This is the time to start to see the strategy unfold, to see how the pieces come together in this off-season. The Eagles have not used the franchise tag to date, and have not given any indication they will do so. Last year's instance was unusual for the Eagles: They had L.J. Smith, a starter, about to become an unrestricted free agent. They had Brent Celek undergoing off-season shoulder surgery. The draft options were sketchy and the free-agent picture bleak.
So the Eagles tagged Smith, which made sense. There was no tight end in free agency whom the Eagles graded higher. There were 16 tight ends taken in the draft and one, Dustin Keller, who was selected in the first round by the Jets. The Eagles also factored into the big picture that the upcoming draft class would have some strong prospects, so they tagged Smith, who would be paid $4.522 million for the 2008.
At the time, Smith said all the right things about the move. He spoke with optimism about the season ahead. His 2007 campaign had been cut short and marred by a groin injury and a knee injury, and a year removed from those hurts would allow Smith to have more production, closer to the 61 catches he had in 2005 and the 50 receptions he added to the offense in 2006.
But that never happened. The optimism faded quickly after a 5-reception, 39-yard, one-touchdown opener against the Rams. Smith faded quickly from the offense, re-appearing only later in the season when Smith was terrific against the Giants with 6 catches and some big yards after the catch. A 7-reception game against the Redskins was marred by a couple of key drops and a lack of execution by the offense in general.
By the time the playoffs rolled around, Smith was a backup to Celek. And it was Celek who made the big plays and was the go-to receiver in the red zone in the NFC Championship Game in Arizona, not Smith.
Smith had only 37 catches and 3 touchdowns. He was not nearly as productive as the Eagles hoped. Now he is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent on February 27, and there is no indication that he and the Eagles are talking about a new deal.
Was the use of the franchise tag the right thing to do for the Eagles? Certainly, they wanted more production from Smith and from the position throughout the year. The Eagles, throughout the course of the season, looked to upgrade tight end, but did not do a deal. The red-zone offense was not as good as it needed to be. The draft yielded Keller, who had a fine season and is an emerging tight end with the Jets. A couple of the second-round players look to be prospects, but it would have been difficult to project any of them as first-year difference-makers.
The use of the tag, the $4-plus million, did not prohibit the Eagles from spending elsewhere in free agency. Had Smith enjoyed the kind of season he wanted to have, the Eagles would have looked back on the move as a positive. Instead, tight end is a position to look at once again in this off-season.
Will the Eagles play tag this season? They still have some time to decide, but it doesn't appear as likely. There are some difficult negotiations ahead, and some tough decisions. Smith is one of those questions as the off-season begins to warm up just a little bit with less than three weeks to go before free agency starts.
NEWS, NOTES AND THIS AND THAT* We're seeing a lot of posturing in the media and by the media regarding free agency, and that makes it exciting to anticipate what might happen in the future. I have absolutely no idea what the Eagles might do. I know that they have a preliminary plan in place and that they are just as interested in seeing which players from other teams make it to the free-agency market. In the meantime, it seems to me that we're going to find out very soon which players the Eagles plan on retaining. The list of unrestricted free agents-to-be includes a handful of players who had key roles in the last many years here.
- Keep the Pro Bowl in Hawaii, or don't play it at all.
- Todd Haley, boy, did anyone even mention his name as a coaching candidate before Arizona made it to the Super Bowl? Now he's a head coach? Good luck to Haley and the Chiefs, because it is a huge jump that he just made. Kansas City has some pieces in the off-season to work with and a strong front office structure, and Haley is going to be in focus from day one. Very interesting move.
- Jon Runyan said in an interview recently that he will be on crutches for eight weeks after having microfracture surgery on his knee. This certainly muddles his future. Teams just won't know if Runyan will be able to recovery from the tricky surgery for three or four months. From an Eagles' perspective, it also raises questions. Do they take a chance on Runyan recovering fully? Do they address the position in free agency and/or the draft and then see how the position looks in June and then get back to Runyan? Or do the Eagles move away from Runyan completely? Questions, questions. Good luck to Jon, one of the best right tackles, toughest guys and team leaders around. It would be great to have him back in 2009, providing the knee is recovered and Runyan is healthy to play.
*Just to keep you on track: The Eagles return from the Pro Bowl on Monday, and then the front office really digs in. The team has already made lists and checked grades on players, but they continue to watch film and evaluate and firm up their plans for free agency right up until February 27. Meanwhile, draft prep is in full gear. It is all very exciting -- behind the scenes.