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A New Bird: Changes Coming for Eagles

By C.J Hecht

The Eagles are capable of anything come this time of year, as fans have seen examples of both passive and active strategies in 2007 and 2008 respectively. Last year they chose the active route, seemingly having CB Asante Samuel locked up before the free agent period began. The team continued their activity the next day by locking up DE Chris Clemons to a five year deal. In 2007, the Birds choose the passive strategy, with their only notable signing being WR Kevin Curtis two weeks after the free agent signing period commenced.

Before decisions are made on free agents outside of the organization, however, decisions need to be made on free agents inside the organization. The front office did not use its franchise tag to sign any of its big four free agents in safety Brian Dawkins, tackles William Thomas and Jon Runyan, as well as TE L.J. Smith.

The easiest player’s fate to determine out of these four seems to be L.J. Smith. Smith, who has displayed he can be a playmaking tight end a threat down field, has been plagued with an assortment of injuries throughout the last two seasons. After the Birds tagged him last year for 4.5 million, he disappointed with sub par numbers in 2008. He nabbed only 37 balls for 298 yards and 3 touchdowns. In 8 of the Eagles’ 18 games L.J. either was not active or caught one pass or less; not exactly the season you expect from the player you slap the franchise tag on. His 2007 numbers were the worst of his career, Smith played in only 10 games, making 22 receptions for 236 yards with only one touchdown. Certainly, his lack of production and injury concerns throughout the past two years wave a red flag to the organization. Still, if the Eagles did not have a quality tight end behind Smith maybe they would be interested in signing him to a short term deal.

That is not the case, however, as the emergence of Brent Celek as a legitimate threat was the nail in the coffin for L.J.’s fate in Philadelphia. Celek’s performance in October against the Seahawks was eye opening, as he tallied 6 catches for 131 yards. He also had a fantastic run in the playoffs, catching 19 passes for 151 yards and 3 touchdowns. Smith is known for his receiving ability, not his blocking skills, and the same goes for Celek. They are the same type of player. Why would you take a chance on a nearly 29 year old injury prone tight end who is likely past his prime, when you could have a healthy 24 year old tight end with soaring potential? L.J. Smith’s time as an Eagle has undoubtedly ended.

Brian Dawkins is likely the next player whose fate is fairly easy to determine. Dawkins, who is the longest tenured Eagle and is the unquestioned leader of the organization on the field, would love to finish his career in Philadelphia. Coming off a rejuvenating Pro Bowl season following a neck injury that sidelined him during most of 2007, the Eagles certainly want Dawkins back not only for his playmaking ability, but for his leadership and mentoring qualities. Eagles President Joe Banner said over the weekend at the NFL Scout Combine in Indianapolis that there have been talks between the organization and Dawkins throughout the week. Expect an announcement regarding the re-signing of Brian Dawkins very soon. I would be absolutely shocked if Dawkins wound up with another organization.

The fate of William Thomas is very similar to that of Dawkins in that Reid mentioned that negotiations were also being conducted with the Pro-Bowl left tackle. There is no doubt that Thomas does want to return to the organization, but negotiations have not been going quickly according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. Thomas has been a member of the Eagles since they selected him out of Florida State with the 11th overall selection in the 1998 NFL Draft. I would not be as surprised if Thomas wound up with another team as I would be with Dawkins, but I’d still deem his return to be highly likely.

Jon Runyan may be the biggest question mark on this list. He was up for free agency last year and the Eagles came through with a one year contract a couple of weeks into the free agent signing period. One thing is known for sure; the Eagles will be patient with his situation. He is currently coming off of micro fracture knee surgery and how quickly and successful his recovery goes will drastically impact the Eagles decision. Either way, I would not expect the Birds or any other organization to make a decision on Runyan for at least a month, maybe more.

Improving the team outside of the organization is also something the Birds will look to do. Andy Reid frequently comments he prefers upgrading through the draft rather than free agency, which is a good policy. Don’t believe me? The Raiders reportedly want to release WR Javon Walker one year after signing him to a 6 year, 55 million dollar contract. What do you expect when other receivers have put up better numbers in a single game than Walker did in a single season? The Buccaneers released LB Cato June a year after signing him to a 3 year, 12 million dollar deal. Former Jaguar and Raider WR Jerry Porter signed a 6 year, 30 million dollar contract in 2008 and was released roughly three weeks ago. Many times, especially with players 30 and older, free agency is a bust. Imagine what a bust C LeCharles Bentley would have been for the Eagles if he did not flee for the Browns in 2007. Bentley did not take a snap that season after injuring his knee in Cleveland’s first preseason game. Sometimes what seems like a sure thing is not. Using the draft to upgrade is the best way for an organization to improve in the long term.

