In the past week, the Eagles added eight players in free agency and traded for another player. I didn't anticipate anything close to this in terms of activity. I hoped the team would use free agency wisely, but simply wasn't sure how to take general manager Howie Roseman's comments about building the team through the draft.
After the results of the free agent bonanza in 2011, there was part of me that thought Roseman might be thinking of following Packers general manager Ted Thompson's way. Thompson is the general manager of the Green Bay Packers. He literally doesn't sign any free agents. Thompson truly builds the Packers through the draft and adding undrafted free agents. He takes an extreme stance. I don't know if Thompson can sustain this, but for now he's made it work pretty darn well.
Roseman didn't take such a drastic stance. He saw holes on the roster and went and filled several of them by adding free agents. I think this is smart. Free agency is a tool that can benefit an organization if used correctly. Roseman's talk of building the team through the draft still applies. Drafted players become the foundation of the organization. Those are the building blocks of a franchise. Free agency is simply a way to supplement the draft.
I do think free agency had added importance to the Eagles this year. Chip Kelly is the new coach and the team will be implementing new systems. Kelly has to find his type of players. Trying to do that strictly through the draft would have been very difficult.
While the Eagles were active and aggressive in free agency, this was no 2011. The team signed three players who were age 30 or older back then. There were another couple of 29-year-olds. They were talented players, but they were also in decline. Several of the players were best described as speedy, finesse types.
The approach this time was completely different. Look at some of the traits of the new additions:
- Only one player above the age of 29.
- Versatile players who can play multiple roles and fit multiple schemes.
- Several players have been good on special teams.
- These are tough, physical players.
- Most of the players came from successful organizations and winning environments.
- The players were signed more for the future than the past.
That last point is important. Nnamdi Asomugha got paid big bucks by the Eagles for the Pro Bowls he had already been to. The players the team signed this time are on the way up. There isn't a star among them. Their resumes aren't nearly as impressive as the guys from 2011, but it won't be hard for the 2013 class to out-perform the 2011 free agents.
My goal was for the Eagles to focus on the secondary. They did just that. I felt the team needed to add at least a pair of starters. Roseman went out and got a pair of starting cornerbacks, a starting safety and another player who can start at safety if he's healthy. Not only did Roseman focus on the area I wanted, he got the type of guys I wanted - physical.
Cornerback Cary Williams drives you nuts, unless he plays for your team. He isn't a great cover corner, but he is a solid starter and he absolutely brings the right attitude to the secondary. Williams is ultra-competitive. He will do whatever it takes to get the job done. He plays with a sense of urgency, almost desperation. That is a welcome change from the last couple of years when star cornerbacks played alarmingly soft and were more interested in assigning blame rather than hitting and tackling.
Tommy Lawlor, goeagles99 on the Discussion Boards, is an amateur football scout and devoted Eagles fan. He is the Editor of IgglesBlitz.com and was a contributor to the Eagles Almanac.
Bradley Fletcher is a player who I wrote about last week and hoped the Eagles would get. He is more talented that people realize. He had some bad luck that sidetracked a promising career in St. Louis. It won't surprise me if Fletcher becomes a good corner for the Eagles. He has the ability. He will also hit and tackle. Fletcher was a player on the rise back in 2010. He got hurt in 2011 and then got lost in the shuffle late in 2012. He has a chip on his shoulder and wants to prove to the NFL that he is a good cornerback.
Safety Patrick Chung is another guy I'm happy about. He brings a real physical presence to the secondary. Chung isn't a ballhawk. He's got 30 career starts and seven interceptions. That's not a bad total, but that's just not his specialty. Chung is a good tackler and explosive hitter. Runners and receivers have to be on the lookout when Chung is in the area. The Eagles have been lacking this type of a player since Brian Dawkins left. Chung isn't in Dawkins' class as an overall player. Let's be clear about that. Dawk is the rare safety who could hit, tackle, cover and do it all. Chung is best playing around the box. He's not going to shine 30 yards downfield in coverage.
