Every year we can look back on the Super Bowl winning team and learn so very many things. The Seattle Seahawks bestowed upon us both football lessons (HIT HARD) and life lessons (BE ALL ABOUT THAT ACTION, BOSS), but for team building and maintaining, the two crucial takeaways went as follows:
- If your quarterback gets paid so little his paychecks are just jars of peanut butter, take advantage of it
- Spend your entire existence trying to find late-round jewels (including Richard Sherman, the Seahawks had five defensive starters drafted in the fifth round or later)
Offensively the Philadelphia Eagles entered this offseason in a position to duplicate that model, and now general manager Howie Roseman is showing us that drafting, and then grooming and developing from within is how you keep away from the salary cap ceiling. Oh, and that quarterback peanut paycheck helps too.
Roseman and head coach Chip Kelly have a young and promising quarterback in Nick Foles. They won games (eight of Foles’ 10 starts this past season were wins) because he’s promising, and now they’re retaining the core around him because of the lack of money paid to a QB still on his rookie contract. Foles is on the wrong side of the million mark over the next two years, and is set to earn only $615,000 in 2014, and $660,000 in 2015.
There’s a crater of space between that sum, and the sweet, sweet bills given to the league’s elite at the position. Which leads us to the Eagles’ cap space of roughly $20 million entering the offseason, and that would be almost entirely devoured if they had to pay Foles on the same level as, say, Aaron Rodgers ($18.7 million annually), Drew Brees ($20 million), or Joe Flacco ($20.1 million).
Now with that spare change Roseman has secured both the offensive line which keeps Foles upright and ensures all his body parts remain in their working order, and he’s retained one of his favorite targets.
The latter is Riley Cooper, who was signed to a five-year contract worth $25 million earlier today, only $8 million of which is guaranteed. When Cooper revealed his inner racist thoughts to the world last summer, for a time it was assumed he would be booted elsewhere. This is not a league with patience for distractions, especially not on a team with a new head coach.
And on any other team, that likely would have been Cooper’s ultimate end. But since both life and the NFL aren’t fair, he was a man who had a great need and purpose on the Eagles roster, so he was permitted to stick around. A month earlier Jeremy Maclin had ripped apart his ACL during the opening days of training camp, and Cooper’s presence was then vital as the No. 2 receiver opposite DeSean Jackson.
He turned that increased role into 835 receiving yards, with his length (he’s 6’3″) in the red zone leading to eight touchdowns, three of which came in one game. Cooper also had two games with 120 or more yards, and for perspective on how much he shattered all previous production, over 40 game appearances in three seasons his highest single-year receiving total finished at 315 yards. If we pluck only Cooper’s three best games in 2013 he easily passes that mark with 361 yards.
Cooper and Jason Kelce (more forthcoming there) are a reflection of Roseman’s Seahawks-like bargain mining, and an organization that’s developing and rewarding from within. Cooper waited until the fifth round in 2010 and the 159th overall pick, and now with $5 million annually he’s earned a pay hike, but a still affordable one. At 26 years old he’s far younger than Greg Jennings, the still effective though fading veteran who received $45 million and $9 million annually on the open market from the Vikings a year ago. Even while sharing looks with Jackson and even in a run-oriented offense, Cooper still out-produced Jennings, and he’s still getting paid significantly less. The Eagles are also closing in on a deal with Maclin, but Cooper will still see plenty of work with Kelly using three wide receiver sets roughly 80 percent of the time.
Roseman has also parlayed a sixth-round pick in 2011 into one of the league’s premier centers and offensive line anchors. That’s Kelce, and while running up the middle in 2013 the Eagles had 20 carries for 10 yards or more, tied for second in the league and only two behind the Bills. When they ran to the left behind the also re-signed and also awesome Jason Peters, the Eagles had 30 such gains.
Now they’re both in Philadelphia until the end of the 2018 season, and the entire offensive line is secured through 2016. Take your bow, Roseman.
Kelce was signed to a six-year contract extension, but with the final existing year on his rookie contract, Kelce’s deal is truly for seven years and it’s worth $40.11 million with $13 million guaranteed. He’s now an Eagle until he turns 33, and at a highly affordable yearly fee ($5.73 million overall throughout the seven years) at a position where — barring a catastrophic injury — the aging process is usually a slow one.
The new contract puts Kelce among the top five highest paid centers in the league, but the difference between Kelce and the other financial elites he joins comes back to the number of candles on his birthday pie. He’s just 26 right now, and three of the others who occupy the top five at his position, well, aren’t…
Scott Wells: 33 years old, and earning $6 million annually off of a four-year contract signed in 2012 worth $24 million, $13 million of which is guaranteed
Chris Myers: 32 years old, and earning $6.25 annually off of a four-year contract signed in 2012 worth $25 million, $14 million of which is guaranteed
David Baas: 32 years old, and earning $5.5 million annually off of a five-year deal signed in 2011 worth $27.5 million, $11.5 million of which is guaranteed
Sandwiched between Baas and Myers is Seattle’s Max Unger, whose lack of seniority at the age of 27 makes an exception too.
What the Eagles have now in Kelce is a player who Pro Football Focus graded as their top center in 2013, and he’s set to earn less on average per year than both of the current top earners at his position. More importantly, his guaranteed money also didn’t get bloated, a key maneuver in a cold, barren NFL salary cap universe where Pro Bowl play can be followed by being released (hi there, Thomas DeCoud). In fact, of the three centers listed here, two of them (Wells and Baas) could be voted off of their respective islands soon.
Between extending Kelce today and Peters yesterday, the Eagles have made a critical commitment for an offense rooted in the run, while aptly supporting the investment made in LeSean McCoy. He was given $45.6 million over six years in 2012 and $20.8 guaranteed, and now during his first year in Kelly’s offense McCoy shattered his previous career highs in rushing yards (1,607, and his previous high was 1,309) and yards per game on the ground (100.1, and his previous high was 87.3). McCoy also led the league in rushing by a mountainous margin, with Matt Forte finishing a distant second at 1,339.
McCoy did that while leading the league in carries with 314, an average of 19.6 per game. The run is central to Kelly’s success, and it’s therefore the primary driver of the Eagles’ deeper playoff aspirations going forward. That’s why between Peters and Kelce, the ground has been a priority for Roseman too, and now he’s paying those two Pro Bowl caliber offensive linemen a combined average yearly salary of $16 million.
Identifying cheap talent, development, patience, and then retaining key assets at a reduced — or at least manageable — rate. That’s the framework Roseman has followed, and having a filthy cheap quarterback has helped too.