When the Seahawks decimated the Broncos 43-8 to win Super Bowl XLVIII, it felt as if Seattle’s reign over the rest of the NFL had only just begun. Quarterback Russell Wilson had finished the second season of a four-year contract set to pay him a total of $3 million. Bobby Wagner, Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, K.J. Wright, and Earl Thomas—the team’s homegrown defensive core—were all age 25 or younger. Defensive ends Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett weren’t even starters during the 2013 campaign.
As expected, Seattle’s run during those post-championship years was undeniably impressive. Head coach Pete Carroll’s team finished no. 1 in both scoring defense and Football Outsiders’ overall team DVOA in every season from 2012 to 2015, a straight-up ridiculous feat. Thanks to a savvy talent-retention approach that involved locking up key contributors before they came close to hitting the open market, the Seahawks were able to hang onto nearly every one of their stars as those players came off their rookie contracts. Yet as Seattle’s experience made plain, maintaining a loaded roster as players cash in becomes a high-wire act for even the shrewdest, most forward-thinking franchises.
Over time, the Seahawks front office was forced to make roster concessions. Wide receiver Golden Tate took a big deal with the Lions during 2014 free agency. The cornerback spot opposite Sherman became a revolving door and continuous problem area. One by one, each starting offensive lineman from the Super Bowl–winning team was either shipped out of town or allowed to walk. Seattle’s pass protection and the running game slowly deteriorated until reaching their nadir over the past two seasons. When teams are forced to juggle a roster full of excellent players on second contracts, choices have to be made, even in the expanding salary cap era. That’s the challenge now facing the newly minted Super Bowl champions.
From top to bottom, the Eagles boasted the NFL’s most stacked roster last season. Identifying holes in the first line of the Philadelphia depth chart (and the second, in many positions) required a level of pessimism that even pre-2017 Eagles fans probably had trouble mustering. The finished product was the main reason this team was able to sustain the myriad injuries it did over the course of last fall, from Jason Peters to Darren Sproles to Carson Wentz. As executive vice president of football operations Howie Roseman and the rest of the front office bunker down in the next month or so, their task will be figuring out how to maintain the majority of that roster as Philly gears up for its first title defense.
The Eagles’ current salary-cap situation, at a glance, would terrify any prudent financial planner. According to Over the Cap, Philly is about $9.7 million over the cap. Even Nicolas Cage would consider that to be reckless spending. The truth, though, is Roseman and Co. have recourse to get things back on track. Recent extensions to players like receiver Alshon Jeffery and defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan, who were poised to hit free agency, were inevitably going to put the Eagles in the red once the 2018 league year began. It’s now a matter of moving money around and trimming the edges of the roster to conserve cash.
Some of the cost-cutting moves seem fairly straightforward. Declining the option on receiver Torrey Smith would save the Eagles $5 million against the cap with no dead money, and 2017 fourth-round pick Mack Hollins is a cheap alternative who could take over if Smith is let go. Tight end Brent Celek is 33 years old and set to make $5 million this season. If the Eagles’ mainstay is retained, it’ll likely come at a smaller price. Stalwart left tackle Jason Peters is on the books for close to $10.7 million in 2018; it’s probable that the Eagles will at least ask the aging star to take a pay cut. And several top-end players, including defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and center Jason Kelce, could have a chunk of their salaries converted into signing bonuses to save money against this year’s cap. Philly will get where it needs to be financially; it’s just a matter of using the right cap acrobatics.
After the smoke-and-mirrors accounting, though, the tough decisions come into play. Part of the Eagles’ cap problem (a problem that every team in the league would love to have) is that nearly every one of their big-name players has been locked up on a long-term deal. The list is kind of hilarious: Lane Johnson, Zach Ertz, Malcolm Jenkins, Brandon Brooks, Kelce, Cox, Jernigan, and Jeffery. Seriously, read that list again. The foundation of this team is secure for at least the next couple of years, but a handful of important contributors are already set to leave. Some guys who fall into that camp (linebacker Nigel Bradham, slot corner Patrick Robinson, and running back LeGarrette Blount) were starters in 2017, and at least a few others (tight end Trey Burton and rotational safety Corey Graham) played significant roles down the stretch.
