Agent's Take: Foles, free agents and all the offseason decisions the Eagles now face
The Eagles are Super Bowl champs, and now the next step is doing it all over again
The Patriots have been the NFL's gold standard for the better part of 20 years, with five Lombardi Trophies in eight Super Bowl appearances. Several teams have become worthy adversaries for New England during their lengthy run of success. Most recently, the Broncos defeated the Patriots twice in the AFC Championship Game during Peyton Manning's four-year stint (2012-15) in Denver, which included a Super Bowl 50 victory.
The Super Bowl LII champion Philadelphia Eagles are the newest challenger to New England's supremacy. Through a series shrewd trades, savvy drafting and smart free agent signings, executive vice president of football operations Howie Roseman has turned the Eagles into Super Bowl champions for the first time in franchise history in two short years since regaining control of football operations after the failed experiment with former head coach Chip Kelly calling the shots. Roseman was named the Pro Football Writers Association's NFL Executive of the Year in 2017 for his efforts.
There is talk that the Eagles have the potential to become the NFL's next dynasty after arriving on the championship scene ahead of schedule while overcoming injuries to several key players. The Eagles are no strangers to sustained success. The franchise went to five NFC Championship Games and one Super Bowl in an eight-year span during the 2000s.
Here's a look at what lies ahead for the Eagles.
What happens with Nick Foles?
The Eagles have a quarterback situation that most NFL teams should envy. Conventional wisdom suggested an early playoff exit for the Eagles after franchise quarterback Carson Wentz, the second overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, was lost for the season with a left knee injury in a Week 14 contest against the Rams. Nick Foles rose to the occasion, becoming the rare backup quarterback to lead a team to a championship. He earned Super Bowl LII MVP honors by outdueling Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, arguably the greatest player to ever put on a helmet.
The initial timetable for Wentz's return from the torn anterior cruciate and lateral collateral ligament tears in his knee. There's optimism that Wentz will be ready for the 2018 regular-season opener in early September.
The Eagles face an interesting dilemma with Foles.about keeping Foles as insurance because of Wentz's injury or dealing him to another team while his trade value is at its peak.
2018 is Foles's contract year. He is scheduled to make $7 million in 2018, of which $3 million is a fully guaranteed roster bonus that's due on the fifth day of the upcoming league year (March 18). Although Foles's salary is extremely high for a backup quarterback, the Eagles don't have significant money invested in quarterbacks because Wentz is entering the third year of his rookie contract. The collective 2018 salary cap charges for the duo is less than $15 million.
Philadelphia's most prudent move may be erring of the side of caution with Wentz's injury by holding onto Foles unless a team makes an offer that can't be refused. It could take at least a second-round pick for the Eagles to give up Foles, since previous trades have left the Eagles without a second- or third-round pick in the 2018 draft. Presumably, the compensation for the Eagles to deal Foles will be higher after March 18, because the $3 million roster bonus wouldn't be a financial obligation for the acquiring team. It becomes a sunk cost for Philadelphia at that point.
How to deal with salary cap concerns
Philadelphia has one of the NFL's most challenging salary cap situations heading into the 2018 league year, which begins on March 14. Using offseason cap accounting rules, where only the top 51 cap numbers matter, the Eagles have slightly over $188 million of cap obligations. There's a little more than $500,000 of unused cap space carrying over from the 2017 league year.
The NFL's preliminary projections put the 2018 salary cap between $174.2 million and $178.1 million. Assuming the salary cap is set at the high end of projections, the Eagles have approximately a $9.5 million overage. Fortunately for Philadelphia, 19 of 22 starters are under contract for the 2018 season.
Philadelphia's payroll is extremely top heavy. Seven players with cap numbers over $10 million are taking up a combined $83.882 million of cap space. Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox has Philadelphia's biggest cap charge at $17.9 million. It's the NFL's second-highest 2018 cap number for an interior defensive lineman. Lane Johnson has the NFL's top 2018 right tackle cap charge ($12,484,375). Brandon Brooks is No. 2 for offensive guards with $11,136,397. Zach Ertz has the second-largest 2018 tight end cap figure at $10.595 million.
Left tackle Jason Peters ($10,666,666) and defensive end Vinny Curry ($11 million) are Philadelphia's most problematic cap charges of significance. Head coach Doug Pederson stated earlier in the week that he expects Peters, a nine-time Pro Bowler who tore the ACL and MCL in his right knee, back at left tackle next season. 2016 fifth-round pick Halapoulivaati Vaitai was serviceable in his absence.
It wouldn't be a surprise if the Eagles asked Peters to take a pay cut. The 36-year-old balked at a salary reduction last year. Instead, he was given a one-year contract extension running through the 2019 season in which his 2017 salary was fully guaranteed while his 2018 pay dropped by almost $3 million. Peters may continue to resist any pay cut efforts because the knee injury limiting his playing time triggered a $1 million salary de-escalator for 2018.
$4.5 million of Peters's $6.75 million 2018 base salary was guaranteed for injury when he renegotiated his contract last year. This amount becomes fully guaranteed on March 16, which is the third day of the 2018 league year. One idea the Eagles could try to sell Peters on to get cap relief is turning a substantial portion of his base salary into not-likely-to-be-earned playing time incentives where he could still make the same $6.75 million provided he remains healthy. Since Peters was only on the field for 37.4 percent of Philadelphia's offensive plays in 2017, anything above this threshold would qualify as not likely to be earned for the 2018 season.
