The Eagles need cap relief; so long, Brandon Graham, Darius Slay, Jason Kelce, Zach Ertz | Marcus Hayes
The Birds are trapped in salary-cap hell, so some Super Bowl heroes will be wearing enemy jerseys next season.
The Eagles stand almost $43 million over the 2021 salary cap. Having fired Super Bowl coach Doug Pederson and having traded disgruntled franchise quarterback Carson Wentz, they have now committed to “retrench” and “retool,” owner Jeffrey Lurie said last month, but with that comes bloodshed. Popular players will be shed like dead skin.
They need to save money, but they can’t tear down the whole house. Their best players are defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, 30; right tackle Lane Johnson, who will be 31; and right guard Brandon Brooks, who will be 32. They’re older, and they’ve been hurt, but Cox made the last six Pro Bowl teams, while Johnson and Brooks made the last three before injuries torpedoed their 2020 seasons. These three players are foundational pieces with years of production remaining.
The Eagles already released receiver DeSean Jackson.
They already restructured the contracts of defensive tackle Malik Jackson and receiver Alshon Jeffery to set up their releases, which will push the worst of their salary-cap burdens to 2022, when the cap should rebound. They almost certainly will cut receiver Marquise Goodwin, whom they acquired for two sixth-round picks in April but who opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19. He likely opted out of the $4.5 million he would have earned, too — $4.5 million the Eagles will now save against the 2021 cap.
But you can’t trade and cut everyone. For instance, nobody’s going to trade for defensive tackle Javon Hargrave and his $12.75 million contract, and you save nothing by cutting him.
There are plenty of guys you can cut or trade, however, and that includes some Super Bowl heroes.
Brandon Graham, defensive end
BG turns 33 in April, and he finally made a Pro Bowl after 11 seasons, but the second half of 2020 was unproductive: 1 sack, 4 tackles for loss, and 5 quarterback hits in the last eight games. That’s the sort of diminished production you’d expect from a full-throttle player who hasn’t missed a meaningful game in nine years. He’s an excellent locker room presence, and it will hurt Birds fans to see him in an enemy jersey, but Graham might bring as much as a third-round pick — and he’ll save the team $13 million against the cap.
He’ll always have the strip-sack of Tom Brady that iced the win in Super Bowl LII.
Zach Ertz, tight end
I enjoyed the maturation of Zach Ertz over the past five years as much as I enjoyed anything in the city’s sports scene, including the Super Bowl run and the Gabe Kapler Experience. I enjoyed nothing so little as Ertz’s stunning decline in 2020. Ertz is 30, and while he might not bring much in a trade — his $8.25 million salary is hefty coming off a poor season, and likely would require a restructure — he should be worth something. It helps Ertz’s cause that Rob Gronkowkski (31, Buccaneers, Super Bowl champ) and Jimmy Graham (33, eight touchdowns) had productive seasons in 2020, and former Cowboys star Jason Witten and former Panthers star Greg Olsen remained productive past the age of 30. Trading Ertz saves almost $5 million against the cap, and this year’s draft class features a bumper crop of top-flight tight ends to pair with Dallas Goedert.
The acrimonious negotiations between Ertz and Howie Roseman almost guaranteed that 2020 would be his last season in Philadelphia, and Roseman’s refusal to meet Ertz’s demands has proved to be one of the few wise moves he’s recently made. However, Ertz will always be the player who caught the winning touchdown in the Eagles’ only Super Bowl win — assuming they never win another, which seems more likely every day.
» READ MORE: Carson Wentz is easy to blame, but Howie Roseman is the one constant in the Eagles’ dysfunction | David Murphy
Jason Kelce, center
This one’s tricky, because Kelce’s cheap, and he might quit. He has contemplated retirement for the past several years, and he would have to approve the move to whatever team acquires him. And shedding him might not be smart.
Kelce, 33, is entering the final season of a deal that pays him just $5.5 million. He plays all the time — he hasn’t missed a start in six seasons, though he often plays through significant injuries. He’s got a brilliant football mind, he’s the unquestioned leader on a line full of followers, and he could prove invaluable to Jalen Hurts, assuming Hurts wins the starting quarterback job after four inconsistent performances as a rookie.
Kelce should be an attractive trade piece for a contending team looking for a center. The questions: When will Kelce’s body finally crumble? Is it worth saving $5.5 million to gamble that his collapse will happen in 2021?
Darius Slay, cornerback
Slay, who turned 30 last month, ranked 42nd in both total defense and coverage among corners who played half of the snaps in 2020, according to profootballfocus.com. This was an improvement; he was 64th and 62nd, respectively, in Detroit in 2019, before the Eagles spent third- and fifth-round picks to acquire him, then gave him a three-year, $50 million contract.
So the 42nd-best corner (by one metric) took home the ninth-most cash among corners in 2020, according to Spotrac — more than $14 million. He’ll earn $12 million in salary in 2021, the sixth-most in the league. That’s the sort of money he might have been worth in 2018, when he ranked 18th and 14th, but not now. Trading him sooner than later saves $6 million against the cap. Do it.
» READ MORE: Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie is acting more like Jerry Jones, so don’t just blame Howie Roseman | Marcus Hayes
Derek Barnett, defensive end
In his first season, Barnett recovered the fumble that Brandon Graham forced to secure a win in Super Bowl LII.
Following his fourth season after being the 14th overall pick in the 2017 draft, Barnett has 19 1/2 sacks. He’s been consistently mediocre. In 2020, Barnett ranked 31st in overall defense among edge rushers who played at least half of their teams’ snaps, and he ranked 41st as a pass rusher, according to Pro Football Focus. His understudy, third-year end Josh Sweat, didn’t play enough to qualify, but he outperformed Barnett in the aforementioned metrics, and he had six sacks compared to Barnett’s 5 1/2.
Sweat will cost $920,000. Barnett is due $10 million. He’s worth $2 million.
Fare thee well.