The Bursting Wide Receiver Market Bubble

Brian Blewis just had a good article discussing the four Pro Bowl wide receivers who are entering the final year of their rookie contracts: A.J. Green, Julio Jones, Alshon Jeffery and T.Y. Hilton. This offseason, four other Pro Bowl receivers received new deals, Dez Bryant and Demaryius Thomas were franchised, Randall Cobb resigned with Green Bay on a four-year, $40 million deal, and Jeremy Maclin signed a five-year, $55 million contract with the Chiefs.

What I think we’ll see in the coming years is that the wide receiver contracts of the 2012 and 2013 offseason were where and when the market reached it’s peak before falling down to it’s true value.

This is best illustrated in the contracts of Calvin Johnson, Mike Wallace, Vincent Jackson, and Larry Fitzgerald. Excluding the franchise tag contracts of Bryant and Thomas, even with Fitzgerald’s restructure, they are the four highest contracts by average salary per year in the wide receiver market. Of course, the franchise tag contracts are up there because of these top of the market contracts. Andre Johnson’s was up there too before he was released by the Texans and resigned with the Colts.

On an average per year basis, Calvin Johnson’s contract is worth $16,207,143, Mike Wallace’s is $12 million, Vincent Jackson is $11,111,111 and Larry Fitzgerald’s is $11 million.

During this 2015 offseason, the three highest contracts were signed by Jeremy Maclin (five-year, $55 million), Randall Cobb (four-years, $40 million) and Torrey Smith (five-years, $40 million). These contracts are worth $11, $10 and $8 million a year. While none of these players are Calvin Johnson, I don’t think that Wallace and Jackson were ever seriously in the conversation for best receiver in the NFL either, they were both great receivers like Maclin, Cobb and Smith, but never worth their massive deals.

The year before Wallace signed his big deal with the Dolphins, he had 64 catches for 836 yards (13.1 ypc) and eight touchdowns in 15 games. Jackson had 60 catches for 1106 yards (18.4 ypc) and nine touchdowns. While Larry Fitzgerald was a great player, no one was worth the eight-year deal worth as much as $120 million that he received. In 2012, the first year of his new deal, he made $14.5 million, which was 12.05% of the $120.375 million salary cap that year.

Part of the reason why I think we’ve seen uncertainty with the Cowboys and Broncos in resigning two of the best receivers in the NFL, other than Bryant’s off the field issues, is that the receiver market has become very cloudy.
When I was in Indianapolis, I got the chance to see former Bucs GM Mark Dominik speak and be in a small group that spoke with him during a lunchtime break-out session. Someone asked Mr. Dominik something along the lines of what the easiest position to find and replace talent at is and Mr. Dominik said that position was wide receiver, to which I agreed.

There are a few reasons for this, first being that wide receiver is the position most reliant on another player, the quarterback. The wide receiver isn’t just reliant on the quarterback though, he’s also reliant on having an offensive line that protects the quarterback and gives him time to throw.

Another reason is that to succeed, a wide receiver has to be in a system that gives him a chance to succeed. The next reason is that every year it seems there is one deep wide receiver draft class after another coming into the league, this means that there is cheaper talent entering the market. Wide receiver is also a position where young players can make a real difference, which increases the value you receive from young players.

Last, it’s a position where players can contribute well into their thirties, Andre Johnson, Anquan Boldin, and Reggie Wayne have been some of the best receivers in the NFL the last couple years with Wayne having 1355 yards receiving two years ago at 34 years old.

These reasons are all factors that can go into decreasing the value of the top wide receivers.

I can’t determine for sure if the decrease in the value of the top receivers the last couple years has been because the other deals were so out-of-touch with the market or that it’s a genuine decrease in the top of the market, but I do think that the wide receiver market will decrease moving forward on a percentage of the cap basis. I must stress, while Maclin’s $11 million a year contract is only $111,111 less than Vincent Jackson’s per year, Jackson’s was signed going into 2012 when the salary cap was $22.905 million less than it is in 2015. That’s a huge key to this whole discussion as these contracts were agreed to when the salary cap was in a much different place and wasn’t growing at a pace of plus $10 million a year. A $10 million per year contract in 2012 took up much more of the cap and the projected salary caps in the coming seasons than a $10 million per year contract in 2015.

Jordy Nelson signed an extension heading into last season for four-years worth $39.05 million, currently, he’s the 10th highest average per year contract in our table on Over The Cap at $9,762,500, just slightly behind the deal that Randall Cobb just signed.

In 2014, Nelson had a career year with 98 catches for 1519 yards (15.5 ypc) and 13 touchdowns. If he hit the open market, who knows what kind of money he could have commanded, but as with Randall Cobb, the Packers were able to come to an agreement that kept both sides happy, paid them what they’re worth and gave their team more of a chance at long-term success due to having the best receiving duo in the NFL at a reasonable cap hit.

Together, in 2015, they will take up 6.94% of the salary cap. If the cap moves up to $153 million in 2016, they will take up 11.73%. As you’ll see with most of the bigger contracts, the year one cap hit is lower due to the signing bonus the player just received.

So, even in year two when their cap hits bump up, they’re going to take up less of the cap together than what Andre Johnson took up in 2014 with the Texans, 11.76%. In 2015, Calvin Johnson will take up 14.35% of the cap, which is 168% of what Jerry Rice made in 1994 with the Super Bowl champion 49ers, 8.56%. Vincent Jackson aka Not Jerry Rice will take up 8.52% of the cap, while Mike Wallace will take up 6.91% with the Vikings after taking up an absolutely absurd 12.97% in Miami last year.

I always bring up these Super Bowl winners and the highest paid per position because I think with 21 Super Bowl champions in this salary cap era, it’s a large enough sample size to see patterns and understand what a team needs to spend their money on to win a Super Bowl. So if Jerry Rice, the greatest receiver ever takes up only 8.56% of the cap during the prime of his career, a year his team won the Super Bowl, then how can the Lions justify paying Calvin Johnson so much more? How could the Dolphins ever justify what they did with Mike Wallace?

As I often remind you guys in these articles, this is not an attack on the talents or the players themselves, I think Vincent Jackson is a great player, and he’s a great American for the work he does for our veterans, I love the guy, but as I often say when talking football, business or current events, financials and economics don’t care about our feelings or what we think should happen or what we wish would happen. That’s part of what interests me so much about the cap, it’s a lesson in finances and economics in itself.

What I think we’ll see over the next few years is that this market is beginning to settle back in line with the line of logic that I’m using when discussing Jerry Rice, a team just can’t win paying even the best receivers in the NFL so much more than Rice’s 1994 cap number. Frankly, there are more good receivers in the NFL today and it’s more important to have more than one good receiver with the prevalence of shut down cornerbacks, so I’m not even sure if a 32-year-old Jerry Rice playing today should take up 8.56% of the cap.

