The Philadelphia Eagles have a quarterback controversy. Unlike debate that arose amid Nick Foles' improbable playoff runs filling in for Carson Wentz back in 2017-2018, this one is completely of the Eagles' own doing. Rather than use one of their top 2020 draft picks on immediate help for Wentz, who ended 2019 with four straight regular-season wins and a playoff berth, Philadelphia added a premiere insurance policy at QB in Jalen Hurts. Little did they know that Wentz, saddled with an older and unreliable supporting cast, as well as incoherent coaching strategy, would buckle under all the pressure and basically force the Eagles to turn to Hurts ahead of the most critical quarter of the season.
But that's where we are in Philadelphia. It's fitting, because of how dysfunctional Eagles' leadership had to be to get to this point, that there are no easy answers, either. No matter how Philly finishes 2020 -- at the bottom of the ugly NFC East, with another Lombardi Trophy in hand -- the QB situation is bound to get messier before it gets resolved.
All anyone cares about right now is seeing what Hurts can do in his first significant NFL action. The guy is a breath of fresh air, for crying out loud, after 12 straight weeks of lifeless offensive football from a team operating with a fifth-year QB and head coach pairing. But it's hard not to cast one eye toward 2021, when the Eagles will be forced to reckon with some major, organization-shaking decisions regarding Wentz's standing as the "face of the franchise."
It was just 18 months ago the Eagles rewarded Wentz for his early-career promise with a four-year, $128 million extension -- a deal that doesn't even kick in until 2021. But now that Hurts has seen the field -- not as a gimmick but as the QB -- and "Pandora's box has been opened," as ESPN's Tim McManus put it, the Eagles have guaranteed themselves perhaps an even bigger fork in the road than when Foles hoisted the Lombardi with a rehabbing Wentz looking on.
What are the Eagles' options for 2021?
Had the team not paid Wentz like a franchise QB, this conversation might be a lot simpler. (An apt comparison might be in Los Angeles, where the Rams' commitment to Jared Goff all but prevents them from cutting ties even if they desperately wanted to.) Still, there are far more dynamics at play in Philly: When's the last time you saw a QB follow Wentz's roller coaster of a trajectory? We're talking MVP flashes and solid play otherwise -- even after back-to-back serious injuries that allowed Foles to become an emergency folk hero -- to the point that Wentz's $128M deal, upon signing, seemed like a bargain for the Birds.
Now, after Wentz's 12 mostly bad, occasionally awful starts in 2020, that contract will almost certainly be one of the primary reasons the Eagles retain Wentz beyond this year, if they do. Here's a look, courtesy of Over The Cap, at how Philly would be affected financially if it wanted to trade or outright release No. 11 before the 2021 season:
|Scenario||Dead Money||Net Result|
Cut before March 20, 2021
Cut between March 20-June 1, 2021
|Cut after June 1, 2021||$34.6M||Gain $0|
|Traded before March 20, 2021||$33.8M||Save $850K|
|Traded after March 20, 2021||$43.8M||Lose $9.1M|
|Traded in 2022||$24.5M||Save $6.7M|
The Eagles are already projected to be well over the reduced 2021 salary cap, so even a career miracle from general manager Howie Roseman would not be enough to justify releasing Wentz as anything other than a post-June 1 cut. And at that point, rather than eating a nearly $35M dead-money charge in 2021, the Eagles might as well just keep Wentz -- hefty salary and all -- regardless of his standing on the depth chart. The only path to 2021 savings, then, is a trade prior to March 20, the third day of the new league year. Even those savings ($850K) are extremely minimal, but that represents the one conceivable scenario for a 2021 Wentz departure.
"There aren't good options," says Joel Corry, a CBS Sports contributor and former agent and cap expert. "The Eagles are likely stuck with Wentz for 2021." If they were, in fact, dead set on trying to trade him, however, striking a deal before March 20 would result in "basically a wash between Wentz's cap number and dead money." Again: The savings would be almost nothing, at least in 2021. The benefits would be a.) getting something (draft compensation, etc.) in return for Wentz, and b.) clearing tens of millions in future seasons.
