Analyzing the Philadelphia Eagles 2018 Offseason

2018 Philadelphia Eagles (Cap Numbers as of 2/7; source Over The Cap.com; projected $179.5 M cap)

2018 Team Cap = $179,386,843

Total Cap Liabilities = $190,054,390

Top 51 = $187,166,783

Dead Money = $486,941

Team Cap – (Top 51 + Dead Money) = Cap Space

Cap Space = -$8,266,881

Rookie Pool = $4,618,436

Cap Space – Rookie Pool = -$12,885,317

Draft Picks:

6 draft picks: 1/32, 4/132, 4/133, 5/158, 5/171, 6/209

Lance Zierlein’s NFL.com Team Needs:

  • LT, LB, CB
  • “The Eagles addressed their need at RB with the addition of Jay Ajayi, but the season-ending injury to Jason Peters will likely make the left tackle spot a high priority in the offseason. It would be surprising if they didn’t look for help at linebacker, and the CB corps isn’t quite where it needs to be.”

Team’s Free Agents:

Andrew Beaton from The Wall Street Journal and I had a discussion regarding the potential of the Eagles trading Nick Foles for the article at this link, which got me started on my thinking for the Eagles offseason. The Eagles are projected to be almost $12.9 million over the cap after accounting for the cap space currently projected to go to their draft picks, which could be a bit of a concern, but they have almost the entire core of their roster signed through 2018 with many of those players signed through 2019 and beyond. This article from Jimmy Kempski at The Philly Voice appropriately titled “Eagles should be Super Bowl contenders for the foreseeable future,” laid this out, illustrating the years that players on their roster are signed through. It’s worth checking out.

There are three starters who are free agents in 2018: outside linebacker Nigel Bradham, running back LeGarrette Blount, and slot cornerback Patrick Robinson. Safety Corey Graham wasn’t a starter, but was a big contributor and played 84% of snaps in the Super Bowl. Tight end Trey Burton wasn’t a starter either, but was a key role player for the team as a back-up tight end and special teams contributor. Each of these players are candidates to be re-signed, but the cap space needs to get out of the red first before the Eagles can even think about re-signing them. Running back Darren Sproles is also a free agent, but I think that 2017 fourth-round pick Donnel Pumphrey was drafted to replace him, while Corey Clement has shown the potential to help in replacing Sproles’ production.

There are plenty of reasons to not move on from Foles. He just earned a Super Bowl MVP for a franchise that has never won a Super Bowl with 373 passing yards, three touchdowns, an interception, and a 65.1% completion percentage. Over the course of his three-playoff games, Foles completed 72.6% of passes for 324 yards per game, with six touchdowns to that one interception. He had a passer rating of 115.7 with 9.2 yards per attempt. He looked like the quarterback he was during a Pro Bowl 2013 season under Chip Kelly when he had an all-time record of 10.54 adjusted yards per attempt according to Scott Barrett of Pro Football Focus.

With Carson Wentz coming off a torn ACL and LCL that was suffered on December 10th against the Rams, there’s a reasonable chance that he won’t be 100% for Week 1 with a nine to 12 month recovery window. If this is the case, the Eagles need someone who could give them a chance to win their first few games if Wentz is out and I don’t know if 2016 sixth round pick Nate Sudfeld is that guy. The Eagles decision regarding Foles will involve the opinions of doctors regarding the status of Wentz’s knee before they trade Foles. Even if Wentz wasn’t heading into 2018 coming off this injury, Foles is the kind of back-up quarterback that any team would want and be willing to pay as he can obviously come in and win if the starter goes down.

Foles is slated to cost $7.6 million against the 2018 cap, which is projected to be 4.23% of the cap. Wentz is below him at $7,275,365 (4.05%) and they combine for a very manageable 8.28%, which is a great number for two players who have proven themselves talented enough that they’d both likely be worth over 8% of the cap on their own if they were to hit the free agency market tomorrow. The issue for the 2018 Eagles though is that they’re already well above the projected cap and they need to find a way to make space, so Foles with just $2.4 million in dead money if he’s traded before June 1st and $600,000 in dead money if he’s traded after June 1st is a candidate to be moved at the height of his value to clear some of that cap space. In a way, it couldn’t have worked out better for the Eagles to win a Super Bowl and for Foles to play in a manner that shot his value sky high, but it’s also put the Eagles in a position where they might have to trade a player who became a local legend along his Super Bowl run. If they do trade him, it will be a public relations move they’ll have to get in front of and explain the reasons from a salary cap perspective to the fan base.

Before we resign ourselves to shipping away Foles, let’s look at how they could clear some cap space without having to move on from him. Wide receiver Torrey Smith will almost certainly be traded or released with a cap hit of $5 million in 2018 with no dead money and Mack Hollins and Shelton Gibson having been drafted as the candidates to replace his deep threat role. Hollins proved he has the potential to be that player during the 2017 season, while Gibson had the explosive big play ability in college that made him an enticing fifth round pick for the Birds. Smith had a good season for the team with 36 catches for 430 yards and two touchdowns, but as the fourth leading receiver behind Zach Ertz, Alshon Jeffrey, and Nelson Agholor, the team can afford to move on from him and gain the $5 million they can from his release. With the team at about $12.9 million over the cap before this, his release brings them to $7.9 million over. With a projected cap hit of 2.79% of the cap in 2018, that’s the kind of player you want to produce at least 700 receiving yards in a season, which is not who Smith is for the Eagles, so they’ll move on from him.

The next likely release is long-time tight end Brent Celek who just turned 33-years old during this Super Bowl run. The Eagles gave him a three-year deal in January 2016 that has $5 million against the cap in 2018 with just $1 million in dead money, which will save them another $4 million for a player who’s totaled just 27 catches for 285 receiving yards with one touchdown in the two years since he signed that contract. Starting tight end Zach Ertz was Pro Football Focus’ fifth best player at the position with an 82.5 rating, Trey Burton was the 13th best tight end with a 75.6 rating, then Celek was the 62nd rated tight end out of 71 with a 43.6 rating. If they want to keep a tight end to back up Ertz, it seems that they’d ideally like to try to re-sign Burton, who could be available around three to four million per year, but who they’d have to clear even more cap space to re-sign. Joel Corry from CBS Sports points out that Burton’s receiving skills could entice some team into giving him something similar to the five-year, $32.5 million extension with $16 million in guarantees that Vance McDonald signed with the 49ers in 2016, which would be too pricey for Philadelphia. Burton would be a loss on special teams as well as he played the second most special teams snaps on the Eagles roster with 308, which was 67.54% of special teams snaps.

With Celek off the books, the Eagles would now be $3.9 million over the cap. Jason Fitzgerald of Over The Cap does think there is the potential for an extension that lowers his salary significantly if he wants to keep playing. As he rightfully points out, “Celek is an institution in Philly, having spent 11 seasons with the Eagles, and it’s hard to imagine the team without him.” With this in mind, if they could get him closer to $1 million, keeping him on the roster might be a good solution and still clear cap space, especially if Burton leaves.

A potential two-pronged option that could keep the rest of the roster intact would be signing defensive end Brandon Graham to an extension and re-structuring center Jason Kelce’s contract. Pushing their cap hits higher in the future has it’s risks as well considering that the team already has $180.5 million going towards their roster in 2019 with a projected cap of $193 million. This is a concern, but considering most of the core of their roster is signed through 2019, it can be managed. Free agents they may want to re-sign that hit free agency after the 2018 season are Graham, linebacker Jordan Hicks, cornerback Ronald Darby, running back Jay Ajayi, defensive end Chris Long, and Nick Foles, so there are some concerns regarding re-signing players, but the roster is in good shape to continue along the path it’s on.

Graham was PFF’s eighth best edge defender in 2017 with the sixth best pass rush rating and that epic sack fumble caused against Tom Brady in the final two minutes of the Super Bowl. He led all Eagles defensive linemen playing 64.37% of snaps in 2017 and was their highest rated edge defender. While he’s about to head into his 30-year old season, it seems he has plenty left in the tank, so extending him past 2018 seems to be a good strategy to lock a productive player in and create a bit of cap space. He is owed a salary of $7 million in 2018 with $1 million prorated against the cap, so an $8 million cap hit. A wrench thrown into this is that 31-year old Calais Campbell just signed a contract worth $15 million per season, which might make Graham and his agent want to wait a year to hit free agency as he’s been one of the most consistent and productive defensive linemen in the NFL for half a decade now. If they don’t think he’ll have that kind of market, he might be convinced to sign a three or four year extension worth $10 million per year. This wouldn’t be an inconceivable figure and would still be managable into the future. If they were to do this, they still might be able to save let’s say $2 million against the 2018 cap and convert most of his current salary into a signing bonus. If they did this, then they’d still be $1.9 million over the salary cap.

The other wrench thrown into a potential extension for Graham is that the Eagles likely drafted Derek Barnett in the first round in 2017 to eventually replace him or Curry, so having that low-cost defensive end might already be factored into their internal future cap spending projections as they consider where their cap will be once Carson Wentz finishes his rookie contract and is on a second contract worth over 10% of the cap. Joel Corry writes that he doesn’t think Graham would accept anything less than a four-year, $58 million extension with $34 million in guarantees similar to what Everson Griffen received in July.

Defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan’s cap hit of $13 million in 2019 is one thing that could come back to bite the Eagles as he’s not the same caliber of player as Graham and fellow interior defender Fletcher Cox has a $22 million cap hit himself in 2019. This may force them to move on from Graham after 2018 if they don’t figure out an extension that works for both parties.

Kelce was PFF’s #1 center in 2017 with a 91.3 rating. His run blocking grade of 95.1 was over four points higher than Travis Frederick at number two and while his pass block rating of 62.0 isn’t excellent, centers often get help in pass protection, which makes this an inefficiency that can be avoided through offensive scheme. With two tackles in Jason Peters and Lane Johnson that can win one-on-one match-ups, the interior of the line usually has the numbers to double team defensive tackles. He’s currently signed through 2020, which is his 33-year old season, an age that interior linemen can be effective through because of the position relying more on strength than speed or quickness. A comparison that I often use in thinking about football athletes is a comparison with UFC fighters. The heavyweight division, one filled with strong sluggers, has multiple title contenders in their late-thirties and current champion Stipe Miocic is 35-years old. Similarly, interior linemen can use their strength to stay relevant longer than positions that need to use more athleticism and finesse to succeed.

Kelce’s in the last year with dead money on the books as he has $1.2 million in dead money against a cap hit of $7.2 million. His 2019 and 2020 seasons have salaries of $6.5 and $7 million with no dead money against the cap, so if he were to see his performance decrease in 2018, he’d be at the risk of being released. Now, considering his level of play in 2017, this is unlikely, but they may be able to add another year to the contract, convert much of his $6 million salary in 2018 into a signing bonus and decreasing his cap hit by a few million. Let’s say they create another $2 or 3 million in cap space through doing this. That’d put the team at $100,000 to $1.1 million under the salary cap. Even if they restructured these two deals, the Eagles are still in a position where they wouldn’t be able to do much from a free agency perspective. They’d be able to clear some more space with some cuts on the bottom half of their roster, but they’d basically be in a position where they’d only be able to add draft picks and not be able to re-sign their own free agents.

If they’re looking for a candidate to take a pay cut, Jason Peters might be one. Joel Corry writes, “It wouldn’t be a surprise if the Eagles asked Peters to take a pay cut. The 36-year-old balked at a salary reduction last year. Instead, he was given a one-year contract extension running through the 2019 season in which his 2017 salary was fully guaranteed while his 2018 pay dropped by almost $3 million. Peters may continue to resist any pay cut efforts because the knee injury limiting his playing time triggered a $1 million salary de-escalator for 2018.”

These are potential solutions to getting closer to their cap breakeven point, but I’m not sure how likely they even are, especially when Nick Foles presents an opportunity to clear cap space and acquire picks in the first three rounds, which would be important with no picks between #32 and #132 currently. There’s the potential to get up to about a million under the cap by restructuring Graham and Kelce, but that feels a bit more unlikely than moving on from a back-up quarterback making 4.23% of the cap who could net you a couple draft picks or even potentially a draft pick and a competent back-up quarterback in a trade as well.

This brings us to the potential landing spots for Nick Foles and why they might move on from him. The first four rounds of the draft are where teams have the highest probability of successfully drafting starters and the Eagles don’t have a draft pick for 100 selections in this window. They traded their second round pick in the Carson Wentz trade, they traded their third round pick with Jordan Matthews for Ronald Darby, and they traded away the fourth round pick they received from Minnesota in the Sam Bradford trade for Jay Ajayi, so they made some moves that directly contributed to their Super Bowl win. Zierlein writes that the Eagles only needs are at left tackle, linebacker, and cornerback with linebacker being the only potential immediate need with the possibility that they won’t be able to re-sign Bradham if they don’t clear enough space. Turning 29 in September, Bradham could still continue to be a very valuable and productive player who might see a contract that pays $5.5 to $7 million a year, so trading Foles to clear space to that kind of player at a position of need could likely be worth it for the team. Corry writes that the Eagles could “revisit trading linebacker Mychal Kendricks, who is under contract the next two seasons for $13 million and has a $7.6 million 2018 cap number. Kendricks would revert back to his role as the third linebacker, where his playing time would be limited with a healthy Hicks and Bradham sticking around because of defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’s preference for putting five defensive backs on the field. $4.4 million of cap space would be created by trading Kendricks.”

They might be able to do both if they add the clearance of $5.2 million more of cap space through a Foles trade before June 1st, plus some smaller ancillary moves. If they want to hold on to Foles until after June 1st to give more time to see if Wentz will be ready for the 2018 season, then a trade after June 1st would leave the Eagles with just $600,000 worth of dead money, which would clear $7 million worth of cap space. Foles has a $3 million roster bonus that comes to fruition on March 18th that could make the Eagles want to trade him before then, but that may be unlikely, leaving them with $3 million in sunk cost that they’re fine with taking if it nets them a healthy return in a trade. They’ve proven they’ll sink costs into quarterbacks with their trade value on the market in the past with the Bradford deal.

If they want to hold onto Foles, it might serve them well the same way Bradford did for a desperate team with an injury to their quarterback and in a position where they feel they could succeed shelling out a first round pick. Think about it, in 2016 Teddy Bridgewater went down and Minnesota traded a first and a fourth round pick for Sam Bradford who was a second tier quarterback the year before. In 2017, Ryan Tannehill went down, so the Dolphins gave Jay Cutler $10 million to play for them, which was 5.99% of the cap, and he’s not even worth that lower price. If that trend continues, which it has a decent chance of doing, don’t forget Tony Romo going down in 2016 preseason as well, maybe the Eagles can get another first round pick and a third or fourth in the 2019 NFL Draft for Foles if they can’t that kind of draft haul prior to the 2018 draft.

If the Eagles really want to clear some cap space and gain some draft picks or low-cost talent, trading Vinny Curry could be an option. Curry was terrific in 2017, but it’s still an option. He was PFF’s 21st ranked edge defender with an 84.8 rating and he had the 21st highest pass rush productivity rating of all edge defenders at 10.8, so moving on from him would be a pretty unexpected move. With just $2 million in dead money after June 1st and an $11 million cap hit, I don’t think a trade will happen because of his ability, but the potential clearance of that much cap space makes it worth mentioning. It becomes more possible if they draft a defensive end who seems like he could become a starter with Graham, Derek Barnett, and Chris Long already under contract as edge rushers. Having Curry in that group with Fletcher Cox and Timmy Jernigan on the interior would make their defensive line one of the best in the NFL again in 2018, so I don’t see this move as a likely one, but, again, worth mentioning as it makes it all the more likely that a Foles trade occurs. For the record, I don’t think they move on from Curry, especially not because they’d rather keep a back-up quarterback than a top 20 to 30 edge defender.

As I write in Caponomics: Building Super Bowl Champions, the goal of teams in the NFL seems to either be to win through elite quarterback play or have a low-cost quarterback and build a pass rush that can decrease the performance of the opposing team’s quarterback. The Eagles are in position to have an elite low-cost quarterback in Carson Wentz, probably the best rookie contract quarterback in the NFL, plus the league’s best pass rush. That’s an opportunity for success they probably can’t pass up to keep a back-up quarterback who could net them multiple draft picks and maybe even a back-up quarterback to replace him in the process.

Left tackle still has Peters signed through 2019, Halapoulivaati Vaitai is signed through 2019 as well, and right tackle Lane Johnson, who could become their left tackle one day, is signed through 2021. They’ll likely lose cornerback Patrick Robinson, who was a terrific slot cornerback for them, but it seems that second round pick Sidney Jones will easily slot in and replace him in 2018. Darby is signed for 2018, Jalen Mills is signed through 2019 and Rasul Douglas seems like a future starter for the team who might allow them to move on from Darby after 2018. The team doesn’t have any desperate needs and may be poised to repeat as champions better than any champion we’ve seen this decade, other than the Patriots who are always prepared to repeat.

With this in mind the Eagles don’t really have much in terms of immediate needs, they could survive without a pick in between #32 and #132 because their Super Bowl roster is almost completely intact heading into the 2018 season, but we should be looking towards the free agents in 2019 and 2020 for a picture of positions they would be wise to draft potential low-cost, rookie contract replacements for upcoming free agents. This is something that the best organizations are able to do, when your roster is in good shape, you can plan for needs that are a year or two ahead and the Eagles are in position to do that right now.

Looking at their free agency class for next year, Graham would be one if they don’t agree on an extension, linebacker Jordan Hicks, Darby, Ajayi, Foles if they don’t trade him, Celek if they don’t cut him, Long, reserve offensive guard Chance Warmack, defensive end Steven Means, defensive tackle Destiny Vaeao, and quarterback Nate Sudfeld.

Their free agency class for 2020 includes left tackle Jason Peters, outside linebacker Mychal Kendricks, Torrey Smith in the unlikely case that he’s not released this year, starting guard Stefen Wisniewski, wide receiver Nelson Agholor after the fifth-year option tied to his first round rookie contract, Mills, Vaitai, special teamer Chris Maragos, punter Donnie Jones, reserve guard Isaac Seumalo, running back Wendell Smallwood, linebacker and their leading special teamer in terms of snap count Kamu Grugier-Hill, linebacker Joe Walker, and running back Corey Clement. They have three exclusive rights free agents in long-snapper Rick Lovato, wide receiver Marcus Johnson, and kicker Jake Elliott.

