Eagles: A Look at the 2021 Salary Cap Decisions

The Eagles enter this offseason with the second highest salary commitment in the league for 2021—a whopping $70 million above the projected cap. The team’s complicated financial situation has been anticipated dating back to last offseason, and has been aptly described in a number of negative ways, ranging from “dire” to “catastrophic.”

I’ve heard fans and pundits downplay just how brutal the team’s cap sheet is for a while now, and given the general lack of understanding around NFL cap rules, this will likely continue; but make no mistake about the fact that the Eagles are in salary cap hell.

While the firing of Doug Pederson, the hiring of Nick Siriani, and the looming trade of Carson Wentz have dominated the Eagles narrative thus far, attention is slowly turning back toward the meat and potatoes of the NFL offseason. Here’s what the front office can/will need to do to get under the 2021 salary cap (ordered from most to least obvious decisions).

Current Total Salaries for 2021: $252 mil.

Projected 2021 Salary Cap: $182 mil.

Rollover Cap

The NFL allows teams to roll over cap space from one season to the next, and the Eagles were “savvy” enough to anticipate this cap crunch and stockpile $22 million to supplement the problem. Obviously Howie and the front office are mostly responsible for the current salary crisis, but this money makes a real difference.

Straight cuts (no need for post June-1 designation)

We’ll start with the obvious: releasing players with non-guaranteed salaries who aren’t worth their cap hit.

  • Marquise Goodwin ($4.28 mil.)
  • Derek Barnett ($10 mil.)
  • DeSean Jackson ($4.86 mil).

Marquise Goodwin’s $4.28 million is an obvious place to save a buck, and while Derek Barnett could very well re-sign at a lesser number, he certainly won’t be back at the $10 million that his fifth-year option is valued at.

While DeSean Jackson was/is a candidate for the June 1 designation, for reasons we’ll get into in the next section he’s likely to be a straight cut, clearing $4.86 million from the 2021 cap sheet with $5.8 in dead money.

• In all, these moves clear $19.14 million.

Release/Trade with post June-1 designation*

  • Alshon Jeffery (saves $2.25 mil.)
  • Malik Jackson (saves $2 mil.)

*can only be used twice in an offseason

There’s normally a few candidates for this designation, but the team specifically restructured the contracts of Malik Jackson and Alshon Jeffrey in early January (prior to week 17) with the purpose of facilitating a post June-1 release in a way that clears more 2021 cap than under the previous structures (most of those savings are already reflected on the team’s cap sheet from what I gather).

While I don’t know if this is 100% set in stone, considering the NFL doesn’t allow teams to use the June 1 designation on a player whose contract was restructured after the season, it’s safe to assume this is Howie’s plan given the timing of the maneuvers (again, right before week 17).

Releasing Jackson and Jeffery under the June 1 designation clears a combined $4.25 million; a small amount on it’s face, but as I previously mentioned the Eagles current cap total already reflects the bulk of savings from the January restructures, this is just the final step in seeing that through.

Trading/Releasing Zach Ertz

Ertz is another player who is as good as gone. Whether or not he’s traded or cut is yet to be seen, but for cap purposes it won’t make a difference. This move saves $4.7 million while leaving a disappointing $7.77 million of dead cap on the books.

Normally I’d make the case for holding onto a player if you aren’t clearing more than 33% of his cap number by releasing him (especially a player with his history) but that’s a luxury the team doesn’t have given the current cap crunch. Losing Ertz is heartbreaking in the grand scheme of Eagles fandom, but is a necessary step toward getting under the cap and moving toward the future.

Between the rollover cap ($20M), the straight cuts ($19.14M), the post June 1 designations ($4.25M), and the Ertz trade/release ($4.7M), the Eagles would be clearing roughly $48.1 million. Only $22 million to go.

Miscellaneous (retirement/extension)

Jason Kelce retirement

Kelce has been contemplating retirement for a few years, and while he’s more than welcome back, this would be a convenient way to help cut salary. For cap purposes, retirement is considered the same as a post-June 1 release, in which case the team is still on the hook for Kelce’s bonuses ($2.91M) but would save a much needed $5.5 million.

Brandon Graham extension

This move could help the Eagles save up to $9.5 million this season. While extending BG wasn’t something I anticipated when breaking down the looming cap situation over the summer, the Birds can’t afford to lose him fresh off his first career pro bowl appearance. Graham has always possessed traits that would allow him to age gracefully, and we saw that this past season. Given that the Eagles are already paying him dead cap through 2022-23 when he isn’t under contract, they have even more incentive to find a way to keep him on the roster for seasons beyond 2021. Truthfully, I can’t imagine BG in anything but midnight green.

Some pundits might lump this move in with the restructure candidates in the next section (there’s certainly risk involved here) but this extension makes more practical and financial sense than any of the potential restructures you’ll read about below.

