The Eagles have $20 million in cap space, but no one expects another "Dream Team" free agency spending binge, as good as Nnamdi turned out. There are in-house free agents such as Nate Allen, Riley Cooper and Jeremy Maclin for one thing, and it would be wise to keep a reserve for future years (Nick Foles' extension) and injury replacements.
But there is one free agent who looks like great value, who would make an immediate impact in all three phases of the Eagles' game, for a projected outlay of $2-3 million.
Kicker Graham Gano of the Carolina Panthers. (Not the Violent Femme.)
Between Alex Henery's missed field goals and his returnable kickoffs, he probably cost the Birds at least one game this year. With a tougher, division leader's schedule -- including Seattle and San Francisco -- they can't afford a weak link behind the boot.
Gano is 26 and coming off of a fantastic season. Before I give you some drool-worthy statistics, there's an even more important advantage: Carolina will be hard-pressed to outbid anybody for him.
The Panthers have $21 million available under the cap, more than Philadelphia, but they also have 21 unrestricted free agents -- 8 of them starters -- to re-sign, including the likes of Greg Hardy and their entire secondary, the unheralded overachievers some call "the Legion of Whom." Cam Newton is not a free agent, but he just became eligible for an extension after his third year, and that will be another team priority.
The Eagles, in contrast, have just 10 free agents -- Kurt Coleman? Clifton Geathers? -- and punter Donnie Jones is the only one who would be hard to replace. (Well, Vick too of course but let's not get into that.)
There are reasons to think that Gano might want to come to Philadelphia, also. It's a well-run team on the way up, with a core of players his age and a relatively fun atmosphere under Chip Kelly. Since Gano pranked Kelly's old nemesis Cam Newton before this year's NCG game, that could be a match. He already hates the Redskins, a big plus. And most importantly, he'd be in a great position to build his popularity, with such an easy act to follow.
Enough teasing, check out these numbers. Gano made 88.9% of his field goals, with a long of 55, which is strong but doesn't amaze. What's astonishing is his impact on field position. This guy gets a lot of touchbacks on his kickoffs. How many? How does 79% grab you? (63 of 79 KOs). He gave up only 374 total kickoff return yards ALL SEASON, and no TDs.
Are you kidding me? Alex Henery, by comparison, gave up up 1,229 yards (fourth worst in the NFL) and 2 TDs, with touchbacks on only 42% of his kicks (37/89).
Let me put this a different way. After Gano's kicks, the average starting field position for Panther opponents was the 19.7 yard line. He averaged better than a touchback, best in the league among those with 20 or more kickoffs. How is that even possible? Does he improve by figuring out how to sucker opposing kickers into running doomed returns out of the very back of the end zone? (In contrast, Henery's opponents started at the 25.2 yard line, which ranked 27th.)
Imagine how the New Orleans game might have gone if the Eagles had made that missed field goal, and Darren Sproles couldn't run back that last kickoff 39 yards.
Best of all, even if Carolina decides to pay whatever they have need to keep Gano, they'll have to let someone else go, most likely one or more defensive backs. And since the Birds play Carolina next fall, picking up either Gano or a DB would put a nice hole in one of the Eagles opponents this year as well.
UPDATE: Anders Jensen makes the argument in comments that before this last year, Gano was "terrible." I wouldn't go that far but he has definitely improved. Good point.
However, his trend is steadily up, and that's what keeps him affordable. (Other free agent kickers are
in the $7-8 million range at least as expensive, and much older.) Also, being on Washington was a problem. In his last year there (2011), he had FIVE FGs blocked. I don't think that was all him setting up slowly. Henery on the other hand started great and has faded.
There are two reasons for a kicker to do badly; technique, and the yips. Yips are a problem but he clearly has confidence now. Technique, you can teach, and the Eagles coach fundamentals well. With Henery, Chip has worked on his technique with only limited results, and self-doubt is clearly creeping in.
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