The Eagles kept quarterback Nick Foles as insurance in case Carson Wentz had a slow recovery from tearing multiple ligaments in his left knee late in the 2017 season rather than dealing him during the offseason when his trade value was at its peak after starring in a Super Bowl LII win. Instead, the Eagles reworked Foles' contract in the days leading up to last April's NFL Draft. In addition to raising the Super Bowl LII MVP's 2018 compensation by $2 million to $9 million through a signing bonus, more substantial and easily achievable incentives replaced the existing ones. The total value of the incentives increased from $2.5 million to $14 million.
Most notably, an incentive paying Foles $250,000 for every regular season game in which he played at least 33 percent of the offensive plays where there was an additional $250,000 in a Philadelphia win was added. For playoff games in which Foles' offensive playtime was 33 percent or above, the base incentive amount increased to $500,000 and $1 million total for a win. The contract has another incentive with Foles getting $1 million for playing 33 percent or more of the offensive snaps in the regular season and the Eagles making the playoffs. The amount increased to $1.5 million at 50 percent. There was also a $500,000 Pro Bowl incentive.
Holding onto Foles proved to be a smart move because Philadelphia collected on its backup quarterback insurance policy. It appeared as if Foles was only going to make $750,000 from his incentive package for his two starts at the beginning of the season before Wentz returned to action. Foles came to the rescue again once Wentz was sidelined for the rest of the season with a stress fracture in his back by leading the Eagles to victory in the final three regular season games for a Wild-Card Playoff berth. He picked up an additional $1.5 million in the process.
A rib injury that knocked Foles out in the fourth quarter of the regular season finale against the Redskins potentially cost him the seasonal playtime bonus. Foles came up just four plays short with 32.7 percent playtime (357 of 1,092 offensive snaps). The Eagles are reportedly inclined to pay the $1 million anyway despite Foles technically not hitting the threshold, like the Saints are doing with defensive end Alex Okafor's $400,000 sack incentive which required five sacks during this regular season although he had four. Foles picked up another $1.5 million for Philadelphia's two playoff games to bring his total from the incentive package to $4.75 million assuming receipt of the playtime bonus.
The 20-14 loss to the Saints in the NFC Divisional Playoffs likely brings the Eagles portion of Foles' career to a close. Head coach Doug Pederson didn't hesitate in reiterating that Wentz was Philadelphia's quarterback of the future after his back injury. The Eagles gave up multiple draft picks, including two in the first round, to select Wentz second overall in the 2016 draft. Foles expressed his desire to lead a team when meeting with media in the locker room on Monday.
Foles' exit from Philadelphia
An exit from the Eagles isn't that simple because of Foles' contract. The Eagles have an option for Foles' 2019 through 2021 contract years that must be exercised before the 30th day prior to the first day of the 2019 league year. Since the new league year begins at 4 p.m. eastern time on March 13, the deadline to pick up the option appears to be Feb. 10. Under the option, Foles has $20 million, $29 million and $29 million base salaries in 2019, 2020 and 2021. The respective salary cap numbers are $20.6 million, $29.6 million and $29.6 million.
The Eagles exercising the option puts the ball in Foles' court. If Foles is on Philadelphia's roster as of the 25th day preceding the start of the 2019 league year (Feb. 15), he was a five-day window to extinguish the option by giving written notice to the Eagles and paying $2 million. By letting the option years remain in place, Foles' $20 million 2019 base salary would become fully guaranteed on the third day of the 2019 league year, which is March 15. The 2020 and 2021 contract years would automatically void if still on the roster for the 23rd day prior to the start of the 2020 league year (mid-February 2020).
The Designation Game
The Eagles could still place a franchise or transition tag on Foles before the 15-day designation period ended on March 5 provided he buys out the option years. The NFL's preliminary projections of a 2019 salary cap between $187 million and $191.1 million would put the quarterback transition number in the $22.638 million to $23.134 million range. The franchise number with these projections would be between $24.706 million and $25.248 million.
The transition tag would only provide the Eagles a right to match an offer sheet from another team. There wouldn't be any draft choice compensation, like with the non-exclusive franchise tag, if the Eagles didn't exercise their matching rights. The Eagles would likely rescind a transition tag with a high degree of certainty that an unpalatable offer sheet was forthcoming, just like the Dolphins did with edge rusher Olivier Vernon in 2016. Foles would become an unrestricted free agent where the Eagles would get a compensatory draft pick in 2020, presumably the maximum in the third round, by him signing with another team.
Giving Foles a non-exclusive franchise tag would be just to trade him although there is specific language in the NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement requiring a good faith intention to negotiate with a tendered player or keep him for the upcoming season at his tender. This type of language was a part of the labor agreement in existence in 2009 when the Patriots put a franchise tag on quarterback Matt Cassel. It was obvious New England wasn't going to pay Cassel $14.651 million to be Tom Brady's backup after he recovered from the torn ACL that sidelined him for practically all of the 2008 season. The NFL allowed the Patriots to trade Cassel and linebacker Mike Vrabel (now Titans head coach) to the Chiefs for a 2009 second round pick (34th overall).
The bigger concern for the Eagles would be Foles quickly signing his franchise tender since it's fully guaranteed when accepted. Doing so could effectively kill any potential trade market where the Eagles run the risk of paying Foles an exorbitant amount to back up Wentz again. Finding a team willing to take Foles for approximately $25 million next season without assurances that he would sign a long-term contract to prevent him from being an expensive one-year rental would be a difficult task.
It would be cost prohibitive for the Eagles to have Foles on a franchise tag for the 2019 season. Philadelphia has the NFL's most 2019 cap commitments at $212,636,950 using offseason cap accounting rules where top 51 cap numbers matter according to NFLPA data. This includes Foles' $20.6 million cap number with the option exercised. There's $6.101 million of cap room that can be carried over to the upcoming league year, which isn't nearly enough for the Eagles to get under the 2019 salary cap, which is projected to be in the $190 million neighborhood.
Philadelphia finding a way to carry Foles at his franchise number would create an awkward financial situation. Foles would be making over six times as much as Wentz to back him up. Wentz's 2019 salary is a little under $4.1 million.
The Eagles pick up Foles' option years. Foles pays the $2 million to get his freedom. The Eagles let Foles hit the open market because of the potential pitfalls of a franchise tag. Foles finds a team willing to pay him at least in the Case Keenum neighborhood. His former Rams teammate signed a two-year, $36 million contract with the Broncos last March in free agency. The deal is worth up to $40 million through incentives and had $25 million fully guaranteed at signing. An Alex Smith type deal is conceivable with enough interest assuming Foles is a free agent. Smith signed a four-year contract extension averaging $23.5 million per year with the Redskins in connection with his trade early last offseason from the Chiefs. The maximum value is $106.5 million because of $12.5 million in incentives based on Smith's playtime and Washington's playoff success. The extension has $71 million of guarantees, of which $55 million was fully guaranteed at signing.