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Eagles look to improve defense in FA

PHILADELPHIA (AP) - It was just three years ago when the Philadelphia Eagles were coming off their last division title and decided the best way to make a run at the Super Bowl was to spend freely in free agency.

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Times have changed.

Don't expect these Eagles to throw tons of money at big-name players when the NFL's free agency period opens Tuesday, even though they have about $24 million available under the salary cap. The defending NFC East champions learned their lesson from the Dream Team nightmare of 2011.

''When we look at the free agent market and how it is, we try and find the right fits,'' general manager Howie Roseman said in an interview with The Associated Press. ''We don't go into the draft saying: `We have to.' We say: `We'd like to but we don't have to.' That's how we view free agency and as we get developed as a program, it gets less and less and you pick your spots.''

The Eagles were the talk of the NFL in the 2011 offseason when they signed former All-Pro cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha to a $60 million contract, and added defensive end Jason Babin, defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins, quarterback Vince Young and running back Ronnie Brown in the wildest spending spree in team history.

The moves were a bust. The Eagles went 8-8 that year, 4-12 in 2012. None of the players was on the team last season when Chip Kelly replaced Andy Reid and took the Eagles from worst to first.

But a first-round loss at home to New Orleans was a disappointing end to an encouraging season. Now the goal is to go to the next level and became one of the elite teams with a chance at winning the Super Bowl.

''We have to get better,'' Roseman said. ''Going into Year 2, we have to figure what our holes are, what our weakness are and what our strengths are.''

The Eagles already signed two of their potential free agents, wide receivers Riley Cooper and Jeremy Maclin. They also re-signed defensive lineman Cedric Thornton, and gave contract extensions to All-Pro left tackle Jason Peters and center Jason Kelce.

Quarterback Michael Vick, safeties Nate Allen, Kurt Coleman and Colt Anderson, defensive end Clifton Geathers and punter Donnie Jones are the remaining free agents.

Vick most likely is going elsewhere because he wants a chance to start, an opportunity he wouldn't get with Nick Foles in Philly. The New York Jets seem like an ideal fit because former Eagles offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg is there. Vick had the best season of his career with Mornhinweg in Philadelphia in 2010.

Several other teams could have interest in the four-time Pro Bowl pick.

''He deserves tremendous credit for the way he handled being a backup,'' Roseman said of Vick. ''His leadership and his growth, he deserves a lot of credit. He looks around the league and knows he has the ability to be a starting quarterback and that's where his mind is at, so you take the lead from Mike. Obviously we want good things for him and his family.''

While they won't be handing out blank checks, the Eagles certainly will look to upgrade their roster in free agency. They need help on defense, specifically a starting safety. Buffalo's Jarius Byrd would be a significant addition. The three-time Pro Bowl pick played under the one-year franchise tag of $6.9 million last year.

Byrd, a second-round pick in 2009, played for Kelly at Oregon. He has 22 interceptions in five seasons, including nine as a rookie. He missed the first five games last year because of a foot injury, but had four interceptions and made his second straight Pro Bowl.

Cleveland's T.J. Ward is another top-notch safety. He's coming off his best season, and went to his first Pro Bowl after making a career-high 129 tackles with two interceptions. He returned one pick and one fumble for touchdowns. Ward, a second-round pick in 2010, also played for Kelly at Oregon.

Byrd or Ward would be impact signings. It's more likely the Eagles will target midlevel free agents who fit the system. Safeties Malcolm Jenkins, Chris Clemons and Mike Mitchell are possibilities. The Eagles also will look to improve other areas on defense, including outside linebacker and cornerback.

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org

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Follow Rob Maaddi on Twitter: https://twitter.com/AP-RobMaaddi

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