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Even with the mediocrity, mistakes and reported confidence problems of the franchise’s once-presumed cornerstone player — plus Jalen Hurts showcasing that he is now the better option — the Eagles and Wentz need to grind out one more win together.
Not on the field, mind you, but in the mind of at least one other NFL team. At some point between now and any Wentz departure, Philadelphia and its fast-depreciating quarterback need to engineer one more victory in a vital contest.
The posturing game.
This is how you end up with competing media reports about whether or not the Eagles will look to trade Wentz.
It’s also how you get Philadelphia head coach Doug Pederson saying all manner of nonsensical things. First, he told reporters in late November that he’d trade up to draft Wentz “all over again.” Then, he pulled the plug on Wentz as his starter weeks later. He then refused to rule out Wentz as Philadelphia’s starter in the immediate aftermath of Hurts leading the Eagles to an impressive 24-21 win over the New Orleans Saints.
This is the kind of ass-backward messaging that occurs when a team sinks into a salary-cap swamp and its highest-paid player also happens to be the asset the franchise needs to unload on the trade market when the offseason arrives.
Hurts is starting to look like the team’s quarterback of 2021 and beyond — an arc that will translate into the Eagles needing another team to come get Wentz off their roster sooner rather than later. Here’s why: Cutting Wentz is a disastrous financial iceberg that will sink the roster for the better part of two seasons.
Keeping Wentz as an ungodly priced backup behind Hurts in 2021 is teasing one of the most awkward quarterback situations in the history of the NFL. It could jeopardize Hurts’ development and invite a rift in the locker room. That leaves a trade as the best option the Eagles have. It also may be the most difficult.
Carson Wentz’s salary is roadblock to trade
The basic money mechanics of Philadelphia’s problem break into three options that all need to take place before the end of the second day of the league’s new year, due to multi-year salary guarantees that kick in on Day 3 of a new league year. The new league year will begin sometime in March.
These are options the Eagles have if Hurts cements himself as the long-term starter:
• Cut Wentz immediately after the season and absorb his full $59.2 million cap charge in 2021. With the Eagles already expected to be significantly over the 2021 salary cap, this is essentially impossible and would require gutting a significant portion of the roster just to get Wentz’s contract off the books.
• Cut Wentz and designate him as a post-June 1 release, which would take that $59.2 million cap charge and spread the dead money over two seasons, with roughly $34.7 million counting against the cap in 2021 and the other $24.5 million being applied to 2022. This still wouldn’t be ideal, but spreading out the pain would help prevent the need to tear down a large portion of the roster. Even with marginal salary offsets from any new deal Wentz would sign with another franchise, it’s a bigger dead-money hit for a single player than any team has taken in league history.
• Trade Wentz to another team and eat a $33.8 million dead-money cap charge in 2021. That’s where the financial damage would end for Philadelphia, thanks to Wentz’s acquiring team picking up the responsibility for roughly $25.4 million in guaranteed salary.
Of these three options, trading Wentz is the best path out of a bad financial corner. It also requires the help of another team wanting to acquire him after his worst season in the NFL.
Is that possible?
A handful of executives who spoke with Yahoo Sports about the viability of a Wentz trade market were skeptical — but not completely dismissive of the idea. All of them agreed on one point: For the Eagles to find a trade partner, they would need to thread the needle on multiple fronts, and the trade partner would have to want to be tied to Wentz for the 2021 and 2022 seasons because those salaries would be essentially on the books at the time of a trade.
The general agreement of executives is that the Eagles would first need to give Wentz away for very little. Maybe as little as a middle- to late-round pick (think somewhere in the Round 4-7 ballpark) with some performance escalators. That’s how little leverage the team would have in a Wentz trade market.
Next, the Eagles would need to find a franchise with coaching and general manager leadership that has cap space in 2021 and 2022 and is looking to win or take significant strides starting next season — but is currently facing lackluster veteran quarterback options this offseason.
