This is it. The Eagles can free up a few million in salary-cap space here or there, but the overwhelming majority of those moves would either create a corresponding need that eats into those savings or at least raise questions about the potential replacement and depth. That's not exactly the case at defensive end, where Connor Barwin represents perhaps both the easiest and largest cap savings on the roster.
All but $600,000 of Barwin's prorated signing bonus would wind up back in the Eagles' pockets in the event of the eight-year veteran's departure, leaving the front office an additional $7.75 million to work with this offseason. And unlike at so many other positions where cash could come off the books, should the club decide to part ways with the 2014 Pro Bowler, there's no real risk of opening up a glaring hole.
That's partially because we're no longer viewing Barwin as a fit with the Eagles. Prior to last season, he had spent most of his NFL career as an outside linebacker in 3-4 defenses. Not only did those schemes take advantage of his full skill set both as a pass-rusher and in coverage, but he fared better at getting off the quarterback, too. Barwin twice finished with double-digit sacks in the 3-4, including 14.5 as recently as two years ago, yet managed only 5.0 in defensive coordinator Jim Shwartz's wide-nine 4-3 alignment in '16.
Barwin is also on the wrong side of 30 now, so any thought he will improve with more experience in Schwartz's front is negated somewhat by his impending decline. He's never really been a pure pass-rusher to begin with, maxing out at 7.0 sacks in five other healthy seasons, and finishing with 5.0 or fewer in four.
In other words, there doesn't seem to be a tremendous incentive to keep Barwin around, and that's even taking into account he would be open to a pay cut — especially considering the other investments at the position.
Brandon Graham was named second-team All-Pro after a stellar season. Vinny Curry failed to live up to a huge contract extension, but the guarantees are such that the Eagles are stuck with him for at least one more season, plus they should probably let him on the field more for that amount of money. Marcus Smith flashed the potential to come off the bench, and seventh-round draft pick Alex McCalister is ready to come off of injured reserve.
Is that rotation significantly better with Barwin in it? Maybe, maybe not. Yet looking at veteran defensive ends around the league, even at a reduced price, a new contract stands to cost the Eagles an average of $5-6 million per year. As long as that's the case, it's probably time the club finds out about some of these younger options waiting for their time.
DEFENSIVE ENDS UNDER CONTRACT
Cap Number: $9,000,000
Yes, there's no question Curry was a massive disappointment in 2016 with 2.5 sacks. Of course, it would probably help if the most highly paid defensive end on the team was on the field for more than 42.6 percent of the unit's snaps, per Football Outsiders. That's not a great deal more than when he was miscast as a 3-4 end. And more playing time might solve the problem, too, as according to Pro Football Focus, Curry was the ninth most productive pass-rusher among qualifying 4-3 ends the NFL in '16 in terms of sacks, hits and hurries per snaps. The Eagles have nothing to lose by putting him on the field more anyway. Curry's cap hit rises to $15 million in the event of his release, and although a trade would spare the club his guaranteed $7 million in base salary, that's still only $1 million in total savings. He'll be here.
Cap Number: $8,350,000
Two contracts that seem relevant to a potential Barwin restructuring are those signed by Robert Ayers with the Buccaneers and William Hayes for the Rams. Both players were 30 at the time of their new three-year deals in 2016, and neither had ever recorded double digit sacks in a season. Ayers received $19.5 million with $7.5 million guaranteed. Hayes got $17.5 million, $10 million guaranteed. Veteran defensive ends with any type of pass-rushing ability do not come cheap, so what will a pay cut actually do for the Eagles? A new contract could be structured in such a way that it significantly reduces Barwin's cost in '17, but probably not without rolling over another large sum into the following year. Is it really worth it?
Cap Number: $7,500,000
Graham's 5.5 sacks may not seem that high, but in terms of less conventional numbers, the seven-year veteran was among the league leaders. With 14 tackles for loss, Graham was three off of the NFL lead, showing how strong he is against the run, while his 22 quarterback hits show more pressure on quarterbacks than a lower sack total might lead people to believe. Pro Football Focus' signature stats agree, with Graham being ranked No. 1 in run-stop percentage and third in terms of pass-rush productivity. With only $2 million in prorated signing bonus spread over the next two seasons, don't be surprised if the Eagles re-do his contract this offseason, which could help create space for 2017.
Cap Number: $2,481,533
Smith mercifully enters the final year of his rookie contract, and the Eagles could even save roughly $1.5 million with his release. Then again, the former first-round draft pick had some moments this season on his way to 2.5 sacks in addition to three tackles for loss. Smith is also contributing on special teams now, too. Obviously, that's not converting any skeptics, but given his age, there's still hope that he can be a productive reserve. At the very least, he's probably earned one last look in training camp, and it would not be shock at all if Smith continues to rise. He has the athleticism, and was an extremely raw project coming out of college. There's no way to even guess at his ceiling at this point, but there were some things to build on in '16.
Cap Number: $690,000
Means appeared in eight games for the Eagles this season, the most he's been active for since his rookie season in 2013. That didn't translate to much playing time though, as he saw just 36 snaps on defense. A former fifth-round pick, Means seems to show up when his number is called, coming up with a sack and forced fumble against the Vikings in Week 7, in addition to some big plays during the preseason. He's been a great stash since the Eagles claimed him off the Texans practice squad in December of 2015 and finally may have a realistic shot at climbing the depth chart depending what happens this offseason.
Cap Number: $482,842
A seventh-round selection, McCalister spent the entirety of his rookie season on injured reserve with a calf injury, though that seemed like more of a convenient excuse to redshirt the kid. Coming into the NFL at 239 pounds, the Eagles are hoping he could use the time off of the football field to bulk up and come back with a pro frame in '17, because at 6-foot-6 with 49-inch arms and 4.8 speed, McAlister has enticing measureables. Schwartz loves the guy, comparing him to a young Jevon Kearse. High praise indeed. Don't be surprised if McAlister makes the 53-man roster out of camp next season, because he has tremendous disruptive potential.
2016 Cap Number: $975,000
Braman is essentially a defensive end by name only. He is seldom used on defense during the regular season, and is really only around for his presence on special teams. His impending free agency could speak volumes about this Eagles regime's philosophy on that phase of the game. Braman was signed by the club while knowing full well that's all he would do, but how many roster spots does this front office and coaching staff want to reserve for that purpose? For what it's worth, Braman only made four special-teams tackles in 2016, so a case can be made he's not one of the unit's most vital players. The fact that safety Chris Maragos received an extension mid-season and Braman did not might be very telling of the plan here.