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The Eagles need to reset. Here’s why it won’t be easy.

Hard to be hopeful.

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NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Cleveland Browns Scott Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

The 2020 Philadelphia Eagles are an exercise in tongue-biting. “They just need to play well for four quarters,” you might say, watching them hang with Pittsburgh and Baltimore in back-to-back weeks. “They’re getting healthier now,” as they win two critical division matchups before the bye week. “Surely they can’t get worse than this,” you’d assert after they drop the very next game, against a division rival, following the bye.

They won’t play well for four quarters; it doesn’t matter that they’re healthy; it can get worse than this. It did get worse than this: in a 22-17 loss to the Browns, the Eagles turned out perhaps their worst offensive performance of the season, once again making both the easy and the spectacular mistakes necessary to lose both a close game, and a catastrophic one.

Yet even to this new low of the season, the Eagles’ brass masquerades as competitive. They start 38-year-old tackle Jason Peters, whom they initially let walk last offseason, over 23-year-old Jordan Mailata, who they drafted and rostered solely for his developmental upside — and has played better than Peters this season outright. They wasted eight weeks worth of a roster spot on 30-year-old Alshon Jeffery, and breakout second-year WR Travis Fulgham only made it back onto the active roster in Week 4 accordingly. Jalen Hurts, a rookie quarterback selected just outside the Top-50, will not start in place of Wentz, who Pederson did not even consider benching in a historically mistake-riddled performance this Sunday.

These are the decisions of a deluded team, grasping at a phantom playoff berth as proof of a claim easily refuted by simply watching them play: that the Eagles have a good football team. They don’t. They’re bad — playoffs or not, they’re bad at football. And therein lies the danger of that playoff berth, still achievable in Philadelphia: that it will convince enough people that the Eagles are actually good, such that they will run it back with the same nucleus once again.

And that nucleus does have a strong resume on the surface. Pederson and GM Howie Roseman were credited as the authors of the Eagles’ 2017 Super Bowl run — Roseman won the Executive of the Year award for that very season. Wentz was notably absent from the playoff successes, injured late in a standout sophomore season — a narrative that has followed him ever since — but entered the 2020 season as a fringe Top-10 quarterback on Mike Sando’s QB Tiers. Since the peak that was the 2017 season, the Eagles have made the playoffs in each subsequent year, even if they’ve never reached such lofty heights again. They’re one of four teams currently on at least a three-season streak.

But here, the proof of the pudding isn’t in the eating. Playoff berths are nice on paper, but have been underwhelming in experience. Wentz has gotten worse in consecutive seasons, bottoming out in 2020 as a cellar-dwelling quarterback in all significant metrics, let alone the agonizing eye test. Pederson’s offense has similarly spiraled, at times dragging Wentz down with its incongruity and rigidity, at times plummeting under the weight of Wentz’s erratic decision-making and vanishing accuracy. Both the system and the quarterback are shackled by a roster peppered with retreads from successful seasons long past: Alshon Jeffery, DeSean Jackson, Jason Peters, Jason Kelce, Zach Ertz, Fletcher Cox, Malik Jackson, Rodney McLeod, like songs on a playlist you loved in high school, and wonder now how you didn’t rip your eardrums out of your head.

To this point, the Eagles have acted like a competing team — and even though they aren’t one, they technically still are one, so they will continue to cosplay as such. But if they fall out of the playoffs and into the Top-10 of the draft order, the haze of a division win will no longer obscure the long-festering issues on this depth chart. Then, and perhaps only then, will the potential for tearing it down come into play.

Can it be torn down at all?

Tearing a roster down is hard enough when Howie Roseman hasn’t been the general manager of it for the last five years. That isn’t necessarily a knock on Howie: when teams believe they have a winning window, they should attack that winning window with all of their resources, even if that makes for a longer rebuild when the window closes. Leaving yourself an escape hatch shows that you lack conviction in your process altogether, and in a hyper-competitive league, that’s a death sentence in itself.

