In his introductory news conference last month, coach Doug Pederson said “I do” when asked if he believes the Eagles can contend right away.
“I think the nucleus of this football team is very good,” Pederson said. “It's structured very well. There's some talent here and I do believe that you can put yourself in a position to not only win the [NFC] East, but have a chance to get yourself into the postseason and then go deep into the postseason.”
If that is the team’s point of view, then it almost has to do what it takes to retain Bradford. If that means using the franchise tag to prevent Bradford from reaching free agency, then so be it. If that means paying Bradford $15 million to $20 million per year on a long-term contract, then fine.
But if the team decides not to tag Bradford and lets him walk away in free agency, then it will be signaling a very different approach to the 2016 season. If the Eagles draft a quarterback in the first round, especially, then 2016 becomes the first step in an official rebuilding process.
That doesn’t have to mean years of misery. Pederson’s mentor, Andy Reid, undertook a very deliberate rebuild when he became Philadelphia's head coach in 1999. In 2000, the Eagles went to the playoffs. In 2001, they went to the NFC Championship Game for the first time.
But if the Eagles are two or three years away from competing for a championship, that changes their approach to the roster.
If they keep Bradford and aim to win the moribund NFC East in 2016, then it makes sense to keep left tackle Jason Peters and linebacker DeMeco Ryans. Those veterans are in their 30s, but the cap space they take up will be well worth it if the team is in the playoffs next January.
If the Eagles draft a rookie quarterback, the timetable shifts. It makes sense to make roster decisions with that in mind. Peters turned 34 last month and will count $9.2 million against the salary cap. If Peters is protecting Bradford’s blind side, he’s probably worth it. If the Eagles aren’t going to contend for three years, it makes more sense to prepare for that: Move Lane Johnson to left tackle and draft or sign a new right tackle.
Same with Ryans. He can provide veteran leadership on a team that’s looking to win the NFC East. But he’d be better served playing elsewhere if there’s little chance to win with the Eagles for the next couple of seasons.
Tight end Brent Celek fits the same description. The Eagles chose to extend Celek’s contract last month. It is unclear whether that signals their intentions for 2016 or if it was merely an isolated decision.
Tagging Bradford, or negotiating a new long-term deal, would definitely indicate the team is looking to win right away. The financial commitment wouldn’t make any sense for a team beginning a rebuild. That’s why it’s worth watching what the Eagles do as free agency opens on March 9.