The Eagles have a Derek Barnett dilemma and they have two weeks to solve it.
And the pivotal question is this: How much better will Barnett get?
And it’s not an easy one to answer.
Barnett has never measured up to expectations for a defensive end drafted in the top half of the first round.
He has 19 1/2 sacks in four seasons with the Eagles, and that ranks 59th in the NFL during that span and 42nd among edge rushers.
He’s been hurt a lot. He played late in 2017 with a sports hernia. He missed 10 games in 2018 with a shoulder injury, two games in 2019 with an ankle injury and three games this past year with a knee injury.
He shows flashes where he looks like he can be a 12-sack type of guy. And he has stretches where you don’t even notice him for a few weeks.
Now it’s decision time.
The Eagles have to decide exactly what they have. And what he's worth.
Last spring, the Eagles exercised the fifth-year option in Barnett’s rookie contract, triggering a $10 million base salary for 2021. That money doesn’t become guaranteed until the first day of the league year, which is March 17 - two weeks from Wednesday.
Considering their cap issues and Barnett’s mediocre production, it’s impossible to imagine the Eagles are going to pay Barnett $10 million - it would make him the 16th-highest-paid defensive end in the league. More importantly than the cash, that tender would give Barnett an unwieldy $10 million cap hit.
They could trade him, but the $10 million guarantees before the trade window opens, which makes him far less tradeable, unless a new contract is part of the trade.
But there are really two realistic options: Sign him to a long-term, cap-friendly deal or release him.
But what's he worth?
Pass rushers make a lot of money. According to Spotrac, 26 defensive ends earn at least $6.8 million per year and 18 make more than $10 million per year.
Spotrac has a feature that examines contracts of similar players to determine a particular player’s worth. They compare Barnett to Trent Murphy, Henry Anderson, Alex Okafor and Jabaal Sheard.
Based on those comparisons, Barnett is worth about $7.5 million per year on the free agent market.
The Eagles could design a long-term deal where the big cap hits don’t start until 2022, when the Eagles should be out of cap trouble.
But do they want to make that kind of long-term commitment to Barnett?
They still have Brandon Graham under contract for one more year and he’s been more productive - and more durable - than Barnett. And Josh Sweat is still on his cheap rookie contract and has only two fewer sacks than Barnett over the last couple years despite about 500 fewer snaps.
And then there’s Barnett’s point of view. He’s only 24 and may feel like he can get more than what the Eagles are offering if he explores free agency.
There could very well be a team out there that’s not feeling cap pressure that sees a 24-year-old former first-round pick with potential and projects him as a consistent double-digit sack guy and is willing to give him a deal the Eagles can’t - or would prefer not to - compete with.
The Eagles have exclusive negotiating rights to Barnett for another two weeks.
Not always but usually, once a player hits free agency, he’s not going back to his former team.
Barnett’s a tricky one.
It’s genuinely difficult to gauge Barnett’s value. He’s going into his fifth year, but he’s younger for instance than Andre Dillard – drafted in the first round two years later than Barnett.
Maybe the Eagles believe that working with college football Hall of Famer Tracy Rocker, the Eagles’ new d-line coach, he can take that next step and be the type of player they anticipated when they drafted him at No. 14.
Whoever signs Barnett is going to be paying to a great extent for potential.
How much potential the Eagles and the rest of the NFL sees we're about to find out.
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