At this point the Eagles would clear roughly $63 million—leaving them just $7 million under the projected cap. However, this is where the decision making becomes more complicated.

Restructure candidates

Howie Roseman has made a career of manipulating cap space by restructuring base salary into prorated bonus money, allowing him to spread out cap hits over multiple seasons. While this is an effective maneuver to free up cap room in the short term, Howie’s over-reliance on restructured deals became a team-building crutch that lead to the cap hell the Eagles find themselves in today.

I can’t possibly know how the front office perceives each player, but looking at the team’s cap sheet and the underlying details of each contract, it’s hard to find obvious restructure candidates for this offseason that won’t compound already complicated future cap sheets. Nonetheless, here’s four options and the specifics of each potential restructure:

Brandon Brooks

  • Current 2021 cap hit: $14.55M
  • Restructure saves: $7.07M
  • $2.35M of “prorated bonus” dead cap will be added in each of 2022-24
  • 2022 cap hit: $19.9M
  • 2023 (*won’t be on the roster): $4.81M
  • 2024 (*won’t be on the roster): $4.03M

*won’t be on roster at the non-guaranteed numbers for those seasons

Brooks will be an Eagle for two more seasons, but after that his future here is up in the air. With dead cap already looming on the back-end of his contract this isn’t a preferable decision, but if it’s a necessary move to get under the cap for 2021 then $4+ million dead cap in ‘23 and ‘24 (assuming I have those numbers right) could be worse—the bar is set pretty low in this regard.

Javon Hargrave

  • Current 2021 cap hit: $15.2M
  • Restructure saves: $8.82M
  • $2.94M of “prorated bonus” dead cap will be added in each of 2022-24.
  • 2022 cap hit: $18.39M
  • 2023 (not under contract): $7.84M/$5.35m
  • 2024 (not under contract): $2.94M/$5.35M

This probably comes as a surprise to most given Hargrave’s somewhat disappointing debut season in Philly, but I don’t see any real reason to fade him in the same vein as our aging veterans. He’s only turning 28 this season, and his contract is pretty team-friendly, at least relative to the Eagles other marquee contracts.

Obviously the Eagles don’t want to restructure team-friendly deals and essentially turn them into ticking time bombs on the cap sheet, but if Hargrave is still in their long-term plans—again, there’s no reason for him not to be—then he’s one of the only palatable restructure candidates on the roster.

Darius Slay

  • Current 2021 cap hit: $15.75M
  • Restructure saves: $7.62M
  • $2.94M of “prorated bonus” dead cap will be added in each of 2022-24.
  • 2022 cap hit (won’t be on roster): $7.05M
  • 2023 (won’t be on roster): $7.83M

This one is a no for me. I’ve seen the idea of restructuring Slay thrown around in recent weeks, but his contract is already backloaded from the extension we signed him to last offseason, and his play from this past year—while decent—wasn’t good enough to warrant further commitment.

Lane Johnson

  • Current 2021 cap hit: $17.85M
  • Restructure saves: $6.91M
  • $1.73M of “prorated bonus” dead cap will be added in each of 2022-25.
  • 2022 cap hit: $15.8M
  • 2023: $23.05M
  • 2024: $20.9M
  • 2025: $21.74M

The finer details of this contract are a horror show, but of the four “questionable” restructures this is the most palatable. The team could chose to stretch his $6.91 base salary over anywhere from 3-5 seasons, but either way Johnson is under contract for all of those years and adding only $1.5-$2M to each of those cap numbers is practically negligible.

Although his later base salaries are non-guaranteed, the obscene amount of dead cap already on the books for those seasons basically ties Lane to Philly through at least 2023. Would restructuring be a smart long-term move? Obviously not, but in this case it’s necessary to get under the cap, and any negative ramifications of this specific example could be delayed/spread much further into the future than the previous three examples.

For the sake of this exercise, let’s say the Eagles choose to restructure Lane Johnson and Javon Hargrave, effectively clearing $15.73 million from the 2021 cap. That, combined with the previous moves would be enough to put the Eagles under the projected cap ceiling, with roughly $8.5 million in room to spare (at least half of which would go to top draft picks).

Also consider there’s a number of smaller moves Howie should be able to work on the margins to lower the team’s cap number. For example; an eventual Wentz trade frees up $1 million; they could cut a handful of the the ‘Matt Pryors’ of the roster (920,000 non-guaranteed) to clear a million or two; they could even decide to move on from Avonte Maddox and save $2.2 million with practically no dead cap.

Between working the margins and making some moves that you or I just don’t see coming, Howie can hopefully clear enough cap room so that he doesn’t have to restructure multiple contracts (fingers crossed). Nonetheless, as you can see from the moves listed above the Eagles don’t have a ton of wiggle room in terms of clearing that daunting $70 million.

(Details courtesy of OTC and Spotrac)

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