Philadelphia Eagles general manager Howie Roseman faced a daunting task two years ago as he stared at a $62 million dead-money abyss on the salary cap.
It started with the trade of quarterback Carson Wentz to the Indianapolis Colts only two years after signing Wentz to a four-year, $128 million extension. There was a $33.8 million cap hit on Wentz, along with another $17 million from exiled veterans DeSean Jackson, Zach Ertz and Alshon Jeffery.
Roseman worked his usual cap magic. The formula came through veteran releases, contract restructures, incorporating voidable years into a lot of contracts, and a relatively bargain free-agent signing for a superstar defender in Haason Reddick. He also drafted young, inexpensive replacements — led by second-round QB Jalen Hurts — who could play at a high level quickly.
Roseman also pulled off several key trades that added significant talent.
On top of all that, the players were coached up by an excellent staff led by coach Nick Sirianni, offensive coordinator Shane Steichen and defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon.
Roseman navigated this treacherous road — one that included a pandemic, which added to the cap difficulties — all the way to the Eagles’ second Super Bowl in six years. Philadelphia has an opportunity to again hoist the Lombardi Trophy in Glendale, Ariz., on Sunday night.
>> READ: How Roseman Got His NFL Start
Replicating Eagles’ Success
Roseman’s road map can be followed by other teams in similar dire straits. Two candidates are teams with the most cap room to clear by the start of the 2023 league year on March 15 — the New Orleans Saints (nearly $60 million) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers ($55 million). Another could be the Green Bay Packers if they trade Aaron Rodgers and have to absorb his $40 million dead-money hit this year.
For these teams, it will have to start with what Roseman was so fortunate to have — a star quarterback (Hurts) on his rookie deal, who stepped up big-time. These teams also will need several other pieces to fall into place, which was the case in Philadelphia, which is stout in the trenches and boasts playmakers on both sides of the ball.
It was quite controversial when Roseman jettisoned Wentz and turned the team over to the second-year Hurts in 2021. But Roseman knew his young, talented quarterback would play behind one of the league’s best offensive lines anchored by All-Pro center Jason Kelce (a relative bargain at an $8 million salary). He also would be supported by an emerging tight end in Dallas Goedert and an excellent running back in Miles Sanders on his rookie deal.
Then, there was a defense that was rounding into form as one of the league’s best. The Eagles cracked the top 10 in 2021 before vaulting to second in 2022 with a 70-sack regular season (third most all-time) leading the charge.
Putting It All Together
That final piece of the Super Bowl puzzle for Roseman and the Eagles was to re-make their wide receiver corps. This was accomplished in spectacular fashion by drafting DeVonta Smith in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft, and then pulling off the heist of the year with the acquisition of 25-year-old Pro Bowl receiver A.J. Brown from the Tennessee Titans for first- and third-round picks.
Philadelphia held three first-round picks before the 2022 draft, including a first-round pick it acquired from the Colts — along with a third-rounder — in the Wentz deal. Hurts had played reasonably well in 2021 and directed the Eagles to a 9-8 record and a playoff berth, but the season ended with a first-round exit.
Most Eagles fans hoped the Philadelphia would parlay those No. 1 picks into a franchise QB via the draft or a trade. But Roseman, his scouting staff and the coaches believed in Hurts, who rewarded them with a Pro Bowl season that included 22 touchdown passes, six interceptions, a 101.5 passer rating (fourth in the league), 760 yards rushing and 13 rushing TDs.
Hurts has added two passing TDs and two rushing TDs in the blowout playoff victories against the New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers. Hurts made the leap to an MVP finalist and could have been in a position to win this year if he had not missed two games with a shoulder injury.
Another Familiar Story
It’s the Russell Wilson scenario revisited — a QB on his rookie contract steps into the starting lineup and leads his team to the Super Bowl. With an inexpensive QB (Hurts’ cap number was $1.64 million in 2022), the team can build a strong supporting cast, which is exactly what Roseman has done on offense and defense.
A prime example is the free-agent signing this year of star pass rusher Reddick (16 regular season sacks plus 3.5 more in the playoffs) to a bargain $15 million-per-year deal. And through the use of voidable years on the contract, Reddick’s cap numbers are just $3.878 million in 2022 and $6.757 in 2023.
Roseman has been prolific in the trade market recently. Besides the Brown deal, the Eagles made a draft choices trade with the Saints last April that moved two first-round picks in a package that wound up with the Eagles holding the No. 18 overall pick, which they included in the Brown trade, plus a first-rounder this April. That pick turned into No. 10 overall due to the Saints’ poor season.
So in a case of the rich getting richer, Philadelphia will have the No. 10 and either the No. 30 or 31 picks, depending on the Super Bowl result.
>>READ: Who Eagles Pick in Our Mock Draft
Roseman’s success in the trade market is further demonstrated on defense. He added All-Pro cornerback Darius Slay from the Detroit Lions in 2020 at the low cost of third- and fifth-round picks. He traded fifth- and sixth-round picks to New Orleans in August for safety Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, who tied for the league lead with six interceptions and added 67 tackles.
Similar success occurred with terrific free-agent signings on defense. These include an excellent corner in James Bradberry on a one-year, $7.25 million contract, defensive tackle Javon Hargrave, who produced 11 sacks and 60 tackles this season, and a rotational player for $2 million in defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who had two QB hits in the NFC title game.
