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By Paul Bowman, Sports Talk Philly Editor
It is officially the offseason for all 32 NFL teams and there is quite a bit of talk amongst fans about which free agents and draft targets their teams will land over the course of the next few months.
In order for the Eagles to have the best idea of how they should look to address needs in free agency, they have to decide how to handle the guys they currently have in house.
Cornerback is certainly a position that the Eagles have been looking to upgrade for years and they received a bit of payoff for that effort during the 2021 season. Despite that, starting outside corner Steven Nelson, who signed with the team last year, is a free agent and may not be back.
Although Avonte Maddox signed an extension during the season, that figures to leave a hole that they may choose to fill through the draft or development of some of the large group of young secondary guys they’ve acquired over the past year (Tay Gowan, Zech McPhearson, Josiah Scott, Kary Vincent Jr.)
Perhaps the biggest question the team faces at the position, however, is how to proceed with Darius Slay.
Slay put together the best season for a corner that Philadelphia has seen since Asante Samuel, showing up on the top of almost every cornerback list for lowest passer rating when targeted, fewest yards per catch, passer rating in single coverage, etc.
It was a season that landed him his fourth Pro Bowl selection and even saw him score three defensive touchdowns and play a few snaps on the offensive side of the ball.
In reality, it was probably one of best two seasons a cornerback had this year, but the fact that some guy in a Cowboys jersey had awful quarterback just through the ball directly to him 11 times robbed Slay of an All-Pro selection (even though the actual player selected as an All-Pro gave up more yards than nearly every other player in the league.
Despite that incredible season, it’s unlikely that the Eagles will want to head into 2022 with his $22 million cap hit. To change that, they’d need to extend, cut or trade their top corner.
It seems like an obvious move to re-sign him on the surface, but the Birds need to keep in mind that corner is one of the positions with the most variable play, meaning there’s little guarantee he plays at this same level going forward. He will also turn 32 next season and has started to get a few more injuries here and there, though nothing too serious so far.
Although Slay carries the largest cap hit on the team for the 2022 season, he signed a new deal following his trade from the Lions. This deal did not guarantee his 2022 or 2023 salary. They have since guaranteed $2 million of his 2022 salary, which still leaves the Eagles room to easily clear between $4.5 and $16.5 million in a cut or trade (depending on the date of the move being post-June 1 or not).
If the Eagles feel comfortable in moving on or that they can get a good haul in a trade, they could move on either of those options, but it also provides the team and Slay some reason to work on an extension that would guarantee Slay additional money over the next few years as well lower the cap hit for the Birds.
Now, the Eagles figure to have around $20 million in cap space already and it is possible the cap rises higher this season following a fall due to the pandemic in the 2021 offseason (a result of loss of revenue due to lack of ticket sales during lockdowns). They also expect to rollover $16 million of unused cap space from this past season. That all means that they could do nothing and take the cap hit as is if they are really comfortable, though that would seem ill-advised.
Without a pandemic, the cap always rises so it makes sense to push some money into future years as the same amount of money then accounts for less cap space. Surely with an expected cap space in excess of $35 million, the Eagles will look to land some top talent in positions like safety, receiver, defensive line and/or linebacker, but they would also like the flexibility to take on contracts via trade throughout the season while also being able to extend their own talent.
Miles Sanders, T.J. Edwards, Isaac Seumalo, Javon Hargrave and Marcus Epps are among the players slated to be free agents following the 2022 season that the Eagles may want to look to keep around and would need cap space to re-sign. Of course, if they decide Hurts is their franchise QB, it may also make sense for the team to begin work on a long-term deal for him, as well. Perhaps freeing up some cap space with Slay is what could get the Eagles the room they need to feel comfortable working on some of those extensions.
When Slay was signed to a new deal following his trade, it was billed as the largest contract for a corner. Since then, Jalen Ramsey, Marlon Humphrey, Marshon Lattimore and Tre’Davious White have all reset the market. If Slay wants to reset the market himself again, it would behoove the Eagles to get the contract done sooner than later as Stephon Gilmore is slated to be a free agent and likely will look to do just that – a move that would force the Eagles to go higher on their own offer, particularly because Gilmore is the only of the other five names mentioned here that is older than Slay.
Now, all of the aforementioned corners (sans Gilmore) are on similar contracts that are five or six-year deals, but guaranteed salary drops to $0 after three or four seasons. This may be ideal for the Eagles as a contract structured in a similar way will give them the ability to make a decision in a few years when Slay is likely to be looking at retirement.
If those deals are a baseline, five years, $100 million with around $45 million guaranteed would be what the Eagles are looking at. Slay’s goal may be to top that while the Eagles may seek to lower the years, so a compromise in that case may involve higher AAV over less years with a lower guarantee.
Should a deal not be in the cards, what should the Eagles be looking for in return? When they moved their own picks for Slay, they traded a third and a fifth-rounder to the Lions. Is that sufficient for this Eagles squad? Looking at the draft, Cincinnati CB Coby Bryant is projected to go in the third in this point – is that sufficient? Would a second-rounder that could potentially land Washington’s Kyler Gordon or Penn State’s Jaquan Brisker or something even more be needed?
This is perhaps one of the toughest decisions to be made, but the Eagles need to make it in order to know how to proceed going forward to the draft and free agency. On one hand, Slay is the clear-cut best corner on this team and a guy who the team was able to “buy low” on just a few years back. On the other, Slay is an aging player at a position where play can deteriorate quickly. Further complicating things is where other teams might value Slay – would they also be looking to buy low because he is an aging player who will likely need a new contract or will they be willing to part with high-end capital after the incredible season Slay put together in 2021?
In my opinion, Slay is a player that the Eagles need to keep on the roster unless someone is desperate enough to trade you a first-rounder that can land the Birds a player like Derek Stingley, Amhad Garner or Roger McCreary in the upcoming draft. They cannot be without two outside corners to start the season and they need at least one player who can serve as a shut-down guy in 2022. Slay should be able to do that for a few seasons yet, so a target of something like a four-year, $86 million deal with around $48 million guaranteed setup in a way that gives the Eagles an out in two or three years may be ideal. That may change based upon when Slay sees himself retiring and whether the AAV or guaranteed money is what is more important to him at this point in his life.
Of course, Howie Roseman remains at the helm and it will wind up being his decision on how the team proceeds with Slay – something he will need to decide sooner rather than later.