Philadelphia Eagles: Patrick Chung

PHILADELPHIA -- You learn more about what an NFL team thinks from what it does than from what it says.

The Philadelphia Eagles know they need to improve their defense if they’re going to repeat as NFC East champions and make more noise in the postseason. The Eagles allowed more passing yards per game than any team in the NFL in 2013. That is an obvious area to address.

“I think we can be better than 32 [ranked],” cornerback Cary Williams said. “I think we’re going to be much improved from last season.”

[+] EnlargePhiladelphia's Cary Williams
AP Photo/Michael PerezCary Williams and the Eagles won the NFC East in 2013 despite allowing the most passing yards per game in the NFL.
The Eagles drafted outside linebacker Marcus Smith of Louisville in the first round of last month’s draft. But there’s a real chance Smith won’t start ahead of Trent Cole right away. Indeed, the only definite new starter will be former Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins. During OTA practices the past two weeks, 10 of the 11 starters from the end of last year were still at the top of the depth chart.

And that’s how you know what coach Chip Kelly, GM Howie Roseman and defensive coordinator Bill Davis really think. If they believed the defense was simply devoid of talent, they would have done more in free agency to add some. Instead, they appear convinced that it’s more important for the current players to grow within Davis’ 3-4 defensive scheme than to shuffle personnel.

“Overall, the whole defense has grown because we’re more comfortable with what we’re doing,” inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans said.

Last year, Ryans was adjusting to the 3-4 after playing middle linebacker in a 4-3 scheme. He wound up playing more snaps than any inside linebacker in the NFL in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus. That’s because Ryans stayed healthy, but also because Davis desperately needed his awareness and knowledge on the field on every down.

Ryans will likely carry just as heavy a burden in 2014. But the addition of Jenkins will help ease the strain a bit. Jenkins replaces Patrick Chung, who was hampered by injury last year, and rookie Earl Wolff, who replaced Chung as a starter.

“Malcolm is going to be the leader in the back end,” Ryans said. “He’s a guy who gets the guys in the right position. He can make the plays you want to make. He’s a great addition to our secondary.”

That should help the entire secondary play as a cohesive unit. So should some more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Eagles began to identify and develop strong players in their front seven last season. That process should continue and bear fruit in 2014.

Defensive end Cedric Thornton will begin this season as a starter rather than as a curiosity. Bennie Logan will be the nose tackle. Cole will be in his second season as a linebacker after spending 2013 making the transition from defensive end. Ryans, Cole, Connor Barwin and Mychal Kendricks should all be better after playing together for a full season.

Best of all, the defense experienced some success in that first year. The Eagles finished strong, earning the division title with a victory in Dallas in Week 17. Their first-round playoff loss to New Orleans showed them exactly where they need to get better.

“We understand what is expected from us,” Williams said. “We’re going to continue to build off what we did last year. I think we’re on the right path.”

Kelly, Roseman and Davis think the same thing. Their actions this offseason say so.
Replacing a legend is never easy. The Philadelphia Eagles have learned that the hard way.

It has been five years since Philadelphia let safety Brian Dawkins, one of the most popular players in franchise history, walk in free agency. Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie loved Dawkins, but he allowed the man known as Weapon X to get on a plane bound for Denver and a visit with the Broncos. By the time Lurie realized his mistake and called Dawkins and begged him to come back, it was too late. Dawkins signed with Denver, and the Eagles have been looking for an adequate replacement ever since.

[+] EnlargeMalcolm Jenkins
Sam Sharpe/USA TODAY SportsThe Eagles are counting on free agent Malcolm Jenkins, 27, to solidify one safety spot. He started 57 games at safety for the Saints.
Malcolm Jenkins is just the latest player Philadelphia hopes can step into Dawkins’ sizeable shadow and provide the leadership, tenacity and production that Dawkins did for all of those years he roamed the Eagles' defensive backfield.

Shortly after free agency began on Tuesday, the Eagles lured the 26-year-old Jenkins away from New Orleans with what ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter reported was a three-year, $16.25 million contract. Right before that move, the Eagles released Patrick Chung, whom they signed from New England in free agency last year. He was a massive disappointment in 10 starts last season.

Also Tuesday, Philadelphia continued its offseason trend of re-signing its own players, inking punter Donnie Jones to a three-year contract. This offseason the Eagles also re-signed wide receivers Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper, center Jason Kelce, five-time all-pro offensive tackle Jason Peters, and defensive end Cedric Thornton.

Eagles general manager Howie Roseman was expected to take a measured approach to free agency, having learned a hard lesson in 2011 after the lockout when the Eagles signed a slew of big-name free agents. That situation was a nightmare, with some incumbent starters upset about the money the team lavished on free agents like cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha and defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins.

Roseman has since gone back to the Eagles formula for success during Andy Reid’s heyday: Build through the draft, supplement through free agency.

