WHEN IT COMES to talking about the future, there's no time like the present, particularly when you're talking about a football team that has already been eliminated from playoff contention with two games to go. The Eagles have no shortage of needs to address, and they will struggle to address them all in one offseason. They took the long view when they traded up last spring for Carson Wentz, and they'll need to continue to do so for the foreseeable future. The most controversial implication is that wide receiver might have to wait another year. Hopefully, that will make sense by the end of this list.
Without further adieu, the blueprint for the 2017 offseason:
1) Say farewell to Connor Barwin.
Joe Banner took plenty of heat for his head-over-heart approach to the job during the Andy Reid-Donovan McNabb Era, but it was the right approach, and it is the one Howie Roseman, Banner's former acolyte, will need to take with Barwin. The linebacker-turned-defensive end has represented the organization with class throughout his time in Philly, but the simple truth is the Eagles cannot allocate $27-plus million of their cap to defensive ends. That's especially true, given that Barwin is not a natural defensive end, a fact that has been evident throughout the season. Even he seems to understand, judging by his comments to the Inquirer last week. The Eagles can save $7.75 million in salary by releasing the veteran, and they are in a position where they can't afford not to do it.
2) Cut Ryan Mathews and Leodis McKelvin.
This would free up another $7 million or so against the 2017 cap.
3) Have a nice long talk with Jason Peters' agent, but keep him around at $11 million if need be.
Coach Doug Pederson said Wednesday that he thinks Jason Peters can give him another healthy season or two at left tackle, and that's a good thing, because he really has no other options. The Eagles' coach could have drawn on an answer he provided earlier in the week about starting Lane Johnson.
Who else do I have?
Cutting Peters and investing some of the $9 million savings would make plenty of sense if the Eagles were guaranteed to find an equivalent player in free agency, but the pickings are slim. While Pro Bowl selections are hardly accurate barometers of a player's performance, Peters has been more productive than anybody could have assumed, coming off an injury-plagued 2015 when he seemed to show his age. This week's Pro Bowl selection was deserved, and, while he won't play forever, the Eagles could end up in a situation where they are paying for an even bigger wild card.
The Ravens' Ricky Wagner was not among the tackles to sign a contract extension in recent weeks (Marcus Cannon and Ryan Schraeder), but is he worth the kind of contract he could command on a market desperate for pass protectors?
Other names due to hit free agency include the Patriots' Sebastian Vollmer, who has spent the season on the PUP list, the Vikings' Matt Kalil, who will be coming off hip surgery, and former Lions first-round pick Riley Reiff, who is six years younger than Peters but has been a lesser performer. Pederson clearly knows what they say about a bird in hand, and it's hard to argue with him after watching the way his offense was limited in the wake of Lane Johnson's 10-game suspension.
The solution could be to rework Peters' deal in a manner that bumps up the total cash he'll receive while spreading the cap hit over two or three years instead of one. That said, if the choice is keeping Peters at $11 million or searching for a new tackle on the market, the first option might be the better of the two.
4) Make a cornerback the biggest free-agent signing, and don't stop there.
Put it this way: if there is a player on the level of Janoris Jenkins or Josh Norman to be had, the Eagles should make him priority No. 1. It will be expensive. The going rate for an elite shutdown player such as Norman is upward of $15 million per year in cap dollars, and a Pro Bowl-caliber player such as Jenkins around $12 million, based on last year's market. The Eagles might only have $15 million or so in cap dollars if they keep Peters at his current number, but their best strategy at this point might be to pour their free-agent resources into the defense. Build a dominant defense and it gives your offense all kinds of leeway. Witness the Seahawks in the early years of the Pete Carroll regime.
None of them will come cheap, if they even reach the market, but, at the moment, the Rams' Trumaine Johnson, the Bills' Stephon Gilmore and the Texans' A.J. Bouye are all projected to be free agents. Bouye doesn't have the name recognition of the other two, but he's been an important contributor on a solid Texans pass defense. The draft is supposed to be extremely deep at cornerback, but that shouldn't affect the Eagles' plans. Remember, the best way to build the offensive line is through the draft. Secondaries are easier to build via free agency, albeit at a steep price. If the Eagles can add a legit No. 1 corner, a lesser-priced veteran depth piece, and a rookie in the first two or three rounds, they'll have the depth they've lacked all season. This enables Malcolm Jenkins to play more of a safety role, gives Jim Schwartz more flexibility with his deployment of Jalen Mills and Ron Brooks, assuming the latter is healthy.
5) Pray for Isaac Seumalo, Halapoulivaati Vaitai and Dillon Gordon.
There's a reason why three-quarters of the NFL seems to have struggles up front. Look at the units that are the exceptions and you'll see they were built almost exclusively with players who were drafted and developed over a period of years. Remember, Peters himself began his first NFL season on the Bills' practice squad. The Eagles clearly could use more veteran depth than they carried this season, but they knew that last season, and the best they could do was Stefen Wisniewski.
The reality is the future will be written by the Eagles' performance in the draft. As important as this year's edition will be, the development of last year's guys will be just as key. This might not be a sexy prescription. But, then, such is life.