Chip Kelly Update: Free Agent Madness

Chip Kelly and GM Howie Roseman began their free agency moves on Tuesday, and they continue to implement their distinctive strategy: 1) Don’t swing for the bleachers by competing for the highest priced stars, 2) Stick to young players, 3) Aim for versatility, 4) Get good citizens and leaders.

Philadelphia Eagles fans are not thrilled with this approach.  They want the excitement of big, splashy, name-brand signings, and this year there have been plenty — by other teams.  Denver tried to beef up its defense – so badly embarrassed in the Super Bowl – by signing Dallas’ DE DeMarcus Ware ($30 million), Patriots’ CB Aquib Talib ($57 million) and Browns’ Safety TJ Ward (a paltry $23 million).  Accordingly, the Pats signed Darrelle Revis from Carolina on a 1-year, $12-million deal to replace Talib.

Meanwhile, Dallas had to let Ware, perhaps their best player, go — and Denver released CB Champ Bailey — because other big deals they signed in the past pushed them over the salary cap.  The Saints signed Buffalo’s safety Jairus Byrd — another ex-Duck, like Ward — for $54 million.

Jairus Byrd, the $54 million man

Ed Yourdon

Jairus Byrd, the $54 million man

It’s like a dysfunctional game of musical chairs; there are enough chairs for everyone, but you have to let your best people leave because you overpaid other guys, then sign new players to fill the gaps (also signing them for too much money).  Next year, rinse and repeat.

Worse yet, these are not rising stars.  DeMarcus Ware is 31, Revis and Talib are 28, Byrd and Ward are 27.  All of them have struggled with injuries, which are unlikely to go away as they age.  They’ve all probably played their best ball, and I’m happy they’re getting paid for excellence.  More power to ’em.

I just don’t want to see the Eagles paying for history instead of future potential.  It’s like people who buy stocks because they’ve gone up so much lately.  Sounds great, but the upside is smaller and the cost is much higher.  It seems “safe” but the odds are actually against you.

A lot of Eagles fans wanted the team to sign Darrelle Revis, who is unquestionably an outstanding cornerback.  He also just signed for $12 million for one year, and if he plays as well as hoped, that will go up next year.  $12 million would be almost 10% of the entire team’s payroll — for 1 out of 53 players.  Only DeSean Jackson would make more.  You don’t think that would cause resentment among players against the new guy waltzing in?

Here’s the thing.  Revis is coming off of a serious injury, an ACL tear in Week 3 of the 2012 season.  He might recover fully, as some players do these days, but he might not. Revis’ best year was 2009.  In 2013, his numbers as a playmaker were unremarkable — he started all 16 games but managed only two interceptions (returned for a total of three yards), one sack, two forced fumbles, and 43 tackles.

By comparison, Philadelphia’s Brandon Boykin had six interceptions — two were game-clinchers — and 71 tackles playing barely half the snaps as a slot CB.  Granted, teams still avoid “Revis Island” (only 63 targets in 2013) — but that also means no one’s sure how well he has recovered.  There’s a significant risk of teams discovering he’s not the same CB any more, and of his value crumbling.

Instead of Revis, Byrd (plantar fascitis) or Ward (purely an in-the-box safety, not what Philadelphia needs), the Eagles signed safety Malcolm Jenkins, who New Orleans had to release to make room for Jairus Byrd.  Jenkins’ contract was only $16 million over 3 years.  He is not considered elite, but his 2013 playmaking was actually better than Revis’ — 2 INTs that he returned for 35 yds, 2.5 Sacks, 2 FF, 48 tackles.  He is also barely 26, versatile, fast and healthy and a natural leader who was a captain for the New Orleans backfield — not to mention, a snappy dresser.

TJ Ward, another ex-Duck &  free agent safety

Erik Drost

TJ Ward, another ex-Duck & free agent safety.