But Jenkins fills an obvious need for the defense, which exceeded expectations last season in Bill Davis' first year as defensive coordinator, but needs upgrades throughout the secondary.

The Saints used the 14th pick in the 2009 draft to select Jenkins out of Ohio State. A cornerback in college, Jenkins moved to free safety in 2010 and started 15 games, intercepting two passes (and returning one for a touchdown), forcing one fumble and recovering two others.

Jenkins started 57 games at safety for the Saints, was a two-time captain and had a reputation as a dedicated, hard-working player who lived in the film room. While Jenkins thrived early last season under new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and has versatility having played cornerback in college, he also often has been more about potential than production. Jenkins has been inconsistent in coverage and missed some tackles.

That said, for Philadelphia, Jenkins will be an upgrade over Chung. He joins a team that made the playoffs in Chip Kelly’s first season as head coach and enters 2014 with significantly higher expectations.

“We really liked Malcolm’s versatility," Kelly said. "He can line up at either safety spot, can come in and make a tackle and can play man-to-man as well. I had a chance to study him on tape leading up to the playoff game and really liked what I saw. He’s a sharp kid and is ultra-competitive. We are really happy to have him in Philadelphia.”

Is Jenkins Brian Dawkins? No. No one is. But he should be the best option at safety Philadelphia has had since Dawkins was in uniform.
Philadelphia Eagles general manager Howie Roseman employed a baseball term to describe his team's 2013 approach to free agency. The Eagles tried to have a decent “batting average” by signing “a bunch of guys that aren't high-price guys.”

But batting average is so 1975. It would be more 2014 to look at the equivalent of the Eagles' VORP (that's Value Over Replacement Player for you football-only readers) from last year. That is a better way to analyze if that approach truly is more effective than making one or two pricier, higher risk/reward signings.

The Eagles signed nine free agents in March of last year. We won't count later moves, such as picking up running back Felix Jones -- only moves made in the primary free-agency period.

Four of the nine players were hits: linebacker Connor Barwin, punter Donnie Jones and cornerbacks Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher.

Five of the nine players were outs: strikeouts Kenny Phillips and Jason Phillips, groundout Isaac Sopoaga, popup Patrick Chung and line drive right at the shortstop James Casey.

Four-for-nine is a batting average of .444, which will get you in the Hall of Fame. But that basic metric doesn't tell the whole story.

Getting a good punter shouldn't count for as much as whiffing on a safety, let alone two of them. Williams and Fletcher were good, but not great. It should tell you something that virtually every offseason analysis and mock draft has the Eagles looking to upgrade the cornerback position.

Barwin was better than his stats said he was. His versatility inspired defensive coordinator Bill Davis to use him in different roles -- not all of which resulted in sacks or other easily identified big plays.

Sopoaga was paid $3 million by the Eagles before being traded away at midseason. Chung made $3 million to lose his starting job twice. Casey made $4 million to play special teams. Williams made $5.75 million and Fletcher $3.28 million while Brandon Boykin led the team with six interceptions for $480,000.

So it's not really about a .444 batting average. It's about what kind of value Roseman got for the money he spent, and whether or not it would have been better spent elsewhere. That's not VORP in the baseball sense, but it's an easy way to extend the “batting-average” analogy.

Is it better to drop $10 million on Chung, Sopoaga and Casey than to drop $10 on Jairus Byrd? Is it smarter to spend $9 million on two decent cornerbacks or the same amount on one Pro Bowl-caliber safety?

There may not be one right answer, but the questions are worth asking.
Any list of the Eagles' needs starts with their secondary, which is understandable when a team is ranked last in the NFL in pass defense.

[+] EnlargeCary Williams
AP Photo/Damian StrohmeyerCary Williams and the Eagles cornerbacks could benefit from quality play at safety.
That's why many analysts, experts and fans think the Eagles will focus on safeties and cornerbacks in free agency and the draft. And they certainly might. But there's one thing I think gets overlooked in all this.

The cornerback play may have looked worse than it actually was because of the quality of the safeties. By improving their safety performance, the Eagles may find that Cary Williams, Bradley Fletcher and Brandon Boykin are perfectly adequate cornerbacks.

One step further: Improve the pass rush, which virtually disappeared late in the season and in the playoff loss to the Saints, and the whole secondary would look better.

This doesn't mean the Eagles should pass on a quality cornerback in the draft, if there is one they like when they are on the clock. It is a position where you almost can't have too much talent or depth.

But Williams and Fletcher, the two starting guys on the outside, may not be as urgent a problem as some seem to believe. They were nowhere near perfect, to be sure, but pass defense is a product of cooperation and synchronization.

Williams played for the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens the year before. He had Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard at safety. They were more likely to help their cornerbacks out than to leave them hanging.