This brings us to potential destinations for Nick Foles if he is to be traded, then after that we can discuss the draft strategy the Eagles could take on. The candidates I have considered are the Browns, Jets, Bills, Bengals, Broncos, Vikings, Cardinals, and potentially the Jaguars with it really coming down to who loses out on the Kirk Cousins sweepstakes or who decides to excuse themselves from paying Kirk Cousins far more than it’s likely he’ll ever be worth.

Just to sort that out before we get into Foles, I think Cousins ends up either going to the Browns or Vikings. The Browns have over $100 million in cap space with a projected cap near $225 million, so they could construct a contract similar to Jimmy Garoppolo’s deal with the 49ers that took advantage of their cap carryover and excess cap space.

Cleveland has had a historic number of players on rookie contracts the last two seasons with all of their draft picks. In those draft picks they have some good pieces on rookie contracts at key positions like defensive ends Myles Garrett and Emmanuel Ogbah, wide receivers Josh Gordon (still under team control at a low-cost with an exclusive rights free agent designation for 2018) and Corey Coleman, tight ends David Njoku and Seth DeValve, cornerback Brien Boddy-Calhoun, and others. They have good veterans on their offensive line. Cousins would be protected and they could draft Saquon Barkley with the #1 or #4 pick and have a great rushing offense to support Cousins. He could be the missing piece to a good roster and I wouldn’t be surprised if this was that strategy of what they’ve been building towards the last few years with the cap space to sign him and a bevy of young players around him to further minimize the impact of his high cap hits. As I wrote in my New York Jets offseason overview, Scot McCloughan believes Cousins is looking for a situation where he can succeed and, surprisngly, the Browns may be one of the best ones.

An issue with Cousins going to the Browns is that McCloughan just started with the Browns as a draft consultant and he said recently that Cousins’ is not a “special” player and McCloughan has Baker Mayfield as his best quarterback on the draft board hands down.

The next potential landing spot is the Vikings as they’re a place where Cousins could succeed, which, along with the ability to pay him, is the main thing I’m concerned with when looking at this situation. I think he and his agent smartly took the money they could from Dan Snyder and moved on knowing something a friend with a unique perspective on the situation told me in 2009: the Redskins will never win with Dan Snyder as their owner. The Vikings have a projected $52.5 million after paying out their rookie pool contracts, so having Cousins at $27 or $28 million would still leave an already good roster with the cap space to pursue some players who could fill some holes. The pass catcher group is already deep and at a reasonable cost with Adam Thielen, Stephon Diggs, Kyle Rudolph, Jarius Wright, and Laquon Treadwell. They have Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray under contract next season and they have a great defense. The Vikings made the NFC Championship with Case Keenum as their quarterback, so Cousins may rightfully be thinking: “if they can do that with him, then shouldn’t they be able to do the same or better with me?”

These are the two prime locations for Cousins, but the loser will be a very likely candidate for Foles, which forces us to consider what kind of package that a) the Eagles would be willing to take for the reigning Super Bowl MVP and b) what each team has to offer. As noted earlier, the Eagles don’t have a draft pick between #32 and #132, which would be helpful considering there’s a probability of finding low-cost starters in that range and a cap crunched team with a high percentage of their cap invested in a big core group of veterans could use. The team could use re-enforcements at cornerback, linebacker, and potentially both wide receiver with the release of Torrey Smith plus quarterback if they trade Foles.

I don’t think they’ll need help at receiver because I believe Hollins and Gibson will replace, and exceed, the 18 catch and 193-yard gap between Smith’s production and theirs in 2017, so a receiver isn’t a need in my opinion. Cornerback is more of a need with Patrick Robinson likely being signed to higher terms elsewhere than the Eagles will be able to afford, but a group with Jalen Mills, Ronald Darby, Sidney Jones, and Rasul Douglas makes it a stable situation and one they’d like to solve through the draft. The linebacker situation with Bradham potentially gone, plus the loss of Foles makes those the two positions to focus on if the team is going to gain one back in a trade. The main focus will be on draft picks, but we’ve seen so many smart trades involving players the last few years that it seems teams are understanding how to put a proper valuation on players within their system.

The only way I see Foles being traded in a situation where the Eagles acquire cornerback is added to the deal is if they somehow pull off a trade for Tre’Davious White of the Bills or William Jackson III from Cincinatti, but I don’t see that happening unless that playoff run convinced one of those franchises that Foles is a far superior option to their other solutions, which could include retaining their starters or cutting them and finding others. The gained cap space from releasing or trading Taylor or Dalton could entice them into trading for Foles at his low-cap number, but I don’t think they’d be willing to give up such prime players.

At linebacker, there are some reasonable candidates as trade pieces in a deal for Foles that also includes draft picks and they are Joe Schobert from the Browns, Matt Milano from the Bills, Haason Reddick from the Cardinals, or Ben Gedeon from the Vikings. Each of those players has varying degrees of value attached to them, so the draft picks associated with them would be determined on their perceived value to the Eagles. If a trade involves a back-up quarterback, a trade with the Browns that includes DeShone Kizer could be attractive to the Eagles. I know Kizer wasn’t good for the Browns in 2017, but he was on a bad offense with a rushing offense in the bottom half of the league, so he could be improved with the talent in Philadelphia, while still having a perceived value low enough for the Eagles to net a second round pick in the deal as well.

If Denver wants Foles, then both Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch could be candidates the Eagles would consider for the back-up role. The Broncos had the fourth worst offensive line in the NFL against the pass in 2017 according to Football Outsiders, giving up a sack rate of 9.1%. Their quarterbacks were getting sacked almost once every ten times they dropped back. If I’m the Eagles, I look at that situation and I think that both players could look much better if they’re behind Pro Football Focus’ top offensive line in 2017. As I note in Caponomics, in 2016, “simply applying pressure to quarterbacks this past season dropped their passer rating from 96.7 to just 62.5 (league-wide averages).” Siemian is only under contract through 2018, but he could likely be retained for a lower cost than Foles as a good back-up to Wentz for the next few seasons. I think the Broncos trade Siemian before Lynch due to Lynch being a first round pick and Siemian being under contract for one more year compared to Lynch’s two. Siemian would still give Philly what they would need most with Foles gone: a back-up quarterback at a lower cost who could still lead a stacked roster to victory in a Doug Pederson crafted game plan.

The thing about Foles that would be very attractive to the Browns if they don’t sign Cousins is that Foles would be an inexpensive one year player and they could still use one of their top four picks to draft their quarterback of the future, while Foles provides a bridge that could secure the coaching staff’s jobs for another year to give them a chance to see this whole rebuilding process through. Hue Jackson cannot afford to go through another season like the last two, even though I believe in the process the Browns are going through, I think he has to go at least 6-10 or 7-9 to retain his job with some reasons for real excitement heading into 2019. Foles could also have a good season for them in that one year, earn an expensive NFL starting quarterback contract and net the team a compensatory pick down the line. If they draft Barkley or another bellcow in the first three rounds, they could have a terrific rushing attack to help Foles carry the offense in 2018 and the understudy turned leading actor in 2019.

For the Foles trade, we’re mostly going to be looking at picks in the first four rounds, so taking what teams in this Foles sweepstakes have for draft picks into account. I’m going to narrow the group of potential landing spots for Foles to the Browns, Broncos, Cardinals, Vikings who just hired Eagles QB coach John DeFillipo to be their offensive coordinator.

The Browns have the #1 and #4 pick, three second round picks, a third round pick and two fourth rounders. The Broncos have the #5 pick, a second round pick, two threes and two fours. The Cardinals have the #15 pick, a second rounder and two third round picks with just $18.6 million in post-rookie pool cap space, which makes them more of a dark horse for Cousins in my opinion. They’ve become too overextended at the top of their cap with Larry Fitzgerald, Chandler Jones, Patrick Peterson, and Tyrann Mathieu all over 7.86% of the cap. They may go in the veteran quarterback direction as that’s been a trend there from Kurt Warner to Carson Palmer now, so Foles could be the best candidate at $5.4 million, which would be just 3.01% and they would be smart to try to use that #15 pick on a quarterback as well. The Vikings have a first, second, and third round pick to trade the Eagles.

For the Browns to acquire Foles I could see them trading a second and third round pick or DeShone Kizer and a third round pick dependent on what the Eagles want from them. The more I think about it though, the more I see them as the front runner to acquire Cousins because of that ability to construct the Jimmy G type of deal with so many rookie contract players making Cousins’ cap hits far more managable.

The Vikings seem like they’re out of the Foles sweepstakes because they don’t have the picks to afford acquiring him when they could just as easily have Case Keenum, Sam Bradford, or Teddy Bridgewater as a fallback plan if they don’t get Cousins. Any of those three would work and would probably cost as much as Nick Foles would over a three or four year window, but without giving up a second and third round pick or a second and fifth round pick if that’s the price. I also don’t see them trading for an Eagles quarterback again as Sam Bradford ended up being a bad deal for them not only with his injury, but also the first and fourth round picks they sent Philly becoming Derek Barnett and Jay Ajayi, two key pieces in the Eagles NFC Championship Game victory. As I wrote two weeks ago, Barnett’s strip sack turned the game around. The Vikings were heading in to score down 14-7 and before they knew it, the Eagles were up 31-7.

