Business of Football: Why Carson Wentz Will Still Be on the Eagles in 2021

The Eagles' quarterback situation has gotten messy, but NFL economics and the amount they've invested in Carson Wentz means they're stuck together a while longer.
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Of the 1,800-plus players in the NFL there is no player into which a team has made more of an organizational investment than the Eagles have in Carson Wentz. There are NFL players for whom teams have invested multiple top draft picks; there are NFL players for whom teams have invested contracts totaling north of $100 million; there are NFL players for whom teams have allowed other players to leave to clear the path for that player to succeed. But there is only one team and one player for whom all of those organizational inputs were made: the Eagles and Wentz.

Now, as you may have heard, there is a bit of a problem with that investment. And due to the way NFL player economics work, the solution is not as simple as saying, “Well, that’s a sunk cost” and moving on. While that would be the case were Wentz an NBA or Major League Baseball player, the NFL cap, as is said, “has receipts.” There is a lingering tail on the investment and that tail, no matter if the Eagles keep Wentz or trade him, is not going away. And, in my opinion, neither is Wentz.

Settle in; I’ll take you through this.

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The investment

To trade up and acquire the rights to draft Wentz second overall in 2016, the Eagles sent the Browns first- and fourth-round draft picks in 2016 and first- and second-round picks in 2017. Then they signed him to a rookie contract worth $27 million with a $17 million bonus. Then they pounced on an opportunity to trade Sam Bradford to the Vikings for a first-round pick and handed Wentz the starting quarterback job from Day One of his career.

Despite late-season injuries forcing him to give way to Nick Foles in 2017 (the Super Bowl championship season) and 2018, the Eagles decided to stake their future on Wentz in 2019. They 1) allowed/encouraged Foles to leave in free agency, and 2) tore up Wentz’s rookie contract—with two years remaining—and replaced it with one of the largest contracts in NFL history, fully guaranteeing the 2019, 2020 and 2021 seasons (and partially guaranteeing 2022). The contract provides a guaranteed $81 million over the first three years. To put that in perspective, Patrick Mahomes inked an extension with the Chiefs this summer that pays him a guaranteed $63 million over the first three years of his.

The stage was set for the Eagles and Wentz to have a long and successful marriage together, a team and player as committed to each other as any team and player perhaps in the history of the NFL.

The hindsight

The Eagles have a proven history—going back 30 years with former team president Joe Banner—of being proactive in extending contracts of young, ascending players, believing that their price will only go up. However, with Wentz having had season-ending injuries in the two prior seasons, the timing now looks early in light of the current situation.

Recent quarterbacks picked high in the first round who were extended after three seasons, as Wentz was, include Jared Goff, DeShaun Watson and Mahomes. Two other top overall picks in the last decade, Cam Newton and Andrew Luck, were not extended until they played four years. Mitchell Trubisky is playing in the fourth year of his rookie contract and had his fifth-year option declined; Dak Prescott played out his rookie contract—a four-year deal, as he wasn’t a first-round pick—and is currently under a franchise tag.

Could the Eagles have waited at least a year, letting Wentz play out the fourth year of his rookie contract before extending him? Could they have waited two years, letting Wentz play out the fifth-year team option before extending him? Could they have even waited three years, letting Wentz play out a franchise tag season before extending him? This is all admittedly hindsight, but the Eagles’ front office and ownership are now certainly looking back and having these discussions.

As to structure, the Eagles have traditionally been “ahead of the curve” using what I believe to be optimal cap management strategy of matching cash and cap as much as possible. However, in recent years, with a lot of veteran contract extensions eating up available cap space, the Eagles have had to backload more and more cap with proratable bonuses pushing out cap hits and restructures creating short-term space. The Wentz contract extension was and is heavily leveraged, meaning an unforeseen early exit would lead to dire cap consequences. But of course, no one expected that to be necessary.

As a contrast in managing a high-level quarterback contract, the 49ers’ extension with Jimmy Garoppolo has a first-year cash number of $42 million and a first-year cap number of $37 million, a virtual match of cash and cap. In the event the 49ers decide to move on from Garoppolo after this season, the dead money left behind will be $2.8 million, a universe away from the current dead money tally of $60 million for Wentz.

Although all hindsight, this background is important for understanding why there are now no good outcomes for Wentz and the Eagles.

The interruption

The Eagles’ selection of quarterback Jalen Hurts in the second round of the 2020 draft seemed curious, considering the massive investment in Wentz, but it certainly made sense from a financial perspective. With so much cash and cap allocation to Wentz, Hurts presented as an inexpensive, young backup for the next few years.

