INDIANAPOLIS – A year ago, Howie Roseman and the Eagles had just won the Super Bowl, and the reigning executive of the year seemingly had the blueprint for repeating. He would sign veteran free agents to short-term deals, just as he did to great success the year before, and the additions would complement the existing core players.
But many of those moves didn’t pan out, and while there were myriad reasons for the struggles last season, particularly through the first three months, the Eagles failed to capture lightning in the free-agency bottle.
What was remarkable about Roseman’s 2017 offseason, however, was that he gave out low-risk contracts mostly because of the salary cap restraints he faced. The same method applied last offseason, even if the results weren’t the same.
But for the first time in some time, Roseman will likely have significant cap freedom, even if the Eagles extend Carson Wentz this offseason. The quarterback’s pending franchise contract will obviously restrict how the cap is allocated over the next several years or more. But even at $30 million a year, it’s still only around 15 percent of the budget.
“You have to plan knowing you have an extremely talented quarterback,” Roseman said at the NFL combine. “But by the same token, there are going to be opportunities [in free agency] to improve our team, even taking that into account.”
Wentz’s health makes the possibility of an extension less likely this offseason. He’s coming off back-to-back season-ending knee and back injuries and is still not cleared to return by the start of workouts in April. Even if Roseman waits a year, he’ll have more than enough on his plate this offseason.
Depending upon decisions the Eagles will make regarding their own free agents, and players under contract who could face either restructurings or releases, there could be significant roster turnover over the next month with the new league year set to begin March 13. As many as eight starters could be replaced.
You might think that Roseman and the Eagles know, more than a month after the season ended, exactly which players will return and which won’t, and which players they have targeted in free agency or via trade. But the process has just begun and will remain fluid for some time.
Answers were hard to come by Wednesday. The only definite was that the Eagles won’t put the franchise tag on Nick Foles and will allow him to become a free agent. But Roseman gave little indication where they stand with free agents such as defensive end Brandon Graham, linebacker Jordan Hicks, cornerback Ronald Darby, and wide receiver Golden Tate, and possible candidates for restructuring such as tackle Jason Peters, defensive tackle Tim Jernigan, and receiver Nelson Agholor.
The Eagles already reworked the deal of safety Rodney McLeod, who is coming off a torn ACL . But there are opportunities to create additional space with existing contracts. Peters ($13.1 million), Jernigan ($13 million), and Agholor ($9.3 million) are unlikely to be retained at their numbers for 2019, but restructurings could trim about $15 million. Or they could simply part with one, two, or all three.
There are also opportunities to rework contracts for returning players by converting 2019 salaries into signing bonuses. The Eagles have previously done this with defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, tackle Lane Johnson, tight end Zach Ertz, and guard Brandon Brooks, and could do so again with the first three, and possibly receiver Alshon Jeffery and safety Malcolm Jenkins.
The Eagles have about $6 million in space, if they roll over their savings from last season, with the cap projected to be about $190 million. But they could end up with more than five times that amount with restructurings.
That could give Roseman room to re-sign some of the Eagles’ own free agents, although the market could price them out on Graham, Darby, and Tate. Hicks, who is coming off another injury-riddled season, could be more affordable.
The Eagles stand to recoup compensatory draft picks with Foles and other free agents likely to part, but Roseman said that won’t keep them from being players in free agency.
“We understand the cost-effectiveness of draft picks, especially when you have good players on your team and you’re paying them,” Roseman said. “We’re just trying to balance and make sure that we’re also not shortsighted enough to say, ‘Hey, the hit rate in the fourth round is only 20 percent to get a starter. Here we have a starter that we can get at a really good price.’”
There is less of an unknown with NFL-proven commodities than with draft prospects. Roseman used Brooks and McLeod, 26-27-year-old free agents the Eagles signed three years ago, as examples, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Eagles in play for similarly tiered options this offseason.
The Eagles could address multiple positions, but it’s difficult to say where with so many unanswered questions. Peters, center Jason Kelce, defensive end Chris Long, and running back Darren Sproles have all publicly entertained the thought of retirement, and Roseman didn’t have an update on any of them.
The executive said that he wants to maintain an aggressive mind-set, but opportunistic may have been a better word. Some of his best moves have come with trades, such as when he acquired defensive end Michael Bennett for a fifth-round pick and receiver Marcus Johnson last March.
Roseman must work under the premise that the Eagles can compete again for a championship, but he can’t lose sight of the big picture. The roster needs to get younger and he can restock the cupboard with eight draft picks this year. And recent picks such as cornerback Sidney Jones, guard Isaac Seumalo, and tight end Dallas Goedert must be given chances to grow.
“When you have the luxury of having young players in a rotational role and you have a lot of depth at that position, they’re not forced,” Roseman said. “Sometimes it’s progress preventers … and sometimes there’s a reason you draft guys and to give them more of a role and to see what they have.”
Roseman must balance both. And he must move on from what worked two years ago because this offseason, despite the ammunition he has in cap space and draft picks, is its own entity.
“That moment in time – it feels almost surreal. It was just a year we had some success,” Roseman said. “But we don’t look at it like we have to find the exact same fits on our roster that we had in 2017. There are some incredibly valuable lessons about that year.
“The character and the chemistry of the football team was unbelievable. And sometimes that’s a big reason for your success. I think that was a big reason for our success last year when we had adversity. But … the league evolves and you got to continue to evolve with the league.”