After the Eagles lost to New Orleans in the wild-card round, Williams seemed especially frustrated.

"We had too many mental breakdowns in the secondary," Williams said. "We didn't put ourselves necessarily in the best situations to win. That was really the issue with me, man. It was frustrating out there -- situations that you know are coming, that you've seen over and over on film, and they don't necessarily go right. The right call isn't being made. It's frustrating. Drew Brees saw those mistakes we made and was able to capitalize on those situations."

Williams wasn't excluding himself or the other cornerbacks from his critique. But you definitely got the feeling, watching that game and those that preceded it, that the major breakdowns were at safety. That is why Nate Allen was not among the impending free agents signed to new contracts last week, and it is why Patrick Chung could well be gone before training camp.

Buffalo's Jairus Byrd, by consensus the top free-agent safety, combined for 33 interceptions and forced fumbles in his five seasons. In four years with the Eagles, Allen had a total of seven.

Signing Byrd would make the Eagles much better, obviously. But there is a lot of room between his production and Allen's that would qualify as improvement. And improvement at safety should contribute to better play from the corners.

Free-agent dossier: Kurt Coleman

February, 27, 2014
Feb 27
9:05
AM ET
PHILADELPHIA -- We'll continue our look at the Eagles' soon-to-be free agents with safety Kurt Coleman for two reasons.

Coleman is an interesting case, a guy who both exceeded and then didn't meet expectations. Just as important, there's no sense in looking at Riley Cooper and Jeremy Maclin if the two never get to free agency. The Eagles could have both locked up with new deals well before March 8.

Coleman
Coleman, 25, was the 244th player selected in the 2010 NFL draft. Just for context, the Eagles took Coleman 158 spots after they took defensive lineman Daniel Te'o-Nesheim. So it is a credit to Coleman's tenacity that he started 29 games at safety in his first three seasons.

The Eagles kept bringing in veteran stopgaps, and Coleman was the guy who played when they proved less than adept. Of course, that also put Coleman in the position of being a guy the front office and coaches were perennially trying to replace.

The Eagles did that in 2013, signing Patrick Chung and drafting Earl Wolff in the fifth round. Chung was the starter opposite Nate Allen coming out of camp. Defensive coordinator Bill Davis eased Wolff into the lineup and he took over the starting job when Chung injured his shoulder.

After Wolff injured his knee -- an injury that turned out to be virtually season-ending -- Chung returned to the starting lineup. By the Dec. 15 game at Minnesota, though, Coleman had risen up the depth chart (or Chung had slipped down again). Davis replaced Chung with Coleman for 26 defensive snaps.

Coleman pulled a hamstring, however. He missed the next week's game and was back to full-time special-teams work for the season finale at Dallas and the playoff game against New Orleans. Overall, Coleman played just 73 defensive snaps, or 6 percent.

The Eagles' self-described frustration at the safety position suggests that Coleman will move on. If he hopes to be a starter, or even a regular contributor on defense, it seems as if he'll have to leave to do that.

But if Coleman doesn't find that kind of opportunity, and if the Eagles decide he has value as a special-teamer, solid locker room guy and capable depth player, there is a chance Coleman could return. Building continuity on special teams has some merit, as well.

Free-agent dossier: Nate Allen

February, 26, 2014
Feb 26
8:00
AM ET
PHILADELPHIA -- Taken individually, each of safety Nate Allen's four seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles gets an asterisk.

In 2010, the second-round pick was a rookie on a team that still had championship aspirations (or delusions, depending on your perspective). Allen tore the patellar tendon in his right knee late in the season.

Allen
That injury provided an asterisk for 2011, as did the disastrous promotion of offensive line coach Juan Castillo to defensive coordinator. Allen was part of a mismatched secondary that included marquee acquisitions Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.

As for 2012, that was a lost season for the entire franchise, and Allen was hardly the biggest problem. In 2013, Allen spent his first season in the system of new defensive coordinator Bill Davis. He also had arguably his best all-around season, as far as that goes.

Taken all together, though, Allen’s tenure with the Eagles amounts to very little -- he has as many career interceptions (six) as Brandon Boykin had in 2013. Maybe the odds were against him to some degree, but there is no escaping the sense that a better, more aggressive safety would have left more of a mark than Allen did.

It is not out of the question that he will be back. The defense as a whole improved over the course of Davis’ first season. While general manager Howie Roseman has acknowledged the need to improve the back end of the defense, there is a chance he won’t be able to acquire a significantly better safety during free agency. If it comes down to Allen or Patrick Chung, the Eagles might be better off with the 6-1, 210-pound Allen. He is, after all, only 26.

But then there is the flip side. Allen said immediately after the season that he would like to return to the Eagles. But it might be that he finds a change of scenery appealing once he hits the market. If several of the top safeties -- Jairus Byrd, Donte Whitner, T.J. Ward -- never reach free agency, Allen could be attractive to a team looking for a reasonably priced alternative.