The Eagles signed Kenny Phillips to a one-year deal. Phillips was a good player for the Giants for the past five years, but knee injuries made them decide to let him sign elsewhere. If Phillips turns out to be healthy, he could be a very nice addition. He has the size and toughness to play strong safety. He has the range and cover skills to play free safety. He's not great in any area, but is very good all around. For now, Phillips and Nate Allen will battle for the free safety spot. We need one of them to emerge as a good starter. If that happens, the secondary could take a major step forward in 2013.
One transaction that went a bit under the radar was the signing of Jason Phillips. He was added for a couple of reasons. First, he offers depth at inside linebacker. More importantly, he is a standout on special teams. Phillips led the Panthers last year in special teams tackles. I was a big fan of his coming out of TCU. He's not developed into a starting linebacker yet, but Phillips is a good role player and those guys are key when building a winning team. Remember Ike Reese from 2000-2004?
Isaac Sopoaga is another player who will do the dirty work. He was added to play the nose tackle position. Sopoaga was a key cog in the Niners outstanding defense. He can take on multiple blockers and hold his ground. He only has 7.5 career sacks. Eagles defensive tackles normally would consider that a good season, but for a career? Welcome to the new defense. Shooting gaps is no longer a priority. The nose tackle must be an anchor against the run. Anything he does to push the pocket is a bonus. Sopoaga will turn 32 in early September, but he is a specialist who will play limited snaps. The NFL is a passing league and Sopoaga probably won't be on the field much on passing downs. Age isn't as crucial a factor for him.
The closest thing to a star addition is Connor Barwin. He had a great season in 2011, but got moved around in 2012 and his numbers dropped off. The Texans hoped to keep him, but had salary cap issues and had to let him walk. Barwin is a real good pickup. He has the versatility to play end in 4-3 looks or linebacker in 3-4 looks. He is athletically gifted enough to cover tight ends and some running backs. Barwin is a good pass rusher. He gives defensive coordinator Bill Davis a player to move around and be creative with. Barwin's 3-4 experience also helps. Defensive holdovers are all 4-3 guys. Playing in 3-4 looks will be new to them. Barwin can offer tips since he played in that system for the past two years. If Barwin plays up to his potential, he could be an impact player.
The offense didn't get nearly as much attention because that group simply didn't have as many holes. James Casey was the lone free agent addition. This signing didn't get a ton of attention, but Casey could prove to be a key player. He is a jack of all trades. Casey can play fullback, H-back, tight end or slot receiver. He isn't a star at any one spot. His versatility could be huge for Chip Kelly's offense. Kelly likes to run an up-tempo, no-huddle attack.
Let's say you have a pair of wide receivers, a tight end, a running back and Casey on the field to start the drive. The first play can be run out of the I-formation, with Casey at fullback. The defense has to get in a base look. The next play can feature Casey in the slot. The defense has to cover him with a safety or linebacker. If they go with a safety, maybe you throw a pass downfield since that area is now more open. If the defense shifts a linebacker to cover Casey, run the ball since the defense only has six players in the box. The offense can line up in all kinds of different looks without changing personnel. That puts tremendous pressure on the defense.
The key to this is that Casey has the size, athleticism, skills and toughness to handle the various jobs. He's willing to block a linebacker on an inside run play. Casey can run 25 yards downfield and catch a pass. Not many players can do such a mixture of things and do them well. Casey was good for the Texans, but could be much better in Kelly's system since it will be more creative. Casey will be more of a key player.
The final player to be added was receiver Arrelious Benn. I was a huge fan of his coming out of Illinois. I saw a player that was raw, but had the physicality of Anquan Boldin. Benn never fully developed in Tampa. He is still talented, but comes to Philly to be a role player on offense. He offers value on special teams. He has kickoff return experience in the NFL and college. Penn State fans may remember a 2007 loss to Illinois where Benn ran a kickoff back 90 yards for a touchdown. Benn is also good at covering kicks. He has the size, strength and physicality to go down and make coverage plays. This was a good move since it helps depth on offense and boosts special teams.
Chip Kelly and Howie Roseman filled several roster holes. They moved quickly and decisively to add players who are young, talented and hungry. The players are also tough and physical. I really do think that they added the right type of players. Time will tell if they actually added the right players.