Eagles mailbag: Jessie Bates? How much would it cost?

After signing James Bradberry this week, the Eagles’ roster is full at 90 players as they prepare for OTAs to begin later this month.

It’s an exciting time for the Eagles because of all the offseason action and, at least on paper, they have a much better roster in 2022.

But it can always get better.

That’s where our mailbag questions begin today:

If you haven’t been following the situation in Cincinnati, talented young safety Jessie Bates has not signed his franchise tag and reports indicate that he doesn’t plan to play on that tag this season. If the Eagles have one weaker area right now, it’s probably safety. They tried to address it this offseason and showed interest in Marcus Williams and Tyrann Mathieu but came up empty. Adding a 25-year-old player like Bates would be a huge move. Bates has been more of a prototypical free safety in his career but he’s possibly still an ascending player and he’s already really good.

Bates has been in the league for four years and has started 63 games with 10 picks, 35 pass breakups and 408 tackles. His best season came in 2020, when he was a second-teamer on the All-Pro team.

In addition to trading for Bates, they’d also have to sign him to a long-term deal like they did with AJ Brown. That contract would need to be figured out before any trade. So let’s look at this in two parts: 1. What would they have to trade to get Bates? 2. What would they have to pay him?

1. The Bengals are going to want a first-round pick. They’d be crazy not to start there, especially when they’re talking to the Eagles, who have two first-rounders in 2023. In 2020, the Jets traded Jamal Adams to the Seahawks and got a first-round pick and in 2019 the Dolphins traded Minkah Fitzpatrick to the Steelers and got a first-round pick. So even though Bates isn’t as good as those two, the Bengals are going to ask for a first-rounder. But that’s probably too rich for the Eagles, even with two first-rounders next season. Should the Eagles be willing to give up a 2023 second-round pick? Yeah, that would be more appealing. Although, they might need to sweeten that deal with a Day 3 pick or a player.

2. This offseason, the Ravens signed Williams to a five-year, $70 million deal. His $14 APY ranks seventh in the NFL among safeties. Justin Reid got a contract this offseason with an APY of $10.5 million. If the Eagles were to trade for Bates, he’d need to be at around $14 million APY on this new contract. In fact, that Williams deal feels like a good template for Bates. Of course, the Eagles thought Williams was overpaid so they’d have to really like Bates more than Williams to sign him to a similar deal in addition to whatever they’d have to trade to get him.

We just talked about Bates, so there’s a chance the Eagles could add another safety before the 2022 season begins. If not, then the likely starters for Week 1 are Anthony Harris and Marcus Epps. The only other safeties on the roster are K’Von Wallace, Jared Mayden, Andre Chachere and Reed Blankenship. So there’s an argument to be made that if the Eagles don’t upgrade with a starting-caliber player, they could still use another depth player. Last year, Epps was fine as a third safety and actually think he’ll be OK as a starter. But what happens when the Eagles want to put another safety out there? I was really high on Wallace when they drafted him in the fourth round a few years ago, but we haven’t seen it on the field yet.

Another possibility here is for the Eagles to play Avonte Maddox at safety in certain situations. This shouldn’t be the overall fix because he’s a really good nickel corner. But if the Eagles want an extra defensive back on the field, their better bet might be to put Josiah Scott or Kary Vincent Jr. on the field as the nickel and slide Maddox back. That way they could utilize his versatility without changing his position entirely.

This is a trick the Eagles have been using in recent years to minimize cap hits. It’s definitely a kick-the-can method but it makes sense given that the league-wide cap rises every season (at least when there’s not a global pandemic). Basically, they use these void years and pay out money in a bonus that prorates over the length of a contract for cap purposes. Based on the ESPN report, this is really a five-year deal with four years that will void automatically. That signing bonus counts as $1,243 million on the cap this year because that’s 1/5 of that total bonus. So that $1.243 million + his base salary of $1.035 million gives us the salary cap hit of $2.278 million for 2022. But note, this will leave a dead cap figure of $4.972 million in 2023 when Bradberry’s deal runs out and the remaining prorated bonus money accelerates to the cap.

Coming into this season, Gainwell is going to be the Eagles’ No. 2 running back and he’ll have a role. The Eagles haven’t been shy about comparing Gainwell to Nyheim Hines in Indianapolis and that’s a very good comparison for Gainwell, who had 291 rushing yards and 253 receiving yards as a rookie fifth-round pick. He’s at his best when he’s catching balls out of the backfield and he’ll be able to do that again in 2022. In fact, I expect his role to grow in Year 2.

Could be become the lead back in 2023 if Miles Sanders walks as a free agent? That’s less likely. I view him as a change-of-pace guy and the Eagles do too. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with that. We’ve seen how important Hines has been to the Colts. If Gainwell becomes that for the Eagles over the next few years, they’ll be thrilled.

I don’t think that will happen. The Eagles will continue to get Smith reps as a punt returner during practice so they keep the option open, but it just doesn’t make sense to put him in harm’s way. He’s still one of their top offensive weapons and it wouldn’t be worth it to expose him this much. Could they use him in certain situations? Duration. But as far as being the all-the-time punt returner, I really doubt the Eagles would do that.

As much as I agree with you that the Eagles need an upgrade, we’ll have to see who’s on the roster. Sure, UDFA Britain Covey was a dynamic returner in college but he’s not a sure thing to make the roster, neither is running back Jason Huntley, who has some kick return ability. Depending on their offensive usage, Gainwell or Quez Watkins could be options for kick returns. Punts are a little tougher.

As much as you won’t want to hear it, I think Jalen Reagor will be in contention to return kicks and punts this year. As disappointing as his play on offense was in 2021 it was easy to overlook his struggles on special teams. He showed some real promise as a punt returner as a rookie in 2020, taking one of his four returns to the house. But in 2021, his punt return average of 7.3 yards ranked 24th in the NFL among qualified players and his kick return average of 21.3 also ranked 24th. That’s not good enough.

My best guess: Fletcher Cox, Javon Hargrave, Josh Sweat, Brandon Graham, Haason Reddick, Kyzir White, Nakobe Dean.

This group works both in a 4-3 and a 3-4 alignment because Sweat would have the ability to play outside linebacker or defensive end and Graham would be undersized but could be a DE in a 3-4. The top backups on the defensive line would be Jordan Davis and Derek Barnett, who will both still play an awful lot in 2022.

The toughest position to figure out was the middle linebacker spot. I have Dean in that role but this is really a projection. TJ Edwards could very well keep his starting spot. Dean is learning both the WILL and the MIKE positions but I think his ability as a middle linebacker from Georgia would translate even as a rookie. That’s a really high bar at an extremely important position on defense. But if anyone is ready for it, it would be Dean. Obviously, there are injury concerns to keep an eye one, but if Dean is healthy, I’m not keeping him off the field. That would be a tough blow for Edwards, who earned his spot last year and is a really solid player with tremendous instincts. Even if Edwards isn’t a starter, he’d still be involved on certain packages.

Feels like a steak night. Just put it outside for a few minutes in this heat and it’ll start to sizzle.

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