Before anyone can assess what trading for Michael Bennett will mean for the Eagles, one first has to understand what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean, for instance, that the Eagles are “going for it again” in 2018 in any significant sense. At least, it’s not significant relative to their (successful) efforts to win a Super Bowl in 2017.
As reported first by ESPN and confirmed by The Inquirer and Daily News, the Eagles will acquire Bennett – a three-time Pro Bowl defensive end – and a seventh-round draft pick from the Seahawks for wide receiver Marcus Johnson and a fifth-round pick. At first, such a deal would suggest that Howie Roseman, the Eagles’ vice president of football operations, is going in big for next season. Defensive line was already a strength for the Eagles – second only to quarterback, one could reasonably argue – and adding Bennett to a group that includes Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox, Timmy Jernigan, Derek Barnett, and Chris Long seems almost unfair to opposing quarterbacks.
But then, the Eagles won’t merely be adding Bennett to that group, because they’ll be subtracting someone from that group, too. That someone is, in all likelihood, Vinny Curry, and the truth is that the Eagles were probably going to subtract Curry this offseason anyway. He is due to count $11 million against the salary cap in 2018, according to the database OverTheCap.com, and even more in 2019 ($11.25 million) and 2020 ($12 million). That’s simply too much money and cap space to allocate to a defensive end who, no matter how much he might have improved as a run-stopper, has recorded just 5½ sacks over his last two seasons – his first two since signing a five-year contract worth as much as $47.5 million.
Replacing Curry with Bennett isn’t the move of a franchise that’s pushing all its chips to the center of the table. It’s the kind of move that every NFL franchise has to make in the salary-cap age, especially a franchise such as the Eagles, who are $10 million over the 2018 cap with the NFL’s free-agency period opening next week.
The Eagles banked that Curry’s most productive season – 2014, when he had nine sacks while playing mostly on third downs in Bill Davis’ 3-4 scheme – was an indication that, if given more snaps and allowed to play in a 4-3, he would become an elite pass-rusher. He didn’t. The contract was a mistake, a misreading of Curry’s value and capability. That the Eagles, in large part through Roseman’s player-personnel decisions last year, were able to overcome it, build a terrific and deep defensive line, and win a championship anyway is to their credit. But the deal was still a mistake, and even if Graham hadn’t batted the football out of Tom Brady’s hand on that final Patriots possession of Super Bowl LII, even if the Eagles had lost to New England or failed to reach the Super Bowl at all, even if they had gone 8-8 this past season, they’d still have to correct their mistake.
Assuming Bennett, 32, can approximate or exceed Curry’s performance, the Eagles will have done exactly that. Bennett will count $7.4 million against the cap, meaning he is a more cost-effective cog than Curry. And, in a way, the Eagles will make the opposite request of him that they did of Curry. Bennett had 8½ sacks last season while playing 931 snaps for the Seahawks. No Eagles defensive lineman played more than Graham’s 663 snaps last season. So instead of presuming, as they did with Curry, that more playing time will necessarily lead to more production, the Eagles are hoping that a fresher Bennett will be a better Bennett.
Maybe he will be. Maybe he won’t. Either way, this impending trade doesn’t tell us much yet about how the Eagles are approaching 2018. Roseman has never been one to stand pat, either in years that he was going “all in” (such as the 2011 “Dream Team”) or in years that he was trying to lay a foundation for future success (such as he did in 2016). The more revealing action, or inaction, will happen later this offseason, once the market for starting quarterbacks begins to take shape and the Eagles have a clearer idea of what they can or should do with Nick Foles. If Roseman has an opportunity to trade Foles for a high draft pick or two and doesn’t, if he goes against his natural inclination to take advantage of a veteran player’s maximum value, if he determines that retaining Foles for this season is better than trading him for future assets, then everyone will know that the Eagles really are going for it again.