The Eagles will not put the franchise tag on any of their free agents, a team source said yesterday.
NFL teams have until tomorrow to designate a franchise or transition player in advance of the start of free agency Feb. 27.
In 2008, the Eagles designated tight end L.J. Smith as a franchise player. Under the terms of the collective-bargaining agreement, Smith received the average salary of the top five players at his position. But Smith had a disappointing season and the Eagles probably won't offer him a contract.
The source also did not deny the Eagles plan to meet with Donovan McNabb's agent, Fletcher Smith, to discuss a contract extension, and seemed confident a deal will be completed with the 32-year-old quarterback. McNabb has two years remaining on his current deal. Smith could not be reached for comment.
With considerable salary-cap room and two first-round draft picks, the Eagles are optimistic about improving the team as they head to Indianapolis today for the start of the NFL scouting combine. During the next seven days, top college players work out at the Lucas Oil Stadium, get medical exams and interview with teams in advance of the draft April 25-26.
The Eagles have 10 draft picks, including the 21st and 28th overall, which could allow them to move higher in the first round if there is a player they really want.
Teams try to mesh draft decisions with free agency choices, and salary-cap space is a factor.
According to profootballtalk.com, the Eagles are $31 million below the mandatory salary-cap figure of $124 million for the 2009 season. A team source wouldn't confirm that figure, but said the Eagles have plenty of cap room if they choose to be aggressive in free agency.
Applying a franchise tag will restrict or prohibit players from negotiating with other teams, but also guarantees a certain level of pay, which varies by position.
There are two types of franchise players. An exclusive franchise player can't negotiate with any other team, but is guaranteed the average of the five highest-paid players at his position for the coming season. A non-exclusive franchise player is guaranteed the average of the five highest-paid players at his position for the previous year, but he can negotiate with other teams. If he signs with a new team and the old team declines to match the offer, the old team gets two first-round picks.
Twelve teams designated franchise players last year, according to the NFL Players Association. The Giants made running back Brandon Jacobs their franchise player this year.
One of the Eagles' more pressing needs is at offensive tackle, so it seemed possible they might designate Tra Thomas as a franchise player because both Thomas, 34, and right tackle Jon Runyan, 35, can become free agents. But the franchise-tag salary for offensive linemen is $8.45 million.
The source indicated the team hopes to come to terms with Thomas, who has protected McNabb's blind side the last 11 seasons. Thomas's agent, Peter Schaffer, declined comment yesterday when reached by telephone.
"I shy away from discussing negotiations in public," Schaffer said.
Runyan is recovering from microfracture surgery on his right knee in mid-January and is out four to six months. The procedure is designed to build cartilage. The team source said the Eagles probably will wait to see how Runyan recovers.
At this stage, Virginia's Eugene Monroe, Baylor's Jason Smith, Alabama's Andre Smith and Mississippi's Michael Oher are considered the top tackles in the draft.
Safety Brian Dawkins and running back Correll Buckhalter are also unsigned. The team source said the Eagles will most likely sign the popular Dawkins, who was chosen to play in his seventh Pro Bowl and proved he still has mileage left even though he'll turn 36 next season.
The team source didn't rule out trying to sign Buckhalter, who will be 31 next season, unless they can do better through free agency or the draft. Buckhalter has proved to be a capable replacement for Brian Westbrook, but the Eagles may opt to find a younger running back with pass-catching ability who can eventually succeed Westbrook. Westbrook will turn 30 in September and played through injuries during most of the 2008 season.
San Diego's Darren Sproles and the Giants' Derrick Ward are the most interesting running backs who could hit the open market. There have been rumblings, however, that Sproles will receive the franchise tag from the Chargers, and Ward has just hired agent Drew Rosenhaus, which means he probably wants a lot of money to be a starter somewhere.
Smith's days as an Eagle are over, the team source said. Smith had only 37 catches for 298 yards and three touchdowns in 2008. He missed three games with injuries and the Eagles relied on his backup, Brent Celek, later in the season. Celek excelled during the playoff run to the NFC title game, catching 19 passes for 151 yards and three TDs in three postseason games. But the second-year tight end is not known for his blocking, and the Eagles could seek another tight end.
Oklahoma State's Brandon Pettigrew is widely regarded by analysts as the best tight end in the draft.