With Eagles over salary cap, NFL free agency is when Super Bowl bill comes due

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Philadelphia Eagles executive vice president of football operations Howie Roseman.

The Eagles “want to continue to be in a position to get better,” and are “going to have to make tough choices,” Howie Roseman said at the NFL Scouting Combine, before trades that subtracted wide receivers Marcus Johnson and Torrey Smith, and added defensive lineman Michael Bennett and corner Daryl Worley.

The choices get tougher this week. Monday signals the beginning of the “legal tampering” period, in which teams are allowed to negotiate with pending free agents in advance of the official Wednesday start of NFL free agency. In fact, such talks have been going on behind the scenes at least since the combine in Indianapolis, but these are the arcane ways of the NFL, and they must make sense to someone, somewhere.

By Wednesday, the start of the league year, teams must be in compliance with the $177.2 million 2018 salary cap. The Eagles enter the week roughly $11 million over the cap, the biggest deficit in the NFL, according to Spotrac.com. To get under the cap, the team is going to have to restructure several big contracts, and/or release players.

The Eagles, renowned for their handling of the cap over the past two decades, have never been in this position. But they also have never been the defending Super Bowl champions, and anyone who paid attention to the acquisitions who helped finally push them over the top understands that the two “firsts” are related.

From where the team stands right now, it would seem the early part of free agency will largely be about saying goodbye to many of the Eagles’ 13 pending unrestricted free agents —  a group that includes starting linebacker Nigel Bradham, sparkplug running back/returner Darren Sproles, along with his protégé, Kenjon Barner, power back LeGarrette Blount, standout nickel corner Patrick Robinson, defensive tackle Beau Allen, “Philly Special” hero and tight end Trey Burton, and safety Corey Graham. Bryan Braman and Najee Goode, who contributed mainly on special teams, also are scheduled to hit the market, along with some guys you might not have realized were still around, such as offensive tackle Will Beatty, linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, and kicker Caleb Sturgis.

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This sort of unfamiliar exodus might produce a bounty of 2019 compensatory draft picks if the Eagles don’t sign players of comparable value. But 2019 compensatory picks won’t make many tackles or gain many yards in 2018.

Bradham would leave the biggest hole in the lineup. Given the roll that Roseman and personnel chief Joe Douglas are on, it seems unlikely that they have taken leave of their senses. They surely have a plan for the position, but looking down the list of possible linebacking free-agent additions, it’s hard to see anyone who compares to Bradham. Zach Brown? Avery Williamson? Aren’t they going to want top-echelon money, like Bradham does? Would former Temple star Tahir Whitehead be cheaper and almost as good?

Given that Roseman has completed 16 trades in the two years since he returned to power, it’s possible Bradham’s replacement will arrive via that route. (Could you get a linebacker for, say, corner Ronald Darby, who seems to struggle when asked to play zone?) It’s also possible that Bradham and agent Drew Rosenhaus have overestimated Bradham’s market – he’s only attractive to 4-3 teams – and that the Eagles aren’t completely in the rearview mirror for their top defensive thumper.

Burton, Jimmy Graham, and Tyler Eifert are the top pending free-agent tight ends. It’s hard to imagine the Eagles spending for Graham (a 31-year-old declining star) or Eifert (often injured). Burton’s replacement will come from the draft. (Or again, Trader Howie might have something up his sleeve.)

In addition to the unrestricted 13, it seems likely not everyone the team approaches about restructuring will take the new deal. So this might be the week we say goodbye to Vinny Curry, whose release would save $5 million in cap room, and/or Chris Long, who would clear nearly $2 million worth of space. Long is due a $500,000 roster bonus by next Sunday. That’s the fifth day of the league year, when a number of contract guarantees kick in — a $3 million roster bonus for Nick Foles, plus $5 million of Curry’s $9 million 2018 salary becomes guaranteed then, along with Lane Johnson’s entire $10,250,000 base salary, and so on.

It’s important to realize that everything isn’t going to get sorted out this week. Remember all the running-back hand-wringing last year before Blount signed, on May 18? There will be a second wave of free agency, often a place where bargains are found, after the Eagles get their cap issues settled. And something dramatic like a Foles trade could happen anytime before next season starts, as the Sam Bradford saga showed us.

On paper, by the end of the week, the Eagles are unlikely to look as strong as they looked when it began. That tends to be what happens when you’re the defending Super Bowl champion. But the Eagles don’t have to defend that title on the field this week.

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