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February 27, 2021

The Eagles' salary cap situation might not be as dire as you think

But that doesn't mean they're suddenly going to have a ton of money to spend in free agency.

Understanding the ins and outs of the NFL salary structure sometimes feels like it requires a PhD in caponomics, a totally made up thing that I just invented. 

But it's true — if you don't spend a lot of time studying it, you're going to come off looking like a fool every time you try to discuss it. Trust me, I'm speaking from experience. Like, are you 100% sure you understand how dead-money cap charges work? What makes a post-June 1 release different? And what the difference is between guaranteed money, signing bonuses, roster bonuses, player incentives and cap hits? Because they're all very different things and mixing them up could be the difference between you thinking a player makes $10 million, $20 million or even $25 million per year. And that's just the beginning. 

It's why I always ask for help from our Eagles expert, Jimmy Kempski, every time I mention anything involving a player's contract, especially when it has to do with that player's cap hit. (I actually asked him twice this time.) And it's why there are entire websites dedicated just to breaking down NFL players' contracts, like OverTheCap, a resource still used by those who understand the salary cap more than most. 

Even after doing extensive research on the subject, it can still feel like some of these designations are totally made up, or that they exist exclusively to confuse everyone involved. Except, that is, the teams themselves. 

The Eagles, specifically Howie Roseman, like to consider themselves cap experts, and it's a moniker that's been given to the Birds GM in recent years as he always seems to be able to remain aggressive in acquiring players despite the pesky salary cap. For the most part, he's been able to do that by extending big-money players for more years at a lower yearly cap hit and essentially kicking the can down the road to future years when the cap is expected to be higher. That's an oversimplification of how Roseman operates, but it's the most important part in terms of the Eagles' 2021 cap situation — and it's why he's facing even more criticism in this department than in recent years. 

He might not be mentioned by name in that subtweet, but Brandt's point certainly applies to the Eagles GM. And this year, Roseman has been hit with a perfect storm: a lower salary cap, an aging roster full of expensive veterans, and a lack of talented recent draft picks to cheaply replace them, the last two of which can be directly attributed to Roseman. Oh, and the team was one of the worst in the NFL last season.

First, there's the salary cap, which for the first time in recent memory is actually going to be lower in 2021 than it was in 2020. Nearly $200 million last season, the cap will have a floor of $180 million this year following a year of lessened revenue due to the COVID-19 restrictions. It could be higher, but it likely won't come close to approaching that $200 million number. 

And that's bad news for the Eagles, who were already expected to be over the cap by a considerable amount this season, but would've been able to more easily manage if the cap increased again like it had done each previous year. Instead, the cap is moving the other way, and Roseman and Co. now find themselves with the second most money over the cap (behind only the Saints) and in need of a quick fix before the new league year begins in mid-March. That would be one thing if the Eagles were a good team in 2020, but they were the opposite — and now have to make significant cuts just to get under the cap. 

Currently, the Eagles are currently projected to be more than $38 million over the cap (give or take, depending on where you look) after releasing DeSean Jackson last week, which provided a savings of just under $5 million. That leaves them with a lot of work to do — and could make it extremely difficult to add anything in the way of proven talent once free agency opens in a couple weeks.

All offseason, that's been the big concern for Eagles fans. Well, after figuring out who the new coach would be and getting some closure to the Carson Wentz saga, that is. Now, as fans begin to look forward to the fun part of the offseason, they're doing so with dread, wondering if their team will even be able to address any of their many holes in free agency or if they'll be stuck making marginal moves and hoping for the best in the draft.

That's why I was surprised to come across Paul Domowitch's latest convo with former Eagles president Joe Banner, which came under the headline: "Cancel that garage sale: Eagles’ salary-cap situation not as bleak as it first appeared."

