Eagles Free Agency Preview: Who Might They Target on Defense?

Eagles Free Agency Preview: Who Might They Target on Defense?

There’s $33 million-plus burning a hole in the Eagles’
pockets at this moment, but there are plenty of holes to fill in the Lincoln
Financial Field turf – and we don’t mean the kind the grounds crew can fix,
either.

Obviously after 2011’s disastrous spending spree, we’re all
a bit leery of free agency, more so than before anyway. Unfortunately the fact
of the matter is the Eagles have too many needs to fill exclusively through the
draft, so having the means to bolster their talent isn’t necessarily a bad
thing.

It’s all about identifying the right players for the proper
spots, so without further adieu, let’s examine who will be available on the defensive side of the ball come March
12.

Defensive Tackle

It all starts up front. Priority number one for the Eagles
if they are planning on switching to a 3-4 defense this season is to find a
nose tackle. Howie Roseman indicated Antonio Dixon might be able to play the
nose,
which is certainly an experiment worth testing. Dixon lacks
experience with the position however, so at worst there must be some sort of backup plan.

Problem is there are not a ton of great interior linemen on
the market, and even fewer that have played inside in a 3-4. The most
attractive option may have been Randy Starks, but the Dolphins slapped the
franchise tag on him. The best unrestricted player remaining is arguably Roy
Miller (age on first day of 2013 season: 26), who was part of an elite run
defense in Tampa Bay, but may be undersized for the role at 6-2, 310. Temple product
Terrance Knighton (27) from Jacksonville might be better suited to play it at
6-3, 330. There are more than mere local ties available, as Seattle’s Alan
Branch (28) played under defensive coordinator Billy Davis during his stint
with the Cardinals.

Of course if they’re just looking for a warm body to compete
or act as a stopgap, Sheil Kapadia of Birds 24/7 mentions Isaac Sopoaga (32) in
San Francisco,
who would presumably have a relationship with new VP of
personnel Tom Gamble.

Outside Linebacker

It’s hard to say how much help the Eagles will need on the
edges to make a 3-4 work. They require outside linebackers who can rush the passer
AND drop into coverage, the latter part being an unknown for most of the current
candidates. Brandom Graham did some of that at Michigan, and some observers felt both he and Vinny Curry
thought would be best suited in that role at the NFL level anyway. Trent Cole on the other hand is a serious
question mark.

Regardless, that’s a healthy mix of talent to start with, and the
free agent pickings are slim. Paul Kruger (27) from the Super Bowl Champion
Baltimore Ravens is about the only player worthy of a major investment, and
given his relatively small sample size – 10 career starts – it’s hard to judge
whether or not he’s actually worth the enormous contract somebody is about to
offer. San Diego’s Shaun Phillips (32) could bring valuable experience to the
table, but that might only serve to block a younger player. Birds will likely stand
pat or look to the draft here.

Cornerback

Much more difficult to project what’s going to happen at
cornerback while the Nnamdi Asomugha situation remains unsettled. Many anticipate
the maligned corner will eventually get his release, but the front office is
obviously attempting to restructure Asomugha’s contract, otherwise why wouldn’t
he be out the door already?

The Eagles appear to have no intention of re-signing
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie on the other hand, so there is a hole at corner no matter what.
They were rumored to have interest in the Dolphins’ Sean Smith (26), although
the timing suggests that was leaked in an effort to pressure Nnamdi. Then
again, Smith is one of the better options, and with the cupboard bare at this
particular position, there might be room for both of them PLUS a high draft pick.

This is actually a very strong market for cornerbacks should
the Birds want to go that route – not to mention Darrelle Revis is on the trade
block.
As free agents go, Shippensburg product Brent Grimes (30) from Atlanta
would be at the forefront were it not for his coming off a torn Achilles
tendon, while character issues could figure to be a factor for playmaker Aqib
Talib (27) despite departing New England a good soldier. The top of this deep
class is rounded out by Baltimore’s Cary Williams (28), but there are plenty
more intriguing names out there.

Safety

Quite possibly the most disappointing development so far
this offseason – at least as it relates to free agency – was the Bills’
decision to apply the franchise tag to Jairus Byrd. Byrd has been a primetime
playmaker for Buffalo since entering the league, defending 27 passes, pulling
down 18 interceptions, forcing 10 fumbles, and tacking on six points to the scoreboard
twice over a four-year career. That’s exactly the kind of production the Eagles’
secondary has missed since Brian Dawkins walked.

If there is any good news to take away, it’s that Byrd wasn’t
the only Pro Bowl-caliber safety out there. It looks like Dashon Goldson (28)
will make his escape from San Francisco, and he could be the first step to solidifying
Philly’s back end. There are several quality players to choose from, not forgetting William
Moore (28) from Atlanta or even Detroit’s Louis Delmas (26). Goldson is clearly
head and shoulders above the rest though, with similar numbers to that of Byrd – 31 PD, 14 INT, 5 FF, 1 TD.