Some teams, especially those that liked Allen coming out of South Florida in 2010, might see the asterisks more clearly than the Eagles do.
PHILADELPHIA -- The Eagles could wind up settling for a “stopgap” at safety in free agency, general manager Howie Roseman told reporters at the combine in Indianapolis.

Well, that would keep their streak alive. Roseman signed veterans Patrick Chung and Kenny Phillips last offseason. They followed in the soft footsteps of Jarrad Page, Marlin Jackson, Sean Jones and all the other stopgap safeties that have passed through Philadelphia in recent years.

It would seem like a good time to try the other way, especially with some very good safeties scheduled to hit free agency. Pro Football Focus published its top-10 free agent safeties Friday. It must be noted that Nate Allen, who started every game for the Eagles in 2013, is not on it at all.

PFF rates Buffalo’s Jairus Byrd ahead of Cleveland’s T.J. Ward. Frankly, I’d lean toward Ward if both players actually get to the market. He seems like the perfect blend of intimidating run stopper and solid pass defender. Byrd has a rep as more of a big play guy, but Ward would immediately be the best Eagles safety since Brian Dawkins left.

Chip Kelly happens to know both Byrd and Ward personally, since they played at Oregon when he was there.

Donte Whitner is third on the PFF list, but it is considered very unlikely Whitner will leave San Francisco. If he hits the market, he would likely be looking for the kind of bank-busting contract the Eagles are reluctant to hand out.

PFF’s No. 4-ranked safety, Miami’s Chris Clemons, personifies the risk/reward of settling for bargain-priced stopgaps. Clemons was available last year. He signed a one-year deal with the Dolphins when no market developed for his services. It is safe to say he would have been a better signing than Chung, who lost his starting job early in the season, or Phillips, who was released during training camp.

If the Eagles do go with the stopgap type, veterans Bernard Pollard and Antoine Bethea could be options. They’re the types who could help develop a rookie taken in the draft -- unfortunately, the Eagles won’t know until May whether such a rookie exists.

Of course, if they’re looking for a stopgap, there’s always Allen.

Reassessing Eagles LB DeMeco Ryans

February, 19, 2014
Feb 19
11:05
AM ET
PHILADELPHIA -- You can trust your eyes or you can trust your eyes.

Trust them when Philadelphia Eagles inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans is on the field and you see a veteran who was playing, according to his defensive coordinator, at a Pro Bowl level late in the 2013 season.

Or trust them when you see the orange box in the Pro Football Focus graphic and the image of Ryans in the NFL.com photo display of veterans likely to be released by their teams for salary reasons.

[+] EnlargeDeMeco Ryans
AP Photo/Paul SpinelliInside linebacker DeMeco Ryans had 4 sacks and 2 interceptions in his second season with the Eagles.
Reading through last week’s positional analysis of the Eagles’ inside linebackers, I certainly didn’t portray Ryans as a huge issue. Bearing in mind that the Eagles moved from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense, and that Ryans was in charge of getting everyone lined up correctly and maintaining order, the 29-year-old had a solid season. Defensive coordinator Bill Davis backed that up.

"DeMeco is the leader of our defense, and he's having an outstanding Pro Bowl year,” Davis said in November. “We couldn't be happier with everything DeMeco is doing for us."

In its look at the Eagles’ projected 2014 lineup, PFF classified Ryans as a “below-average starter/adequate role player” -- one of four orange boxes on the site’s graphic representation of the Eagles' defense. Cornerback Cary Williams and safeties Patrick Chung and Earl Wolff were the others (free agents, including Nate Allen, were not included).

NFL.com’s Gregg Rosenthal included Ryans on his list of veteran players whose 2014 salaries make them candidates to be released.

“His reputation and salary far exceed his play on the field (especially on passing downs),” Rosenthal writes. “Do the Eagles want to pay $6.9 million for leadership?”

Two quick reactions: Ryans provided more than leadership, especially as the defensive line improved in front of the linebackers. Logic suggests he can be even more effective as the rest of the defensive players improve within Davis’ scheme.

But Rosenthal and the guys at PFF aren’t making this stuff up. They know their stuff and viewed Ryans’ play with dispassionate eyes. So it might make more sense that the Eagles spent a fair amount of time talking to inside linebackers during Senior Bowl week. Jimmy Kempski of philly.com noted Eagles personnel talking to LSU’s Lamin Barrow, Wisconsin’s Chris Borland, Illinois’ Jonathan Brown, and Florida State’s Christian Jones.

Ultimately, I think Ryans is still starting for the Eagles in September even if the Eagles draft his long-term replacement. Davis is not going to want his defense to take a step back while a rookie learns the system and how to diagnose offensive formations. Free agency doesn’t seem like a viable option -- if the Eagles are going to pay top dollar for a veteran, they’re better off with Ryans.