Derek Barnett was taken 14th overall in the 2017 draft to eventually replace either Curry or Brandon Graham. His addition, along with that of Chris Long, gave Philadelphia the NFL's deepest defensive end rotation. Curry finally started living up to the five-year, $46.25 million contract he signed in 2016 while Graham, who had a game saving strip sack of Tom Brady late in Super Bowl LII, continued to play at a Pro Bowl level.
Extending Graham's contract, which is set to expire after the 2018 season, has reportedly been on Philadelphia's radar screen for awhile. It's hard to envision Graham accepting less than the four-year, $58 million extension with $34 million in guarantees Everson Griffen received from the Vikings last July. A new deal could lower Graham's $8 million 2018 cap number by at least a couple million dollars. Parting ways with Curry either by releasing or trading him would create $5 million cap room but affect an Eagles strength: defensive line depth.
The Eagles have until the end of the 2017 league year on March 14 to exercise an option for wide receiver Torrey Smith's 2018 contract year worth $5 million. Smith's return next season could hinge on the team's confidence in 2017 fourth-round pick Mack Hollins. Declining the option would create $5 million of cap space.
Backup tight end Brent Celek, who is scheduled to make $4 million next season, is rumored to be contemplating retirement. $4 million of cap room would be gained from the 11-year veteran hanging up his cleats.
The Eagles have largely refrained from restructuring contracts to create cap room, although Ertz did it in 2017. The most logical candidates are Cox, Johnson and Ertz should the Eagles go this route. Cox's contract runs through the 2022 season, while Johnson and Ertz's deals expire after the 2021 season.
What to do with their free agents
The Eagles have 13 unrestricted free agents, including running back LeGarrette Blount, linebacker Nigel Bradham, tight end Trey Burton, safety Corey Graham, cornerback Patrick Robinson, running back Darren Sproles and kicker Caleb Sturgis. Safety Jaylen Watkins is the lone restricted free agent. He may not warrant the lowest restricted free agent tender, which will be a little more than $1.9 million.
The Eagles got a jump start on free agency by extending wide receiver Alshon Jeffery and defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan's contracts during the season. Jeffery's four-year extension averages $13 million per year. Jernigan got $48 million over four years with just under $25.5 million in guarantees.
A surplus of young running backs on rookie contracts (Jay Ajayi, Corey Clement, Donnell Pumphrey and Wendell Smallwood) could make re-signing Blount and Sproles, who is recovering from a torn ACL in his left knee, a luxury for a cap-strapped team. Robinson has probably priced himself out Philadelphia after playing the 2017 season on a one-year deal at his $775,000 league minimum. He should easily top in free agency the biggest payday of his career, which so far is the three-year, $14 million deal he received from the Colts in 2016. A healthy Sidney Jones, who missed almost all of his rookie season because of an Achilles tear, should help cushion the blow of losing Robinson.
Burton seems unlikely to return even if Celek retires. His opportunities will continue to be limited playing behind Ertz, a Pro Bowler. It's conceivable Burton's receiving skills will entice some team into giving him a contract similar to the five-year, $32.5 million extension with $16 million in guarantees Vance McDonald signed with the 49ers in 2016.
Jake Elliott has effectively replaced Caleb Sturgis, who was lost for season after the first game with a hip injury, for about half the cost. He's under contract for the 2018 season at his $555,000 league minimum. Graham seems most likely to return at safety after playing the 2017 on a one-year, $1.6 million deal.
The toughest decision relates to Bradham. He was invaluable after middle linebacker Jordan Hicks tore an Achilles midway during the season. Bradham assumed the responsibility of setting the defense when Hicks got hurt. His salary floor should be the five-year, $26.25 million deal with $13 million in guarantees Malcolm Smith got from the 49ers last March in free agency.
Retaining Bradham could allow the Eagles to revisit trading linebacker Mychal Kendricks, who is under contract the next two seasons for $13 million and has a $7.6 million 2018 cap number. Kendricks would revert back to his role as the third linebacker, where his playing time would be limited with a healthy Hicks and Bradham sticking around because of defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz's preference for putting five defensive backs on the field. $4.4 million of cap space would be created by trading Kendricks.
Outlook for 2018 and beyond
The Eagles could be at the beginning of an extended window as Super Bowl contenders thanks to Roseman largely embracing the roster construction blueprint that led to the previous success in the 2000s. The emphasis is building through the draft and signing key young players to cap-friendly contract extensions before they can hit the open market while using free agency to fill holes in the roster. Roseman has added a new component to the mix by being one of the most aggressive front office executives with trades.
Cap space will continue to be at a premium in the short term. The Eagles easily lead the NFL in 2019 cap commitments at almost $192 million with 46 players under contract, including 17 starters. Eleven starters are under contract at least through the 2020 season, which is Wentz's option year.
The 2003 and 2004 Patriots are the last repeat Super Bowl winners. A team hasn't won back-to-back NFC East titles since the Eagles in 2004, either. The Eagles have a good chance to end this cycle in the division because the core group of players is remaining intact.
The real challenge will be maintaining a championship-caliber squad when Wentz is no longer on his affordable rookie contract. Wentz will be eligible for a new deal after the 2018 season. The Eagles addressing Wentz's contract next offseason wouldn't be a surprise provided he returns to the form that made him the leading candidate for league MVP prior to his knee injury.
The Seahawks could serve as a cautionary as a tale for the Eagles. Seattle won the Super Bowl in quarterback Russell Wilson's second NFL season, with a return trip the following year. The Seahawks have struggled with the transition of Wilson to a lucrative contract. After getting knocked out of the playoffs in the divisional round in each of the next two campaigns, Seattle missed the playoffs for the first time since 2011 this season.
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