This leaves us with the Broncos and the Cardinals. The Cardinals really like Haason Reddick, so I don’t know if they’d move him, but he could be paired with a second or third round pick to net Foles. They have all of their picks in the first four rounds, plus an extra third round pick, and their window for success with the core of this roster is closing. They are a top candidate to make a move for Foles considering a salary cap situation that has Larry Fitzgerald, Chandler Jones, Patrick Peterson, and Tyrann Mathieu all over 7.86% of the projected cap, so they need a low-cost quarterback and it’s unlikely they find one who can help this team win a championship at #15 in the first round.

I think the Broncos are a very likely landing spot for Foles as they’ve built out their defense, plus they have the receivers to compete for a playoff spot with Foles at quarterback and, like the Cardinals, they don’t want to let this window close on them. As I said, I don’t think they move Lynch, so a deal involving a quarterback would likely involve Siemian. I could see the Eagles accepting a trade for Siemian and a second round pick, which might just be what happens. If the Eagles don’t like Siemian more than they like someone they could select in the draft, then they might try to acquire Denver’s second and third round picks, but I don’t think Denver wants both Foles and Siemian under contracts that expire after 2018. If that’s the case, they might need to offer the Eagles a second round pick with him, which wouldn’t kill Denver if they think Foles can give them what they need to compete.

I should note that it’s very hard to determine what Foles’ value is considering the last few years. Bradford netted a first and fourth round pick from the Vikings. Alex Smith got the Chiefs one of the best young cornerbacks in the NFL in Kendall Fuller and a third round pick from the Redskins. Foles could net a second and third round pick, a third and fourth round pick, or a second and a fourth or fifth. I don’t know, but his approximate value is probably in the neighborhood that’s been discussed.

I think Foles lands in Cleveland, Denver, or Arizona and the Eagles clear cap space, while either acquiring a competent back-up quarterback or the draft pick that they hope will select that player. The benefits from a cap and acquisition standpoint of a Foles trade outweigh the Eagles need for a back-up quarterback, even though he is a great one. If they want to draft another position, then go to free agency for a low-cost back-up, then there are viable candidates like Chase Daniel, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Matt Moore, or maybe Tyler Bray who was in the same system in Kansas City, but who is a total unknown. I think it’s very likely they could go back to Daniel because he could be worth under $1 million.

If the Eagles net Kizer or Siemian, then lets say the Eagles have a second or third round pick with them. If this is the case, then their draft needs in my opinion will be a linebacker to replace Bradham, a left tackle, a defensive lineman, probably a defensive end over a tackle with Graham and Long both potentially being gone after 2018, a cornerback, and maybe a big running back to replace Blount. If they do clear enough cap space for him, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them retain Blount as he was a still very valuable even as Ajayi and Clement were added to the rotation. The Eagles have the potential to have the best running back group in the NFL in 2018, especially when Donnel Pumphrey is added after missing 2017 with an injury.

I’m not going to attempt to predict who they draft, but I think the Eagles will go with a linebacker or left tackle at #32. The left tackle would be Jason Peters’ eventual replacement, while also upgrading their previous back-up option of Vaitai. Using the first round pick on an offensive lineman would help prepare them to slightly lower costs in the near future too as Peters retires and they’ll need some more cap space to go to Wentz.

If they don’t retain Bradham, then they should take the best linebacker available, that could be more of a need than left tackle. Even so, considering how much dime is played in the NFL today, Hicks and Kendricks could be a fine combination. Linebacker is a position that’s available later in the draft, so maybe they address another position here like cornerback again knowing that Darby and Mills will be gone in the near future and knowing that saving money and gaining value at cornerback with a first round pick would be a very smart strategy with the upcoming spending on their offense. This team is so well prepared to compete for a championship in 2018 that there isn’t really a clear picture of what position they should take in the first round.

Using the second or third round pick gained from the proposed trades above, the Eagles could take a defensive end to replace Graham or Long when they move on after 2018, which would help keep the line producing pressure moving into the future.

The five picks between #132 in the fourth round and #209 in the sixth round that the Eagles have can be used to bet on talented players they see filling a role for them in the short term with the potential to grow into something more in the future. With back-up tight end Trey Burton, third safety Corey Graham, goal line power back Blount, and rotational defensive tackle Beau Allen as free agents, those are four roles they could be solved with these picks. They could also bet on a linebacker in this area as talent can be found here. Even the small roles they could be losing in free agency can be solved in the draft.

I’m no draft expert right now, but just looking at players that I like that are currently projected in this area, there are some pieces they could add that could replace each of these players. For tight ends there’s Mike Gesicki from Penn State, Dallas Goedert from South Dakota State, Troy Fumagalli from Wisconsin, and Adam Breneman from UMass. Tight ends are deep in this area of the draft, so that could play a role in their decisions regarding Celek and Burton. Safeties in this area include Ohio State’s Damon Webb, Armani Watts out of Texas A&M, Kyzir White from West Virginia, and Siran Neal from Jacksonville State. Power running backs like Bo Scarborough from Alabama, Lavon Coleman from Washington, Josh Adams from Notre Dame, and Darrel Williams from LSU will be there late. Defensive tackle has great finds in the later rounds, I watched much of the University of Texas’ season this year and Poona Ford pops out at me in this later rounds. For linebackers there’s Josey Jewell from Iowa, Oklahoma’s Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, and many others. With Jordan Hicks coming up on free agency after 2018, they may even want to draft two linebackers in this draft.

Like the 2013 Seahawks and the 2016 Patriots, the Eagles are primed to make another run at a Super Bowl in 2018 and they’re my favorite to win the NFC again. They don’t have many holes and they have the resources to fill the holes they do have. The Eagles will have to deal with the Super Bowl brain drain where other teams come hire the people who helped coach you to a championship with their offensive coordinator Frank Reich becoming the Colts head coach and quarterback coach DeFilippo to the Vikings, the Eagles are primed in every way to be the same team they were in 2018 and probably even better considering they’ll theoretically have Wentz for the playoffs this year. After years of no titles, Philadelphia might go back-to-back.

Zack Moore is a writer for OverTheCap.com, an NFLPA certified agent, and author of the recently released book titled, “Caponomics: Building Super Bowl Champions,” which is now available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter @ZackMooreNFL. 

Other Offseason Overviews:

New York Jets

Miami Dolphins

The NFC Championship and the Sam Bradford Trade

Sunday night’s game between the Vikings and Eagles was still in question with 3:26 left in the second quarter and the Vikings dropping back to pass on a 3rd and five from the Eagles 16-yard line. They were down just 14-7 and at the time Eagles fans were sitting on the couch hoping for a stop just to force a field goal. The Vikings had just had a 61-yard, 11 play drive that was about to culminate in some points and, outside of their first drive that was a 9 play, 75-yard masterpiece that cut through the Eagles elite defense, it was the best they’d looked all night. Eagles fans had reason to feel nervous.

On that play, Vikings quarterback Case Keenum dropped back to pass, reared his arm back to throw, and was poised to throw to either Kyle Rudolph on a corner route for a touchdown to Stephon Diggs on an in-breaking route for a first down. Both receivers had a step on their defenders, so it may have been a touchdown or first down. Instead, Eagles first round pick Derek Barnett came around the edge, almost unblocked, to sack Keenum and force a fumble, which was recovered by Chris Long of the Eagles.

The Eagles didn’t go into their two-minute offense and in some ways seemed content with taking the ball into halftime up 14-7 with the promise of receiving the kickoff to start the third quarter. They started the drive with 3:16 on the clock and ran just two plays before the two minute warning with both plays going for two yards. After the two minute warning though, back-up quarterback Nick Foles led a drive that seemed to provide him with confidence for the rest of the game in a NFC Championship performance fit for a star.

On 3rd and six Foles hit running back Corey Clement on a swing to the left. Clement made a beautiful spin move at the line of scrimmage that forced Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr to miss on the tackle, then ran for eight yards and a first down, while getting out of bounds to stop the clock. The next play Foles hit Torrey Smith with a wide receiver screen for 11-yards and a first down.

Foles didn’t connect on his next two passes with both of them amounting to throwaways in the face of good coverage down field. On 3rd and 10 though, Alshon Jeffrey ran a 15-yard dig and go route that cornerback Terrence Newman bit on, which resulted in a 53-yard touchdown that brought the score to 21-7 in favor of the Eagles.

The Vikings earned one first down on their next drive, but unfortunately for them, rather than pin the Eagles deep, Ryan Quigley’s punt went into the end zone and the Eagles started at their own 20-yard line. With just 38 seconds on the clock, if the ball was inside the Eagles own ten-yard line, it’s likely they would have taken a knee and went into the halftime. Instead, on the first play, Foles hit running back Jay Ajayi behind the line of scrimmage in the flat and Ajayi ran for 11-yards and out of bounds after acquiring the first down. Foles then hit tight end Zach Ertz on another beautiful double move where he ran a 9-yard out near the sticks that burned safety Harrison Smith for a 33-yard out-and-up, while he also got out of bounds. Now on the Vikings 33-yard line, they were already within kicker Jake Elliott’s range, but another pass to Ajayi resulted in a 13-yard gain that made Elliott’s kick a more manageable 38-yarder. He made the kick and the score was 24-7 at the end of the half with the red-hot Eagles offense and a confident Nick Foles getting the ball to start the third quarter.