Now there has been an interruption to the plan. Wentz has clearly regressed and Hurts has been a revelation. So what will happen?

The Options

Release Wentz? No.

Releasing Wentz would accelerate all remaining unamortized bonus money, incurring a dead money cap charge of almost $60 million. End of discussion.

Trade Wentz? I say no.

Apologies to all the fantasy football general managers already having traded Wentz to the Colts. Not happening.

First, any potential trade would have to happen before the third day of the 2021 league year when 1) a $10 million roster bonus comes due to Wentz and 2) $15 million of Wentz’s 2022 salary becomes fully guaranteed. With the way Wentz has been playing, good luck with that.

But, you ask, what if Wentz is willing to reduce/restructure his contract to fit into a new team’s framework? Well, that may help the new team; it does nothing for the Eagles. As I have answered dozens of times on Twitter: The problem with a Wentz trade is not so much for the acquiring team; it is for the trading team (the Eagles).

Were the Eagles to somehow find a trade partner for Wentz, they would incur a dead money cap charge of $34 million. This would be the largest cap allocation for a player not on the roster in NFL history in a year where 1) the cap number will be below the present $198 million and 2) the Eagles have current cap commitments of over $250 million.

I know what you are saying: “But Andrew, you never thought Antonio Brown would be traded because the Steelers wouldn’t incur a $21 million dead money charge, and look what happened there!” True; I was wrong. I never thought the Steelers would take on that cap burden, even considering Brown’s churlishness. But they did, and played with less than a full deck in 2019 because of it. But this situation is not comparable. Wentz has no off-field issues, and $21 million is a far cry from $34 million.

A wash? No.

And let’s clear this up: I have heard some say that because the Eagles would be “saving” the $35 million in cash owed to Wentz while incurring a $34 million cap charge, it is “a wash.” Please. It is not a wash because, umm … you don’t have the player! The Eagles would have one of the highest cap charges in the NFL for a player playing for someone else and, of course, would have to sign a backup quarterback for more millions to boot. People, that is not a wash.

Post June 1 Trade? No.

Finally, some are suggesting that the Eagles would trade Wentz after June 1, 2021, when the drastic cap consequences could be spread over 2020 and 2021. Query: Would the Eagles really keep Wentz in purgatory until June? Would another team really want to be unable to acquire Wentz until after the installation part of the offseason? Again, this is not what NFL teams do, especially for quarterbacks.

Pay Cut? No.

Would Wentz take less money to go to a new team and get a fresh start? Perhaps, but again, that doesn’t help the Eagles with their disastrous cap consequences upon a trade.

Would Wentz take less money to stay with the Eagles as a backup? Wentz has a fully guaranteed contract for 2021 and clearly does not want to be a backup. So, again, good luck with that.

Call me on it if it happens—I know you will—but I am saying Wentz is not going anywhere until (maybe) 2022. In fact, I think it’s even more likely that the Eagles trade Hurts—if they could get a first-round pick—than they trade Wentz.

Living with two quarterbacks

Now that I have pre-ordained that both quarterbacks will be on the Eagles in 2021, the Eagles have to manage the situation. They can do it, but it will require work and a lot of patience.

The good news is that both Hurts and Wentz appear to have high character, high work ethic and popularity among teammates. That is a good start.

In my time with the Packers, we had a three-year period, 2005 to 2007, that represented both Brett Favre’s last three years and Aaron Rodgers’s first three years with the team. While all seemed fine from the outside, save for an early comment from Brett about not wanting to “mentor” Aaron, it was a challenge behind the scenes. Brett’s camp was not pleased to come to work every day to sit next to his replacement; Aaron’s camp wondered if he was ever going to play. I would listen and let each side vent but there were no easy answers to this delicate situation.

Unlike our situation in Green Bay, the Eagles quarterbacks are both young and expecting long careers ahead. At some point one of those careers will not continue in Philadelphia. But that point is no time soon. Until then, the Eagles have to manage the situation with patience and professionalism, as it will be a constant challenge.

Again, due to the massive organizational investment made over the past five years, my strong sense is that Carson Wentz is not going anywhere in 2021. This is beyond sunk cost: It is now cheaper to keep him than to part with him.

The Eagles created this; now they have to fix it. The way NFL economics works, they can’t fix the financial part, so they have to fix the player (Wentz). Whether entering the season in a competition, as backup or as the starter, they have to fix him. That is the only viable outcome here.

Happy holidays to all who frequent this space for my columns. Thanks for reading; warmest wishes for a safe and healthy new year!