During that season, Jerry Rice had 112 catches for 1499 yards (13.4 ypc) and 13 touchdowns, but that team’s second leading receiver was running back, Ricky Watters, with 66 catches for 719 yards (10.9 ypc) and five touchdowns.

Their third leading receiver was TE Brent Jones who had 49 catches for 670 yards (13.7 ypc) and nine touchdowns.

Their second best wide receiver was John Taylor who only had 41 catches for 531 yards (13.0 ypc) and five touchdowns.

Their fifth leading receiver was Nate Singleton, a WR who only had 21 catches for 294 yards (14.0 ypc) and two touchdowns.

In 2014, the Steelers had similarly construction in the passing game, but with Ben Roethlisberger throwing for 1000 more yards. Their top 5 receivers went WR, RB, TE, WR and WR, like the 1994 49ers, but the stats tell a story of how the game has changed.

Brown went off for a career year with 1698 yards and Le’Veon Bell was their second leading receiver with 854 yards, but Heath Miller, Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant followed him with great seasons of their own.

Those three pass catchers combined for 1954 yards, which rounds out a dynamic group of pass-catchers. With Brown taking up only 3.40% of the cap after a 2014 restructure, Miller at 4.61% and young talent on their rookie contracts, the Steelers had a great group. Their receivers took up only 6.60% of the cap last season, which is mind-boggling for how good they were, but a sign of the times with three inexpensive, rookie deal skill players doing big things in their offense.

Roethlisberger and Steve Young were both the highest paid players on their rosters, which helps bolster the passing game of course. The Steelers got a huge pass game boost from young talent, which is part of the game we live in today, young receivers who come from the college game polished, educated and ready to ball out. This is part of what’s decreasing wide receiver costs and with the most heady receivers able to adjust and stay relevant into their thirties, receivers in their prime are getting squeezed on both sides by lower-cost options.

The Ravens traded Boldin after their 2012 championship season because he was deemed too costly for them and he’s been a 1000-yard receiver in San Francisco the last two seasons at the age of 33 and 34, while taking up 4.88% of the cap in 2013 and 1.78% last season.

It’s worth mentioning that the Steelers signed Antonio Brown to a five-year, $41.7 million contract extension in July of 2012, the summer after his first 1000-yard season and the summer before they let Mike Wallace walk in free agency.

What smart organizations do is sign their cornerstones to contracts before they reach a price point that becomes restrictive for the team. Brown’s $8,392,000 per year contract makes him the 14th highest paid on the average per year basis, so they got the best receiver in the NFL last season, a guy who fits their system perfectly and is one of the best punt returners in the league for about the cost of Pierre Garçon’s March 2012 contract.

The Patriots did this with Rob Gronkowski by signing him to a six-year extension worth $54 million back in 2012, which makes the best tight end in the NFL the third highest paid one heading into 2015. The Texans did it with JJ Watt by signing him last offseason rather than let him get into the market that just paid Ndamukong Suh a ridiculous $19,062,500 a year.

That Steelers team shows how important it is to have four or five legitimate receiving threats in today’s NFL and it’s very difficult to accomplish that paying your WR1 more than 7-8% of the salary cap. Not only will it decrease the amount of money you can spend on other receivers, but it’ll push your wide receiver spending too high to build a strong team around it. And you need money to spend elsewhere because without a good quarterback, the wide receiver has no one to throw to him. Without a good offensive line, the quarterback can’t get the ball off to his receivers and without a good running back, the offense doesn’t have the kind of balance that let’s a receiver thrive.

One key point that I think should be made before we finish this up is that only eight of the 32 receivers that were the highest cap charge on their team were the leading receivers on their teams. These were AJ Green, Andrew Hawkins, Dez Bryant, Mike Wallace, Jordy Nelson, Steve Smith, Antonio Brown and Greg Jennings and two of those receiver, Wallace and Jennings were wildly overpaid for 862 and 742 yards respectively.  Only seven number one cap hit receivers had over 1000-yards receiving: AJ Green, Vincent Jackson, Dez Bryant, Calvin Johnson, Jordy Nelson, Steve Smith, and Antonio Brown.

Figure 1: 2014 Top WR Cap Hits

2014 Top WR Cap Hit

The question that this raises for me is if wide receiver is a position where 22 teams (68.75%) have a wide receiver who isn’t their highest paid leading the team in receiving yards, with tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Travis Kelce leading the Patriots and Chiefs, then what are teams doing wrong in terms of judging talent? This includes the four teams who’s highest cap hit at wide receiver is a dead money player who is no longer on the team.

A few other questions that we should think about: are teams doing something wrong in judging wide receiver talent? Judging how a player will fit into his system? Are number one receivers seeing a decrease in their stats due to an increase in shutdown cornerbacks? Is receiver a position that you should build with players on rookie contracts to save cap space? All good questions with many more we could discuss. (As always, feel free to tweet me @ZackMooreNFL to continue the conversation.)

I also want to give you guys another figure:

Figure 2: Top WR Cap Hits for 21 Super Bowl Teams of the Salary Cap Era

Top WR Cap Hit (Super Bowl)

Of those 21 wide receivers, nine of them were the leading receivers on their teams that season: Jerry Rice, Michael Irvin, Isaac Bruce, Keyshawn Johnson, Hines Ward, Marvin Harrison, Hines Ward again, Marques Colston, and Anquan Boldin. As you’ll see, the average cap hit of these teams is 4.44%, which is 1.01% lower than the 5.45% that the 2014 teams spent on their top receivers.

Of the ten Super Bowl receivers who didn’t lead their team in receiving, excluding Donald Driver because 2010 was an uncapped year, they averaged 3.75% of the cap. The nine who led their team in receiver had average cap hit of 5.28%.

Of the nine receivers who were paid above that average of 4.44%, seven of them were the leading receivers on their team, Sidney Rice was injured and Amani Toomer had 760 yards that season. So Super Bowl winners that did spend a decent amount of money on their top receivers invested their money wisely, which I think is very important, wasting 5-6% of the cap on a player who underperforms makes things difficult.

Another important point is that only two receivers of the 21 champions are in their team’s Top 3 cap charges, Jerry and Sidney Rice. To be in the Top 3 cap charges for a team, that means that you typically need to make above 7-8% of the cap, which is a great indicator that you shouldn’t pay a wide receiver over that percentage because only 9.5% of Super Bowl teams have been able to have a receiver in their Top 3.

As with any other position, it’s important to not waste money and I think what’s above is some good information to think about in this discussion.

As more and more great receivers enter the league, teams need more than one good receiver for their offense, and receivers play into their thirties, there will be a larger supply of potential players to choose from, when supply increases, but demand stays the same, the cost of the product decreases. So, because of this, even as the NFL becomes more of a passing league, the cost of receivers will decrease.

As former Bucs GM Mark Dominik said, wide receiver is just to easy a position to replace. As much as it hurts, as a former receiver, it’s the truth. Watch the wide receiver market fall back to reality in the coming years.

