How the Eagles Positioned Themselves to Win Free Agency

How the Eagles Positioned Themselves to Win Free Agency

A closer look at some of the moves, or non-moves, that set up the Eagles to sign their huge incoming free agent class.

The $64,000 dollar question around the league right now—and even in Philadelphia—regarding the Birds' incredible free agent haul is, "How did this happen?" One week ago, the defense was like a running gag, with their offensive line-coordinator, punchless pass rush, and the crater-sized hole at right cornerback. Today, that unit is part of what is commonly being referred to as a "Dream Team."

So what was it? Joe Banner didn't just wake up one day and say, "We're going for it." No, this was carefully planned going all the way back to last year, a plan that's been brilliantly executed from the moment the curtain was lifted on free agency. And the answers to the question "How," well... those are actually in plain sight.

About 2010...
Think back to last year, when the Eagles weren't spending wads of cash in free agency. Their top acquisition was Marlin Jackson, whose sole purpose was to push first-year free safety Nate Allen for the starting job, a job that nobody (thoughtful) expected him to win. Meanwhile, Defensive Player of the Year candidate Julius Peppers was putting his mark on a record contract in Chicago.

What the casual fan might have missed about last year's signing period was that it lacked top end talent. Peppers was out there, along with one or two others, but the quality declined sharply from there. Rule changes in the final year of the old collective bargaining agreement made many of the anticipated free agents restricted, minimizing their actual availability.

Rather than load up on mediocre talent asking for top dollar, or outbidding the Bears' insane offer for Peppers (which was aided by their lack of a draft after the Jay Cutler trade, not to mention the urgency to put a team around him), the Eagles didn't budge. In fact, they got rid of the majority of their own overpaid veterans, and instead focused on the draft.

It turns out, after all the bickering, this was a wise decision. Most observers felt the Birds were at least a year away from truly competing anyway. While adding Peppers would have been a major coup, the rest of the barren market would have only served to eat up the budget, and maybe appease fans—although, probably not once they would have seen the caliber players that money could buy.

One year later, being frugal in free agency's off-year, when there was no immediate need to make a splash in the first place, set them up to spend like crazy in 2011. The big difference this time around was the full roster of unrestricted free agents hit the market, and then some. This key difference allowed the front office to make impact moves, and not just moves for the sake of making moves.

Sometimes it pays to be "cheap."

Cost Cutting: Akers and Rocca
To those of you who are still upset the Eagles will allow rookies to handle kick and punt duties in 2011, the questing we pose to you today is this: would you rather have David Akers and Sav Rocca, or Jason Babin? Or Vince Young? Or Cullen Jenkins?

That was essentially the decision the front office made this year. By allowing both Akers and Rocca to depart, the Eagles probably slashed an estimated $5 million or more in salary from their kicking game alone. The combination of Alex Henery and Chas Henry will make decidedly less than that, in fact, well under $1 million in 2011.

That gave the organization an additional $4 million to play with in free agency, which is almost exactly what Young and Jenkins are expected to make, or a sizable portion of Babin's salary. Without that extra cash, one of those players most likely never lands in Philly.

And what have the Eagles lost? Akers was a fan favorite, but he is getting up there in years, and could not be counted on forever. Rocca was improving, but certainly not irreplaceable. As substitutes, they chose the top kicker in the draft, and signed the 2010 Ray Guy Award winner for best punter in college football.

Is it a risk? Sure. A calculated risk.

More Cost Cutting: Expendable Parts
Then there was the Brodrick Bunkley trade. Immediately following the Eagles surprise addition of Cullen Jenkins, it was revealed the defensive tackle had been shipped to the Browns. He eventually wound up in Denver for a pick in 2013 for whatever reason, but the modest return the Birds received for Bunk was never the meat of the deal.

Due to his bonus money, Bunkley's cap figure in 2011 was set at nearly $2 million. Jenkins' estimated salary this season is $4 million. By trading Bunk, who was set to become a free agent next season anyway, they were able to free up nearly half the money necessary to pay Jenkins this year.

