AFC Championship Caponomics Notes

I started writing these on Friday night to start preparing for the offseason and I thought you guys would enjoy some of the comparisons. Coming within the next day or two will be the NFC Championship team notes and then further explanations of the data will be coming moving forward. Let me know if you have any questions and I’ll address them in the next podcast. I’ll also be discussing the four teams in a podcast this week using all these notes, so stay tuned for that as I’ll be able to explain this further.


On a personal note, I need to learn more about the offensive line and offensive line play. The Patriots for example have been winning with an abnormally low cap charge on their past championship lines, which is a testament to talent identification, coaching, and more.

Here are some of the important stats for the 21 cap era champions that I posted before the playoffs started.

As always, e-mail me at Caponomics@gmail.com as well if you have any questions or want to join the e-mail list for Caponomics, which is in the process of being edited now.

Offensive Positional Spending

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Defensive Positional Spending

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Denver Broncos Top 30

2015 Broncos Top 30

New England Patriots Top 30

2015 Patriots Top 30

Denver Broncos

  • Team that it most reminds me of from a salary cap perspective: 1994 49ers
    • It all starts at the top with the Top 2 as the 49ers had a QB/WR Top 2 like the Broncos do. Also, if the Broncos were to win, they would almost supplant the 49ers as the highest Top 2 in Super Bowl history as the Broncos are at 21.43% and the 49ers were at 21.64%.
    • Steve Young would continue his reign as the highest cap charge in Super Bowl history at 13.08% as Manning is at 12.21%.
    • Jerry Rice’s 8.56% WR record would be supplanted by Demaryius Thomas at 9.21% and, while I don’t approve of a WR taking up that much of the salary cap, he’s one of the only few players in the NFL who’s value to his team could be near the value that Rice provided for the 49ers.
    • As I always mention with this 1994 49ers team, their cap figures should be taken with a grain of salt as they re-signed 17 veterans in December 1993 to avoid the salary cap.
  • If the Broncos win, their Top 10 of 62.33% will surpass the 2013 Seahawks as the highest Top 10 for a champion (61.31%).
    • Both teams have succeeded with these huge figures through strong scouting that got incredible value out of low-cost players on their rookie deals, especially on defense.
    • Malik Jackson, Derek Wolfe, and Vance Walker combine for 3.31% of the cap, but were PFF’s 9th, 10th and 18th ranked 3-4 DEs. They combined for 13 sacks.
    • Brandon Marshall (0.41%) and Danny Trevethan (1.09%) were the fifth and sixth best ILBs in the NFL according to PFF this year.
    • Von Miller (6.81%), DeMarcus Ware (6.05%), TJ Ward (5.24%), Aqib Talib (4.86%), and Chris Harris (2.09%) are five solid higher cost players who give them players who rush the passer and cover the pass extremely well, which is an obviously important task in the NFL. Like I’ve said on the podcast, the objective is to shrink the amount of time that a quarterback has to make a decision and, if you’re going to spend money on veterans, spending it well at these positions is important. In a way, the Broncos learned from the 2013 Seahawks that so soundly beat them in the Super Bowl.
  • It can’t be forgotten that this team is constructed by Gary Kubiak and John Elway, the offensive coordinator and quarterback of those 1997/1998 Broncos, so they’ve constructed this team in the image of that team as they surrounded a Hall of Fame quarterback finishing his career with a run game and defense that don’t force him to have to win with his arm.
  • Offensively, with Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders and Owen Daniels (15.21%) , they have passing triplets similar to what they had with Rod Smith, Ed McCaffrey and Shannon Sharpe (9.41% in 1998). Two terrific receivers and a tight end who attacks the middle of the field.
  • Ryan Clady will likely no longer be with the Broncos next season as he’ll cost about 6.56% of a projected $154 million 2016 salary cap, which I’ll use for these 2016 projections, and will cost $1.2 million in dead money if he’s cut. This year though, his 7.40% cap hit, while he’s on the IR, almost surpasses Russell Okung’s 2013 charge of 7.76%, which is a Super Bowl record for an offensive lineman.
  • With only 1.48% of the cap going to their running back group with CJ Anderson and Ronnie Hillman in it, they did a solid job of creating a nice low-cost backfield that can help create a balanced West Coast attack that doesn’t leave Peyton having to throw for 300 yards a game to win. While they didn’t have a huge season statistically combining for 1583 yards rushing on 359 carries (4.4 ypc) and 12 touchdowns, plus 49 catches for 294 yards (6.0 ypc), with Manning back healthy, they’ll have a two-headed backfield to attempt to give them what Terrell Davis gave the 1997/1998 Broncos.

