We have just over a week until free agency starts. Just like you, I'd love the Eagles to go in and make a big move or two. The problem is that the group of players to choose from just isn't a good fit for what the Eagles are looking for.
Normally the Eagles have two kinds of primary free agent targets. They like to go after elite players (Jevon Kearse, Jon Runyan, Asante Samuel, etc.). They also like to go after ascending players. Carlos Emmons fit this category. He worked out very well. Mark Simoneau and James Thrash fit this category. Both guys were solid starters for a couple of years, but neither developed into the level of player that was hoped for.
The offensive line choices this year aren't very good. Take away Carolina's Jordan Gross and there isn't a really compelling offensive tackle. Tra Thomas is probably the second-best left tackle available. It sounds like the Eagles may be trying to re-sign him. I have mixed feelings about this. Thomas has been a terrific player for us for a long time. He's still a good pass blocker and keeps Donovan McNabb's backside clean. Thomas has never been a strong run blocker, but he's gotten really inconsistent. I just watched some of the game the Eagles played against San Francisco. Thomas cost the Eagles two plays with sloppy run blocks in the portion of the game I watched. One of those plays was a third-and-1 run up the middle where his defender crashed down and tackled Correll Buckhalter for a loss.
I'm being greedy. I want the reliable pass blocking of Thomas with improved run blocking. Unfortunately, it doesn't look like that player is available right now. Re-signing Thomas makes a lot of sense from that perspective. I'm still hoping that Gross doesn't get re-signed by the Panthers and they somehow don't use the franchise tag on him. He is the one player I would aggressively pursue of the free agent blockers. We'll know more on his situation Thursday evening. He'll have a new contract, the tag, or will be in the clear and a highly-desired player. Vernon Carey of Miami could be of interest at right tackle, but I don't see the Eagles going after him aggressively. I personally like Tyson Clabo of the Falcons, but he is a restricted free agent and will probably require a high draft pick. I don't like him that much.
Tight end is an intriguing position. Brent Celek emerged as someone who has starting ability. I don't see any guys in the class that I'd definitely take over him. Many fans will be interested in Bo Scaife of the Titans. Let's take a closer look at him. Scaife did catch 58 passes and had a good year. The question is how good is he? Scaife averaged less than 10 yards per reception. That's a pedestrian number. He only had a pair of touchdowns. Scaife is a solid blocker, but nothing special. Celek is bigger than Scaife. They're about the same athletically. I just don't know that Scaife is worth a big contract. The smarter play is probably to sign a backup tight end and then spend a high pick on someone to add to the mix.
There are some interesting backup tight ends available this year. Will Heller of Seattle is a big guy that knows the west coast offense. San Francisco's Billy Bajema has some blocking ability and will play special teams. The Eagles reportedly wanted to pick him in the seventh round back in the 2005 draft, but the Niners took him instead. Bajema could be a solid No. 3 tight end. The best blocker/pure backup tight end the Eagles have had recently was Jeff Thomason. Find a guy like that in free agency and then add an athletic receiver in the draft. There are several guys available.
Everyone likes to talk about wide receiver, but I am not interested in the free agent group. I just don't see anyone that is a major improvement. T.J. Houshmandzadeh is the big name, but he's just not the elite receiver that people think. He's a solid player with some size. He moves the chains. He is good in the red zone, but between the 20s he's nothing special. In theory, I'd be all for adding a player to help us in the red zone, but the problem is that Houshmandzadeh would want to be the primary receiver. He's used to catching a lot of passes. Each of the last three years he has totaled 90 or more receptions. No Eagles wide receiver has caught that many passes with Andy Reid as the coach. It just isn't the way we do things. Would Houshmandzadeh be a good fit here making only 70 catches? Maybe. I won't be upset if the Eagles go and sign him, but I also won't lose any sleep if he heads elsewhere. He is a good player, but isn't the difference-maker that a lot of people believe him to be.
I've done some research in regard to the running back position and there is only one player that I really want the team to sign – Correll Buckhalter. The Eagles need to be smart here. Pay him a few extra bucks. Promise him more of a role. Do what it takes to keep Buckhalter around. There aren't great choices in free agency. Buckhalter is the best fit for us of any of the players out there. Recent cuts have put some big-name starters in the mix. Fred Taylor and Deuce McAllister have been big-time players in their careers. Would either guy make sense for the Eagles? Not really. Taylor is a big back, but the Jaguars used Maurice Jones-Drew on a lot of short-yardage and goal line plays. Taylor only scored one touchdown in 2008. McAllister is a good power runner, but has missed two of the last four years with injuries. He could be of interest, but hardly a slam dunk option.
The one X-factor is Darren Sproles. On the surface he doesn't make any sense as an Eagles target. He's a good receiver. We already have Brian Westbrook. Sproles is a shifty guy that can make things happen in space. Again, we already have Westbrook. Sproles could help the return game. We already have Quintin Demps and DeSean Jackson.
Think creatively for a minute. Sproles can be a dynamic receiver. He averaged 11.8 yards per reception this year. Westbrook's best number was 10.1 yards a catch in 2005. Sproles had five touchdown catches this year. Westbrook had the same number, but took almost twice the catches to get there. Sproles has three return touchdowns in his career. The Eagles could decide that Jackson will get plenty of touches on offense and that they'd like someone else as the primary punt returner. Sproles would also offer the Eagles a player who could impact the running game with only 10 or so carries a game. That would fit the current offensive structure very well.
I would prefer that the Eagles pay up and keep Buckhalter around, but you can at least make an interesting argument for them pursuing Darren Sproles. The Chargers do have a say in this. They are considering whether or not to use the franchise tag on Sproles.
There is no fullback that is a no-brainer target. Leonard Weaver of the Seahawks is the big name, but he's more of a runner/receiver than a bruising blocker. I still think the Eagles best option at fullback could be Dan Klecko, with a full off-season to prepare. The irony of the whole Klecko situation is that the Eagles moved him from fullback to defense because they felt he wasn't going to be an effective receiver. What was Klecko's strength last year? Catching the ball. He showed surprisingly good hands and ran hard once he had made the catch. His blocking needed improvement. Klecko now knows what the fullback position is like. With an entire off-season to work on his body and his technique, he just might turn out to be the answer. I want Kyle Eckel and a rookie to challenge him. The bottom line is that the Eagles need better play from the fullback position in 2009.
One player I get asked about a lot is Julius Peppers. The thinking is that the Eagles will go after him because of the way they value defensive linemen. Sure there has been a lot of talk that Peppers wants to play in the 3-4 defense, but most people assume that is just a way to increase his value by adding more suitors to the chase. That is possible, but I tend to believe Peppers. I think he does want to play outside linebacker in a 3-4. You have to understand that he's as much athlete as he is football player. Peppers has never been the rugged monster that we picture most pass rushers to be. He's a quiet, introspective guy. He has football skills, but more of a basketball mentality. I want no part of him. Peppers isn't a bad guy, but football players, especially on defense, need some edge to their personality. Can you imagine if Reggie White told Buddy Ryan he wanted to move from end so that he could play in space and use more of his athletic ability?
I wish I could tell you to expect some big moves in free agency, but it just doesn't look like that is going to happen. Maybe the Eagles will shock me and go after some of the players I've talked about. Just when I think I've got the Eagles figured out they go and throw me a curveball. At least the action is going to start here pretty soon. I'm tired of guessing and speculating. I want to see some moves.