This is the slow season for NFL teams that aren’t in the Super Bowl, and many coaches and players are escaping this snowy winter on tropical islands. But no Chip Kelly-watcher is surprised that he is already diligently working to beef up his squad in free agency and the draft. Kelly told a reporter that he and his staff has sketched out the entire off season until the day training camp opens later this year.
There is not a lot of controversy about the Eagles’ biggest holes in talent — the gaps that desperately need to be filled:
1. A dominant pass rusher, probably one who plays as a strong 3-4 outside right linebacker.
2. One or two safeties.
3. A kicker to replace the fading Alex Henery and his weak leg.
4. One or two cornerbacks.
5. A tall, fast wide receiver (or perhaps a very elusive slot wide receiver).
There’s not even much controversy in the approach; take the best player talent-wise, rather than stretching to fill the very well-noted gaps. The Eagles have been burned in the recent past by stretching to fill those gaps. Their success in free agency last year (notably with Donnie Jones and Connor Barwin) help build confidence that the team can fill needs that don’t have solid solutions in the draft.
Two of the biggest players available in free agency at the safety position are former Ducks who played during Kelly’s time there — Jairus Byrd and T.J. Ward. But it’s unlikely that either is the solution for the Eagles. Given their NFL success, which is a testament to Kelly’s emphasis on the position, they’ll want too much money to be worth it, unless they’re willing to accept less to play with Chip again.
Chip’s defensive strength is routinely underestimated — something I’ve written about earlier this year, and the secondary was arguably his strongest position on the defensive side of the ball with the Ducks. But the key is not Oregon ties — Patrick Chung was terrible this last year and won’t be back. Part of that is age and injuries, to be fair, but that’s another reason Chip will probably look for a younger, cheaper safety.
He and his assistants showed great skill at developing young talent last year, developing 5th round pick Earl Wolff into a solid starter before he got injured, and improving Nate Allen from a sad case in 2012 to a solid player last year. At this point, Allen looks like a passable starter but a potentially great backup or dime safety, if the Birds can pick up a stud to start.
An upgrade at safety will do a lot to improve the Eagles’ cornerbacks as well. This last year they had to play well off receivers, because they couldn’t be confident that, if they got burned, a safety would be there to stop the bleeding. One good starter could transform the entire secondary.
There are a lot of very astute and knowledgeable draft analysts, for the NFL generally and the Eagles in particular, but I am not one of them. Luckily for you, two of the best regular Eagles writers are all over it. Jimmy Kempski and Tommy Lawlor usually attend the Senior Bowl every year and write a lot of detailed reports. Here are some of the best.
At Iggles Blitz, Lawlor has a lot of good stuff recently — musings on the character of potential draftees, the nature of the 3-4 defense and analysis of individual prospects, including Senior Bowl standout Dee Ford and Stanford’s Trent Murphy. Lawlor also looks at various positions including OLB and WR, and he recently brought up a surprise position that the Birds might look to upgrade: Inside Line Backer.
He lists several possibilities, including the Ducks’ old nemesis, Stanford’s Shane Skov. I covered the Stanford-Oregon game for FishDuck this year, and I have to agree with Lawlor’s assessment. Skov is relatively slow and still recovering from a knee blowout, but his intangibles are off the charts and he might make sense as a 7th rounder or UDFA, playing special teams and coming in for impact plays at linebacker. It’d be nice to have him on our side for once.
Jimmy Kempski also covered the Senior Bowl this year, as is his custom, and broke it down with articles on which players the Eagles were pulling aside for extra interviews: cornerbacks, wide receivers, safeties, inside linebackers, outside linebackers, and defenders generally. He also has amusing articles on former Eagles who didn’t actually like playing football much, and the foolishness of NFL.com analyst Heath Evans, who won’t admit he was wrong in calling Chip Kelly “one of the worst” coaching hires in NFL history.
We’ll spin our collective wheels for a few more weeks, guessing free agents and draft picks, until the real choices are made. You might consider it a waste of time, but it’s fun and a great way to get to know the different players who will be playing with and against the Eagles next year.
Top Photo by Daniel Hartwig
Mark Saltveit’s newest book is “Controlled Chaos: Chip Kelly’s Football Revolution” (Diversion Books, NY) has been recently released. He is the author of “The Tao of Chip Kelly” (2013) and writes on science, religion, wordplay and political scandals. He is also a standup comedian and the world palindrome champion.
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