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How the Eagles Positioned Themselves to Win Free Agency

Aug 3, 2011, 12:42 PM EDT

A closer look at some of the moves, or non-moves, that set up the Eagles to sign their huge incoming free agent class.

A closer look at some of the moves, or non-moves, that set up the Eagles to sign their huge incoming free agent class.

The $64,000 dollar question around the league right now—and even in Philadelphia—regarding the Birds’ incredible free agent haul is, “How did this happen?” One week ago, the defense was like a running gag, with their offensive line-coordinator, punchless pass rush, and the crater-sized hole at right cornerback. Today, that unit is part of what is commonly being referred to as a “Dream Team.”

So what was it? Joe Banner didn’t just wake up one day and say, “We’re going for it.” No, this was carefully planned going all the way back to last year, a plan that’s been brilliantly executed from the moment the curtain was lifted on free agency. And the answers to the question “How,” well… those are actually in plain sight.

About 2010…
Think back to last year, when the Eagles weren’t spending wads of cash in free agency. Their top acquisition was Marlin Jackson, whose sole purpose was to push first-year free safety Nate Allen for the starting job, a job that nobody (thoughtful) expected him to win. Meanwhile, Defensive Player of the Year candidate Julius Peppers was putting his mark on a record contract in Chicago.

What the casual fan might have missed about last year’s signing period was that it lacked top end talent. Peppers was out there, along with one or two others, but the quality declined sharply from there. Rule changes in the final year of the old collective bargaining agreement made many of the anticipated free agents restricted, minimizing their actual availability.

Rather than load up on mediocre talent asking for top dollar, or outbidding the Bears’ insane offer for Peppers (which was aided by their lack of a draft after the Jay Cutler trade, not to mention the urgency to put a team around him), the Eagles didn’t budge. In fact, they got rid of the majority of their own overpaid veterans, and instead focused on the draft.

It turns out, after all the bickering, this was a wise decision. Most observers felt the Birds were at least a year away from truly competing anyway. While adding Peppers would have been a major coup, the rest of the barren market would have only served to eat up the budget, and maybe appease fans—although, probably not once they would have seen the caliber players that money could buy.

One year later, being frugal in free agency’s off-year, when there was no immediate need to make a splash in the first place, set them up to spend like crazy in 2011. The big difference this time around was the full roster of unrestricted free agents hit the market, and then some. This key difference allowed the front office to make impact moves, and not just moves for the sake of making moves.

Sometimes it pays to be “cheap.”

Cost Cutting: Akers and Rocca
To those of you who are still upset the Eagles will allow rookies to handle kick and punt duties in 2011, the questing we pose to you today is this: would you rather have David Akers and Sav Rocca, or Jason Babin? Or Vince Young? Or Cullen Jenkins?

That was essentially the decision the front office made this year. By allowing both Akers and Rocca to depart, the Eagles probably slashed an estimated $5 million or more in salary from their kicking game alone. The combination of Alex Henery and Chas Henry will make decidedly less than that, in fact, well under $1 million in 2011.

That gave the organization an additional $4 million to play with in free agency, which is almost exactly what Young and Jenkins are expected to make, or a sizable portion of Babin’s salary. Without that extra cash, one of those players most likely never lands in Philly.

And what have the Eagles lost? Akers was a fan favorite, but he is getting up there in years, and could not be counted on forever. Rocca was improving, but certainly not irreplaceable. As substitutes, they chose the top kicker in the draft, and signed the 2010 Ray Guy Award winner for best punter in college football.

Is it a risk? Sure. A calculated risk.

More Cost Cutting: Expendable Parts
Then there was the Brodrick Bunkley trade. Immediately following the Eagles surprise addition of Cullen Jenkins, it was revealed the defensive tackle had been shipped to the Browns. He eventually wound up in Denver for a pick in 2013 for whatever reason, but the modest return the Birds received for Bunk was never the meat of the deal.

Due to his bonus money, Bunkley’s cap figure in 2011 was set at nearly $2 million. Jenkins’ estimated salary this season is $4 million. By trading Bunk, who was set to become a free agent next season anyway, they were able to free up nearly half the money necessary to pay Jenkins this year.

What’s more, the Birds don’t carry any additional risk into 2012. Barring a crazy-productive season, Bunk’s chances of returning next season were basically none. He simply has not lived up to being the 14th pick in the 2006 draft. Meanwhile, Jenkins’ contract is voidable after this season, so if he doesn’t work out for whatever reason, the team can go right back to square one with their defensive tackle situation.

Upon closer examination of the roster, more releases could be on the way. Unless Asante Samuel is traded, Joselio Hanson’s cut looks like little more than a formality. That will remove roughly $1.7 mil from the books. They also may not need both Juqua Parker AND Darryl Tapp now, so cutting one of those guys is another $2-to-$4 million in relief.

“Winning Tradition”
That’s the term players like Nnamdi Asomugha and Cullen Jenkins have used to describe this franchise. We’ve had to cope with so much heartbreak over the last decade, we often forget this team is viewed quite differently around the league. They are seen as a well-run organization, and the perennial contender that they historically are. Those details were crucial here.

While many fans have long called for the head of Andy Reid, the continuity in the Eagles power structure was likely a significant factor in the team’s ability to move quickly on several fronts, i.e. trading Kolb, signing Babin, signing Nnamdi—all while preparing for a camp that was about to begin.

Maybe they’re not the “gold standard,” but let’s be real: this wave of free agents does not come here without the stability that is a direct result of Reid’s success. And while what he’s accomplished will always be diminished to some extent until he finally wins the big one, there is no denying the Eagles are reaping the rewards like a team that’s already done it.

Whether you like the head coach’s and organization’s philosophies or not, as long as the current structure is in place, the Birds always have a shot at hoisting the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the year. Free agents recognize that, which is why no shortage of them has been willing to come here.

Michael Vick
It’s all about Vick, isn’t it?

Well, yeah… sort of. I was one of those who were of the opinion that the Eagles should keep Kevin Kolb, and instead see what was out there in a trade for Vick. My justification was Kolb was the younger, more conventional option, and Vick still had a lot to prove in areas such as consistency and reading defenses. Plus, the compensation would have been far greater.

So much for conventional. What my plan did not account for—not even the slightest bit—was how much Vick’s presence would mean during this free agency period. Let me say this again so that it’s clear: players are choosing Philadelphia, at least in part, because Michael Vick is the quarterback here.

If I may, the Eagles have “street cred” now. They took a chance on the athlete’s athlete, the o
ne guy that still amazes other professional football players unlike any other, when he was at his absolute lowest point. Vick has rewarded the franchise through his hard work and bouts of stellar play, but the bonus prize is some of Vick’s fans, or just players who respect what the team did for him, are joining the squad.

Nobody could have accounted for this in August 2009, when we were all wondering what Vick was even doing here, and how soon he would be traded for whatever picks they could get. But it’s happening, and it’s all because Jeffrey Lurie and Andy Reid were willing to give him a second chance.

It’s fitting, because right now even the most jaded fan should be giving those two a second chance. If this isn’t considered doing everything it takes to win, I don’t know what is.