NFC East: Jason Worilds

The Philadelphia Eagles will be in almost perfect position when NFL teams are allowed to open talks with unrestricted free agents Friday.

They are perceived as a team "headed in the right direction," as soon-to-be-free-agent safety Jairus Byrd said on ESPN on Tuesday. And they have enormous flexibility thanks to more than $26 million in salary-cap space, according to ESPN's Roster Management service.

The Eagles didn't have to release wide receiver Jason Avant for cap purposes. That decision was about paying the $1 million roster bonus negotiated into his contract and due on March 15. But with Avant's departure, the Eagles save another $2.5 million on their cap.

General manager Howie Roseman has set low expectations for the team to make a huge splash in free agency. He could be doing that because he simply doesn't see a free agent worth splurging on, because he wants to prevent potential fan disappointment or because he doesn't want to telegraph his real plans to other teams before the market opens.

Three of the more intriguing names disappeared from a potential wish list this week: Miami extended the contract of cornerback Brent Grimes, Washington placed the franchise tag on linebacker Brian Orakpo and Pittsburgh linebacker Jason Worilds signed his transition-tag tender.

The two top safeties, Byrd and Cleveland's T.J. Ward, are expected to hit the market. Roseman has acknowledged his preference to address the safety position in free agency so it isn't a glaring need going into the draft. But he may have his sights set on some of the less expensive players expected to be on the market.

Roseman said last week that his spree of contracts for current Eagles would not limit the Eagles' options in free agency.

"It will affect other things going forward," Roseman said. "We have some flexibility. Obviously, this affects it, the things we've done the past couple of days. But we're going to go out and try to do things that make sense for our football team."

Another thing working in the Eagles' favor is the expansion of the cap this year to $133 million and the expected continuing rise over the next couple of years. That extra cap space comes just as Roseman will have to decide on extensions for players like Nick Foles, Fletcher Cox, Brandon Boykin and Mychal Kendricks.

Foles, especially, gives the Eagles a lot of flexibility. Starting quarterbacks can eat up 12 to 15 percent of a team's salary cap. Foles' 2014 salary of $770,880 accounts for 0.65 percent of the Eagles' cap. That's about as much as backup offensive lineman Allen Barbre.

Eventually, if they're going to be successful, the Eagles will have to pay a quarterback that kind of money. For now, they can build a team and deal with Foles -- or someone else if Foles should stumble -- when the cap increases.

"It's hard to look three years out," Roseman said. "It's hard to know where you're going to be after two full seasons and after two draft classes. We do spend a lot of time on the cap next year. We try to be conservative with what the cap projections are going to be."

Finally, there's this reality: The salary cap is not nearly as onerous as it is made out to be. The Dallas Cowboys were in as tight a situation as any team in the NFL going into the new league year. By reportedly reworking quarterback Tony Romo's contract, converting salary to bonus money, the Cowboys resolved their cap issues.

So there is an escape hatch from cap purgatory. The Cowboys still probably won't have the cap space to be proactive in free agency.

The Eagles will. They are in position to do whatever they want.
The Eagles haven't exactly advertised their free-agency plans, which is understandable. Now that the deadline for franchise and transition tags has passed, all we can say is that their plans likely haven't changed much.

Washington linebacker Brian Orakpo had the franchise tag placed on him. That takes him off the list of possible targets for the Eagles, but the odds were against them making a play for Orakpo. He is exactly the kind of free agent -- a guy who could command more money than his production warrants -- that general manager Howie Roseman has said the team is not interested in.

(That said, he's also exactly the kind of player that fans and media like to speculate about. Orakpo would be a perfect edge pass rusher in the Eagles 3-4 defense and signing him would mean not facing him twice a year.)

Worilds
Another player that has been discussed as a possibility for the Eagles is Pittsburgh linebacker Jason Worilds. The Steelers placed the transition tag on Worilds, which means only that they would have the right to match any offer he receives.

