5 low-cost free agents the Eagles should target
The NFL’s new league year kicks off next Wednesday at 4:00 PM when all reported trades and signings up until this point become official. Thanks to another offseason of contract restructuring, the Eagles may end up with just enough cap space to bring in a few mid-level free agents to bolster some weaker units. According to Pro Football Focus, Philly’s secondary ranked 20th out of 32 teams, with their cornerbacks producing the fourth-lowest coverage grade in the league. The often scrutinized linebacker group also requires a spark in coverage after surrendering a 117.0 passer rating when targeted last season (3rd highest in NFL).
The NFL officially set the league’s salary cap at $182.5 million for the 2021 season, which may cause many veteran free agents to sign below their market value. With several promising players at key skill positions, the Eagles’ front office needs to target a few of those guys to help develop their young talent. With minimal cap space, the Eagles should target players familiar with the incoming coaching staff or low-cost veteran free agents who will reinforce some of the team’s thinner positions.
1. LB Anthony Walker Jr. (6-1, 230 lbs) NFL Experience: 4
The 2017 fifth-round pick enjoyed three very successful seasons playing next to Darius Leonard in Indianapolis. While many view him as the sidekick to one of the best young linebackers in the league, Leonard sees it the other way around. Walker’s role as the defense’s primary play-caller allowed the 2018 Defensive Rookie of the Year to attack off-ball without any overthinking or confusion. Darius Leonard has nothing but praise for his running mate, saying, “Eighty percent of the reason I am who I am is because of Walk.”
That’s a ringing endorsement from one of the most dominant defensive stars in today’s game. Bringing in a cerebral linebacker like Walker Jr. to man the middle of the defense takes a ton of pressure off guys like Alex Singleton and Genard Avery, who would be more effective playing off-ball. His familiarity with DC Jonathan Gannon during his time in Indianapolis could expedite the learning curve of installing an entirely new system. Gannon will likely borrow some familiar schemes from his time with the Colts so Anthony Walker Jr. could hit the ground running as the Eagles’ starting MIKE linebacker.
2. S Rayshawn Jenkins (6-1, 220 lbs) NFL Experience: 4
With Jalen Milla potentially leaving in free agency and Rodney McLeod rehabbing a torn ACL, the Eagles’ safety unit could use some insurance heading into next season. McLeod comes back at a reasonable cap hit ($5.2 million) but most likely will spend the first few weeks of the 2021 season on the PUP list. Second-year safety K’Von Wallace seems likely to fill McLeod’s role despite only playing 18% of defensive snaps in 2020. Given the cap situation, Mills could re-sign with the Eagles on a team-friendly contract, but adding one more established player for the right price would solidify the secondary’s leaky coverage.
At 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds, Rayshawn Jenkins has the size and versatility to be a key chess piece in any secondary. After spending two seasons on the Chargers’ special teams unit, Jenkins finally seized an opportunity to start following the unfortunate stretch of injuries to All-Pro safety Derwin James. The former fourth-round pick played practically every defensive snap for Los Angeles in 2019 (99.18%) and led the team with three interceptions. After lining up almost exclusively at free safety that season, the Chargers’ coaching staff moved Jenkins all over their defense last year. The 27-year old defensive back operated as a hybrid linebacker, free safety, and slot cornerback while finishing 2nd on the team in both tackles (84) and interceptions (2). Targeting a low-cost defensive back like Rayshawn Jenkins provides the Eagles with much-needed secondary depth and the flexibility to ease Rodney McLeod back from his injury next season.
3. RB TJ Yeldon (6-1, 233 lbs) NFL Experience: 6
A 2015 second-round pick out of Alabama, TJ Yeldon’s injury history and inconsistency made him the odd man out in several backfields. After two seasons of lackluster productivity for the Jaguars, TJ’s name became a fixture on the healthy scratch list in 2017. With the Jaguars drafting Leonard Fournette fourth overall, it became evident that Yeldon’s time with the team was nearing its end. After his rookie deal, Yeldon signed a two-year $3.2 million contract with the Bills and, yet again, fell on the depth chart behind Frank Gore, Devin Singletary, and Zack Moss.