A Note on Rutgers’ Legend Eric LeGrand and Joe DeFranco’s Industrial Strength Show

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Eric LeGrand talking with my entrepreneurial mentor and fitness legend, Joe DeFranco.

I want to close this out with something positive, we had the incredible Eric LeGrand on Joe DeFranco’s Indistrial Strength Show yesterday and the podcast will be out Thursday. If you want to subscribe to the podcast, so it’s downloaded straight to your phone or iTunes, you can go here.

More importantly, please go to AWalkToBelieve.org and donate to a great cause. Eric LeGrand is one of the most impressive people I’ve ever met. I’ve compared it like this, a guy like Brian Cushing has a path he can take to the NFL, he works hard, he’s gifted genetically, and he’s become one of the best players in the NFL, there is a protocol, a plan that he a gifted young kid can follow to become the next Brian Cushing.

There was no game plan to become what Eric LeGrand is today. There is no book he could have read, no podcast that he could have listened to, or even a person he could have spoken to and learned how to become the incredible young man that he is today.

If anyone deserves your love and support, it’s Eric LeGrand. So, go to AWalkToBelieve.org/Donate and just give $1. Tweet at @ZackMooreNFL, @EricLeGrand52 and @DeFrancosGym to let us know and spread the word!

And, if you want to get my book…!!!!

 

If you want to purchase The First Annual Caponomics: Understanding NFL Roster Building through Super Bowl Champion Salary Cap Analysis, which has analysis like this in it, please e-mail me at Caponomics@gmail.com, so that I can put you on our e-mail list for people interested in purchasing the book.

 

If you join our e-mail list, I will send you a chapter on the 2014 Lions and then the 2014 Patriots once they are completed. I will probably throw in a bonus chapter on the 2012 Ravens or 2013 Seahawks as those are coming along nicely.

 

I’m currently in the process of getting some legal stuff handled for the book and then I can put the pre-order up on Amazon, otherwise, it would already be up there. Thanks for your support and feel free to send me any questions or ideas to that e-mail address.

Analysis of Roster Building through the AFC/NFC Championship

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I will eventually be including a video blog with this, while this piece is very long, I think there is some interesting information worth looking into. I will be breaking it down in a video blog in the coming weeks, discussing some of the cap details of each of these four teams and what it all means. For now, I hope you enjoy my commentary on the Final Four teams of this year’s NFL playoffs. As always, tweet me @ZackMooreNFL if you want to talk about this! 

Attached below are the salary cap figures for the final four teams as well as the percentage of this year’s $133 million salary cap that each side of the ball and each position take up. I haven’t broken the offensive line, defensive line or linebackers into their positions yet this year, but I think we can gain a pretty good understanding off of this just from looking at the table below.

You can click on this table to enlarge it. If you have a Mac, you can also hold down command and click on it to have it open in another window or tab.

Table 1

(Click on the table to enlarge it.)

Final Four FULL Table

I’ll break this down by just giving you guys some of the notes of what I gathered from the information above and I hope you guys will share some of your thoughts in the comment section.

QB Strategies

These teams are pretty good examples of the two main quarterback strategies of the new CBA. The Packers and the Patriots are a part of the big-money, elite veteran quarterback group, while the Seahawks and Colts have elite quarterbacks on their rookie deals.

Table 2

 

2014 QB Cap Percentages

  • As you can see from the table above, everyone from the Cowboys up have gone all-in on their quarterbacks, giving them big money and believing they can lead them to a championship. The Rams are the outlier here as they drafted Sam Bradford in the last draft before the new rookie contracts and show the excess and insanity of the way things were pre-2011. Paying quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning money before they even practice with your team created an insane value model that needed to be corrected, and it was. I believe that this new system allows teams to more easily compete with a rookie quarterback, which created more parity and allowed the teams to construct a roster with the parts that can help maximize their quarterbacks talent.
  • Low-cost QB model is what helped the Patriots start their dynasty in the early-2000s. Now, I know that Bledsoe signed a 10-year, $103 million contract before the 2001 season, which was the richest contract in NFL history at the time, but upon releasing him, they had Tom Brady at very manageable cap figures. Brady signed a new contract after the February 2002 Super Bowl win and Bledsoe was off the books at the end of the 2002 season. Brady only cost 0.47% of the Patriots salary cap during that 2001 Super Bowl season.

When the Pats won the Super Bowl after the 2003 and 2004 seasons, Brady took up 4.4 and 6.3 percent of their salary cap. To compare to this year, in 2003, the Patriots got Brady for the same relative cost that the Bills got EJ Manuel for this year and in 2004, his relative cost was around what Cam Newton cost the Panthers this year. Brady’s new deal basically put him around what the market value for a young quarterback on his rookie deal should cost, Andrew Luck currently takes up 7.4% of the Colts cap.

  • In 2007, the Patriots got Brady at an unnaturally low cap hit, one that only took up 6.7% of their cap due to him restructuring his deal to allow them to sign Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Donte Stallworth, their three leading receivers during that undefeated campaign. Together, these three cost a relatively cheap $7.48 million, which was 6.9% of the cap that year.
  • I think that the lower cost for rookie quarterbacks has increased the parity in the NFL. It’s definitely made it easier for bad teams to turn things around by choosing the right quarterback. In 2014, year 3 of Andrew Luck’s career, his cap hit is $6 million. In 2012, year 3 of Sam Bradford’s career, his cap hit was $15.6 million. Luck had 1059 more passing yards and 19 more touchdowns, while completing 2.2% more of his passes. What’s more interesting is who both players were throwing the ball to. The millions that teams with young QBs save now compared to pre-CBA allows them to build a team around them, which increases their chance of success.
    • Bradford’s leading receivers were Chris Givens, Danny Amendola, Brandon Gibson, Lance Kendricks and Austin Pettis.
    • Luck’s leading receivers were TY Hilton, Reggie Wayne, Coby Fleener, Donte Moncrief, Hakeem Nicks and Dwayne Allen.

Build Around Your QB 

What I see as a major benefit to the lower costs of rookie quarterbacks is that it allows you to choose a quarterback that fits what you want to do and then construct your roster accordingly. If you’ve picked the right QB for your offense and he performs, you then typically have that player for the rest of his career considering that nine of the 13 teams that spend 10% (9.6%, but who’s counting?) or more of their cap on veteran QBs, drafted that player. This allows you to have stability at the most important position in football and construct your roster well into the future. Of course, teams that spend big money on their quarterbacks also build around their centerpiece as well.

As Jason pointed out in this piece on Super Bowl Titles and High Salary Quarterbacks, the first Super Bowl winning QB of the Salary Cap era was the highest paid in terms of percentage of the cap with Steve Young at 13.1%. So a lot of the high paying quarterbacks of the league are really restricting their team’s cap situation.

What you’re going to see throughout this is the importance of good scouting, the importance of making your draft picks count so that you can get a good ROI on low-round and undrafted players. With the limited amount of salary cap space that the NFL allows, the best teams all have some major difference makers making near the league minimum. That’s how the great teams separate themselves.

