It’s time to ramp up the free agency coverage. In the coming days, we’ll take a look at some key positions of need, starting with (what else?) safety.
Below are six players who could be options, starting with the highest-profile and ending with the sleepers.
* Note: Ages account for how old each will be at the start of the 2014 season.
Jairus Byrd, Bills (27) – As you might have noticed, we’ve written quite a bit about Byrd in recent weeks. He figures to command the highest paycheck among the free-agent safeties. Byrd (5-10, 203) is a pure ball-hawk who can play as the single-high safety in the middle of the field, read the quarterback and make plays on the football. His 22 interceptions since 2009 are tops among safeties, and Byrd’s 11 forced fumbles during that span are second-most.
So why not break the bank for the 27-year-old? There are a few reasons. For starters, Byrd’s measurables don’t jump off the page. He has average size and ran a 4.68 coming out of college. If you’re the Eagles, are you prepared to offer a huge contract to a guy who isn’t particularly special from an athleticism standpoint? The other concern is he had plantar fasciitis in both of his feet last year and missed five games.
Big-money free agents can cause resentment in the locker room, leading players to wonder why they’re not the ones getting paid. So fit with someone like Byrd is important. Chip Kelly should have a leg up considering his Oregon ties. Kelly was the offensive coordinator for two of the years Byrd played for the Ducks.
My gut feeling? The Eagles will keep an eye on Byrd, but they have a “walk-away number” for each free agent. Ultimately, I think the bidding gets too high, and they bow out.
T.J. Ward, Browns (27) – He and Byrd are the consensus top two guys on the market, but their games are quite different.
Ward is at his best playing up in the box. He’s a master at making plays near the line of scrimmage and can really bolster a team’s run defense. Ward is probably underrated in coverage. He’s not the deep-middle safety that Byrd is, but Ward can match up with opposing tight ends and brings a physicality to the table.
At 5-10, 200, Ward isn’t the biggest guy either, but he’s solid and possesses a versatile skill set.
If you asked me which of the top-two guys the Eagles are more likely to add, I’d say Ward. He won’t be as expensive as Byrd and played two years for Kelly (as a head coach) at Oregon.
Malcolm Jenkins, Saints (26) – If you like Jenkins, you’ll tout his versatility. The former cornerback has good man-to-man cover skills and can play opposite slot receivers.
If you don’t like Jenkins, you’ll call him a tweener. He can fill a variety of roles, but the 2009 first-round pick has yet to show that he stands out in any one area. The Eagles aren’t looking for a nickel. They are looking for a safety. And Jenkins has not proven to be much of a ball-hawk in the deep part of the field.
We know this coaching staff values versatility. Jenkins is young and has good measurables (6-0/204, ran a 4.54 coming out of college). He’s also said to rank highly in the intangibles/chemistry department, having served as a captain in each of the past two seasons.
Jenkins is not a perfect fit and is no guarantee to solve the Eagles’ safety problems, but as far as mid-tier options go, he checks many of the boxes and will likely be one of the guys the team looks at.
Mike Mitchell, Panthers (27) – He might be my favorite under-the-radar option for the Eagles. He was reportedly an Al Davis pick for the Raiders back in 2009 and came off the board in the second round, earlier than many anticipated. Mitchell never got things going in Oakland, and the Panthers signed him to a one-year deal last offseason.
Mitchell (6-0, 210) reportedly ran a 4.39 at his Pro Day coming out of college. In Sean McDermott’s defense, he played a variety of roles – rushing the passer (four sacks), playing deep, etc. Mitchell has been described as a box safety, but PFF’s numbers suggest that notion is off-base.
The difficult part in evaluating Mitchell is that he played with such a talented front seven. I didn’t see him line up in man coverage all that much, and his tackling needs to improve. But he’s got good measurables, doesn’t have a lot of mileage on his tires and can be a big hitter.
Mitchell would be a nice mid-tier option with some upside for the Eagles.
Stevie Brown, Giants (27) – The Eagles went after a former Giants safety last offseason, and we all know the Kenny Phillips addition didn’t pan out. But they could take a look at another one this year.
Brown tore his ACL in August and missed all of the 2013 season. But in 2012, he started 11 games and had eight interceptions (11 passes defended) to go along with two forced fumbles.
Brown (5-11, 221) reportedly ran a 4.52 out of college.
Again, he’s far from the perfect candidate, and the Eagles would have to see where he is from a medical standpoint. But Brown has decent measurables and experience. He could be another mid-tier option.
Darian Stewart, Rams (26) – Credit where credit is due. Stewart wasn’t on my radar until KC Joyner of ESPN.com mentioned him as a possible fit earlier this week.
If you’re looking for a deep sleeper who could compete for playing time, Stewart could make sense. He started six games last year and appeared in 13. In the games I watched, Stewart played in the box quite a bit, but also spent a fair amount of time on opposing tight ends.
An undrafted free agent out of South Carolina, Stewart (5-11, 214) has decent size and ran a 4.53 coming out of college.
There will be no rush to Modell’s for jerseys if the Eagles sign Stewart, but he could be someone they take an inexpensive flier on.