INDIANAPOLIS — The Jacksonville Jaguars could not have felt comfortable about their quarterback position at the end of the 2018 season.
But Wednesday at the NFL Scouting Combine, Eagles GM Howie Roseman announced the team would not assign the franchise tag to Nick Foles, making the Super Bowl LII MVP an unrestricted free agent on March 13 and free to sign anywhere.
That news should make the Jaguars feel much more comfortable.
With very few of the 32 NFL teams looking for a quarterback to start right away, Foles seems destined to land in Jacksonville with John DeFilippo, his former quarterbacks coach and current Jaguars offensive coordinator.
Only Denver, Jacksonville, Washington and Miami went into this offseason with a clear hole at starting quarterback. Denver took care of its void by trading for Joe Flacco (a trade that won’t be official until the start of the league year in March.) Washington is going to struggle to find the cap space to claim any high-priced free agent, and whether the Dolphins tank in 2019 or not, it would seem Miami would be best suited drafting a quarterback rather than getting one of the most expensive ones on the market.
That leaves the Jaguars, who have been committing malpractice at the position going back to August 2017. Unless that continues this offseason and the Jags completely whiff on sport’s most important position, there’s no scenario where Blake Bortles, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2014 draft, plays for Jacksonville in ’19 with a $21 million cap hit.
“His name has to be in the mix because as of now he’s our starting quarterback,” Jacksonville GM Dave Caldwell said Wednesday, not missing the opportunity to say “for now” in his response.
It’s not like Caldwell was going to throw Bortles under the bus in the GM’s first media availability in nearly 10 months. But a response to an earlier question about the quarterback position was telling: Caldwell did not mention the possibility of Bortles starting in 2019.
“The goal is to put the best team on the field. Obviously the quarterback is a key part of that, but we’ve got to make sure we have the best team,” Caldwell said. “We have the best offense and best defense, and the quarterback will slide into place when it’s time for that player to come into place.
“It may not be until the draft. It may not be [until] free agency. But when that time comes we want to make sure we have the best team offensively and defensively.”
DeFilippo reuniting with Foles would, in theory, help bring the Jaguars back to contenders like they were in 2017, a season in which their AFC title game run may go down as one of the most anomalous in recent NFL history. Foles went 6-2 as the regular-season starter for the Eagles and 4-1 in the playoffs as Philadelphia—almost unquestionably—looked like a better team with him at quarterback than former No. 2 pick Carson Wentz.
As a championship-winning quarterback entering his age-30 season on the open market, Foles should command somewhere close to $25 million a year. (In a market with more teams needing a starting quarterback competing, that price would be higher. That doesn’t seem to be the case this year, though.)
But the biggest question remains: how will the Jaguars afford Foles? The short answer is that they’ll have to figure out a way. I asked Caldwell about the health of the team’s salary cap space and he said “going into free agency I feel we have a lot of maneuverability.” But the Jags couldn’t take on such a salary with their 2019 cap situation as it stands now.
Two days ago, the Jaguars restructured DT Marcell Dareus’s contract that got the team $5 million in cap space. Running back Carlos Hyde, who came to Jacksonville in a head-scratching trade during the season, is set to count $4.7 million against the cap in 2019 with no dead money, so he’s clearly a prime candidate for a cap casualty.
And then there’s Bortles. Thirteen months ago the Jaguars gave him a three-year extension worth up to $54 million. Jacksonville could wiggle out of it after the 2019 with just a little blood spilt (just $5 million in dead cap to avoid the $23 million cap hit.) But there’s no way around feeling the hurt if Jacksonville cuts him this offseason.
Cutting Bortles would create $16.5 million in dead money, the largest single-season hit in NFL history per Spotrac. But $6.5 million would offset should he sign elsewhere. Surely no team would want to trade for Bortles with two years left on his contract coming off a season where he got benched for Cody Kessler. So cutting would be the only option unless…
Remember two years ago when Houston traded Brock Osweiler and draft picks to Cleveland in what amounted to a salary dump? The Browns, with cap space aplenty, took on Osweiler’s bloated contract and got a sixth-round pick and the following year’s second-round pick that they turned into Nick Chubb.
In any salary-dump trade, the Jaguars would ensure their No. 7 overall pick isn’t for sale. But they own the 38th, 69th and 98th picks in the draft, and any of those plus a future pick could be packaged to a team with a lot of cap space willing to take on Bortles—and his contract—as a backup. Oakland would seem the obvious first choice, but there’s also Houston with just one pick in the top-50 of April’s draft. Another potential spot could be the Jets, who project to have the second-most cap space in the league, need a backup to Sam Darnold if they don’t re-sign Josh McCown and don’t own a second-round pick this year after trading it last year to move up for Darnold.
Of course, all three of those options compete in the AFC with the Jaguars (and the Texans share a conference), so they may not be too eager to save Jacksonville from their mistake to make room for the Super Bowl MVP.
No matter, Jacksonville has to find a way. Tom Coughlin should know he can’t win with Bortles and a defense with greatness potential is being wasted with every game he goes back under center. With Denver out of the running, Foles and Jacksonville should be a fait accompli.
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