That last salient point is crucial.  The Eagles have two second-year safeties and might well draft a rookie.  A youngish veteran leader who can quarterback the DBs is just what this team needs, even if Earl Wolff and the rookie beat him out for the starting job.  Jenkins was drafted as a cornerback and often played slot CB for the Saints, shutting down the likes of Larry Fitzgerald and Dez Bryant.

Jenkins and Boykins are perfect for Billy Davis’ “Transformer” defense, where a quarterback never knows which player might blitz or drop into coverage.  Either player can capably rush, play outside CB, nickle or slot in addition to Jenkins’ safety role.  Patrick Chung tried to cover the slot a few times last year, and was terrible — he gave up a touchdown to Dez Bryant in Game 16 that almost ended the Eagles’ season.

There was more — the Eagles released Chung, to widespread delight, re-signed monster punter Donnie Jones and picked up two ace Special Teamers who might also provide depth on defense — Seattle safety Chris Maragos and Houston OLB Bryan Braman.

Maragos is just a stud; Braman is a 6-foot-5, 251 pound toothless wildman (and former Abercrombie and Fitch model), who was kicked out of college after being convicted of growing magic mushrooms.  Watch him tackle a punt returner without a helmetleading with his head.  When asked Thursday about his Special Teams philosophy, he said “Kill, Maim, Destroy.”  As a kid, he tried to tackle a fire hydrant.  This guy is frightening, in a good way.

Bryan Braman, helmetless

Jeffrey Beall

Bryan Braman, helmetless

It’s great to see Chip and Howie Roseman stick to their guns, picking reasonably priced younger leaders despite the howls of impatient fans. They’ve learned the lessons of Seattle, who won a Super Bowl with shrewd draft picks and internal development, not big free agent signings.

It’s not just the expense that makes free agency so dangerous, though that’s a big part of it.  Players are best when they come into their strength on your team — more humble and hungry, appreciative of the fans, better team players.

Free agents come in as stars, having paid their dues and wanting that bloated paycheck.  They know nothing of what the team has been through, and — making more than even some stars — are natural targets of resentment.

After I wrote the first draft of this column, the Eagles signed Miami CB Nolan Carroll ($5M, 2 years) and traded a 5th-round pick for New Orleans’ Darren Sproles.  Carroll (27th and good sized at 6-foot-0) is a good press corner who makes plays, but has some flaws.  He’ll compete with Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams for a starting job, but is unquestionably a big upgrade over Roc Carmichael and the rest of the Eagles CB bench.  Carroll also plays ST as a gunner and returner.

Darren Sproles (on the right)

David Reber

Darren Sproles (on the right)

The big excitement is over Darren Sproles, the NFL player closest to De’Anthony Thomas and a perfect fit in Chip Kelly’s offense.  While technically a running back, Sproles is realistically replacing Jason Avant in the slot, with the ability to play any skill position.  Coach Payton calls him “the smartest football player I’ve ever met,” and since 2011 he leads the NFL in yards after catch (LeSean McCoy is 5th, with two-thirds of his YAC yardage in those three seasons coming last year under Chip).  NFL Network analyst Bucky Brooks makes the astute point that this will prevent defenses from playing Cover 1 (man free) press against the Birds — a key strategy last year — when he’s lined up alongside Shady.

On the other hand, Sproles is 30 and has declined the last two years.  This trade also gives up a pick in one of the deepest drafts in years.  The Eagles now have only 6 picks, though Sproles’ signing might signal that Bryce Brown — or even DeSean Jackson — is on the trading block for more choices.  On the third hand (you mutant freak), Sproles only costs $3.4 million a year.

Cheaper free agents have the same advantages of rookies — they grow into their power on your squad, if you’re careful to find players who fit your scheme and possess untapped potential.  They don’t all work — Chung, Isaac Sopoaga and Kenny Phillips were (inexpensive) busts last year — but the team scored with Connor Barwin, James Casey, Cary Williams, Bradley Fletcher and ace punter Donnie Jones.  There are fewer holes on this squad, and Eagles are filling them very nicely.

Top Photo by Jeffery Beall

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