How active will the Eagles be when free agency begins at 4 p.m. on Thursday? That remains to be seen. Reality, in this instance, is more likely than the sensational "reports" that have linked the team to virtually every high-profile free-agent-to-be.
And the reality is that the Eagles don't have the wiggle room within the salary cap that most of the NFL holds. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, and it certainly can change as the Eagles make some hard decisions on the current roster, but the truth right now is that the Eagles just don't have a huge amount of dollars to spend under the salary cap.
By signing a large group of players in 2016 – both in the spring before the season and then late in the year – the Eagles locked up some key players who, had they not inked deals, would be weighing the pros and cons of signing elsewhere right now. Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, tight end Zach Ertz, safety Malcolm Jenkins, and running back Darren Sproles would all be unrestricted free agents now had they not signed last spring. Same with punter Donnie Jones, special teams star Chris Maragos, and outstanding long snapper Jon Dorenbos, key elements for the NFL's No. 1-ranked special teams unit.
Additionally, signing right tackle Lane Johnson to a six-year contract extension and locking up the best player at his position in the league gives the Eagles a critical piece as they have put together a line that should be among the league's top units in 2017.
The Eagles also made the decision to sign defensive end Vinny Curry to a long-term deal, keeping him off last year's free-agent market. Curry wasn't as productive as hoped for in 2016, but the Eagles think he will blossom with some stability and perhaps more reps this year.
"We're building our talent base and we hope we can continue to add to it, not subtract from it," Howie Roseman said. "Our goal is to keep bringing in good football players and then holding on to those players."
Roseman has acknowledged that the Eagles' salary-cap picture is "tighter" than it had been in previous offseasons, even with the rising cap, which is now $167 million, up from $155 million in 2016. As free agency approaches, the Eagles have been linked with just about every high-profile wide receiver and cornerback about to hit the market. It's not realistic to think that the Eagles can be major players in a market that has some teams (Cleveland, San Francisco, for example) with upwards of $100 million of salary-cap dollars to spend.
Last year, the Eagles came out of the box and signed a couple of key pieces for their core – safety Rodney McLeod and offensive guard Brandon Brooks – on Day 1 of free agency. Both were big-dollar deals and both players instantly became starters and project as important cogs in the wheel for seasons to come.
As we approach the start of Free Agency, take a look at NFL.com's Top 10 Free Agents of 2017.
The Eagles were able to keep Cox, their disruptive interior defensive lineman, and Johnson, who at some point projects to left tackle, as well as Ertz, who enjoyed a terrific 2016 season after recovering from a displaced-rib injury in the Week 1 victory over Cleveland. Jenkins, of course, is a very important piece of the secondary as he teams with McLeod.
So what can we expect when the checkbooks officially open on Thursday at 4 p.m.? That's hard to say. Roseman is a known deal-maker and he is always capable of pulling a rabbit out of the hat at any time. But there are limitations this time around, which is why the Eagles may very well do as Roseman has suggested this offseason: Play a "disciplined" game in free agency and concentrate their efforts on nailing their picks in April's NFL Draft.
While it's been fun to read the rumors and imagine the possibilities, the hard, cold truth is that the Eagles have a limited amount of salary-cap space available. They knew this, of course, when they made the call to extend contracts last spring. Those decisions have proven to be good ones as the cap has grown so much and teams around the league are so flush with cash. Can you imagine the market Cox would command as an unrestricted free agent? Same with Ertz and Jenkins and even, on a more modest level, the multi-talented Sproles?
The Eagles made the right decisions signing those players last year and building the talent base of the roster. Then they added to the base with the signings of McLeod and Brooks. And the draft, as well as the post-draft period, brought in some young players who are going to be key figures here, led by quarterback Carson Wentz. So the talent base is growing, piece by piece.
Roseman, though, is right when he says the Eagles "aren't just one player away" from being a Super Bowl team. This isn't 2004, when an Eagles team coming off three consecutive NFC Championship Game losses went all in on the offseason plans and signed defensive end Jevon Kearse and linebacker Dhani Jones in free agency, and traded for superstar wide receiver Terrell Owens and finally broke through the NFC title game wall.
The Eagles want to build this team with good decisions and a long-term vision in mind. They want to compete for the next decade and build around Wentz. But it's not likely to happen overnight, which is why Thursday and the days to follow could be quiet – at least more quiet than usual – around One NovaCare Way.