The NFL is now a week into free agency, with many top options off the board. That includes CJ Gardner-Johnson and Isaac Ciumalo. Bo Wolf and Zach Berman take stock of what happened over the weekend and look ahead to what’s next for the Philadelphia Eagles.
CJ Gardner-Johnson agreed to a one-year contract worth $8 million with the Detroit Lions. What’s your reaction to what that means for the Eagles?
Wolf: My initial reaction was that Gardner-Johnson must have found a much hotter market for his services than expected. Despite tying for the league lead with six interceptions and proving he can play defense in addition to nickel corner, he entered the market as a 25-year-old and was forced to sign a one-year probationary contract after thought. His 2022 season in Philadelphia will be the year to prove that. The safety market across the board was somewhat conservative this offseason, but Gardner-Johnson and his representatives clearly thought he was in for a big payday. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have lasted so long in the market. Gardner-Johnson is betting on himself to get a better deal next season, but it’s curious that he’s taking less guaranteed money than seven other safeties, including former teammate Marcus Epps.
For the Eagles, it can now be said that the reports at the start of free agency were not entirely accurate considering Gardner-Johnson was the team’s top internal priority. It’s easy to imagine the team giving Gardner-Johnson a multi-year contract, leading the Eagles to re-sign James Bradberry (who later extended Darius Slay) instead. But if Philadelphia were to consider Gardner-Johnson important, it would have found a way to top the Lions’ offer. It’s another reminder of how quickly things change in the NFL. Check out Gardner-Johnson’s Super Bowl vlog to see the rotating cameos from several teammates who have already moved on.
Berman: Short answer: A tough decision for both sides. The Eagles would have benefited from a versatile, 25-year-old safety. Gardner-Johnson settles for a one-year deal. There’s certainly familiarity with the Lions’ coaching staff, though he’s experiencing a transition without a long-term home. It makes one wonder if the two sides could have reconciled a week earlier.
Long answer: It’s the NFL’s business. The Eagles wanted to keep him at the start of free agency. Gardner-Johnson wanted something bigger. But he seems to have misread the market early on, and I don’t necessarily blame him – I figured the defenses would be higher than what Jesse Bates has put aside. Like Gardner-Johnson Tweeted on January 2 (He tweeted a lot, so you might not remember): “Today’s price … not yesterday’s price.”
In my experience covering free agency, a player’s market value rarely rises as it progresses. The Eagles took care of other businesses like Bradberry, Fletcher Cox, Slay, and the dynamics of the market changed. One might suggest the Eagles should have been patient with what they set aside for Gardner-Johnson, even though it would have cost them premium positions, but a player with an eminently capricious personality is waiting to accept a contract less than he deserves. Believing in the beginning. Free agency is a way to show how you’re valued in the league, for better or worse.
So I understand why Philadelphia did it. But the Eagles defense with Gardner-Johnson is better than without him. It’s true going into free agency, I don’t expect either Bradberry or Gardner-Johnson. If you told me Gardner-Johnson would sign a one-year deal worth up to $8 million, I think the Eagles could make it work. Gardner-Johnson has the right to choose and sign with the team of his choice, and that is in Detroit. I think both parties will miss each other.
Lions agree to terms with CJ Gardner-Johnson
What will be your next move in defense?
Wolf: With Reed Blankenship on the current defensive depth chart, the Eagles should add at least one player of significance at the position before Week 1. The length of that timeline is important to remember, as Gardner-Johnson was acquired late during roster cuts. Last summer. As for the rest of the free agents, Adrian Amos seems like a plug-and-play fit for the short term. As new coordinator Sean Desai transitions the defense, Amos brings experience from their mutual time in Chicago. He turns 30 this season but hasn’t missed a game since 2017. Taylor Robb, 25, and Terrell Edmonds, 26, are both young players with starting experience and draft pedigree. One might be worth swinging upside down. John Johnson, 27, was released by the Browns and fits a similar profile. Former Eagles cornerback/safety Jalen Mills released by the Patriots. The Eagles could do worse than reuniting with the Green Goblin.
