Each day we get closer to the start of the true off-season, March 5 to be exact, when free agency begins and the path teams hope to take to improve their rosters truly begins to show some wear. For a team like the Eagles, after an 11-win season and then a first-round playoff exit, the off-season is going to be an opportunity to add the handful of pieces that could make this roster a Super Bowl contender.
The question is: How, with all of the uncertainty ahead, are the Eagles going to make the moves to improve?
A natural answer is to approach free agency aggressively and sign two or three players, one or two of whom are "impact" starters, and then channel the rest of the efforts into the draft and keep your eyes open for a trade or two. That is the loosest of the loose blueprints, but with the Collective Bargaining Agreement a major -- and unresolved -- issue, free agency could be unchartered waters. All of those players whose contracts expire as free agency begins who normally would be great targets after playing for four or five seasons in the NFL will suddenly be restricted free agents. If there is no new CBA signed, only players with expiring contracts who have played six NFL seasons will be unrestricted free agents in March.
And that fact trims the list of potentially attractive unrestricted free agents dramatically and lessens the impact free agency would have.
Teams' dollars would be spent, instead, on tendering restricted free agents at high levels to minimize the risk that those players would leave to sign with other teams. Two of the most interesting players in that situation on the Eagles' roster, for example, are wide receiver Jason Avant and fullback Leonard Weaver. Both would be unrestricted free agents under the rules by which teams have played for years -- Avant has been an Eagle for four seasons, and Weaver has been in the league for five years.
Both are good, young players. Both would aid any team in this league. And both will be, if there is no agreement between the owners and the players association, restricted free agents and their ability to leave the Eagles would be greatly hindered.
The Eagles must calculate at what level they should tender both players -- among others -- because, quite honestly, both Avant and Weaver are important to the success of the Eagles offense.
You get the drift, I hope. We're going into a period of time that can go in any number of directions, and probably will. You can't enter free agency and look at a list and pick out two or three names and safely figure the Eagles will sign them. If there is no salary cap, will teams spend through the roof? Or will they use restraint, not knowing what 2011 brings?
The draft remains the essential foundation for every team's development, of course, and the Eagles are coming off an April in which they added some immediate impact. With seven draft picks, six in the opening four rounds, they again have the opportunity to trade up, down and around, and there seem to be some movable pieces on the roster -- can you see Donovan McNabb, Kevin Kolb and Michael Vick returning? -- to deal for draft picks.
I'm sitting here thinking in mid-January wondering how the Eagles can bring in five or six players who can help in 2010 -- give me some help at offensive line (1-2 spots), defensive line (1-2 spots), linebacker (one spot) and the secondary (two spots) -- and I can't tell you if free agency, the draft or the trade route will provide the most aid.
In many ways, this off-season is like last year's. The Eagles turned over quite a bit of the roster after the loss to Arizona and the result was a much younger team that went out and reached the playoffs. There was plenty of promise, and there remains a lot of hope and expectation, but the end result was disappointment.
There is going to be similar change coming. I feel it. The Eagles have major decisions to make at quarterback (all three are under contract through 2010), running back (is Brian Westbrook coming back?), fullback (Weaver is too good to let go, right?) and an offensive line that was addressed heavily a year ago but still remains a question mark.
The defense gets middle linebacker Stewart Bradley back and he is going to help, but there remain some areas that require immediate attention. The Eagles need help from front to back on defense, whether it comes in free agency, via trade or in the draft.
My guess is that the Eagles are going to chart a similar course as last year. Anything goes. The Eagles had an enormously aggressive and quite successful off-season. But which provides the most punch? Will it be free agency? A couple of trades? The draft?
We're probably in a slow period here for a couple of weeks. The Eagles made a splash last week by replacing special teams coordinator Ted Daisher with Bobby April, a move hailed by all observers as one that will make a very positive impact right away. It was just a start, though, and the Eagles are taking a deep breath before they come back to really dig their heels in and plan for the off-season ahead.
They're going to ask questions they've never before asked, though, as the labor discord makes for new territory for every NFL team. I find it extremely interesting. You and I are tossing around names and possibilities like it means something. Truth is, we don't know what to expect between now and training camp, which generally means you'd better expect everything the strap in for another marathon of an off-season.