The 2021 NFL’s offseason hasn’t officially begun yet and there’s already a QB carousel going around like we’ve never seen before. The LA Rams and Philadelphia Eagles have already agreed to ship Jared Goff and Carson Wentz out of town, and a handful of other big names — headlined by Houston’s Deshaun Watson and Seattle’s Russell Wilson — are rumored to be on the move as well. What’s the cause of all the chaos here, and why did the Rams and Eagles elect to swallow massive cap hits just to have these two guys play for other teams 2021?
Both Goff and Wentz were extended to lucrative contracts back in the 2019 offseason following successful starts to their careers. Goff led his team to an NFC Championship in 2018, and just a year before that, Wentz put together a spectacular regular season performance that put Philly in a position to win the franchise’s first Super Bowl (and yes, Carson Wentz was a big reason the Eagles won Super Bowl LII and I will argue that point until the day I die). Although Goff and Wentz had two years remaining on their rookie deals when they were extended, both the Rams and Eagles hoped that by extending their QBs sooner rather than later they’d get better value on their franchise guys down the line. The price to sign a quarterback to a long term deal goes up each year, and unsurprisingly the average annual salaries for Goff ($33.5 mil) and Wentz ($32 mil) were topped the following offseason by Patrick Mahomes ($45 mil) and Deshaun Watson ($39 mil). In theory the plan the Rams and Eagles had in place worked, but in practice they weren’t so lucky. Shortly after the extensions kicked in both franchise QBs showed major regression and their deals shifted from being potential bargains to outright disasters.
By trading away Goff and Wentz respectfully, both the Rams and the Eagles are taking on record setting dead cap hits. The cost of these cap hits is a stinger for both teams, but they’re each hoping that by taking a large step back now they’ll be able to take two steps forward in the future. LA and Philly took different approaches when it came to sending off their quarterbacks, and what comes next for each of these franchises should be fun to watch.
Los Angeles Rams
For the Rams the reason behind paying a premium to turn Jared Goff into Matt Stafford is obvious — this team thinks they have a shot at winning the title now, and they’re pushing their chips to the center of the table in an attempt to win a title within the next few seasons. A team with an elite defense, wunderkind head coach, and superstar talent across the board came to the conclusion that Goff was the weak link on their team, and they acted swiftly to try and make an upgrade at the most important position in football.
Ever since Sean McVay signed on as head coach in 2017 the Rams have been Super Bowl contenders, and it’s clear that the Rams feel they’re on the brink of a title with him running the show. McVay gets much credit for being an offensive guru and has consistently delivered impressive results since arriving in LA. Take a look at how his offenses have ranked since he signed on as head coach, and lets also look at Jeff Fisher’s (McVay’s predecessor) last season as well to serve as comparison:
Seems pretty obvious to anyone that the Sean McVay impact is real. He took over a roster that was dead last in points and yards per game and turned them into one of the league’s best offenses immediately upon arrival. However following his first two years, his offenses have cooled off a bit. It’s possible that since his Super Bowl appearance the rest of the league studied him aggressively and has found a way to minimize his impact, but there’s also another factor at play that the Rams appear to have caught on to. Let’s add another data point into the mix and see if we come to another conclusion:
It seems as though there’s an inverse correlation between the amount of money Jared Goff makes and the points the LA offense produces. It’s a small sample size, but if you’re paying a guy this much money he simply has to elevate the play of people around him to justify his cap hit. Jared Goff has been a capable quarterback, but you don’t hear many people claiming he’s a top 10, or even top 15 guy, and as time goes on it’s looking more like he’s simply been a product of his favorable environment.
When Goff was making a more modest salary in 2017 and 2018 the focal point of their offense wasn’t the quarterback position — it was the running game. In those two seasons Todd Gurley was the engine that made this offense run as he led the league in rushing touchdowns both years, and in 2017 he eclipsed 2,000 scrimmage yards and was a legitimate MVP candidate. Gurley’s production started to fall in 2019 and the Rams offense seemed to go down with him. Injury scares paired with declining production led the Rams to cut him following the 2019 season as a result, which led to a dead cap hit of over $20 million spread across 2020 & 2021. Without Gurley the LA run game took a massive hit as they finished just 10th in total rushing yards this past season. Meanwhile, Goff and the passing game weren’t able to step up and fill the void turning LA’s once elite offense into a mediocre one at best.
