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Will Washington use the Eagles' desperate salary cap situation to get TE Zach Ertz on the WFT roster this week?

Washington Football Report

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Zach Ertz did not attend the voluntary workouts for the Eagles last week and is expected to miss the remainder of the offseason program until his situation is resolved. The Eagles tight end wants a fresh start elsewhere, whether he's traded by the team or released.  A year ago, contract extension negotiations broke down between Ertz and the Eagles and the veteran tight end seemed to admit that his days with the franchise that drafted him were over at his end-of-season press conference in January. The Eagles previously had sought a third- or fourth-round pick for Ertz prior to the 2021 draft, but were unable to move him. At this point, that sort of compensation seems totally unrealistic.

Meanwhile, the Eagles have been unable to sign their rookie draft picks due to a lack of salary cap space. This week is key as the Eagles need to resolve the situation with Ertz and get their rookies under contract as soon as possible.

Post-June 1st transactions

I think most fans know how the June 1st deadline works in the NFL. If a player is cut or traded, any pro-rated signing bonus that has not already been charged to the salary cap for that player accelerates into the year when the termination or trade takes place.

If a termination or trade happens on or before June 1st, then all the dead cap accelerates into the current cap year for cap purposes.

On the other hand, if the termination or trade occurs on June 2nd or later, then the trade is deemed to have occurred in the following league year. The effect is to split the dead cap into two chunks, with part of the hit taken this year and the balance absorbed in next year’s cap.

It can get a bit tricky to explain or understand, and usually requires an example or two, but even people who aren’t intimate with the exact accounting usually understand the general principle. The team gets charged the same amount of dead cap money either way, but in a Post-June 1st transaction, it is split between two seasons, making it a bit easier for the team to handle the dead cap this year, which is sometimes all that matters to a front office.

Julio Jones and the Atlanta Falcons

Talk about a Julio Jones trade has heated up this week because the Falcons, who currently have an estimated $337,000 in cap space, literally can’t afford to trade him before June 2nd. With acceleration rules, if they trade him before Wednesday, the Falcons will take a $23.25m cap hit this season, and will actually reduce their available cap space by $200,000, pushing them very close to zero cap space.

On Wednesday, however, the math changes entirely for the Falcons under the Post-June 1st rule. Trade him on Wednesday, and the cap hit gets broken into two parts — an immediate $7.75m dead cap hit with net cap savings in 2021, and then $15.5m charged to the 2022 cap. It’s the same amount of money as a Tuesday trade, but it makes all the difference in terms of allowing the Falcons to do business this season.

If the Falcons trade Julio on Wednesday, 2 June, then they will save $15.3m in cap space that they badly need for this season (assuming that they don’t ‘eat’ part of his salary to facilitate the trade).

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Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Because Julio has over $17m in guaranteed money remaining on his contract, the Falcons can ONLY save money via trade, where Julio’s new team takes on responsibility for that $17m. If the Falcons were to cut him — even as a Post June 1st transaction — it would cost the team more than just keeping him on the roster.

The Falcons have no choice; they have to trade Julio Jones, and they need to do it as soon as possible.

Philadelphia

You know who else has a difficult cap situation and an expensive, unhappy player? The Philadelphia Eagles, that’s who.

Philly’s situation is a bit different from Atlanta’s because Ertz has no guaranteed money left on his contract. Cutting him and trading him have exactly the same salary cap effect. So, while Atlanta is desperate to trade Julio Jones, the Eagles have the option to cut Ertz or trade him -- they would simply prefer to get something for Zach Ertz instead of nothing for Zach Ertz. In other words, he could get traded this week, but if there is no trade market for him, the Eagles can simply cut him and be done with it.

You might wonder what the hurry is to get rid of the tight end. Why wouldn’t Howie Roseman bring Ertz to training camp for example?

No cap space to sign their draft class

Well, the problem is that the Eagles have an estimated $3.7m in cap space, but, like the Falcons, they haven’t signed their rookie draft class yet. Their first-round pick, Davonta Smith, will have an estimated 2021 cap hit of around $3.66m; the second rounder, Landon Dickerson, will have a hit of around $1.57m. Milton Williams, drafted in the 3rd round, will take up roughly $929K in cap space as a rookie.

Those three draft picks will tally about $6.16m in salary cap for 2021. With the rule of 51 in force, there will be an offset of about $2.55 million for three players who get pushed out of the top-51 player’s salaries, but that still means a net cost to the Eagles of $3.6 million just to sign the top three players from their draft. (As an aside, this might be a partial explanation for the Eagles trading down from #6 — it saved them roughly $1.3m in cap space. They effectively sold some draft capital in return for cap space.)