Defense…How to Stop The Other Team’s QB 

As many of you have seen through your own research on this site, generally teams are focusing their money on quarterbacks, the people who catch their passes, the people who protect their backside, people who rush the quarterback and people who defend the passes they throw.

Through analyzing the salary cap situations for the Final Four, you’ll see that this REALLY rings true for these four teams. All four teams spend about the league average on defensive backs with all four, except the Seahawks because Sherman’s cap figures increase next year, far exceeding the league average for cornerbacks. The Seahawks and Patriots both have two DBs in their top five cap charges and the Packers and Colts have two DBs in their top six. Everyone has their top CB in their top three cap charges, again, except the Seahawks, but Sherman will be their number one cap charge next season at $12.2 million.

All four teams have invested in their pass rushers as well. With the Seahawks and Patriots running 4-3 schemes, they’ve invested more in the DL and the Packers and Colts running the 3-4, they’ve invested more in their LBs. I combined linemen and linebackers into one category in Table 1 because I wanted to have a figure we could look at in terms of spending for the entire front seven, and differences between the 4-3 and the 3-4.

When you look at the spending for DL/LBs, you see that three of the four teams are right around the same spending figures with the Patriots lagging behind due to their lack of cap space. They Pats have compensated for this by making great draft choices at these positions, which we’ll get into below.

To finish this piece off, below is a team-by-team breakdown with some of my analysis on what each team has done from a salary cap perspective to get to the conference championship. It’s meant to be something to skim over, but please watch the video above for my breakdown of this, it should be much quicker than reading it.

Seattle Seahawks

Offense

  • By finding their franchise QB in the 3rd round, a player who fit perfectly with what they want to do at a low cost, the Seahawks have gone 41-13 (including playoffs) with Wilson over the last three years, while having the lowest QB group cap charge in the NFL at $2.2 million or 1.7% of their salary cap. Wilson passed Dan Marino this season and owns the NFL record for regular-season wins in the first three season of a career.
  • They spend their money on what they do well. Marshawn Lynch has a cap charge of $8 million and they’ve spent $19.74 million on their three best offensive linemen: LT Russell Okung, LG James Carpenter, and C Max Unger. It’s no surprise to me that the only “run-first” team left in the playoffs spends the most on their offensive line. The rest of the offensive line is built “the Seahawks way,” with young cheap players, three of whom came into the NFL as undrafted free agents. Lynch, Okung and Unger are three of the Seahawks top five cap charges.
  • By drafting Robert Turbin and Christine Michael in back to back years, they’ve mitigated the risk that one of them is a bust or gets injured. If Lynch leaves in free agency this year, I would not be surprised if the Seahawks draft a running back early in the draft. Even if Lynch stays, I wouldn’t be surprised if they drafted a running back later in the draft. They have a great eye for talent and with the way their offense is run, they’re not going to let themselves be without a couple good running backs for the future.
  • Wilson’s ability to run the ball is an example of why he beat out the much more expensive Matt Flynn in training camp 2012. They’ve become almost unstoppable on the ground this season with 408 more yards than the second best rushing team in the NFL and averaging a half-yard more per carry than the next team. Wilson had a league best 849 rushing yards (7.2 per carry), which is the best season since RG3 in 2012 with 815 and Vick in 2006 with 1039. Wilson also gave the Seahawks the 15th most passing yards in the NFL, 3475, over 100 more than last year when he had Golden Tate, along with a completion percentage identical to last year. All this for a cap hit just over $817,000 this year.
  • While paying Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin $14.3 million to not play last year, the Seahawks came to the realization that they didn’t need big money WRs to succeed. While they still take up 7% of the salary cap with their dead money, the Seahawks current receivers only cost them $6.6 million, 5% of the cap. They even traded Harvin this year to get rid of future costs, while getting a 4th or 6th round pick in return rather than just cutting him. They were easily able to trade him due to a cheaper player who can do many of the things he does in Paul Richardson. They let Golden Tate leave in free agency when Detroit offered him $31 million for five years and they resigned Doug Baldwin for a cheaper, and shorter, 3-year, $13 million deal. While they probably would have resigned Tate if they sorted out the Harvin situation previously, they’ve still found success these past two seasons using low-cost receivers. Due to the offense they run, an offense that requires receivers willing to be blockers first, they can find receivers who fit what they’re trying to do, who will be undervalued by the market.
  • The one bad contract that I thought the Seahawks had last year was Zach Miller’s. He was the highest cap charge on the team with $11 million, but he took a $3 million pay cut in 2014 and a $2 million one in 2015. The Seahawks even fix their mistakes more efficiently than most teams and when looking at his strengths, he fits the offense quite well as a blocking tight end.

Something worth considering for the future is that there are reports that Russell Wilson will become the highest-paid QB in the NFL this offseason, so many of the benefits they have now of having a top-QB for $817,000 will go out the window. I made a shocking discovery when researching Michael Vick’s 10-year, $130 million deal that he signed in December of 2004. It was the fourth $100 million contract in NFL history and one that is still the second biggest contract in NFL history, but with all the hype that surrounded Vick when he was with the Falcons, his stats weren’t even close to Russell Wilson’s.

In that 2004 season, Vick had a completion percentage 6.7 points lower than Wilson’s 2014 mark, he had 1162 less passing yards than Wilson, 6 less touchdowns and 5 more interceptions. Vick did have 53 more rushing yards and averaged 0.3 more yards per carry, but three less rushing touchdowns. In typical Michael Vick fashion, he did miss a game, while Wilson hasn’t missed a game in his career, partially due to his incredible, yet sometimes overlooked ability to slide, get out of bounds and generally avoid big hits. Whatever kind of contract they give Russell Wilson, the money couldn’t be more well deserved.

Defense

  • The Seahawks have the most well constructed salary cap situation of the remaining teams on the defensive side of the ball. The Seahawks run a 4-3 and they’ve spent their money on the people who rush the quarterback and the people who defend the passes they throw. They spend the sixth most in the NFL on their DL and have spent wisely on some of the best defensive backs in the NFL with Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor and Richard Sherman. Their cap number for their DBs is slightly lower than their actual spending because Richard Sherman’s contract was signed this May and his cap number doesn’t go up until next year.
  • They only spend 45.3% of their salary cap on the #1 defense in the league, which is a testament to their great draft classes over the last few years. The Packers and Colts both spend more money on their defenses. That salary cap figure will go up as more and more of their defensive stars sign extensions and new contracts.
  • Five of the Seahawks top eight cap charges are defensive linemen or defensive backs with KJ Wright and Bruce Irvin checking in at numbers 10 and 11.
  • Kam Chancellor is the second highest paid safety on the team, but the eighth highest paid safety in the NFL. The Seahawks have set the trend with the way that the best teams are investing in their defensive backfield and it’s easily noticed through looking at their cap charges.
  • Just like with Wilson, the quarterback of the defense, Bobby Wagner, is a mid-round pick outplaying his contract in a big way. It looks like he will get an extension this offseason and it will be money well spent. Wagner was an All-Pro this year and the defense transformed with him back in the line-up. Over the last month, the Seahawks only gave up 33 points and Wagner was the NFC Defensive Player of the Month in December. This year, his cap hit was just under $1.2 million.