If the Eagles were planning to take a shot at Worilds, that shouldn't slow them down. The Steelers do not have the cap space to match a carefully designed offer sheet. Indeed, to keep Worilds, Pittsburgh may have to release other players to create cap space. If LaMarr Woodley is a casualty, he could be a nice consolation prize. Bottom line: There just aren't that many pass rushers worth pursuing in free agency.

Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis has often cited the Steelers' Dick LeBeau-coached defense as his model. It stands to reason Davis could use a big-time player who is already schooled in that style of play.

Neither of the top safeties were tagged, which makes for an intriguing scenario when free agency opens. Buffalo's Jairus Byrd and Cleveland T.J. Ward will be on the market. Both are 27. Both have been to the Pro Bowl. Either would be the Eagles' best safety since Brian Dawkins.

Is Roseman willing to make Byrd the highest paid safety in the NFL? That's what it will take? Would he make a run at Ward, who knows Davis from his stint in Cleveland?

Even if Ward and Byrd are not on Roseman's list, their presence in the market has a ripple effect. They will attract immediate attention from teams desperate for safety help. That will leave the next tier -- safeties like Miami's Chris Clemons and Carolina's Mike Mitchell -- for the Eagles to approach if that's the way they choose to go.
PHILADELPHIA -- In assessing the Eagles' biggest areas of need, the outside linebacker position is especially tricky.

It is obvious the Eagles need to generate more pressure on quarterbacks from their edge rushers. In their two biggest games of the season -- the NFC East clinching win in Dallas and the playoff loss to New Orleans -- the Eagles did not put nearly enough pressure on Kyle Orton and Drew Brees.

And since that's our final impression of the team, it resonates. But when you look at the individual players involved, things begin to get murkier.

Trent Cole was rightly praised for making the difficult transition from defensive end, where he was a Pro Bowl-level player for his entire previous career, to outside linebacker. Cole had zero sacks in the Eagles' first eight games, then had eight in the second half of the season.

Does that mean he grew more comfortable in his new role? Partly. But it also appears that defensive coordinator Bill Davis simply used Cole more often in familiar situations. He did drop into coverage at times, and Cole was always an eager and aggressive run defender, but Cole rushed the passer much more than his counterpart on the outside, Connor Barwin.

As the season progressed and Davis came to understand his players better, he used Barwin to do the less glamorous tasks. He rushed the passer less and dropped into coverage more. Barwin even lined up at cornerback against big receivers like Larry Fitzgerald, jamming them at the line and then sliding into shallow zone coverage.

In a perfect world, Davis would surely like a group of versatile linebackers equally capable of covering backs and tight ends or rushing the quarterback. That would give him more options when devising alignments and calling plays. As it is, he is camouflaging one player's limitations by limiting another player.

There's nothing unusual about that, especially when a team is caught in a transition such as the 2013 Eagles were. Cole and Brandon Graham, two 4-3 defensive ends, tried to adjust their games (and their bodies) to fit as 3-4 outside linebackers. They did better than expected, but they remained most effective within their comfort zone – rushing the passer.

The Eagles can hold on to Cole and Graham throughout free agency and the draft, then make decisions on them depending on what happens.

It's hard to imagine the Eagles throwing big money at Washington's Brian Orakpo, arguably the best outside linebacker on the market. But if Pittsburgh doesn't commit to Jason Worilds, who started ahead of first-round pick Jarvis Jones in 2013, he could be an interesting name to watch. After all, Davis made it clear that his model is the Steelers 3-4 defense. Worilds is already ahead of the learning curve.

The draft could provide help, as well. Stanford's Trent Murphy and Ohio State's Ryan Shazier could be around when the Eagles are on the board with the 22nd pick of the first round.

It isn't a bad spot to be in. If Graham and, especially, Cole are back next season, the Eagles can still pick up where they left off in the second half of 2013. If they can get younger and more versatile at the outside linebacker position, Barwin will be freed up to have even more of an impact. That would make the long-term prognosis for this defense even brighter.

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