The makeover is underway. As the Eagles prepare for the start of free agency on March 10 at 4 PM, they are making sure they are in the best possible shape with the $143.28 million limit. Releasing cornerback Cary Williams on Tuesday helps that picture as well as offering a glimpse into the team's positions of priority this offseason.
Releasing Williams gives the Eagles another $6.5 million to use within the cap (according to OverTheCap.com) and positions the team for great flexibility in free agency and, for that matter, in the draft.
It also positions the Eagles to dramatically overhaul the cornerback position moving forward. Williams is now free to sign with any team in the league, and the 2014 starter on the other side, Bradley Fletcher, is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent on March 10.
Where do the Eagles turn? They have some options, including some on the current roster. Nolan Carroll II, signed to a two-year contract during last year's free-agency period, has 27 starts in his five NFL seasons. Brandon Boykin, primarily an inside cornerback, has four starts in his three seasons. Second-year cornerback Jaylen Watkins played sparingly as a rookie, but could see his responsibilities increase in 2015.
Certainly, though, the Eagles are going to try to upgrade a position that gave them fits in 2014. It's been widely discussed these last couple of years that the cornerbacks here would have the ability to play press coverage, to be physical at the line of scrimmage and then have the recovery skills to turn and run down the field. Defensive coordinator Bill Davis had Fletcher and Williams play off the line of scrimmage, perhaps, more than he wanted last season because neither has that kind of quickness and foot speed to recover down the field.
The Eagles allowed 69 passing plays of 20-plus yards last season, and that's just not acceptable. Not all of those plays were the fault of Williams and Fletcher, but the Eagles are obviously in the mindset that they can upgrade in free agency, the draft, or both.
Williams signed as an unrestricted free agent after helping Baltimore win the Super Bowl in 2012. In 32 starts, Williams recorded five interceptions and 25 passes defensed and he was a feisty, emotional player on the field in 2013 and 2014.
The Eagles know they need to match their cornerbacks against some of the NFL's best receiving corps in the NFC East. There is size and speed in Dallas with Dez Bryant. The Giants boast one of the most promising receiving groups with Odell Beckham, Jr. looking to build on his sensational rookie campaign and with Victor Cruz expected to return after his Achilles tendon injury. Rueben Randle caught six passes for 158 yards in the final game of the regular season, teaming with Beckham, Jr. (12-185, one touchdown) to drive the defense crazy. DeSean Jackson's deep speed in Washington was a huge problem in a Week 16 road loss for the Eagles last season.
The Eagles want to be much, much better on the corners.
Clearly, the Eagles have spent the last few months putting together their plan and now we're seeing the execution. Chip Kelly and Ed Marynowitz have this whole thing laid out in front of them and they know the landscape as free agency nears.
It's fair to wonder how deep the Eagles will go in free agency at the cornerback position with big names and very good players like New England's Darrelle Revis (if New England declines his $20 million option) and Seattle's Byron Maxwell pointed toward becoming unrestricted free agents. It's not a certainty that either player will make it to March 10, 4 PM. as teams can continue to negotiate with their pending free agents and come to deals at any time – and that includes Williams and Bradley, who in theory could return for 2015.
But it sure is intriguing. The Eagles are in a very healthy position under the salary cap. They have clear needs as they make over the cornerback group. Just how aggressive will they be in free agency? Are all of those mock drafts that project the Eagles taking a cornerback in the first round in the right neighborhood? Which players have the Eagles identified to add to this roster and improve the defense?
You see the setup. You understand the playing field. The Eagles are in the process of completing the mission, as Kelly likes to say. There is more to come, much more, as the roster takes on a new look for 2015.