In short, then, the Eagles have to clear cap space now so they can sign their 2021 draft class as soon as possible — they can’t be waiting around any longer than necessary to make that happen. The most probable way forward is for Philly to move on from Ertz on Wednesday or soon after, a move that will free up $8.5m in cap space for the Eagles.

Ertz will no longer be an Eagle by the weekend

One way or another, it looks like Zach Ertz will be on the move this week — probably no later than Friday.

Any team that trades for him will have to be ready to take on the $8.5m cap hit that he is schedule to earn in 2021, which is the final year of his deal, unless Ertz agrees to a restructure/extension/reduction in salary. The Eagles have no incentive to subsidize the deal to get the trade done; as mentioned, they save the full $8.5m if they cut him. Subsidizing any part of Ertz’s salary would, in effect, simply be buying a draft pick.

At this point, any return at all that the Eagles get for Ertz would be in the “better than nothing” category, and any team that trades for Ertz would do so only to guarantee that they’d be able to secure his services and not have to compete for him as a free agent after the Eagles cut him. Ertz might be happier to take his chances on the free agent market where he can get the best deal possible, and isn’t likely, in my opinion, to take a pay cut to facilitate a trade. Why would he, when he could wait for the Eagles to cut him, then negotiate with multiple teams for his services?

For all these reasons, I suspect that any team that trades for Ertz would do it by sending a 7th rounder to the Eagles, acquiring the tight end, and then trying to work out an extension with the 31-year-old, but the more likely route is that Ertz gets cut and becomes a free agent this week, able to sign with any team he likes.

Ertz, his agent and the Eagles have all known this for a long time; chances are that a deal is already in the works or will be very quickly.

Does Zach Ertz actually have anything left?

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https://www.pro-football-reference.com/players/E/ErtzZa00.htm

Prior to last season, Ertz was the model of consistent production. He had 5 consecutive years with at least 74 catches and 800 yards. He combined for over 200 receptions, 2,000 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2018 & 2019 alone.

Ertz was clearly unhappy in Philadelphia prior to last season (who wouldn’t be?), and then the Philly offense collapsed as Carson Wentz melted down in 2020. Ertz missed 5 weeks in the middle of the season with an ankle injury, and his production fell off a cliff. It’s hard to say whether that was because something suddenly went wrong with Ertz, or if it was a function of the broad dysfunction that gripped the Philadelphia team last season.

Should Washington pursue Zach Ertz?

Looking at Washington’s depth chart, the Football Team looks underpowered at the tight end position. If Zach Ertz is actually still the player he was in 2019, and not the zombie he turned into in 2020, he could be a great short term (1-2 seasons) addition to the Washington roster while one or two of the younger tight ends develop. With Ertz and Logan Thomas, Washington would have a formidable pair of starting tight ends.

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Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Trading for Ertz would probably mean sending a 2022 7th round pick to Philly and paying Ertz $8.5m in 2021, assuming Howie Roseman would even be willing to send him to a division rival. Washington has an estimated $17.2m in available cap space, so the price tag is not beyond the team’s means. Trading for Ertz at this point would have the effect of swapping out Morgan Moses’ $8.65m cap hit for that of Zach Ertz.

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Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Signing Ertz as a free agent would require that Philly cut him due to the lack of trade interest, and then Ertz would, of course, have to be willing to sign with Washington, either because it was the best contract he could get, or because he perceived it as his best opportunity for playing time or championship potential. Taking this route instead of a trade would clearly preserve a draft pick and would probably be cheaper (Ertz would likely sign a contract for significantly less than $8.5m), but there’d be no certainty about getting Ertz on the roster. Washington would have to “recruit” Ertz to join the team, though the number of other suitors is likely to be limited. Most teams have a full TE room and very few have the cap space at this point to pursue a free agent like Zach Ertz.

Bottom line

The Washington Football Team has taken an aggressive approach to roster building this season. Ron Rivera said at his introductory press conference that he is chasing super bowls.

The roster still looks thin at tight end. Following the release of Morgan Moses, the team has $8.5m in cap space and an available roster spot.

I don't think a trade is the likeliest scenario for Zach Ertz; there's just not enough incentive for the Eagles to compromise, Ertz to accept a pay cut or the acquiring team to part with a draft pick given the contract structure.

I do think that Zach Ertz will become a free agent this week, on Wednesday or soon after, and -- while it's not close to a certainty and there have been no public rumors to this effect -- I wouldn't be shocked to see him sign with the Washington Football Team.

Whatever happens with Zach Ertz, it will be an interesting week for some high-priced veteran players and several teams after the important June 1st deadline passes.

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