The road is paved out there as free agency nears and the off-season kicks into high gear. The free-agent class (as it looks now) has enough attractive names, marquee talents and players who fit apparent needs here that if the Eagles want to make an impact early when the market opens, they can. This football team is in a unique position, one that is must take advantage of over the next several months. With a busy, busy week ahead, it's time to make a wish list of the positions the Eagles would do well to address and the moves they could make ...
1. FIRST STEP, TAKE CARE OF TENDERS
This is not a routine exercise. Not in a year when there is no salary cap and the very real possibility is that some teams will act as poachers looking for good deals signing restricted free agents away from their previous teams. The Eagles are likely to dig into this fully when the Scouting Combine is complete, but we know that the big three are fullback Leonard Weaver, wide receiver Jason Avant and offensive guard/center Nick Cole. All three are extremely important to retain. Max Jean-Gilles started and is a good guard and if he is not rated a starter in some circles, he certainly is an excellent reserve.
The Eagles have 10 players who are scheduled to become restricted free agents and they are likely to not offer tenders to each and every one of the players. It is an important process here. What do the Eagles do with, for example, Alex Smith? A hard-working veteran who helped the team with his blocking last year, Smith could come back and provide the Eagles with a nice option as a No. 2 or No. 3 tight end. But how much are the Eagles counting on second-year man Cornelius Ingram to come back after suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament last summer? Who are the candidates to press Ingram, and where is the security blanket should Ingram not make it all the way back? Martin Rucker is a promising talent, but is he ready to be the backup to Brent Celek?
Also, the Eagles need to have their ducks in a row should they target some restricted free agent from another team. The Eagles have extra draft picks to work with. Maybe, as we all guess at what the Eagles' plan is when free agency begins, they intend to target someone who is going to have a restricted tender on him?
The restricted market is not one to ignore. Who do the Eagles keep? Who leaves? Any way the Eagles dip into another team's roster and sign a young veteran? Stay tuned.
*2. ADDRESS LINE OF SCRIMMAGE *
It has to be done. It has to be upgraded. Both sides of the ball need to be better, and while you go back and think about the losses at Dallas, you have to start at the line of scrimmage. The Eagles need to challenge each position here, both on offense and on defense. I'm not suggesting the Eagles go out and replace Jason Peters at left tackle, but they sure need to make sure they are well-equipped there with Peters as the headliner. Is, then, King Dunlap the right backup?
You get the idea. There are the obvious questions about the offensive line -- who plays center? Where do Shawn Andrews and Stacy Andrews fit into the equation? If Cole comes back, what do the Eagles plan to do with him? Is Jamaal Jackson being counted on to return in September?
Defensively, the Eagles could use any kind of help they can find. The report out there saying that the Eagles are on Peppers' "short list" is a cruel tease, but the truth is that we have no idea what the Eagles are thinking here. We do know that they need to be a better defensive line from one end to the other, and Peppers is the big fish expected in the free-agent ocean. He isn't the only one, though, and the draft class is going to have some talent, too.
At defensive tackle, yeah, challenge starters Mike Patterson and Brodrick Bunkley. Make Antonio Dixon and Trevor Laws earn their roster spots. You can never be too good along the line of scrimmage and the Eagles have holes to fill and questions to answer.
*3. MAXIMIZE ASSETS AT QB POSITION *
We all know the scenario here. What are the Eagles going to do here with three quality players in Donovan McNabb, Kevin Kolb and Michael Vick entering the final year of their contracts? There sure are a bunch of rumors out there and all of those rumors mean nothing. Zippo. Zilch.
I don't know how it is going to play out, but the Eagles are not likely to ever again have this opportunity. They have what the rest of the NFL desires -- good quarterbacks. And they don't need all three of them. Oh, if the Eagles bring back all three players, they are going to have a great situation at quarterback in 2010. And perhaps they will do just that.
At the same time, it seems the Eagles can help themselves in a lot of ways by picking up the phone and listening to teams calling to inquire about McNabbKolbVick. The next step here is how the Eagles handle a bonus due to Vick on Friday. Reports say the Eagles are going to pay the bonus. If they do, what does it mean?
*4. THINK OUT OF THE BOX ON DRAFT WEEKEND *
I think the Eagles can sign two or three free agents, with at least one of them coming in as a starter. They can address some of the holes they have by being aggressive in free agency -- free safety? Offensive guard? Backup running back? -- and then go into the draft not having to draft for starting players.
The worst scenario is that the Eagles make it to draft day and have dramatic needs. Can they rely on rookies contributing as much as the classes have the last two years? DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin were terrific as rookies and they are star talents, but is that the norm or the exception in the NFL?
The Eagles have been as inventive as any team in the league during the draft. They move up, down and all around. They trade for veterans. They add draft picks for the future. They move players on their existing roster. They do it all.
This is no time to stop.
Howie Roseman is a creative guy, a smart man and an experienced hand at the trade game on draft weekend. The Eagles have four draft picks in the opening three rounds and six picks through four rounds. That offers them a great chance to bundle a couple of picks and go way, way up in the first round, if they choose. They can really do anything they want to secure some of the prime-time talent on April 22. Get ready for a wild, wild draft weekend with the new format.
*5. BRING IN SOME PUNCH AT RUNNING BACK *
A new era begins with LeSean McCoy taking the lead role in the running game, and the Eagles have a strong track record knowing when young players are prepared to step up. McCoy has a chance to be a special player. But the Eagles need depth here and while I'm not taking anything away from Eldra Buckley and Martell Mallett, the Eagles need to add a back who has the all-purpose skills this offense demands.
From where do the Eagles get that complement to McCoy, or even a player to challenge McCoy for playing time? Could it be in free agency, where Chester Taylor and Darren Sproles and even Thomas Jones could be available? Could it be in the draft, where the talent pool is said to be deep and talented and well-versed in the all-purpose ability needed to play at this level?
Rookie running backs have had success early in the Andy Reid era. Correll Buckhalter was a dynamic presence in his rookie campaign of 2000. Westbrook did well when called upon, but the 2002 backfield was strong with Duce Staley rushing for 1,029 yard and Dorsey Levens chipping in with a 5.5-yard per-carry average.
And, of course, McCoy was ready to play last year with Westbrook hobbled. So if the Eagles opt for a draft pick to add to the depth in the backfield, so be it. They have choices here. They have great options. And they have a very definite need. So the challenge is to bring in a starter-caliber player, not just a "nice backup."
*6. UPGRADE FREE SAFETY SPOT *
This goes without saying. The Eagles want to see what Quintin Demps and Macho Harris can do in the post-draft camps, but it seems logical to think that the Eagles are going to add to the position. Again, both the free-agent class and the draft class have players who are heralded. There is a lot of talent available to consider.
You know the names. Some of them jump off the page. If the Eagles want to make an instant strike at free safety, it seems, they're going to have the opportunity. If they want to add a young stud talent in the draft, hey, he's going to be there on April 22.
That's really the way it is set up for this off-season. The Eagles are going to make some noise. They're going to have an active off-season, and with well-defined needs and the hand of cards they hold, the Eagles are going to have a lot of excitement ahead.
Here is the wish list, in no particular order: Free safety, offensive line, defensive end, running back, linebacker, cornerback. Really, everything. Challenge the roster. A brave, new NFL world waits starting on Friday. The Eagles, mum on the subject, are a team to watch. What do they do?