New England Patriots

  • The 2015 Patriots are most similar to the 2014 Patriots in terms of their cap construction for a champ. That’s not surprising.
  • Brady’s cap hit of 9.77% is extremely valuable as it’s very manageable for a player of his caliber. As I’ve written about before in the Manning/Brady article, his relatively low salary cap hits for someone of his abilities have always allowed the Patriots to construct a complete team around him.
  • The Patriots Top 10 of 44.93% of the cap is a testament to Brady’s cap hit, plus having Gronkowski as the focal point of their passing game at 6.04% helps them have a lower cost passing game as well considering that the receiver market is higher than the tight end market, especially when Gronkowski and Calvin Johnson signed their deals in the 2012 offseason. Even Mike Wallace earned more money per year than Gronk as he signed a five-year deal worth $60 million, while Gronk signed a six-year extension worth $54 million. The market has started to correct itself, but even this last offseason, Jeremy Maclin’s $11 million per year was higher than where the current TE market is as Julius Thomas signed a deal worth $9.2 million per year, while Jimmy Graham signed a four-year deal worth $10 million. Nothing against Maclin, who’s an incredibly valuable piece of the Chiefs offense, but he wasn’t in the conversation for the best receiver in the league as these three have been at the TE position, but maybe he should be. Maclin’s teammate, Travis Kelce will likely set the TE market when the Chiefs sign him to an extension this offseason or a new contract when his rookie deal ends after 2016. With AJ Green at $15 million, Julio Jones at $14.25 million and Demaryius Thomas, plus Dez Bryant both at $14 million per year contracts they signed in 2015, the TE market is clearly very, very far behind.

Gronkowski vs Johnson Comparison

  • Continuing on the WR vs. TE based passing game point from the bullet above, there’s an interesting direct comparison between the Broncos and Patriots. While I completely understand and appreciate the Broncos having a passing game that centers around Thomas, Sanders and Daniels because of their similar success using Rod Smith, Ed McCaffrey and Shannon Sharpe in 1997/1998, their cost of 15.21% is more than what the Patriots paid Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, Brandon Lafell and Danny Amendola at 13.91%. As always with Belichick, he finds incredible value in his own ways, always bucking trends. I’ve explained on the podcast how Belichick knew there would be less costs at TE and the Edelman/Amendola short receiver prototype has been undervalued forever now. As I’ve mentioned on the podcast, the two of these guys give the Patriots quick, shifty receivers like Welker who can move the chains. Belichick’s been using shorter receivers like Deion Branch since the early-2000s championships. Lafell gave them a nice wide receiver in the prototypical #1 image at 6’2”, 208-pounds, but at a very low-cost and a solid blocker.
  • Jabaal Sheard may represent the most Patriots move of this season as his two-year, $11 million contract is the typical, lost-cost veteran signing for a player who fits an exact role that the Patriots envision for him. (Funny coincidence, my buddy from college, Matt Sheard, was in the running with Jabaal for Pitt’s final scholarship the year they were recruited. As Matt would say, they picked the right Sheard.) Sheard had 8 sacks this season and was Pro Football Focus’ fourth rated 4-3 DE and only cost 2.79%.
  • The Patriots and Ravens both did something similar this offseason as the Ravens traded the high priced Haloti Ngata and have Brandon Williams replace him. Vince Wilfork was going to cost the Patriots 6.23% of the salary cap this year, but they released him and he went to Houston. Instead, the Patriots have two young first rounders in Dominique Easley and Malcom Brown and considering that the Patriots drafted them at the end of the first round, they’re both very, very valuable defensive tackles on nice, manageable contracts for DTs. I’m willing to bet that the Patriots have discovered an advantage in defensive tackle scouting that they can exploit and find these talents at a valuable position in the right spending area. Alan Branch was a similar low-cost, 30-plus year old defensive tackle much like Bobby Hamilton, Anthony Pleasant, Ted Washington and Keith Traylor were for the early-2000s teams. Akiem Hicks was acquired from the Saints in the middle of the season for TE Michael Hoomanawanui and he was the 15th best DT in the NFL according to PFF this year. The Patriots are using the formula from the earlier years as they’ve always known defensive tackle is a place where you can get high-value performance out of cheaper talent that’s on the young and old end of the spectrum.
  • The Patriots spent 11.37% of the cap on their DL and got 49 sacks, which was second most in the NFL. The average Super Bowl champ 4-3 DL costs 19.21% of the cap. As always, Belichick finds value. My feeling is that the Patriots have identified the attributes in defensive linemen that allow them to hit on these draft picks often.
  • Cornerback is an interesting spot for the Patriots this year as, since the cornerback market has gone through the roof, they let Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, their Super Bowl cornerbacks from 2014, and replaced them with a group that costs a mere 3.20% of the cap. Similarly, the Panthers have only 3.53% of the cap invested in their cornerbacks. Even further, the 2013 Seahawks only spent 3.70% of the salary cap on their cornerbacks.
    • As I often say to myself, this raises a ton of questions and that’s probably a good thing for research’s sake in terms of the things we can learn from finding out the answers to these questions. How do teams find this low-cost talent? Are there players that are being overlooked? Is there a certain size of a player that’s being undervalued?
    • Something that I noticed is Logan Ryan is PFF’s 12th ranked cornerback and Malcolm Butler is ranked 17th, they’re both 5’11”, 190-pounds. In my studies this last year, plus the influence of my newfound UFC fandom, I’ve noticed the concept of different size athletes and the different skills that come with it. Right in this 5’10” to 6’ range are the kinds of receivers who can run any route like Julian Edelman or Antonio Brown with their speed and quickness combination. Maybe Belichick, and the rest of the league, is seeing a certain skill set in this kind of athlete, this size athlete. To this point, there aren’t many guys who are 6’3” who can move like Edelman or Brown do, just like those guys can’t high point a ball like someone that size can.
  • With the decreased spending at cornerback, they instead spent that money on their safeties with 8.03% going to a group that had three of PFF’s top 19 ranked safeties with Patrick Chung (6th), Devin McCourty (16th), and Duron Harmon (19th). It’s interesting to see the difference in cap hits between McCourty and the older Revis, whom the Patriots decided not to keep on after 2014. They were both at the pinnacle of their position when they hit free agency last year with Revis being a bit older, so it’s an important difference:

