The Eagles still are at least a year away from backing up the Brinks truck to Carson Wentz’s front door. But they are beginning to plan for the salary-cap consequences of the huge contract the 25-year-old quarterback could sign as early as next year, while they aggressively chase a second straight Lombardi Trophy.
The Eagles are restructuring a few veteran contracts to create some cap space heading into the start of the free-agency signing period Wednesday.
They will sign five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, 34, to a one-year deal Wednesday and could eventually add one or two other veterans to inexpensive short-term deals in the coming weeks, much like they did last year with cornerback Patrick Robinson and running back LeGarrette Blount.
But football operations VP Howie Roseman knows he also must start stockpiling draft picks to offset the cap challenges of not only Wentz’s future mega-deal, but also the big contracts of several other players on the roster.
Offensive tackle Lane Johnson helped give the Eagles some immediate cap relief Tuesday by agreeing to restructure his contract. The restructuring, which involved rolling his $10.25 million salary for next season and another $9.7 million in guaranteed money into a pro-rated roster bonus, lowered his 2018 cap number from $12.5 million to $5 million.
But while that helps the Eagles in the short term, it means Johnson’s cap number for the remaining three years on his contract will be going up.
Before the Johnson restructuring, the Eagles had nine players on their roster with cap numbers of $8 million or more for 2018. Ten players on the roster have cap numbers of $9.9 million or higher in 2019. And that doesn’t take into account Wentz.
“We have a lot of guys on our roster who are making real money,’’ Roseman said earlier this month at the scouting combine in Indianapolis. “We want to keep those guys. The best way to do that is to try to balance [their contracts] with some young salaries.’’
The emergence of young players such as running back Corey Clement, cornerback Jalen Mills and offensive tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai has helped in that regard. But the Eagles need to continue to add those types of players going forward, especially after Wentz signs his second deal.
Which brings us back to free agency. The Eagles have 13 unrestricted free agents, most of whom will not be re-signed. Roseman is hoping to turn those free-agent departures into multiple compensatory picks in next year’s draft.
Tight end Trey Burton apparently has agreed to terms with the Bears. Robinson has interest from multiple teams.
The Eagles’ top free agent is linebacker Nigel Bradham, who is coming off the best season of his career. While he could get them a third- or fourth-round comp pick if he signs with another team and plays as well as he did last season, he also was one of Jim Schwartz’s most valuable defensive players. But the Eagles have said that because of their cap situation, they can’t afford to overpay him.
Big bucks awaiting Wentz
NFL rules prohibit players from renegotiating their rookie deals until after their third season, which, for Wentz, will be 2018.
The Eagles are expected to try to move quickly to sign him to an extension next year, because they know the price is going to go only higher the longer they wait.
Last month, Jimmy Garoppolo signed a five-year, $137.5 million deal with the 49ers. That’s 27.5 million a year for a guy with seven career starts and 12 career touchdown passes.
Kirk Cousins — Kirk freaking Cousins – has reportedly agreed to a $28.6-million-a-year deal with the Vikings.
The Packers’ Aaron Rodgers almost certainly will top that soon. And God knows what Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston are going to be able to get from the Titans and Bucs.
Bottom line: If Wentz makes a complete recovery from his knee injury and plays reasonably well next season, he’s probably going to be asking for something in the $32-million-a-year neighborhood.
Which brings us back to the stockpiling-draft-picks strategy.
The Eagles have just six picks in next month’s draft and none in the second or third rounds. They gave up their second two years ago in the trade-up to get Wentz. They sent their third to Buffalo last summer for cornerback Ronald Darby. They also gave up a fourth-round pick for running back Jay Ajayi.
They have eight picks in 2019 – their own seven plus an additional seventh-round selection they received last summer when they traded offensive lineman Allen Barbre to Denver.
At the combine, Roseman already was acknowledging that most of the team’s free agents wouldn’t be back and said it would be “impossible for us not to have a bunch of compensatory picks’’ next year.
Using comp picks to bolster the draft stockpile was a strategy favored by former Eagles president Joe Banner. From 1994 (the first year of free agency) through 2012, the Eagles were awarded 29 comp picks, the third most in the league during that period.
In the last five years, however, they’ve had just one comp pick – a seventh-round pick in 2013, which they used on Oklahoma defensive lineman David King.
Compensatory picks are determined by a formula that compares the free agents you lost the previous year with the ones you added. Contract value, performance, playing time and postseason honors all are factored into the formula. The picks are awarded at the end of Rounds. 3-7.
This year, the league awarded 32 compensatory picks to 15 teams, including four selections at the end of the third round. Four teams – the Bengals, Cowboys, Packers and Raiders – each received four additional picks in the April 26-28 draft. Two others – the Cardinals and Texans – got three.
“This is really the only way to make it work,’’ Banner said. “Obviously, Wentz will be the most extreme when he signs his next deal. But it’s all of them – Cox, Johnson, Brooks, Ertz, they all have big-number contracts.
“The only way to have players at those numbers that are really impacting the game, and continue to have a really good team, is to have a little bit higher number of successful players on rookie contracts than the teams you’re competing with. That’s the beauty and the challenge of the structure of the league. Howie is wise to anticipate” what’s coming.
The Reid method
During Andy Reid’s tenure as head coach, the Eagles tried to accumulate as many draft picks as possible, both comp picks and picks acquired through trades. From 2004-12, they had 88 selections. That’s nearly 10 per draft.
Five times in those nine years, they had 10 or more picks. A few of those drafts weren’t very productive, but it certainly wasn’t because they didn’t have enough ammunition.
“The truth is, it’s hard to have a much higher batting average than the rest of the league on draft picks,’’ Banner said. “So the best way to improve your chances of succeeding on that strategy is increasing the number of picks you have.
“We probably used trading back in the draft [to add picks] at least as often, if not more, than comp picks. Our goal was always to be in the top group of teams in the league in terms of quantity [of picks]. Our view was every pick’s a good pick, though obviously, the higher the better.’’
Roseman said several times at the combine that the Eagles want to keep all their good players. But that’s already becoming difficult to do, and it’s not going to get any easier once Wentz signs his next contract.
“They’re going to have to make some hard choices as they go forward,’’ Banner said. “Especially after Carson gets his new deal.
“They’re going to lose some players they’d prefer to keep. They’re going to lose some players that will upset the fans.
“But I think they can keep that number modest enough that if they’re accumulating draft picks and hitting on a reasonable number of them, they can sustain their success over a long period of time.’’