Eagles Quietly Have Solid Start to Free Agency

Story posted March 13, 2013 in Sports, CommRadio, NFL Draft by Dan Smith

Entering free agency with nearly $44 million in cap space after releasing cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, the Philadelphia Eagles were linked to nearly every high priced free agent entering the market Tuesday. But instead of making a big splash with someone like former 49ers safety Dashon Goldson, the Eagles elected to spread their spending around with a series of under-the-radar moves.

Philadelphia announced five signings Tuesday evening: Texans tight end James Casey, 49ers nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga, Rams cornerback Bradley Fletcher, Patriots safety Patrick Chung and Panthers linebacker Jason Phillips. Casey, Sopoaga and Chung signed three year deals, while Fletcher and Phillips signed two year deals.

It's a transitional period for Philadelphia. The Eagles fired head coach Andy Reid after 14 seasons and hired former University of Oregon head coach Chip Kelly. One of Kelly's first decisions as coach was to transition the Eagles' defense from a 4-3 scheme to a 4-3 under scheme under new defensive coordinator Billy Davis. A 4-3 under is a hybrid scheme that in many respects resembles a 3-4 defense, and the 2012 Eagles roster lacked the personnel to fit such a defense.

So the Eagles began making changes. Philadelphia cut defensive tackles Cullen Jenkins and Mike Patterson, freeing up cap space to sign more linemen that fit the new defense. Sopoaga will slide into the nose tackle role, battling current tackle Antonio Dixon for the starting job. The Eagles also interviewed 49ers defensive lineman Ricky Jean-Francois Wednesday. Jean-Francois will next visit Indianapolis and consider his options.

The secondary has also been a major concern for the Eagles after a disastrous 2012 season defending the pass. With Asomugha gone and free agent cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie unlikely to be retained, Fletcher should slide in nicely as a second cornerback along with slot corner Brandon Boykin. The Eagles still need a number one corner, which leaves the door open for the team to take Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner with the fourth overall pick or to pursue another free agent in a cornerback-heavy market.

Safety has also been a position of concern. Starters Nate Allen and Kurt Coleman combined to lead the NFL in missed tackles last season, even while missing some games with injury. Chung should slide in as the starting strong safety, allowing Allen to move back to his natural position at free safety. Coleman is a decent backup, and special teams ace Colt Anderson has shown himself to be a capable backup at strong safety.

The lone offensive signing of the first day was James Casey, a player who seems to be a perfect fit for Kelly's new offensive scheme. Casey mostly played fullback in Houston, but projects as an H-back style tight end for the Eagles, who are likely to phase the fullback position out of the equation under Kelly. A two tight end set rotating Casey with Brent Celek and Clay Harbor seems to be the idea here, and Casey's pass catching ability has impressed many scouts.

Phillips' signing is a depth signing that will address some special teams coverage issues. Aside from Anderson's stellar play, there have been a lot of criticisms of Philadelphia's special teams units, and Phillips is considered another excellent special teams player. He will also be allowed to mix in to the linebacker rotation on defense.

There were no splashy signings for the Eagles on Tuesday, but that's not a bad thing. This team had too many holes to be able to afford a few high-priced free agents. Instead, Kelly and general manager Howie Roseman elected to plug the holes with solid, underappreciated players they specifically targeted. Even after signing five useful players, the Eagles remain about $20 million under the salary cap limit in 2013, giving them the flexibility to make more moves before the draft.

That's not to say that the Eagles should avoid high-priced free agents entirely. But this offseason is about laying a base for years to come. Putting together a younger, cheaper roster will allow Kelly a smoother transition to his new system, with players who better fit his schemes. And with so many issues, a high-priced free agent would do little to help the team's chances of winning a Super Bowl. For now, Kelly and Roseman are doing the right thing, allowing the Eagles to fully begin their rebuilding phase.

Dan Smith is a senior majoring in broadcast journalism, the Executive Editor of ComRadio and an NFL Draft Show Producer. To contact him, email des5249@psu.edu.