McCourty vs Revis Cap Comparison

  • Stephen Gostowski is the Patriots 10th cap hit at 2.51% in 2015, which is right in line with what the Patriots have been doing since the days of Adam Vinatieri as their four Super Bowl kickers are the four highest paid (by percentage of cap hit) kickers for the 21 Super Bowl champions. In 2014, Gostowski cost 2.86% and Vinatieri’s highest cap charge was 3.09% in 2003. In the coming years, with the 33-yard extra points, the cost of kickers will certainly be increasing. In my opinion, kicker is due for an increase regardless as the objective is to score more points than the other guy and the Patriots have consistently had a “3-point shooter” who can be relied upon from 50-yards out. That’s very, very valuable in the playoffs.
  • McGeorge

    Zack,
    Interesting and broad analysis.
    Belichick does seem good at finding players and fitting them in spots where they can do well.

  • Werner

    Zack, nicely done indeed. BB even more seems to understand whom to offload timely. Logan Mankins last year, Browner and Revis this year, saddling a division rival with a fat charge, that may prevent the resigning of Wilkerson and have them stuck with a failed pick and journey man at QB. Earlier maxing out Matt Cassell to 10 wins (0.670!) and unloading him to unsuspecting Chiefs….

    • McGeorge

      BB didn’t saddle the Jets with Revis, that was entirely the Jets own doing.
      The Jets spent a lot on other free agents too, and I think they made a mistake.
      And how did BB affect the Jets QB situation?
      The Jets did it all to themselves, it wasn’t BB.

      • Werner

        McGeorge, you passed the test with flying colors for not jumping on the next Patriots / Belichick conspiracy theory. But it was pretty evident, Jets would jump on Revis once his option was not picked up by Patriots. Have fun !

        • McGeorge

          The Revis contract with the Pats was 12MM followed by 20MM. It was never going to be picked up, it was a 1 year deal. I doubt BB cared where he went afterwards.

          Was it pretty evident the Jets would jump on him after he left? I’m not so sure, and certainly not while Idzik was the GM.
          I do wonder if behind the scenes the Jets owner (Woody Johnson) pushed the new GM to get Revis back.

    • Thanks buddy. There are so many different things to learn from the Patriots, they’ve been a lot of fun to study. One of the biggest objectives that I think a team should have is to win within their division and the Patriots have been the pace-setters in their division. On some level, everyone else seems to almost have to react to Belichick.