltimore, but he didn’t have a very good season, and you have to be concerned because he suffered a serious injury (a spinal cord concussion) that sidelined him for 14 games in 2008.
4. Offensive line
The Eagles can’t go into next season counting on Shawn Andrews, and while they have a lot of money tied up in brother Stacy, they might not want to stay the course with him either. Max Jean-Gilles doesn’t have the feet or feel to play in this offense. The King Dunlap experiment is over, and while Winston Justice started every game at right tackle, it wouldn’t hurt to bring in someone else to compete for that spot next season.
The bad news is the potential pool of free agents isn’t very deep. Stephen Neal, a veteran right guard, might be available if New England decides to go younger, but he is 33, which means the Eagles probably wouldn’t have an interest. Harvey Dahl of Atlanta is a tough, blue-collar guard who is in his prime at 28. Tyson Clabo, who plays next to Dahl at right tackle, is a massive 6-6, 335-pounder with considerable upside, but it is hard to imagine the Falcons letting him go.
5. Running back
If we have seen the end of the Brian Westbrook era in Philadelphia, the Eagles have to fortify themselves at running back. We saw in the last Dallas game that LeSean McCoy has taken over as the No. 1 back. Leonard Weaver was the most pleasant surprise of the season, earning first-team All-Pro honors at fullback and also proving that he could play a bigger role as a ball carrier and receiver.
The Eagles need more than Eldra Buckley in reserve, however. Most likely, they would draft a back in the third or fourth round and develop him. The New York Jets found Shonn Greene in the third round this year. That’s one position where there is usually a lot of depth.