Team Building like the 49ers and Eagles: Two Sides of the Same Coin

by Andrew Moss

The key to holding a team’s Super Bowl window open is keeping the best group of players together for as long as possible. However, with a hard cap and players constantly wanting to realize their market value over a short NFL career, putting together a consistent winner becomes a difficult balancing act between prioritizing the contracts of some players over others. This eventually creates holes, which must be filled in a way that keeps the team competitive long-term.

For the sake of this article I’ll refer to a team’s “core” of players as follows: Players that are under contract for at least the next two years that are not on a rookie contract, a veteran minimum contract or a "prove it" type deal. The core of the team is the players the team expects to win because of. The rookies and other veterans that a team can win with, but are not part of the core, are “auxiliary players.” 

Players Under Second Contract
On the surface, the way the cores of the Philadelphia Eagles and the San Francisco 49ers, two NFL teams thought to be long-term contenders due to their young quarterbacks, are constructed as polar opposites. The Eagles have back-loaded their core contracts, while the 49ers have front-loaded theirs. And while the current states of their respective core will present different strategies to create winning seasons over the next couple years, by 2022, these two teams will be in identical positions cap-wise.

One of the key differences between the roster construction of the Eagles and 49ers is that Philadelphia has already signed many of the players to their second contracts. As a result, their core is mostly homegrown players who the Eagles’ re-signed at the market rate. Because many of Philadelphia’ key auxiliary players have expensive, expiring contracts, the Eagles had to back-load some contracts so they could keep their key auxiliary players, including Jason Peters, Nick Foles, and Michael Bennett, contributing in the short term. 

The main expense from this strategy is that the same core of players increases in cap hit over time, so the core needs to make up, with talent, the difference between these valuable auxiliary players and their rookie or otherwise cheap replacements. While the core contracts appear to be back-loaded, they will likely take up a lower percentage of the overall cap, as the cap hits will not increase as sharply as the overall cap figure will grow, giving them more flexibility in the “back-loaded years.”

While the Eagles are relatively locked into their core for the next two years, they gain some flexibility by 2020. The uptick in dead money is related to quarterback Carson Wentz’s projected second contract ($90 million guaranteed, $30 million fully guaranteed first year), but, by 2020, Philadelphia will have the flexibility to replace underperforming members of their core. By 2021, every player in the current core can be cut for little to no dead money, except for Wentz, paving the way to keep their Super Bowl window open for his prime years.

Roster Construction Post-Rebuild
An equally major difference between the team building timeline between the 49ers and Eagles is the proximity to their most recent rebuild. While Philadelphia made some major changes after it fired Chip Kelly, they never had to fully rebuild their roster like San Francisco had to after the 2014 season and the departure of Jim Harbaugh. 

Because the 49ers roster was devoid of talent during the 2015 and 2016 seasons, they accumulated both high draft picks and open cap room as they continued to jettison their underperforming, expensive players. With their key players all being on rookie deals, San Francisco can afford to sign a “core” of outside free agents to act as a bridge to the next wave of core players.

While a disadvantage to front-loading these core contracts is that it is harder to win immediately, because there is little room to sign necessary auxiliary players, it provides them the unique advantage to release players as soon as they stop performing. For example, running back Jerrick McKinnon signed a four-year, $30 million deal with San Francisco, but his dead cap number of $1.5 million makes him replaceable in 2019. By 2020, through front-loading money, there will only be $4.2 million in dead cap left on the deal of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who signed a $137.5 million contract this year.

As a result, it will be much easier to for the 49ers to replace contracts that make up the current core, if they choose to do so. However, a problem with this strategy is that in order to gain this backend flexibility, the players that make up a front-loaded core must be signed to above-market cap hits for the first year or two. For San Francisco, a team with a fairly bare cupboard, the negatives to this strategy are not felt nearly as much as it would be for a team like Philadelphia, one pressed up against the cap.

Comparing the Eagles and 49ers Strategy
When comparing the roster-building strategies that the 49ers and Eagles used to build stable contenders and maximize their respective Super Bowl windows, it is important to note that the two strategies are not vastly different. 

Instead, they are simply on two different locations on the same timeline.  Right now, Philadelphia is in the contender stage of the graphic (above.) By 2022, many of their current core’s contracts will have expired and they will have rolled back into the “solid contender” portion of the graphic, as they will need to assemble a new core to maximize Carson Wentz’s prime. The 49ers are trending toward the “solid roster” section of the graphic, but do not currently have the necessary auxiliary players that will make them an immediate contender. 

Because of the timeline that the two teams are on, by the end of the 2021 season, the two teams will have reversed positions with respect to the graphic. They will both have wide open Super Bowl windows that give them the flexibility to cut underperforming players, sign auxiliary players, depending on where they are in the cycle of their core’s cap hit, and, most importantly, maximize the prime years of their respective franchise QBs.

The Eagles and 49ers represent the two stages of a strategy that keeps a team in contention without having to cyclically rebuild as their core ages. Waffling between the two stages of the strategy as the team’s core ages allows the team to stay competitive as their core ages and be in a position to build a new, more cap-efficient core that will help the team contend over the next three to four years. By skipping the rebuilding stage, Philadelphia is wasting no years during their Super Bowl window and they can maximize the career of their franchise quarterback.