Bold moves change Eagles' offseason direction

ON THE NFL

March 28, 2004|By KEN MURRAY

Of all the teams that have splurged in this year's frenetic offseason - and there have been many - the Philadelphia Eagles are the one that has most altered the course it had been traveling.

From vanilla to flamboyant, from cautious to controversial, from frugal to extravagant, the Eagles have abandoned their path of measured movement by signing unrestricted free agent Jevon Kearse and trading for disgruntled wide receiver Terrell Owens.

Handing out combined signing and roster bonuses of $22 million for two players, the Eagles have suddenly found themselves on the expressway of high risk and high reward. That's where you wind up after three straight crushing losses in the NFC championship game, two of them at home. It's just north of desperation.

If Kearse, once one of the NFL's most dangerous pass rushers, can stay healthy, the Eagles' defense could be intimidating again. If Owens can catch 80 balls and a dozen touchdown passes from quarterback Donovan McNabb without becoming a sideshow, the Eagles' offense could punish teams instead of dancing with them.

Under that scenario, the Eagles easily could reach the Super Bowl so far denied owner Jeffrey Lurie and coach Andy Reid.

In another scenario - Kearse is injured and Owens pouts - the Eagles' Super Bowl hopes and locker room chemistry could disintegrate.

The Eagles have made the boldest moves in free agency, notwithstanding the Washington Redskins' annual roster gutting, in an attempt to get over the championship game hump. But they have also lost the most. Four starters (running back Duce Staley, cornerbacks Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor, and linebacker Carlos Emmons) have been let go in free agency.

Philadelphia's fanatical fans were not going to accept status quo after January's 14-3 championship game mugging by the upstart Carolina Panthers. Now the question is how far the Eagles will go to achieve their breakthrough.

They signed Dhani Jones, an unrestricted free agent from the New York Giants, to replace Emmons on the strong side, even though Jones is more suited to the weak side. They say they are satisfied with Mark Simoneau at middle linebacker, even though the defense ranked 20th against the run last year. Still, they might jump on Miami middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma if he's available at the 28th pick in next month's draft.

In Philadelphia, it's time to break with the past.

No phenoms here

Don't expect the Ravens to become involved with any of the high school-aged players who were declared eligible for the draft in the wake of the Maurice Clarett court ruling.

"We haven't interviewed any of them," said Eric DeCosta, the team's director of college scouting. "And I'm not going to chase these guys down."

DeCosta said he assigned one of his people to research the list of players newly eligible for the draft, but that none of the high school players "piqued our interest."

It's much too late in the process to factor in suspect talent anyway. DeCosta estimates he gets up to 50 game tapes a day from college prospects looking to sell themselves to the NFL, but hasn't received one from any of the high school players.

"They all have baggage," he said. "In my own investigation of the situation, these guys all have an opinion about their football ability. Whether they're delusional or not, they all believe they're good enough to compete at the NFL level. Whether they can convince an NFL team of that is another thing."

Cutting edge

The curious odyssey of quarterback Kurt Warner from NFL Most Valuable Player to Marc Bulger's caddie in St. Louis could reach a sobering conclusion this summer. The recent signing of veteran quarterback Chris Chandler has fueled speculation the Rams will dump Warner in June to absorb a lesser hit on their salary cap.

What the Rams don't know yet is whether they'll have Bulger, however. He is a restricted free agent and would cost any team first- and third-round draft picks, plus a major contract.

If the cap-strapped Rams were unable to match a lucrative offer for Bulger, they would go with Warner and Chandler. But if they keep Bulger, it appears likely Warner's time in St. Louis will be up and the Rams will draft a less-expensive quarterback to develop.

Slim pickings

Tim Couch is another quarterback who could be out the door soon. The former No. 1 draft pick of the Cleveland Browns has surrendered his starting job to newly signed Jeff Garcia and is not drawing much interest on the trade market.

With base salaries of $7.6 million and $8 million the next two years, he'll have to renegotiate a deal with a new team anyway. Green Bay Packers coach Mike Sherman, looking for an heir apparent to Brett Favre, visited with Couch last week. The Browns gave the Packers permission to negotiate in anticipation of a deal, but Green Bay is expected to wait to see whether it lands a quarterback in the draft.

If the Browns can't move Couch (64 touchdown passes, 67 interceptions in five years), he's expected to be released after June 1.

Two-minute warning

One year after winning the Super Bowl, Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden is retooling his roster. So far this offseason, he has 16 offensive linemen on the team and four tight ends. He's also subtracted mainstays Warren Sapp and John Lynch from the defense. ... Quarterback Kordell Stewart, cut by the Pittsburgh Steelers and Chicago Bears the past two seasons, wants to sign on as Drew Bledsoe's backup with the Buffalo Bills. If he agrees to a deal, he would rejoin Bills coach Mike Mularkey, who was his offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh, and offensive coordinator Tom Clements, his quarterbacks coach then. ... The Browns, with the seventh pick, are among the teams that would like to trade up to draft Iowa offensive tackle Robert Gallery.

Compiled from interviews, wire services and reports from other newspapers.

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