Eagles free agents: Who should stay and who should go?
Which members of the Eagles Super Bowl championship-winning squad will be playing elsewhere next season?
Before the Eagles can look towards adding players in free agency and the draft they have to focus on keeping their own players at home. Being Super Bowl Champions takes care of half the convincing players to stay argument. But a loaded roster (and the burdensome salary cap that comes with that) might convince some players to look elsewhere for playing time and impressive contracts.
The Eagles roster at the moment is already above the projected salary cap for 2018, so keeping the whole thing intact isn’t looking good. Here’s a breakdown of the Eagles’ most consequential players out of contract, and how likely it is you’ll be able to keep rooting for them in Midnight Green.
Keep in mind there are a few others (most notably Kenjon Barner, Najee Goode, and Bryan Braman) whose return will depend more on what the Eagles want to do with those roster spots than cap limitations. And a few players who aren’t out of contract (Nick Foles, Brent Celek, Torrey Smith) who could still be leaving Philadelphia via trade, retirement, or release.
Most Likely to Return
Resigning Nigel Bradham should be the Eagles’ top priority among their in-house free agents. He won’t come cheap. He signed a two-year, $7 million contract with the Eagles last time around and the valuation for a Super Bowl winning linebacker in the prime of his career (he’s 28) will only have increased. He can rush the passer and he defended eight passes last season.
Bradham shone alongside Mychal Kendricks once Jordan Hicks (and eventually Hicks’ backup Joe Walker) were lost for the year. He saw the field for 90 percent of the defensive snaps, more than any defender besides Malcolm Jenkins and Jalen Mills.
If resigning Bradham means the Eagles have to revisit Kendricks trade-talks, due to his own $7.6 million cap number in 2018, their comparative snap counts (922 for Bradham, 616 for Kendricks) dictate they should prioritize the former despite Kendricks’ own high level of play in 2017.
Graham isn’t the same necessity to keep around that Bradham is, but he is a luxury the Eagles can afford. In his first season in Philadelphia Graham played cornerback, safety, and saw the sixth most snaps on special teams. His presence allowed Jenkins and Rodney McLeod, who each played over 99 percent of snaps in 2016, to leave the field and rest in 2017.
Graham provided the secondary with the flexibility to play three safeties while letting Jenkins rove from nickel back to linebacker. It was the equivalent of the defensive line’s much hyped rotation and depth. He’s 32 and was unsigned going into August when the Eagles added him on a $1.6 million deal a year ago. Between Graham and restricted free agent safety Jaylen Watkins, Graham is the more important resign and the better bargain.
Robinson was outstanding for the Eagles in 2017. After Ronald Darby injured himself in the first regular season game, Robinson was asked to work outside as well as patrol the slot, and he stole the show in Philadelphia until Darby’s return. His brilliance is unfortunately the biggest impediment to the Eagles ability to resign him.
The past season was the best year of Robinson’s career, which is one reason the Eagles were able to sign him to a veteran’s minimum $775,000 contract last season. That won’t be the case this year. Cornerbacks are paid a premium around the NFL, even 30-year olds with a mixed track record of success. With Darby’s own cap-friendly rookie contract ending next season and Mills, Sidney Jones, and Rasul Douglas waiting in the wings, the Eagles will be almost forced to turn to their younger players over Robinson.
Similarly to Robinson, Burton is unlikely to be back because he’s performed so well. He’s commanded a lot of money already as a third tight end, receiving the highest restricted free agent tender of $2.7 million a season ago. This off-season on the open market he’s likely to command a number too high for even a second string tight end.
Burton himself will be enticed by starting tight end money and starting opportunities by another team. Even if the Eagles use an extensive amount of multiple tight end sets, he’s permanently buried behind Zach Ertz in Philadelphia. Watching him rise from an undrafted free agent has been great, and it’s harder to imagine a better capstone in Philadelphia than a touchdown pass in the Super Bowl.
Once again, Sturgis is on the outs through no fault of his own. He became the Eagles’ kicker after an injury to Cody Parkey, and his own injury has caused him to lose the position. Jake Elliot has done a great job in his absence, setting records from Week 3 through the Super Bowl, and is already under contract. Sturgis will catch on somewhere else.
LeGarrette Blount and Darren Sproles
We’ll hit these two together because there are similar reasons for and against both. Sproles is coming off a devastating injury but has also been the Eagles’ most dangerous special teamer since DeSean Jackson, so that’s some added value. He doesn’t yet seem fond of the idea of retirement. Blount led the Eagles in rushing and had 90 yards against his old team in the Super Bowl.
So why aren’t they both locks to come back? Blount is 31 and Sproles is 34. Anything more than a one-year deal is unlikely with Jay Ajayi due his own payday in 2018. The Eagles likely want to see Ajayi in a focal role in the offense before deciding what to do with that payday.
Keeping either of the veterans around would diminish the roles Ajayi and Corey Clement can play in the offense and perhaps impact their development, not to mention that of Wendell Smallwood and last year’s fourth round pick Donnel Pumphrey. When it comes down to it, the Eagles have a lot of talent at running back, and might not be able to keep all of it.
Allen provided the defensive tackle portion of the Eagles line depth, functioning essentially as a third starter in 2017. He’s been a fixture since the Eagles took him in the seventh round of the 2014 draft, but another team (and even Allen) might be interested in seeing how he can do higher up in the pecking order. Like Bennie Logan, who departed the Eagles line last offseason, he could even be considered a better fit in a 3-4.
That doesn’t mean the Eagles shouldn’t try to keep Allen, but with a ton of money already tied up in their defensive line they may simply prove unable to compete with another team’s offer. If that does happen the ability of Brandon Graham and Chris Long to play some snaps inside should help offset the loss.