As we push forward in the NFL offseason, I realized it had been a while since we did a mailbag.
So with free agency beginning next week and with the NFL draft just a month and a half away, let’s get to your questions. We got enough to split them into a few parts, so we’ll start with Part 1 and the biggest question entering free agency.
We got asked several similar questions in a variety of ways. As you know, the Eagles have a ton of pending free agents and they simply won’t be able to keep them all. Howie Roseman said as much last week at the combine.
The top priority should be safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson. That’s not to dismiss any of the other free agents but there are plenty of reasons to bring back CJGJ. First, he just turned 25 in December and is presumably still an ascending player after playing just one season at safety. That first season with the Eagles went very well. He had six interceptions and even if you allow that he didn’t force all of them, you have to admit that he made the plays and he offers great versatility in the secondary. It’s a little unclear how much Gardner-Johnson’s contract will be worth but it’s probably fair to assume it’ll be in the $11-13 million per year range at minimum. But if the Eagles sign him to a three-year deal there’s a very good chance he’s playing his best football in the third year of that deal. The same probably can’t be said if they were to lock up 30-year-old Javon Hargrave or 29-year-old James Bradberry.
And because of the position Gardner-Johnson plays, his salary is going to be less than both Hargrave and Bradberry, who are the other top free agents on this defense. Hargrave’s deal is going to be pushing $20 million per season and Bradberry might hit around the $15 million APY range. To be clear, I have Hargrave right there with CJGJ in terms of importance. In an ideal world, the Eagles would be able to keep both of them and they might try. (Interior pass rush is super important.) It’s just hard to know if they’ll be able to get that done.
The other priority could be T.J. Edwards, although paying him $11-12 million per season is less palatable than paying Gardner-Johnson a similar salary. But if he ends up costing less than that, then bringing back Edwards could be in the cards too. Still, I think that's unlikely. And perhaps that money would be better spent on keeping Brandon Graham for another year at a lower price.
I’d be shocked if they don’t retain any of these key guys. Like I mentioned above, it’s going to be hard to keep all the top free agents but they should be able to bring back one or two. I’d start with Gardner-Johnson. But Roseman wasn’t shy last week when asked about the offseason. He said they know they can’t keep everyone. And that seemed like a message to Eagles fans about what’s to come. It’s going to be a very tricky offseason. They’re likely going to end up with four compensatory picks in 2024; that’s the maximum for any team in one year.
Sure, there are always ways to do this. With the Eagles, it’s pretty clear to see because they can rework their top two contracts to create some salary cap relief. Darius Slay in 2023 has a cap hit of $26.1 million and Lane Johnson has a cap hit of $24.2 million.
With Slay, the question becomes about whether or not the team wants to work out an extension with him because this is the final year of his contract. Slay is scheduled to become a free agent after this season. While Slay would be open to an extension, he is 32 now and that makes things trickier. But even if the Eagles and Slay can’t find ground on a contract extension, the Eagles already have three voidable years on his contract for cap purposes. So the easiest way to do this is to pay out most of his $17 million base salary in a bonus. That way the cap money is spread out over the length of the contract instead of just this year. The Eagles have used this trick forever and it makes sense for both sides. Slay gets his money up front and the Eagles get some cap relief. Is it a kick-the-can method? Sure. But the cap rises every year when there isn’t a global pandemic.
Similar option with Johnson, although he’s under contract through 2025. But he’s set to have a base salary of $14.155 million in 2023. Pay most of that out in a bonus and spread the money across multiple years.
If the Eagles were to do both of these types of restructures, they could save approximately $23 million in cap space this season. They could also save some cap room by restructuring Jake Elliott’s contract, but that’s on a much smaller scale.
I don’t think so from the players' perspective. While it’s true that many players liked those coaches, a lot of times those really end up being just tiebreakers in free agency. The Eagles’ offense is going to be the same without Shane Steichen; it’s still Nick Sirianni’s scheme. And the defense will look slightly different with Sean Desai as the DC but that doesn’t seem like a good reason for a free agent to leave instead of stay. Ultimately, the money talks. Sure, if there are other factors, one of them is comfort. But just because a coach has left, it doesn’t mean that level of comfort isn’t still there for that player.
Now, the other side of this is that Steichen and Jonathan Gannon are now head coaches and it wouldn’t be surprising to see a former Eagle end up with their new teams. That didn’t happen a ton when Sirianni came to Philly but following those connections is never a bad idea. And the Eagles emphasize bringing in players that fit scheme. So with all these defensive free agents, there's a bit of a question about scheme fit.
It’s a good question. Because the QB2 role on a team with playoff aspirations is a big deal. And Hurts has dealt with some injuries in his career. Marcus Mariota does make some sense, although I’m not sure what the market will look like for him. I don’t think the Eagles should shut the door on a possible Gardner Minshew return either. He’s going to hit the market and look for a job that will give him an opportunity to fight for a starting role. But if that job doesn’t exist and he’s cheap enough, the Eagles should welcome him back. Because there just aren’t a ton of options out there. The top free agent option would be Jacoby Brissett because of his connection with Nick Sirianni. But Brissett played too well in 2022 and will be out of their price range.
The draft is also a possibility we probably haven’t talked about enough. A year after the Eagles paid Carson Wentz, they drafted Hurts in the second round to be a cost-controlled backup with starter upside. Maybe they won’t use another second-round pick on a QB but I wouldn’t put it past this organization to use a draft pick on a QB, finding a cheap alternative to a pricey veteran. A problem, though, is that the Eagles don’t have any picks from Rounds 4-6 this year.
If you’ve heard a lot about Matt Patricia this week, it all stems from this tweet:
It has been previously reported that Patricia was in the mix to join Sean Payton’s staff in Denver. So why would the Eagles be interested in Patricia? Well, the Eagles need to fill the LBs coach position after Nick Rallis left with Gannon for Arizona.
And long before he failed as the head coach in Detroit, Patricia did coach linebackers. He coached linebackers for the Pats from 2006-10 before coaching safeties and then serving as the defensive coordinator from 2012-17. By all accounts, Patricia was a fine position coach. Obviously, things didn’t go well as a head coach in Detroit.
But it’s also fair to question if it’s worth alienating your best defensive player to bring in a position coach at another position. We know the history between Patricia and Slay and it doesn’t seem like something that will be easy to smooth over.
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