Eagles mailbag: Free agent most likely to leave and return

Eagles mailbag: Free agent most likely to leave and return originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

With NFL free agency rapidly approaching, it’s a good reminder that there’s not really an NFL offseason. We’ll get through free agency in time for the draft, then OTAs, then training camp and then Week 1 will be here before you know it.

We got enough questions to break this mailbag down into a few parts.

Part 1.

Here’s Part 2:

The Eagles have a ton of free agents and Howie Roseman has already said they won’t be able to keep them all. Heck, they won’t be able to keep most of them. But they will bring back at least a few.

Most likely to be back: At the top of the list of likely players to return, I’ll say Jason Kelce. The Eagles brought Kelce back on a one-year deal worth $14 million in 2022. It’s not a guarantee that Kelce will be back for this upcoming season but he’s in almost a completely different category because it’s not like another team will be bidding for his services. He’s in a unique position because this will either come down to playing for the Eagles or retiring. So taking away the possibility for another team makes it more likely he’ll be back in 2023 than some of these other free agents. The Eagles aren’t going to rush Kelce’s decision but the sooner they know, the better. My hunch is that Kelce will come back because of how well he played in 2022, the chance to play for a team that can still content and the fact that he made it through this season without major injuries. And another $14 million payday wouldn’t be bad either. Ultimately, the decision is up to Kelce and only he knows what he’s going to do.

If I had to pick a second-most-likely, I’d go with Brandon Graham. He earned himself some money last year but I just can’t see him playing anywhere else. I’ve expected him to leave before and he hasn’t. So the Eagles should be able to find enough common ground to bring him back and hopefully let him finish his career in Philly.

Least likely to be back: I could say Robert Quinn or Brett Kern … but that feels like cheating. No one expects those guys to be back. So if we’re talking about the group of more significant free agents, I’ll say Andre Dillard. I think there’s going to be a team willing to pay him to either be a starter or compete for that job. And without any starting gigs up for grabs in Philly, the Eagles won’t be willing to pay that kind of money for a backup. Heck, even if Kelce decides to retire, then I think that money would go toward Isaac Seumalo instead of Dillard. If you want one more name I think is very unlikely to return, it’s James Bradberry. He’s going to get paid and should be way out of the Eagles’ price range.

The Eagles haven’t used a franchise tag since DeSean Jackson back in 2012. That’s not a coincidence. Roseman doesn’t like using them because there’s not much flexibility offered with franchise tags. I know some people thought the Eagles would use it this year on C.J. Gardner-Johnson but that never seemed likely, especially because the Eagles are in a tight spot with the cap this season.

If the Eagles used a franchise tag on CJGJ, it would have been a $14.46 million one-year investment with a matching cap hit. That is not a flexible number and would all count toward this year’s cap. Just can’t do that. Even if the Eagles signed a player to a $15 million APY deal over three years, they’d be able to spread out that cap hit and push a bulk of those cap charges into the future, where the league-wide cap is expected to continually rise. Will the Eagles never use the franchise tag again? I won’t say that. You never know what will come up in the future or who the Eagles just simply can’t afford to lose. But it’s hard to imagine Roseman ever being happy about doing it.

I’ll give you three:

1. At the top of the list will be to find another running back if Miles Sanders leaves in free agency as is expected. Could the Eagles make Kenny Gainwell their RB1? It’s possible. But I really like his ability in a running-back-by-committee system, not as the bell cow. This is supposed to be a good running back draft class; NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah said he gave 13 running backs a grade in the top three rounds. So even if the Eagles don’t go big in the first round, they’ll have some opportunities on Day 2.

2. One of the storylines we probably haven’t talked about enough this offseason is the likely departure of Gardner Minshew, who was a solid and cost-controlled veteran backup quarterback. That’s rare in the NFL. But Minshew is going to try to find a spot where he can compete for more playing time and it seems unlikely that spot will be back in Philly. The Eagles are also up against it in terms of cap space, so this probably isn’t a year where they can just overpay for a backup veteran. Do they draft one? Try to find one in a trade? Find one in the bargain bin of free agency? If Ian Book isn’t ready for that role — and it’s hard to say he is — then this is a spot worth figuring out.