What's more, the Birds don't carry any additional risk into 2012. Barring a crazy-productive season, Bunk's chances of returning next season were basically none. He simply has not lived up to being the 14th pick in the 2006 draft. Meanwhile, Jenkins' contract is voidable after this season, so if he doesn't work out for whatever reason, the team can go right back to square one with their defensive tackle situation.

Upon closer examination of the roster, more releases could be on the way. Unless Asante Samuel is traded, Joselio Hanson's cut looks like little more than a formality. That will remove roughly $1.7 mil from the books. They also may not need both Juqua Parker AND Darryl Tapp now, so cutting one of those guys is another $2-to-$4 million in relief.

"Winning Tradition"
That's the term players like Nnamdi Asomugha and Cullen Jenkins have used to describe this franchise. We've had to cope with so much heartbreak over the last decade, we often forget this team is viewed quite differently around the league. They are seen as a well-run organization, and the perennial contender that they historically are. Those details were crucial here.

While many fans have long called for the head of Andy Reid, the continuity in the Eagles power structure was likely a significant factor in the team's ability to move quickly on several fronts, i.e. trading Kolb, signing Babin, signing Nnamdi—all while preparing for a camp that was about to begin.

Maybe they're not the "gold standard," but let's be real: this wave of free agents does not come here without the stability that is a direct result of Reid's success. And while what he's accomplished will always be diminished to some extent until he finally wins the big one, there is no denying the Eagles are reaping the rewards like a team that's already done it.

Whether you like the head coach's and organization's philosophies or not, as long as the current structure is in place, the Birds always have a shot at hoisting the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the year. Free agents recognize that, which is why no shortage of them has been willing to come here.

Michael Vick
It's all about Vick, isn't it?

Well, yeah... sort of. I was one of those who were of the opinion that the Eagles should keep Kevin Kolb, and instead see what was out there in a trade for Vick. My justification was Kolb was the younger, more conventional option, and Vick still had a lot to prove in areas such as consistency and reading defenses. Plus, the compensation would have been far greater.

So much for conventional. What my plan did not account for—not even the slightest bit—was how much Vick's presence would mean during this free agency period. Let me say this again so that it's clear: players are choosing Philadelphia, at least in part, because Michael Vick is the quarterback here.

If I may, the Eagles have "street cred" now. They took a chance on the athlete's athlete, the o
ne guy that still amazes other professional football players unlike any other, when he was at his absolute lowest point. Vick has rewarded the franchise through his hard work and bouts of stellar play, but the bonus prize is some of Vick's fans, or just players who respect what the team did for him, are joining the squad.

Nobody could have accounted for this in August 2009, when we were all wondering what Vick was even doing here, and how soon he would be traded for whatever picks they could get. But it's happening, and it's all because Jeffrey Lurie and Andy Reid were willing to give him a second chance.

It's fitting, because right now even the most jaded fan should be giving those two a second chance. If this isn't considered doing everything it takes to win, I don't know what is.

Best of MLB: Beltre's 2 home runs lift Rangers over A's

Best of MLB: Beltre's 2 home runs lift Rangers over A's

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Adrian Beltre hit his second home run of the game with two outs in the ninth inning, a two-run shot that rallied the Texas Rangers past the Oakland Athletics 7-6 on Monday night for their third straight win.

Beltre, who finished with four hits, had two singles in his first three at-bats before hitting a solo homer in the seventh. His game-winning drive came on the first pitch from Ryan Madson (3-4).

Until then, Texas had trailed since Danny Valencia hit a two-run homer for Oakland with two outs in the first. All 13 runs in the game were scored with two outs.

Texas turned three double plays behind starter Martin Perez, who has induced a major league-best 25 in 21 games.

Valencia also had the first of three run-scoring doubles in a three-run third that gave the A's a 5-1 lead (see full recap).

Blue Jays' Sanchez wins 10th straight decision
TORONTO  -- Aaron Sanchez pitched seven shutout innings to win his 10th consecutive decision, Kevin Pillar had three hits and the Toronto Blue Jays beat the San Diego Padres 4-2 on Monday night.

Sanchez (11-1) became the first Blue Jays pitcher to win 10 straight since Roy Halladay won 15 decisions in a row in 2003. Halladay and Roger Clemens (1998) hold the club record.

