Outside of retaining and releasing their own players, the Philadelphia Eagles have stayed relatively quiet in the free-agent market. General manager Howie Roseman locked up wide receivers Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper—but to just one and (pretty much) two-year deals, respectively.
Offensive linemen Jason Peters and Jason Kelce received much-deserved contract extensions, which locks up the entire offensive line for at least three more seasons. Still, the only free agents from other teams that Roseman managed to signed was safety Malcolm Jenkins (three years, $15.5 million), reserve cornerback Nolan Carroll and a pair of special teams players in Chris Maragos and Bryan Braman. That doesn't do much to improve the Eagles' defense heading into 2014, which means Roseman either really trusts coordinator Billy Davis or plans to target this unit in the upcoming NFL draft.
And of course, there was the shocking release of veteran Pro Bowl receiver DeSean Jackson, a superstar who put together a career season in 2013 at the ripe age of 27. Regardless of why the Eagles felt it was best to continue their franchise without their most electrifying pass-catcher, a new era will begin in Philadelphia in 2014.
The upcoming NFL draft would be Roseman's best opportunity to improve the roster while bringing in cheap talent.
Not only would this give Davis some young defenders to work with, but it would keep the Eagles in the best cap space possible heading into 2014 and then 2015. And that's good news, because the team is second to just the New England Patriots in dollars tied up to players for the '15 campaign, per Overthecap.com.
That in no way means Philadelphia is in cap trouble. The Eagles are way on the safe side of the salary cap heading into this May's draft (EaglesCap.com lists them as having just over $20 million still to spare), which means Roseman trusts the team from last year while having one eye on the future. And there's the fact that the 2015 cap figure will rise to an all-time high of $142 million.
Aside from the 2011 "Dream Team" debacle, Roseman has proven to be one of the best in the business in terms of managing a team's finances. In fact, he was originally hired by the franchise as a salary-cap specialist. There is plenty of time to restructure or release players before 2015, but Roseman will certainly be tested. After all, the Eagles have $133 million tied up to its players for 2015, per Overthecap.com.
If Nick Foles plays as well as he did in '13, he will certainly command a big contract extension. In fact, four 2012 draft picks could be due for a payday—Foles, defensive end Fletcher Cox, linebacker Mychal Kendricks and cornerback Brandon Boykin. Paying those players will be difficult, although the Eagles are helped out by the cap increase, and the fact that Jackson is no longer on the roster. For now, here's a glimpse at the cap hits of the highest-paid players for the 2015 season.
Will All of These Players Still Be On the Roster?
No, not all of these players will be on the '15 roster, so this projection isn't as bad as it looks.
Veteran pass-rusher Trent Cole will have to take a pay cut or be released, because there's no way the team pays him $11.6 million in base salary. Linebacker DeMeco Ryans had a solid season in 2013, but his $6.8 million base salary is a lot for next year. Considering he doesn't rate well in pass coverage and will be a 10-year veteran, he's not likely to make the 2015 roster.
Other potential cuts include a handful of veterans in Cary Williams, Connor Barwin, Todd Herremans, Brent Celek and James Casey.
Williams' ridiculous $8.1 million cap hit for 2015 makes him almost a foregone conclusion to be released, unless he's willing take a sizeable pay cut that may have to reduce his salary by half. For the way he played in 2013, let's assume Barwin returns in '15 as does either Herremans or Celek (they make about the same amount of money).
Casey may not even make the 2014 team at that salary. It is difficult to project what Cole will do, but his invaluable presence as a longtime Eagle leads me to believe he will restructure and return in 2015.
Cutting Ryans, Williams, Casey and Herremans or Cele will free up about $20 million from the 2015 cap. Bringing back Cole at about $4 million would save another $7.5 million, putting the Eagles closer to $38 million in available cap space. Nolan Carroll is likely to be a release, given that he’s going to make $2.9 million in 2015 as a dime corner, so that’s another approximately $3 million that the Eagles save.
