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Walter Thurmond presents challenge for Eagles in free agency

PHILADELPHIA -- The Philadelphia Eagles have returned to their old ways, locking up young players with long-term contracts before they can hit free agency.

The Eagles had strayed from that plan under Chip Kelly. That is partly why they ran into a problem this offseason. While the team has done long-term deals with the likes of Lane Johnson and Zach Ertz, a few other players are likely to hit free agency in March.

Here’s a look at some of the key players who can be free agents, and what the team should do about them.

Walter Thurmond III, defensive back. When the Eagles signed Thurmond last year as a free agent, it made sense that they gave him a one-year contract. Thurmond had been injured a lot in previous stints with the Seahawks and Giants, and he was likely to be only a candidate for the nickel cornerback job.

But free agency and the draft failed to produce a starting safety for the Eagles, who had let Nate Allen walk as a free agent. It occurred to someone that Thurmond could be a pretty good safety. He had played the position in college, at Oregon, where his head coach happened to be a guy named Chip Kelly.

Thurmond moved to safety and started every game. He played well, too. Thurmond intercepted three passes, forced two fumbles and sacked opposing quarterbacks twice.

Given the Eagles’ problems staffing their secondary in recent years, it would seem like a no-brainer to bring Thurmond back. And the team may very well decide that’s what it wants to do.

But Thurmond signed a contract to play for Chip Kelly. And he’s going into a market that will pay more for a cornerback than for a safety. After the season ended, Thurmond sounded like a man who was open to whatever opportunities might come his way. He has no commitment to the Eagles.

Alternatives: A couple of players whose development prompted the Eagles to sign Thurmond finally began to show some promise. Ed Reynolds and Jaylen Watkins, both drafted in the previous two years, had been released and assigned to the practice squad and added to the 53-man roster.

In 2015, both got a chance to play and delivered some pretty good results. Reynolds is more of a safety, while Watkins is a hybrid with more corner skills. Both of them could be allowed to compete for Thurmond’s spot.

And then there is E.J. Biggers, another soon-to-be free agent who gave the Eagles some good snaps in 2015.

Bottom line: The Eagles are probably better off bringing Thurmond back to pair with Malcolm Jenkins in the secondary. That will probably take a fairly generous safety contract, since Thurmond could attract interest as a corner.

If they can’t retain Thurmond, the Eagles are going to have to look for a safety in the draft -- not an easy task with no second-round draft choice and other needs to address in the first and third rounds.