Another fit would be a franchise that is going through a rebuilding phase with a coach who has absolute job security and the ability to tab Wentz as the quarterback he wants to anchor his rebuild with. A team also couldn’t be in position to take a first-round rookie who would be a starting priority in the next two seasons. Another plus would be having someone on staff who either is directly familiar with Wentz as a player, or who had a very high draft evaluation on him in 2016.
Colts top list of teams that could make trade
The natural thought process points to the Indianapolis Colts. They have the cap space and the need for a young quarterback. Head coach Frank Reich was the Eagles’ offensive coordinator during Wentz’s impressive 2017 season when he was on an MVP pace before going down with a season-ending knee injury. The Colts have a roster that is built to win, but have yet to find the right long-term quarterback to fill the hole left by the retirement of Andrew Luck. If Reich believes he can fix whatever is wrong with Wentz, the alignment could make sense.
There is also some general agreement that the Colts aren’t alone as a team that could find Wentz useful. A multitude of others have at least the right amount of cap space and need to come into play, including the Denver Broncos, Washington Football Team and Jacksonville Jaguars (if they don’t like the draft’s quarterback options beyond Trevor Lawrence). One executive also mentioned the San Francisco 49ers and New England Patriots as a pair of dark horse candidates, depending on their evaluations of their in-house quarterbacks and what is available in the offseason.
Just accepting a cheap trade return and finding a logical trade partner might not be enough to make a Wentz trade happen.
That’s part of why the Eagles appear to be muddying the water about whether he’s still a viable starting option for the franchise. For Philadelphia to get another team to take Wentz’s money, it also needs to convince the outside world that his 2020 season is an aberration caused by circumstances inside the franchise. Essentially, the sell would be that Wentz needs only some change and a fresh start with the right coaching staff to get back on track. To do that, the Eagles have to play out the 2020 season in a manner that suggests the team isn’t desperate to offload him and move on with Hurts.
That’s going to be a challenging sell, particularly given that Wentz has had some consistent problems dogging him for years. His healthy seasons have been a rarity — basically one full season since high school. His mechanics under duress have been a conversation from one season to the next. And when personnel evaluators roll the film on him, they may very well walk away asking themselves if his classroom smarts (which are considerable) translate to his ability to process under pressure. There is some evidence that this isn’t the case. And that for all his intelligence, he may not be a great anticipator inside his scheme.
When they go deeper, evaluators could very well see some more concerning traits. There are some fumbling issues over the length of his career. He has been fairly lucky with some of his interceptions getting dropped or misplayed. And for all the touchdown and yardage stats, he’s had only one truly exceptional season — in 2017, which was derailed late by an injury.
Add it all up, and there could be a pressing question of whether Wentz’s production has ever matched the splash plays that stick out in people’s minds or the contract that stamped him as an ascending franchise quarterback.
How will trade partners view Wentz?
Taking all of this into account, it makes sense that the Eagles could be playing one of two scenarios — or potentially both simultaneously.
On one hand, they may not be ready to accept that all is lost with Wentz or that Hurts is ready to take the reins as a permanent starter. On the other hand, they may know that Wentz needs a change of scenery, but have to play a chess match of illusion about his value to the franchise, just to keep the significantly obvious leverage of a trade partner from making a deal impossible.
That’s the unknown wrinkle in all of this. A trade partner might surface who is willing to take Wentz on, but only with some additional conditions. Maybe they ask that the Eagles eat a little more of Wentz’s salary than what would be obligated. Maybe they offer nothing but a meaningless late-round pick with no escalators. Or maybe they see that Philadelphia is in the worst possible place and has no other offers on the table and they get flagrantly aggressive, asking that the Eagles to package Wentz with a draft-pick sweetener just to get another franchise to pick up his remaining contract.
None of these scenarios is completely unthinkable. Not with Hurts coming off an impressive win over the Saints and Wentz looking a little further from the starting job than one week ago. And certainly not with the unrelenting storyline of quarterback awkwardness that is going to exist in perpetuity until this is all over.
The Eagles have a mess on their hands with Wentz. Both parties have created it in their own way. But both parties may also need each other to get this resolved — one last win forged off the field, in the hopes of finding the fresh start that everyone may need in just a few more weeks.
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