As an avid reader of every rumor mill, gossip and insider website known to man, it never ceases to amaze me how little you hear about the plans of the Philadelphia Eagles during the off-season. Whether it be prospective free agents or which direction the Birds are leading in the draft, nary a whisper can be heard emanating from the Nova Care Complex.
I say kudos to the Eagles for that. Jeff Lurie, Joe Banner, Tom Heckert and Andy Reid clearly have that place sealed up tighter than Area 51. Obviously, the Eagles have plans, and big ones I would hope, coming off of last year’s 6-10 debacle. The Birds know they have lots of holes to fill, and fill them they must. But it always amazes me how you know every piece of dirty laundry in some organizations, while the Eagles continue to keep everything out of the public eye.
For example, the Birds’ signing of DE Jevon Kearse following the 2004 season came as a complete and total surprise to everyone in the NFL. No one had any idea that the Eagles had targeted Kearse as their main “get" that off-season. Once free agency had begun and “The Freak" became available, the Birds pounced and got their man.
So while I had been a little concerned that there were no whispers coming out of Eagles camp until today, I took comfort in the fact that the Eagles operated behind a heavy curtain. I agree with their philosophy… don’t let anyone else know what you’re thinking. It’s just smart business.
However, because the Eagles have been so reluctant to give Eagles fans a hint at how they’re thinking, they leave it up to us to speculate. So, with that said, here are some possible positions and players the Eagles could/should have their eyes on once free agency officially begins on March 3.
First of all, forget about Seattle OL Steve Hutchinson. He’s not going anywhere. Seattle applied the franchise tag to him on Thursday, meaning the Seahawks can match any offer Hutchinson brings back to them. While the ‘Hawks do have other needs to attend to, they know they can’t afford to let the league’s best offensive guards get away. It would take a monumental offer to pry Hutchinson away from Seattle, and I doubt the Birds would pony up that kind of dough. However, if Seattle does decide that they can’t resign Hutchinson, expect him to be #1 on the Eagles’ offseason radar.
Detroit OT Jeff Backus would have been another solid choice for the Birds, but he was franchised by the Lions and isn’t going anywhere. The best offensive lineman left after Hutchinson and Backus is most likely Jacksonville guard Vince Manuwai. Most think he has the potential to become one of the leagues best offensive guards, and at 25, should be hitting his peak. If the Eagles are going to go after offensive line help in free agency, Manuwai will most likely be their best option.
Of course, the Eagles also have a big decision to make with their own right tackle behemoth, John Runyan. He’s an unrestricted free agent, and, based on media reports, the Eagles are willing to wait and see what kind of offers Runyan brings back from other teams before making him an offer. If the goal is to improve the offensive line for next season, I think the Eagles have to bring Runyan back in addition to adding another quality offensive lineman. However, this is the Eagles’ M- O when it comes to letting go of veteran players. He’s 32 right now, and I’m sure the Eagles think is on the downside of his career. Look for him to wind up in Buffalo with the Eagles’ former GM Tom Modrak.
Should Hutchinson and Manuwai both be unavailable, other options include Kevin Shaffer from Atlanta or Denver’s Matt Lepsis. Don’t be surprised if the Eagles address this need in the draft as well.
Reports in Friday’s Philadelphia Daily News says the Eagles are extremely interested in Pittsburg WR/KR Antwaan Randle-El, whose play-making ability in the playoffs was a major reason the Steelers won Super Bowl XL. With Reggie Wayne re-signing with Indy, Most people see Randle-El as the best or second-best WR available in free agency. While I don’t think he’s got the ability to be a #1 receiver, he has shown a lot as a downfield receiver, kick returner and all-around play-maker which could make the Eagles very interested in his services. He also has spent a lot of time with Donovan McNabb in the off-season training in Arizona. The Eagles will probably have to challenge the Bears for Randle-El’s services, but don’t expect the Birds to get into a bidding war over him. Randle-El is young, 26, but is probably not the go- to receiver that Eagles fans would want.