The safety position is said to be deep in this year’s draft,
but with Nate Allen beginning to look lost, the Eagles can afford to
make a big splash with Goldson and still take somebody in April should they so choose. In terms of filling
a specific need, Goldson fits the bill perhaps better than any other free
agent this offseason. He should definitely be a target next week.

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Wideouts Rueben Randle, Chris Givens among 8 players cut by Eagles Sunday

Wideouts Rueben Randle, Chris Givens among 8 players cut by Eagles Sunday

The Eagles released Rueben Randle and Chris Givens on Sunday, ending the brief and disappointing Eagles careers of both veteran wide receivers.

The two receivers were among eight players released by the team on Sunday evening.

Randle caught five passes for 26 yards in the preseason and Givens caught one for 19 yards.

The Eagles tried to bolster their receiver corps by adding the two receivers this offseason, signing Randle to a one-year, $1,025,000 contract and Givens to a one-year $760,000 deal.

Randle got $500,000 guaranteed and Givens $180,000 guaranteed, so the two moves will count $680,000 against the Eagles’ 2016 adjusted salary cap of $161,570,362.

The moves leave the Eagles with eight wide receivers: Jordan Matthews, Nelson Agholor, Dorial Green-Beckham, Josh Huff, Paul Turner, Marcus Johnson, Cayleb Jones and David Watford.

Barring any other personnel moves, Matthews, Agholor, Green-Beckham, Huff and Turner appear headed for the final 53-man roster.

Randle’s decline is fairly astonishing.

Two years ago with the Giants, he caught 71 passes for 938 yards, and last year he caught 57 passes for 797 yards and eight touchdowns. He had four catches of 40 yards or more in 2015, fourth-most in the NFL. In four seasons in New York, he caught 188 passes for 2,644 yards and 20 TDs.

Yet the Giants had no interest in re-signing him. Now the former second-round pick’s career is in jeopardy at the age of 25.

Givens, a fourth-round pick of the Rams in 2012, was with his third team in two years this summer. His once-promising career could be over at the age of 26.

Most notable among the six other players released was offensive tackle Andrew Gardner, who started 11 games in an Eagles uniform.

Gardner, who had also spent time with the Dolphins and Texans, started eight games at right guard and right tackle for the Eagles in 2014 and was the Eagles’ opening-day starter last year at right guard. He suffered a Lisfranc injury in his left foot during a Week 3 game against the Jets at the Meadowlands and missed the rest of the season.

Also released was a member of last year’s draft class, sixth-round pick Randall Evans out of Kansas State. Evans spent most of his rookie season on the practice squad but was activated for the Pat Shurmur season finale against the Giants at the Meadowlands and got into the game on special teams.

The Eagles also released veteran defensive tackle Mike Martin, who played in 46 games for the Titans the last four years, including five starts. Also released were long snapper John DePalma and cornerback Denzel Rice, the latter of who played in five games last year and got 20 defensive snaps in the season finale against the Giants last year.

The Eagles also placed linebacker Joe Walker (knee) and defensive end Alex McCalister (calf), two rookie seventh-round picks, on season-ending Injured Reserve.

Teams have until Tuesday to reduce rosters to 75. The Eagles’ roster is currently at 73, and they have to reduce it to 53 by 4 p.m. next Sunday.

The Eagles finish the preseason on Thursday night at the Linc against the Jets.

Best of MLB: Josh Donaldson mashes 3 home runs to lead Blue Jays past Twins

Best of MLB: Josh Donaldson mashes 3 home runs to lead Blue Jays past Twins

TORONTO -- Josh Donaldson had his first career three-homer game, Troy Tulowitzki also went deep and the Toronto Blue Jays beat the Minnesota Twins 9-6 on Sunday to complete a three-game sweep.

Donaldson hit a solo homer off Kyle Gibson in the second, then delivered a go-ahead, two-run blast off Pat Light (0-1) in the seventh.

Dozens of fans tossed hats onto the field to celebrate the home run hat trick after Donaldson, the AL MVP in 2015, hit a solo shot off Alex Wimmers in the eighth. Groundskeepers and even the Blue Jays mascot helped clear the hats away.

Donaldson's fourth multi-homer game this season and the 10th of his career also marked the 17th three-homer game in the majors this season.

Jose Bautista had his first three-hit game of the season for the AL East-leading Blue Jays.

Minnesota lost its season-worst 10th straight. The Twins have lost seven straight in Toronto.

Scott Feldman (7-4) earned the win by getting two outs in the seventh. Jason Grilli worked the eighth and Roberto Osuna finished (see full recap). 

Pirates win 8th straight on road, sweep Brewers 3-1
MILWAUKEE -- Ivan Nova threw six sharp innings before leaving early because of a hurting left hamstring and the Pittsburgh Pirates hit three solo homers to rally past the Milwaukee Brewers 3-1 on Sunday for their eighth straight road victory.

John Jaso and Gregory Polanco each homered in the sixth off Brewers starter Chase Anderson (7-11) to complete Pittsburgh's first sweep at Miller Park since 2004. Starling Marte added a solo shot in the eighth.

Nova (4-0) retired 10 of his final 11 batters after allowing Jonathan Villar's solo homer in the third. He scattered three hits and struck out four before being pinch hit for in the seventh.

