Now that they’ve hired a new coach and found a new home for Carson Wentz, the next order of business for general manager Howie Roseman and the Eagles is getting the salary cap in order by the start of the league year March 17.
On paper, this might seem like a Herculean task. The NFL informed teams two weeks ago that the 2021 cap will be no lower than $180 million. The Eagles were $42.9 million over that figure before releasing wide receiver DeSean Jackson last week. Only the New Orleans Saints (+$69.5 million, according to overthecap.com) were in worse cap shape.
But the Eagles’ situation is not as dire as it seems.
Jackson’s release saved the Eagles $4.8 million. In a much more significant cap move, Roseman restructured the contracts of two other players he plans to release soon — wide receiver Alshon Jeffery and defensive tackle Malik Jackson — in early January.
By using a post-June 1 designation on both players, the Eagles can cut them before the start of the league year on March 17 and prevent future cap charges from accelerating into this year. In a nutshell, $21 million of the $31 million in “dead money” charges on Jeffery’s and Jackson’s contracts will be pushed into 2022.
“For lack of a better term, this is the lowest hanging fruit in solving the problem,” former Eagles president Joe Banner said. “It provides a way to kind of manage your cap over two years as opposed to one year at a time. They’re not getting out of these charges. They’re just spreading them out over a longer period of time.”
The league’s pandemic-related revenue losses are the reason for the decrease in the cap, which was $198.2 million in 2020. Between 2012 and 2020, the cap had risen $120.6 million.
The 2021 cap number isn’t final yet. Some, including Banner, think it could end up being as high as $185 million this year.
Into the future
With new TV deals and other additional revenue sources on the horizon, the 2022 cap is expected to increase substantially. Add to that the fact that Wentz’s contract, which includes a $33.8 million cap hit this year, will be coming off the books. Bottom line: pushing $21 million from Jeffery and Jackson’s contract into 2022 won’t be a problem.
Even if the cap ends up being $180 million, that will leave the Eagles with just a little more than $17 million to trim. Roseman should be able to do that without making a lot of drastic moves.
It appears likely that they’re going to trade or release 30-year-old Pro Bowl tight end Zach Ertz, who is entering the final year of his contract. Ertz has a $12.4 million cap charge in 2021. The Eagles will save $4.7 million in cap space by trading or cutting Ertz. Time will tell whether he is the only significant veteran traded or released. But the Eagles have indicated that they don’t want to get rid of players that they feel are going to be a part of their team in 2022 and 2023.
Roseman is expected to move numbers more than bodies to get under the cap. It’s more likely than not that both defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and defensive end Brandon Graham will be back.
Banner thinks the Eagles will restructure Cox’s massive contract, which has two more years to run. Aside from Wentz’s dead-money cap charge, Cox’s $23.9 million cap number for 2021 is the highest on the team.
He also thinks they’ll end up giving the 32-year-old Graham, who is in the final year of his deal with a $17.9 million cap number, a modest extension that would significantly lower his 2021 cap number and keep him in Philadelphia two more years.
“Once you’re down to $20 million, you can give Graham an extension, you can restructure Cox, you can move on from Ertz, and you’re almost there,” Banner said. “And you haven’t done anything all that damaging, even to the short-term.
“Given Graham’s age, would you rather just let him play the last year of his contract vs. giving him some kind of extension? Probably. But it’s not a big deal.
“Would you rather not restructure somebody like Cox and increase his future charges? Yeah. But if you need to, it’s not that big of a deal. Perfect world, you’d probably like to have Ertz for one more year and see him and (Dallas) Goedert healthy and playing together and see how that goes. But that’s a luxury you probably don’t have.
“These aren’t ideal situations. But they’re not like other teams we’ve seen that have had to go in and take a machete to their roster because their cap situation is so out of control. This isn’t anything close to anything like that.”
The fact that Wentz will be off their books after this season gives them the flexibility to push money into the future. Jalen Hurts’ 2022 cap number is just $1.6 million.
Even if they select another quarterback in the draft next month, it will barely cause a ripple on their cap over the next three years. Justin Herbert, who was taken by the Chargers with the sixth overall pick last year, has cap numbers of $6 million in 2021, $7.2 million in ’22, and $8.4 million in ’23.
The Eagles exercised the fifth-year option on defensive end Derek Barnett last spring. He’s scheduled to earn $10 million this year, and some have pointed to him as a prime candidate to be traded or released, particularly given the cap space his departure would create.
But after trading Wentz, would Roseman really be willing to throw in the towel on another first-round pick?
Barnett is only 24 years old. In 27 games over the last two seasons, he’s notched 12 sacks and 79 total quarterback pressures. Those are decent, but certainly not exceptional numbers. Unless the new coaching staff just really doesn’t like Barnett, it seems more probable that the Eagles will try to sign Barnett to a new deal, which would also would lower his 2021 cap charge.
While the Eagles have suggested that 2021 will be a rebuilding or reloading year, the fact of the matter is they are in the godawful NFC East. So while they are focused on getting younger and faster and accumulating draft picks, they’re not going to hold a garage sale and gut their roster.
“Their focus right now clearly is on the future, beyond 2021,” Banner said. “But I also think they know there’s reason not to be overly pessimistic about their ability to be at least competitive on the way to getting better in 2022, particularly if Hurts turns out to be what they hope.”
Right tackle Lane Johnson and right guard Brandon Brooks count a combined $32.3 million against the Eagles’ cap next season. But with 33-year-old center Jason Kelce considering retirement, they are the heart and soul of the offensive line. Both are more likely to be restructuring candidates than trade/release candidates.
Free agent shopping
It’s been assumed that, because of their cap problems, the Eagles will have to sit out the free agent signing period. But even that’s not necessarily true.
While they won’t have the wherewithal to sign the top free agents on the market like they did last year when they traded for cornerback Darius Slay and signed defensive tackle Javon Hargrave, Banner thinks they should be able to create enough cap space to sign one or two “second-tier’' free agents that they’ll be able to get cheap because of the market glut of players created by the smaller cap.
An example of the impact of the cap on other teams: on Wednesday, the Raiders cut wide receiver Tyrell Williams two years after giving him a two-year, $44 million deal. Williams, who missed the entire 2020 season with a torn labrum, was a 1,000-yard receiver for Nick Sirianni in 2016 when Sirianni was the Chargers’ wide receivers coach.
There will be other bargains available at other positions.
“There will be some safeties that aren’t premier players, but because there are going to be so many safeties available, somebody in the league will end up signing some mid-priced safety who will turn out to be a stud,” Banner said.
“We’ll see a fair number of those across the league. And the Eagles would be a prime candidate because they understand this. They don’t get locked into their guys. And they’re open-minded to being aggressive. They’re always looking for a chance to even create small incremental improvements.”