Sports on Earth's NFL writers Mike Tanier, Dan Pompei, Russ Lande and Robert Weintraub will be providing an offseason assessment of all 32 NFL teams -- identifying the most pressing problems facing each one and proposing the best solutions. Click here for links to every entry in the series.
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Howie Roseman is a busy dude. While his fellow general managers were nursing Combine hangovers this week, Roseman was doing deals... possibly while nursing a Combine hangover, but let's not judge.
Roseman locked left tackle Jason Peters onto the roster for at least two more years (and theoretically through 2018), saving a little cap space to boot. Center Jason Kelce also received a prudent extension. Roseman then turned his attention toward free agent receivers Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper. Cooper signed an extremely team-friendly new deal, and then Maclin agreed to a one-year contract. The Eagles are not cap-strapped, mind you: Roseman is just keeping players the team wants from hitting the open market, clearing his agenda for free agency and the draft while managing the team's budget for both 2014 and 2015.
The good news about Roseman's proactive style is that it keeps the Eagles one step ahead of their most likely problems. The bad news is that it makes it hard to step in as Eagles GM for a Day. If I "solve" a problem, will Roseman beat me to the presses? If so, more power to him. The Eagles have the best combination of 2013 success, young talent, cap space and head coach enthusiasm in the NFL. Throw a shrewd general manager into the mix, and they are headed to Next Big Thing territory.
Problem: The Eagles had some big-name free agents to take care of.
Solution: Not anymore.
Signing in-house free agents is almost always a good idea, particularly at wide receiver. Free agent splashes rarely work at a position so dependent on schemes and quarterback-receiver timing: see Mike Wallace for a prime example. Chip Kelly's scheme is so novel that he might be more reluctant than other coaches to fish the market for unknown commodities. Will the new guy have the stamina to run five plays in two minutes? Can he block for 30 outside zones and options per game? Kelly knows the answer for Cooper, and had last year's OTAs to get acquainted with the super-professional Maclin.
Cooper meshed with Nick Foles, and while you may still be dwelling on a racial slur he made over beers at a country music concert nearly a year ago, no one in the Eagles locker room is. Maclin is a reliable 60-catch possession receiver who was injured at the start of camp last year, and his return further reinforces the Philadelphia wideouts. Cross wide receiver off the Eagles' needs list. Which is good, because the Eagles can focus their offseason attention on...
Problem: Safety safety safety safety safety safety safety safety safety.
Solution: Er, get some safeties.
The safety position has been a Philadelphia obsession since the team released Brian Dawkins. It has also been a mess. The team's past crazy lunging between defensive schemes ruined Nate Allen, who still hears Juan Castillo telling him to simultaneously defend the B-gap and the deep half of the field in his nightmares. The Eagles tried to revive Patrick Chung's career last season, with predictable results: Bill Belichick is the kind of guy who sifts and shreds his trash before he throws it away.
Enough about the past, let's draft some safeties! Most mock drafts send Calvin Pryor of Louisville to the Eagles, and the shoe fits: He's a big hitter, he has range, and he can pick off passes, making him a little bit of a Dawkins Lite. Jerseys go on sale May 11th.
One safety won't do the trick, though. Let's find another. Jimmy Ward of Nothern Illinois is... get ready for everyone's favorite cliché... a "football player." He runs well, reacts quickly, and does all the little things that an undersized defender must do to excel: watch him throw big blocks after a teammate's interception, and you will fall in love. Unfortunately, Ward will not last until late in the second round to play (a better) Quintin Mikell to Pryor's Dawkins. So let's skip a round or two and take a developmental player: Kenneth Ladler of Vanderbilt, who is tall enough to match up with tight ends, runs well, hits hard, and knows what he is doing. Ladler is a little stiff and mistake-prone for the early rounds, but he is worth a low-risk investment.
As for Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, he won't last until the Eagles pick: the Steelers and Cowboys are too safety-needy to pass him up. Trading up won't be worth the investment: Pryor is just as good a prospect. If both Clinton-Dix and Pryor are off the board, the Eagles can try to slide down a few spots and take Ward, then bazooka draft for their secondary late in the draft.
If you are an Eagles fan, you have already scanned the safety lists 50 times and have been reading profiles of players like Clinton-Dix and Pryor since late October. You may have your own favorite safeties. Insert two or three of them here if you prefer your picks to mine. The bottom line: it's better to enter the offseason with one pressing need than lots of niggling ones.
