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January 18, 2016

Eagles should let Sam Bradford go, but not without compensation

Eagles NFL
011716SamBradford Julio Cortez/AP

Sleevy Wonder should be one and done in Philly.

The Eagles aren't going to be Super Bowl contenders in 2016. And really, they're not even close. A self-realization of that reality should be the starting point to this upcoming offseason.

One of the major decisions the Eagles face this offseason is what to do with Sam Bradford. Philly's fan base got a jump-start on that debate long before the season was even over. Some believe the Eagles should go in a different direction at quarterback, while others believe Bradford should stay.

The "Bradford should stay" people often ask the "Bradford should go" people something to the effect of, "If Bradford isn't the starter, who are the Eagles going to get who is going to be better than him next season?" The answer is probably nobody, but it really doesn't matter. Because, again, I'll repeat...

The Eagles aren't going to be Super Bowl contenders in 2016. And really, they're not even close. A self-realization of that reality should be the starting point to this upcoming offseason.

Bradford was OK in 2015. He stunk early on, and while you can certainly put blame on his receivers for dropping passes, it's not as if Bradford showed many traits that make for a good quarterback, such as accuracy, arm strength, mobility, ability to throw on the run, and decision making. As the season progressed, Bradford did get significantly better, although the bar for improvement was low. Still, on the eye test, his accuracy and decision making improved.

Here are Bradford's numbers over his first seven games and his last seven games:

 Sam BradfordComp-Att-% Yards (YPA) TD-INT Rating 
 First 7 games170-274 (62%) 1766 (6.4)9-10 76.4 
 Last 7 games176-258 (68.2%) 1959 (7.6)10-4 97.0 

On the season as a whole, Bradford ranked 24th in Football Outsiders' DVOA metric, sandwiched in between Josh McCown and Blake Bortles.

Bradford's numbers in the second half of the season were good, but let's be careful not to overrate them. For example, here's how the two quarterbacks playing on Sunday in the divisional playoff round fared in their last seven games, compared with Bradford:

Player Comp-Att-(%) Yards (YPA) TD-INT Rating 
 Russell Wilson154-217 (71%) 1906 (8.8)24-1 132.8 
 Cam Newton143-224 (63.8%) 1800 (8.0)20-1 116.7 
 Sam Bradford176-258 (68.2%) 1959 (7.6)10-4 97.0

Wilson also had 198 rushing yards and a rushing TD. Newton had 270 rushing yards and 4 rushing TDs. Bradford had 7 rushing yards, no TDs. Newton and Wilson are examples of players who truly had impressive stretches of quarterback play, not what we saw from Bradford to close the season.

In fact, Bradford's competent second half of the season was basically the same as Cowboys and Texans quarterback Brandon freaking Weeden's entire season:

Player Comp-Att-(%) Yards TD-INT Rating 
 Sam Bradford176-258 (68.2%) 1959 (7.6) 10-4 97.0 
Brandon Weeden 97-140 (69.3%) 1043 (7.5) 5-2 96.8 

Bradford's and Weeden's completion percentages, yards per pass attempt, TD:INT ratio, and QB rating were basically the same. To be clear, nobody here is lobbying for the Eagles to go out and sign Brandon Weeden. We're just putting perspective on the numbers Bradford put up during what was the best stretch of his season.

The money

Despite what we pointed out above, Sam Bradford is going to get paid by some team this offseason. Cap experts mostly seem to be in agreement that Bradford's deal is going to net him somewhere in the ballpark of $18 million to $20 million per season. With the 2016 salary cap reportedly falling somewhere between $150 million and $153.4 million, Bradford is going to eat up somewhere around 12% of a team's cap. 

That's fine if we're talking about a premium quarterback. However, Bradford has already been in the league for six seasons and is somehow still a projection. He has missed 33 games over those six years, and has never experienced a winning season.

Still, a team desperate for quality quarterback play that thinks it can contend in 2016 might be willing to take a chance on Bradford, kinda like the Eagles did last year. If the Eagles don't sign Bradford to a long term deal, he's going to easily be the best veteran option available on the open market.

From the Eagles' perspective, paying Bradford somewhere around $20 million per season does not make sense, because again, say it with me...

The Eagles aren't going to be Super Bowl contenders in 2016. And really, they're not even close. A self-realization of that reality should be the starting point to this upcoming offseason.

So should the Eagles just let him walk in free agency?

God no.

Why not?

Well, he has value. And not only that, he certainly has more value than he did a year ago. Last year, if you'll recall, Bradford was coming off two ACL tears, from which he was not fully recovered when the Birds traded a second round pick and Nick Foles for him, while also taking on his $13 million salary.

Bradford barely moved throughout OTAs, minicamp, and the beginning of training camp, as I tried to warn people in my practice notes back in August:

The Eagles' first preseason game is only four days away, and Sam Bradford has yet to make anything close to an athletic move with his legs through OTAs, minicamp, and the beginning of training camp. That would be 17 practices in total that have been open to the media. While he has come a long way in terms of mobility since he first took the field at the end of May, he still looks like he has a ways to go.
The closest he came to an athletic play with his feet was during one of the practices at Lincoln Financial Field where a lane opened up in the middle of the field, and he ran it past the line of scrimmage for a few yards. He then stopped and dropped the ball for the next play. Otherwise, I cannot recall another time he has attempted to tuck it and run, again, in 17 practices.
To note, quarterbacks run the ball with regularity in (Chip Kelly's) training camps. Typically, if nobody is open, they can either throw it away, or try to extend the play by escaping the pocket, rolling out, and eventually turning it upfield. Mark Sanchez has done it quite a bit. Matt Barkley has done it, and even had a TD run today. Nick Foles did it regularly when he was here. And Lord knows Tim Tebow does it like 30 times per practice (estimated). It's just a normal thing that happens during practice. But save for that one run jog up the middle at the Linc, there's been none of it from Bradford.