All of which are considered band-aids in that situation. If the Eagles are looking for a high-impact tackle, we know Zach would be interested in the possibility of trading for Titans safety Kevin Byard, because Byard was born in Philadelphia. Byrd is a two-time All-Pro who hasn’t missed a game in seven seasons and reportedly sought a new contract that the Titans didn’t offer. But he turns 30 this summer, so it’s not like he’s settling for the future. I think the most prudent way forward is to sign someone like Robb or Johnson from the previous group and see how the draft plays out before revisiting trade options later in the offseason.
Berman: The Eagles are in a great position to rebound on defense because there are so many options, especially at defensive tackle. Johnson, a player I really like, was released by the Browns as a cap casualty at the start of the league year. He was one of the top free agents two seasons ago when he signed a three-year, $33.75 million contract. He was durable and a solid performer, though not the best defense in the league. But his experience and his versatility in this type of scheme will be assets to a defense team that currently has Blankenship as its top option. (Good thing the Eagles haven’t played a game in nearly six months.) In a depressed safety market, the Eagles could find good value. They could also look to the 25-year-old Rapp, who the Rams open up a starting spot for when they let Johnson leave. Eagles look in that direction and believe they have the range they need. If the Eagles are looking for a veteran Band-Aid, Amos has Desai’s experience. The NFL draft is always an option, though I don’t see the Eagles making a premium pick for safety this year. I think they will find a veteran starter. Watch the trade market: As I wrote, I’d call the Panthers on Jeremy Sinn entering the final year of his contract.
Isaac Siumalo is also headed elsewhere after signing with the Pittsburgh Steelers on a three-year deal worth $24 million. What was your reaction to his departure?
Wolf: Good for him. Ciumalo was an underrated player during his time in Philadelphia and lasted longer with the team than others from his draft class (which would have shocked any Eagles fan in 2017). But with Jason Kelce announcing his return, Siumalo felt a promising departure. Oh, and a fly on the wall when Seumalow and Nate Herbic reunited in Pittsburgh.
Berman: That was expected, and I actually thought Seumalo would make more money than he did. I figured he’d be closer to Nate Davis ($10 million per year) than Connor McGovern ($7.45 million per year). Seumalo is older and has an injury history, so maybe that was a factor. But it was a good move for the Steelers, who got a veteran lineman who can play multiple positions. That hasn’t killed the Eagles, who have prepared for this departure from Ciumalo more than anyone expected five seasons ago when he lost his starting job. As you wrote so well in January, he will be missed in Philadelphia.
How Isaac Siumalo will help the Steelers’ offensive line build on last season’s improvement
Will Cam Jurgens be the Week 1 starter at right guard?
Wolf: Yes. I think the Eagles have a good chance of drafting an heir apparent to Lane Johnson’s right tackle throne in the first two rounds, in which case expect the player to cross-train at right guard. But the team is too much for Jurgens to let him stay on the bench any longer.
Berman: I also expect Jurgens to be the starting right guard. That would give him game experience before taking over Kelce’s job at center, and the Eagles could spend the entire offseason preparing him for that role. It makes a lot of sense. I know they like Jack Driscoll, he could be a great reserve at many spots. You mentioned someone like Paris Johnson Jr. or Peter Skoronski as Philadelphia’s No. 10 pick and a wild card rather than the Eagles wanting to land him early. Otherwise, I expect Jurgens between Kelce and Lane Johnson.
What is the Eagles’ top roster priority at this point in the offseason?
Wolf: They still need a good, starting-capable player on defense, and I think to some extent they’re agnostic about what position that player plays. We know Howie Roseman’s MO is to prioritize the defensive line and get more snaps at defensive tackle than on the edge. Nakobe Dean needs a running mate at linebacker and we’ve got the safety covered. Would a Bobby Wagner deal make sense? Or a defensive tackle like Poona Ford or Matt Ioannidis? Or Zach’s Chin trade idea? With Roseman, tinkering is never done.
Berman: Safety and linebacker. I still think they’ll add a defensive tackle, but that could come later in the weekend or so. My guess is the Eagles add a starting caliber player at linebacker and safety before the draft. Maybe Rashaan Evans or Anthony Walker? But it doesn’t necessarily come via free agency. Trading is also an option. The Eagles acquired Jordan Howard in late March 2019 and Tim Jernigan in April 2017.
(Photo: Bill Streicher / USA Today)