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Don't expect Eagles to go all-in at safety

In the big picture, expensive free agents Jairus Byrd and T.J. Ward don't fit into team's plans.

Browns safety T.J. Ward. (David Richard/AP)
Browns safety T.J. Ward. (David Richard/AP)Read more

ON THE SURFACE, it seems like a marriage made in free-agency heaven.

The Eagles, as you may have heard, need a ball-hawking cover safety. And as luck would have it, Jairus Byrd, one of the league's very best ball-hawking cover safeties, is expected to be available on Tuesday when the 2014 free-agent signing period commences.

Byrd, 27, wants ridiculous money. He's reportedly looking for a deal that will pay him in excess of $9 million a year. But the Eagles have more than enough salary-cap room - $24.1 million - to accommodate him. Chip Kelly also knows the guy pretty well. Byrd played his college ball at Oregon. Kelly was the Ducks' offensive coordinator when Byrd was in Eugene.

For Eagles fans, this is a one-plus-one-equals-two no-brainer. Get your checkbook out and pay the man, Jeff. And go out and get the best edge-rusher money can buy while you're at it.

"Fans want you to go out and play fantasy football," said ESPN analyst Bill Polian, who detested free agency when he was the Indianapolis Colts' general manager. "But that's the last thing you should be doing because that money, if you miss, is gone and never comes back."

The Eagles found that out the hard way in 2011 when they went all Dan Snyder and signed Nnamdi Asomugha and the rest of the infamous "Dream Team."

In one breath, general manager Howie Roseman says the whole Dream Team experience wouldn't prevent the Eagles from spending big bucks on a player if they were convinced he would make them better. Not just for 1 year, but for several years.

"Unique situations call for unique action," he said. "If there is a unique player in free agency that is hard to find other than at the top of the draft and fits all the criteria we've outlined, then you have to look at it.

"We still view ourselves as aggressive risk-takers. Sometimes you have to take risks to get better."

But in another breath, Roseman admits he's reluctant to do another Nnamdi-sized deal with a free agent.

"Because of where we think the core of our team is and coming up for contracts, unless it was really the right fit for the position, the age, the player, the history of the player, the scheme fit, you want to be careful," he said.

"Because when you talk about these top free agents, you're tied to them for a lot longer than for a year or 2. It limits your flexibility. And you're bringing guys into your locker room that you haven't drafted and haven't been in the culture [of your locker room]. Chemistry is a big part of what we're trying to build."

That's what most of the Eagles' re-signings and extensions of the past couple of weeks have been all about. Building a core that's not only talented, but also has the right chemistry.

Maybe the Eagles will shock me and make a run at Byrd, but I doubt it. Maybe they'll shock me and make a run at the other top free-agent safety, T.J. Ward, but I doubt that even more. Ward is a box safety who isn't even a good scheme fit for Bill Davis' defense.

They'll sign a safety, maybe even two. But they likely will be more reasonably priced merchandise with less cap ramifications from a lower tier, such as the Saints' Malcolm Jenkins or the Colts' Antoine Bethea or the Dolphins' Chris Clemons.

They likely will add an edge-rusher too. That person also probably will be someone who won't break the bank, like, say, the Lions' Willie Young.

This will prompt the predictable Eagles-are-cheap complaints from the peanut gallery. In truth, it has nothing to do with spending money and everything to do with how the Eagles want to build and sustain their team.

"You can't force things," Roseman said. "You can't make things that aren't there. We've seen that. If you do that, you're going to make a huge mistake. Sometimes, the option is just to get through the moment and do some stopgap things.

"I'm not saying that's what we're going to do at a particular position. But when you look at the teams that have won the championships over the last few years, they're not perfect at all 22 spots. It's a big difference having a weakness at a particular position as opposed to being solid and getting through."

The league's salary cap had stayed reasonably flat in the 3 years since the 2011 collective bargaining agreement. But with the revenue from the new TV contracts kicking in, it jumped $10 million this year, from $123 million to $133 million, and it could increase as much as $18 million over the next 2 years.

While that will give teams a little more cap flexibility over the next few years, it doesn't mean the Eagles can afford to go on another Dream Teamesque free-agent shopping spree.

Roseman has made it clear that they are a build-through-the-draft team. They are coming off two tremendously successful drafts. Another solid one in May could put them over the top.

Even with the NFL's projected cap increases over the next few years, the Eagles also are looking at significant increases in their payroll, particularly if they hope to keep re-signing their best young players to second contracts.

One of the main reasons they have so much cap room this season is because their quarterback, Nick Foles, still is on his third-round rookie contract. He will count just $751,000 against their cap this season. That's considerably less than the cap numbers of some other NFL quarterbacks, including Drew Brees ($18.4 million), Tom Brady ($14.8 million), Philip Rivers ($16.7 million), Aaron Rodgers ($17.9 million) and Peyton Manning ($17.5 million). The Cowboys just restructured Tony Romo's deal, which dropped his cap number from $21.8 million to $11.8 million.

If Foles puts up passing numbers next season that are in the same ballpark as last season's, he no longer will be a salary-cap bargain.

Several other 2012 draft picks, including defensive end Fletcher Cox, linebacker Mychal Kendricks and Brandon Boykin, also will be eligible for extensions after the '14 season.

Then there's the scheduled cap escalation of other players on the roster. Linebacker Trent Cole's cap number will jump from $6.6 million this season to $11.6 million next season.

Cornerback Cary Williams' cap number will jump from $6.4 million this year to $8.2 million next year. Linebacker Connor Barwin's increases from $4.9 million to $6.1 million, and guard Todd Herremans' from $4.2 million to $5.2 million.

Then there's running back LeSean McCoy. His cap number increases from $9.7 million this year to $11.9 million in 2015. But if he has another All-Pro season, it's a pretty good bet that he'll be interested in redoing his deal.

Bottom line: The Eagles need to be smart with their money and cap space.

"We look at the cap as not only this year but going forward," Roseman said. "That's a big part of our planning. We have a bunch of young players on our team that we want to keep around. We don't want to be in a position a year from now where we went out and signed a bunch of guys [in free agency] and aren't able to re-sign the guys we want to be our core players going forward.

"That's an important part of this. We're trying to build something. And when you build something, you want to do it with guys that you have, guys that you know, and supplement it with free agency. That's kind of our core philosophy."