Just like on the offensive side of the ball with Wilson’s contract, the Seahawks will have to adjust in the coming years with the bigger contracts that Thomas, Chancellor, Sherman and Wright already have, plus the coming contracts for Irvin, Wagner and others. That’s a huge reason why Lynch might not be on the team in 2015 and why they got rid of Harvin. It will be very interesting to see how they keep these core players together and construct new pieces around them. With the way they’re handling things, I see them being good for a long time.

New England Patriots 

Offense

  • Of course, the Patriots spend a lot of money for future Hall of Famer Tom Brady and since he’s a great passer, they’ve developed an offense that plays to his strengths. Brady has always taken pretty cap-friendly deals, even restructuring his deal this year to give the Pats more cap room to sign other key pieces. In 2014, Brady’s cap number was $14.8 million, his new contract averages $11.4 million a year which means he has the 17th highest average salary per year of all QBs. The three-time Super Bowl champ and five-time AFC champ is humble enough to take a salary that is less than world beaters like Jay Cutler, Alex Smith, Carson Palmer, Andy Dalton and Sam Bradford.
  • As I discussed in my article titled “The Patriot Way,” they’ve done a great job of replacing players with similar players to fit into their equation of what’s worked in the past. The running back position is the perfect example of this strategy in action. They spend only $4.5 million (3.4%) on the position, but they’re still able to get the array of different running styles they need to make their offense run smoothly. Their power running back coming into the year was Stevan Ridley, but now it’s LeGarrette Blount. Their Kevin Faulk pass-catcher is now Shane Vereen. They then have Brandon Bolden who could still turn into something, as well as low-cost Jonas Gray who has shown flashes of great potential. Lastly, they’ve got a fantastic rookie in James White who will step into some role next year and could potentially be the starter as he’s a great runner and pass catcher catching 39 balls his senior season at Wisconsin. So, for $4.5 million they have six talented running backs and a great fullback in James Develin. That’s part of the genius of the Patriots, they put together a roster with a handful of players who can fit what they need to accomplish for such a low-figure.
  • At wide receiver, they’ve spent the most of the four teams left on their receivers, but they don’t use much more than Amendola, Edelman, and Lafell, it’s because Matt Slater, a three-time All-Pro special teamer is a WR whom the Pats spend $2.9 million on. Without him in the equation, the Pats spend $9.5 million, their ability to use their array of RBs, WRs and TEs to keep pumping out 4000-yard years for Tom Brady. Like I said in the Patriot Way article, Edelman and Amendola have taken over the Wes Welker role. Lafell has taken over the Randy Moss role.
    • Lafell is another great example of the Patriots finding value where others don’t. For a three-year, $9 million contract, the Pats found someone who fits what they want to do perfectly. Check out this link at the 2:30 mark if you want to see his great block that many of us missed on Amendola’s first TD against the Ravens. Even at positions the Patriots need for what this offense has to do, the Patriots find a way to save some money.
  • In my research of the 2013 salary cap, I found that last season’s 12-win plus teams spend 6.6% of their cap on the tight end, while 12-loss teams spend 3.9% and the league average was 4.7%. Some teams overspent on their tight ends, but there was a correlation last year and this year between spending money on tight ends and winning. This year, it was only slight with 12-win plus teams using 4.6% of their cap on TEs, the average NFL team using 4.1% and 12-loss teams using 3.3%.

 

  • More importantly, I think we’re all beginning to see the importance of the TE position on the game of football. Gronk is basically uncoverable, while even the best receivers, guys like Calvin Johnson can get covered by the NFL’s best cornerbacks, there’s just no covering Gronk with a single guy. When you see him split out wide and go against corners, you realize that there’s really no defend him, defenses just don’t have a similar athlete, he’s 6’6”, 265, runs a 4.6 and makes catches like this. Guys like Gronk, Jimmy Graham, Julius Thomas, Antonio Gates, Greg Olsen, and Travis Kelce create such size and speed mismatches that they can take over games where the defense doesn’t have a player who can cover him. If the defense has to double-team him, then it creates one-on-one matchups for your receivers. A great tight end who creates mismatches is an incredible weapon for an offense from what he does statistically and what he does to open up the offense. They picked up Tim Wright to fill the Aaron Hernandez role for a cheap $495,000 and use Michael Hoomanawanui as a blocking tight end for $1.4 million.

 

  • Surprisingly, the Patriots spend the least of the four remaining teams on their OL at $15.4 million, only 11.6% of their cap. They do spend it wisely with $13 million going to their starters who have played well this year since 4th rounder, Bryan Stork took over at center. Every one of their starters other than Dan Connolly started with the Patriots and three of their four backups did too.

Defense

  • The Patriots have spent the most money of all four teams on the offensive side of the ball, which has caused them to have the lowest cap figure for the defensive side of the ball at $52.6 or 39.5% of their cap.
  • The Pats have compensated for their lack of cap space to spend on the defensive line and linebackers by making great draft picks like Chandler Jones, Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins. They also have Rob Ninkovich leading the team with 8 sacks, but only costing them $2.9 million.

 

  • They lost Aqib Talib in free agency, so they went out and got Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, further going with the spending habits that great teams have at the cornerback position. With Revis, like the three other teams left with their CB1s, the Patriots feel like they can shut half the field down to the other team, which is why they’re paying him $7 million this year.
  • The Pats spend almost $10 million (7.3%) less on their defensive line than the averaged 4-3 defense, but they’re right around the average for linebacker spending for 4-3 Ds.

Packers

Offense

Of the final four, the Packers spend the most on their quarterback and the most on their defense, which means that they have to find ways to keep costs down at other positions. For their total cap, the packers spent the whole $133 million, just over at $133.9 million to be exact, with 14.5% spent on their QBs, 52% spent on their defense 4.1% on specialists and 4.1% on dead money, they had only 25.3% left for the rest of their offense. Since they spent 14.3% on their offense line, they only had 11% of their salary cap to address their RBs, WRs and TEs. With Lacy, Starks, Nelson, Cobb, Adams and Boykin, they obviously did a great job doing that, so let’s take a look…