As it turns out, none of us are salary cap experts — then again, I never claimed to be. But Banner, who spent two decades in NFL front offices, including 18 right here in Philadelphia is certainly someone who can be considered an expert when it comes to the ins and outs of the cap, even if he's been out of football for the last half decade. And Banner doesn't seem to believe the Eagles' situation is as dire as some think  

In fact, he doesn't think it will be all that difficult for Roseman and Co. to get the Birds below the $180 million mark over the next couple of weeks. 

In addition to releasing DeSean Jackson, the Eagles recently restructured the contracts of Alshon Jeffery and Malik Jackson, which will allow Roseman a bit of instant cap relief. It will allow Philly to cut both players after the new league year begins (on March 17) and by using post-June 1 designations, they will significantly reduce both players' dead money cap hits in 2021. How? Well, by using that post-June 1 designation, $21 million of the $31 million the Eagles owe the pair will be pushed back a year on the ledger to 2022, according to The Inquirer.

Unfortunately for the Eagles, they won't be able to make those moves until after the new league year begins, but Roseman needs to get his team below the cap before the new league year begins. While those moves won't have much impact on the front end given their timing, the Eagles will still get that relief once they are actually released. And with the Birds already needing to be under the cap by that point, that's a significant amount of money they can put toward upgrades. 

Sure, it is Roseman again "kicking the can down the road" and avoiding paying the full price in 2021, like they are for Wentz, but the cap is expected to increase dramatically in 2022. Not only that, but Wentz's massive deal will be entirely off the books, which should allow for the Eagles to fit in this dead money hit while still leaving them room to improve their roster. Furthermore, Jalen Hurts or whatever quarterback the Eagles draft this April (if they opt to go that route) will also be on cheaper rookie deals.

With that $21 million not coming off the books until after the new league year starts, that still leaves the Eagles with a lot of work to do over the next couple of weeks. But, after his convo with Banner, Domo thinks the Eagles can get that done without making "a lot of drastic moves."

The most drastic of the bunch will be the somewhat expected trade (or, more likely, release) of Zach Ertz. The 30-year-old Pro Bowl tight end is entering the final year of his contract and has a $12.4 million cap hit. If they cut him before the league year starts, they can save $4.7 million. But a trade becomes a more difficult proposition. Any trade won't be official until after the new league year starts, so if they go that route, any cap relief wouldn't come in time to get the Eagles under the limit, not unlike Jeffery and Jackson, and Roseman is going to need to ensure that at least some of this savings arrive in time for March 17. That's why it actually makes more sense, as upsetting as it might be for some fans, for the Eagles to release Ertz than trade him for for a late-round pick. 

Ertz likely won't be the only veteran to feel the pressure of this roster crunch, although he may be the biggest (or at least the most beloved) domino to fall. With the Eagles in a rebuild — Jeffrey Lurie used the term "transition" back in January — they're likely going to look to move on from any players who they believe won't still be contributors beyond the 2022 season as they try to get younger, cheaper and eventually better. At least that's the goal.

There are also some big moves that could be coming on the defensive line, although it will more likely come in the form of restructures than shipping anyone out. Here's more from Domo's convo with Banner

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.  [...]

“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.”  []

And there are other candidates as well, like Derek Barnett, who had his fifth-year optioned exercised in 2020 and is on track to make $10 million this year. The Eagles could simply sign him to a new deal, guarantee some more years and lower his 2021 cap hit considerably. They could also look to re-work deals with offensive linemen Lane Johnson and Brandon Brooks, who are scheduled to count for a combined $32.3 million against the cap this season but combined to play just seven games last year (all of them by Johnson after Brooks suffered a second ruptured Achilles' tendon last offseason). 

If the Eagles are able to get all these restructures done before March 17, coupled with other moves like releasing Ertz and others, then they should be able to come in under the cap in time. How far under exactly remains to be seen — and will go a large way toward informing Roseman and Co. how much they can spend in free agency — but it's again worth noting that the Jackson and Jeffery moves won't be done until after the new league begins, which will provide even greater relief once the league year begins. 

It still won't be a ton of money to work with, but with the state of their current roster, they'll need all they can get.

Follow Matt on Twitter: @matt_mullin

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