Combine prep: Safeties

February, 18, 2014
Feb 18
12:10
PM ET
PHILADELPHIA -- The scouting combine begins Wednesday in Indianapolis. The Eagles will be taking it all in, checking the measurable and interviewing potential draftees. They have players they’re especially interested in seeing up close, but general manager Howie Roseman isn’t sharing that kind of info.

Based on their needs and the players available, we’ll take a look at some prospects of interest every day until the combine is over. Let’s start with the Eagles’ most glaring need position, safety.

Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama. ESPN draft experts Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay both have the 6-foot-1, 208-pound Clinton-Dix going to Dallas at 17 in their latest first-round mocks. Mike Mayock of NFL Network has Clinton-Dix as his second highest rated safety behind Louisville’s Calvin Pryor.

“He doesn't have elite man-to-man coverage skills but has good range in zone and is an aggressive, efficient run supporter,” McShay writes. Kiper says Clinton-Dix gives “the added bonus of being able to help out closer to the line of scrimmage. While he's great in single high, you can bring him up and he won't shy away from contact.”

Calvin Pryor, Louisville. Mayock’s top-rated safety is 6-2, 208 pounds. Kiper describes Pryor as a “downhill safety who will fly up to the line of scrimmage and make plays. While he's got work to do in coverage, he's instinctive and athletic enough to get better there.”

NFL Network’s Nolan Nawrocki describes Pryor in words that should appeal to Eagles fans: “A big, physical, hammering run defender brings an enforcer mentality to the box and an intimidating, punishing presence to the back end. Is arguably the most violent hitter in this year's draft class and should make his presence felt readily in the pros.”

Lamarcus Joyner, Florida State. Joyner is listed as a cornerback in most roundups, but Mayock projects him as a safety/nickelback type. Because he’s only 5-8, the Eagles would probably not seriously consider him as a corner. But Kiper has him as his third-ranked cornerback and Nawrocki describes him as playing “bigger than his size.” Also a return man.

Deone Bucannon, Washington State. If the Eagles go elsewhere in the early rounds, the 6-1, 216-pound Bucannon could be a second-day option. Nawrocki describes him as “old school” and a classic strong safety type. Had six interceptions as a senior.

Jimmie Ward, Northern Illinois. The 5-11, 192-pound Ward had seven interceptions in 2013. Kiper describes him as a riser “who isn't a big player but is a very good one and looks as if he can start early. Likely a second-rounder.”

Eagles-eye view: In the first year under Bill Davis, the Eagles didn’t really have a free safety and a strong safety. Nate Allen tended to play deeper and either Earl Wolff or Patrick Chung was closer to the line, but that was subject to change.

It isn’t clear whether that was Davis’ preference or he was simply getting by with the personnel on hand. What is clear is that the proliferation of spread offenses and athletic tight ends requires a group of versatile, athletic defensive backs who can cover as well as tackle.

That is what the Eagles will be looking for in Indy this week.
PHILADELPHIA -- Since Eagles general manager Howie Roseman said the team would like to address the safety position before the draft -- in other words, during free agency -- he couldn't be certain what the market would look like.

He still can't. But as other teams clear roster spots (and cap space) and with the window open for using franchise and transition tags now open, there is more clarity every day.

Two of the elite safeties due for free agency, Cleveland's T.J. Ward and Buffalo's Jairus Byrd, could be tagged. That would not only take them off the market, it would have a domino effect on the players who do hit free agency. A guy like Miami's Chris Clemons might command more money than he would if Ward and Byrd were in the market.

And then there's San Francisco's Donte Whitner. The 49ers want him back, but it might be tougher to negotiate a new deal without using a tag on him if he is by far the best safety available.

Judging by Roseman's comments, he isn't likely to get in a mad bidding war for the hot commodity. The Eagles' recent approach has been to look for value among players in the second tier, after the market settles a little bit.

In that sense, the picture has improved for the Eagles in recent days. New Orleans released Roman Harper and Detroit parted ways with Louis Delmas late last week. Whether they are good fits in Philadelphia or not, they add to the pool of available talent and create more options.

Delmas is an interesting possibility. He is only 27, same as Ward and Byrd. He is a relatively physical player who has had some knee trouble. That could actually help keep his asking price down, which might make him that much more appealing to the Eagles.

Delmas was taken one pick ahead of Patrick Chung in the 2009 draft. But then, the Eagles took Nate Allen one pick ahead of Ward in the 2010 draft.

Allen and Chung finished the season as the Eagles' starting safeties. Rookie Earl Wolff had taken Chung's starting job before injuring his knee in Green Bay in October.

Allen will be an unrestricted free agent, as will safeties/special-teamers Kurt Coleman and Colt Anderson. With the Eagles lukewarm on Chung, there could be as many as four roster spots open for safeties.

