THE CAUTIOUS route the Eagles were expected to steer through free agency might have gotten jolted off course yesterday.

It was easier for general manager Howie Roseman to talk about not overpaying and looking for midlevel value back when it seemed the top two safeties on the market, Buffalo's Jairus Byrd and Cleveland's T.J. Ward, would either be tagged or signed by their current teams.

That was the buzz when the NFL convened for the scouting combine a few weeks back, and it seemed the most likely outcome almost right up to the point when it failed to happen, with the deadline for franchise and transition tagging passing at 4 p.m. yesterday. (Byrd and Ward still can sign with their current teams until free agency starts March 11, but that now seems unlikely.)

Byrd, 27, is a three-time Pro Bowl performer. Ward, also 27, Byrd's former University of Oregon teammate, made the Pro Bowl for the first time this past season. Both would seem to have several good years left. Either would be a huge upgrade at the position that has dogged the Birds ever since they let Brian Dawkins walk in free agency 5 years ago.

The Eagles have been thought to be more interested in the next tier of safeties, such as New Orleans' Malcolm Jenkins or Miami's Chris Clemons. Now they must consider whether getting burned at the top of the free-agent market previously - with Nnamdi Asomugha in 2011 and Stacy Andrews in 2009, to name a couple of debacles - should ward them off Byrd or Ward.

When Eagles general manager Howie Roseman spoke with reporters last week, he indicated the team would be willing to pursue a top-level free agent, if the right one were available. He said that the Birds would have room under the salary cap this year - they ought to still be more than $20 million beneath the new $133 million cap - but that such a signing would create a tighter situation next year, when the Eagles expect to do a new deal with quarterback Nick Foles. (This year's QB franchise-tag number, by the way, is $16.9 million. The Eagles are paying Foles $615,000.)

Reports indicate the Bills were willing to make Byrd the league's highest-paid safety. Does that mean his price tag will be recordsetting? That might not appeal to a team such as the Eagles, trying to carefully nurture a homegrown roster, "build the right way," as Roseman keeps saying. But is it more that Byrd, franchised last season, just wants out of Buffalo?

"We have negotiated with representation for Jairus Byrd for more than a year, but have yet to reach an agreement on a contract extension," Bills GM Doug Whaley said in a statement released by the team. "We remain open to getting a deal done with Jairus, but we have chosen not to use the franchise tag on any of our impending unrestricted free agents."

Several teams are expected to be very interested, including Cleveland, whose head coach, Mike Pettine, was Byrd's defensive coordinator with the Bills last season. Teams may start talking to agents March 8 but can't sign players until 3 days later.

Ward likely won't command as much money as Byrd on the open market, but it's up for grabs how much he's really worth. Until last season, Ward wasn't considered real good in pass coverage. He's more of a strong safety than Byrd, who can roam centerfield the way Earl Thomas does for the Seahawks.

Ward played for Eagles offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur when Shurmur was the Browns' head coach, 2011-12. Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis coached the Browns' linebackers then, and, of course, head coach Chip Kelly was the Oregon coach when the Browns drafted Ward in the second round in 2010. (And when the Bills drafted Byrd in the second round the year before.)

It could be that Byrd and Ward hitting the market will just make the Eagles' true target more affordable, if it's someone such as Clemons or Jenkins. It could be that the team was going to spend money elsewhere, such as at edge rusher, where Washington franchised Brian Orakpo and Pittsburgh transition-tagged Jason Worilds. Might that money now go toward a safety? Or, if the Birds do want Worilds, does this mean they will have to spend more in that area - under the transition tag, Worilds can still be signed by another team with Pittsburgh due no compensation, but the Steelers have the right to match and retain him. He will make $9.754 million if he plays under the transition tag this season. Agent Scott Smith said neither he nor Worilds wishes to comment on the Steelers' action right now.

Thornton is back

He wasn't going anywhere, as an exclusive-rights free agent, but the Eagles officially retained defensive end Cedric Thornton yesterday, signing him to a 1-year deal. Thornton, 25, arrived undrafted from Southern Arkansas in 2011 but turned out to be a better player than any of the Eagles' top three draft picks that year - Danny Watkins, Jaiquawn Jarrett and Curtis Marsh.

On Twitter: @LesBowen

Blog: ph.ly/Eagletarian