What Is the Impact of the Jackson Release?
The Jackson contract is already factored in, but even if he wasn't released this offseason (especially in such a shocking way), he likely wasn't coming back in 2015 at another $10 million-plus salary.
Kelly just doesn’t believe in paying that much for one player in his offense, especially a receiver with a limited skill set, no matter how effective he was last season. Obviously Kelly has to be hoping he can take a speedster receiver like Brandin Cooks in the first round of this year and pay him $3 million to approximate what Jackson would likely do for $10-12 million.
What the Jackson release does mean is that Jeremy Maclin becomes a higher priority. Maclin is back with the Eagles in 2014 on a one-year deal, but there’s a good chance he gets a contract extension next offseason. Both Jackson and Cooper put up career-best numbers in Kelly’s system, as did Foles and McCoy.
Assuming Maclin’s surgically repaired knee does hold up, he’s a good bet for 1,000-1,200 yards, and that should bring him a new contract with the team. The Eagles have to know Cooper isn’t much more than a mediocre No. 2 receiver, and his contract was wisely constructed as to allow the Eagles an escape after the 2015 campaign.
A four-year deal for about $6 million per season may be a reasonable prediction for Maclin, so that’s another $6 million or so to add to the team’s cap.
The Eagles now have about $35 million to spend.
Which Players Are Due for Pay Raises?
That's good news in a way, because the Eagles will have to pay the aforementioned 2012 draft picks: Cox, Kendricks, Foles and Boykin. Those four players are each signed through 2015, so the team could wait until after that season to give them new contracts (or they could let them walk).
But it’s customary that an organization extends a key player early or risk what happened with DeSean Jackson during ’11 when he played halfheartedly all season. There’s reason to believe this quartet of players is a key part of the future.
Cox is a lock to come back.
The top interior linemen in the NFL make about $10-12 million per season, but Cox isn't in the class of Ndamukong Suh, Gerald McCoy or Haloti Ngata. A safer estimate for Cox may be about the $6-7 million Desmond Bryant received on a five-year deal; that would probably pay Cox about $5 million in year one (2015).
Kendricks still misses too many tackles and he can struggle in pass coverage. He also showed a knack to come up with big plays down the stretch last December, and his 4.47 speed means he's a keeper. Kendricks should safely command $35-40 million over five years, which is in the line of inside linebackers like Daryl Washington or Dannell Ellerbe. If Kendricks' less-talented teammate Ryans is making $7.5 million per season, that may be Kendricks' asking price.
Those two players will add at least $11 million to the '15 cap, and cornerback Brandon Boykin will have to be paid as well.
There's a chance the Eagles may allow Boykin to reach free agency before they pay him. After all, he was tremendous in 2013 (six clutch interceptions, including a division-preserving one). But he doesn't play on the outside, and he likely won't next season if Williams and free-agent-to-be Bradley Fletcher are back. The market price for budding young star defensive players is at least $6-7 million per season, and Roseman may not be thrilled at paying that for his nickel back.
If Fletcher walks in free agency and the Eagles don't sign a veteran to start in his place (or draft one this May), Boykin will be able to start in 2015. Otherwise, he may go through his third season as the nickel cover corner, which will affect his market price with the organization. For now, let's compromise and assume Boykin is extended but at a team-friendly deal that pays him just $3-4 million in '15.
That means the '12 draft class has added about $15 million to the cap and has about $20 million to spend.
Will Nick Foles Put Them over the Cap?
And there's still Foles, who is far and away the biggest question mark of them all. Kelly coaxed a Pro Bowl season out of Foles, one that many didn't think was remotely possible.
Foles turned Cooper into a $25 million downfield threat, he got better numbers out of Jackson than anyone else has been able to, and he challenged league records in key passing-efficiency numbers, namely passer rating and yards per attempt. He did all that while throwing deep at a higher clip (17.4 percent of the time, per PFF) than any other quarterback in the game.
Foles won't have it quite as easy in 2014.
