The Eagles’ decision Tuesday not to pick up the option on the final year of Malcolm Jenkins’ contract with the team had nothing to do with the 32-year-old safety’s ability to still play football at a high level.
Jenkins isn’t the same player he was three or four years ago, but the 11-year veteran still is very good. He was a team leader. They’d be a better team next season with Jenkins on the back end of their defense than without him.
General manager Howie Roseman knows that. But the Eagles’ decision to let Jenkins walk Tuesday wasn’t about 2020. It was about 2021 and 2022. It was about the next five years, not just the next one.
It was about their need to get younger and cheaper.
The younger part is pretty easy for everybody to understand. The Eagles were one of the league’s older teams last season. Twelve of their 22 Week 1 starters were 29 or older. Just four — left guard Isaac Seumalo (25), defensive end Derek Barnett (23) and cornerbacks Rasul Douglas (24) and Avonte Maddox (23) -- were 25 or younger.
In a perfect world, the Eagles would’ve liked to kept Jenkins for one more year before waving goodbye and setting a date for his induction into the team’s Hall of Fame.
But he had made it clear that he wouldn’t play this season without a contract extension, which is to say more money.
That’s where the getting cheaper part comes in.
The Eagles headed into the new league year, which begins Wednesday, with about $41 million in cap space, which put them in the middle of the pack among NFL teams.
But a lot of their cap room is fake. It’s based on future borrowing. The cap room was largely created by restructuring the contracts of nearly a dozen players over the last three years.
The strategy allowed the Eagles to sign free agents like Malik Jackson and DeSean Jackson and re-sign quarterback Carson Wentz to his second contract. But they had to push a lot of money into the future to do that.
They have restructured the contracts of players such as defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, right tackle Lane Johnson, tight end Zach Ertz, right guard Brandon Brooks, center Jason Kelce and wide receiver Alshon Jeffery.
As part of a restructuring last summer with Jeffery, they guaranteed his entire 2020 salary, which seemed like a good idea at the time. But now that they dearly want to get rid of him, the $26 million cap hit they’d suffer is a boulder in the middle of the road.
The Eagles gave Cox a six-year, $102 million deal in 2016. Two years later, Roseman restructured the All Pro’s deal to create salary cap space. Now, Cox’s cap number is about to jump from $11.9 million last year to $23.8. It will remain above $22 million for the next three years under the current terms of his deal.
The Eagles really can’t afford to restructure Cox’s contract again because it would increase his 2021 cap number even more. That’s money they can’t spend right now. Same thing with Jeffery’s deal.
The NFL salary cap this year is $198.2 million. With another decade of labor peace guaranteed by the new collective bargaining agreement and the owners’ TV money expected to soon take another substantial jump, it’s projected that the cap will be $300 million in five years.
But salaries are going to keep rising as well and Roseman has to manage the cap wisely and avoid major dead-money potholes if the Eagles have any chance of being a year-in-and-year-out Super Bowl contender.
They splurged earlier this week, agreeing to terms on a three-year, $39 million deal with free agent defensive tackle Javon Hargrave, who they hope will improve their pass rush.
But they bowed out of the bidding for the top cornerback in free agency, Byron Jones. Jones agreed to a five-year, $82.5 million deal with the Dolphins that included a whopping $57 million in guaranteed money. Hargraves’ deal has just $26 million in guarantees.
Roseman and the Eagles did make an attempt to keep Jenkins for one more year. They tried to negotiate an extension with him. But the two sides never could agree on a number.
The Eagles are bringing back their other free agent safety, Rodney McLeod, and plan to move cornerback Jalen Mills, who agreed to a new one-year deal, to Jenkins’ old spot.