Eagles Front Office Outsmarted Everyone Else

It’s not easy to explain the free agent binge the Eagles have embarked on over the last week. People have tried, of course, but I can’t help but find most of their explanations lacking.

Donovan McNabb’s resentful commentary, as told to Clark Judge, certainly isn’t right. He whined, “You’re seeing Andy taking that chance. It’s not just taking that chance on one guy. They’re taking a chance on a bunch of guys. And they’re spending money. That’s amazing.”

It’s not as easy as saying that Reid and company have changed up, become more aggressive, more willing to spend, or more risky overall. The Eagles front office has never hesitated to go after the best free agents, signing guys like Jevon Kearse, Jon Runyan, and Asante Samuel. While they’ve been prudent with their money, that’s never been a big restraint. And, considering all but the Nnamdi Asomugha deal can be opted out of after a year, they’ve certainly hedged against risk.

I look at the list of free agents additions at right and I don’t see a big shift in philosophy. Some of the guys are older, but they’re top players still in their prime, not fading former stars. And, to reiterate, they haven’t let themselves get too risky with the deals.

Plus, the veteran acquisitions hide the fact that the rest of the Eagles lineup is still very young. A month back I pointed out that the team was poised to have Michael Vick potentially be the oldest Eagle in 2011. That’s unlikely now, but the overall point remains. This team is still young — even after adding a few 30-year-old veterans — and the bounty of 2012 draft picks beckons.

So what has changed? It’s not a willingness to spend or accept risk. It wasn’t aggressiveness that won the free agency period for the Eagles. Nor was it some fateful passing text messages in the night.

It was brains.

Read Jonathan Tamari’s Inquirer story about the Eagles preparation for the end of the lockout and free agency and tell me that the front office’s “blueprint” didn’t run circles around the rest of the league.

Carolina, for example, jumped into free agency like a chicken with its head cut off, throwing huge signing bonuses at every player who threatened to leave. Washington signed so many washed up veteran wide receivers that one backed out of his commitment. The Jets and Cowboys spent days pursuing Asomugha and came up empty.

Meanwhile, during the same window, the Eagles front office signed all their draft picks, picked a bunch of undrafted rookies, traded Kevin Kolb at high market value to the only team who was really interested, signed two Pro Bowl defensive linemen, snatched up the single best free agent with a surprisingly low deal before anyone knew they were even bidding, and then plugged cheap, proven contributors into the remaining holes with cap room to spare.

It makes sense. During the Andy Reid era, the Eagles have always been best at pregame preparation rather than live adjustments. And what was the lockout, ultimately, but an extra long chance to do nothing but plan, prepare, and scheme for the first days back?

Essentially, the Eagles just ran the best first 15 scripted plays they’ve ever called. The outcome of the whole game remains far from decided, but they now have a tremendous head start.

Photo from Getty.

Should the Eagles Pursue Nnamdi Asomugha?

Nnamadi Asomugha Eagles Free Agency

Perhaps the biggest hole in the Eagles defense right now is at right cornerback, opposite Asante Samuel. Ellis Hobbs, Dimitri Patterson, and Joselio Hanson all got the chance to start in 2010 but none could even consistently play at an average level. So going into 2011, fans have been clamoring for the team to add perhaps the biggest star on the free agent market — Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha.

Asomugha is often touted as one of the best, if not the best cover corner in the league. The three-time consecutive Pro Bowler doesn’t come up with a lot of interceptions, but quarterbacks notoriously avoid his side of the field. Last year, according to Pro Football Focus, receivers Asomugha covered were targeted only 29 times for 3.7 percent of his snaps, by far the least in the NFL (Samuel was second with 41 targets and 6.1 percent).

Asomugha would fit perfectly at right cornerback with the Eagles, where his size (6’ 2” 210 lbs.) and athleticism could balance Samuel’s ball-hawking skills. And it doesn’t appear that Asomugha is losing any of his game. One of the best wide receivers in the NFL, Larry Fitzgerald praised him last year: “The thing you see on tape for a man of his size, he has incredible hips and amazingly quick feet, and that’s just God given ability to be that tall and be able to move and cut and drive on balls the way he’s able to.”

Certainly on talent alone, the Eagles have to be interested. They’re used to making big splashy free agency moves and have the cash to do so. Plus, considering the cornerback spot is a pressing current concern, the team likely won’t try to look to the draft for a remedy.

Major Eagles Acquisitions

But the main question mark with Asomugha is his age. The All-Pro will turn 30 on July 6th, and giving a long-term contract to a cornerback (or any player) at that age is risky business. As you can see from the table at right, Asomugha would be the second-oldest big-time acquisition the team has ever made.

Additionally, consider recent Eagles history with cornerbacks. Troy Vincent stayed with the team through age 33, then switched to safety to prolong his career. Bobby Taylor had injury problems that preceded being let go at age 30, after which he only played one more year. Sheldon Brown lasted until just after his 31st birthday before he was traded last offseason to Cleveland. And while we might lament that decision now, keep in mind that quarterbacks throwing Brown’s way in 2010 had a 114 passer rating, third worst in the NFL among starting cornerbacks.

The broader trend among 30-plus year old cornerbacks isn’t particularly golden either. A free agent deal for Asomugha would have to include at least four years, if not more. But can he produce at a high rate for that long?

Cornerbacks After Age 30

My analysis shows that among cornerbacks from the last 15 years who started at least one game after turning 30, less than 40 percent of them started the equivalent of two full seasons in their thirties. Only 21 percent managed to start three full seasons. Unfortunately, the vast majority of players are not Eric Allen, Ronde Barber, or Charles Woodson. They slow down, they get hurt, and they drop out of the starting lineup before you know it.

What does that mean for Asomugha’s chances of coming to Philly? It depends on how risk-averse the Eagles front office is right now. Giving Asomugha a rich contract with heavy guarantees — which is what it will take to get any deal done — is no safe move. Maybe he’ll buck the odds and perform at a high level for years to come, making any contract worthwhile. More likely, if the Eagles do pursue him, it would be for a contract that puts big money up front but few guarantees down the road.

At the end of the day, Asomugha is the type of player that could instantly lift the Eagles defense and conceal a number of other weaknesses. It’s worth getting excited about any potential addition of that caliber, even if some caution is also warranted.

Originally published at NBC Philadelphia. Photo from Getty.

Time to Pay Vick & DeSean

Would the Eagles be assuming some major risk with those moves? Absolutely. Jackson probably isn’t close to his listed 175 pounds in pads and has a history of concussions and neck injuries. Vick is a 30-year-old scrambling quarterback, takes a bunch of hits, and hasn’t shown that he can play at this level long term. Plus, he’s one off-the-field misstep away from permanent suspension by the NFL.

And yes, there are some major hangups regarding the current NFL collective bargaining agreement and how that affects giving out contract extensions. Much of the money would need to be guaranteed while other incentives and salary cap workarounds would need to be put into place.

But at this point, with these two transcendent stars, none of that matters. You have to get deals done to keep them in Philadelphia long term. Why? It comes down to one simple fact:

No other two players in the NFL could have won Sunday’s game…