In my pregame write up I posted on Saturday, I mentioned that along with advantages on the offensive and defensive lines, I thought the Eagles had too many offensive weapons for the Vikings to stop all game. In the first drive of the third quarter, Torrey Smith became a focal point of the offense—a player who was fourth on the team in catches and yards on the season with 36 for 430, but is a talented enough player to have 1128 receiving yards for the Ravens in 2013 and earn a five-year, $40 million contract with the 49ers in 2015. In the Eagles’ offense though, he doesn’t need to be the top receiver; he’s instead in a role more suited for a player of his caliber. While Ertz provides an elite tight end, Jeffery draws the attention of the opponent’s top cornerback due to his abilities as a first-tier caliber receiver, while Agholor provides dynamic ability out of the slot.

On the first two plays of the drive, Foles hit Smith for four yards on a hitch, then six yards on an in route and a first down. Ajayi ran for three yards on first down, then Foles hit Jeffrey for 10-yards and a first down while getting laid out by Barr as he threw. Ajayi then ran for five yards on first down, running back LeGarrette Blount had a run for -1-yard, then Foles hit Smith on another wide receiver screen for a first down, running the same play they ran towards the end of the first half.

With the ball on the Vikings 41-yard line and the team steadily marching downfield, Doug Pederson made a tremendous and unexpected call. (The value of great coaching is immense, as the success of Foles might not work without Pederson’s great game planning these last two weeks.) Corey Clement took a handoff and immediately pitched it back to Foles for the flea-flicker. Torrey Smith acted like he was running his cornerback, Trae Waynes, off and then moving in to block him, but he did it in a lackadaisical manner that receivers sometimes will when the ball is being run to the opposite side of the field. When Waynes’ eyes went into the backfield to see where the ball was under the assumption that it was a running play, Smith took off and used his most valuable resource, his speed as a deep threat to beat Waynes and safety Harrison Smith over the top for a 41-yard touchdown. The Eagles fourth best receiving option over the course of the season had 58-yards on the 75-yard touchdown drive, and the score made it 31-7 and put the game seemingly out of reach for the Vikings with 10:05 left in the third quarter.

Not many teams have a player of Smith’s caliber in that kind of role, which is something the Patriots have traditionally done well and a strategy more teams should be trying to implement through their salary cap construction. Rather than spend heavily on a quarterback and top receiver, maybe spend on your quarterback, but find depth in the pass catchers through building the offense around a lower cost tight end with multiple pass catchers at mid-tier costs.

Between the score that made it 31-7 and Barnett’s sack when the game was 14-7, the Vikings ran just six plays for 22-yards. The Eagles had three scoring drives to the Vikings one drive. It’s that kind of performance at the end of a half, while getting the ball to start the second half that has helped the Patriots win so consistently and it was a great sign for Eagles fans that their offense was able to capitalize on the mistake and blow the game wide open. The Patriots are adept at hitting a field goal at the end of a half, then taking the ball to start the second half and going down for seven points, scoring 10 points before the opponent’s offense has a chance to respond.

On the next drive the Vikings got the ball down to the Eagles seven yard line, but rather than have the ability to settle for a field goal in a closer game, the Vikings had to try to score a touchdown with about six and a half minutes left in the game because of the 24 point lead for the home team. Rather than kick a field goal and play football with over 20 minutes left, say if the game was 21-7 or 24-7 at the time.

Instead, the Vikings failed, the game was still 31-7 and the Eagles had the ball back. On the ensuing drive, the Eagles were moving the ball, then Foles hit Agholor for a 42-yard gain after he got behind Waynes on a scramble drill where he broke his route deep from its intended 10-yard out. Ajayi lost two yards on the next play, back-up tight end Trey Burton had a 12-yard catch for a first down, then Clement had a 14-yard rush that had 15-yard added to the end of it due to an illegal hands to the face penalty by Vikings defensive end Stephen Weatherly. Two plays later, with the ball on the Vikings five-yard line, Foles hit Jeffery for a touchdown over the middle of the field to make it 38-7.

The entire game was changed with Barnett’s sack fumble—and Barnett was drafted with a first-round pick that the Eagles received from the Vikings, along with a fourth rounder they used on running back Donnel Pumphrey, in exchange for Sam Bradford. This brings us back to a topic I’ve discussed many times on Over The Cap and will come back to many times in the future: the value of the quarterback.

We just watched an NFC Championship Game where both quarterbacks started the season as back-ups; Blake Bortles was in the AFC Championship Game as well, almost beating the greatest of all-time in Tom Brady. While Foles went 26 for 33 (78.8%) for 352 yards (10.7 yds/att) and three touchdowns and Bortles had a good game going 23 for 36 (63.9%) for 293 yards (8.1 yds/att) and one touchdown, Keenum was kept under pressure all game by an Eagles defensive line that goes seven deep. Bortles played poorly down the stretch though as the Jaguars offensive coordinator lost his nerve, became predictable, and went away from play action passing where Bortles had completed 91.7% of his play action passes on the day according to Pro Football Focus. Also according to PFF, Case Keenum was under pressure on 24 of his 50 drop backs. He ended the day completing 28 of 48 passes (58.3%) for 271 yards (5.6 yds/att) with one touchdown to two interceptions, while going 11 of 22 for 108 yards with an interception under pressure.

That interception under pressure was Patrick Robinson’s 50-yard interception returned for a touchdown that made the game 7-7. Chris Long hit Keenum’s arm while he threw, which caused his pass to not reach his target and instead fall into Robinson’s arms. The two biggest game-changing plays in this game, the interception that tied up the game early on as the Vikings seemed to be flowing on offense and a sack fumble when the Vikings had the opportunity to tie it up themselves, were caused by defensive pressure. While Foles had a great game, there are alternative strategies to success than the “you need a quarterback to succeed” school of thought that many people in the NFL and NFL media have adopted.

The key factor in this game was defensive pressure and it seems to be a key factor come playoff time. The Eagles got pressure on Keenum and the Jaguars vaunted defensive front didn’t get enough pressure on Brady as they only pressured him on nine of 42 drop backs, which is 21.4%. While Foles was kept clean for much of the day against a Vikings defensive line that wasn’t nearly as deep or explosive as the Eagles line, Keenum was under pressure all day with those pressures being deciding factors in the game. It kind of makes me question: what would this game have looked like if the Vikings didn’t trade for Bradford?

The Eagles started the 2016 offseason aiming for a three quarterback strategy, which I explain in Caponomics: Building Super Bowl Champions, as I had talked to members of their front office in November about the efficacy of a three quarterback strategy considering it was clear that Bradford was not the solution that would lead them to a Super Bowl. Rather than sign him long-term in an offense that thrives on mobility, the Eagles signed him to a flexible two-year contract that decreased dead money against the cap if he was traded. The deal gave Bradford the equivalent in guaranteed money that the franchise tag would have given him, while his potentially $23.5 million cap hit with the Eagles, which would have been over 14% of the cap signaled to me that they had no intention of keeping him beyond the 2016 season.

They signed Chase Daniel to a three year contract at $7 million per season, then they traded the Browns five draft picks in return for two and the right to move up to draft Carson Wentz, who has proven to be an ideal system fit for Pederson’s offense. This strategy was predicated on the understanding that quarterback is the most highly valued position in the NFL to the point where it’s overvalued—with the Eagles knowing they’d be able to trade Bradford to re-coup some of the picks they lost in the Wentz trade at some point with the hope being that he’d have a good season and, after the season, he would gain them something similar to the second-round pick and conditional pick the 49ers received for Alex Smith from the Chiefs in 2013.

Instead, Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater went down just before the 2016 season with a devastating knee injury and the Vikings, thinking they had a Super Bowl caliber team, traded the Eagles that first round pick and what ended up being a fourth round pick as well. They received even more than the 49ers were able to get for a more proven Smith as desperation at quarterback causes teams to overpay in a way they’d never behave for another position. The Eagles in turn got to draft a promising defensive end who helped turn the tide in this NFC Championship match-up with the Vikings and a 2018 fourth round pick, which they traded to Miami for running back Jay Ajayi who was one of the Eagles most valuable players in this game with 99 offensive yards on 21 touches. With Wentz being down, Ajayi has turned out to be a most vital move as the depth and talent in the backfield are something Foles can lean on.

With Wentz on a low-cost rookie deal, the Eagles have been able to eat the dead money that Bradford and the now departed Daniel have produced with the three players combining for 11.12% of the cap in 2017. And rather than hang on to Daniel, once Foles became available with the Chiefs declining his second year option, the Eagles signed him to a two-year deal that had a cap hit of just 0.96% in 2017. A very smart and, as we now see, important move for the Eagles to sign a player who knew Pederson’s offensive system that he was drafted to run by the Andy Reid regime when he and Pederson were in Philadelphia. In the trade to the Browns, they lost a first, third, and fourth-round pick in 2016, a 2017 first-round pick, and a 2018 second-round pick. They got back the 2016 first-round pick with the #2 pick that they used on Wentz and a 2017 fourth-round pick. Then in the Bradford trade they got back the 2017 first and fourth, which makes the Browns trade feel like they almost just lost the 2018 second-round pick, while the rest of the picks have been recovered with the only consequences being the loss of the pick and the dead money attributed to Bradford and now Daniel.

It’s an unfortunate situation for the Vikings because I can’t fault them for making the trade as, considering their 2017 season, they clearly had a roster that could compete for a championship, but they also made it happen with “journeyman” Case Keenum under center and Bradford on the sideline, injured again with his bad knees.