Roseman attacked his window with the same recklessness of an 18 year old with his first credit card, shoving contract money into future years to pry open space for more short-term relief and veteran contracts. Those moves made the Eagles’ roster look like a top NFC competitor in 2018 and 2019 — neither year panned out, as injuries and poor coaching and poor quarterbacking struck — and left the Eagles in 2020 with a battered platoon of aging, struggling, expensive veterans.

The first step in a tear down is exchanging talent for both picks and cap space — the Eagles have the veteran players to sell, but getting rid of them for cap relief is going to be harder than it looks. Take Alshon Jeffery, for example: the 30-year-old WR who has not been healthy or productive for two seasons carries the third-largest 2020 cap hit on the team at $15.4M. The final year of his active deal in 2021 carries an even larger cap hit: $18.5M, again third on the team.

On a typical contract, cutting Jeffery for 2021 would be pretty, well, cut and dry. The Eagles would remain on the hook for the guaranteed money, such as option bonuses or signing bonuses or restructured money, but free up all of the non-guaranteed money like base salary to use elsewhere. On Jeffery’s deal, that would mean swallowing a $5.5M cap hit (the bonus money) to free up the $12.75M in base salary.

But because Roseman attaches automatically voided years at the end of contracts to prorate more money, the restructured money doesn’t stop at 2021, when Jeffery’s contract ends — it extends all the way into 2023, with $2.5M on each year. This money doesn’t appear on the 2021 cap hit, as it’s currently earmarked for 2022 and 2023 — even though Jeffery’s contract doesn’t technically exist in those seasons.

This money was prorated into the 2022 and 2023 seasons following a 2019 restructure of Alshon’s contract, done to procure some short-term cap relief. Now that it’s time to cut Jeffery in 2021, Roseman has to pay the money he didn’t pay in 2019, as that money accelerates onto the 2021 cap after Jeffery is cut or traded.

So that’s an extra $5M on the 2021 dead cap hit for Alshon Jeffery, bringing the Eagles’ cap relief for cutting him down from $13M to $8M. Of course, $8M is nothing to sneeze at, especially when you consider how much cap relief the Eagles need, and how little Jeffery contributes. So the Eagles will cut him and get that space back: easy.

But it’s not that easy when you start considering the impact of that prorated money across the Eagles’ many, many big contracts. The Eagles currently have 12 contracts projected for eight-figure cap hits in 2021, with nine belonging to players at least 30 years old. Jeffery, DeSean Jackson, and Zach Ertz represent three cuts that would generate significant cap relief on offense; on defense, only Derek Barnett offers a chunk of change in return for a cut, in that his fifth-year option is currently only guaranteed for injury.

Beyond these deals, you get into middle tier contracts like Jason Kelce ($8.4M cap hit in 2021), Isaac Seumalo ($5.4M), and Rodney McLeod ($5.2M) — all of those contracts are also uncuttable, offering no cap relief in 2021.

With so little cap room to be had from cuts or trades, the Eagles cannot and will not gut the roster in 2021. Aside from the wide receiver room, it would cost more to retool the roster on a one-year timeframe than it would to sit with it for another season and slowly turn over the veterans through 2021 and into 2022.

In that the 2021 cap ceiling will likely force further restructures and curtail the Eagles’ flexibility in the free agent market, Roseman — or whoever manages the Eagles’ roster come next season — won’t turn this team over in one fell swoop. The Eagles will bring largely the same roster into Week 1 of the 2021 season.

A change at quarterback isn’t coming

No bookkeeping magic can turn this pumpkin of a roster into a carriage, but in lieu of a complete overhaul, many Eagles fans would settle just for a breath of fresh air at quarterback. They’re unlikely to get that, too.

Carson Wentz signed his 4-year, $128M extension with the Eagles last summer, back when the Eagles, the fanbase, and the league all still thought he was a pretty good quarterback. He hasn’t played like a good quarterback once this season, and with the untested Hurts burning a hole in the offense’s pocket, even a team pretending to compete has no solid explanation for why Wentz remains the starter.

If Wentz continues on this crash and burn, the urgency to install a new franchise quarterback will ramp the organization into a frenzy: but the contract is prohibitive to making that move in the near future. Wentz’s 2021 salary fully guaranteed this past offseason, making his 2021 dead cap hit a stunning $59M. Wentz can’t be cut until 2022, and even then, it would be a $24.5M pill to swallow.

