Eagles: Looking Ahead At 2021 Salary Cap Decisions

In the past I’ve described the Eagles 2021 salary cap situation in fairly negative terms, and for good reason. While I fully understand the number of maneuvers at Howie’s disposal to shrink/manipulate the cap number for 2021—contract restructures, post June 1 cuts, trades, pay cuts—being $80+ million in the hole isn’t ideal in even the most flexible of situations, and it should be noted that the Eagles contracts aren’t as flexible as they’ve been in the past.

*The NFL/NFLPA agreed to shrink the 2021 cap by $36 million to compensate for covid-related revenue losses—that number is reflected in this piece

Let me preface this by saying that the 2021 cap situation is not the worst in the league that the -$88 million number may suggest; however, we shouldn’t let Howie’s ability to get out from under that number distract us from the fact that he did make a handful of short term mistakes that put the team in the unnecessary position of cutting veterans and guaranteeing backloaded salaries just to get under the cap in 2021—not an ideal reality.

When I hear arguments claiming that next year’s cap situation is “actually not that bad”—an idea I’ve heard parroted by the media and fan base—I think it’s the right general idea—Howie is savvy, and there is roll-over cap from this year—but the insistence on branding Howie a “wizard” is starting to blind us from reality. The 2021 cap situation is the biggest challenge to fielding a competitive roster that Howie and the Eagles have had to face in his tenure.

The key point of emphasis here is that it’s not that the team can’t get out from under the cap without dumping core talent—that would obviously be a nightmare—it’s more that the front office will have to make a series of less-than-ideal moves just to get under the cap (and clear room to make a move a two of consequence). That may not be “dire,” but it’s certainly not good.

Nonetheless, in this piece I’ll outline the series of decisions that Howie will be faced with in 2021, when he’ll need to cut $80+ million in salaries to get under the cap (ordered from most obvious to less likely).

  • 2021 salary cap: $175 million
  • 2021 Eagles salaries: $263 million
  • 2021 cap space: -$88 million

Here’s a table of the moves I’ve outlined below (ordered by appearance/likelihood):

-$88 million*2021 projected cap space*
+$23 mil. (-$65m)Rollover cap from 2020
+$4.3 mil. (-$60.7m)Cut Marquise Goodwin
+$8.4 mil. (-$52.3m)Kelce’s potential retirement
+$18.3 mil. (-$34m)Potential Wentz contract restructure
+$13 mil. (-$21m)Cut Alshon Jeffery
+$10 mil. (-$11m)Cut Malik Jackson
+$9.9 mil. (-$1.1m)Restructure Fletcher Cox
+$8.8 mil. ($7.7m)Restructure Javon Hargrave
+$6.9 mil. ($14.6m)Restructure Lane Johnson

Rollover cap

Likely $20-$23 million

$88 million in the hole is ugly, but NFL cap rules allow teams to carry leftover cap space from the previous season into the next, and as it stands the Eagles have $23M in space left on the 2020 sheet. While we can expect that number to drop a little before the end of the year, for the sake of this argument we’ll use the full $23M.

-$88M + $23M = -$65M

Cut Marquise Goodwin

$4.3m cap hit — save full $4.3m

The first and most obvious move will be cutting Marquise Goodwin—there’s not really a world where it makes sense to retain him, even at this number. Goodwin already opted out for the 2020 season, and by next summer the Eagles should have enough answers at receiver to make him expendable, if he’s not already.

-$65M + $4.3M = -$60.7M

Jason Kelce retiring?

Save $8.4m

Obviously this is up to Kelce, but something tells me that after flirting with retirement for two straight offseasons this might be his final ride. The All-pro center is welcome back, but his $8 million in cap space would make Howie’s 2021 decisions a lot easier. For the sake of this exercise let’s say he hangs ‘em up.

-$60.7M + $8.4M = -$52.3M

Restructure Carson Wentz?

$34M cap hit — save up to $18.3M in restructure

I need to emphasize that restructuring this contract isn’t the given that it’s made out to be. If Wentz for some reason isn’t able to finish the 2020 season healthy (roll your eyes all you want, it at least ought to be mentioned) then Howie may not be comfortable restructuring this deal for a few reasons.

“Restructuring” contracts is tossed around a lot without proper context of what the actual consequences are, but it’s important to note that it requires converting a player’s base salary into guaranteed bonus money that‘s spread over the length of the contract (while still received in a lump sum), and it usually includes extending the years on that deal to stretch the money even further.

