INDIANAPOLIS – The NFL combine is typically a week for teams to get the ball rolling on roster decisions they’ve agonized over since the season ended, free agents they’ve identified as worthy of pursuit, and any plans that would further implement a general outline for the offseason.
The Eagles arrived here with their largest number of unanswered questions since 2016, after Doug Pederson had just been named coach and Howie Roseman returned to his spot as personnel chief.
Roseman is unlikely to spin together moves as bold as the ones that led to drafting quarterback Carson Wentz four years ago, but with an aging roster, ample salary cap space, and 10 draft picks, he will be active over the next two months.
But aside from releasing linebacker Nigel Bradham two weeks ago, the Eagles have been inactive. And Roseman and Pederson gave little indication Tuesday of their strategy for veterans such as Jason Peters, Alshon Jeffery, and Malcolm Jenkins.
The gathering of team personnel, coaches, and player agents in this convention-like atmosphere typically rattles the cages of information. But with an additional week in between the combine and the start of free agency on March 18, and the uncertainty surrounding the collective bargaining agreement, teams have been stuck in neutral.
Roseman’s stock answer Tuesday that assessments were still underway was essentially honest. He still needed to meet with the agents of Eagles with indeterminate futures, gauge their interests, and weigh that against the team’s needs and the league-wide market.
But by the end of the week a somewhat clearer picture emerged, based on conversations with team and NFL sources, of where the Eagles stand in relation to some of their more pressing decisions.
The 38-year-old tackle told reporters after the season finale that he wanted to play in 2020. Nothing over the last two months has changed his mind. The Eagles, however, have yet to decide if they want him back.
As it was put to Pederson on Tuesday, it’s an either/or choice: Either the Eagles bring back Peters for his 12th season in Philadelphia or they allow him to leave via free agency, thus beginning the Andre Dillard tenure at left tackle. Peters isn’t staying to be a backup or to play guard. He will have starting options if he hits the market.
Eagles coaches believe that Peters still has more than enough gas left in the tank. They believe that he played at a Pro Bowl level in the final two months of last season after he returned from arthroscopic knee surgery. They do understand that he is unlikely to play in all 16 games or more than the 77 percent of snaps he has played the last two years.
Another year with Peters would allow Dillard to watch and learn and likely play enough to continue his development. He hasn’t made as much progress as the Eagles had hoped when they moved up to draft him in the first round last year. Dillard needs to get stronger, both physically and mentally.
Eagles coaches still believe in Dillard. He has the necessary athleticism. But bringing Peters back, despite the message it would send about Dillard’s future, would give the 24-year-old some additional time in an NFL culture he struggled to adapt to as a rookie.
Ideally, Dillard would have made it obvious that it was time to move on from Peters. He did not. And what can’t be underplayed is the role owner Jeffrey Lurie will play in deciding a future Hall of Famer’s future. He is Peters’ greatest advocate.
But Peters can’t ask for the moon. A contract similar to the one he signed last offseason – one year, $6 million with incentives – could make the most sense for both sides.
There hasn’t been any movement on the Jenkins front. Roseman didn’t meet with the safety’s agents here, partly because the Eagles have to first make decisions on their own free agents. But something will likely have to be done before the league year opens.
Of all the scenarios, Jenkins’ returning under his current contract – he is slated to earn $7.6 million in base salary in the last year of the deal – is the most unlikely. He said after the season that he wouldn’t come back under those conditions, and considering that he was willing to skip minicamp last year, a holdout would be probable.
Jenkins, though, needs leverage. He needs for there to be a market if he was to be available via trade or following a release. There should be enough to compel Roseman to make an offer. But will he match Jenkins’ number? The 32-year-old safety won’t get close to top-of-the-market money for safeties, but enough of a guarantee in Years 1 and 2 should be enough.
Jenkins said last offseason that he was told the Eagles would negotiate with him during the season. But a formal offer was never made, even though Brandon Brooks, Lane Johnson, Jake Elliott, and Rick Lovato signed extensions. It’s unclear how Jenkins feel about that, although Lurie could smooth over possible discord.
The owner played a role in Jenkins’ reporting to minicamp last June, and like with Peters, doesn’t want acrimony if there is a parting. Jenkins isn’t in Peters’ class in terms of his legacy with the franchise, but Lurie doesn’t want to have a split like the one the Eagles had with Brian Dawkins, whose exit created a vacuum at safety until Jenkins’ arrival.
If the Eagles and Jenkins can’t come to terms, and Roseman can’t find a suitable trade partner, Lurie might step in and grant Jenkins’ release before free agency opens. It would behoove the team to know what it needed before the market opens, with fellow safety Rodney McLeod expected to test free agency.
Can the Eagles afford to let one of their pillars on the field and in the locker room leave? Perhaps. But they don’t have immediate solutions on the roster unless they view cornerback Avonte Maddox as capable of switching to safety.
If there is anyone who thought the wide receiver would return next season, the combine wasn’t the place to go searching for that person. The overwhelming consensus was that Jeffery, despite the salary cap hit, his foot injury, and the Eagles’ lack of talent at receiver, wouldn’t be wearing midnight green in 2020.
While there may never be any proof that he was behind the anonymous quotes to ESPN criticizing Wentz and the Eagles offense, many inside the NovaCare Complex believe he was the source. Shortly after the report, a prominent player on offense confronted Jeffery to the point where they had to be separated.
Wentz doesn’t necessarily have any problem with Jeffery. On the surface they get along fine, which could be one reason Pederson denied Tuesday that there was any friction between the two. But the receiver and quarterback have lacked chemistry on the field and their relationship off it has increasingly turned frosty.
Whatever the degree, Eagles staffers understand that the perception of disharmony alone will likely force Roseman’s hand, even if he has to eat $26 million in dead money.
Jeffery might have had a shot of sticking had he been performing at a high level. But the 30-year-old has regressed and can’t stay healthy after the anomaly of playing 16 games in 2017 as he worked toward a new contract. The opinion of some influential Eagles evaluators is that his skills have deteriorated.
All that would suggest the Eagles should just take their medicine and release him, but if the players vote to approve a new CBA in the coming weeks, the team would be able to cut him with a “post-June 1 designation” that would allow them to spread some of the dead money into future years.