- Dan Graziano, ESPN New York Giants reporter
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I think it's important, as the final days until free agency tick away, to make sure everybody has their expectations at roughly the right level. If you're a Philadelphia Eagles fan, for example, and you're expecting your team to hit the free-agent market the way they did last year, you're likely to be disappointed. The Eagles viewed last year as a unique opportunity, because of the lockout year's impact on the number and types of players that were going to be available. While the lockout was still going on, they signaled their intention to be big free-agent players, and they were. Many of the players they signed are still on the team and expected to be major 2012 contributors, so there are fewer holes for them to fill, and they're likely to fill them more cautiously this time around.
The one glaring hole, though, where they could use a serious injection of talent and leadership, is linebacker. And they have options. If you have Insider access and can peruse Matt Williamson's list of the top 50 free agents, you'll find some potential gems, including:
5.LB Stephen Tulloch: One of the best middle linebackers in the game and improving yearly, Tulloch will be more sought after than many fans realize. He covers ground, is a punishing downhill force, and keeps getting better as a coverage player. Detroit needs to bring this guy back, but a team like Philadelphia might have something to say about that.
22.LB Curtis Lofton: A foundation of Atlanta's defense and possessing the skill set to play in either a 4-3 or 3-4, Lofton seems destined to return to Atlanta as a leader of the defense. But the Falcons do have huge decisions to make with their spending, and inside linebacker isn't a premium position.
23.LB David Hawthorne: Although not a household name, Hawthorne is an active and productive linebacker. He can line up in multiple spots on the second level, and could fit either a 3-4 or 4-3 defense, which makes him quite marketable.
38. LB London Fletcher: An oldie, but still a goodie, Fletcher would have been much higher on this list if it weren't for his advanced age. But he can still play. The Eagles should do everything possible to pluck Fletcher, a leader on and off the field, away from the divisional-rival Redskins.
43. LB Jarret Johnson: Johnson has quietly been an essential part of many great Ravens defenses. He isn't nearly as flashy as some of those teammates, but Johnson can line up in many spots, and is one of the very best in the league as an edge run defender.
We have raised this a few times in recent days, but the more I think about it the more I feel as though Fletcher is exactly the guy the Eagles should get. Lofton has a good reputation in Atlanta as a leader, and he's more than a decade younger than Fletcher. So long-term, Lofton might well be a more appealing target. But the Eagles aren't thinking long-term. The Eagles need to make as serious and legitimate a run as they possibly can at next year's Super Bowl. And Fletcher would immediately become, not just their best on-field performer at linebacker, but also their best on-field and off-field leader.
Mike Shanahan said in December that re-signing Fletcher was a top priority for the Redskins, but they haven't done it, and the market opens in a little less than 96 hours. Shanahan wants Fletcher back, even though the Redskins are building with youth, because having Fletcher is like having another coach. He works harder than anyone else in the weight room, the meeting room and the film room. He makes sure everyone on the defense is where they're supposed to be on every play -- and that they're accountable for their performance. He's universally loved by teammates, coaches and opponents. He commands as much respect as any player at any position the Eagles could bring in, and he plays the position at which they need the most help.
If he's still available when the clock strikes 4 p.m. ET on Tuesday, Fletcher should be the first guy Andy Reid & Co. call. If they get him, their offseason would be a success no matter what else they did with it.
I think it's important, as the final days until free agency tick away, to make sure everybody has their expectations at roughly the right level. If you're a Philadelphia Eagles fan, for example, and you're expecting your team to hit the free-agent market the way they did last year, you're likely to be disappointed.