The NFL free agent sweepstakes have gotten off to a flying start, with the Chicago Bears being the early aggressors. Well, at least as much as is possible considering the large number of players who have become restrictive free agents due to the lack of a collective bargaining agreement.
Three of the biggest names amongst the unrestricted cast inked deals yesterday, including defensive end Julius Peppers, linebacker Karlos Dansby, safety Antrel Rolle and running back Chester Taylor. All have been speculated as potential targets of the Philadelphia Eagles.
Additionally, other players who were reportedly in the Eagles' sights— defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch, corner back Dunta Robinson and line backer Gary Brackett— all are off the market.
With a limited number of impact free agents available this offseason without the strings of draft pick compensation, some teams have chosen to strike early. Meanwhile, the Birds have deliberated and missed out on some talent that would have filled some team needs.
The top unrestricted free agent left on the board is probably defensive end Aaron Kampman, although he does not align with team protocol at the ripe old age of 30. However, Peppers is the same age and the Eagles reportedly made an offer to him before his snatched up by the Bears.
So, where do the Eagles go from here? Kampman may be an option, but their best course of action may now be to turn towards the players who are somewhat off the radar screen. These "sleeper free agents" may provide the best value propositions for the team, especially when factoring in any compensation requirements.
Here are five free agents that the Eagles should target and try to sign—right now, before they are gone.
Kevin Mawae Center/Guard
The 16-year veteran and 8-time Pro Bowl player Kevin Mawae is definitely out of the Eagles strike zone at 39 years of age. Based on past practice of the organization, it might be more accurate to say that he is a wild pitch off the back stop.
That being said, Mawae's name screams "Philadelphia Eagles!" It is rare that the stars align with the moon, but this situation presents a tremendous opportunity for the Eagles that is absolutely tailor made for the team.
Let's review. The Eagles lost their starting center Jamaal Jackson to a serious knee injury late in the season. The recent turnover of veteran leaders left a noticeable void. The offensive line was a season long sore spot for the team. And, the Eagles would be best served to use valuable draft picks to shore up the defense.
Check. Check. Check. Check.
Mawae would be an awesome addition to the Eagles offensive line, providing leadership and football I.Q. He could step in at center assuming that Jackson will likely not be at full strength at least early on, with one of them sliding over to guard at some point.
Although the team has avoided signing aging veterans like the plague in the Jeffrey Lurie era, this would look to be a perfect example that bending the rules can sometimes pay great dividends. There are many examples of offensive linemen being highly effective at an advanced age, and Mawae is coming off two straight Pro Bowl seasons.
Sign him. Sign him today!
Jason Avant Wide Receiver
Sometimes the best talent is right in front of you. Jason Avant proved his value last season by becoming one of the top young possession receivers in the NFL.
With two smallish wideouts whose skills are best served in a vertical passing game, bubble screens and quick slants, Avant provides the perfect complement with his great hands and toughness.
The Eagles have offered a second round tender to Avant, so the chances of him returning to the team have gone up. However, you never know until he is officially inked.
Although a second round pick might seem to be fair compensation based on his career thus far, Avant has greater value to the Eagles due to the composition of their receiving corps, especially if they hope to be a serious contender this season.
Avant also showed flashes of potential that goes beyond the current "box" in which he has been placed. In San Diego, he grabbed 8 balls for 156 yards, showing speed and athleticism that might belie the possession receiver tag.
Derrick Burgess Defensive End/Linebacker
The reports are mixed on Derrick Burgess. On one hand the New England Patriots traded a couple draft picks to get him just a year ago and he finished strong last season. On the other hand, the Patriots have not exactly been projecting that they need to keep the former Eagle.
Burgess was the original Trent Cole, before signing a free agent contract with the Oakland Raiders. He continued to be a strong pass rusher from his defensive end position, but was converted to outside linebacker in the Patriots 3-4 scheme.
At 32 years of age, the Eagles are surely not going to be willing to commit big dollars for a long-term contract; however, if they could sign him for a couple years at the right price, he would provide a nice bookend to pair with Cole.
Of course, this would require Burgess slipping through the cracks a little bit. And, perhaps, an interest on his part to return home to his former roots.
Ryan Clark Safety
The Pittsburgh Steeler safety is an unrestricted free agent that would come with some risk, but would fill an important need for the Eagles. Because Ryan Clark has been paired with All-World strong safety Troy Polamolu, he has tended to be overshadowed and somewhat under-rated throughout his career.
Although Clark has made the news for a sickle-cell affliction that makes playing at high altitudes a serious health risk, he has been a key contributor on some excellent Steelers defensive units.
The nine-year veteran would be able to immediately step into the Eagles starting line-up and shore up some current weaknesses. Besides being known for his discipline in coverage and being in the right place, he is the type of enforcer in the middle that the Eagles have been lacking since Brian Dawkins' departure.
Clark is not worth breaking the bank, but a short-term value contract would make him a nice addition. Going that route, would allow the team to use their number one draft pick to target a linebacker and gamble on getting a young safety to groom in the second round.
Leigh Bodden Cornerback
Dunta Robinson has gotten the lion's share of attention amongst free agents at the corner back position. But with the Atlanta Falcon's quick signing of the former Houston Texans player, Leigh Bodden is the best unrestricted defensive back left on the market not named Darren Sharper.
Bodden is coming off a fine season in New England and many talent evaluators believe that dollar for dollar, he will be a better signing than Robinson. The 28-year old would provide needed depth for the Eagles secondary, either along side of Sheldon Brown or replacing him if the team elects to trade him.
The idea of Brown sliding over to safety has been floated around for a couple seasons. Bodden would provide the size and physical presence at corner that the team needs with the undersized Asante Samuel playing on the opposite side.
Bodden has demonstrated good instincts that enable him to consistently break up passes and create turnovers. The eight-year veteran has picked off 12 passes and forced four fumbles over the last three seasons.
Terrell Owens Wide Receiver
Just checking to see if your are paying attention. Terrell Owens might be a good addition someplace if he can maintain the same relative decorum that he showed in Buffalo last season— but not in Philly.
T.O.'s statistics in 2009 likely are not a good indication of his true skills. The Bills quarterback woes and offensive scheme were a poor fit for him and certainly depressed his numbers.
Owens has continued to stay in remarkable shape, so he could turn out to be a great bargain for a team looking for an athletic, productive pass catcher. Of course, the rub with T.O. always comes down to how much downside risk a team is willing to take with adding him to the team chemistry.
For the Eagles, it is a case of "been there, done that." Recent word that Donovan McNabb and Owens had renewed their friendship after a frosty few years piqued some thoughts about his return—but then common sense prevailed.
The Final Word
It's a seller's market with the limited number of unrestricted free agents in the NFL this offseason. With big names already off the board, the Eagles would be wise to reset their sights a little bit and go "down market."
Considering that there appears to be depth in the draft this season, holding onto the team's six picks in the first four rounds could yield them some nice young talent. Signing two or three of these less touted free agents could have a very big impact on the team's fortunes next year.
Besides Avant and Bodden, all the players here are older than what the Eagles would have targeted over the past decade. But, considering the unusual circumstances surrounding this year's available crop of free agents, making an exception or two seems almost the only way to go other than play it totally safe.
The market's moving fast, though, to grab players with no strings attached. Time is of the essence.