An intriguing name that is not as of yet a free agent is Buffalo wideout Eric Moulds. Most people seem to think that the Bills are going to cut Moulds, and if that happens, the Eagles could be very interested. He has the size and pedigree to be a #1 receiver and could be a perfect match for Andy Reid’s west-coast offense. However, he’s getting up there in age, 32, which could be a red flag for the Eagles. However, his numbers last year were very respectable (81, 816, 4TD), and would have been better if he didn’t have Kelly Holcombe and J. P. Losman chucking him the rock. Moulds would be my choice.
Some other names: New England’s David Givens, Cleveland’s Antonio Bryant, and restricted free agent Brandon Lloyd, who is most likely the single most talented receiver in free agency. However, because he’s restricted, the Eagles would have to give up draft picks to get him. And we all know the Eagles protect their draft picks like stock in Google.
The list begins and ends with San Francisco’s All-Pro LB Julian Peterson. Many were surprised with the 49ers didn’t franchise or transition the five-year pro. The Eagles have a desperate need for a play-maker at either strong-side or weak-side linebacker, and Peterson can play in either spot. He would be a perfect compliment to MLB Jeremiah Trotter, but would likely cost the Birds a pretty penny, and the Eagles have never put a financial premium on the outside linebacker position. However, last year’s crap-fest on defense has hopefully stirred the Eagles into being more open to a playmaker on the outside.
If Peterson turns out to be too expensive, Carolina’s Will Witherspoon is another extremely attractive option. Only a four-year pro, Witherspoon is a bit undersized, but has the ability to both play the run and cover tight ends out of the backfield. Other possibilities include Jacksonville’s Akin Ayodele and Indy’s David Thornton.
Talk about a need position… perhaps if the Birds hadn’t foolishly thrown away Derrick Burgess last off-season they wouldn’t have this need. However, they desperately need another playmaker opposite Jevon Kearse, because Kearse is clearly not good enough to beat double-teams on his own. The best DE on the market is the Jets’ John Abraham, however he was franchised by New York in an effort to trade him. Reports have the Eagles interested in possibly trading for the six-year man, which would be a stretch to believe, seeing as how they’d have to give up… wait for it… draft picks!!! But he’s the best defensive end on the market.
If Abraham isn’t doable, New Orleans’ Darren Howard is an excellent alternative. In fact, many people believe Howard would be a better pick-up than Abraham, even though he had a down year and missed some time due to injury. Howard would be cheaper and has a ton of potential.
Other possibilities include Indy’s Robert Mathis, Green Bay’s Aaron Kampman and Indy’s Raheem Brock. There are plenty of quality defensive ends available in free agency, and don’t be surprised if the Eagles pay to get a good one.
There’s not a whole lot here, with the exception of Seattle’s Rocky Bernard, who had a tremendous season in 2005, totalling 8 ½ sacks, a great number from the tackle position. He would be a fantastic pick-up for a defensive line that struggled to rush the passer and get pressure inside all season long. Putting Bernard on that offensive line next to Mike Patterson could make the Birds extremely dangerous on defense.
Arizona’s Russell Davis and Cleveland’s Orpheus Roye are other possibilities for the Birds to consider.
Obviously, the Eagles are not going to be able to fill all their needs in free agency. The only position I feel the Eagles have to address in free agency and not in the draft is wide receiver. The Eagles’ offense is too complex for a rookie wide receiver to come in and grasp right away, just ask Reggie Brown and Freddie Mitchell.
And while the Eagles do have a ton of money under the cap, there isn’t enough money in the coffers to fill all these needs in free agency. But don’t be surprised to hear some of these players’ names mentioned come March 3, even though the Eagles lock down their secrets in a vault more secure than Fort Knox.
The Birds have a lot of holes to fill, and the magic all begins next Friday.
By John Stolnis
Phillysportsline staff writer