Peters, Cooper, Kelce, Maclin….ALL good moves, but don’t misread them. One of the most important aspects of team construction (when you’re essentially starting from scratch), is maintaining flexibility for as long as possible. That sounds easy, but it requires a lot of discipline. It means being brutally honest with yourself as to the true quality of the roster and it often means getting ripped by beat writers for a year or two. As of right now, Howie appears to be doing this perfectly.
Remember last offseason? The team signed James Casey to play TE (well to play a couple of different roles). The team signed Isaac Sopoaga to play NT. The team signed Patrick Chung and Kenny Phillips to play S.
After that haul, what did the Eagles then do in the draft? They drafted a TE (Ertz), a NT (Logan), and a S (Wolff). Granted, Wolff wasn’t expected to play much, but the overall point is: FA and the draft serve two very different purposes. Free agency is for filling holes in the roster, the draft is for adding talent. Even though the Eagles re-signings weren’t like the Free Agency deals we typically think of, they still fall into that category.
Heading into free agency, the goal of any team must be to fill any huge gaps in the roster. If you think back to the color chart I posted last week, this means identifying the “red” areas and trying to upgrade them to “yellow”. Those types of acquisitions aren’t the headline-generating deals, but they’re extremely important! If you don’t fill the gaps in FA, you’re left with just two potential outcomes:
1) You have to draft somebody relatively early in the draft at that position, regardless of it he’s the BPA.
2) You go into the season with a huge gap in the roster.
Both of those outcomes are terrible, and the only way out is to get lucky in the draft and have the BPA coincidentally be the position you need. Of course, it almost never happens that way. Instead, you end up taking a 26-year-old Guard in the first round….
I want to make this abundantly clear, so let’s conceptualize it a bit:
Imagine you’re a team with identified NEEDS at SS, CB, DE, OT. What’s your free agency plan? Many fans would look at that situation and hope for the team to sign a top-end starter at 1-2 of those positions (the unreasonable fans might hope for all 4). However, there’s a big problem with that strategy.
Namely: You don’t know who is going to be available for you in the draft.
There are two main methods of roster construction, free agency and the draft. Free agency has no uncertainty. The draft has a LOT of uncertainty. The problem with that is free agency occurs BEFORE the draft. The interplay between these two processes is tricky, and many people don’t properly connect the two when analyzing them.
Going back to our pretend team, let’s say we’ve got the 8th pick in the draft. What are the odds that the best player available (or a player in the top remaining tier) is a SS, CB, DE, or OT? Pretty damn good. Now let’s say you signed a starting CB and DE in
the draft. free agency.
Now your “needs” are SS and OT. What are the odds that the BPA at your pick in the draft will be a player at one of those positions? Decent, perhaps, but A LOT LESS than they were when you also “needed” a CB and a DE.
By filling the starters roles in free agency, you made it LESS likely that you’ll find a starting quality player at a position of need in the draft. That’s the important takeaway. Remember that given the salary cap, the new CBA, and the auction dynamics involved in free agency, finding a quality starter in the draft is MUCH more valuable than finding one in free agency.
The optimal draft strategy is to take the BPA and move up and down in the draft whenever there is a serious dislocation in value. To do that, though, you need to have all of your gaps filled BEFORE the draft. Not necessarily with star players, but with guys who can at least pass for mediocre. Otherwise, you either reach for a non-BPA player, and likely ruin the pick, or you go into the season with a glaring hole.
So, teams that are still in the construction phase, and not yet ready to seriously contend (like the Eagles right now IMO), need to be VERY careful about signing star players in free agency. Instead, the team should use free agency to fill those holes, and when the roster IS at or very close to contending, THEN you use free agency to put the final 1-2 pieces int place. At that point, you’ve lost flexibility anyway, and what you NEED is certainty. Until then, though, it makes no sense to play around in the top-tier free agent market.
With that, let’s talk about a couple of deals:
Jason Peters: Convenient timing for this signing, as I’d just said that the Eagles need to think about replacing Peters soon. Does the extension mean they disagree? No, though it suggests they think it might take 1-2 years longer for Peters to decline than I had projected. Note my projection was admittedly a guess and not backed up by any research into the aging trends of left tackles. However, I assure you that the Eagles are not banking on Jason Peters being the starting LT in 2018. He signed for $38.3 million….but only $19.55 million of that is guaranteed. Also, the guaranteed portion flames out quickly, and after next season the Eagles will be able to cut him with very little $ impact.
Basically, the Eagles bought themselves a call option on the downside of Jason Peters’ career. If his play declines quickly, they can cut him loose. If he continues to be an elite LT, they’ve got him locked up at a reasonable level.
Cooper/Maclin: This goes right to the heart of what I was saying above. If you let BOTH walk, you’ve got a big need at WR. You either sign someone in free agency or head into the draft knowing you need a WR who can contribute immediately. Instead, the Eagles signed both of them, to reasonable deals (again, you should only really care about the guaranteed money). That means the Eagles don’t “need” to draft a WR early. However, it also doesn’t mean they won’t. What they’ve done is given themselves the flexibility to take a WR if he’s the BPA, while also allowing them to pass on the WR if he’s not.
Like I said, Roseman is already having a great offseason, but don’t let the beat writers mislead you. These contracts (Peters and Cooper especially) are nothing more than reasonable call options that give the team flexibility going forwards. Neither player is guaranteed to be here beyond 1-2 more seasons. So don’t be shocked if the Eagles take an OT or WR in the first three rounds.
I think this argument is completely right, but there’s one important missing piece: The possibility of going all out for a high leverage free agent. I’m not sure where I read it (maybe Tanier’s recent column), but a writer was discussing the value of “surgical strikes” in FA. It’s not good to break the bank all the time, but occasionally it’ll make sense.
In order to do this, the conditions would need to be just right. E.g. there needs to be enough cap room, and the signing can’t significantly impinge on the flexibility you discuss, either in the current year or in the future. The position should be a high leverage one given the scheme and a significant upgrade over what you currently have. Such signings have put teams with championship aspirations over the top. Teams that aren’t that close (like the Eagles) need to be very careful with this strategy so they don’t hamstring themselves financially or in the draft. But I could see one splash signing as a good move.
This isn’t to say: Sign Byrd or Orakpo!!!! The value would need to be right, and I’m not sure how much either one is ultimately worth. But I wouldn’t dismiss such signings either, and I would certainly explore what it would take (I’m sure Howie et al. will do their due diligence).
Going off of Ben’s comment, it seems like a Byrd or Ward signing could be slightly less limiting than spending big money on a free agent of a different needed position group. While contract details would obviously be the largest factor in such a move, the fact that the Eagles have the option of upgrading TWO safety positions affords them the flexibility to sign an elite free agent and still draft a safety high if they see value in the addition. If not, they at least have a serviceable option in Wolff. I don’t see this as a likely strategy this year, but it wouldn’t be as reckless as spending big money on a CB or LB.
If you sign two safeties, neither of them being Ward or Byrd but both being serviceable, I think you cope better for the long haul. Better for the locker room, better for the cap, and probably only marginally worse in player performance than what you’d get with one or the other of those two. [Insert Name], for example, would be a lot better than Chung, or Coleman, or Anderson. You know you’re going to draft a safety, perhaps two, but you don’t have to force it. You’ve bought time.Wolff figures to be one starter, so you’ll have three guys vying for the other slot, without skewing your roster.