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 NHL: Canadiens score 10 goals in rout of Avalanche

Best of NHL: Canadiens score 10 goals in rout of Avalanche

MONTREAL -- Max Pacioretty had four goals, Brian Flynn scored twice during a six-goal first period and the Montreal Canadiens routed the Colorado Avalanche 10-1 on Saturday night.

Flynn, Pacioretty and Artturi Lehkonen each scored against Calvin Pickard in the opening 7:12, and then Pacioretty, Paul Byron and Flynn each had a goal among the first four shots on Semyon Varlamov.

Pacioretty completed his hat trick in the second period and added another in the third to give the captain seven goals in his last four games.

Alexander Radulov and Jeff Petry also scored for Montreal, which has shown no drop-off without injured scoring leader and first-line center Alex Galchenyuk. Montreal outshot the Avs 36-16 (see full recap).

Malkin, Crosby lead Penguins past Lightning 4-3
TAMPA, Fla. -- Sidney Crosby had another eventful night.

The Penguins star returned after passing concussion protocol following a first-period hit to get his 20th goal, and that stoked Pittsburgh's rally for its latest victory.

Crosby and Evgeni Malkin both scored their second goals on third-period power plays, helping the Penguins come back to beat the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-3 on Saturday.

Crosby was shaken up by Luke Witkowski's check with eight minutes to go in the first but returned for the start of the second period (see full recap).

Late barrage helps Blue Jackets beat Islanders 6-2
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Jack Johnson, Cam Atkinson and Seth Jones each had a goal and an assist as the Columbus Blue Jackets beat the New York Islanders 6-2 on Saturday night for their sixth straight win.

Josh Anderson, Brandon Saad and Lukas Sedlak also scored for Columbus and Sergei Bobrovsky had 25 saves.

Josh Bailey and John Tavares scored for New York, which had earned a point in a season-high five straight games (4-0-1). Jaroslav Halak made 32 saves until he was pulled after the Blue Jackets scored four consecutive goals in the third period.

Anderson put Columbus ahead 3-2 at 2:19 when he picked off a defensive pass and banged it in from the slot seconds after coming onto the ice for his shift (see full recap).

Matthews, Hyman score in 2nd, Maple Leafs beat Bruins 4-1
BOSTON -- The Toronto Maple Leafs found a way to overcome a poor opening period.

Auston Matthews and Zach Hyman scored in the second period, Frederik Andersen made 32 saves and the Maple Leafs beat the Boston Bruins 4-1 on Saturday night.

"The last three games the first period kind of did us in," Toronto coach Mike Babcock said. "We didn't start on time. We were able to hold on. It still wasn't the first period we wanted, but we didn't give up the goals and we were able to execute a little bit."

After managing only two shots on goal in the first, Toronto was happy to get to the dressing room with the game scoreless (see full recap).

Best of NBA: Grizzlies dominate throughout, crush Warriors

Best of NBA: Grizzlies dominate throughout, crush Warriors

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Marc Gasol and Tony Allen scored 19 points each and the Memphis Grizzlies rolled over the Golden State Warriors 110-89 on Saturday night for their sixth straight win.

The Grizzlies led by as many as 30 points in the second half - the biggest advantage by any Warriors opponent this season. Seven Memphis players finished in double figures.

Kevin Durant led Golden State with 21 points, while Stephen Curry added 17 points and Ian Clark finished with 10 points. Curry and backcourt starter Klay Thompson (eight points) were a combined 8 of 28 from the field, including 3 of 14 outside the arc.

Memphis built a double-digit lead early, led 61-38 at halftime and kept building in the third quarter (see full recap).

Butler, Wade lead Bulls to 105-100 win over Heat
CHICAGO -- Jimmy Butler scored 31 points, Dwyane Wade added 28 against his former team and the Chicago Bulls held off the struggling Miami Heat 105-100 on Saturday night.

Butler scored Chicago's final 10 points to help the Bulls come out on top after Miami pulled within one.

Wade keyed a big third-quarter run in his second game against the Heat, and the Bulls hung on after handing San Antonio its first road loss two nights earlier.

Goran Dragic led Miami with 21 points and 11 assists. An energetic Hassan Whiteside added 20 points after being benched for part of Friday's blowout loss in Cleveland. Tyler Johnson scored 15, but the Heat dropped their fifth straight (see full recap).

LeBron scores 44, reaches assist mark as Cavs down Hornets
CLEVELAND -- LeBron James scored 17 of his season-high 44 points in the fourth quarter and reached another career milestone as the Cleveland Cavaliers won their fourth straight, 116-105 over the Charlotte Hornets on Saturday night.

James did it all, adding 10 assists and nine rebounds in 43 minutes. He took over in the fourth quarter, scoring 13 straight during one stretch to help the Cavs hold on.

As the final seconds ticked off, James stood at midcourt and spun the ball on his index finger as the crowd roared.

James, who moved into ninth place on the career scoring list Friday, recorded his 7,000th assist in the first half, becoming the first frontcourt player in NBA history to reach the plateau. James is the only player with 27,000 points and 7,000 assists (see full recap).

George has 37 points to lead Pacers over Blazers 118-111
INDIANAPOLIS -- Paul George scored a season-high 37 points to lead the Indiana Pacers over the Portland Trail Blazers 118-111 on Saturday night.

George made five 3-pointers, and Thaddeus Young hit six 3s while getting 24 points and nine rebounds. Myles Turner added 14 points for the Pacers, who had lost five straight regular season games to Portland.

C.J. McCollum made a career-high seven 3-pointers and had a season-best 34 points for the Trail Blazers. Damian Lillard had 33 points behind five 3s.

George scored 13 straight points in the fourth quarter for Indiana. He was fouled on the go-ahead basket with 4:36 remaining and completed the three-point play to give the Pacers a 108-105 lead (see full recap).