Roseman said recently that he doesn't want to go into the draft with a gaping hole on his roster. That, he said, leads to mistakes as teams reach for a position of need. So it is likely the Eagles will look to add safeties in free agency. The market is shaping up.
PHILADELPHIA -- Eagles general manager Howie Roseman made a couple of media appearances last week that were worth reviewing for the insight provided into the team’s offseason plans.

At first glance, the most eyebrow-raising aspect might have Roseman’s declaration that the Eagles wouldn’t rule out taking a quarterback with the No. 22 pick in May’s NFL draft.

“If we have a significant gap on who the best player on the board is and the next best player, it’s not really not going to matter the next best position because we don’t know where we’re going to be two, three, four years from now,” Roseman told CSN Philly.

Upon further review, that position isn’t as startling as it first appears. Roseman has said consistently for the past couple years that the Eagles would not draft for need again after picks such as guard Danny Watkins and safety Jaiquawn Jarrett fizzled out. Starting in 2012, the Eagles’ policy has been to stick to their grades and take the best player on their board.

That was the explanation when they took tight end Zach Ertz and quarterback Matt Barkley in last year’s draft.

But it’s one thing to take a second-round tight end after signing James Casey in free agency or picking up a young quarterback prospect in the fourth round. It’s another thing entirely to draft a quarterback in the first round. That changes the temperature in the team’s facility -- for Nick Foles, for Chip Kelly, for everyone involved.

Roseman knows that. I suspect he also knows already there is not likely to be a can’t-pass-up quarterback sitting there when the Eagles draft. Quarterback-hungry teams are apt to overvalue the handful of legitimate prospects and snap them up early. If anything, that should help push a couple of higher-graded players down toward the Eagles.

As long as it’s purely a hypothetical, Roseman is smart to repeat his best-player-on-the-board mantra. It is a message worth sending to every player on the roster. After all, every draft pick represents a threat to somebody’s job.

Earlier in the week, Roseman talked to Reuben Frank on 94.1 WIP-FM. A couple takeaways:
  • While he maintains the stance the Eagles don’t want to splurge on overpriced free agents, Roseman acknowledged the team might have to open its checkbook for a safety. And the main reason is that very same draft philosophy. “Ideally, you don't want to go into the draft with a huge hole, because that puts you more susceptible to forcing things or kind of pushing guys up,” Roseman said in the interview. It just happens because you look at the depth chart and you go, ‘I don't have someone at that position. Who's in the draft?’ “ Three Eagles safeties, including starter Nate Allen, are due to become free agents next month. Another starter, Patrick Chung, could be released after an unimpressive first season with the team. The draft is not expected to provide a lot of depth at the safety position.
  • As far as wide receivers, the Eagles face the opposite of their safety dilemma. They really like their free agents-to-be, Riley Cooper and Jeremy Maclin, but there is a lot of draft depth at that position. “I think it is complicated, because you have guys that you want to have back,” Roseman said on WIP. “Also, what resources are you going to devote to that position with the guys who are already on the roster? And then you look at it in the draft, obviously a very strong position. It's a complicated situation but we've never ruled out bringing both of those guys back.”
PHILADELPHIA -- The Eagles were much better off at cornerback than at safety last year, and a million times better there than they were for the Nnamdi Asomugha/Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie jogathon of 2012.

[+] EnlargePhiladelphia's Cary Williams
AP Photo/Michael PerezCary Williams' presence among the Eagles' cornerbacks can't be understated.
Still, cornerback is such a premium position, you can expect general manager Howie Roseman to look to upgrade there if he can. It is not an A-1 priority, not compared to safety, but it should always be a priority.

In many ways, Chip Kelly inherited an Eagles team much like the one Andy Reid did 14 years earlier, only in reverse. The 1998 Eagles were 3-13 but had the defensive personnel in place for a quick turnaround: Brian Dawkins, Troy Vincent, Hugh Douglas, Jeremiah Trotter and others.

The offense was another matter, especially at wide receiver. Saying the "cupboard was bare," Reid quickly added solid veterans Charles Johnson and Torrance Small just to get some inventory at the position.

For Kelly, it was the offense that was stocked and the defense that required the most attention. Roseman signed cornerbacks Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher, along with safeties Patrick Chung and Kenny Phillips, just to stock that mostly empty cupboard.

Williams and Fletcher turned out to be better performers at cornerback than Johnson and Small were at wide receiver. They also have a better chance to stick around while their side of the ball develops. Their presence gives Roseman a little breathing room. If he can upgrade the position, he should. But he can address more pressing needs, especially safety, because Williams, Fletcher and Brandon Boykin represent a solid group of corners.

Aside: These corners would be that much more effective with an improved pass rush. So that becomes an even higher priority.