Making their first appearance in Toronto, the Padres were held scoreless until Alex Dickerson hit a two-run homer off Bo Schultz in the ninth.

Dickeerson's drive into the fifth deck extended San Diego's team-record streak of games with at least one home run to 23. The 2006 Atlanta Braves were the last National League team to homer in 23 straight games.

Roberto Osuna replaced Schultz and got two outs for his 21st save (see full recap).

Orioles top Rockies for 5th straight win
BALTIMORE -- Adam Jones scored the winning run in the 10th inning on a low throw to the plate by pitcher Jordan Lyles, and the Baltimore Orioles beat the Colorado Rockies 3-2 on Monday night for their fifth straight victory.

Jones reached on a one-out single off the third-base bag and took third on a single by Jonathan Schoop. Manny Machado followed with a comebacker to Lyles, who fumbled the ball before throwing home. Catcher Nick Hundley caught the ball near the ground and lost the handle while attempting to tag the sliding Jones.

Lyles (2-3) was charged with an error on the play.

Getting two RBIs from Jones, the Orioles climbed a season-high 18 games over .500 (58-40) and improved to 37-14 at home.

Chaz Roe (1-0) worked the 10th for the win (see full recap).

Trade candidates — especially Jeremy Hellickson — lead Phils to shutout of Marlins

Trade candidates — especially Jeremy Hellickson — lead Phils to shutout of Marlins

BOX SCORE

MIAMI — Jeremy Hellickson was standing in front of his locker speaking with reporters after his second strong outing in a week against the Miami Marlins when Cameron Rupp walked by an offered his take on all the trade talk surrounding the veteran pitcher.

“He’s not going anywhere,” Rupp said loud enough for everyone in the room to hear.

Hellickson laughed at his catcher’s commentary.

“I hope not,” he said.

If Hellickson really wants to stay with the Phillies and finish out this rebuilding season instead of moving to a contender for the final two months — and possibly beyond — he did himself a disservice Monday night.

He enhanced his attractiveness to potential buyers by pitching six shutout innings in the Phillies’ 4-0 win over the Miami Marlins (see Instant Replay).

Hellickson, who sports a 3.65 ERA in 21 starts, needed just 70 pitches to get through the six innings. He was lifted for a pinch-hitter with runners on second and third and two outs in a scoreless game in the top of the seventh. Ryan Howard struck out, following Cody Asche and Peter Bourjos, as the Phillies whiffed on a golden scoring chance.

“I hated taking Hellickson out of the game there, but we had an opportunity to score and I had to go for it,” manager Pete Mackanin said.

“After we didn’t score, I didn’t think we had a chance to win this game. I just thought that with their bullpen we were in trouble.”

The Phillies ended up winning with a rally against Miami’s bullpen. Tommy Joseph delivered a clutch, two-out double against Fernando Rodney in the eighth to score Maikel Franco from first. That was the only run the Phillies needed. They tacked on three against the sloppy Marlins in the ninth to finish it off.

Hellickson, David Hernandez, Hector Neris and Jeanmar Gomez then combined to allow just one base runner in three innings to finish off the Phillies’ 11th shutout of the season. That’s the most in the majors.

“Our bullpen did a great job,” Mackanin said.

Three of the four pitchers that the Phillies used in the game — Hellickson, Hernandez and Gomez — are very much available for trades. They all pitched well with a gaggle of scouts sitting behind the backstop. A number of contending clubs — the Cubs, Orioles, Giants, Rangers and Blue Jays — had scouts at the game. Pitching, starting and relief, is high on the needs list for most of those teams.

Of course, the Marlins are looking for pitching, too. They have interest in Hellickson, though it’s not clear whether he is a top target of theirs. Maybe he will become a top target after what he’s done to the Marlins in the last week. Hellickson has pitched 14 innings over two starts against the Marlins. He has given up just six hits and a run.

“Just executing,” said the pitcher, explaining his success. “In my last two games the ball has been down for the most part. I’ve just gotten a lot of easy outs. The ball's down and not missing too many spots right now.”