Tony Watson pitched a clean ninth for his 10th save in 13 opportunities (see full recap).

Archer strikes out 10, Rays hit 3 HRs in 10-4 win vs Astros
HOUSTON -- Chris Archer struck out 10 in seven innings, Corey Dickerson hit a three-run homer and the Tampa Bay Rays beat the Houston Astros 10-4 on Sunday.

Matt Duffy and Nick Franklin also went deep for the last-place Rays, who have homered in 21 of their last 24 games.

Houston, in the hunt for an AL wild card, had won three straight.

Archer (8-17) gave up three runs and four hits with two walks. With his strikeout of A.J. Reed in the sixth, the right-hander joined David Price and James Shields as the only Tampa Bay pitchers with multiple 200-strikeout seasons.

The Rays jumped out early against Doug Fister.

Fister (12-9) allowed four runs and seven hits in 4 1/3 innings, the fourth time in his past seven starts he has permitted four or more runs (see full recap). 

Calming presence behind plate, A.J. Ellis provides offensive spark in Phillies' win over Mets

Calming presence behind plate, A.J. Ellis provides offensive spark in Phillies' win over Mets

BOX SCORE

NEW YORK -- A.J. Ellis’ first game as a Phillie certainly went a lot better than Carlos Ruiz’s first game as a Dodger.

Ellis’ first hit with his new club helped the Phils salvage one game of a weekend series with the New York Mets on Sunday afternoon. The Phillies won it, 5-1 (see Instant Replay), behind a solid start from Vince Velasquez, excellent bullpen work and Ellis’ big hit, a tie-breaking, two-run double in the top of the seventh.

The Phillies had lost the first two games of the series by a combined score of 21-5. Their pitchers gave up eight homers in the first two games.

On Sunday, Velasquez and a quartet of relievers held the Mets to seven hits, all singles.

Ellis joined the Phillies just 24 hours earlier after being traded from the Dodgers on Thursday. He had been with that club his whole career.

Ruiz, of course, had been with the Phillies his whole career.

Ruiz’s first game with the Dodgers did not go nearly as smooth. The veteran catcher had trouble handling the pitches of closer Kenley Jansen in the ninth inning Friday night and that contributed to the Dodgers blowing a one-run lead and losing to the Chicago Cubs in 10 innings.

Leaving the Dodgers was difficult and emotional for Ellis. He was able to bury himself in the game Sunday and came away feeling pretty good.

“It’s just great to be playing baseball again,” he said, standing in front of his locker, a blue Dodgers equipment bag (that will soon be swapped out for a Phillies bag) at his feet. “You kind of lose yourself in the competition and then just play again.

“Regardless of what’s happened in the last four days, it feels good to drive in runs, feels good to help put your team ahead and help contribute to a team win.”

During his 24 or so hours with the Phillies, Ellis has immersed himself in learning a new staff of pitchers. He caught starters Jerad Eickhoff and Jake Thompson in the bullpen before Saturday’s game and warmed up several relievers during that game.

On Sunday morning, he arrived at Citi Field, saw his name in the lineup and immediately began prepping to catch Velasquez, the hardest-thrower on the Phillies’ starting staff.

Velasquez bounced back from three poor outings in which he gave up 19 runs in 17 1/3 innings and held a hot Mets lineup to a run over five innings. The only negative was that Velasquez could not pitch deeper into the game because his command was poor and needed 103 pitches to complete the five innings.

Nonetheless, Ellis, who was the personal catcher for Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw in Los Angeles, liked what he saw of Velasquez.

“His pitch count got elevated the first two innings and he was able to grind through the last three,” Ellis said. “The stuff is electric. He has so many weapons, so many options. When he keeps growing and keeps polishing that gift up, it’s going to be really, really special.

“So I’m excited to be able to continue to work with him, excited to work with him and (pitching coach) Bob McClure and (No. 1 catcher) Cameron Rupp, kind of talk to them about things, things he sees, things we see, and together we can build a plan for him going forward in his career.”

Two things are going to help the 24-year-old Velasquez reach his potential.

First is good health. He’s had arm problems in the past and there remain concerns about his long-term durability. That’s why the Phillies are closely monitoring his workload as this season winds down.

Second is command, control, economy of pitches – whatever you want to call it. Velasquez needs to be more efficient. Too many times he’s left games in the middle innings because of a high pitch count.

“Definitely,” he responded when asked if lowering his pitch counts and working deeper into games was the key to his improvement. “It’s going to help the longevity, it saves the bullpen, it helps out everybody. Not just on my end, but the whole team in general.

“And,” he joked, “then I can also work on my swing by getting some more at-bats.”

Despite the high pitch count, Velasquez walked just one. He struck out seven. He is up to 129 innings for the season. That includes five innings in a rehab game at Double A Reading. The Phillies will look to keep him at about 150 innings for the season. That could be three, four or five more starts, depending on how long the right-hander lasts. He’s averaged just over five innings in his starts this season.

“I think that would be the right move,” Velasquez said of the 150-inning target.