Eagles free-agency preview: Safety, linebacker among positions that should be prioritized


Securing the central offensive part of a Philadelphia Eagles team that reached Super Bowl LVII came at the considerable expense of its defense.

General manager Howie Roseman maneuvered his 2023 budget to briefly make Jalen Hurts the highest-paid player in NFL history. The Eagles jettisoned a trove of defensive starters to enable the five-year, $255 million deal: Javon Hargrave along the edge, C.J. Gardner-Johnson and Marcus Epps in the secondary, T.J. Edwards and Kyzir White at linebacker.

Their departures contributed to the degradation of a defense that ranked second under former defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon in 2022, then plummeted to 26th during a dysfunctional 2023 season in which coach Nick Sirianni demoted defensive coordinator Sean Desai before ultimately firing him.

“Certainly, I think when we look back at last offseason, we made a conscious decision to put a little more resources onto the offensive side, and knew that we’d lose some good players on defense,” Roseman said at last week’s NFL Scouting Combine. “I think looking back we certainly missed some of those guys, and that starts with me and making those decisions.”

Roseman can begin rectifying his roster moves in this year’s free-agency cycle. It’s stocked with defensive players who can appropriately bolster the Eagles under newly hired defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. But the franchise must avoid an overcorrection. Sirianni must also equip a retooled offensive system he’s building with newly hired offensive coordinator Kellen Moore.

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Below is a breakdown of the options ahead for the Eagles in free agency. We’ve ranked the categories by both need and availability.

1. Safeties

Under contract: Reed Blankenship, Sydney Brown, Tristin McCollum

Expiring contract: Justin Evans

Potential targets: Justin Simmons, Eddie Jackson, Jordan Poyer, Jamal Adams

Analysis: The Eagles need another reliable option at safety to pair with Blankenship, especially with Brown recovering from a torn ACL. It should be pointed out the Eagles chose not to dedicate $14.4 million of their cap space for a soon-to-be 31-year-old Kevin Byard. They saved over $13 million by releasing the two-time All-Pro (only four months after trading for him). So, if Roseman were to turn around and spend a large chunk of those savings on another proven veteran in his 30s (which the market is currently flooded with), there would have to be a firm conviction in that decision. Simmons, 30, could make sense due to his ties to Fangio. Simmons, who has 30 career interceptions, earned the first of his two Pro Bowl selections with the Broncos while playing for Fangio. Christian Parker, Fangio’s newly hired defensive passing game coordinator, was also Simmons’ defensive backs coach in Denver. But the free-agent market is flush with younger options such as Xavier McKinney, Kamren Curl and Jordan Whitehead. The Eagles can afford to sign someone entering their prime.

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2. Linebackers

Under contract: Nakobe Dean, Patrick Johnson, Brandon Smith, Ben VanSumeren

Expiring contract: Zach Cunningham, Nicholas Morrow, Shaquille Leonard, Shaun Bradley

Potential targets: Patrick Queen, Jerome Baker, Devin White, Blake Cashman

Analysis: If Roseman wants to shed preconceived notions that he doesn’t value the off-ball linebacker position, he can write a fat check and sign Queen. The 24-year-old will leverage a large ransom from the Baltimore Ravens or a new team after being selected to his first Pro Bowl last season. These next two sentences, when applied to the Eagles, ought to elicit laughter. But, let’s say Roseman, who let Edwards and Kyzir White walk in 2023, really didn’t enjoy cycling through injuries at linebacker last season and patch-working those holes with journeymen and aging veterans. Perhaps that experience was enough to convince Roseman to spend Edwards-level money ($6.5 million per year) on a pedigree free agent like Devin White (Tampa Bay Buccaneers). There’s plenty of depth further down the free-agency pool who can be improvements in pass coverage and more certain tacklers. It’s also sensible for the Eagles to re-sign Cunningham. He and newly hired inside linebackers coach Bobby King spent six seasons together with the Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans.