Remember, though, this is complicated. One look at the contract, and you might think, There's no way the Eagles will work that hard to save so little, just to wash their hands of the guy they just recently paid. But both sides of the argument (keep and restore Wentz, or cut the cord entirely) have merit because of how dysfunctional the Eagles have been this year:
The case for keeping Wentz: The majority of his resume is good, if not great. From 2017-2019, Wentz threw 81 touchdowns to 21 interceptions with a 98.3 QB rating and 25-15 record. You don't do that by accident. He's never recaptured his MVP-like magic of the Super Bowl year, but before 2020, he bore so many physical and structural hurdles in stride. He's still young-ish (28 at the end of December). And even if you love the upside of alternatives, you'd be trying to sell him on the trade market -- with very little savings -- after a historical drop-off in production, which has surely dented his value. Giving him an offseason to catch his breath, earn back trust and potentially work with a revamped staff and lineup would offer lots of upside in a prospective QB competition.
The case for selling Wentz: This is Year Five for Wentz, along with coach Doug Pederson. You're telling us a fifth-year, $128M QB can't rise above his surroundings for even one, maybe two, weeks? Accelerated by the organization's missteps or not, Wentz has looked broken and devoid of confidence for almost a full season, with hints of slippage in 2019 prior to his strong finish. On top of that, he already had injury concerns, finishing three straight years on the sidelines. Is it even in his best interest to make him win back another locker room in Philly? Perhaps most importantly, the Eagles' ineptitude has enabled them a chance at a very high pick in a 2021 draft that should have a handful of top QBs in reach. That's rare, and capitalizing on it would confirm a total restart.
What will (and should) the Eagles do?
Now that Hurts has also been handed at least one start (and, likely, the rest of the season), it's going to be hard to put the genie back in the bottle. Asked this week what Philly will do after the season, one NFL source told CBS Sports it's more likely than not the Eagles will try to trade Wentz. The source, who is familiar with Eagles management, added that it's "possible but not likely" the team will view Wentz as salvageable, and that Wentz's "lack of consistency and injury history make him expendable."
Former Eagle Chris Long, who counts both Wentz and Foles as close friends after their 2017 title run together, probably hit the nail on the head when he speculated on his Green Light podcast this week that Wentz and Pederson are no longer married now that Hurts has taken over. In Long's mind, the final four games of 2020 will likely allow higher-ups (e.g. owner Jeffrey Lurie, or perhaps even general manager Howie Roseman) to determine whether this lost season was primarily due to Wentz or Doug, and then sever ties with at least one of them. In other words, if Pederson's team suddenly comes alive with the rookie QB, management can justify -- fairly or not -- blaming 2020 on Wentz and proceeding accordingly. If Hurts also fails to elevate the offense, management can easier justify rebooting the coaching staff and trying to rebuild around Wentz.
In either scenario, it certainly feels as if the Wentz-Pederson duo has seen its last formidable days. (Something, again, that would've sounded crazy just a year ago.) Which is the right path, though? Who's more worth saving: The battered former star QB, or the coach who oversaw that QB's plummet? Pederson deserves more blame for the Eagles' mediocre team performances since the Super Bowl, but he's also never lost the locker room and probably has an easier road to redemption than a QB whose confidence has been shattered by both his own play and an organization that failed him at multiple turns.
Lurie has always been fond of Wentz, and his desire for trend-setting offensive minds atop the staff suggest it's at least possible he could opt for Operation Rebuild Carson over Pederson, whose teams have gotten worse in three straight seasons and completely cratered offensively in 2020. Again, Hurts' performance in Doug's system will go a long way in determining that.
