Eagles mailbag: Who should the Eagles target in free agency?

Eagles mailbag: Who should the Eagles target in free agency? originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

It’s the offseason but you guys still had a ton of questions. Thanks for all of them. I apologize if I missed yours.

We got enough to split this mailbag into a few parts:

Part 1.

Part 2.

And here’s Part 3.

The Eagles obviously need to upgrade their secondary this offseason and I look at the safety position as a really important one in Vic Fangio’s defense. The Eagles will bring back Reed Blankenship for Year 3 but there’s a very good chance they’ll release Kevin Byard. And Sydney Brown is coming back from an ACL tear he suffered late in the season. The Eagles need to add a safety who can come in and play well immediately.

The good news for them is that this is a pretty strong class of free agent safeties so the Eagles might be able to land one.

The top guy on the list is Antoine Winfield Jr. from Tampa Bay but the Buccaneers are obviously going to work to keep their 26-year-old star. But even if Winfield isn’t a possibility, there are plenty of other options: Xavier McKinney, Jeremy Chinn, Geno Stone, Kamren Curl, Julian Blackmon.

And the best thing about that list is that all of those players are young. All of those names listed above are right now 25 years old or younger. These are the types of free agents Howie Roseman used to love signing — guys coming off their rookie deals who were still just 25 or 26 years old. In recent seasons, the contracts going to those players has skyrocketed. But with a pretty stocked class of free agent safeties this offseason, the Eagles might be able to find the right guy at the right contract.

I’ll start off with a safety from the list I just gave you. I think Curl makes sense. He turns 25 next month and the former seventh-round pick has quietly had a very nice career with the Commanders. A fun note: PFF’s free agent comparison for Curl is Rodney McLeod in 2016. That deal worked out pretty well for the Eagles.

OK, two more.

Receiver is a position where the Eagles could look to upgrade that WR3 spot. Chicago’s Darnell Mooney is of interest to me. He was a fifth-rounder in 2020 and is still just 26. Mooney had a 1,000-yard season in 2021 but hasn’t hit 500 yards in either of his past two seasons. He’s a more reliable option in the slot and if the Eagles still like the idea of having a speed guy at that position, Mooney fits that as well. While Mooney has averaged just 12.2 yards per catch in his NFL career, he did run a 4.38 at the Combine in 2020. That year, Watkins had the third-fastest 40 time with a 4.35 and Mooney had the fifth-fastest time.

Linebacker is also a position of need. And if Vic Fangio wants his guy then maybe it’s Josey Jewell in the middle of that defense. Jewell is 29 now but he still played at a pretty high level in 2023. And Jewell has familiarity with Fangio, who was his head coach in Denver for three seasons. The Eagles won’t break the bank for a linebacker but they can’t ignore the position either. Getting someone in here with a track record and with an understanding of the defense makes sense.

It’s a fair question. It’s something I really wonder about from the 2023 season. Basically, did Howie learn his lesson?

But then during the year-end press conference, Roseman was asked about his roster-building philosophy after watching the defensive line struggle a bit. And Roseman started talking about his view on linebackers. Here was his full answer:

“I feel like we’ve had a long history of success here building the team a certain way, and I think maybe there are some preconceived notions that at the linebacker position, that we don’t care who we play at linebacker. Again, our two Super Bowl teams over the last six years, the linebacker play was good from those guys.

“I think if anything, it’s my belief in the players that we have, the young players that we have. I have a lot of belief, and I know Coach does, as well, in Nakobe Dean. I believe in the player. I believe in the person. We lost two linebackers at that spot, two good players from our Super Bowl team, and we had Nakobe [Dean] waiting in the wings. We drafted him for that role. Obviously, it didn’t work out perfectly for him this year. That doesn’t change the belief we have in the player.

“Then we felt like we’d have the ability to get an off-ball linebacker, WILL linebacker, who can run and hit, and honestly when you watch the tape, Zach Cunningham had a good year. He really did. He had a mentality that we like for that position. Of course, we miss some of the guys that left as free agents, miss some of the guys on and off the field that we had strong relationships with.”

Roseman was pretty unapologetic about the way he approached the linebacker position last season. But there’s probably a happy medium here somewhere. The Eagles can’t just put all their hopes on Dean but it’s also pretty unrealistic to expect them to completely abandoned their philosophies, which have worked.

A lot of the talk about Fangio’s defense being figured out is a tad overblown. There’s a reason so many teams and coaches have copied what he’s done for years. Obviously, with more exposure, teams figure out ways to beat a scheme. But that’s where having the originator really helps. Fangio created his scheme because it made the most sense at the time. And because of his intimate knowledge of it, he should theoretically be able to hit the right buttons to fix issues that pop up. When the Eagles hired Sean Desai, he made a point to mention that he had actually worked with Fangio and that he wasn’t just copying the scheme off tape. The Eagles have removed another layer of separation. They have the guy who came up with the stuff. That certainly gives them a better shot.

I got a few questions on Derrick Henry. Love the player. Have loved his career. How can you not? But I can’t imagine the Eagles bringing him in with any kind of significant contract. He’s 30 now and his yards per carry were down to 4.2 in 2023. Henry isn’t a normal human. He’s led the NFL in carries in four of the last five years and he still hasn’t completely broken down. But he has had over 2,000 carries in his career and it just seems like a matter of time before that takes a toll. This just doesn’t seem like the type of move the Eagles would make, especially if Henry gets a decent deal.

If the name doesn’t ring a bell, the Eagles signed Isaiah Rodgers last offseason knowing that he’d have to serve a year suspension for violating the league’s policy on gambling. But the 26-year-old is certainly intriguing. He was as sixth-round pick out of UMass in 2020 and had his best professional season in 2022. WIth the Colts, he played in 15 games with 9 starts that year and played very well. While he’s just 5-10, Rodgers was an outside cornerback in Indy.

I think it’s too early to say Rodgers will definitely be competing for a starting job. Heck, he hasn’t played football in a year and it’s not like he was a perennial Pro Bowler before the suspension. But I am looking forward to seeing Rodgers, who should have a shot. But we already know that Darius Slay is one starting corner in 2024. There’s still free agency and the draft to go before the roster is finalized. And I wouldn’t even rule out Kelee Ringo as a possible starter after the promising end to his rookie season.

This is a follow-up from yesterday’s mailbag. A little bit. It’s really hard to judge just about anyone from that defense ... but any way you look at Smith’s rookie season, it was disappointing. I might actually blame the coaching staff for not giving him more playing time but I also don’t get to watch practices during the season. If he really wasn’t ready for a bigger role, that’s concerning. If it was stubbornness from the coaches just because they trusted Haason Reddick, Josh Sweat and Brandon Graham, then that’s on coaching. Sometimes you have to find a way to carve out playing time for talented young players, especially at a rotational position. Wish we would have seen Smith more in 2023.

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