CALL OFF THE general panic over the Eagles' perceived lack of salary-cap space. If the Birds need more cap room, to sign their own free agents or someone else's, they can create it, general manager Tom Heckert said yesterday.
Heckert noted that many of the long-term contracts the team has negotiated contain 2007 roster bonuses that can be converted to signing bonuses and then amortized, freeing up 2007 money. Heckert emphasized that the Birds prefer to keep the contracts as they are - if you change bonus terms to help 2007, you decrease the room down the line - but the flexibility is there, if they need it.
It's hard to get an accurate fix on exact cap figures. The 2007 cap is expected to be $109 million, and various calculations have the Birds $9 million to $12 million under that total - barely a decent signing bonus for a prominent soon-to-be free agent such as Eagles wideout Donté Stallworth.
But Heckert said cap room wouldn't preclude the Eagles from, say, franchising Stallworth, at $7,613,000 for this coming season, or from signing Stallworth or quarterback Jeff Garcia to a new deal.
"I don't think [cap room] is the determining factor," Heckert said in a conference call yesterday with reporters, held in preparation for the annual NFL Scouting Combine, which begins tomorrow in Indianapolis. "If we want to get money, we can get money... that's a philosophy we aren't real keen on here; we have the projected models out 3 years, and we know if you take money out of this year and push it into next year, it's coming out of next year. You hate to do that very often, but we could do it, and we can do it. It's actually a good situation to be in, where we have the flexibility to get more cap room this year if we want it, but at the same time, we structure contracts the way we feel is the right way to do it."
Heckert indicated that the Eagles are trying to sign Stallworth, Garcia and several more of their 11 pending unrestricted free agents, and said that such talks generally heat up at the combine, where team officials and agents mix. Stallworth and Garcia are expected to be among the top free agents available in what is perceived to be a weak group. Both players are expected to test the market. In Stallworth's case, the Eagles owe New Orleans a third-round draft pick if they sign him before free agency begins, a fourth-round pick if they don't sign him or sign him after he becomes a free agent.
"I think both of them, they aren't quite sure what their market is," Heckert said. "Donté's obviously a young guy  who's had some injury concerns... it's tough to gauge where that market is. I think he's got to wait until free agency and see what happens. Jeff's a little different because of his age situation [Garcia turns 37 on Saturday], and Jeff's come out and said he doesn't want to go just anywhere, he wants to go to a winning team.
"Obviously, we never want to overpay for players, but I think there's a common ground where you can come to and say you're willing to go this high, and after that, I think you just have to have your options open and move on if you think it's just too out of the price range."
Heckert reiterated that the Eagles "would love to have Donté back," even though Heckert has previously cautioned that the market might pay Stallworth more than the Birds are willing to risk.
The Eagles also are expected to try to bring back soon-to-be free agent running back Correll Buckhalter, reserve safety Quintin Mikell, defensive end Juqua Thomas, and possibly cornerback Will James and weakside linebacker Shawn Barber, among others. Corner Rod Hood seems likely to find the starting position and starter-level salary in free agency that he is blocked from attaining with the Eagles.
"There's a realistic chance we can get some of these guys done before free agency hits [starting March 2], but I think we have to be aware of the fact that some of these guys are going to hit free agency," Heckert said.
Heckert said Mikell could end up determining whether the Eagles have to target more than one safety in the April 28-29 NFL entry draft or in free agency, given that strong safety Mike Lewis is expected to leave in free agency.
Overall in free agency, "you're going to see a lot of guys get overpaid," Heckert predicted. At least half a dozen NFL teams are said to be more than $30 million under the projected cap. "Free agency's never a great tool to rebuild your team, just because of the money and the guesswork involved. I think it's going to get worse this year, just because everybody's got so much money... there'll be less players available on the market, just because people have the money to tag guys... there's going to be lesser players that make a lot of money just because once it gets into a bidding war, people just have the money to do it. All it takes is one team to make a big offer, and usually the money starts going high after that."
Tom Heckert said his role won't change much at this week's combine, though he will be heading the Eagles' delegation instead of coach Andy Reid, who is taking a leave of absence to deal with his sons' legal issues. Heckert said the most important part of the combine is the player interviews, and those will be taped for Reid to watch. Reid also will be able to conduct subsequent interviews with some of the prospects the Eagles are considering drafting.
Teams are allowed to interview up to 60 players at the combine, for up to 15 minutes. Heckert said the Eagles, who hold the 26th pick in the first round of this year's draft, usually target players they have questions about - something a coach might have said that raises a doubt, or an off-the-field issue in the player's past. Most years, Reid sits in on the interviews he cares about and doesn't watch those interviews on tape, Heckert said. This year, he will.
The importance of retaining backup quarterback Jeff Garcia obviously is related to the rehab progress of Donovan McNabb. Tom Heckert said McNabb is "doing very well" in his recovery from ACL surgery. "He's just started running on ground. That's a good sign... We think he's going to be ready for training camp," Heckert said.
The Eagles' search for a special-teams coordinator to succeed John Harbaugh ended yesterday with Harbaugh's former assistant, Rory Segrest, getting the job.
Segrest, 33, a former Alabama offensive tackle, came to the Eagles' staff last year from Samford. After Harbaugh moved to a defensive backfield coaching position last month, the Birds were said to be interested in bringing back Bears special-teams coach Dave Toub, a former Eagles assistant, but Toub finally signed a new Chicago contract last week.
The team also announced that Bill Shuey is moving to defensive assistant/quality control coach from the same position on the offensive side, and that former assistant to the head coach James Urban is taking Shuey's former spot. The Eagles still need to hire a special-teams assistant to replace Segrest.