Eagles Mailbag: Restructuring Barwin, Allen Barbre, Jason Kelce's importance

Eagles Mailbag: Restructuring Barwin, Allen Barbre, Jason Kelce's importance

We answered half of your questions in the first mailbag this week (see story)

But there are plenty more to go. 

With free agency just around the corner, let's not waste any time jumping into today's questions: 

I don't think so. 

Yeah, moving on from Connor Barwin is going to be tough. He's a great guy and has been a tremendous asset in the community. His foundation is amazing. But on the field, his production dropped while his price tag soared. That's a problem. 

Barwin has said publicly that he'd be willing to take a pay cut to stay in Philly. He's a smart guy and knew there's no way the Eagles are going to keep him around with an $8.35 million cap hit, especially when they can save $7.75 million of that if they cut him. ... So maybe they would keep him at a reduced rate. There's logic in that, but it's time to move on. I don't think Barwin would really want to stay for the pay cut it would probably take. 

Right now, Barwin is blocking Vinny Curry from seeing significant playing time. And while Curry didn't have a good year in 2016, he's getting paid a lot, so it's time to see if he can live up to that contract. 

And for Barwin, while he loves Philly and has made this his home, he deserves to be in a defense that fits him better.

I'm a little surprised more haven't come already. To me, this likely means the Eagles are trying to exhaust any trade options first. Why cut a guy if you can get some kind of return, even a late-round or conditional pick? 

There's no real harm in waiting right now, and maybe the team will find a trade partner for one of their players on the chopping block. 

I always like these hypotheticals from Drew. Basically, I'd keep the youngest and most-talented players:

Carson Wentz, Fletcher Cox, Lane Johnson, Jordan Hicks, Malcolm Jenkins. 

Wentz, Cox and Johnson were pretty easy. Then I really struggled. Jenkins is the oldest guy on the list, but he's so important to the team. I left off Brandon Graham and Zach Ertz and Brandon Brooks and Jordan Matthews, which I'm not so sure about. This was harder than I anticipated. 

I guess you're talking about Allen Barbre's hamstring injury. Yeah, barring something I don't know about, he should be completely healed and ready to go. 

Here's something to think about, though: Barbre will be 33 when the 2017 season starts and I wouldn't put him down in pen as the starter at left guard next year. If Jason Kelce is still on the team, he'll be the center, but why not let Isaac Seumalo battle for the left guard job? 

If Seumalo wins the spot, then Barbre is still a relatively inexpensive and really good backup option. 

I honestly think Jason Kelce is better than most fans in this city think. People see him get blown up a few times in a year — really blown up — and think he's an awful player. He's not. No, he can't go 1-on-1 with nose tackles, but he's still great at getting downfield and into the second level. 

And then there's the importance of the center. I don't know exactly how important he is in terms of calling the shots on the line, but he didn't miss a single snap in 2016. I know cutting or trading Kelce would save significant cap space, but I wouldn't do it. The Eagles have shown they'll do whatever it takes to develop Wentz; I think keeping his veteran center for a second year would help. 

Most likely to least likely top 5 Eagles salary cap casualties

Most likely to least likely top 5 Eagles salary cap casualties

Thanks to the nearly $8 million of salary cap carryover from the 2016 season, the Eagles have just under $11 million in salary cap room to work with this season. Among that, about $4.5 million needs to go to rookies in 2017. 

So the Eagles might need to get creative. 

“Yeah, it's unusual, certainly since I've been here, to have a more challenging situation,” vice president of football operations Howie Roseman said after the season ended in January. “But part of our job in the front office is to look at this over a long period of time. So as we sit here today, it isn't like the first time that we are looking at that situation, and we'll do whatever's best for the football team.”

What's best for the football team this offseason might be to release some veterans with big contracts in order to free up some cap space.  

Here's a look at five guys who cutting would save the team $28.45 million in cap space. The list goes from most likely to least likely: 

Ryan Mathews
To me, this one is a no-brainer. Mathews is 29 and will turn 30 during the 2017 season and is now coming back from a significant neck injury he suffered late this season. When healthy in Philly, Mathews was actually a good running back, but he had trouble staying healthy, which has been a problem throughout his career. 

Looking at the money, Mathews is set to have a $5 million cap hit in 2017, the final year of the three-year deal he signed with the Eagles before the 2015 season. The Eagles would save his entire base salary ($4 million) by cutting him. 

The Eagles will need to find someone to replace Mathews as their bell cow back, but that's exactly what they should do. 

Connor Barwin
Barwin, 30, has said he's willing to take a pay cut to remain with the Eagles, but it would probably have to be a really big pay cut. He just wasn't productive enough in the new defense and still seems like a better fit in a 3-4 defense. 

It's a shame that the team will probably part with Barwin, because he's a great guy who does a ton of incredible charity work within the city. But football is a business and the numbers dictate a lot of moves. Barwin is set to have a cap hit of $8.35 million in 2017 and the Eagles can save $7.75 million by cutting him. 

Leodis McKelvin
McKelvin's first season with the Eagles didn't go as well as anyone would have hoped. He suffered a hamstring injury early in the year and it never went away. And then his play wasn't great either. It was a season of ups and downs for the veteran but too often he was on the wrong side of a big play. 

McKelvin, 31, is set to have a cap hit of $3.45 million in 2017 and the Eagles can save $3.2 million if they cut him. 

The only chance is if Jim Schwartz really goes to bat for his player and the Eagles really think that hamstring was to blame for his subpar play. 

Jason Kelce
Kelce, 29, is coming off his second-career Pro Bowl, but even he wouldn't try to convince anyone he had a Pro Bowl season. In fact, he said earlier in the year that he needed to play better or would become expendable. 

While Kelce wasn't great in 2016, he wasn't terrible either and he probably played better than most people realize. If nothing else, he would be a constant for Carson Wentz as the quarterback enters his second NFL season. 

Kelce is set to have a $6.2 million cap hit in 2017, which isn't awful. But the Eagles would save $3.8 million if they decided to cut him. 

Jason Peters 
I don't think this one is happening, but it's at least worth talking about. At 35, Peters at left tackle and Lane Johnson at right tackle is still probably the best offensive line the Eagles can put together. But Peters is expensive. After hitting another Pro Bowl escalator in 2016, his 2017 salary cap number is $11.7 million, which means the Eagles would save $9.7 million if they cut him. 

Nearly $10 million in cap savings would be a huge deal, but then they'd have to find a player to spend it on and they might not get as good a return than if they just stick with Peters. 

2017 Eagles Cost Analysis, DE: Connor Barwin equals big savings

2017 Eagles Cost Analysis, DE: Connor Barwin equals big savings

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

Vinny Curry
Age: 29*
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.

Connor Barwin
Age: 31*
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?

Brandon Graham
Age: 29*
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.

Marcus Smith
Age: 25*
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.

Steven Means
Age: 27*
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.

Alex McAllister
Age: 24*
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.

EXPIRING CONTRACTS

Bryan Braman
Age: 30*
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.