NFL Nation: Antione Bethea

A theory: The media-savvy NFL didn't create this three-day “legal tampering” period to facilitate negotiations between teams and pending free agents. The real reason was to create three more days of intense fan interest and fevered speculation.

Acknowledging the lack of real news, here are some thoughts pertaining to the Eagles as the actual free agency period draws near:
  • Don't get locked into the names the Eagles reportedly contacted. Yes, they almost certainly did contact the agent for Carolina safety Mike Mitchell. That information leaked out all over the place. Does that mean the Eagles have targeted Mitchell as their solution at safety? Maybe. But all it really signifies is that someone in Mitchell's camp chose to share the Eagles' interest, which could range from casual to intense. The reality is, Eagles general manager Howie Roseman is almost duty-bound to take the pulse of every free-agent safety who has one. It is that big a need for this team, and Roseman loses nothing by getting a feel for what each player is looking for. What if Jairus Byrd or Antoine Bethea really want to play for Chip Kelly and would take a slightly less-than-market deal? It isn't likely, but as long as there's a hint of a possibility, there's nothing to lose, and much to gain, by checking in with them.
  • Nothing matters until Tuesday when deals can be done. If Roseman has his eye on a particular free agent, someone he feels he has to pounce on right away with a major offer, he doesn't want to telegraph that to the rest of the league. That's why I think there has been so little reported “interest” in some of the bigger-name free agents. Having your team linked to a guy like Byrd or Seattle's Michael Bennett would serve only to give your division and conference rivals the heads-up that they may need to make a pre-emptive strike. And if you're a GM who has targeted Byrd -- just to take a random example -- it might be smart to let him spend the three-day tampering period thinking interest in him isn't that high. By Tuesday afternoon, he may be itching to take the first market deal on the table.
  • If the Eagles go after Champ Bailey -- who will be 36 when the season starts and has been hobbled by foot injuries -- it will be hard to defend their policies when they decline to risk big money on a 27-year-old Pro Bowler such as Byrd. The Denver Broncos are the definition of a team in win-now mode. They released Bailey for a reason. He may be able to keep his superb career on life support for another year or two by moving to safety, but giving him that opportunity would defy everything Roseman has said about building a team for the long term.
  • If Saints running back Darren Sproles is released, that is the kind of player the Eagles should be very interested in. Chip Kelly was very impressed with (maybe even envious of) the Saints' diverse running backs when he was preparing for the playoff game against New Orleans. Sproles is 30, but he still brings elements to an offense that complement LeSean McCoy's game and would give Kelly plenty to work with. It doesn't hurt that Sproles returns kicks -- including the one that all but won that playoff game for the Saints.
  • I'm perplexed when people say Green Bay's reported four-year, $39 million deal with Sam Shields represents a wild shift in the market for cornerbacks compared to last offseason. There just weren't any $9- to $10-million-a-year corners on the market a year ago. The Eagles signed Cary Williams from Baltimore at $17 million for three years. That's not because the market was down. Williams is solid, but he wouldn't be getting $9-million-a-year this year, either.
The only player evaluations that matter, as far as the Eagles are concerned, are the ones done by general manager Howie Roseman and his staff.

The media-produced rankings of potential NFL free agents may not tell us much about what the Eagles are thinking. But the wide range of evaluations can provide insight into how wildly divergent different teams' opinions can be.

Let's take a look at the safety position, which figures to be an area the Eagles try to address. Buffalo's Jairus Byrd is generally considered the best safety available, but there are dissenting opinions.

Over at NFL.com, Byrd is listed as the No. 1 free agent available regardless of position. He is the only player tagged as a “difference-maker.” On ESPN Insider, former NFL executive Bill Polian and his team have Byrd as the fourth-ranked safety. Antoine Bethea of the Colts, the only safety with an A grade, is rated the best safety on the market.

Polian has Miami's Chris Clemons as his second-ranked safety, with Cleveland's T.J. Ward third. NFL.com calls Clemons “a league-average starter,” which would still make him an upgrade for the Eagles.

Over at Pro Football Focus, Byrd is rated the top safety and No. 2 free agent overall, behind only Seattle defensive end Michael Bennett. PFF rates Ward as the second best safety (No. 8 overall), while Clemons is No. 30 overall. Bethea, the top safety and a Grade-A player for Polian, is No. 61 overall on PFF's list and No. 51 on the NFL.com list.

PFF places Byrd in the same category as Seattle safety Earl Thomas. Considering the Seahawks just won the Super Bowl with Thomas as a key defensive player, it is likely many teams will make a run at Byrd in hopes of recreating that success.

Ultimately, Roseman and his personnel staff have graded players based on their game tape and how they project players in the Eagles' scheme. Cleveland's Ward is considered a better run defender, more of a strong safety type. Byrd is better at playing deep and at coverage, which was a huge problem area for the Eagles. Their pass defense was dead last in the NFL.

Malcolm Jenkins of the Saints, a converted cornerback, might be a better fit than Ward, from the Eagles' perspective. And that's the bottom line here: The Eagles' perspective is the only one that will matter to them, and they haven't published their opinions on the Internet.

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