Happy new (league) year, Eagles fans. At 4 p.m. on Wednesday, the 2018 NFL league year officially begins. Free agents can sign. Trades can be consummated. Some of the moves have already been reported. Others will be fresh. Follow along on Philly.com for the latest updates as the Eagles reshape their 2018 roster.
This is an offseason edition of the Early Birds newsletter, which will come every Wednesday for the next few months. If your friends haven't subscribed to Early Birds, it's free to sign up here. I want to know what you think, what we should add, and what you want to read, so send me feedback by email or on Twitter @ZBerm. Thank you for reading.
— Zach Berman
The Eagles made marquee signings early in free agency in recent years, but their roster also required it. Last season, they needed starters at wide receiver. In 2016, they had needs on the offensive line and in the secondary. In 2015, they needed a cornerback and a running back.
This season, the Eagles return almost all of their starters, and they don't have much salary-cap flexibility. They might need to replace Nigel Bradham if Bradham signs elsewhere this week, but I'd be surprised if they're in the market for big names. My guess is you'll see signings like the ones that leaked out on Tuesday with defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and linebacker Corey Nelson — targeted signings that mostly focus on depth or situational roles on the roster. (Nelson will have a chance to push for playing time at linebacker if Bradham departs.) One of the lessons of the Eagles' 2017 roster was the importance of veteran depth. The decision-makers wanted to have players who've played before and can trust at spots where rotations are used or in place of players vulnerable to injury. That's why Ngata makes sense in the Beau Allen role as the third defensive tackle and Michael Bennett will fit with the Eagles' defensive end rotation.
Also, the Eagles are expecting compensatory picks in 2019. Those will be awarded to teams who lose players to big contracts this offseason (such as Trey Burton) and don't replace them with players on big deals. The Eagles also don't want to keep crowding their payroll two to three years from now when a Carson Wentz contract extension will kick in, which is one reason you're seeing one-year contracts. They took that approach last season, and I expect it to continue this offseason. (For more, check out Paul Domowitch's story.)
I don't think the Eagles will be idle during these next few days, and they should continue to add players to the roster. But they might not be picking off the top shelf, and they'll look for players who fit roles with their win-now approach and can contribute on special teams.
When looking at the way the Eagles built their roster last year, it's notable that some of their best moves didn't occur during the first week of free agency. They signed Chris Long and Patrick Robinson when the dust settled in March. They traded for Tim Jernigan in April. They added LeGarrette Blount in May. Corey Graham joined the team in August.
"The interesting thing about our year is some teams view the upgrading of the team in two phases — unrestricted free agency and the draft — and there's a certain time line in the league year … but when you look at our player acquisitions, it's been a year-long process," vice president of player personnel Joe Douglas said during Super Bowl week. "We brought in guys at different levels of free agency at different times of the year. They've all been the type of person, type of player that we target."
There's a good lesson to remember during the next few days — especially when looking at the Long and Robinson signings. There are players who won't generate much of a market early in free agency, and the Eagles could get them on more team-friendly terms in two weeks than they can in two days.
The roster will be far from a finished product by the end of the weekend. Certainly, these next few days are the best chance to add veterans, but if a position appears incomplete on March 17, it could look different come Aug. 17. The best example was running back last season. The Eagles didn't draft a starter, they added Blount after the draft, and they acquired Jay Ajayi midseason.
This week would look different if the Eagles didn't sign Alshon Jeffery and Tim Jernigan to contract extensions during the season. Both players were set to become unrestricted free agents. The Eagles would have more needs — and more money — if they didn't sign those contracts.
So how do those contracts look now? Jeffery signed a four-year, $52 million contract with $27 million guaranteed. The top two wide receivers on the market are Sammy Watkins and Allen Robinson. Watkins will reportedly sign a three-year, $48 million contract with $30 million guaranteed with Kansas City. Robinson will reportedly sign a three-year, $42 million deal with $25 million guaranteed with Chicago. Based on those contracts, it appears the Eagles were wise to sign Jeffery when they did. Of course, Jeffery also had offseason surgery, so it's unknown how that would have affected his value. But when looking at what some of the next tier of wide receivers will sign for this spring, it's fair to say that position is cashing in and there was a benefit for the Eagles to sign a player they like and know fits when they did.
Jernigan signed a four-year, $48 million contract with $26 million guaranteed. The defensive tackle market hasn't been set yet, so it's hard to say how Jernigan's contract looks in comparison. It helped plug a need, although the Eagles could use more production from Jernigan now that he's a big-money player.
I'm not sure I'd call Mack Hollins the No. 2 receiver, even if he takes over for Torrey Smith as the starting outside receiver. Smith wasn't the Eagles' No. 2 receiver. The top three options in the passing game will be Alshon Jeffery, Zach Ertz, and Nelson Agholor. The Eagles also will throw the ball to their running back. It's conceivable that even if the Eagles only add a depth option at receiver, Hollins has the fourth- or fifth-most targets on the team.
Smith, for instance, had the fourth-most targets in 2017, with 69. Jeffery had 120 targets, Ertz had 110 targets, and Agholor had 95 targets. So do I see Hollins as a receiver who can increase from 22 targets to 69 targets? Yes, I do. And I also think Hollins can come near Smith's production of 36 catches for 430 yards and two touchdowns. He might even surpass it.
I'm answering this question differently — I think Hollins can adequately replace Smith, but I wouldn't call him the No. 2. With that said, I also think the Eagles add weapons to their passing game at both tight end and wide receiver this offseason.
The Nick Foles market narrowed when Arizona reached an agreement with Sam Bradford. I thought that was the most likely match for a Foles trade. So I'd guess, at this point, that Foles is back next season. Maybe there's an injury between now and Week 1, or a surprise team that shows interest.
I wouldn't rule out the Buffalo Bills going after Foles as a bridge to whichever quarterback they draft in April, but my guess is the Bills use their most valuable draft resources to move up into the top five for a quarterback. That would make it unlikely they give up a pick that would make the Eagles surrender Foles. Never say never, but after Tuesday when Arizona, Denver, and the New York Jets found quarterbacks, I'd say the market is shrinking to the point that I don't know who else is out there who would give a valuable pick to the Eagles.