Doug Pederson, Eagles’ five toughest decisions lie ahead

Doug Pederson, Eagles’ five toughest decisions lie ahead
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The Eagles only have 11 free agents this off-season, a small crop. But after Chip Kelly’s ousterfans are left wondering if they’ll have an off-season as tumultuous as last year’s. With Howie Roseman’s return to player personnel duties, that may not be the case: some of the biggest names with expiring contracts belong to Roseman’s bumper 2012 class of talent.

It’s hard to judge what the Eagles approach will be this off-season. They’re a team in transition: between coaches and between offensive and defensive systems, and a team that doesn’t appear one or two big free agent signings away from a playoff run, as they did the past two years. There is still talent littered throughout parts of the roster however, and here is that talent we hope will still be wearing Midnight Green in 2016:

Sam Bradford, QB

Following the coach search, the biggest off-season issue in Philadelphia this spring is quarterback. Particularly, it’s Bradford, who is an unrestricted free agent. While the Eagles saw a mixed bag from Bradford this season, his play appeared to steadily improve and there aren’t a lot of alternatives at quarterback staring the team in the face.

With that in mind, whether or not Bradford returns may come down to his mindset, and whether he wants to hang around to learn a new system behind a reeling offensive line and with a so-far toothless collection of weapons at receiver. Bradford spoke highly of Pat Shurmur as a candidate for the Eagles’ coaching vacancy, and whether Shurmur being passed over in favor of Doug Pederson will have any impact on Bradford’s decision remains to be seen.

The Eagles have the option of franchising Bradford and keeping him in town no matter his opinion, and that may well be their best option considering the alternative of committing multi-year quarterback money to one they still have some questions about. But then you also have to weigh the benefits and headaches of ordering a quarterback that would rather be elsewhere to lead a team that –even with Bradford at the helm –it’s hard to conceive of going further than the top of a doldrummy NFC East in 2016.

Cedric Thornton, DE or Vinny Curry, DE

This is a two-fer, but it comes down to scheme. Several fans are predicting (hoping?) for a return to the 4-3 defensive scheme that saw the Eagles defense soar under Jim Johnson a decade ago. Doug Pederson’s Tuesday announcement of Jim Schwartz as his defensive coordinator supports a 4-3 comeback.

We’ll start with Curry, who has had Eagles fans tantalized for years now. The 2015 season saw the Birds’ pass rush take a step back as a whole, but in 2014 Curry recorded nine sacks while relegated to a situational role. Very much a 4-3 defensive end, Curry has done admirably well without a true slot in Kelly’s 3-4, but pass-rushing talent comes at a premium these days, and if another team wants to pay Curry like a premiere defensive end, it would be hard for the Eagles to match it without envisioning his playtime taking a large step up.

Thornton, though undrafted, came into the league in the same class as Curry, and is probably as dissimilar a defensive end as you could find, with four sacks in four seasons in the NFL. That said, he became a natural fit as a two-gapper and a constant starter for the Eagles in their 3-4. If the Eagles switch defenses, Thornton (and Fletcher Cox) could probably move inside to defensive tackle, and Bennie Logan would instead be the odd-man out along the defensive line.

Whether from the Eagles or another team, both lineman will likely collect starting salaries next year, and with so much money tied up in DeMarco Murray, Byron Maxwell, and potentially Bradford, it could be hard for Philly to pay both.

Walter Thurmond, S

In 2015 Thurmond did two things he never had before in an NFL season: moved to safety, and played 16 games. Originally expected by many to be the replacement when Brandon Boykin was ultimately pushed out of town, Kelly moved Thurmond to safety, and he had three interceptions, two sacks, and 71 tackles there while starting every game.

Kelly and Billy Davis had very specific desires in their safeties, namely, converted cornerbacks, that may not be shared by the incoming coaching staff. Thurmond was one of the most crucial parts of the 2015 secondary’s first half turnaround however, and should be talented enough and versatile enough to see playing time at corner or safety should the Eagles retain him. Playing Thurmond at his accustomed nickel spot would also allow Malcolm Jenkins to return to safety when the Eagles play nickel.

Thurmond and Jenkins formed a solid pairing in 2015, probably the best at safety the Eagles have seen since Brian Dawkins left town. It would be hard to imagine they couldn’t do even better in 2016, removed from the system that forced them to play the most snaps in the league. Despite the emergence of Eric Rowe, Philadelphia certainly doesn’t have enough talent in the secondary to wish him on his way, and Thurmond should be the prerogative to keep over Nolan Carroll, also a free agent.

Seyi Ajirotutu, WR

Ajirotutu was heralded as a special teams, well, specialist, and not much of a threat at wide receiver when he arrived in Philadelphia. He lived up to both billings with one catch for four yards andeight tackles in 13 games for an Eagles coverage unit that ranked third against punt returns and seventh against kick returns in 2015.

In fact, “except for being good at special teams” became a common addendum to the oft-repeated “team without an identity” description of the 2015 Birds. In that respect, it makes sense to keep one of their key contributors on the roster, particularly at a position like wide receiver, which does not have overflowing talent fighting for roster spots.