With Bradford at 10.78% of the cap on the Vikings bench after ceding the job to Keenum, that team could have been much improved around Keenum or another quarterback without that trade and without the expense of Bradford or the two picks they lost because of it. It’s unfortunate for the Vikings that Bridgewater got hurt because the roster had already been constructed in this run-first, defensive model that just needs an efficient quarterback already and Bridgewater was doing a good job in that role with a career 64.7% completion percentage and just nine interceptions in 2015. Bridgewater is accurate, he’s mobile, and he protects the football, which are three keys to victory with this kind of young, rookie contract quarterback, similar to what the Eagles have when Wentz is healthy. Pairing that young mobile quarterback with an effective rushing offense, as the Vikings, Eagles, and Jaguars did in 2017, is the key to success for a team built in this model. A good running game makes play action makes him more effective, which improves the odds of success for the quarterback with any distance created between his pass catchers and the players defending him increases his margin for error.

Instead of having Bridgewater at 1.31% of the cap with Keenum at 1.14%, the Vikings also had Bradford at almost 11% without those two picks. Together they cost 13.23% of the cap, rather than the under three percent of the cap that Bridgewater and Keenum with a rookie contract quarterback as the third stringer would cost. Just playing the scenario out, the Vikings may have been able to sign another offensive and defensive lineman with that money; maybe they sign another receiver as well so they have more options. Maybe they had the cap space to sign center J.C. Tretter to a contract, rather than starting 2017 third round pick Pat Elflein at center. Maybe the first round pick they gave up for Bradford is another offensive or defensive lineman and maybe the fourth rounder is a contributor on special teams. Maybe the Vikings might have had a better rushing offense if Dalvin Cook was healthy and this NFC Championship Game would have looked different as well? The Vikings had a formidable roster, but the Eagles clearly had a better one that was deeper at numerous key positions.

While it could have worked out, I’m typically against these kinds of short-term moves to win now, rather than the longer-term viewpoint. I understand the position the Vikings were put in, but philosophically, they could have traded the Chiefs for much less to get Nick Foles last year. Interestingly, Vikings GM Rick Spielman also liked Foles according to Ian Rapoport and it’s likely he could have gotten him for less and re-signed him for less, giving the team more cap room to spend on pieces around the quarterback. If Pat Shurmur could get this kind of season out of Keenum, he probably could’ve done the same with Foles. Both offensive play callers in this game illustrate the value of great coordinators and the importance teams must place in hiring elite creative problem solvers to their coaching staffs.

Bradford had a good season in 2016 with a 71.6% completion percentage and 258.5 passing yards per game with 20 touchdowns to five interceptions, but even with Bradford under center the Vikings only went 8-8. With all three quarterbacks on their roster free agents in 2018 and considering the roster construction and on-field strategy they already have in place that is built on running the football with Dalvin Cook coming back and defense, I would likely go for whoever the cheapest quarterback is between Bradford, Bridgewater, and Keenum. If Bradford’s knee is an ongoing concern, then I would cross him off that list. Same with Bridgewater. If they can sign Keenum to a three-year contract worth about $15 million per year, like Jason Fitzgerald has predicted here at Over The Cap, then that could be a good deal with him never breaching 9% of the cap. If Bridgewater is healthy and they can sign him to a two-year deal worth the $6 to $7 million that Jason predicted in that same article, that would be an even better deal as the Vikings would really be primed to continue building on this strategy for success.

The Eagles lost 7.48% of the cap in 2017 to Bradford and Daniel with Bradford also carrying $11 million (7.08% of the cap) in dead money in 2016, which was manageable because of Wentz being on the rookie contract. Outside of the dead money cap hits, they lost out on one more draft pick than they gained through the Wentz and Bradford trades. The ability for the Eagles to maintain depth on their roster and overcome dead money cap hits comes from the strong caponomics they used this season with no player making over Lane Johnson’s 5.89% of the cap heading into the season. Alshon Jeffery ended the season at 6.50% of the cap after signing an extension. Philadelphia’s balance has been maintained through a strong spread of spending that sees 26 cap hits over one percent of the cap, plus the ability to still draft Wentz and Barnett as difference makers at two very important positions. They had 18 cap hits over two percent of the cap with much of their roster depth coming in this area.

Nick Foles had a superstar caliber game, but the game turned on two great plays by Eagles’ pass rushers and the Vikings offense was off balance all night because of that pass rush as well. When a team has a rookie contract quarterback or doesn’t have an elite quarterback available to them, they must build their roster in this fashion. With first Wentz and now Foles performing at this high level under Pederson’s tutelage and a pass rush that produced pressure almost 50% of the time against the Vikings (after a season of producing pressure on 40% of all passing games) the Eagles pose a real threat to dethrone the Patriots as they’ve created a formula that can get pressure with just four pass rushers with seven defensive backs behind them, which has beaten Tom Brady before. The Jaguars almost beat the Patriots in Foxboro using this strategy that Tom Coughlin used to beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl twice, so if the Eagles can produce at the same level they did against the Vikings, the city of Philadelphia may see it’s first Super Bowl champion.

Zack Moore is a writer for OverTheCap.com, an NFLPA certified agent, and author of the recently released book titled, “Caponomics: Building Super Bowl Champions,” which is now available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter @ZackMooreNFL. 

Breaking Down The NFL’s Final Four

The common line of thinking in the NFL is that you need a great quarterback to succeed, which has driven the league to the point where half the NFL every year pays over 10% of the cap to about half of the league’s quarterbacks. Every quality of quarterback is in this group, yet only one quarterback still in the playoffs is over 10% of the cap– and that’s Sam Bradford at 10.78% for the Vikings who went down with an injury and now isn’t even starting over the “journeyman” Case Keenum, who is paid 1.14% of the cap. Tom Brady has set an example with his cap hit between eight and nine percent of the cap this year and in 2016, which allowed the Patriots to field the best defense in 2016 and the best scoring defense in the NFL this year from week five on.

The other three teams in the NFL Playoffs Final Four have constructed a run-first, defensive model that’s taken awhile to catch on as teams are now copying the model the 2013 Seahawks used to successfully beat Peyton Manning’s top ranked offense that year. The league is a copycat league, but these trends take a few years to take hold as teams need time to re-construct themselves in the image of the roster they’re copying. While the Vikings are spending over 10% of the cap on Bradford, they had already begun the process of building this run-first, defensive model with Teddy Bridgewater at quarterback before the injury; but because of the low-costs they had on offense, they were able to splurge a little on Bradford. As Andrew Beaton of The Wall Street Journal realized in an article on the Vikings, their 40.1% of the cap spent on offense is less than all but two Super Bowl champions, the 2004 Patriots and the 2012 Ravens, two teams that also had some larger investments on the defensive side of the ball. When a team does have a first tier quarterback (over 10% of the cap) and high spending on defense, the team then has to find some serious values somewhere on the offense to compete for a championship with this model because there isn’t enough money to go around if you’re paying conventional rates for wide receivers and the offensive line.

It has worked out for the Vikings because they have just $9.3 million invested in quarterback Case Keenum, running back Latavius Murray, and wide receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. Thielen performed at the level of a first tier wide receiver in 2017 with 91 catches for 1276 receiving and four touchdowns, which is a performance that can typically cost between six and nine percent of the cap, but which the Vikings got for just 2.24% of the cap. Stefon Diggs performed at a level that could cost something like 4% of the cap with his 64 catches for 849 yards and 8 touchdowns, but he cost just 0.50% of the cap as he’s a fifth round draft pick on his rookie contract. Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon created 945 and 991 offensive scrimmage yards, while consuming 2.27% of the cap, which is something that could cost four or six percent of the cap for an elite, complete running back.

Keenum is still being talked about in journeyman terms, but his 67.6% completion percentage with 22 touchdowns to just 7 interceptions, 3547 total passing yards for 236.5 yards per game and 7.4 yards per attempt was first-tier production. Most importantly, he was efficient: the Vikings had the ninth highest net yards per attempt passing, the second least interceptions in the NFL and the 11th most passing yards in the NFL. While he was very inexpensive, he still performed at a level similar to what someone at Bradford’s costs could produce, which reminded me of what Tom Brady did for the 2001 Patriots taking over for Drew Bledsoe who consumed 10.29% of that year’s cap. In fact, Keenum’s offense is more productive and more efficient than the Brady-led offense was that year. The Vikings also spent just 11.60% of the cap on their offensive line, which is very low for the whole group, but according to Football Outsiders they were the 19th best run blocking line in the league and the sixth best pass blocking line. They were able to piece together an offense that was 10th in the NFL in points scored and 11th in yards produced with many inexpensive and unheralded players, which is a big part of why Pat Shurmur will be the New York Giants’ next head coach.

This idea that you need a quarterback to great succeed isn’t unfounded; quarterback is the most important position at every level, but when a team over-invests in the position as some teams do, then the rest of the roster typically begins to have holes that are exposed come playoff time when your team plays a complete team like one that’s in the top 10 in offense in defense, top 10 passing and rushing, and so on. It’s rare that a team finds so much value as the Vikings have, which is why it’s critical to spend intelligently at this position. Even if a team hits on a quarterback at a 10%+ rate, it can typically create roster issues elsewhere and it typically also takes finding value at positions that supplement the quarterback, like wide receiver. Aaron Rodgers is unquestionably one of the best quarterbacks of all-time, but with a cap hit of 12.16% in 2017, plus Randall Cobb at 7.58% and Jordy Nelson at 6.92%, the team was highly likely to have a defense that ranked in the bottom third of the NFL regardless of Rodgers’ health. A large investment in a small handful of “great” players also decreases the number of “good” players a team can have on their roster.

