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There might be a good long-term plan behind all the Eagles’ one-year deals

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Optionality.

NFL: Preaseason-New York Jets at Philadelphia Eagles Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a dark cloud looming over some of the Eagles’ most exciting player acquisitions this offseason.

Take the Timmy Jernigan trade from earlier this week, for example. Philadelphia acquired a young player at a position of need who has the potential to post big pass rushing numbers in the Eagles’ scheme for the mere swap of third round picks. That seems like a pretty deal for the Eagles.

But then you can’t help but wonder how long Jernigan will actually last in Philadelphia. The 24-year-old is scheduled to be a free agent next offseason. Will the Eagles be able to afford him, especially if he has a big year?

Jernigan is hardly the only player the Eagles will have to make a decision on next offseason. Alshon Jeffery is obviously the other big name. The Eagles can always use the franchise tag on him, so they’re not exactly powerless. But, once again, Jernigan and Jeffery are just two of the many Eagles players who are set to be free agents in 2018.

In fact, there are currently at least 18 players scheduled to be unrestricted free agents next offseason. Here’s the entire list.

Alshon Jeffery
Timmy Jernigan
Chance Warmack
Jordan Matthews
Darren Sproles
Nigel Bradham
Trey Burton
Patrick Robinson
Allen Barbre
Caleb Sturgis
Beau Allen
Marcus Smith
Dwayne Gratz
Najee Goode
Matt Tobin
Terrence Brooks
Taylor Hart
Ryan Mathews

There are at least five sure-fire starters (Jeffery, Jernigan, Matthews, Bradham, Sturgis) on that list. There are some key role-players (Sproles, Burton, Allen) as well. Sproles is set to retire next year and Mathews is expected to be released any moment now, so this list will shrink to some extent.

Still, it’s a significant list. And as of right now, the Eagles are projected to have the fewest amount of cap space of any NFL team next offseason ($5.3 million). The Eagles will undoubtedly be able to free up some money by cutting some veteran players, but at the same time they’ll need replace those holes.

At this point you might be thinking that I’m looking too far ahead into the future. I don’t disagree with you. We shouldn’t just overlook the 2017 season as a wasted year. The NFL is a crazy league where turnaround can happen faster than expected.

But we also have to be realistic. The Eagles aren’t exactly Super Bowl favorites this season. Jeffrey Lurie and Howie Roseman have stressed that this Eagles team isn’t “one player away.” They’re not a team looking for “band-aids,” as Roseman said, to help them max out at 10-6. They’re aiming to build a long-term contender.

If that’s the case, though, why did the Eagles acquire so many players this offseason on short-term deals? Doesn’t it seem like the Eagles’ short-term actions might conflict with the idea that they’re focused on the long-term?

On the surface, yes. But when you think about it more, the Eagles’ one-year deals actually show they’re committed to a long-term process.

How is this the case? Two words: compensatory picks.

For those unfamiliar, the NFL awards teams who lose more free agents than they sign in free agency by compensating them with extra draft picks. These picks are awarded at the end of each round from rounds three through seven. The kind of compensatory picks earned mostly depend on the contract a player signs. The bigger the contract, the better the pick. For example, the Ravens were awarded an extra third round selection in the 2017 NFL Draft this year after losing Kelechi Osemele to the Raiders last offseason.

Speaking of that No. 99 pick, that just so happens to be the one the Eagles received in the Jernigan trade. Unlike for many years before, compensatory picks are able to be traded now, which makes them more valuable than ever.

And speaking of the Ravens, they’re the master of compensatory picks. They lead the NFL in acquiring them with 49 since they were implemented in 1994. Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome has heavily incorporated them into the team’s roster building strategy.

It makes some sense, too. While retaining your own good players is ideal, there comes a time when players get paid more than they’re worth. A good team should be able to identify that inefficiency and try to get value for that player while they can. This is how Baltimore likely felt in the case of Jernigan. But the trade route doesn’t always work because you can’t force another team to deal with you. So you might have to let the player walk in free agency. It hurts to lose that good player, but the trade-off is that you’re saving money and you’re getting a young, inexpensive player in the draft who will be cost-controlled for three or four seasons.

Relying on compensatory picks obviously makes drafting that much more important for your team. The Ravens have been comfortable with relying on this system due to their confidence in Newsome, who is considered to be one of the best talent identifiers in the league.

The Eagles obviously don’t have Newsome. But they do just happen to have one of his top protégés from Baltimore: Joe Douglas. Douglas, whom Lurie touted as a “pivotal” hire, spent 15 years learning under Newsome. I don’t think it’s crazy to suggest he’s aiming to employ as a similar strategy to the one his mentor, who won two Super Bowls, is using to this day. Philadelphia has had to rely on free agency too much in recent years and they’d like to get back to building through the draft.

And that brings us back to the one-year contracts. The reality is the Eagles won’t be able to re-sign everyone. They might have to let some good players leave. But that’s probably not a surprise to the organization. I’d argue that the team is using these one-year deals as a way to “buy” compensatory draft picks for the future. Lurie admitted to the Bradford trade as the Eagles “buying” a first round selection, so he totally understands and advocates this concept.

Compensatory picks are not the only goal of the one-year deal. The ideal situation is that the Eagles will be able to keep their good players for the long-term. By signing players to short-term contracts, the Eagles are also mitigating the typical risk of failed big free agency signings. Eagles fans know all too well that free agents don’t always thrive in new environments despite being successful in the past (ex: Nnamdi Amosugha, Byron Maxwell). Having a year to determine whether an in-house player is worth keeping around for the long-term is valuable. If that doesn’t work out, however, and the Eagles aren’t able to keep their players, at least they have something to fall back on.

The “downside” to compensatory picks is that they are not awarded in the same year. So the earliest the Eagles could get picks for their 2018 free agent losses is the 2019 NFL Draft. But that right there shows the Eagles aren’t focused on the short-term after all. It’s just the opposite; Philadelphia is very much operating under a long-term vision.