Cap vs. chemistry: Eagles are flexible

PHILADELPHIA -- They are the Eagles Chip Kelly is talking about, the veteran leaders who embraced the transition from one coach they respected to a new coach they wanted to believe in.

“I think the makeup of the group of people we had here,” Kelly said, “it didn't go unnoticed to us as coaches that it was a bunch of guys that really wanted to be coached and that really wanted to be better and were very receptive to everything that we were doing as a staff.”

That was toughest for veterans like Trent Cole, who would have to move from defensive end to outside linebacker, and Brent Celek, who watched Kelly bring in tight ends James Casey and Zach Ertz in free agency and the draft.

When players like Cole and Celek buy in, there’s a ripple effect.

“Everything coaches ask of you, I feel like you should do,” Celek said. “They pay you a lot of money around here. Anything they want me to do, I’ll do. I think they appreciate that.”

Celek brought up the issue that complicates these things: money. While Cole, Celek, guard Todd Herremans and wide receiver Jason Avant were all instrumental in the locker room and on the field in Kelly’s first year, all are older players making “a lot of money.”

Most years, that might make them targets for pay cuts or even outright release as a team looks to get younger and more cap-flexible. But there is a case to be made for Kelly and general manager Howie Roseman to hang on to these key elements in the team’s chemistry. Kelly cited that chemistry as the thing that most excited him about the team’s future.

“I think how our staff and our players interact and how receptive these guys are,” Kelly said. “The only thing that's disappointing is we're still not playing right now, because it's an exciting group to be around. There's an energy around this group of guys, and that's hopefully in year one -- if this is what we can do, we can learn to build upon this.”

There is always change, and contracts are always part of that equation. The bottom line is that Celek’s $4 million salary for 2014 seems higher when Ertz figures to get more playing time for his $650,000 -- and so on across the board with Cole ($3.75 million), Herremans ($3 million) and Avant ($2 million).

But here’s the twist: Most teams pay a huge percentage of their salary cap to their starting quarterback. Michael Vick took up more than 10 percent of the Eagles’ 2013 cap. Guys like Peyton Manning and Drew Brees consume closer to 15 percent of their teams’ cap money.

Nick Foles and Matt Barkley combined will take up a little over 1 percent of the 2014 salary cap. Even if the Eagles bring back Vick or another veteran backup, they will be getting a huge bargain at the quarterback position.

That won’t last forever. And it doesn’t mean the Eagles can or should throw money around indiscriminately. But it does mean there is no urgency to shave a few dollars here and there.

Take Avant, for example. He caught 38 passes for 447 yards. Considering the need to pay DeSean Jackson and imminent free agents Riley Cooper and Jeremy Maclin (or their replacements), that’s not enough production. But Avant’s run blocking and overall performance add value that’s harder to quantify.

“I think the job Jason Avant did down the stretch (was) real underrated,” Kelly said. “I don't think people understand how important Jason was to what we were doing, not only in the passing game but what we were doing in the running game.”

Kelly said similar things about Celek, who “found the joy,” in his words, in run blocking and pass protecting. Cole may be more comfortable as an end somewhere, but he had eight sacks in the second half of the season here. Herremans was an integral part of a very good offensive line.

They may not all be back. Some may be back at a lower salary. But if it was important for the veterans to show they were invested in Kelly’s plan, it’s just as important for the Eagles to show they are invested in their players.