While Bradford was costly over 10%, the Vikings had 27 players over 1% of the cap, which is a good metric for measuring how many “good” veteran players a team has on their roster. Looking at the Super Bowl champions from 1994 through 2009, before the new CBA locked in the low rookie contract rates we see today, the average champion had 27 players over one percent of the cap. The new CBA actually created the unintended consequence of an increase in top end pay typically going to quarterbacks, receivers, cornerbacks, defensive ends and offensive tackles, while most of the “good” veterans in the middle have been priced out of the league by less expensive rookie contract players.

From 2011 to 2016, the average Super Bowl champion has averaged just 24.2 players over one percent of the cap. The 1998 Broncos had 31 players over one percent, the 2003 Patriots had 30, and the 2009 Saints used cap rollover to carry 32 players on their roster over this number. The Vikings have an older school approach that was made possible by their roster construction strategy leading into the Bridgewater Era and it seems almost unaffected by the one big investment in Bradford. They’ve gotten top tier production out of cornerback Xavier Rhodes at 6.24% of the cap, which is the bottom of the first tier for that market, while defensive end Everson Griffen gave them 13.0 sacks at 5.15% of the cap, which is actually a second tier price. Bradford was a good player for them in 2016, he led the NFL with a 71.6% completion percentage and gave them 258.5 passing yards per game with 20 touchdowns to just five interceptions, so he produced at a high level, so it’s not like he’s a wasted cap figure—he just go hurt, and Keenum has played at a similarly efficient level. The cap hits of Bradford and Rhodes consumed 17.02% of the cap for two good players fits right into the 16-18% range we want to see teams cap their top two player costs to provide themselves the opportunity to build out the rest of their roster as Minnesota has done. Their top three with Everson Griffen costs 22.17%, which is in line with what the Patriots have in Tom Brady, left tackle Nate Solder, and safety Devin McCourty at 21.62% of the cap, a good rate for three top of the food chain players.

Looking at the Super Bowl Champions data from my just released book Caponomics: Building Super Bowl Champions, the top paid quarterbacks for the 22 capped champions have been all over the map, which caused me to seriously question the concept of most of the NFL deciding to pay quarterbacks franchise quarterback money over the last few seasons once they hit their second contract as long as they proved they were the team’s starting quarterback.

While much of the NFL was increasing pay in veteran quarterbacks to the point where the top 15 players at the position all make money in the same high cost range, it opened a huge opportunity for teams with low-cost quarterbacks, specifically players on rookie contracts—like Seattle, to use their quarterback’s low-cost years to build a team in the run-first, defensive model that’s worked. The two Steelers champions were built off the rookie contract of Ben Roethlisberger as well. The 2012 Ravens were able to take advantage of Flacco’s last year on his rookie deal. The 2003 and 2004 Patriots were able to take advantage of the low-costs of Brady’s early years. This is a model teams should be following to build up the roster during the low-cost rookie contracts that will allow him to lean on a good roster, then when the quarterback hits his prime and higher earning years, the team can be more reliant on that quarterback as they’ll have to be because of his higher costs.

This is the model being used by Jacksonville, Philadelphia, and the Vikings. Even though Carson Wentz was an MVP candidate averaging 253.5 passing yards per game with 33 touchdowns to 7 interceptions, the team had the NFL’s third best rushing offense, which created the balance that made Wentz a better player and keeps this team competitive with now under Nick Foles under center for the injured Wentz.

Jacksonville has built their model with Blake Bortles at just 3.94%, which allowed them to spend 27.00% of the cap on their defensive line, which is similar to the 28.18% the Seahawks spent on their defensive line in 2013. The Eagles spent 21.80% of the cap on their defensive line and the result was seven players with over 20 pressures produced in 2017 and they were the only team to generate pressure on more than 40% of passing plays. The four defensive lines that are left all have elite talent and depth; the Vikings might actually be the weakest in the depth department with just five defensive linemen with over 38% of snaps played, while the Eagles have seven playing over 40% of defensive snaps. With Shamar Stephens out for their game against the Eagles having played 38.59% of their defensive snaps this season, the Vikings depth might be tested and this lack of depth on the line may show with a weaker pass rush in the fourth quarter, so that’s a storyline to watch.

The 2013 Seahawks set a blueprint with a remarkable eight defensive linemen playing between 46 and 58% of snaps, which may be the start of a trend as coaches understand that the explosive and violent nature of the position makes it vital to have multiple good players who can perform at their highest capabilities, rather than a couple better players who can’t perform at their highest capabilities due to fatigue. The 2016 Patriots had six defensive linemen play between 44 and 65% of snaps. The 2017 Eagles have seven players between 40 and 65% of snaps. The 2017 Jaguars had Calais Campbell, Yannick Ngakoue, and Malik Jackson all playing between 73 and 78% of snaps, Abry Jones and Dante Fowler, Jr. played 46.96% and 44.83% respectively, while Marcell Dareus has played between 43.5% and 66.2% of snaps in his last seven regular season games for the team. It’s critical to create depth across the line to execute this low-cost, potentially lower-performing, quarterback strategy as the goal is to nullify the other team’s quarterback. If you’re playing a team with an elite quarterback, a general vision of your goal is to decrease or slow down his performance to the point where your quarterback can be more productive and/or more efficient. Your quarterback doesn’t necessarily need to out-produce the player in yardage, but the goal is for him to be more efficient with a rushing attack at his disposal that the elite quarterback might not have and a better defense than that quarterback. We saw this strategy succeed for the Seahawks against the Broncos while Manning threw for 280 yards to Wilson’s 206 yards, Wilson had a better completion percentage and 2.5 more yards per attempt than Manning. Wilson had 8.2 yards per passing attempt, while Manning had 5.7 per attempt. The Seahawks defense also gave up just 27 rushing yards, while their own offense created 135 on the ground. While Manning was only sacked once, the Seahawks constantly moved him off his first read, disrupted his processing, and forced two interceptions.

The Eagles executed this style of decreasing the quality of play of the other team’s elite quarterback against the Falcons with Matt Ryan completing 22 of 36 passes (61.1%) for 210 yards (5.8 yds/attempt) and one touchdown, while their back-up Nick Foles completed 23 of 30 (76.7%) for 246 yards (8.2 yds/att). The effect of great coaching like Doug Pederson’s game plan cannot be understated. As Danny Kelly wrote for The Ringer, Foles “leaned on dump-offs, check downs, and run-pass options,” which helped facilitate the win and put Foles in his comfort zone. Continuing, he wrote, Foles’ stats were padded by receivers and running backs picking up yards after the catch and he had an average depth of target of just 5.2 yards per Pro Football Focus, which was almost two full yards short of any other quarterback that weekend. They hope he is able to do a little more against Minnesota this weekend with much more accuracy on deep passes than he showed against Atlanta, while the defense maintains the same kind of pressure they put on Ryan. Minnesota is happy to have Case Keenum and his 55.7% completion percentage under pressure, which was second in the NFL in 2017 behind Jimmy Garoppolo and slightly better than Tom Brady at 55.5%.

In looking at past champions during the research process of writing Caponomics, I found something that should be common sense, but we’ve lost sight of with our acceptance in the notion that you need a great quarterback to succeed at all costs, which has driven the price of the market up to heights that make it hard to compete for many teams. As seen above, Steve Young has a record cap hit of 13.08% and only seven of the 22 salary capped champions have had a quarterback over 10% of the cap, yet half the league seems to do it every year. What the research has taught me is that Joe Flacco at 14.70%, Kirk Cousins at 14.34%, Matt Ryan at 14.22%, and Carson Palmer at 14.45%–and if you include any other large cap expenditures with those players–creates a situation where these teams can only compete for a championship if they get some kind extreme, unlikely value out of other parts of their roster.

The 2016 Falcons almost pulled off a Super Bowl win with Matt Ryan and Julio Jones combining for what would have been a record-setting 25.54% of the cap, with the previous record being Steve Young and Jerry Rice at 21.64%, because they had a defense almost entirely filled with rookie contract players. The probability of hitting on as many rookie contract defensive players as they did is very low and it was the lack of depth on defense that ended up doing them in with the Patriots running 99 plays during that game and wearing them out by the time the final whistle blew.

It was very helpful that Dan Quinn and the Falcons organization was able to look at the 2013 Seahawks as their defensive prototype as well because they had player prototypes in their head that allowed them to build out their defense with a lot of success. Along with Kyle Shanahan’s elite offensive mind, they’re an example of the extreme value produced by great coaches. Their young defense improved as the 2016 season went along, but they were still ranked 27th in points allowed, 25th in yards allowed, 28th in passing yards allowed, and 17th in rushing yards, which was exploited by a Patriots offense that was third in points scored, fourth in yards gained, fourth in passing yards, and seventh in rushing yards.

