March 9 is the date that everyone has circled. It is when the 2016 NFL League Year begins, at 4 PM ET, precisely. It is the time when all heck generally breaks loose in the league, much to the fans' delight ...
Last year's frenzy was a prime example. Once the NFL's three-day window for teams to negotiate with players' agents ended, the real fun began: Once the clock struck 4 PM, the news came flying fast and furious. The Eagles traded running back LeSean McCoy to Buffalo for linebacker Kiko Alonso. The Eagles traded quarterback Nick Foles and a second-round draft pick to St. Louis for quarterback Sam Bradford. The Eagles were hot on the trail of cornerback Byron Maxwell in free agency, with signings of running backs Ryan Mathews and DeMarco Murray not far behind.
It was a dizzying turnover of the roster at key positions, not to mention the departure of wide receiver Jeremy Maclin to Kansas City in the early hours of free agency.
Good for the NFL's version of the hot-stove league and sure a ton of fun for the fans, but how much did it help the Eagles? A year later, well, you see how much has changed for this football team.
As the team prepares to descend upon Indianapolis for the league's annual Scouting Combine that rates former college players in a variety of on-field drills and off-the-field interpersonal evaluations ahead of the April 28-30 draft, one eye for the fans and the media is focused on March 9, the magical day. The start of free agency. "Big names" that want "big money" that don't often lead to "big wins" for teams.
Denver broke the mold somewhat by winning Super Bowl 50 with key free-agent signees from recent years that came together in 2015. The Broncos wouldn't have had a dominating defense without linebacker DeMarcus Ware or defensive backs Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward. Peyton Manning joined Denver as an unrestricted free agent in 2012. Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders signed with the team in 2014.
But for the most part, the teams that have won the recent Super Bowls -- New England, Seattle, Baltimore, New York, Green Bay and Pittsburgh -- have used free agency in a limited capacity. Those teams have built through the draft, have added key players in smart trades, and have been fortunate developing some players claimed off the waiver wire to build roster depth.
The Eagles largely followed that model through most of the Andy Reid years, supplementing in free agency when they saw a chance to add a difference-making player -- offensive tackle Jon Runyan, defensive end Jevon Kearse and cornerback Asante Samuel come to mind -- and adding pieces to plug a hole or two. The heavy action in 2011 -- the Eagles signed, among others, cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, defensive end Jason Babin, defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins, running back Ronnie Brown, quarterback Vince Young, wide receiver Steve Smith and traded for cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie -- burst into flames three quarters of the way through that season. All of the moves a year ago failed to push the Eagles into the postseason, although many of those players will return for 2016 and hopefully fit better into the new offensive and defensive schemes.
Maybe the most successful free-agency/trade offseason the Eagles had was back in 2004 when the team, coming off three straight appearances -- and losses -- in the NFC Championship Game -- went for it, all of it, and signed Kearse and starting outside linebacker Dhani Jones in free agency and then made the whopper of a trade to net wide receiver Terrell Owens from San Francisco. The moves added swagger -- and talent, of course -- and the Eagles got over the hump and played in the Super Bowl that season.
History throughout the league suggests, though, that free agency isn't the way to go to build a roster. And so, as the Combine gets underway in Indianapolis and free agency starts two weeks later, it's fair to wonder just how involved the Eagles will be once free agency begins. The cap continues to rise -- the exact ceiling will be announced shortly before free agency begins, but reports indicate the salary-cap number will settle in at about $156 million -- and teams could very spend the next couple of weeks doing what the Eagles have done in this offseason: Sign their own free agents-to-be and keep their rosters as intact as possible at this time of the year.
"When you look at free agency, teams have done a tremendous job of trying to maintain their own players and sign them early, so the free-agent market doesn't have the same quality that it maybe had three or four years ago," Eagles executive vice president of football operations Howie Roseman said last week on the Eagles Live podcast.
Roseman described the team's salary-cap picture as "probably a little tighter than it had been in the past," but that doesn't mean the Eagles have to sit out free agency as bystanders. They have the means to get involved.
But how deep do they want to dive? How much quality will hit the streets on March 9, and how high will the asking prices go?
With nine total draft picks, including the 13th overall and two in the third round, the Eagles can address some needs in the first two days. The team is likely to try to help itself in free agency, as every team does, but what is the prudent approach? What is best for this football team both in the short term and for seasons to come?
There is a lot on the plate with the Combine here. And things are already moving so quickly with the signings -- six veterans have signed contracts since the offseason began -- and free agency is obviously going to be an important conversation between now and March 9.
What works? Where do the Eagles go in free agency? The emphasis these last several weeks has been on retaining the roster and rewarding loyal, productive Eagles. What does that mean for free agency for a team with some clear needs and some assets to address them?