That being said there is an unusual amount of pressure on the Eagles front office to upgrade the offense immediately for two reasons. The first reason is that for the first time since 1993 the Eagles are the #2 professional sports franchise in the city of Philadelphia. With the Phillies coming off a miraculous World Series win last year, the Birds may feel pressure to make a splash, improve immediately via free agency, and make a run at the Super Bowl. After all, their nucleus is not getting any younger. Secondly, when some members of the Eagles organization met with Donovan McNabb and who knows else (reports continue to contradict each other regarding who was actually present at the meeting) two weeks ago, McNabb supposedly said he wants to hold off on signing an extension until he sees how the Eagles plan to improve themselves. According to rumors, if the Birds do not improve according to McNabb’s standards not only will he not discuss an extension, but he would request to be traded. My how it is interesting how a quarterback that was benched in week 12 is now making demands to the franchise.

The Eagles do not need to do much on defense, as they have a young core which continued to improve throughout the season. Simply draft a couple of players, maybe add a free agent, and the defense is set. The offense, on the other hand, is in a boatload of trouble and has been for quite some time. How painful does the Eagle offense look at times during the season? The Bengals game being the perfect example, as the Birds complied one total year of offense in the first quarter against a run defense that is not exactly overwhelming. The team needs to upgrade at wide receiver, running back, and on the offensive line. Let’s start with everyone’s favorite position, wide receiver. Reportedly the Eagles offered a first rounder and Lito Sheppard to the Cardinals last year for Anquan Boldin and they rejected the move. Boldin is the Eagles’ only legitimate option of upgrading at the receiver position. T.J. Houshmandzadeh is a great receiver, but not he kind of receiver the Birds are looking for. He is 6’1, 31 years old, and it is not worth getting into a bidding war with the Seahawks, 49ers, Bears, and Giants. If he comes cheap, I’d certainly take him, but it’s just not going to happen. Marvin Harrison would make a nice story being from Philadelphia and former teammate of McNabb’s at Syracuse, but he is old, slow, and would not significantly upgrade the corps. Maybe a short, cheap deal is possible, but I’d put Harrison under the very unlikely category.

The draft could be a more realistic way of upgrading the position, but it would not provide the immediate improvement that McNabb has asked for. Former Rutgers standout Kenny Britt and Hakeem Nicks out of North Carolina would be tall possession receivers that could kelp the club in the red zone, but it may be awhile until they make an impact. Unless the Cardinals have a drastic change of mind on Boldin’s trade request and the Eagles’ trade package, expect more disappointment at wide receiver.

Running back is suddenly a position of need for the Eagles after the Broncos nabbed Correll Buckhalter the moment free agency began. Many mock drafts have the Birds selecting former Ohio State running back Chris Wells to complement Westbrook. Georgia RB Noshawn Moreno is also a possibility, but whether or not he will be available when the Eagles are on the clock at number 21 is questionable. New York Giants free agent running back Derrick Ward is intriguing option at halfback if the Birds were to select the free agent route.

Offensive line may be difficult to upgrade via free agency. The Panthers re-signed free agent to be Jordan Gross last week. He would have been an excellent addition to the Eagles line. The Steelers re-signed Max Starks to a one year deal last week as well. Jeff Saturday, another free agent to be, re-signed with the Colts just hours before free agency began. That leaves the Eagles with slim pickings. A solution may be former Ravens center Jason Brown, who is capable of playing both center and guard. If the Birds were to sign him, they would be able to start Brown at guard and move Todd Herremans back to his natural tackle position. Shawn Andrews' brother Stacey Andrews, who has played five seasons for the Bengals after being drafted in the fourth round out of Mississippi in 2004, is also a possibility. Addressing the O-line through the draft is the most likely situation, however, as the Birds will probably wait for a year in which the free agent market is stronger to make a splash.

Finally, the last position on offense in which the Eagles need help is tight end. With the expected departure of L.J. Smith, that leaves the team with Brent Celek and a free agent bust from two years ago, Matt Schobel. It would be wise to pick up a tight end with good blocking ability because both Celek and Schobel are receiving tight ends. This is an area which is extremely likely to be addressed in the draft. Many have mentioned Oklahoma State TE Brandon Pettigrew as a possible solution, but his stock declined mightily at the combine over the weekend after he ran a 4.85 40 yard dash.

The Eagles have a number of decisions to make this off season. While nothing can be said for sure, a new bird will definitely be flying in Lincoln Financial Field next season.

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