3. Running backs

Under contract: Kenneth Gainwell, Tyrion Davis-Price, Lew Nichols

Expiring contract: D’Andre Swift, Boston Scott, Rashaad Penny

Potential targets: Saquon Barkley, Josh Jacobs, Derrick Henry, Tony Pollard, Devin Singletary

Analysis: The Eagles have ranked in the bottom 10 in position spending on running backs in each of the last four seasons. They have the opportunity to break that tendency with one of the largest talent pools at running back in recent memory. Barkley avoided a franchise tag from the New York Giants that would’ve paid him $11.9 million for the 2024 season. Any long-term deal will likely also be in that range. Barkley is an all-around back who would fit in any offense. But the Eagles have enjoyed comparable production at a lower price. They could re-sign Swift. Roseman could also reunite Pollard with Moore, Pollard’s play caller with the Dallas Cowboys. When asked about the running back market at the NFL combine, Roseman said, “Talented players end up getting paid.” Will it be the Eagles who will pay them?

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4. Offensive line

Under contract: Lane Johnson, Cam Jurgens, Landon Dickerson, Jordan Mailata, Tyler Steen, Fred Johnson, Le’Raven Clark, Darian Kinnard, Jason Poe, Lecitus Smith, Brett Toth

Expiring contract: Sua Opeta, Jack Driscoll, Roderick Johnson

Potential targets: Robert Hunt, Kevin Zeitler, John Simpson, Connor Williams

Analysis: Jason Kelce has officially retired, and Jurgens is expected to shift to center. This leaves open right guard. Every offensive lineman who topped the depth chart for Philadelphia in 2023 was drafted by the franchise. The Eagles invest heavily in the trenches via the draft. They’ll likely do so again, rather than spend lavishly on a veteran like Hunt (Miami Dolphins). Roseman could simply re-sign Opeta (who started six games last season), draft an interior lineman in the later rounds, then open training camp with a position battle that includes Steen. But the free-agent market also contains veterans such as Zeitler (Ravens) who will likely sign for less than Hunt. It’s also worth remembering that Dickerson, a two-time Pro Bowler, is entering a contract season. An affordable option at right guard, paired with Jurgens playing center on a rookie contract, could allow Roseman to allocate his team’s budget elsewhere.

5. Cornerbacks

Under contract: Darius Slay, James Bradberry, Kelee Ringo, Eli Ricks, Isaiah Rodgers, Zech McPhearson, Josh Jobe, Mekhi Garner, Mario Goodrich, Tiawan Mullen

Expiring contract: Bradley Roby

Potential targets: Kendall Fuller, Chidobe Awuzie, Steven Nelson, Kenny Moore II

Analysis: Cornerback is the Eagles’ biggest offseason need. They surrendered the fifth-most explosive plays due to instability in their secondary and the regression of Bradberry. Slay, 33, also missed five games with a knee injury last season. The Eagles are in prime position to draft a corner with the No. 22 overall pick. But they’re also in need of a nickelback. They released Avonte Maddox on Thursday. Maddox, who missed 13 games with a torn pectoral last season, was set to count $9.6 million against the cap in 2024. The Eagles will save about $2 million in cap space, according to Over the Cap, although it could be as much as $7.1 million if they use a post-June 1 designation. A league source familiar with the transaction told The Athletic it’s possible Maddox remains in Philadelphia on a new deal. But it’s worth remembering the Eagles signed Rodgers last August after the former Indianapolis Colts corner was suspended for the season for placing bets on NFL games in 2022. Rodgers could compete at outside corner or wind up playing nickel. Roseman could also explore reuniting with Gardner-Johnson (Detroit Lions), who spent time in the nickel role with Philly, in free agency. Options abound.

6. Wide receivers

Under contract: A.J. Brown, DeVonta Smith, Britain Covey, Shaquan Davis, Jacob Harris, Joseph Ngata, Austin Watkins Jr.

Expiring contract: Julio Jones, Quez Watkins, Olamide Zaccheaus, Devon Allen

Potential targets: Marquise Brown, Darnell Mooney, Curtis Samuel, Nick Westbrook-Ikhine

Analysis: The Eagles could spend more to land the No. 3 wide receiver they lacked in 2023. A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith’s combined cap hits in 2024 ($18.8 million) make them an incredible bargain considering they’ve both logged 1,000 yards in each of the last two seasons. Check out the other dominant duos. The Dolphins: Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle ($39.9 million). The San Francisco 49ers: Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk ($42.7 million). The Los Angeles Chargers: Mike Williams and Keenan Allen ($67.1 million). The Seattle Seahawks will field perhaps the best trio in Tyler Lockett, DK Metcalf and Jaxon Smith-Njigba for a combined $54.7 million. Of course, A.J. Brown’s cap hit swells to $26.5 million in 2025, and Roseman will soon have to negotiate an extension for DeVonta Smith after his fifth-year option is almost certainly picked up in May. But one could argue there’s room for a one-year flyer on an established veteran.