So what about the guy the Rams elected to trade for? Matt Stafford appears to be the polar opposite of Jared Goff when you look at their careers side by side. The former first overall pick has all the arm talent in the world, but his physical traits haven’t translated well to the win/loss record. His lack of success is often attributed to being stuck in a poor situation in Detroit where he’s had next to no help from a coaching staff, run game, or defense. Since being drafted in 2009, the Lions have only had a 100+ yard rusher 11 times with Stafford under center (yikes!). Compare this to Goff who had Gurley accomplish that feat 12 times in 2017 & 2018 alone. Over the course of his career Stafford possesses an unimpressive 74–90–1 record, but he’s consistently filled the stat sheet with massive yardage and touchdown numbers. Only once has Stafford thrown for less than 4,000 yards when he’s suited up for all 16 games.
With the apparent upgrade at QB, the Rams are now viewed as a serious Super Bowl contender. According to FanDuel Sportsbook the Rams have the 5th best odds to hoist the Lombardi next year with +1300 odds compared to +1800 before acquiring Stafford. It’s easy to look at this upgrade and think the move is designed to win now, which it absolutely is, but when you take a step back and look at the books it appears 2022 is the year we really need to start thinking about the Rams as contenders.
People seem to be ignoring the fact that Goff is going to account for $22.2 million against the Rams’ cap in 2021, AND the Rams are still taking an $8.4 million dollar hit from cutting Gurley the previous offseason. That’s over $30 million they can’t use this year to provide depth and plug holes on the rest of their roster. Sure, having guys like Stafford, Aaron Donald, and Jalen Ramsey as headliners means you have a great foundation to build on, but we can’t ignore the fact that 5 guys — two of which aren’t on the 2021 roster — are accounting for over 53% of the Rams’ cap space in 2021. The star power will be enough to keep this team competitive, but with no first round pick and an ugly cap situation there’s little to no wiggle room for this team to make further upgrades. Luckily for LA, guys like Donald and Ramsey can plug holes on the defense on their own, and the hope is that Stafford can do the same for the offense. This team should be a force in 2021, but they’ll be pretty thin outside of their top guys and will need Herculean efforts from each of them to reach the Super Bowl right away. I think the lack of depth will ultimately hurt the Rams in 2021, and putting them in the tier of NFL’s elite alongside the Chiefs, Bucs, and Packers is a bit premature.
Fast forward to 2022 and the Rams will be clear of any dead cap hits from Goff, Gurley, and anyone else (as it currently stands). They’ll still have the highly paid guys at the top of their roster, but in addition to those guys they’ll have a little bit — though not a ton — of resources to fill some holes they won’t be able to plug this year. I think when this happens they’ll have the potential to become one of the NFL’s scariest teams. A lot can change in a year, but if things go according to plan for the Rams they may be the team to beat 2–3 years down the line.
Whether or not a Stafford proves to be the missing piece the Rams hope he is, there aren’t many who view him as anything less than an upgrade. With an elite defense, excellent coaching staff, and solid supporting cast on offense expectations are sky high for Stafford and the Rams. Anything short of a Super Bowl title in the next few years means this whole ordeal will be viewed as a failure. Championship windows have a tendency to close tightly, and the the Rams are going all in on the superstar core they have in place as a result of that — just don’t be surprised if it takes a year for their bet to pay off.
While the Rams jettisoned their highly paid quarterback for a clear upgrade at the position, the Eagles got rid of Carson Wentz and only received draft capital in return. The question now is, are the Eagles going to build around 2020 2nd round pick Jalen Hurts, or are they going to look elsewhere for their franchise QB?
Believe it or not, it was just a few short years ago when the Eagles last won the Super Bowl. They possessed one of the best rosters in football in 2017 and their front office elected to largely keep their roster in tact with hopes of snagging another title over the next few years. The results backfired hard and Philadelphia has had a fall from grace unlike anything we’ve seen from a recent champ. By trying to extend their championship window the Eagles wound up with an aging, overpaid roster that’s anything but championship caliber as it currently stands. The best thing for this franchise is to acknowledge their shortcomings and understand that getting back to the pinnacle will require a longer rebuild — not a few short term fixes.