  • With Aaron Rodgers and Matt Flynn as his backup, the Packers spend the most on their quarterback position. Rodgers is the highest paid quarterback in the NFL averaging $22 million a year over the course of this contract and $17.55 this year.
  • John Kuhn was the 2014 NFL All-Pro fullback, but played only 18% of the snaps for them. He cost them just under $1.1 million.
  • The Packers have spent the least on their running back position at $2.9 million and have Eddie Lacy, James Starks and DuJuan Harris, which actually gives then three talented running backs as Harris has shown good things in his limited time. Starks is one of the best backups in the league, running for 493 last year while averaging 5.5 yards per carry. With these three, they have just enough depth to deal with an injury, but also a great backfield for what their offense needs for cheap.
  • The Packers have a surprisingly low cost at wide receiver for a team that might have the best one-two combo in the league in Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, plus a guy who has shown he could be the best WR3 in the league in Davante Adams. At WR4 they’ve got Jarrett Boykin for only $570,000, a guy who had 49 catches for 681 yards and three touchdowns last year. The Packers pay $9.4 million to their WR group, 7.1 percent. This brought me to a further examination of the WR position where I noticed this regarding spending patterns:
    • Average: $12.9 million (9.7%)
    • 12-Win Plus: $10.9 million (8.2%)
    • 11-Win Plus: $12.3 million (9.2%)
    • 11-Loss Plus: $13.8 million (10.4%)
    • 12-Loss Plus: $14.2 million (10.6%)

I’m not entirely sure what to think of that, but thought it was worth noting. A pattern I saw with the Steelers and Packers was that they have one stud WR in Antonio Brown and Jordy Nelson then a handful of young, very talented receivers who don’t cost a lot of money, all mid- to late-round picks. They Cowboys had Dez Bryant on the last year of his rookie contract, Terrance Williams (2013, 3rd round), Dwayne Harris (2011, 6th round), and Cole Beasley (2012, UDFA). Just like the Packers have their cheaper finds in Cobb (2011, 2nd round), Adams (2014, 2nd round), and Boykin (2012, UDFA). For a few more millions, the Cardinals have Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd who was a first rounder in 2012, unfortunately for them, once Carson Palmer and Drew Stanton went down, they were rendered useless. The Broncos got Demaryius Thomas in the first round a few years ago, Emmanuel Sanders at a pretty good cost in free agency and Wes Welker who ended up being too expensive this year. While I don’t know what this all means, I wanted to leave it here for you guys to bounce around some theories and see what you come up with.

Analyzing this position, made me remember the simplest fact of capology (I guess that’s what we’d call it?), with a salary cap, wherever you spend money has to come out of somewhere else. This is what makes it hard for a team like the Dolphins to get over the hump when they’re spending 22.3% of their salary cap on wide receivers and 17.6% of it on Mike Wallace and Brian Hartline, not exactly two guys who strike complete and utter fear in defenses or even joy in fantasy owners. With a 23-25 record since Ryan Tannehill took over, they’re not far away from being good, but they’ll have to figure out what they need to make the leap. Thankfully for the Dolphins, Jarvis Landry emerged this year, but they still have Hartline signed for silly figures through 2017. Hartline had 39 catches for 474 yards this year and had a $6.2 million cap charge.

By spending $29.7 million on their receivers this year, they spent $9.3 million more than the second highest team, the Lions, who have the best receiver of the last five years and an emerging superstar in Golden Tate. The Dolphins spend 7% more of their cap on so much less production and that’s a huge reason why they’re an 8-8 team.

  • They let Jermichael Finley go after the neck injury that ended his career, they went low cost with Andrew Quarless, Richard Rodgers and to a much lesser extent Brandon Bostick. Their total tight end cost was $2.5 million or 1.9% of their cap. Out of that, they got 51 catches for 551 yards and six touchdowns. Another playoff team, the Lions inked Brandon Pettigrew to a 6-year, $16 million deal, drafted Eric Ebron 10th over all last May, and have red zone target Joseph Fauria, but the $5.3 million they spent had only 41 catches for 392 yards and two touchdowns. While the Packers weren’t world beaters, they were efficient and got plenty of value for their $2.5 million.

 

  • Over the last two years, there hasn’t been much of a correlation between team records and what teams spend on their offensive line, but the Packers are right around the OL average and the 12-win plus average which is the same. The Packers spent $19 million on the OL (14.3%) and $16.4 million of that is spent on their starters. Josh Sitton (LG), TJ Lang (RG), and Bryan Bulaga (RT) are three of the Packers top 11 cap charges totaling $15.3 million. These three are a huge part of what helps make the Packers a balanced offense and help along David Bakhtiari and Corey Linsley who are two mid-round picks from the last two seasons. Everyone of these last four teams seem to have one low-cost, later-round offensive lineman on their rookie deal who alleviates a lot of salary cap pressure for each of these teams.

To finish off with the Packers, these first three teams all have good fullbacks. Unfortunately, Seattle lost their replacement for Michael Robinson early in the year, Derrick Coleman, so they picked up Will Tukuafu. The Patriots have former Brown defensive end, James Develin and the Packers have John Kuhn. While fullback is no longer a huge position, so much so that the Colts don’t even have one, it’s important that teams who use one have a good one and I think all three teams have done their best to find guys who fit their offense well.

Defense

 

  • Like I said above, the Packers have spent the most money of the four remaining teams on their defense at $69.1 million, 52 percent of the cap. In fact, they spend the most in the NFL on their defense, their linebackers and their defensive backs. Twelve of their 18 highest cap charges are defensive players, they’re spending the second most on their DL/LBs and the most on their DBs of who’s left.
  • With Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers, the Packers have two great pass rushers at their OLB spots for a combined 18 sacks at $14.5 million. They got Peppers at a huge discount from his $14.4 million deal last year, $3.5 million. Matthews is still one of the best OLB in the NFL. With AJ Hawk, Brad Jones, Nick Perry and Sam Harrington, the Packers might have the deepest linebacker group in the league.
  • They’ve put their money in pass rushers and pass defenders, just like I alluded to before I discussed teams individually. They were in the top 10 this season in interceptions, sacks and passing yards because of it.
  • Their top three tacklers were defensive backs, Morgan Burnett, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, and Tramon Williams combined for 306 total tackles. Micah Hyde, Sam Shields, and Casey Hayward combined for 147 more. Their defense pays these DBs to make plays and they do.

 

Colts

 

Offense

 

  • Colts are an example of the way the new CBA allows teams that draft quarterbacks high in the first round to have the cap space to construct an offense around him that he can succeed with. The Colts spend $9.8 million on their QBs, but only $6 million of that is invested in Andrew Luck, while $3.75 million is invested in his veteran tutor and capable QB, Matt Hasselbeck. An interesting fact is that Luck has cost the Colts $18.7 million the last three years, while Manning has cost the Broncos $58 million. This year, Luck’s cap hit was just over $6 million while Manning’s was $17.5 million. While we can have a debate over who’s the better quarterback at this point in their career, we can see the obvious value created by the extra $11.5 million in cap space that the Colts have, especially when you’re building around a young QB.

