The NFL offseason has, in essence, just begun, but what has already become readily apparent is that the Eagles will not be acquiring, either via free agency or trade, a marquee wide receiver.
They still have time to add a second- or third-tier talent, but with a receiver-rich draft coming up, they are more likely to address the need with one of their 10 selections next month.
That may be reassuring to some who watched the Eagles’ receivers fail (flail?) last season, but it places great emphasis on general manager Howie Roseman and his staff’s ability to evaluate this year’s crop of prospects.
The recent results haven’t been promising.
But what has handcuffed Roseman more than anything this offseason — aside, of course, from quarterback Carson Wentz’s increasing franchise contract — was his decision last September to guarantee receiver Alshon Jeffery’s salary for 2020.
Otherwise, maybe the normally trade-happy GM would have been more inclined to swing deals for either DeAndre Hopkins or Stefon Diggs earlier this week. There wasn’t a team in the NFL that didn’t know the receivers were available if the price was right.
Trades are difficult to pull off. There would be obvious competition for either option. But Hopkins cost little in compensation and Diggs wouldn’t have come with the new contract demands that made the Texans so willing to part with Hopkins.
The Cardinals sent running back David Johnson, a 2020 second round pick, and a 2021 fourth-rounder to Houston for Hopkins and a 2020 fourth- rounder. The Vikings, meanwhile, dealt Diggs and a 2020 seventh-round pick to the Bills for first-, fifth- and sixth-round picks in 2020 and a 2021 fourth- rounder.
The Eagles likely had their reasons for taking a pass on both — some of which will be explored farther down — but allowing elite receiver talent to pass had to be a bitter pill to swallow. Nothing compares, though, to the $26 million salary cap the Eagles would have to gulp down if they release Jeffery.
The new collective bargaining agreement would have allowed them to designate his release post-June 1 and spread some of the dead money into future years. There was some expectation that he would have been gone at the strike of the new league year at 4 p.m. Wednesday for that very reason.
But it never happened, which could mean one of several scenarios, from most to least likely:
No. 1, The Eagles are waiting to see if they can trade Jeffery before a release is necessary.
No. 2, They have to wait until his foot injury is completely healed before releasing him.
No. 3, They intend to keep Jeffery and play him once he fully recovers.
The salary cap hit is good enough reason to bring Jeffery back, in spite of his clearly declining skills. But when the cacophony surrounding the receiver and his relationship with Wentz, and certain anonymous criticisms he reportedly made of the quarterback, are considered, it’s unlikely that he can return.
Anything’s possible, especially when Roseman’s having to further explain past salary cap mistakes is brought into the equation. Speaking of which, receiver DeSean Jackson is also on the books for $8.069 million this season.
Jackson should be fully recovered from the core muscle injury that forced him to miss most of last season, but how durable can the Eagles expect the brittle, undersized 33-year old to be?
Gambling on Jeffery and Jackson would be easier if J.J. Arcega-Whiteside had a more promising rookie season. But the 2019 second-round pick was a disappointment, particularly when compared with several receivers drafted after him.
Arcega-Whiteside could take a second-year leap, but it could be months before the Eagles have any indication with spring workouts in jeopardy because of COVID-19.
Hopkins is a known commodity. He has been arguably one of the three best receivers in the NFL over the last five seasons. He can do it all — catch deep passes, short ones, toe tappers, in the red zone, and some that are unfathomable.
The 27-year-old Hopkins is also a bit of a prima donna and he reportedly wants a new contract that would pay him around $18 million to $20 million a year. While a restructuring with three years left on his existing deal might not go over well with some core Eagles in similar circumstances, it wouldn’t be a hard sell considering the player.
Zach Ertz, for instance, wants to win, and Hopkins would theoretically make that more feasible. He would also draw away some of the double teams that made the tight end’s job more strenuous last year.
Diggs hasn’t been as productive as Hopkins, but he’s a year younger, and has a more doable contract that goes through 2023. The 26-year-old burner could also be viewed as a more ascending talent, and one who directly addresses the Eagles’ lack of young speed on the outside.
The Eagles were likely more engaged in trade talks surrounding Diggs, who, it should be noted, can also be temperamental. But Buffalo forfeited a fair amount of draft capital — also known as cheaper labor.
There’s nothing wrong with the Eagles’ decision to look to the draft for their needs at receiver or any other position. Most of the best teams build their rosters from the draft up. But the Eagles have been, at best, mediocre draft evaluators over the last four years.
The jury is still out on early-round picks like Derek Barnett, Sidney Jones, Andre Dillard, and Arcega-Whiteside, but the early returns on Wentz, Dallas Goedert, and Miles Sanders have been positive.
But the longer the Eagles go without addressing the receiver position, the more obvious it becomes that they will take one in the first round, and the more pressure there is to reverse a dubious trend of choosing the wrong one.