On The Edge Blog

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Pepper, Thomas and Sharper top free agency wish list

Now that Sydney Crosby has ended our national sports interest, we can all return to rooting for the team closest to where we live, which means focusing on the Philadelphia Eagles as they spend the next few weeks frustrating their fans by not upgrading their roster through free agency in the name of rebuilding through the NFL Draft.

Usually the draft and free agency are seen as two separate entities, but with labor strife on the horizon, the NFL is heading into an uncapped year, which means the majority of available players are “restricted free agents” (RFA). These players, who would normally be free to sign with any team, are essentially being handed one-year contracts by their current team at a greatly reduced rate, with draft pick compensation attached to them based on the salary at which their contract is tendered.

If another team chooses to offer that player a contract, the original team can retain the player by matching the offer sheet, or they could choose to take the draft pick compensation from the new team. There are some unrestricted free agents (UFA), such as Julius Peppers, Darren Sharper, LaDainian Tomlinson and Brian Westbrook, but most are restricted.

So unless NFL Players Association Union President DeMaurice Smith realizes by March 5 that 200 very angry free agents are about to miss out on their chance at a huge payday, and then works out a way to extend the collective bargaining agreement, this could be the quietest free agency period since its inception, as many teams will be hesitant to give up as much as a first rounder and a third rounder to sign a player.

Based on all of this, it would seem as though the Eagles’ normal behavior regarding draft picks would say that Andy Reid’s gang of tightwads will be silent for the next seven weeks, but that probably won’t be the case, as several players could be signed with minimal compensation.

At some point this offseason – either through free agency or the draft – the Eagles need to address their issues at defensive end, linebacker, safety and running back.

While that may sound like a lot, it really isn’t because one of those players will be selected with the 24th pick in the draft (hopefully, Taylor Mays from USC), so here is a breakdown of who the Eagles should be calling at midnight tonight.

Defensive end: This list starts and ends with Julius Peppers. The 6-7, 283-pound defensive end has racked up 25 sacks in the last two years, and has reached double digits in six of his eight seasons. As an unrestricted free agent, Peppers would only cost the Eagles a large amount of money, but would leave their draft picks intact.

While the Eagles registered 44 sacks last year – 38 by the defensive line – it was clear that the line was worn down at the end of the season, and Trent Cole, who had 12.5 sacks last season, was beaten up from constant double-teams. With Peppers on the opposite side as Cole, offenses would have to use a running back and a tight end to block, making things a lot easier on the linebackers and secondary. Or, they could just use five guys to block and give Cole and Peppers free shots at the quarterback. Either scenario works for me.

Lesser options: Ray Edwards (RFA), Derrick Burgess (UFA), Elvis Dumervil (RFA)

Linebacker: A few weeks ago, I wrote that the Eagles’ eight linebackers combined for just 4.5 sacks, four interceptions and three forced fumbles, which means that upgrades are desperately needed for this group. Assuming Will Witherspoon and Stewart Bradley are starters next year, that leaves one open spot. That spot could be at any of the three positions because of the versatility of Bradley and Witherspoon, so the Eagles should just find the best linebacker available, regardless of whether he is listed as middle, strongside or weakside.

I’m going to assume that the Eagles are not willing to give up a first round pick to get someone like DeMeco Ryans from the Texans, but then again, why wouldn’t they? If Ryan is better than any player the Birds could draft in the latter part of the first round, why not take a 25-year-old who has made 519 tackles in his first four seasons, including 123 in 2009?

I honestly don’t think the Eagles are going to address this position through free agency because they technically did it at the trade deadline by bringing in Witherspoon, but it is nice to dream that they would go after Ryans.

Lesser Options: Keith Bulluck (UFA, but recovering from knee surgery), Scott Fujita (UFA)

Safety: Like at linebacker, the best players at safety received the top tenders, meaning the Eagles would have to abandon their draft plans to get someone like Nick Collins from the Packers, but if Darren Sharper remains unsigned by the New Orleans Saints, then the Eagles would be fools not to make a run at a player who actually could fill the shoes of Brian Dawkins. Sharper picked off nine passes last year (tying him for the NFL lead with Asante Samuel), and made 70 tackles for the Super Bowl champions. It will cost a lot of money in the short-term to snag the 34-year-old, but he clearly showed that he can still play, so it would be worth it to make a three-year commitment to add another playmaker to the defense.

Lesser Options: Antrel Rolle (soon-to-be released) Sean Jones (re-signing), Eric Smith (RFA)

Running Back: The Eagles obviously need to replace Brian Westbrook because Eldra Buckley is not going to be LeSean McCoy’s backup, however, running backs are easy to find in the middle rounds of the draft, so I wouldn’t expect a big splash at this position on March 5. However, if the Birds are seriously looking, then Pierre Thomas should be the focus.

The “PT Cruiser” would fit perfectly in the Birds’ offense, and would only cost the Eagles a second-round pick. At 210 pounds, Thomas would complement McCoy perfectly, just like he did in New Orleans with Reggie Bush. Thomas picked up 793 yards on the ground, averaging 5.4 yards-per-carry last year, but also hauled in 39 passes while excelling in the Saints’ screen plays.

Lesser Options: Thomas Jones (soon-to-be released), Jason Snelling (RFA), Michael Bush (trade with Oakland)

After breaking it down, the Eagles could be major players in free agency, but they will need to be aggressive to snatch up the unrestricted free agents, while saving their draft picks for a very talented crop of college players.

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Name: Matthew Fleishman, Yardley News Editor
Location: United States

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