 

  • Of course, looking at Luck’s strengths, they’ve invested in pass-catchers rather than running backs, but the running backs they have invested in fit what he does well. While Ahmad Bradshaw has been injured for all, but 13 games of his two seasons in Indianapolis, he was a very good signing for what their offense needs and he was cheap. He signed a one-year deal for $2 million in 2013, but after his neck injury, the Colts got him for a mere $855,000. Through the first nine games of the year, he averaged 79 scrimmage yards per game.
  • Boom Herron was a great low-cost pickup for the Colts in October 2013 that’s paying off now. Due to his suspension during his senior year at Ohio State for selling a jersey, pants and shoes he had worn in a game, his went trended down leading into the draft and the Bengals drafted him in the 6th Their loss was the Colts game, big time. In the six games after Bradshaw’s injury, Herron averaged 73 scrimmage yards a game, only six less per game than Bradshaw and for only $570,000.

Herron’s a great example of something I spoke about with the Patriots, finding guys who fit what you need and are undervalued by the marketplace. In the Colts’ two playoff games, Herron has 118 yards per game, 59.5 rushing and 58.5 receiving, he has 18 catches on 19 targets and two rushing touchdowns. He’s been a major X-factor in both of their wins and has probably played himself into a multi-year deal, maybe a four-year deal that averages around $1.75 million per year. If I were his agent, I’d do my best to have him stay in Indianapolis as I think it’s the perfect offense for his skill set.

  • They also still have Vick Ballard, their 2012 fifth round pick who ran for over 800 yards in his rookie year, but has missed the last two seasons with a torn ACL and a torn Achilles. He’ll be back next year for the last year of his rookie deal and will only cost the team $696,140 against their cap.
  • I think that they didn’t sign someone to a long-term deal in 2014 because they knew that in the 2014 draft of the wide receiver that they could find someone for cheap like they did with Donte Moncrief. They drafted him in the third round, two picks before the spot where they drafted TY Hilton in 2012, and they cost the Colts only $1.3 million. They did take a one-year flyer on Hakeem Nicks for just under $4 million, a well-calculated risk to get a player with WR1 potential, but who has regressed significantly since the Giants 2011 Super Bowl winning year. Their highest cap charge at $6.2 million was, of course, Reggie Wayne. While I can’t say that I would’ve done anything differently than the Colts did, it’s interesting to note that the two guys who cost $1.3 million had 114 catches for 1789 yards (15.7 ypc) and 10 touchdowns on a 63.3% catch rate, while the two that cost $10.2 million had 102 catches for 1184 yards (11.6 ypc) and six touchdowns with only a 55.4% catch rate.

 

  • I love what the Colts did at tight end the same year they drafted Luck by taking his teammate from Stanford, Coby Fleener, in the second round and Clemson’s Dwayne Allen in the third. By doing this, they mitigated the risk of injury in an attempt to ensure that Luck would have two players at a position that proves to be more important in the NFL every year. They’re also, arguably, the best tight end tandem in the NFL with their 80 catches for 1169 yards (14.6 ypc) for 16 touchdowns together out-pacing Rob Gronkowski’s 82 catches for 1124 (13.7 ypc) for 12 touchdowns. Essentially what they’ve done is get All Pro TE production out of two mid-round picks who cost them $2.3 million this season.
  • The Colts spend the second least out of the Final Four group at $17.4 million which is $3.4 million less than the league average. Their three highest paid linemen are RT Godser Cherilus at $3.9 million, LT Anthony Costonzo at $2.5 million and G Joe Reitz at $1.4 million. They put the rest of their line together with cheap options, but the fact that they used 10 different linemen into 11 starting combinations means that this is something they’ll need to address this offseason. When Cherilus went down in December and Reitz moved to take his place, the interior line became Jack Mewhort at LG, Khaled Holmes at C and Lance Louis at RG. Together, those three combine to earn $2.1 million with Mewhort being a second rounder this year, Holmes a fourth rounder last year and Louis coming over from Miami. Like the rest of these teams, their backups are made of low-cost players they’ve drafted. The other issue is that their second highest cap charge for the offensive line, tackle Donald Thomas, was a $3.75 million charge, but tore his quad early in training camp and missed the whole season. This has seemed to be one of the biggest issues I’ve seen this year, offensive line injuries. In baseball, you can never have enough pitchers. In football, you can never have enough linemen.

The Colts are another team that are doing what worked for them in the past.

 

Defense

 

  • The Colts spend the second most of these four at $67.1 million, 50.5%. Just like the Packers, as a 3-4 defense, they’ve spent most of their money at linebacker and defensive back, but they do spend almost $4 million more than the average 3-4 defense on their defensive line. With this, they were the 11th best defense in total yards, 12th in passing yards, 18th in rushing yards and 19th in total points allowed.
  • While they were an average defense, they did it without their highest cap charge at $8 million who is also their best defensive player, Robert Mathis. Last year, Mathis had 19.5 sacks and 10 forced fumbles, BOTH of which led the league. He also added 59 tackles and one safety. Their third highest defensive cap charge was Arthur Jones at $5.6 million, another pass rusher and he also missed quite a few games, playing in only 9 games. Without these two for most of the year, Erik Walden and Corey Redding had to take over the full load combining to make $8.65 million, while having 90 tackles and 9.5 sacks.
  • At linebacker were their two leading tackles, D’Qwell Jackson and Jerrell Freeman, Jackson made $4.75 million and Freeman made only $576,000. Freeman is an interesting case as he was signed by the Titans as an UDFA in 2008, then played three years in the CFL before being signed by the Colts and having a combined 415 tackles the last three years. Since 2014 is the last year of his contract, he’s sure to be getting a salary bump this offseason, but a great job by the Colts evaluating talent and getting a three-year starting linebacker for cheap. Jackson had 166 tackles and 4 sacks. The Colts’ sack leader this year was outside linebacker, Jonathan Newsome with 6.5. He was drafted in the fifth round this year and had a salary of $464,000. Bjoern Werner started as well and had 50 tackles and 4 sacks at a cost of $1.8 million.
  • Their secondary is where they spend the most money at $24.6 million or 18.5% of the cap. Vontae Davis is their highest cap charge other than the injured Mathis at $6.25 million. Three other DBs were in the teams’ top 14 cap charges with corners Greg Toler and Darius Butler, along with safety LaRon Landry. Again, proving the new wave of great teams understanding that the players who rush the quarterback and those who defend the pass are the players who you want to pay. Their defensive backs are some of their leading tacklers, similar to the Packers 3-4 defense with Mike Adams ($635,000), Toler, Davis, Landry and Butler all being in the top-seven in tackles on the team. The low-cost veteran, Adams led the team with five interceptions, Davis had four, Toler had two and back-up FS Josh Gordy had one.

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2015 Giants Salary Cap Series: Running Back

I want to start the Giants series with a position outside of what most people are discussing this offseason for the Giants and that is, the running back position. As you may have read, I’ve also really reexamined my own opinion on the running back position compared to a piece that I wrote before the season.

It’s not that Andre Williams and Rashad Jennings did a bad job for the Giants this year, they combined for 1360 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground, but if the Giants want to be great, they aren’t going to be enough. Many of us forget that the Giants went into 2014 with the idea that David Wilson would be a part of their rushing attack this year, but unfortunately he had to retire.

