Two steps forward, one step back.
A day after adding an interior pass rusher to their defense (Malik Jackson) and a vertical threat to their offense (DeSean Jackson), the Eagles lost a key member of their defense when free-agent linebacker Jordan Hicks tentatively agreed to sign a four-year deal with the Arizona Cardinals when the NFL free-agency signing period commences at 4 p.m. Wednesday.
Eagles executive vice president of football operations Howie Roseman hinted two weeks ago at the scouting combine in Indianapolis that Hicks likely wouldn’t be back.
“We have three linebacker spots and two guys who are going to be playing in nickel situations,’’ Roseman said then. “Without getting into any specific guys, we’re trying to keep as many of our core guys as possible. It’ll be a function of the market value and having a walk-away number.’’
The Eagles’ walk-away number for the 26-year-old Hicks was considerably less than the $36 million, including $20 million in guarantees, that the Cardinals offered him over four years.
While Hicks is a talented player, he missed 21 games in his four seasons with the Eagles and finished two of those seasons on the injured-reserve list.
In addition to his injury history, the Eagles also don’t place as high a value on the linebacker position in their defense as some other teams do.
They re-signed Nigel Bradham to a five-year, $40 million deal last year right before he was about to become a free agent, and weren’t inclined to overpay a second linebacker in a defense that used a lot more one- and two-linebacker sub-packages last year than it did its three-linebacker base.
As defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz has repeatedly said, his line is the engine that makes his defense go. And that’s where the Eagles always are going to invest the largest chunk of their cap resources.
Not including Hicks and quarterback Nick Foles, who plans to sign with the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Eagles have 13 players who will be unrestricted free agents Wednesday.
The only one of the 13 whom the Eagles definitely would like to re-sign seems to be cornerback Ronald Darby. But Darby, like Hicks, has been hampered by injuries.
He’s missed 15 of 32 regular-season games in his two seasons with the Eagles, and is coming off an ACL tear. Like Hicks, however, Darby has other teams interested in him. As with Hicks, Roseman has a walk-away number.
Besides Hicks’ tentative deal with Arizona, veteran guard Stefen Wisniewski confirmed Tuesday that the Eagles have told him they won’t be picking up his 2019 option, making him a free agent.
Wisniewski lost his starting left guard job to 2016 third-round pick Isaac Seumalo five games into last season. The move to decline his option was a little surprising given that Pro Bowl right guard Brandon Brooks tore an Achilles tendon in the Eagles’ divisional-round playoff loss to New Orleans.
Right now, the top backup at guard is 2018 sixth-round pick Matt Pryor. But the Eagles likely will add at least one more interior lineman in free agency and/or next month’s draft.
The decision to cut bait with Wisniewski saves the Eagles $3.7 million in cap space. It’s believed the Eagles will head into free agency with somewhere in the neighborhood of $15 million to $20 million in cap space.
They could create even more space by either signing slot receiver Nelson Agholor to a contract extension or releasing him. But so far, they have done neither.
Agholor is entering the option year of his rookie deal. His 2019 cap number is $9.4 million, which is the sixth highest on the team behind only wide receiver Alshon Jeffery ($14.7M), tight end Zach Ertz ($12.0M), guard Brandon Brooks ($12.0M), defensive tackle Fletcher Cox ($11.9M), and safety Malcolm Jenkins ($11.4M).
Asked at the combine whether the Eagles were going to be aggressive in free agency, Roseman said, “I expect us always to be aggressive in every aspect. That’s kind of who we are.
“With that, obviously there come risks. But we’re not going to be risk-averse. If there’s an opportunity to improve our football team, we’ll do that. We’re not going to use the cap as an excuse. But we’re also going to try to be smart about it.’’
The Eagles will sign Malik Jackson, who was ranked fifth in pass-rush productivity last season among interior defenders by Pro Football Focus, to a three-year, $30 million deal, and brought back DeSean Jackson and gave him a new three-year, $27 million deal.
The Eagles still have a number of offseason needs, including running back. The Eagles had one of the league’s worst rushing attacks last season. They finished 28th in rushing yards per game (98.1) and 30th in yards per carry (3.9).
They are expected to be in the market for a running back in both free agency and the draft. But they weren’t in the bidding for the top running back in free agency, Le’Veon Bell, and expressed little interest in two of the other top backs available, Mark Ingram and Latavius Murray. Ingram appears to be headed for Baltimore. Murray is headed for Ingram’s former team, the Saints. Bell reportedly agreed to terms with the Jets.
The Eagles also could re-sign Jay Ajayi to a short-term deal. Ajayi, who is coming off an ACL tear that sidelined him for most of the 2018 season, is a free agent.
“We won a championship with a rotational system [at running back],’’ coach Doug Pederson said at the combine. “You look at a lot of teams around the league, they’re usually a two-back type of operation.
“Whether it’s another veteran free agent or through the draft, those are things we’re going to explore in the next few months.’’