While it’s a great short-term option to clear space (and a maneuver Howie lives by) the drawback is that it inflates the cap hits on the backend of a deal, and makes those numbers unmovable—you can always move base salary, but bonus money is 100% guaranteed and can’t be traded from your books.

Translation: if the Eagles want to restructure Wentz’s contract after the season then that means the sort of full-blown, no-turning-back commitment that the team clearly wasn’t prepared to make this offseason (see: Hurts, Jalen). My thoughts and your thoughts on Wentz don’t matter a lick. Considering Howie just drafted a QB in the second round it’s clear that they don’t bank on Carson’s health/long-term viability in the same way the fans do, which is why it’s a little surprising to hear some local media suggest that doubling-down on Wentz and restructuring him after this year is a foregone conclusion—it clearly isn’t.

However, for the sake of argument let’s just say he’s fully healthy and playing at his MVP-level; in that scenario the team would gleefully convert his $15.4M base salary into bonuses and lengthen the backend of his deal to defer current money into the future, effectively bumping roughly $18.3M of his $34M cap hit down the road.

-$52.3M + $18.3M = -$34M

Release Alshon Jeffrey (post-6/1 designation)

$18.5M cap hit — save $13M — $10.6M dead cap ($5.6M in ‘21, $2.5M in ‘22/23)

If there’s an obvious player to release with a post 6/1 designation it’s Jeffery. If for some reason the Eagles think they still need Alshon heading into 2021 then maybe he’ll negotiate a pay cut from his $12.7M base salary, but Howie can’t afford to guarantee any more money here, so he’d be counting on Jeffery deferring leverage to stay with the team.

Regardless of what we do with him next summer, Alshon has dead cap on the books totaling $10+ million from 2022-24, and his case should be a lesson for Howie on the long-term cost of restructuring veteran contracts.

-$34M + $13M = -$21M

Release Malik Jackson (post-6/1 designation)

$13.6M cap hit — save $10M — $3.6M dead cap in ‘21/22/23, $1.8m dead cap in ‘24

I’m not entirely sure what this situation looks like if Jackson were to ball out in 2020. His dead cap numbers are locked in for ‘22/23/24 either way because of a previous restructure, so Howie’s decision to keep him really comes down to whether or not he’s worth the extra $10M in cap for ‘21. While the team just signed Javon Hargrave (and we’ll get to Cox in a moment) if Jackson plays at a near pro-bowl level and stays healthy then he could justify a $13.6M cap hit.

The more likely scenario is that Jackson is either redundant with Cox/Hargrave or can’t hang in run defense enough to warrant that money relative to the need to save $10M in ‘21—off he goes.

$21M + $10M = -$11M

Additional restructure candidates:

Fletcher Cox

$22.4M cap hit — save $9.9M in restructure

Cox is still a decent restructure candidate, though that could change with a down season. Remember, restructured money doesn’t just vanish, it becomes fully guaranteed bonus money down the line. It’s less-than-ideal maneuvering, but if Cox still has a few years of high-level play left in the tank then it’s a no-brainer to help clear space.

-$11M + $9.9M = -$1.1M

Javon Hargrave

$15.2M cap hit — save $8.8M in restructure

Hargrave is probably a better restructure candidate than Cox, come to think of it, but both are a strong likelihood at this point. Let’s just hope both players earn it in 2020.

-$1.1M + $8.8M = $7.7M

Under the cap! Add one more move for breathing room:

Lane Johnson (restructure)

$16.5M cap hit — save $6.9M in restructure

Johnson is a strong restructure candidate as well, though he’s already pushed money into the future in the past, our current financial state will force us to double down on his long term viability once more. Again, this isn’t necessarily bad in isolation, but consider all the restructuring (guaranteeing future money, inflating future dead cap) that Howie already needs to pull off next offseason and it’s obvious that the Eagles are in a compromised position in terms of the cap.

$7.7M + $6.9 = $14.6M

These are the most obvious moves the team can make to get under the cap, and $14.6 million is plenty of breathing room. Two of the main “IFs” I have outlined above are the decision to restructure Wentz’s deal and Kelce’s possible retirement. The Kelce situation is 50/50, and I’m probably 85% confident Howie will be comfortable restructuring Wentz.

What Eagles fans should be aware of is the scenario where Kelce decides to return and where Howie deems a restructure for Wentz as too risky—those two moves combine to clear $26.7M, and without them the team needs to clear an additional $12M+ to get under the cap on top of the moves already outlined above. When people talk about the possibility for a nightmare cap situation in 2021, these are the two of the swing decisions that could make things very complicated for Howie and the front office.

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