Free agency hasn’t even opened yet and already the offseason moves are heating up. On Tuesday, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that the Eagles would be trading RB LeSean McCoy to the Bills for LB Kiko Alonso. McCoy is 26 years old and just one year removed from leading the league in rushing yardage (1,607) in Chip Kelly’s first season. Alonso is 24, and ranked third in the league in combined tackles (159) his rookie season. Last season, however, he sat out after an offseason ACL tear put him on the non-football injury list.
The knee-jerk reaction from fans is largely shock and awe that the Eagles would trade away a highly productive offensive weapon in McCoy for an inside linebacker. With the league being all about passing these days, ILBs don’t carry the value they once did, as edge rushers and cornerbacks are now the premier defensive positions. So aside from Chip Kelly (who now has final say on all personnel decisions for the Eagles) wanting to put his stamp on the team, what’s going on here?
Why This Makes Sense for the Bills
Let’s start with the easy one first. The Bills have been making do with C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson for years. Spiller has talent, no doubt, but his injuries and frequent unwillingness to attack the line of scrimmage make him more of a change-of-pace back than a featured guy. Jackson has somehow kept Father Time at bay for the past several seasons, but he had his lowest yards per carry average last season (3.7) after doing no worse than 4.2 in 6 out of his remaining 7 seasons in the league.
Not only did the Bills have a need, but they also lacked a great way to address it. Sure there are some potentially available stars like free agent DeMarco Murray or the still-under-contract Adrian Peterson, but the Bills don’t have much of a sales pitch to offer potential free agents (“Oh, your coach left after the first winning season in the past ten years? Sign me up!”). And since the Bills lack a first-round pick this year (traded to Cleveland to move up and select Sammy Watkins in last year’s draft), players like Melvin Gordon or Todd Gurley weren’t options either.
The Bills featured a strong defense last year without Alonso, so the sentiment is likely that they can afford to flip an asset like a Pro Bowl-caliber defender for more offensive firepower. In LeSean McCoy and Sammy Watkins, they now have a pair of talented offensive players to balance out their strength on the other side of the ball. They’ll still struggle in the AFC East without an NFL-caliber quarterback, but the trade undoubtedly makes them better.
Why This Makes Sense for the Eagles
LeSean McCoy is 26, but he also has 1,761 career touches. If we average his past two seasons, he can expect about another 350 touches this year. That’d put him at just over 2,100 career touches. There is evidence that running backs experience a sharp decline after reaching 2,250 career touches, meaning that by the time he turns 28, McCoy’s best years could already be behind him. It’s for this very reason that the running back by committee approach has become popular and the position overall has become devalued (DeMarco Murray just led the league in rushing yet didn’t draw the franchise tag from the Cowboys).
Furthermore, McCoy has a cap figure of nearly $12M next season, almost all of which comes off the books thanks to his trade. He’s replaced by Alonso, who is still on his rookie deal, making his cap number under $1.5M each of the next two seasons. Combined with the release of Trent Cole and Cary Williams, the Eagles now have a lot of cap space to navigate the free agent market.
Still, if Kelly believed that McCoy was really a transcendent star that made his offense click, this trade wouldn’t have happened. But the creator of the “Blur” offense believes any running back could succeed in his system (a la Mike Shanahan with the Broncos), so why spend big money at a position where the next man up could fill in nicely? Even more so than the release of DeSean Jackson last year, this move will either prove Kelly’s offensive genius or be a sign of his hubris for years to come.
The final consideration is that the worst-kept secret in the league is that the Eagles want to go after Marcus Mariota in the draft. Mariota has talent, and he has experience in Chip Kelly’s system. But most talent evaluators also believe he needs some time to develop his game in an NFL context (citing Jameis Winston as the more NFL-ready prospect), so if Philadelphia wants to get Mariota, they need to shift their focus to success in the future, not in 2015. As previously mentioned, a guy like McCoy may not even be that great by that point, so the Eagles are simply cashing out on him while they’re ahead.
In short, both Bills and Eagles fans have reason to be happy about this deal. The only folks who ought to be upset are the ones who are holding McCoy in dynasty fantasy leagues (oops!).