The four remaining teams this year have all been competent passing the football, but–outside of the Patriots at second in passing yards– the rest of this group is outside of the top 10. The Patriots were 10th in the NFL in rushing yards, while the Jaguars, Eagles and Vikings ranked first, third, and seventh with passing offenses that ranked 17th, 13th, and 11th in yards produced. The Vikings ranked first in both points and yards allowed, while their defense was second in yards allowed both passing and rushing. The Jaguars were ranked second in both points and yards allowed, while ranked first in passing and 21st in rushing, an issue that may have been remedied in a big way with the acquisition of Marcell Dareus mid-season. The Eagles were fourth in both points and yards allowed, while they were 17th in passing defense and first in rushing yards allowed giving up just 79.2 yards per game on the ground. The Patriots were fifth in points allowed, but may have some defensive weaknesses being ranked 29th in yards allowed with the 30th ranked passing defense and the league’s 20th ranked rushing defense. The Patriots did seem to right the ship a bit from a yardage perspective later in the season. Having the league’s fourth best redzone defense as well helped them.

Point being, all four of the teams left have complete rosters. Yes, each has some issues: the Patriots have some issues in yards allowed, the Jaguars have issues with Blake Bortles passing the ball, while Nick Foles and Case Keenum can perform, but leave us with some question marks heading into Championship Weekend. All four of these teams have coaches who have created strategies for success that can overcome the issues they do have and we’ll see on Sunday who can execute those strategies best. But none of them are really bad at any phase of the game.

My take is that the Patriots will move past the Jaguars as they will be able to make the Jags’ offense one-dimensional. While the Patriots don’t rank well from a yardage standpoint, they do have elite defensive backs who can cover a wide variety of match-ups, while the Jaguars don’t present match-ups in the passing game that should scare a backfield with McCourty, Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon, Stephon Gilmore, and Malcolm Butler. I think the Patriots offense uses their running backs extensively in the passing game as a means to beat the Jaguars pass rushers and avoid throwing at their elite cornerbacks. The match-up of Danny Amendola versus slot cornerback Aaron Colvin will be an x-factor in this game, while it would surprise me if Jacksonville or anyone else figures out how to stop a healthy Rob Gronkowski. We’ve seen the Patriots execute this quick passing game to success in past playoff match-ups and we’ll probably see it again on Sunday. I think the Jaguars keep it close for the first half, but the Patriots find some advantages they can take over the course of the whole game, as they usually do.

Both the Eagles and Vikings will be facing better defenses than the ones they faced last week, and that’s not to say the Falcons and Saints don’t have good defenses, but both the Eagles and Vikings have elite defenses. My take is that the Eagles will be able to produce enough pressure with their pass rush to decrease Keenum’s efficiency as, while he’s performed well under pressure, he hasn’t seen a defense that produces as much pressure as the Eagles do. With the passing attack slowed down, the Eagles will also be able to stop a rushing attack that, while it ranked well over the course of the season, doesn’t scare me with neither Murray or McKinnon averaging over four yards per carry and ranking 23rd in the NFL in yards per attempt at just 3.9.

The Eagles on the other hand weren’t just third in the NFL in rushing, but they were also fourth in the NFL averaging 4.5 yards per carry. While the Vikings lost their best running back, Dalvin Cook, early in the season, the Eagles added their best running back, Jay Ajayi, midway through the year. Ajayi had 499 offensive yards in seven games and averaged 5.8 yards per carry. LeGarrette Blount had 766 rushing yards and a light workload for him with just 173 carries, which has likely kept him a little fresher as the season has gone into January and provided the team a great, power back to close the game out in the fourth quarter, a very valuable tool. Undrafted rookie Corey Clement is the final piece with 444 offensive yards this season as he really came on in the second half the year and showed considerable explosive quickness. He and Ajayi combined for 8 catches for 75 yards against the Falcons, which will likely be a key against the Vikings to give Foles high percentage completions. They’ll look to execute screens, swing routes, flat routes, and other quick passes. They may even look to hit one of these running backs on a wheel for a big play after Minnesota spent the week watching Philly’s backs catch short balls, which could be a big play Pederson has circled on his call sheet.

I imagine it will be a low-scoring game that’s won in the trenches; I think the Eagles have the better offensive and defensive lines. While Jason Peters is out, which has affected their performance, the rest of their offensive line has been elite all season with Jason Kelce, Brandon Brooks, and Lane Johnson being three of the best in the league at their positions. The Eagles defensive line will dictate the way the Vikings are able to play offense, while the Eagles offensive line will allow their offense the time to throw the quick passing game and the push running the football to control the clock. I don’t see the Eagles receivers and tight ends having a quiet night either, they have too much talent across the offense for Minnesota to stop everyone–even with Foles at quarterback. That said, the Vikings are the NFL’s best defense and Case Keenum has had a very efficient season. This game is more of a toss up than the AFC match-up, but I’ll take the Eagles.

Zack Moore is a writer for OverTheCap.com, author of the recently released book titled, “Caponomics: Building Super Bowl Champions,” and an NFLPA Certified Agent. You can follow him on Twitter @ZackMooreNFL.

“Caponomics: Building Super Bowl Champions” Now Available on Amazon

Now available on Amazon…

 CAPONOMICS: Building Super Bowl Champions

By Zack Moore

 

Amazon Book Link

Amazon Kindle Link

 An NFL version of Michael Lewis’ “MONEYBALL: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game,” Moore’s CAPONOMICS offers insight into principles and analytics to help teams win Super Bowls…

Moore gives fans a much greater understanding of their team’s decisions…the opportunity for more educated conversations…and, even perhaps, greater value on their Fantasy Football team.

CAPONOMICS…

  • Offers greater understanding of salary cap principles behind free agency and draft moves a team makes—or should make.
  • Provides insight into equating cap value with on-field production to properly assess a player’s production value.
  • Shows how to evaluate quarterback value to avoid overspending and, instead, elevate talent level on the rest of the roster.
  • Discusses how to combine analytics with traditional stats, strategy, coaching philosophy, and more to provide a better understanding of how teams can more effectively spend their cap dollars.
  • Examines moves the Patriots made to compete for championships under Belichick and shows how other teams can replicate this roster construction strategy and use the salary cap as a strategic tool.

CAPONOMICS shows how the NFL can use data and analytics to create sustainable, competitive teams that can compete for Super Bowls.

Michael Lewis’ MONEYBALL (2004) shows how the 2002 Oakland Athletics proved they could compete with the New York Yankees with a far smaller payroll. And, Jonah Keri’s THE EXTRA 2% (2011) follows the Tampa Bay Rays road to the 2008 World Series after finishing in last place in the AL East in nine of their previous 10 seasons of existence.

By using data and analytics to construct rosters, the A’s and Rays took advantage of previously undervalued skill sets to create winning seasons.

With the salary cap, proper resource allocation is even more important in the NFL. Yet, no one had written a book about this topic…until now!

Breaking down salary cap use of the 23 cap-era Super Bowl champion teams and showing how they were constructed from a percentage of salary cap perspective, CAPONOMICS cross-analyzes player value across years with a constantly changing salary cap. Based on his analysis, Moore proposes theories and a blueprint for how teams should be using their salary cap dollars.

From the front office and head coach to the draft and free agency, readers will see how franchises should be making decision in Chapters 1 through 4.

Chapters 5 through 9 analyze how to break down each position, how to spend at each position, and how to maximize return on investment from a salary cap perspective. Moore shows how a team can spend their resources to create a winning season. Chapter 10 provides a value-based argument for increasing the rookie contract structure.

Chapter 10 discusses how current rookie structure is paying many players far below their value through analysis of Jason Fitzgerald’s work in quantifying a draft pick’s value over the course of their rookie contract.

Over the last 17 years, the New England Patriots have proven the potential of effective team-building within the cap. CAPONOMICS clearly analyzes their success!

The Wolf Of Broad Street: The 3 Quarterback Strategy and Asset Trading

Last November, I spoke to a contact with the Eagles regarding the potential for a three quarterback strategy; up to that point in the season, it was clear to me that Sam Bradford was not someone they wanted to rely on as their quarterback of the future without another long-term option. It was a strategy I saw the 1989 Dallas Cowboys use when they selected Troy Aikman first overall in the draft and Steve Walsh in the first round of the supplemental draft. Rather than bet on one quarterback, they decreased the chance of being without a competent starter by acquiring two high potential guys.

Continue reading The Wolf Of Broad Street: The 3 Quarterback Strategy and Asset Trading »

Evaluating the Browns and Eagles Blockbuster Trade

In less than a week we have had our second major blockbuster trade, this time between the Eagles and Browns with the Eagles moving up to number 2 in the draft. The Eagles in return will send their 1st, 3rd, an 4th round picks this year and their 1st and 2nd round picks next year to the Browns. I had a chance to listen to GM Howie Roseman explaining some of the reasoning behind the trade today, which echoed many of my own thoughts when exploring the reasons for drafting a QB regardless of roster construction, but the cost of this was pretty big. I’ll use our OTC trade matrix to again grade the trade from both sides. Continue reading Evaluating the Browns and Eagles Blockbuster Trade »

Podcast #7 of The Zack Moore Show Notes

Today’s podcast breaks down the quarterback market after the first few days of free agency where we saw Brock Osweiler get a four-year, $72 million contract with Houston and the Broncos trade for Mark Sanchez on a one-year, $4.5 million contract with only $1 million guaranteed to replace him for the time being and where the Jets allowed Ryan Fitzpatrick to test the market and he found no takers.

We had both ends of the spectrum, teams overspending on unproven quarterbacks like the Texans and teams like the Broncos and Jets sticking to the kind of run-first, defensive formula that the 2000 Ravens and 2013 Seahawks provided the blueprint for from a salary cap perspective.

Continue reading Podcast #7 of The Zack Moore Show Notes »