Despite holding a career backup role in the NFL, Yeldon offers a ton of upside as a potential spell for Miles Sanders. During his four seasons with Jacksonville, Yeldon totaled 4.0 yards per carry while adding 1,302 receiving yards and six receiving touchdowns. In his limited appearances for the Bills, Yeldon still averaged 4.9 yards per carry on just 27 total attempts over two seasons. Some may consider him another “bust” running back out of Alabama, but the 6-1, 223 pound back is an above-average pass-catcher who can grind out those dirty yards. Yeldon still needs to improve on converting in red-zone situations and with his consistency in pass-protection.
For the sake of not overloading this list with former Colts, I left off 25-year old running back Marlon Mack. The former fourth-rounder out of South Florida spent four seasons with Nick Sirianni in Indianapolis and rushed for 1,091 yards and eight touchdowns in 2019. Due to a torn Achilles suffered in Week 1 of last season, Mack might not carry a high price tag heading into free agency. His injury and recovery would allow the Eagles to sign him to a one-year “prove-it deal” while reuniting with his former offensive coordinator. Either Marlon Mack or TJ Yeldon seems like suitable candidates to backup the Eagles’ best offensive weapon in Miles Sanders next season.
4. CB Xavier Rhodes (6-1, 218 lbs) NFL Experience: 8
The eight-year veteran cornerback might be a little outside of the team’s price range, but he’s spent all but three seasons of his career with Eagles’ new DC Johnathan Gannon. From 2014-2017, Rhodes developed into a Pro-Bowl cornerback for the Vikings, with Gannon working as the assistant DB coach/defensive quality control coach. The former first-round draft pick eventually signed a five-year $70.1 million extension with the Vikings following his All-Pro 2017 campaign. However, after Gannon’s departure to the Colts, Rhodes’ production drastically declined, allowing seven touchdowns against him to only one interception from 2018-2019. Minnesota cut ties the following year, and Rhodes quickly reunited with his former coach in Indianapolis only two weeks after his release.
Xavier Rhodes Career Coverage Grades (PFF):
- 2020- 78.9 (with Gannon)
- 2019- 45.3
- 2018- 55.1
- 2017- 71.0 (with Gannon)
- 2016- 73.0 (with Gannon)
- 2015- 59.1 (with Gannon)
- 2014- 71.2 (with Gannon)
- 2013- 65.4
Right after the signing, Gannon explained the immediate move to bring in Rhodes, saying, “What you’re getting in Xavier is an ultra-competitive guy. He’s very prideful. All of our guys are, but that guy’s wired a little different.” Gannon emphasized the importance of communication with his secondary to ensure that everyone can play fast in their role without worrying about coverage breakdowns. Rhodes’ connection with a coach who brought out the best years of his career gives him a reason for wanting to play in Philly. The 30-year-old cornerback is coming off the highest-graded defensive season of his career and can be that knowledgeable veteran who assists with coaching Gannon’s new system. Signing Rhodes to a one or two-year deal at a veteran discount allows the Eagles to develop a cornerback on Day Two of the NFL Draft rather than immediately pushing a rookie into a starting outside role.
5. DT Johnathan Hankins (6-3, 340 lbs) NFL Experience: 8
The Eagles’ defensive line remains one of the most reliable units on the team but gave up over 2,000 rushing yards to opponents for the first time since 2016. With Malik Jackson set to be the next cap casualty, the Eagles need another rotational player behind Fletcher Cox and Javon Hargrave. While not the splashiest free agent signing by any measure, Johnathan Hankins is another massive gap-clogging defensive tackle who could be an effective one-year rental for the team.
Eagles fans might remember the name from his early years spent with the New York Giants from 2013-2016. Known as a one-dimensional run-stuffer coming out of college, Hankins exceeded expectations with seven sacks, 21 QB hurries, and over 50 tackles during the 2014 season. However, after suffering a torn pectoral the following year, his production slowly declined as he never quite regained his old form. While not the pass rusher he once was, Hankins is still a consistent run-defender who can occupy multiple gaps up front. The eight-year NFL veteran would be a reliable spell to Javon Hargrave’s role and could create more pass-rushing opportunities for Fletcher Cox.
Mandatory Credit: Indianapolis Colts