3. You probably expected me to say the third wide receiver spot, but I’m still higher on Quez Watkins than most. I know he had a disappointing season in 2022 and he capped it with an awful drop in the Super Bowl. He had fewer opportunities last season but didn’t do enough with the opportunities he was given. But he still has 4.35 speed and has shown an ability to be a deep threat in the NFL. Not every receiver who puts up a fast time in the pre-draft process can translate that on to the field and we’ve seen Watkins do that in the NFL. So the other spot the Eagles could use an upgrade is at tight end. That’s not a knock on Jack Stoll or Grant Calcaterra but if the Eagles were to find another tight end who can make a bigger impact, it would give their 12 personnel package some teeth.

It seems very likely and the Eagles aren’t trying to hide that. At the Combine, Roseman was even asked about the experience of building a roster around a starting quarterback with a second-round contract.

“You want me to get sentimental about how it was before we pay our quarterback?” Roseman said. “I think it's the nature of the business. I think the better thing is when you have a quarterback that's good enough that you want to pay him and that he has a chance to be a great player. Show him what kind of player he's going to be.

“If you don't have a quarterback, you're searching for one, and you can't win in this league without a great quarterback who plays at a high level. We saw how Jalen played in the Super Bowl, on the biggest stage, and that's exciting for our team, for our fans, for all of us.”

So, yeah, that’s not a man who is thinking this deal won’t get done. That’s a guy who knows he’s going to pay Hurts and who knows it isn’t going to be cheap. It’s going to be a massive deal.

Now, there might be some incentive to beat the other two quarterbacks to a contract extension. The other two big ones likely coming this offseason are for Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert. It shouldn’t be the driving force and the Eagles should just rush the deal, but getting the Hurts contract done before those other two wouldn’t hurt.

Any deal the Eagles reach with Hurts will be backloaded. That’s how they do every contract and it makes sense. You push off the cap hits into the future because the NFL prints money and the league-wide cap rises year over year. Makes sense.

But it’s not like the Eagles woke up the day after the season and thought, “Oh, damn, we’ve gotta pay Jalen.” They’ve thought about this. And it will fundamentally change the construction of the roster once they have a QB on a mega deal. So much cap space was used on veterans and a lot of that will now shift to Hurts, which means there will be an emphasis on the draft. That really starts with the class of 2022. Guys like Jordan Davis, Cam Jurgens and Nakobe Dean should all be cost-controlled starters in at least 2023, 2024 and 2025. Then the Eagles will also try to add to that this draft and in the future. That’s the way you build a roster with a high-priced QB.

I like Josh Jobe but it’s hard to say what kind of role he has going forward. I was impressed with him in the summer of 2022, when he earned a roster spot over a bunch of other young and talented cornerbacks. There was a logjam at that position but he came away with a roster spot and even outperformed a couple corners who were paid more guaranteed money as undrafted rookies. He didn’t get to play much on defense as a rookie but became a pretty solid special teams contributor. For now, that’s his role. We’ll see if the next defensive backs coach is able to continue his development.

The Vikings released Eric Kendricks in a cap-saving move earlier this week. The 31-year-old played all 17 games for the Vikings in 2022 and had 137 tackles to lead the team. He’s not in his prime anymore but was still solid last season. The Eagles’ two starting linebackers from last season — T.J. Edwards and Kyzir White — are both set to be free agents. They have Nakobe Dean waiting in the wings for one of those starting spots. But the other spot could be vacant.

The one thing Kendricks has going for him is that he was released by the Vikings, which means he won’t count toward the compensatory pick formula. Because the Eagles are expected to lose so many free agents, they think they’re going to end up with the maximum of four comp picks next year from this offseason. They aren’t going to want to sign an outside free agent who would cancel out one of those picks. If given the option, they’ll probably lean toward players who were cut (if possible) for that reason. Not sure if Kendricks is the guy, but keep that in mind when free agency begins.

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