Will the Eagles pay Jordan Matthews? The decision will impact their free-agent plans

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Eagls; wide receiver Jordan Matthews catches the football during warm-ups before the Eagles play the Washington Redskins on Sunday, December 11, 2016.

There’s an under-the-radar factor that will impact how the Eagles approach this year’s free-agent market, which begins in earnest on Tuesday, when teams and agents are allowed to start touching base in advance of the official start of the signing period, which arrives Thursday.

What is Jordan Matthews’ future with the club? It’s a question Howie Roseman and Jeffrey Lurie have already pondered, and there’s a good chance they already have a pretty good idea about the answer. Roseman raised some eyebrows this offseason when he mentioned that the organization’s decision that it wasn’t going to sign Eric Rowe to a contract extension had been a mitigating factor in the decision to trade him to the Patriots just one year after the Eagles drafted him. While Roseman acknowledged later that his point was misplaced, the comment did underscore the fact that an NFL team is always looking three years down the road toward a young player’s next contract, and its projection for that contract factors into present-day decisions.

Matthews, a second-round pick in 2014, is heading into the fourth and final year of his rookie deal. Without an extension, he would become a free agent after this coming season. In the vast majority of cases, the team and player have already swapped numbers and have a pretty good understanding of whether an extension is within reach or if the player will play out the season and reach free agency.

The negotiations might not get done until training camp, which serves as a de facto deadline for the two sides (the player says, essentially, “The moment I start assuming the risk of injury that comes with getting hit in practice without an extension, I might as well play out the season and reap the enhanced riches of the open market”).

But the team is already building the hypothetical extension into its future payrolls, and the player into its future depth charts. Thus, the Eagles’ approach to the wide receiver position in free agency will be shaped by a decision that they likely have already made, but that we might not find out about until well after they’ve spent their money.

So, what have they decided? Are they going to pay Matthews X dollars per year between 2017 and 2019? Or will they have that money to spend, as well as that spot on the depth chart to fill? And what are the ramifications of the two scenarios?

Poll

What position should the Eagles target in free agency?

Pretty much, the decision-making equation includes three variables:

1) What is the likely average annual cap figure of a Matthews contract extension? Phrased another way, for the Eagles to fill one of their five or six slots on the WR depth chart with a player of Matthews’ skills, it will cost them X dollars per year against the cap. Or, simpler, X dollars = Y skills if spent on an extension for Matthews.

2) What caliber of player would the Eagles be able to sign with X dollars on the open market? Simpler, X dollars = Z skills if spent on the open market.

3) Does Matthews bring more to the roster than whatever player(s) the Eagles could sign with those X dollars? Simpler, are Y skills > Z skills?

The answer to No. 1 - how much would a Matthews’ extension cost? - is an interesting case for a variety of reasons. Consider that, since 2000, he is one of only eight receivers to have finished each of his first three seasons with at least 60 catches and 700 yards receiving:

The others:

A.J. Green
Odell Beckham
Mike Evans
Keenan Allen
Percy Harvin
Mike Williams
Jarvis Landry

1) How much is a Matthews contract extension?

Statistically, Matthews’ best comp is the Chargers' Allen.

Keenan Allen (avg.), years 1-3: 72 rec., 851 yards, 11.9 yd/rec

Jordan Matthews (avg), Years 1-3: 75 rec., 891 yards, 11.9 yd/rec

Doesn’t get much closer than that.

Last offseason (pre-2016), Allen signed a contract extension that averaged an $8.7 million cap hit over the first three seasons, with $21 million guaranteed.

Keenan Allen, cap hit/dead money, Ext years 1-3

Per Spotrac:

2016: 7.7/20.1
2017: 8.7/13.1
2018: 9.7/5.7

Matthews’ numbers are also similar to Williams, who signed a contract extension with the Bucs in 2013 that included $14.6 million in guaranteed money, all of which came in the form of guaranteed salaries:

2013: $8.3 million ($7.2M guaranteed)
2014: $1.8 million ($1.2M guaranteed)
2015: $6.8 million ($5.2M guaranteed)

So Williams signed for an average cap charge of about $5.6 million in 2013. That, in 2017 cap dollars, is close to Allen’s deal, given the 26 percent inflation of the salary cap between Year 1 of Williams deal and Year 1 of Allen’s deal.

Long story short, one would expect the market rate of a Matthews extension to range between $7.5 and $9.0 million in average cap hit per year over the first three years of the deal with $21 million to $24 million guaranteed.

Keep in mind, any Matthews extension could be structured so that his cap number jumps in Years 2-4. For instance, his cap number for 2017 is $1.6 million. Say he signed a deal such as this:

Year 1: $4.6 million ($1.6 million existing + $3 million prorated new bonus)
Year 2: $9.0 million ($6.0 million salary guaranteed salary + $3 million prorated bonus)
Year 3: $9.0 million ($6.0 million salary w/ $3.0 million of it guaranteed + $3.0 million prorated bonus)
Year 4: $12.0 million ($9.0 million salary + $3.0 million in prorated salary.

The cap hit/dead money splits:

Year 1: $4.6/$21.5
Year 2: $9.0/$15.0
Year 3: $9.0/$6.0
Year 4: $12.0/$3.0

2) So what would that kind of money get the Eagles if they spent it on the free-agent market?

Last year, it would’ve gotten them Marvin Jones. Or it would have gotten them a guy like Mohamed Sanu and left them with another $2 million or so per year to spend elsewhere over the following three seasons.

3) Which is better?

It’s a tough call. Matthews has been durable and relatively consistent, and while his numbers have not improved since his rookie season, one can argue he has suffered from the lack of a quality outside receiving threat over the last couple years. His rookie year, when he averaged 13.0 yards per catch, he had Jeremy Maclin to take some of the pressure off.

Jones has an athletic explosiveness that Matthews doesn’t have. But Matthews has been more consistent, and the Eagles know what they have in him within the context of the locker room and Doug Pederson’s scheme.

Is it likely that they’d be able to find a better option for a similar price at some point over the next three seasons?

At this point, I’d expect that the Eagles’ Plan A is to re-sign Matthews and draft, sign, or trade for an outside receiver to slot in ahead of him.