7. Edge rushers

Under contract: Haason Reddick, Josh Sweat, Nolan Smith, Terrell Lewis, Tarron Jackson, Julian Okwara

Expiring contract: Brandon Graham

Potential targets: Chase Young, Jonathan Greenard, Andrew Van Ginkel, Kyle Van Noy

Analysis: If the Eagles are suddenly a major player in the edge-rusher market during free agency, it’s because they’ve found a trade partner for Reddick. Beyond that, don’t expect any big splashes. Think rotational defenders behind Reddick, Sweat and Nolan Smith. Graham has already expressed wanting to return for a “farewell tour” in a smaller role. Roseman also signed former Lions edge rusher Julian Okwara last month. The 2020 third-round pick recorded nine sacks and 12 tackles for loss in the last three seasons despite logging less than 40 percent of his team’s defensive snaps.

8. Defensive tackles

Under contract: Jalen Carter, Jordan Davis, Milton Williams, Marlon Tuipulotu, Moro Ojomo, Noah Elliss, Thomas Booker IV

Expiring contract: Fletcher Cox

Potential targets: D.J. Reader, Sheldon Rankins, Javon Kinlaw, Raekwon Davis

Analysis: If Cox also decides to retire (or signs with another team), it would be prudent for the Eagles to supply the interior defensive line with another depth addition. Maybe Roseman can pull a Mike Ditka-esque move and spend the extra $30 million each team received in this year’s salary-cap increase completely on Kansas City’s Chris Jones? It’s time for two of Philadelphia’s last three first-round picks, Carter and Jordan Davis, to flourish in expanded roles. But there are also stable veterans such as Rankins on the market who can supply production and leadership in a split role.

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9. Special teams

Under contract: Jake Elliott (K)

Expiring contract: Braden Mann (P), Rick Lovato (LS)

Analysis: The Eagles ranked first in special teams DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) in 2023. Special teams coordinator Michael Clay has likely advocated to keep the major pieces of his unit together. Mann earned a spot on the active roster after starting on the practice squad, then he logged the league’s second-fewest touchbacks last season (1) while ranking fourth with 43.8 net yards per punt. Lovato, the team’s long snapper and a Pro Bowler in 2019, has played eight seasons in Philadelphia.

10. Tight ends

Under contract: Dallas Goedert, Grant Calcaterra, Albert Okwuegbunam, Griffin Hebert, E.J. Jenkins, Noah Togiai

Expiring contract: Jack Stoll

Potential targets: Gerald Everett, Mike Gesicki, Austin Hooper

Analysis: There was a major production disparity between Goedert and any other tight end last season — a problem that was pronounced when Goedert missed three games with a fractured forearm. But it’s unlikely the Eagles will invest heavily in acquiring a No. 2 option. Goedert’s $14.3 million per year salary makes him the fifth-highest-paid tight end in the NFL. Still, Moore ran 12 personnel on 22.4 percent of his plays with the Chargers last season (ninth in the NFL), and the play caller fielded at least two tight ends who logged over 170 yards receiving in each of the last two seasons. Moore could push to sign his No. 1 in Los Angeles, the 29-year-old Gerald Everett, to complement Goedert. But Roseman already re-signed Okwuegbunam to a one-year, $1.4 million extension. The Eagles could pass on tight ends during free agency and be fine.

11. Quarterbacks

Under contract: Jalen Hurts, Tanner McKee

Expiring contract: Marcus Mariota

Potential targets: Easton Stick, Tyrod Taylor, Joe Flacco

Analysis: Hurts has dealt with some form of injury in each of the last three seasons. So, the Eagles know better than to be stingy with a backup. They could re-sign Mariota ($5 million last year), but continuity may not be as valuable with new coaches in the quarterback room. Moore and quarterbacks coach Doug Nussmeier could push for Stick, who was their backup for Justin Herbert in Los Angeles.

(Photo of Patrick Queen: Kathryn Riley / Getty Images)





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