But barring some kind of miraculous return to the lineup, in which he mystifies the NFL by returning to form and leading the Eagles to the playoffs, Wentz frankly just seems better suited for a relocation. That's partly because of his own doing and partly because of what's happened around him. As Long noted this week, you can dismissively criticize Wentz for not "meeting the challenge" of keeping Hurts off the field this year, but no athlete -- $100M contract or not -- is walking past a statue of his Super Bowl-winning replacement every day, and then practicing alongside the team's next big investment at that position every day, and proceeding unfazed.
Unless the Eagles defy general logic, ignore their high draft position, etc. and fully recommit to restoring Wentz, both parties suddenly and genuinely seem destined -- and better off -- for a split. Maybe that comes in 2021, which would almost have to be the case if Philly enters the offseason dead set on exploring new rookie QBs. Maybe it comes in 2022, after the Eagles swallow the tough pill of their finances and retain him as the league's highest-paid backup. But then you're probably just asking for a bigger controversy down the road. We've seen miracles happen at this QB position in Philly before, and common sense says Wentz -- who deserves all the credit in the world for what he accomplished on and off the field in midnight green -- is nowhere near as bad as he's looked this year, but for now, all signs point to a move.
Who could trade for Wentz?
The annual offseason QB carousel will go a long way in determining which teams would actually be interested in pursuing Wentz, but there's no doubt a few teams would come calling in the event the Eagles shop him ahead of 2021. Here's an early stab at the five most logical destinations outside of Philly:
They've already been floated as potential suitors in early speculation -- and for good reason. Philip Rivers might lead them to the playoffs, but he's 39 and has already said he won't be around much longer. Coach Frank Reich just happened to be Wentz's offensive coordinator during the most promising stretch of his career (2016-2017). The Colts are built to contend now. They aren't going to be in a great position to draft a top long-term prospect in 2021. Best of all, they're projected to lead the NFL in salary cap room. That's a whole lot of dots already connected, and then there's the fact the Eagles would be able to unload him outside of the NFC.
2. New England Patriots
The sight of Wentz suiting up for the team his old team beat in the Super Bowl (while he was forced to watch from the sidelines) would be wild. But the connection is logical. Cam Newton may or may not be back as a short-term solution. Bill Belichick is a noted fan of Wentz's skill set. The Pats are still looking for a longer-term option post-Tom Brady. They're arguably more willing than any team to take a swing on big-name castoffs. And the Eagles have been notorious trading partners with New England. This move would allow the Pats to bet on Wentz's upside but potentially still return to contention sooner rather than later.
3. Denver Broncos
Drew Lock is already in town, and John Elway has appeared genuinely interested in helping the youngster grow. Elway's also probably getting sick of waiting for a turnaround, with the Broncos guaranteed a non-winning season for the fourth straight year. He's certainly not been shy about cycling through veteran QBs. Wentz wouldn't necessarily love the idea of walking into a QB room with a well-liked early-rounder already established, but Lock is under an inexpensive deal through 2022. Denver would have plenty of time to evaluate both options alongside an underrated supporting cast.
4. Detroit Lions
This one depends almost entirely on what the new regime looks like, but it's reasonable to assume Detroit could look to pivot from the "defensive" focus of the Matt Patricia era and restart the entire offense, complete with a trade of Matthew Stafford. Is Wentz an upgrade over Stafford? That's very debatable, but he's at least five years younger and might benefit from the change of scenery. At worst, he'd make for an intriguing bridge/reclamation project a la Teddy Bridgewater in Carolina.
5. San Francisco 49ers
Kyle Shanahan would probably prefer to reunite with one of his trusty old friends, like Matt Ryan or Kirk Cousins. But neither of those QBs figures to be readily available. Jimmy Garoppolo, meanwhile, seems like a 50-50 shot at returning for 2021. The Niners might not see Wentz as an obvious upgrade over Jimmy, but Shanahan could be enticed by the idea of resurrecting a superior talent in his QB-friendly system, especially with that defense also on his side. San Francisco openly entertained replacing Garoppolo with a veteran ahead of 2020, so there's no reason they won't do it again.