Robinson emerged as one of the league’s most pleasant surprises after signing a one-year deal in Philly last offseason; given the team’s allocation of resources, it probably won’t be able to retain him. Roseman stockpiled corners last offseason as if they were going extinct; considering the amount of money the Eagles have tied up in safeties and defensive linemen, 2017 draft picks Sidney Jones and Rasul Douglas should get the first crack at replacing Robinson in the cornerback rotation. Blount also has a logical successor in place after the team’s October trade to acquire Jay Ajayi.
That leaves Bradham as the most glaring question mark. Linebacker Jordan Hicks, who missed most of last season to injury, should be back next fall, and the idea of pairing Hicks and Bradham in the middle of coordinator Jim Schwartz’s defense is damn enticing. And this is where the unenviable choices start to arise. Fellow linebacker Mychal Kendricks is on the books for $7.6 million in 2018. Even though Bradham is the superior option to Kendricks, it’s tough to imagine the Eagles keeping the former without either trading the latter or freeing up a considerable chunk of money. Philly would likely listen to offers for Kendricks, but the nearly $13 million in base salary he’s due over the next two years might be enough to scare away any potential suitors. And creating the cap space necessary to keep Bradham while cutting Kendricks (which would save a projected $4.4 million) would require the Eagles to move beyond the financial viability attained by small cost-saving moves and toward financial flexibility that could only become possible if the organization makes one of a number of unpopular decisions.
Which brings us to the elephant in the room during this Eagles’ offseason: Nick Foles and his $7.6 million contract. Philly is set to pay its quarterbacks a combined $15 million in 2018—a relative bargain given the position’s market and the rising cap. Yet while Foles’s deal was palatable for the franchise in 2017, it’s less so on a team that’s notably cash-strapped.
Roseman will attempt to strike the right balance of maintaining the Eagles’ expertly curated organizational culture while staying fiscally responsible. He places emphasis on rewarding guys within the team building as a way to stoke a feeling of togetherness, and trading the Super Bowl MVP and newfound Philadelphia hero for a meager return—just to squeeze every ounce out of the quarterback’s value—may not prove worth it given the likely reverberations around both the facility and the city.
A couple of the other potential moves could have similar implications. It’s possible that the Eagles could let go of Peters if he refuses to accept a pay cut, designating the nine-time Pro Bowler as a June 1 release—harsh treatment for a Hall of Fame–caliber player. A move like that would not go over well in the close-knit Eagles locker room. Another potential cost-cutting avenue would be signing Brandon Graham, whose contract is set to expire after the 2018 season, to a long-term extension. A new deal would shrink Graham’s $8 million cap hit and free up money immediately. But that would come with its own set of complications. The Eagles just took Derek Barnett in the first round of the 2017 draft as a long-term option on the outside, and the other key members of their 2019 free-agent class (Ajayi and Darby) are five years younger than the 29-year-old Graham. Philly also has about $186 million tied up in its 2019 cap without committing to Graham. Add everything together and the strip-sacking Super Bowl hero could enter the final year of his deal with no assurances for the future.
Again, these are the sorts of rock-and-a-hard-place predicaments that arise for a team that’s collected so many terrific players. If the Eagles do right by Graham, there’s a chance they’ll have to let Darby leave in free agency and be forced to rely on Jones or Douglas to step into his place in 2019. There are no guarantees that either will be nearly as reliable. If Ajayi prices himself out of the Eagles’ price range with a standout 2018, Philly could be left searching for answers at running back next offseason, too.
It’s not a radical notion that teams can’t sign every player on their rosters before they hit the market. There’s only a finite amount of resources to go around. But in the Eagles’ case, as was the case with the Seahawks before them, what’s startling is that the tough choices come almost immediately. With each successive compromise, the overlooked areas of a roster can devolve into problems. And each regression can spell the difference between playoff success and failure.
As Robinson likely leaves in free agency and Darby enters the final year of his deal, it doesn’t take much imagination to envision a world in which Philly’s young corners fail to develop and the secondary becomes a weak spot that could sabotage a standout pass rush. One subpar position group is far from disastrous, but a team’s marginal changes can compound quickly. This season served as a constant reminder of how tiny improvements to the edges of a roster can go a long way—the Jaguars were another team that won largely because their depth overcame their deficiencies, and that now face tough decisions this spring—and for the Eagles, an ironclad roster buoyed a group led by a backup quarterback to a historic championship win.
Philadelphia is poised to be an NFC power player for years but keeping the group that carried a banged-up team to a Super Bowl win intact is far from a given. Assembling the most complete roster in the NFL is tough enough. Maintaining it is even harder.