Problem: The defense needs a playmaker upgrade
Solution: Spend some cash.
Much of what Team HowieChip has done so far this offseason is reminiscent of the golden years of Andy Reid and Joe Banner. If Reid liked a young in-house veteran, Banner would lock him into a cap-affordable contract before he hit the market. When free agency arrived, the Eagles would avoid spending sprees but focus on surgical strikes for impact players: Jon Runyan, Shawn Barber (the signings were not all perfect) Jevon Kearse, Terrell Owens.
With their receiver situation settled, the Eagles can invest money and cap space on an instant-impact veteran. And why not weaken a division foe in the process? Brian Orakpo would be a terrifying addition to Bill Davis' scheme: a pure 3-4 outside rusher to join Connor Barwin and Trent Cole in a versatile linebacker rotation. Imagine all three of them on the field on a third-and-10 situation: instant Romo blooper reel!
The Redskins were dithering on Orakpo's contract at press time. He is a possible franchise tag candidate. If Orakpo is off the market, the Eagles can pivot and pursue cornerback Vontae Davis. Davis provides an instant upgrade over the Cary Williams Experience at cornerback. Start Davis across from Bradley Fletcher, keep Brandon Boykin in a slot role, and use Williams as a matchup corner against big receivers: with cornerback depth like that, the Eagles won't have to worry about their inexperienced safeties.
B.J. Raji is another home-run uppercut of a veteran on many Eagles fans' wish list. And yes, Raji is only 27 years old, looked like an elite defender three years ago and could come relatively cheap after an awful season. He may also be toast. Here's an outside-the-box alternative: Miami's Paul Soliai. He is older than Raji but was far more effective in 2013. He has played most of his career in a 4-3, but he has the size and skillset to be effective in a 3-4 defense. The Dolphins are hand-wringing with Soliai, just as the Redskins are fooling around with Orakpo. One of these guys is going to shake free, and the Eagles are now an attractive organization to play for.
The Eagles can add one blue chip and maintain their core at a time when the Giants are rebuilding, the Cowboys are downsizing and the Redskins are not sure which end is up. A little boost could push them beyond the reach of their divisional foes.
Problem: Nick Foles skepticism.
Solution: Late round insurance.
Roseman compared Foles to a rookie baseball pitcher who just completed his first tour of the league in 2013. That sums the situation up nicely: He may have finished 19-5 with a 2.13 ERA, but hitters are starting to figure him out, and the counter-adjustment does not always go smoothly.
The fact that Foles remains a bad Kelly system fit is also still on the table. No, Kelly does not need a dozen options per game to be successful. But anyone who watched Foles waddle for four yards on keepers that a quarterback with average speed would take for first downs knows that Kelly would love to have that weapon in his arsenal. He won't sacrifice a 27:2 touchdown-interception ratio to get it, and Foles will enter 2014 as the starter. But anyone who knows football knows that the Eagles should keep their options open.
So the Eagles would like to have a Plan B within arm's reach. But Michael Vick is not Plan B, and there is no sense in generating a counterproductive controversy by drafting a quarterback early or fiddling with a Josh Freeman reclamation project. The Eagles need a nonthreatening late-round prospect who runs well, has his act together, and can throw a football just well enough to survive. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the only Tajh Boyd scouting report you ever need.
If Kelly is looking for a Foles type with a smidgen more foot speed, Ball State's Keith Wenning will be available late on Day Three. Wenning is a decent field-scanner and touch passer who worked mostly out of a shotgun spread system in college. He ran a few options, and you can time him with an hourglass instead of the Foles sundial. He is not an ideal fit, but he has much more developmental upside than Boyd.
It is nearly obligatory to mention Marcus Mariota at this point, the Oregon quarterback who is likely to enter next year's draft class. The "Kelly wants his old college quarterback" logic is spurious reasoning. Actually, it's Spurrier reasoning: Unlike the last collegiate offensive tactical guru who tried to storm the NFC East, Kelly has shown little interest in getting the gang from the student union back together. Also, Kelly has been successful and non-embarrassing, unlike the Ol' Ball Coach. Kelly and Roseman are working hard to ensure that the Eagles are not in position to draft Mariota in 2015. That is wise long-range planning, and Team HowieChip has been impressing us from September through last Thursday. Don't expect them to suddenly get silly with their quarterback situation.