As the oldest of the three, Williams would appear most vulnerable to being replaced. But his value to the chemistry and personality of the Eagles defense in 2013 cannot be overstated. The Eagles were soft with DRC and Asomugha at the corners. Williams wasn't having any of that.

Fletcher was the polar opposite, personality-wise. He's as soft-spoken as Williams is outspoken. But he played a solid, reliable cornerback pretty much all season. Fletcher is 27 and another year removed from the ACL tear that cost him most of the 2011 season and made him expendable to the St. Louis Rams after the 2012 season.

Williams is 6-foot-1, Fletcher 6-0. They give the Eagles decent size and tackling ability (and willingness to tackle, which is not the same thing) on the outside. Each was also able to remain on one side, regardless of which receivers were matched up there. That allowed Davis the freedom to draw up schemes without having to move one shutdown corner around to compensate for a less competent player.

As for Boykin, he simply had a terrific season as the Eagles' nickel cornerback. Maybe too terrific, since he gave Davis a good reason to leave him where he excels rather than allow him to play outside. It's a win-win situation for the Eagles, though. If Boykin does develop into an outside corner, that gives them depth and flexibility. If he stays put, they have a nickel corner who was tied for second in the NFL with six interceptions despite limited playing time.

With so much work going into gradually improving the defense, there wasn't time to bring along young cornerback Roc Carmichael. He played almost exclusively when Fletcher or Williams was out because of injury or, in one case, Williams' temper tantrum in Minnesota. When Carmichael was in, he was targeted. He should benefit from a full offseason and training camp with Davis.

Curtis Marsh, a 2011 draft pick who spent part of the season with Cincinnati, was active for only one game after being resigned by the Eagles in early November. It's hard to see a role for Marsh in 2014.
PHILADELPHIA -- The secondary was already the Philadelphia Eagles' most obvious need area. After watching the NFL postseason, especially the Super Bowl, that need looked even more glaring.

Put another way: The Eagles got by with their secondary in 2013. Elite defenses do better than get by. Their safeties and cornerbacks are impact players.

Let’s look at the more dire safety situation first. We’ll address the cornerback position in a separate post.

Good safeties have been as elusive as unicorns for the Eagles since Brian Dawkins' unfortunate departure five years ago. (Say that out loud: Dawk's been gone for five years.) They have tried nearly everything to fill that void: second-round draft picks, second-day draft picks, midlevel free agents.

[+] EnlargeT.J. Ward
David Dermer/Diamond Images/Getty ImagesIt might be time for the Eagles to pursue a starting safety in free agency, like Cleveland's T.J. Ward.
As it happens, three of the safeties on the Eagles’ roster are to become unrestricted free agents next month: starter Nate Allen, former starter Kurt Coleman, and special-teamer Colt Anderson.

That should be viewed as an opportunity more than a problem. By doing nothing, the Eagles can start the process of turning over this part of their roster. They can really turn the page if they release Patrick Chung, who lost his starting job twice during the season.

That would leave Earl Wolff, last year’s fifth-round draft pick and the guy who took Chung’s job before getting hurt, and Keelan Johnson as the only two safeties on the roster.

When we said the Eagles have tried nearly everything, it’s because the one thing they haven’t done is sign a top-level free agent. For years, the Eagles rated the safety position fairly low on their list of priorities. Dawkins was a homegrown superstar who transcended the position, but their emphasis was always on edge pass-rushers and cornerbacks.

General manager Howie Roseman has said the team will avoid splurging on big-ticket signings, and that is a reasonable position. But one reason the team has struggled to resolve the safety problem is its insistence on mediocre, small-ticket free agents. Chung and Kenny Phillips were last year’s additions to a list that includes Sean Jones, Jarrad Page, Marlin Jackson and O.J. Atogwe.

Maybe Buffalo’s Jairus Byrd or Cleveland’s T.J. Ward will demand too much money to be options, but this might be the year the Eagles have to pay full-market price at this most challenging of positions. Miami’s Chris Clemons might be a better value signing.

You could make a case for retaining Allen, who had his best season. Maybe spending more time in Bill Davis’ defense will help Allen continue to grow. But the feeling here is that Allen personifies the concept of just getting by at the safety spot. The Eagles are not going to be a tough, hard-hitting, intimidating defense like Seattle or San Francisco by just getting by.

Sign one starter (Ward, preferably) and at least one veteran who can compete for playing time. Hope Wolff can lock down one starting position with a full offseason and some experience under his belt. Give Johnson a chance to earn a roster spot with special-teams play.

The timing is treacherous. If the Eagles allow Allen, Coleman and Anderson to walk, they will have to move quickly in free agency to fill at least a couple of those spots. They can hang on to Chung as security until they do. But the worst-case scenario is going into the draft in May with a desperate need for safety help.