For a franchise that’s always put extreme emphasis on the quarterback position, Jalen Hurts is walking into 2021 with a lot of question marks surrounding him on offense. Last year the Eagles started 14 offensive line combos in their 16 games due to injury, and their leading receiver was Travis Fulgham, a practice squad guy who accumulated just 539 yards on the season. As it currently stands this Eagles offense isn’t exactly a quarterback’s dream, and with a tricky cap situation it’s unlikely we see much improvement this year.
The Eagles currently have 8 players on their roster counting $10 million or more towards the cap — not including the record setting $33.8 million from offloading Wentz’s contract. Of those 8 players, only 2 are on the right side of 30, and the youngest of the bunch — Derek Barnett — is viewed as a potential trade or cut candidate due to the aforementioned cap struggles. Having all of your best players in or on the wrong side of their primes isn’t a bad thing if you’re contending, but if you’re rebuilding that’s a sign that you’ve got some work to do.
With an ugly cap situation in 2021 the Eagles are going to have a hard time doing adding much to improve their roster through free agency this year. The hope is that with additional draft picks from the Wentz trade, paired with a better cap situation in 2022 the Eagles can start a youth movement that builds a solid foundation for the future. Philly fans shouldn’t expect any flashy free agent signings this year, and they need to brace themselves for another year of a roster filled with more holes than Swiss cheese. However if this team is willing to use 2021 as an introspective year and build for for the future they can turn this sinking ship around quickly. I think the decision to offload Wentz now rather than later indicates they’re willing to do exactly this. Although his dead cap hit in 2021 is massive, getting rid of their franchise QB now rather than waiting until training camp or next year, has freed Philly from any financial obligations to Wentz in 2022 and beyond. This will provide them with the flexibility to start making moves next offseason to get Jalen Hurts some help or alternatively spend more capital to acquire their next signal caller.
So what’s the rebuild ultimately going to look like? Expect the Eagles to get back to their roots and do what the franchise has done for years — build from the trenches. When the Eagles won Super Bowl LII they did it with arguably the best offensive and defensive lines in the league. Every year PFF ranks the 101 best players for a season, and in 2017 the Eagles had 7 names crack the list — 5 of which were offensive or defensive lineman. According to PFF, Philly had the #1 ranked offensive line in the league that year, and the franchise’s philosophy to emphasize line play rewarded them with the franchise’s first Super Bowl.
I expect this offseason to be one where Eagles get back to their roots and solidify the lines on both side of the ball and get back to playing Philadelphia Eagles style football. If the Eagles aren’t decimated by injuries across the offensive line again in 2021, their in house guys should be able to step up here and produce a top 10 unit. However getting youth and depth behind their starters will absolutely be atop the to-do for this franchise this offseason as the long term outlook across the offensive front is shaky.
Once they’ve shored up protecting their franchise QB, Philly’s next priority is making life miserable for their opponents’ signal caller by building a ferocious pass rush. The one bright spot for the Eagles in 2020 was their ability to generate pressure with their defensive front, as they ranked 3rd in the league with 49 sacks on the season. Unfortunately for Philly it looks like retaining all their top guys will be a tall order, as the aforementioned Barnett returning is up in the air, and the team has already made it clear Malik Jackson won’t be returning. Expect Philly to use premium draft capital on getting youth behind their dominant defensive line so that they don’t miss a beat when guys like Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox ultimately decide to hang it up.
Although building around your quarterback with outstanding line play is a high priority for this team, priority number one will always be the quarterback himself. I think the Eagles will use this year to find out if they already have a franchise guy in Hurts, or if they need to go get one in 2022. If Hurts proves to be a franchise QB, perfect, if not, this team will struggle again in 2021 and have another high pick in 2022 where they can use that pick (and potentially other assets too) to get their guy.
It’ll likely be an ugly year football in Philadelphia in 2021. However if this is the price the Eagles had to pay to win their first Lombardi just a few years back, no one will be saying the cost was too high. It’ll be at least a year or two before this team has a chance to get back into contention, but if there’s one thing the city of Philadelphia can band together for, it’s a slow rebuild in the hopes of future greatness. Yes, that’s right Philly, once again it’s time to Trust the Process.