Trading him is only possible if he restructured his deal with his new team, as Nick Foles did when he and Jacksonville both wanted out of their condemned 2019 deal. That is a unique solution for a unique situation; one that is unlikely to repeat itself in Wentz’s case, unless some offensive coach somewhere is positive he can revitalize the trembling husk of a once-promising quarterback. (Looking at you, Frank Reich.)

If the roster isn’t changing, and the quarterback isn’t changing, the Eagles aren’t positioned to tank. This roster was built to win. It’s failing to win, but it was built to win, which makes it ill-suited for a tear down and rebuild. This truth is the driving force behind the Eagles’ insistence in starting Wentz for another week, despite the fact that they have Hurts behind him: even if Hurts were good, they can’t move on from Wentz, and they can’t build around Hurts either: they have no flexibility in free agency, and they certainly can’t draft and develop.

The Eagles can’t draft and develop

The rash investments in aging talent would be half as concerning if it didn’t cut with a double-edged blade. Not only does pouring money into older starters limit your future flexibility, but it also limits playing time for developing youngsters. That’s okay when the team is playing well — but when the listless Eagles could use a jolt of young playmaking to galvanize their roster, they don’t have any talented, rookie-contract players to turn to.

In the five drafts since he took the reins from Chip Kelly, Howie Roseman has selected 36 players. Nine are currently starters: Carson Wentz, Isaac Seumalo, Jalen Mills, Derek Barnett, Nate Gerry, Dallas Goedert, Avonte Maddox, Miles Sanders, and Jalen Reagor. The best player on that list is probably Goedert, who technically is still TE2 behind Ertz on the depth chart, or perhaps Barnett, who the Eagles may need to cut for cap relief in 2021. Wentz has had the highest peaks, but at this time, cannot be titled a quality starting-caliber quarterback in the NFL.

Particularly on defense, the prioritization and optimization of young players has followed no rhyme or reason. With an unknown, but definitely significant amount pull on personnel decisions for his unit, DC Jim Schwartz has insisted on starting players like Mills and Gerry, who have not improved across multiple seasons in their roles, casting aside alternatives like Rasul Douglas and L.J. Fort as poor scheme or culture fits. Both Douglas and Fort departed for modest, but still measurable success with other teams — as have Sidney Jones, Jordan Hicks, and Chandon Sullivan. Known as a pass-rush savant, Schwartz’s defensive line is one of the most expensive units in the entire league, and cannot take over games due to the poor play of cornerbacks and linebackers who later depart to play better ball for better coaches.

Yet with their harrowing record, the front office remains fascinated with developmental players they have no prayer of fostering successfully. For a WR room with no clear starter and its fifth consecutive new position coach, they selected a raw route runner in Jalen Reagor who cannot yet handle a featured role on the outside. For a LB room without any coverage players they selected Davion Taylor, who has the athleticism to fill that role after at least an entire offseason of development. With veterans studding a win-now roster, they drafted players too green to plug the remaining gaps in the closing window, and gave them to a coaching staff that has yet to make a good player better across the course of his rookie deal.

What then is redeeming, what is salvageable — what is even barely forgivable on this roster? Of course Roseman and Pederson posture like a competitor — to do otherwise would force them to look into the empty stables and bare cupboards of the roster they’ve pillaged with their poor drafting and poor development. The future doesn’t look bleak when the present gleams with the shine of a divisional champions trophy — so fixate on that.

It is not the clueless linebackers or failing offense or head-scratching coaching decisions that make the Eagles so painful to watch: it is the absence of self-awareness, the bullheadedness, the tunnel vision. They are the man at the bottom of the hole, certain if he digs a little deeper, the buried treasure will finally break the surface. Installing a new general manager or a new head coach would change the perspective — they’d look up instead of down; consider not the reward at the bottom of the pit, but the steep climb to get back to the top. But a new guard of decision-makers would not change the harshness of their reality: this is their quarterback and this is their roster, for better or (far more likely) for worse, for the remained of this season, and through the next one as well.

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