The Eagles have done that before, and it has not ended well. But then, nothing they’ve done at safety has gone much better.
PHILADELPHIA -- Philadelphia Eagles running back Chris Polk had surgery on his shoulder this week, according to a report from ESPN’s Adam Caplan.

That is worth noting, but bears further exploring because of what it says about the way the Eagles handle injuries in the Chip Kelly era.

Andy Reid famously began every press availability with the same word -- injuries -- followed by an alphabetical recitation of every nick, ding, tear, pull and break on the athletic trainers’ report. For serious injuries, especially when star players were involved, Reid brought head trainer Rick Burkholder in to explain the nature of the injury and the course of treatment.

[+] EnlargeChip Kelly
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsInformation about injured players has been hard to come by since Chip Kelly became head coach in Philadelphia.
With Kelly?

“Polk has got a shoulder,” he said Oct. 14, the day after Polk was injured in Tampa. “We hope he’s back this week, but I don’t think he’ll be full [go in practice] tomorrow.”

That was all the information Kelly was giving out, which was typical. An injured player has a (fill in body part here). Period. Kelly says he doesn’t want or need in-depth information. The training staff tells him who is available and who isn’t and he proceeds from there.

Polk was inactive for the following week's game against Dallas. Not that big of a deal, except for the roster consequences that followed. The day before the Dallas game, the Eagles added practice squad running back Matthew Tucker to their active roster. To make room, they released cornerback Jordan Poyer, a seventh-round pick in the 2013 draft.

The Cleveland Browns claimed Poyer and he finished the season with them.

Polk was back the following week and active for the rest of the Eagles’ games. He played extensively on special teams. His snap count on offense increased in the final four weeks.

And it turned out he needed surgery on the shoulder.

If that’s the case with Polk, it raises questions about other players. Safety Patrick Chung became the player fans loved to hate for his missed tackles and perceived blown coverages. But Chung “had a shoulder” after the Week 3 loss to Kansas City. He missed two games and then tried to come back too soon, leaving the Tampa Bay game after just 12 defensive snaps.

Chung was inactive the next two weeks before returning for the Oakland game. When rookie Earl Wolff was injured (Wolff “had a knee”) in Green Bay, Chung became the starter again.

Was Chung a free-agent bust who lost his job to a fifth-round pick? Or was Chung a veteran gutting out and playing hurt because the team was desperately thin at safety?

Injury deception affects perception.

Wolff is another example. Reporters managed to ascertain that he hyperextended his knee, but there was never any further explanation. Was anything torn? Sprained? Strained? Was there cartilage damage? A bone bruise?

Wolff also tried to return too soon from his injury. He lasted four snaps in the game against Chicago in Week 16, then didn’t play again. Every day before the playoff game against New Orleans, Wolff would give an awkward update on how he felt and what he was doing to try to be ready. He was inactive on game day.

Was Wolff merely a rookie not sure of the difference between discomfort and injury? Or was he feeling pressure to get back on the field despite a moderately serious knee injury? (Not pressure from head athletic trainer Chris Peduzzi and his staff, mind you. They're very good. But secrecy about the nature of the injury led to constant inquiries from reporters and even some teasing about Wolff getting back on the field.)

Kelly is a long way from being the first coach to keep injury information as limited as possible. Maybe it provides some competitive advantage. But that secrecy can also be a disservice to the players themselves.

The next big thing: Eagles

January, 23, 2014
Jan 23
12:00
PM ET
PHILADELPHIA -- With the draft so far off this year – May! – the next major item on the Eagles’ to-do list is deciding on a strategy for free agency, which begins March 11.

General manager Howie Roseman has repeatedly said the team will continue to avoid huge free-agent deals in favor of making a number of smaller, less risky investments on the open market. That approach brought Connor Barwin, Cary Williams, Bradley Fletcher and Donnie Jones last offseason. It also brought Patrick Chung, James Casey and Kenny Phillips, moves that didn’t hamstring the franchise when performance didn’t equal compensation.

Before getting to March 11, though, the first order of business is deciding how to handle the current Eagles with expiring contracts. That group includes Michael Vick, who wants to explore opportunities to start, wide receivers Riley Cooper and Jeremy Maclin, and safeties Nate Allen, Kurt Coleman and Colt Anderson.

The Eagles could have extended any of those contracts before now, so they’re clearly willing to risk losing any or all of those players once the market opens. The best guess here is the team will wait and see if the market convinces Cooper, Maclin and Allen that their best option is to remain in Philadelphia on reasonable contracts. If not, then adios.

There are a handful of veteran players whose contracts could dictate some action. Will the Eagles hang on to players like Williams, Casey, Trent Cole, Brent Celek and Jason Avant?

Once those decisions are made, the Eagles can move on to the next Next Big Thing, signing free agents and preparing for the May (May!) draft.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Insider