5 Cost-Efficient Free Agents To Help Birds Replenish Roster
With 20 pending free agents – including seven defensive starters – eligible to test the open market next week, Eagles brass has presumably been hard at work, preparing for the volatile wave of free agency to cascade over the NFL.
But with so many prominent players on expiring contracts, Eagles attempts to retain many of the players responsible for their second Super Bowl berth in five seasons on a truncated budget would inevitably prove futile.
Given the circumstance – perhaps more this year than in recent memory – the team’s decisions will be predicated on evaluation and on valuation.
Here’s a look at five cost-effective outside options who could help replenish the roster:
QB Mike White
The Eagles have historically placed a premium on backup quarterback. Gardner Minshew, acquired via trade at the dawn of the 2021 regular season, provided adequate insurance for two seasons behind Jalen Hurts – completing 85 of 136 pass attempts for 1,102 yards, seven touchdowns and four interceptions in nine appearances (4 starts) – but is likely to look for a chance to compete for a starting job. His departure would vault third-year pro Ian Book up the depth chart, although the team will probably look to add a low-cost veteran arm to the mix.
White, 27, navigated a turbulent Jets offense in his modest sample size, completing 191 of 307 pass attempts (62.2%) for 2,145 yards, eight touchdowns and 12 interceptions in eight games (7 starts). The 6-foot-5, 218-pound White would bring experience to the room and contend with Book – and potentially a rookie – for a roster spot.
The Ravens’ Tyler Huntley would also be a savvy addition for a budget-conscious team. The 25-year-old – who somehow qualified for Pro Bowl recognition last season despite a cameo-sized body of work – has started four games in each of the past two seasons and offers upside.
RB Alexander Mattison
One of the league’s preeminent handcuffs at running back, Mattison has toiled behind Dalvin Cook the past four seasons. Mattison, 24, has little tread on his tires, averaging just over 100 rushing attempts per season, and is coming off a year in which he established a career-high in rushing touchdowns (5).
The 5-foot-11, 215-pound Boise State product is a hard-nosed downhill runner equipped with sufficient balance and finishes with power and urgency. Mattison is also a sound pass-protector as well as adept at catching the ball out of the backfield. His four-year resume includes 70 catches for 526 yards and three touchdowns.
The Eagles, who could potentially lose lead runner Miles Sanders to free agency, could opt for the economic free agent course instead of the draft. Mattison would provide a sorely needed physical element to the Eagles’ backfield, presumably handling early down and short-yardage work as an ideal companion to third-year pro Kenny Gainwell.
In addition to Mattison, another bargain signing who’d fit the bill and offer a different dimension is pending free agent D’Ernest Johnson of the Browns. Johnson, 27, hasn’t garnered much production playing behind Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt — just 141 carries over four seasons — but has performed well in spot duty. The 5-foot-10, 208-pound Johnson experienced his most productive season in 2021, rushing for 534 yards and three touchdowns on 100 carries in 17 games (2 starts).
DT Khalen Saunders
By this time next week, the Eagles could have lost their starting defensive tackle tandem, as both Javon Hargrave and Fletcher Cox are set to hit the open market. While the Eagles theoretically have an in-house contingency plan in place with Jordan Davis and Milton Williams, respectively, they also know both come with inexperience and uncertainty.
The depth beyond Davis and Williams are basically fringe roster linemen. Considering the team’s longstanding commitment to replenishing the trenches, their desire to make an addition is seemingly inevitable.
In free agency, Broncos lineman Dre’Mont Jones heads this year’s class. The Eagles could also invest in the position with draft capital, as they’ve done each of the past two seasons. But as a precautionary measure, it would behoove the Eagles to make a play for a mid-level free agent who has experience and adds depth. For my money, the best value that fits that description is Chiefs’ tackle Khalen Saunders.
A draft favorite of mine from four years ago, Saunders is an uber-athletic, agile interior defender boasting terrific short-area quickness who has been plagued by injuries throughout his career, appearing in only 38 games in four seasons.
The 84th overall selection in the 2019 NFL Draft, Saunders is coming off a career-best season, logging 48 tackles (three for loss), 3.5 sacks, and 8 quarterback hits in 16 games. The 26-year-old played a career-high 39% of defensive snaps.
Another value signing of note would be the Titans’ Teair Tartt, a former undrafted free agent who was recently named the Titans’ Most Improved Player by Pro Football Focus after registering career highs in tackles (34), sacks (1.5), quarterback hits (7), and total pressures (26).
Tartt also tied a career-high in snap share percentage (47). The 26-year-old Philadelphia native started all 16 games in which he appeared for the Titans last season. Interesting player who could perhaps occupy some of the vacant snaps.
S Deon Bush
Operating more like a choose-your-own-adventure mission than a functionally sound special-teams unit, an embattled Eagles third phase was hindered by gaffes, fundamental flaws, penalties, and inopportune coverage lapses. That’s not to say that there weren’t some positives involved in what appeared at times to be a rudderless ship.
But with the knowledge that coordinator Michael Clay remains in charge, the Eagles might need to make more of a concerted effort to fortify their personnel. And given that the Eagles might lose both C.J. Gardner-Johnson and Marcus Epps to free agency – essentially leaving second-year pro Reed Blankenship and K’Von Wallace as the elder statesmen in the room – a veteran depth piece could serve them well.
The 30-year-old Bush, a Super Bowl LVII champion, not only has special teams prowess working in his favor, he also played in all but one season under Eagles newly appointed defensive coordinator Sean Desai. For two seasons (2019-2020), Desai presided over Bush as the Bears’ safeties coach.
In 2021, Bush turned in a career year in Desai’s lone season as the Bears’ defensive coordinator, producing 40 tackles, two interceptions, and five passes defended in 14 games (4 starts). His 44% snap share was second only to his rookie season in 2016, when Desai then served as Chicago’s defensive quality control coach. From a cost, role, and familiarity perspective, this reunion would make a lot of sense.
S Adrian Amos
When the Eagles refrained from using the franchise tag on safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson, coupled with a cryptic farewell montage from Gardner-Johnson on social media, the likelihood of the 25-year-old safety playing elsewhere next season increased. Marcus Epps is also expected to draw interest on the open market, conceivably leaving the safety cupboard bare.
Second-year pro Reed Blankenship, a former undrafted free agent, has been a remarkable story of development and figures into the Eagles’ long-term plans but a starting role would require a monumental – and perhaps unrealistic – Year 2 leap.
The potential to add to the position via the draft became increasingly likely, though first-year players progress at varying levels, so it would be unfair to expect a fresh-faced rookie to shoulder the burden of commanding a room from the get-go. The most logical void-filler would be a veteran stopgap, someone with mentorship habits who’s also cost-efficient. That someone could be Amos.
Amos, 29, is versed in multiple schemes and has acted as a third-level bedrock during his stops in Chicago and Green Bay, respectively. The Penn Sate product spent his first four years in the Windy City when Desai was also on staff as a defensive quality control coach.
As a rookie, Amos was named to Pro Football Writers of America’s All-Rookie Team. Though Amos and splash plays are typically synonymous, the ninth-year safety has been a pillar of consistency since entering the league.
Leadership and high-level football intelligence have also been his hallmarks. Some might become enamored with names such as John Johnson III, Juan Thornhill, Nasir Adderley, or Vonn Bell, but for my money, Amos is the quintessential fit alongside Blankenship or a rookie in ’23.
– Andrew DiCecco (@AndrewDiCecco) is a Staff Reporter/Content Producer for InsideTheBirds.com.
Listen to the latest Inside The Birds podcast with Adam Caplan and Geoff Mosher:
Or watch on YouTube: