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Commentary: Eagles much make key decisions on contracts

INDIANAPOLIS -- Before free agency, before the draft, the Eagles need to make decisions on players who make up approximately one-third of their current roster.

It is likely that coach Chip Kelly and general manager Howie Roseman have decided which players will go, which ones will stay, which ones they'll approach about restructuring their salaries, and which ones they'll dangle in a possible trade.

But with the start of free agency more than two weeks away and the market still far from being set, the impetus to, say, negotiate contract extensions for free-agent wide receivers Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper, won't come until the March 11 deadline nears.

Even then, the Eagles may have to wait until the new league year starts before they can go about re-signing their free agents, especially if those veterans want to test the market.

But they can go about the process of restructuring deals (read: cut salaries) for veterans whose production may not match the salary, and the Eagles have several who possibly fall in that category.

Linebacker DeMeco Ryans ($6.8 million), linebacker Trent Cole ($5 million), tight ends Brent Celek ($4 million) and James Casey ($3.985 million), guard Todd Herremans ($3 million), and wide receiver Jason Avant ($2.25 million) are the most prominent.

"The guys you mentioned are good, veteran players, guys who started for us, and we're happy to have those guys," Roseman said Thursday at the NFL combine. "That doesn't mean there's not difficult decisions when you look at the roster."

Of the players listed above, Avant would seem to be the most in danger of simply being released. He caught 38 passes for 447 yards and two touchdowns, was a solid blocker and special-teams performer, and is widely respected in the locker room.

But his playing time decreased as the season wore on, and only 97 of his receiving yards came after the catch. Roseman was asked how the Eagles balance an intangible like leadership against on-field production when self-evaluating.

"Leadership normally comes by being able to be on the field and play a great amount," he said. "So it's hard to be a great leader on your football team if you're not contributing to the team, if you're not playing."

Ryans played 96 percent of defensive snaps last season. He said he felt his best ever by season's end, but his play appeared to slip late, especially in pass coverage. Ryans, like Avant, though, is a leader.

"When we talk about competition, we talk about adding depth," Roseman said. "We're in a year where we can continue to do that and add good players and then let the competition sort itself out. And DeMeco was on the field that percentage of plays because he was the best player in those situations."

With the leaguewide salary cap expected to rise to $130 million, the Eagles will have approximately $25 million in space. So there isn't a great need to slash contracts, but Ryans and Casey could be casualties.

The Eagles could also extend the contracts of tackle Jason Peters and wide receiver DeSean Jackson while lowering their 2014 numbers ($9.65 million and $10.5 million) and if they want to create future space.

"We have a bunch of young players on our team that we want to keep around, and we don't want to be in a position where a year from now we went out and signed a bunch of guys and we're not able to re-sign the guys that we want to be our core players going forward," Roseman said.

But first the Eagles must decide which of their own free agents they plan to tender offers. Maclin and Cooper are certainly at the top of the list, but Roseman admitted that keeping both or one would be "complicated."

"You can only put a limited amount of resources into the position before it starts taking out from other places," Roseman said. "And you have to factor in also the quality of the depth in the draft."

Other than punter Donnie Jones and possibly safety Nate Allen, the Eagles aren't likely to lock up safeties Kurt Coleman and Colt Anderson, linebacker Phillip Hunt, and defensive end Clifton Geathers immediately in free agency.

Even though safety Patrick Chung is guaranteed $1 million, he is unlikely to be back. Roseman said he was pleased with the play of starting cornerbacks Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher, but competition should be added.

By the start of last season the Eagles had parted with 20 players who were mainstays on their 53-man roster for most of 2012. Roseman said that roster turnover is typically 20 percent each year. So even using that figure the Eagles stand to lose 10 or 11 players.

Quarterback Michael Vick will likely be one. He has said he wants to start next season, and with Nick Foles locked in for the Eagles, it seems there will be a mutual parting of the ways.

"Mike said the same thing to us as he said to all of you -- he has a clear desire and ambition to be in a situation where he's at a minimum competing for a starting job," Roseman said.

The Eagles would probably welcome him back as the No. 2 quarterback, but they do have Matt Barkley, who Roseman said won't be encumbered by a shoulder injury as he was last offseason.

"I think we're fortunate here that we're talking about the backup spot, and we have a young player that we have high hopes for and we think is going to take a step up and being able to play football in the offseason instead of rehabbing," Roseman said.

(c)2014 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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