It didn’t take long before Howie Roseman realized that he had made a mistake when he guaranteed Alshon Jeffery’s salary for 2020 just before last season.
The Eagles general manager began actively shopping Jeffery about a month later, NFL sources told The Inquirer, as the wide receiver’s production waned, his injuries mounted, and he became implicated as the anonymous source behind disparaging comments about the team to ESPN.
Jeffery had become aware that he was on the market and was troubled by the mixed messages he had received from the team, a source close to the receiver said. The contract restructure assured the Eagles’ commitment beyond 2019 but also provided salary-cap space in case they traded for a high-priced player.
Roseman never made such a move. Meanwhile, Jeffery’s contract, not to mention his regression, made a trade unfeasible before the Oct. 29 deadline. Any hope of dealing the 30-year-old receiver this offseason all but vanished when he suffered a season-ending Lisfranc foot injury on Dec. 9.
Two weeks ago, Roseman spoke as if Jeffery would return this coming season.
“Obviously, the elephant in the room is Alshon,” Roseman said during a conference call. “Alshon’s got to get healthy. That’s the No. 1 priority for us and for him. He understands. He knows what’s being said about him. He understands that he has a lot to prove and he’s anxious to do that.
“So he’s not living in a bubble.”
Neither is Roseman. While Jeffery remains available to other teams, per league sources, the GM knows that the combination of salary, injury and performance makes a trade unlikely. The Eagles would have to eat a large portion of his guaranteed contract if they had any chance of unloading Jeffery for what would be a minimal return.
Roseman has done the seemingly impossible before, but a trade is nearly unmanageable until Jeffery is healthy, which might not be until September in a best-case scenario.
There had been some speculation that the Eagles would just release him when the new league year began last month – allowing them to move about $10 million of $26.106 million in dead money into 2021 under a post-June 1 designation -- but there was no impetus at the time for such a decision.
Spring workouts were still a month away and have since been delayed from an April 20 start because of COVID-19.
Roseman and the Eagles have traditionally been one of the NFL’s more fiscally efficient teams, but Jeffery’s contract is likely one they would like to have back. The Eagles initially signed him to a one-year contract worth up to $14 million during the 2017 offseason.
After 11 games, however, they gave Jeffery a four-year, $52.25 million extension, with $27.25 million guaranteed. He didn’t miss a game that season, including the playoffs, despite having a torn rotator cuff, and was instrumental in the Eagles’ run to the Super Bowl.
Jeffery’s offseason shoulder surgery forced him to miss the first three games of 2018, but when he returned his production was on par with 2017, if not his first five seasons in the NFL with the Bears.
The greatest disparity in Jeffery’s play in Philadelphia has been his numbers with Carson Wentz vs. Nick Foles at quarterback. In 33 games with Wentz, he has caught 143 of 249 passes (57.4%) for 1,754 yards (7.0 yards per target) and 17 touchdowns. On throws of 20-plus yards, he has caught 10 of 42 (23.8%) for 300 yards (7.1 yards per) and two touchdowns.
In 12 games with Foles, including the playoffs, Jeffery caught 45 of 62 passes (72.6%) for 732 yards (11.8 yards per target) and five touchdowns. On throws of 20-plus yards, he caught 8 of 17 (47.1%) for 281 yards (16.5 yards per) and two touchdowns.
In November of 2018, there was an ESPN report that cited an anonymous Eagles player questioning the offense’s “over-targeting of Zach Ertz.” While the Pro Bowl tight end was seeing more passes, he was catching a higher percentage than he had previously in his career.
Some had then noted Jeffery’s prior interactions with the ESPN reporter, but his alleged involvement came to a head the following October when the same reporter had more anonymously sourced quotes criticizing the Eagles.
The first report cited an Eagles player as saying that Roseman had “dropped the ball” by not trading for cornerback Jalen Ramsey. A day later, there was another report, this time from an “Eagles source,” questioning the offense and Wentz’s supposed forcing of throws downfield.
Jeffery, aware at the time that he was potential trade bait, denied that he was behind the quotes. He was later identified as the source, however, by a 94.1-WIP host, who also happens to be the Eagles’ sideline reporter. The report has to yet to be confirmed by another outlet, but many players and team officials believe him to be the source.
Shortly after the report, a prominent player on offense confronted Jeffery, according to sources close to the situation. But his relationship with Wentz and most of his teammates, for the most part, remained status quo through the end of the season.
Doug Pederson and Jeffery maintained a close bond even though the receiver’s mounting health woes – he would miss nearly four of the first 11 games last season with calf and ankle injuries – and lost step hindered the Eagles coach’s offense.
Pederson continued to feature Jeffery prominently and he would catch 9 of 16 passes for 137 yards and a touchdown against the Dolphins on Dec. 1. But his season would end a week later.
In February, there was a report from The Athletic that Jeffery would welcome a trade. His agent, Tory Dandy, responded on Twitter that his client “loves being in the city of Philly and playing for the Eagles.” That tweet has since been deleted.
Dandy didn’t respond to requests for comment. Jeffery hasn’t spoken with reporters since after the Bears game on Nov. 3.
Roseman wasn’t asked to clarify what he meant by Jeffery being the “elephant in the room.” Was he acknowledging the allegations levied against the receiver, or was he referring to his potential impact on the coming season?
It wouldn’t be in Roseman’s best interest to publicly suggest that Jeffery wasn’t in the team’s plans for 2020. The Eagles already have unknowns at the position: Will DeSean Jackson return to form following a season lost to a core muscle injury? Will J.J. Arcega-Whiteside make a prominent leap after a disappointing rookie season?
Will the Eagles do anything at receiver before the draft after watching DeAndre Hopkins and Stefon Diggs get traded and several free-agent options sign elsewhere? One thing seems certain: The Eagles will expend a high draft pick on a receiver later this month.
As for Jeffery’s future, his salary-cap hit alone could justify a return and the Eagles could gamble that he recaptures some of his old form. But there are conversely more reasons for a departure even if the bitter pill of an ill-advised contract will linger.