The amazing way Jalen Hurts' pending contract is helping Eagles keep most top players
At first, the departures were painful.
Four starters were jettisoned from the defense in lineman Javon Hargrave, both linebackers in T.J. Edwards and Kyzir White, and safety Marcus Epps.
It appeared as if cornerback Darius Slay was going to be the fifth when it was reported, and confirmed by him in a tweet, that he was going to be released as a salary cap victim. But the two sides reportedly kept talking and appeared to reach an agreement late Wednesday night.
Slay confirmed that, too, with a tweet that said, "Back like I never left!!! Run it back"
Back like I never left!!! Run it back 🦅
— Darius Slay (@bigplay24slay) March 16, 2023
The Eagles could still lose safety Chauncey Gardner-Johnson even after re-signing defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, one of the all-time Eagles greats through his 11 seasons, on Wednesday night.
On offense, they lost running back Miles Sanders and his 1,269 yards rushing to the Carolina Panthers, with right guard Isaac Seumalo likely to follow eventually.
It would be easy to attribute the departures to the pending contract extension that Jalen Hurts will receive, one that will likely average $50 million per season in average annual value. That represents nearly one-fourth of the Eagles' salary cap.
But that's misguided.
In fact, many could be staying because Hurts will be getting a new deal, knowing that he’ll be part of the future for years to come.
Sure, Eagles general manager Howie Roseman also pulled a Houdini act and found a way to keep many of the main players like Cox, Slay, fellow cornerback James Bradberry, center Jason Kelce and defensive end Brandon Graham.
Kelce and Graham, in particular, mentioned Hurts as a reason for them deciding to either not retire in Kelce's case or perhaps take less money in Graham's case.
No doubt, Hurts had something to do with Slay coming back, and Cox, too. Cox reportedly could have gotten more money from a team like the Jets.
Roseman made it work all within the confines of the salary cap, knowing that a deal with Hurts could be coming, too.
BIG MOVES:Eagles re-sign Fletcher Cox as Darius Slay to be released. Will CJ Gardner-Johnson stay?
FREE AGENT TRACKER:Miles Sanders going to Carolina; shakeup at DB gets Slay, what about CJGJ?
But even if Hurts gets his extension in the near future, it won't take effect until 2024. The advantage for the Eagles to sign Hurts soon is two-fold. For one, they can space out the signing bonus over the life of the contract (Hurts would get all of it upon signing, of course), beginning this season when Hurts counts $4.8 million against the cap.
So adding $10 million to $15 million to that still makes Hurts a salary-cap bargain this year.
Secondly, if the Eagles wait until after this season to do an extension with Hurts, then his price will only go up − as will the salary cap − as other young, top quarterbacks like Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert and Lamar Jackson sign new contracts.
That is the price of having a franchise quarterback on the roster.
And the Eagles are hardly the only team to go through this. The team they lost to in the Super Bowl, the Kansas City Chiefs, had to trade away wide receiver Tyreek Hill last summer once Patrick Mahomes' 10-year, $450 million extension kicked in.
Mahomes counted $36 million on the Chiefs' salary cap last season. They won the Super Bowl anyway.
Mahomes' salary cap hit will likely be in the $40 million range this season, even after the Chiefs restructured some of his signing bonus Wednesday. Already this month, the Chiefs released both of their starting tackles, Orlando Brown and Andrew Wylie, and lost wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and safety Juan Thornhill in free agency.
They signed tackle Jawaan Taylor from the Jaguars to replace one of the departed tackles.
Chances are, the Chiefs will still be a Super Bowl contender this season.
And that is the lesson for the Eagles on two fronts.
On the one hand, the Eagles drafted successors to Hargrave in Jordan Davis, to Seumalo in Cam Jurgens, and to Edwards in Nakobe Dean.
If those rookies are as good as advertised, then they'll benefit from sitting behind those starters in 2022 and be ready to step in without a significant dropoff.
The Eagles will have to find a replacement for White, whether it's by going with either Shaun Bradley or Davion Taylor, or signing a low-cost veteran free agent − just like White was last season.
And at safety, the Eagles appear to be trying hard to sign Gardner-Johnson.
If Gardner-Johnson stays, they can replace Epps, a first-time starter last season, with either Reed Blankenship or K'Von Wallace. If he goes, the Eagles can find cap room to find a free-agent replacement.
As Roseman often says, it's a long offseason. Bradberry, for example, didn't become available until last May when the Giants released him.
Because it was so late in the process, Bradberry took a below-market, one-year prove-it deal. He proved it with an All-Pro season.
Sure, it will be hard to replace Hargrave, who had a career-high 11 sacks. But Hargrave signed for an average annual value of $21 million per season with the 49ers, and he's 30 years old. The Eagles weren't going to match that. So they'll have to use either the draft or a late free agent to help fill that void, too.
That brings us to the second point.
If the Eagles learned one thing from their loss to the Chiefs in the Super Bowl, it's that they don't need a Super Bowl defense in order to win the Super Bowl.
They just need a defense that can make one key stop. The Eagles spent lavishly to get that defense in 2022, with Cox and Hargrave combining to count for $27 million, and for Slay and Bradberry also counting for $27 million on the cap.
Sure, that got the Eagles the No. 2-ranked defense in the NFL, a franchise-record 70 sacks, just two short of the NFL record.
But they couldn't stop Mahomes, on a sprained ankle, from running for 26 yards and a first down late in the fourth quarter. And they couldn't keep either Skyy Moore or Kadarius Toney from getting wide open for short touchdown receptions with the game on the line.
All of this is to say that games are won by offense, and for the Eagles, that's led by Hurts.
The Eagles are still unstoppable because they have Hurts, who threw for 3,701 yards and ran for 760 and accounted for 35 total touchdowns. That doesn't change with the oft-injured Rashaad Penny replacing Sanders at running back.
Penny has averaged 5.7 yards per carry in his career. Think how much he'll average with Hurts as a running threat, not to mention a star-studded offensive line with Kelce back for a 13th season in addition to right tackle Lane Johnson.
Sure, Penny's signing is somewhat of a gamble because he hasn't played more than 10 games in a season since his rookie year in 2017. But that's why the Eagles are reportedly paying Penny $2.1 million for this season only, much less than the reported four-year deal worth as much as $25 million that Sanders is getting.
Top receivers A.J. Brown, DeVonta Smith and Dallas Goedert are signed through at least 2025, assuming the Eagles pick up Smith's fifth-year option next season, a virtual certainty.
Roseman knew the departures were likely. But he also identified players that he wanted to keep. It might also include Gardner-Johnson.
Hurts and the offense are more than enough to overcome the other losses.
Contact Martin Frank at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @Mfranknfl.
This article originally appeared on Delaware News Journal: How Jalen Hurts pending contract is helping Eagles keep key players