Building from Within
It’s also critical for a team with so many high-salaried veterans to hit on some draft picks after the first round, which the Eagles did with 2021 second-round pick, Pro Bowl guard Landon Dickerson, and seventh-round left tackle Jordan Mailata, who replaced expensive veteran Jason Peters, two years ago. It also helped the Eagles’ cause to claim starting safety Marcus Epps (94 tackles this season) on waivers in 2019. He is still on his rookie deal, earning the league minimum of $965,000.
Contract restructures for players such as Pro Bowl tackle Lane Johnson and kicker Jake Elliott has been part of the strategy. They’ve also dealt with excessive dead money infringing on their cap when a player such as defensive tackle Fletcher Cox is released and re-signed on a voidable deal.
All this maneuvering has produced a Super Bowl team with only three starters remaining from the Eagles’ 2017 championship team — Kelce, Johnson and Cox.
Room for Mistakes
No general manager hits on every move, and Roseman and his scouting staff made a bad decision during the 2020 NFL Draft when they chose a first-round bust at receiver in Jalen Reagor at No. 21 overall. Reagor didn’t pan out, but that’s not why the miss stings so bad.
Philadelphia could have selected superstar Justin Jefferson.
The Minnesota Vikings grabbed Jefferson one pick later, and the Philadelphia missed out on a game-changing talent. The Eagles rebounded with the drafting of Smith (95 catches for 1,196 yards, 7 TDs this season) and the trade for Brown (88 receptions, 1,496 yards, 11 TDs in 2022), but if they had picked Jefferson, they almost certainly would not have needed to get both Smith and Brown.
Eagles’ Road Ahead
The challenge ahead doesn’t get any easier for Roseman and the Eagles, who will have to continue working their magic to keep the bulk of their team together post-Super Bowl. Free agency looms for a boatload of Eagles, including offensive starters in Kelce, Sanders and guard Isaac Seumalo.
They will also have tough decisions to make with defensive starters Hargrave, Cox, Bradberry, Gardner-Johnson and linebackers T.J. Edwards and Kyzir White. Add to the equation other rotation players who will hit the open market, such as Suh, defensive end Brandon Graham and defensive tackle Linval Joseph, along with backup QB Gardner Minshew and backup running back Boston Scott.
If Roseman deems Sanders too pricey, he can replace him with a quality backup — second-year man Kenneth Gainwell and draft another back along with re-signing Scott. The 32-year-old Cox may be supplanted by last year’s top pick, Jordan Davis.
Also on the horizon: a costly extension for Hurts, who will be entering the final year of his contract. That could cost in the $40-million-plus-per-year range, but with a large signing bonus, the first couple of years of his new deal should be manageable cap-wise.
Then there’s that dead money that will be biting hard again in 2023 with a reported $28 million on the books before Roseman starts releasing and restructuring players.
But Roseman acts as if he’s not worried about dead money. He said last March, “If you said to me, ‘in the next five years we’re going to go to the playoffs four of the five years, we’re going to win one world championship, and then we’re going to have a horrible year, would I sign up for that?’ Yes, where do I sign up?”
Who Will Be Next?
Can cap-troubled teams such as the Saints ($57 million over the 2023 cap), Buccaneers ($55 million over) and Packers ($17.5 million over before the possible huge dead money hit with a trade of Rodgers) follow Philadelphia’s model and emerge as contenders in the near future?
What would help all three teams the most is to find an inexpensive young QB like Hurts to build around.
Green Bay Packers
That could be Jordan Love with his $3.94 million cap charge in 2023 if Rodgers is traded. The Packers should exercise the fifth-year option for 2024 on Love, who played well against the Eagles when Rodgers left the game injured in Week 12, and then they’ll have two years of club control on his rookie deal.
They also need to cut ties with expensive players such as high-priced, injury-prone tackle David Bakhtiari and work some restructures with corner Jaire Alexander and running back Aaron Jones. They could let Jones go to save $10.5 million on the cap and draft a young back to pair with A.J. Dillon.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
It’s doubtful Blaine Gabbert, or Kyle Trask can be saviors at QB in Tampa Bay with Tom Brady retired. Perhaps they can find their next starter at No. 19 in this year’s first round. They may have to move on from veterans like linebacker Lavonte David, tackle Donovan Smith and running back Leonard Fournette, plus restructure center Ryan Jensen and receivers Chris Godwin and Mike Evans. They’ll also be working on an extension for star linebacker Devin White that can lower his $11.7 million cap number in the first year of a new deal.
New Orleans Saints
New Orleans should jettison QB Jameis Winston, not re-sign Andy Dalton and seek a better option. Maybe they’ll get lucky with their late first-round pick from the Sean Payton deal at No. 29 overall. The Saints also should release two high-salaried and often-injured players — receiver Michael Thomas and guard Andrus Peat — among other cost-saving moves such as restructuring defensive end Cam Jordan and tackle Ryan Ramczyk.
If the Buccaneers or Saints so choose, they could sign a quality free-agent QB such as Jimmy Garoppolo (since Lamar Jackson and Daniel Jones surely won’t hit the open market) and negotiate an incentive-laden deal for Garoppolo with a lot of money tied to play time and production.
>> READ: Saints Meeting With Derek Carr
Meanwhile, Roseman and the Eagles will roll on and attempt to continue hitting at a high success rate in their player acquisition and cap management endeavors as they hope to bask in the warm glory of another well-earned Super Bowl triumph.