Jackson isn't back; the New York Giants added star cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and opposing defenses will have a full season for which to prepare for Foles. If the third-year QB takes a major step back and the Eagles miss the playoffs, he either won't be back in 2015 or he will play on his rookie deal still. Maybe Kelly will even swap him somewhere and try to grab his last quarterback at the University of Oregon, Marcus Mariota, or another quarterback entering the draft.
If Foles plays well and gets a contract extension, he's going to earn a lot of money. The top quarterbacks in the game—Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Aaron Rodgers—are out of Foles' class and thus not fair comparisons. What Foles' 2012 draft-class contemporaries (Andrew Luck, RGIII, and Russell Wilson, plus 2011 draft picks, Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton) get will obviously play a major role in what Foles commands.
Because he possesses a more limited skill set, Foles should receive less than each of those. And Kelly obviously plays a great hand in the success Foles has had.
Second-tier quarterbacks like Jay Cutler, Matthew Stafford, Matt Ryan, Tony Romo and Philip Rivers are fairer comparisons. (Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco are not because they've won Super Bowl MVPs). Those five make an average of $17-18 million per season.
That's a lot of money. That's said to be the asking price of the 49ers' Kaepernick, which means the other young quarterbacks should receive about that much.
Because Roseman is so good at working out team-friendly, long-term deals, I'm inclined to believe he comes away having locked up Foles at a "steal" of a price. That may be $60 million over four to five years, although obviously that average annual value will rise with each playoff game Foles wins in 2014.
A fair estimate for the first year of Foles' long-term deal is $9-10 million, although obviously anything could happen. This leaves the Eagles with maybe $10-11 million to spend.
What about the 2014 and 2015 Rookies?
Don’t forget that the Eagles will have to pay their rookies from the next two draft classes. Philadelphia picks 22nd overall in 2014. Last year’s 22nd overall pick, Desmond Trufant, earned $1.48 million against the cap as a rookie. It’s safe to assume this year’s player will earn about the same (let’s say $1.6 million, allowing for inflation).
The average middle second-round pick earned about $670,000, and obviously the third- and fourth- and fifth-round rookies are going to earn even less. In all, a rookie draft class might add just $4 million to a team’s cap. That means the Eagles will have to pay about another $8-9 million to their 2015 cap, which puts them with just a few million dollars to spend.
What about Any Other Free Agents?
Maclin’s potential new deal was already covered, but the Eagles will have decisions to make with a few other players on their roster. Peters and Kelce were already extended, so they won’t be hitting free agency after 2014.
Fletcher is likely gone because of the emergence of Boykin at cornerback (although Fletcher has no cap hit for 2015 so that doesn’t affect the projectons). Cedric Thornton is a restricted free agent after 2014, and he’s played well enough that he should get a new deal at maybe $4 million or so per year. Alex Henery will be a free agent, but it’s logical to assume the team drafts a new kicker given Henery’s limitations.
Should the Eagles want to sign free agents around the league, they’re not going to have much money.
That means players on the bubble may not be back. Barwin may end up being released. Malcolm Jenkins’ deal is constructed so that if he doesn’t play particularly well in 2014 (if he’s the next Patrick Chung), the Eagles can release him after one year and save $2.3 million.
A closer look at the 2015 Eagles’ salaries shows there are anywhere from 10-15 players—G.J. Kinne, B.J. Cunningham and Matthew Tucker, for example—who won’t make the team; since they’re each making about the league’s minimum, that could give Roseman another $5-7 million to spend.
So Are the Eagles in Trouble?
It doesn’t appear like the Eagles are in trouble, particularly because of Roseman’s unique ability to maneuver the cap so well. Much of Philadelphia’s cap savings in 2015 could be tied to Foles’ performance, as well as Roseman and Kelly’s ability to identify talent in the next two drafts and add players for cheap prices.
This could possibly be Roseman’s biggest test yet, and it’s his best bet to prove he’s better than the general manager who mishandled the 2011 season so badly.