Heading into free agency, you had to assume the direction in which the Eagles decided to go would reveal a lot about their long-term vision for the construction of the roster. If they signed a cornerback to a multi-year deal, it would have a different sort of trickle-down than if they signed a wide receiver to such a contract. There would be implications one could extend to the draft, to the job prospects of current members of the roster, to future contract decisions, etc.
I'm thinking specifically of Jordan Matthews, who was the subject of a column I wrote a few weeks ago that essentially concluded the Eagles were at a point where they needed to decide whether they were planning to sign him to a multi-year extension this summer. In the run-up to the Alshon Jeffery signing, there were several reports that the Eagles were "open" to trading Matthews, which usually means that a team is, in fact, "hoping" to trade the player, since teams are open to trading practically anybody on their roster for the right price. Once the Eagles signed Jeffery and Torrey Smith, it seemed as if we had caught a glimpse of the flame that had been flickering beneath all that pre-free-agency smoke.
But was that really the case? Or will this prove to be another case where the Eagles confronted a pivotal decision and then pivoted away from it?
Despite all the commotion over the last couple weeks, the Eagles have money guaranteed to just one wide receiver beyond 2017: Nelson Agholor (who almost certainly isn't going anywhere this offseason, which I'll explain below). In theory, that gives them a lot of flexibility. But it also gives them a lot of uncertainty.
If the Eagles traded Matthews, they'd face a situation in which they could enter next offseason with only one wide receiver under contract. They'd have Jeffery and Smith under club control via the franchise tag and Smith's club options, but if one of them doesn't end up being the player they thought they were getting, it might make sense for Matthews to be the one to keep around long term.
But by that point they'll have to compete for Matthews on an open market that this year included Robert Woods' getting $10 million guaranteed on a contract that carries an average cap hit of $7.5 million over its first two seasons. Last offseason, Mohamed Sanu signed a deal that included $14 million guaranteed and an average cap hit of about $5 million over the first two seasons.
As I wrote previously, for Matthews to sign this summer, his agent should be looking for the kind of deal that usually averages out to about $7 million per season in cap charges over the first few years of the deal. That might sound like a lot, but that's what the numbers say, and it'd be silly to sign for much less when the open market is only a year away.
It's tough to find a scenario in which it makes sense for the Eagles to agree to such a deal.
Think about it: In a best-case scenario, Jeffery and Smith both have years commensurate with the Eagles' valuation of them ($9.5 million + incentives for Jeffery, $5 million for Smith). In that case, you'd think that the Eagles would want to bring both of them back, correct? That would mean paying Smith $5 million and Jeffery somewhere in the neighborhood of $11 million and $14 million, whether it's on a one-year franchise tag or a multi-year deal (after all, a good season isn't going to prompt Jeffery to dramatically reduce his salary expectations on a multi-year deal, especially when he could simply play another season at $14+ million under the franchise tag).
If the Eagles had already signed Matthews, they'd be looking at a cap commitment of upwards of $24 million in 2018 for three players at the same position. While not unheard of, that would still be a well-above average cap allocation for the position, especially when you consider that other teams in that neighborhood are paying for a duo such as Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders of Denver or Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb of Green Bay. Although it's better than the Rams' decision to spend $21+ million on Tavon Austin and Woods this season, being better than the Rams isn't exactly the kind of goal the Eagles have set for themselves.
Keep in mind, the Eagles also will be paying Zach Ertz $10.3 million in cap dollars in 2018.
So if it isn't ever going to make sense to re-sign Matthews, then the Eagles might as well trade him, correct?
That depends on what you're expecting to get in return for him.
Three comps for your consideration:
2015: Dolphins send a mid-third-round pick (78th overall) to the Saints for Kenny Stills
2014: 49ers send a future fourth-round pick to the Bills for Stevie Johnson
2011: Panthers send a future third-round pick to the Bears for Greg Olsen
Three mitigating factors to consider:
1) Stills had two seasons left before free agency and was coming off a year in which he'd caught 63 passes for 931 yards. Matthews has one year left before free agency and is coming off a season in which he caught 73 passes for 804 yards.
2) Johnson was heading into his 28-year-old season and coming off a four-year stretch in which he averaged 4.8 receptions and 62.0 yards per game (Matthews: 4.9 r/g, 58.1 y/g in 3 years). Johnson was coming off a down year after three straight seasons in which he caught at least 75 passes for 1,000 yards, but in 12 games, he still had numbers that projected out 68 passes and 800 yards in 16 games. Plus, the Bills took an $11 million cap hit in dead money to part with him.
3) Olsen was traded in training camp.
It isn't easy to find a good comp for Matthews, mostly because teams don't often trade players who average 75 catches and 891 yards. And they probably don't trade them because it is usually worth more to them to get one more year out of that player than trade him.
I would guess that the bulk of the offers right now for Matthews involve fourth-round picks. I would guess that, best case scenario, the Eagles will get to choose on draft day between a third-rounder or keeping Matthews around. I would guess that most teams in that situation end up figuring they might as well play the comp pick game. Who knows? Maybe there's a team with $20 million in cap room that would be interested in a WR-LB-C package. Even then, teams don't usually like to pay a top-100 draft pick for the right to take on salary-cap space (see the Eagles' total haul for Byron Maxwell and DeMarco Murray).