Two days into free agency’s “legal tampering” period, the Eagles’ actions have raised more questions than they have answered.
Howie Roseman’s boldest stroke has been declining the 2020 option on safety and franchise icon Malcolm Jenkins -- an option Jenkins had said he wouldn’t play under anyway -- stripping leadership and expertise from a defensive backfield that has been the team’s worst-performing unit over the past decade.
Roseman moved to soften the Jenkins blow by bringing back the other half of the starting safety tandem, Rodney McLeod, on a two-year contract, while also re-upping corner Jalen Mills for one year. There were indications that Mills might be moving to safety, though the coaching staff declined to make that move in 2018, when McLeod went down early in the season and the Eagles were desperate for safety depth.
The Eagles also shocked the NFL Tuesday by bringing in quarterback Tom Br ... nah, just kidding, they agreed to another one-year deal with backup Nate Sudfeld, who has played in three games over three seasons here.
Meanwhile, Miami agreed to terms with a couple of pending Eagles free agents, running back Jordan Howard and linebacker/special teams ace Kamu Grugier-Hill. Players can actually sign these deals when free agency officially begins at 4 p.m. Wednesday.
As for the local team’s plan to fix a defensive backfield that allowed the second-most 40-plus-yard completions in the NFL last season, the cornerback and safety shelves in the free-agency market are starting to look like your grocery store’s toilet paper aisle. There might be an unheralded player somewhere they can sign who will turn out to be really good, but corner Chris Harris from Denver seems to be the biggest-splash free agent left, and he seems an unlikely target for a team trying to get younger -- Harris turns 31 in June.
There are starting-quality corners available by trade -- Atlanta’s 29-year-old Desmond Trufant, who has history with new Eagles secondary coach Marquand Manuel, and Detroit’s Darius Slay, also 29. Trufant might be released if Atlanta can’t strike a deal; Slay would seem to require a hefty return.
In Miami, Howard’s two-year deal is worth around $10 million, according to an ESPN report. He was the primary ballcarrier for the Eagles before sustaining a shoulder stinger against the Chicago Bears on Nov. 3. He missed nearly two months with the injury, which led to rookie Miles Sanders’ emergence as a lead running back. When Howard returned, he wasn’t really in game shape and was active just as an emergency option. He was on the field for just one play against the New York Giants in the season finale, a pass negated by a holding penalty.
Howard was a productive back when the Eagles fed him often. He finished the season with 525 rushing yards on 119 carries after arriving in a trade with Chicago for a conditional late-round pick.
Grugier-Hill, a special-teams captain and eventual starting linebacker, agreed to a one-year deal, one day after thanking Eagles fans for their support on social media before saying goodbye. He fell out of favor with the Eagles after covering up a concussion to stay in a game, coincidentally against the Dolphins last December.
Jenkins arrived via free agency in 2014, McLeod in 2016, and together the two made up the team’s best safety tandem of the last quarter-century, at least. McLeod, who turns 30 in June, started all 16 games last season after suffering a knee injury that limited him to three games in 2018. In 2019, Pro Football Focus charged him with 15 missed tackles, the most he has compiled since 2014, but opposing receivers caught only 53.3% of the passes thrown when he was in coverage, McLeod’s career-best number.
Jenkins has been the leader of the back seven, but young defensive backs also look up to McLeod, whose NFL journey began with the Rams as an undrafted free agent out of Virginia in 2012. McLeod is the fourth pending free agent the Eagles have opted to retain so far, and he’s the oldest of the group that includes Sudfeld, 26; Mills, who turns 26 next month; and 25-year-old defensive tackle Hassan Ridgeway.
Sudfeld went into last summer poised to battle for the prime backup spot behind Wentz after two years as the No. 3 QB. But a broken left wrist in the first preseason game led to the team’s signing of 40-year-old Josh McCown to a one-year deal. McCown is a pending free agent — players can’t sign until Wednesday at 4 p.m., even though deals could be agreed to as of noon Monday — and he might not be healthy anytime soon, after tearing a hamstring in the Eagles’ playoff loss to Seattle.
Sudfeld’s return during the “legal tampering” period suggests two things: He wasn’t looking at a robust market for his services, having appeared in just three games here in three seasons. And some more exciting QB options are already off the market, including Case Keenum (Browns) and Marcus Mariota (Raiders).
Sudfeld knows the Eagles’ offense and is close to Wentz. He was a sixth-round Redskins draft choice in 2016 whom the Eagles obtained after 2017 cutdowns. He played last season on a one-year restricted free-agent tender, and did not appear in any games.
Bringing back Sudfeld on a low-risk deal does not preclude the Eagles from making other moves to strengthen their QB room.
The only outside free agent the Eagles have landed so far is defensive tackle Javon Hargrave, from the Steelers. He got a significant $39 million, three-year commitment, from a team that puts a lot of emphasis on rushing the passer without blitzing.