Hellickson will be a free agent this winter and does not appear to be in the club’s future plan. Nonetheless, he has steadfastly said he would like to remain with the club for the rest of this season. Phillies management is not opposed to keeping Hellickson. He provides veteran stability and innings to a young rotation. But management would move Hellickson for a player that has the potential to help in the future.

Trade rumors can be distracting for a player. But Hellickson, who has been dealt twice in his career, is locked in.

“It doesn't bother me,” he said. “Once I'm in this locker room — obviously you still see it on TV and stuff — my focus is on helping us win today. Now it's on to the next start. It's been like this for a few years now so it's pretty easy to go out there right now.”

Mackanin said he had no idea what will become of Hellickson’s fate. But if the pitcher stays, he won’t complain.

“At this point, I don’t want to lose him,” Mackanin said. “I wish he could stay here. He’s that solid for us. He’s been like that the whole year.”

The Phillies needed a good pitching effort to pull this one out. Their hitters struck out 13 times, left 11 men on base and went just 1 for 9 with runners in scoring position.

“We don’t show plate discipline,” Mackanin lamented. “We’re taking fastballs early in the count that are hittable pitches. If you’re going to take fastballs early in the count that are hittable pitches, you cannot swing at breaking balls in the dirt. That’s all I can say about that. We have to have more plate discipline.”

On the positive side of that, Franco and Rupp both walked three times, and Franco’s two-out walk in the eighth became the biggest run of the game on a night when Jeremy Hellickson and his status with the Phillies was the biggest storyline.

Instant Replay: Phillies 4, Marlins 0

Instant Replay: Phillies 4, Marlins 0

BOX SCORE

MIAMI — Jeremy Hellickson continued to enhance his trade value and Tommy Joseph had the big hit in the Phillies’ 4-0 win over the Miami Marlins on Monday night.

Hellickson shut down the Marlins for the second time in a week. The next time he pitches, it could be for them. The Marlins are one of the teams interested in the veteran right-hander. Scouts from several other contending teams were in attendance for Hellickson’s strong outing.

Joseph’s two-out double in the top of the eighth broke a scoreless tie.

Phillies pitching held the Marlins to two hits. The Phils have 11 shutouts this season.

Starting pitching report
Hellickson pitched six scoreless innings and gave up just a hit and a walk while striking out one. He exited for a pinch-hitter after just 70 pitches. The right-hander has pitched 14 innings and allowed just one run in his last two starts, both against the Marlins. He has lowered his season ERA to 3.65.

Miami’s Jarred Cosart came up from Triple A and pitched five scoreless innings. However, he threw 92 pitches. He allowed three hits, a walk and struck out one.

Bullpen report 
Trade candidate David Hernandez pitched a strong seventh inning for the Phils, picking up the win. Hector Neris and Jeanmar Gomez closed it out.

Miami right-hander Kyle Barraclough came up big in the top of the seventh inning. He struck out Cody Asche, Peter Bourjos and pinch-hitter Ryan Howard with runners on second and third to preserve a 0-0 tie.

Marlins right-hander Fernando Rodney struck out the first two batters in the eighth then gave up a four-pitch walk to Maikel Franco before Joseph’s two-out double delivered the game’s first run.

Rodney took the loss.

A.J. Ramos was charged with three runs in the ninth, two unearned.

At the plate
The Phillies survived 13 strikeouts, a 1-for-9 performance with runners in scoring position and 11 men left on base to score the win.

The Phils had just six hits. Joseph had a pair of them and now has 25 RBIs in 54 games.

Cesar Hernandez gave the Phils some cushion with an RBI single in the top of the ninth. Miami’s defense fell apart after that and the Phils scored two more runs to put the game away.

Asche had a hit to break an 0-for-26 skid. Bourjos is 0 for his last 17.

Trade talk
Andres Blanco is out for six weeks so he’s no longer a trade candidate, but others are (see story).

Up next
Jerad Eickhoff (6-11, 3.98) pitches against Miami right-hander Tom Koehler (7-8, 4.42) on Tuesday night. Koehler pitched eight innings of two-run ball in beating the Phillies last week at Citizens Bank Park.