The player many observers designated as the Eagles’ top priority in free agency agreed to a groundbreaking contract Monday, but not with the Eagles.
Cornerback Byron Jones will head for Miami after the Dolphins pledged to hand him $82.5 million over five years, with $57 million guaranteed, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. Jones, a former Dallas Cowboy who made the Pro Bowl after the 2018 season, becomes the highest-paid corner in NFL history.
Another big name on the corner market, Carolina’s James Bradberry, agreed to terms with the New York Giants, for a reported $45 million over three years. It isn’t clear where this leaves the local team at a long-term position of need-- vying to sign soon-to-be-31-year-old Chris Harris from Denver? Trying to trade for Detroit’s Darius Slay? Waiting to draft a corner?
Monday was the first day of “legal tampering” ahead of NFL free agency, and the Eagles’ big move was an unexpected one. They reached agreement with former Steelers nose tackle Javon Hargrave for three years and $39 million, solidifying the defensive tackle spot opposite Fletcher Cox.
Teams were allowed to start negotiations across the league at noon Monday, but contracts can’t be signed until 4 p.m. Wednesday.
Hargrave, who is 27, 6-foot-2, 305, was a third-round draft pick of the Steelers in 2016. He has missed only one game in four seasons. In 2019 he notched four sacks, despite playing nose tackle in a 3-4 scheme, not exactly ideal for rushing the passer.
He has recorded 14½ sacks and 22 quarterback hits in those four seasons. Hargrave was credited with 43 quarterback hurries last season by Pro Football Focus; it was the highest percentage of hurries among NFL interior linemen with more than 250 pass-rush snaps.
Hargrave would seem to supplant Malik Jackson, who signed a three-year, $30 million Eagles contract last offseason but suffered a season-ending foot injury in the season opener. While snap distribution could be considered an issue with three prominent inside rushers, defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz likes to keep a deep bench, and Jackson and Cox are both versatile enough to bump outside to end.
The Eagles said goodbye to one of their 15 pending unrestricted free agents, reserve offensive lineman Halapoulivaati Vaitai, who agreed to a hefty five-year, $50 million contract with the Detroit Lions, first reported by radio host Adam Caplan. Vaitai’s versatility is his best attribute -- he can play anywhere on the line except center -- but the Eagles never saw him as a long-term starter and his leaving was not a surprise.
Vaitai, who will turn 27 in June, played in 55 Eagles games, with 20 starts, after being drafted in the fifth round in 2016 from Texas Christian. He has appeared in all 16 games each of the last three seasons, accumulating 14 starts in that span. Vaitai started at left tackle in Super Bowl LII, with Jason Peters injured.
The Birds did sign one of those pending free agents, defensive tackle Hassan Ridgeway, to a one-year contract, just before the legal tampering period began. The return of Ridgeway and the addition of Hargrave spells the end for Tim Jernigan, who toiled through two injury-marred seasons in Philadelphia after playing a key role in the Super Bowl season.
The team also announced it was not placing a tender offer on running back Corey Clement, a restricted free agent who now will be free to sign anywhere.
Ridgeway, 25, played in seven games for the Eagles last season, starting five, after Jackson went down. Ridgeway ended up on IR as well, with an ankle injury.
Defensive tackle became one of several injury-ravaged positions for a group that entered the season as a top NFC contender and finished 9-7 before losing in the wild-card playoff round to Seattle.
Ridgeway came to the Eagles last spring in a trade with Indianapolis, for a seventh-round pick. The Colts drafted him in the fourth round in 2016, out of Texas.
Clement, a South Jersey native, was a Super Bowl LII hero as an undrafted rookie out of Wisconsin. He became just the fourth rookie to amass 100 receiving yards in the title game, and his 22-yard touchdown catch was spectacular. But Clement failed to build on that momentum, and ended both the 2018 and 2019 seasons on injured reserve, with knee and shoulder injuries, respectively.
Like Ridgeway, Clement is 25. It’s unclear what his free-agent market might be. It’s possible he could return to the Eagles for less money than he stood to make had he been tendered.
If Clement leaves, that would mean everyone involved in the Philly Special touchdown play just before halftime of the Super Bowl will have moved on -- Clement took the snap and flipped it to tight end Trey Burton, who threw the TD pass to quarterback Nick Foles.
Burton played for Chicago last season, Foles for Jacksonville. (There were rumors Monday that the Bears were interested in trading for Foles, by the way.)
Here are the Eagles’ remaining pending unrestricted free agents:
DB: Rodney McLeod, Ronald Darby, Jalen Mills. OL: Jason Peters. LB: Kamu Grugier-Hill, Nigel Bradham. QB: Nate Sudfeld, Josh McCown. WR: Nelson Agholor. TE: Richard Rodgers. DL: Tim Jernigan, Vinny Curry. RB: Jordan Howard.
Safety Malcolm Jenkins has said he will not play for the team this year if his contract isn’t reworked.