Any team acquiring Bradford will get a "healthy as he's ever going to be" version of him, not the one we saw throughout the summer. They would also be getting a guy who again, never really lit it up in 2015, but got better as the season progressed.

And finally, never underestimate the ego of an NFL head coach. Bradford was a stud prospect coming out of Oklahoma. He was a clear-cut "#1 overall" type of prospect who was thought to have it all -- accuracy, a live arm, underrated mobility, and smarts. Many coaches will look at that and think, "Yeah, he has struggled, but he was never coached by me."

So what should the Eagles do?

The Eagles should franchise tag Bradford

The franchise tag for quarterbacks in 2016 will likely be a shade over $20 million. The Eagles should use their tag on Bradford, and then let Bradford's camp work out a long-term contract with some other team.

One team that successfully tried this approach was the Patriots in 2009, when they tagged-and-traded Matt Cassel. After Tom Brady went down with a torn ACL Week 1 of the 2008 season, Cassel took over. Much like Bradford, Cassel's second half of the season was stronger than his first half of the season:

 Matt CasselComp-Att-% Yards (YPA) TD-INT Rating 
 First 8 games156-233 (67%) 1566 (6.7)7-7 83.4 
 Last 8 games171-283 (60.4%) 2127 (7.5)14-4 94.4 

Seeing some upside with Cassel, the Chiefs traded a very high second round pick (34th overall) for Cassel and linebacker Mike Vrabel. Using that trade as a measuring stick, Bradford comes with a higher upside than Cassel ever did. By that logic, it's not out of the question for the Eagles to expect at least a second round pick in return, and possibly more.

So which teams would make the most sense to trade for Bradford?

My top four, in no particular order:

Texans: Brian Hoyer was 15 of 34 for 136 yards, 0 TD, 4 INT, with a QB rating of 15.9 in the Texans' playoff game against the Chiefs. They got shut out 30-0. The Texans have a strong roster, with an elite wide receiver in DeAndre Hopkins, who could benefit from better quarterback play.

Jets: Again, the Jets have a strong roster, and outstanding weapons in the passing game, but a questionable quarterback in Ryan Fitzpatrick, who is a free agent this offseason.

49ers: Could Chip Kelly trade for Bradford two years in a row?

Browns: The Browns were reportedly willing to trade a first-round pick for Bradford last offseason, but they just fired their general manager and head coach, so the new regime may not be as high on him. The Browns pick second overall, and they'll have their pick of the litter from the crop of quarterbacks in the upcoming draft class. Still, there's a possibility that the Browns could determine that a positional player is rated far higher than any of those quarterbacks prospects, and determine that Bradford and a stud positional player could make more sense for their future.

But isn't there risk in tagging Bradford if you can't find a trade partner?

Sure. There's always the possibility that no team has interest in trading for him, as in, like, not even for a Matt Barkley-esque conditional seventh-round pick. I'd put the percentage on that somewhat near 0 percent.

There's also the possibility that Bradford could just sign his tag, and say, "Thanks, I'll just go ahead and play out this season at $20 million, please." That too seems rather unlikely. Not to bury the lede here, but according to several contacts, Bradford does not like Philadelphia. (Consider that a rumor more than a hard report, please.)

Therefore, the chances of him signing a franchise tag before the Eagles have a chance to trade him are slim to none, especially when Bradford and his agent would be free to explore his max worth.

All the above said, the worst case scenario is that Bradford signs his tag, and the Eagles pay him around $20 million for one more season to be their quarterback, which is what he's likely to be looking for on a per year basis on a long term deal anyway.

But then what do the Eagles have at quarterback in 2016 if they trade Bradford?

The short answer is "It doesn't really matter." Because again, one last time...

The Eagles aren't going to be Super Bowl contenders in 2016. And really, they're not even close. A self-realization of that reality should be the starting point to this upcoming offseason.

No matter what happens this offseason with Bradford, the Eagles must draft a quarterback. There are no shortcuts in finding a franchise quarterback. Almost any team that has a franchise quarterback drafted and groomed them. While there are no clear-cut "No. 1 or No. 2 overall" type quarterback prospects like there were a year ago with Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, this could be a very deep quarterback draft, with appealing options in rounds one, two, three, and beyond. The top three options extremely early in the draft process appear to be North Dakota State's Carson Wentz, Memphis' Paxton Lynch, and California's Jared Goff. The Eagles simply cannot miss out on a rookie quarterback to groom.

A draftee, paired with a "bridge quarterback" makes the most sense for where the Eagles are as a franchise. One such "bridge quarterback" could be the Chiefs' Chase Daniel.

Daniel is 29 years old, and 2016 will be his eighth year in the NFL. He is well-regarded, but has never gotten the chance to play, as he has been buried behind healthy quarterbacks like Drew Brees and Alex Smith. Daniel would be all too familiar with what new Eagles head coach Doug Pederson would expect of him. He could be a stable option at quarterback, with a twinge of "devil you don't know" upside, if that makes any sense.

(The Eagles would save $3.5 million by cutting Mark Sanchez, by the way.)

The Eagles could view a Daniel-rookie combo as their new 1-2 at quarterback, kind of similar to a "Doug Pederson - Donovan McNabb setup" under, you know, Pederson.

Get it done, "unclear collaborative team of Eagles' decision making."

Follow Jimmy on Twitter: @JimmyKempski

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