INDIANAPOLIS - We should know by Thursday night whether Brian Dawkins and Tra Thomas, the two longest-tenured Eagles, will remain with the team in 2009, Eagles president Joe Banner said over the weekend.

Banner, speaking to a Daily News reporter in the lobby of the Birds' team hotel at the NFL Scouting Combine, said this year, as is usually their policy, the Eagles will make their intentions clear to their pending free agents before the swap meet gets under way, at a minute after midnight Thursday. There might be a few exceptions - right tackle Jon Runyan, coming off microfracture knee surgery, would warrant further study, and running back Correll Buckhalter might still figure in the Eagles' plans if he is unsuccessful at his stated goal of finding a team that wants him as a starter, Banner said.

But by and large, agents will know what the Eagles have in mind, and the Eagles feel they'll know what the players have in mind. If a deal isn't done by the start of free agency, Banner said, the player "knows he wants to leave, or there's a better deal somewhere."

Dawkins has said several times he expects to be able to come to an agreement to continue his 13-year career with the Eagles, who drafted him out of Clemson in the second round in 1996. Thomas, a first-round pick from Florida State in 1998, hasn't said anything like that, but the Birds have an excellent relationship with his agent, Peter Schaffer. They probably don't want to change both starting offensive tackles the same year (Runyan's future being in doubt) and the talent market has collapsed so completely amid a flurry of signings the past few weeks that if Thomas hits free agency, he'll be a pretty valuable commodity, even at 34.

The Eagles don't often give away players who still have strong value.

"There's not any position [in free agency] where the shortage of players vs. the demand is more out of whack [than at offensive tackle]," Banner acknowledged.

So, even though the Birds had an organizational conniption fit Friday, backtracking after coach Andy Reid left Inquirer and Daily News reporters with the impression the Eagles were likely to retain Thomas and Dawkins, that does seem to be the case.

The Eagles are not expected to retain pending free-agent tight end L.J. Smith. They signed pending free-agent corner Joselio Hanson to a 5-year, $21 million contract, with $6.4 million guaranteed, on Friday.

Overall, the Birds' chance to make a splash in free agency is pretty limited. The Eagles could sign Bengals wideout T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who is more of a possession receiver than the big, lethal game-changer fans covet. Houshmandzadeh would add polish and depth to Donovan McNabb's arsenal of weapons. They could throw big money at Tennessee defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, the market's marquee talent, although they don't really have a crying need for a defensive tackle. Most of the rest of the names out there fall under the "So what?" category.

"I wish there were more free agents available," Banner said.

The team president knows that an organization often accused of not wanting to spend in the splashy way fans covet is going to be sitting on something like $40 million in salary-cap room, once last year's likely-to-be-earned incentives are added in, in what might be the final year of the salary cap. The Eagles can sign Thomas and Dawkins, bump up McNabb, pluck a Houshmandzadeh, and still not come close to using up that amount of cash.

"You couldn't spend it," Banner concluded.

Banner would not discuss McNabb's situation, even to confirm or deny that he might have met with the quarterback's agent, Fletcher Smith, at the combine. McNabb has said he wants to sit down with management, to talk about his benching last November and his contract, which has 2 years to run but isn't guaranteed. McNabb seems to feel that a significant guarantee would cement his role as the starter; it certainly would make him much less likely to be traded or released.

That is, it would make him less likely to be traded or released this year - with the NFL looking at the strong possibility of an uncapped year in 2010, whatever McNabb's salary going forward, there would be no penalty for shedding it, if the cap didn't exist. Maybe another team would be less likely to assume a huge contract, but otherwise, as Banner noted, "You can't really give somebody security in an uncapped year."

For a team that has made an art of reading salary-cap nuance, throwing away the cap is a chaotic, dizzying prospect. Banner wonders if players will hit the market willy-nilly next year, teams taking the chance to shed contracts they wish they hadn't done with no cap consequences looming. Lots of arcane salary rules will change, with hard-to-foresee consequences.

"It won't be good for anybody," Banner said.

To the outside observer, Friday's signing of Hanson would seem likely to signal the pending trade of disgruntled corner Lito Sheppard. After all, the Eagles expect to gain the services of Jack Ikegwuono, the corner they were able to draft in the fourth round last year, instead of the first or second, because he was coming off serious knee surgery.

Of course, Banner disagreed with that assessment.

"We're open to trading [Sheppard] if we get the right value," Banner said. "Quality cornerbacks are a valuable asset."

Sheppard, replaced as a starter by Asante Samuel and disappointed at not getting traded last year, played far below his two-time Pro Bowl level. By the end of the season, he wasn't playing at all. One would think the price tag would have come down from a year ago, when the Birds were said to have been seeking a first- or high second-round pick for Sheppard.

"I don't really think it is [lower]," Banner said. "His value to us is the same. If we went into training camp and one of our starting corners went down and we'd given away Lito Sheppard, we'd look like idiots."

Sheppard is under contract through 2012. *

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