A backfield of Wilson, Williams and Jennings sure sounds a lot more dynamic, especially when you consider that Williams and Jennings averaged 3.3 and 3.8 yards per carry respectively and only 48 catches for 356 yards. As a team, the Giants rushed for 3.6 yards per carry, which has them ranked 30th, in front of only the Chargers and Cardinals. The Giants had 1603 yards as a team, which was 23rd in the league and 100 yards per game.

The Giants backfield only had 62 catches for 469 yards and zero touchdowns with Williams and Jennings having 48 and 356 of those. Le’Veon Bell, Matt Forte, Fred Jackson and Roy Helu all outgained the Giants RBs in the passing game.

The Packers don’t pass the ball to running backs a lot either, the Giants RBs actually had 10 more targets, but Eddie Lacy had 42 catches for 427 yards and four touchdowns himself this season, which makes him tied for 11th in catches among RBs and 6th in receiving yards. Eddie Lacy averaged 10.2 yards per catch, while Williams and Jennings averaged 7.5 or less and all season, I really thought the Giants offense missed having a threat to catch the ball out of the backfield, which hampered their ability to keep defenses on their heels.

In my opinion, Jennings and Williams would best serve the Giants as a supplement to one of the RBs in this class with superstar potential. I do think that Jennings could do well in the Eddie Lacy role for the Giants if he stays healthy, but I wouldn’t bet my season on it. Williams runs the ball with the same kind of power Lacy does, but he didn’t even catch passes in college, so I don’t expect him to take on that role as a pro.

Considering that Jennings will be 30 this season, Williams not being much of a pass catcher, and the depth of this year’s draft class at RB, I think the Giants should draft a running back in the third through fifth round depending on how they address their issues on the offensive and defensive line and who the best available player on the board is. I also want the Giants to have someone ready to replace most of Jennings’ production in 2016.

Due to signing Jennings, the Giants have a bit of a high 2015 cap number at the running back position at $8 million, but drafting a mid-round running back shouldn’t hurt them. Their cap number will also go down with David Wilson retired and most of his $2.1 million cap number coming off the books. I think that another million dollars will be freed up when the Giants release Peyton Hillis this offseason. If they drafted a runner in the third round, it’d cost them $608,484 against the salary cap, which is much less than the $945,000 they were set to owe Hillis in 2015.

Even though teams don’t have success signing RBs to multi-year contracts under the new CBA, I can’t fault the Giants for going out and getting Jennings because he’ll be the veteran leader of this group for the next couple years. I also know that the Giants had to go out and get someone last offseason with the uncertainty involved with Wilson’s injury.

Watching the Packers play against the Cowboys on Sunday, got me so excited for watching the 2015 Giants with another year to practice this offense.

I think that Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback in the NFL, but with the weapons that the Giants could have around Manning in the fall, I think he could compete with Rodgers statistically and, in turn, lead the Giants to a championship with the addition of a few of the right pieces this offseason. The Giants skill position players they have signed for 2015 are very comparable to what the Packers had this year.

Beckham, Cruz, Randle, Jennings and Williams are a good base to build off of and with the right decisions this offseason; the Giants could have talent at the skill spots that exceeds the Packers.

Looking back at what worked during Super Bowl seasons, in 2007, the Giants had four quality running backs with Jacobs, Ward, Reuben Droughns, and Bradshaw. If I’m Jerry Reese, I try to replicate that in some way this year with the addition of a mid-round back and an UDFA type back. In 2011, Eli Manning threw for 1597 more yards than in 2007, while Jacobs and Bradshaw both battled injuries that season, getting healthy just in time for the Super Bowl run.

Thankfully for the Giants, last year was the year of the wide receiver and this year, it’s the running backs and boy, did they hit on their choice at receiver last year. Like I said previously, I think that the Giants should draft a back between the third and the sixth rounds. Some of the potential RBs that might be available in these rounds, that I could see fitting into the Giants offense, are:

  • TJ Yeldon, Alabama; (Projected Round: 1-3)
  • Duke Johnson, Miami; (1-3)
  • Jay Ajayi, Boise State; (2-3)
  • Javorius ‘Buck’ Allen, USC; (2-4)
  • Mike Davis, South Carolina; (2-3)
  • Josh Robinson, Mississippi State; (3-4)
  • David Johnson, Northern Iowa; (4-6)
  • Storm Woods, Oregon State (4-6)

In my opinion, I’d take whoever was available between TJ Yeldon, Jay Ajayi or Duke Johnson, in that order (but with Yeldon and Ajayi neck-and-neck), in the early third round. If they were not available, I’d look for Josh Robinson in the fifth or David Johnson in the 5th or 6th.

Those are the five running backs that I could envision doing really well in this Giants offense, but I also wanted to take note of the others in the list above because the Giants scouts might decide they like them better or they’ll find more value drafting them where they think they’re projected. When it comes down to it, the people involved in these organizations have much more information at their fingertips than we do, so who knows what they think.

For different reasons, Marshawn Lynch and Lacy are such unique runners that no one in the NFL comes close to their styles, but I’ve fallen in love with Ajayi’s tape over the last few weeks because of how much he reminds me of Lacy. So while I would take Yeldon over him, I don’t think Yeldon will be there in the third round, especially because I think Yeldon was the most talented runner in college this year. I know he had a down year statistically, but I’ve been in awe with the smoothness with which he runs since his freshman year and he has the attributes to make it in the NFL.

I do think that Ajayi could be available in the third round, so I hope that’s the direction the Giants go in, but his draft stock keeps rising. Considering the depth of this years class, I really couldn’t predict how the top running backs will end up being drafted.

If Ajayi isn’t there, Duke Johnson is definitely a viable option. With 2073 total yards from scrimmage, Johnson had a huge year for the Hurricanes. From a value standpoint, if Josh Robinson is there in the fifth round, he’d be a nice option.

Robinson is another guy whose running style is unlike anyone else’s, which is part of what makes guys like him Lynch and Lacy so hard to take down, they’re powerful backs and defenders aren’t used to playing anyone like them. As powerful as he is, and as low to the ground as he is at 5’9”, 215, along with the adversity he’s overcome to get to where he is today, I have a feeling that he’ll have a successful career.

The fifth draft option I see for them is David Johnson in the fifth or sixth round. During his four year career at Northern Iowa, he rushed for 4682 yards at 5.4 per rush and had 141 catches for 1734 with 63 offensive touchdowns. He returned 12 kickoffs this year and averaged 36.5 yards per and even got himself a touchdown.

At 6’3”, 225 he brings some versatility that the Giants could benefit from without depth at tight end. NFL Draft Scout even has his second position listed as FB/H-Back and that kind of versatility and the confusion that could be created by him just being in the huddle could bring another dimension to the Giants offense.

I also want to construct a backfield with the depth of what the Giants had in 2007, so I would pick up an undrafted free agent as well, much like they drafted Bradshaw in the 7th in 2007. With the amount of injuries at running back, you could end up starting a guy you picked up after the draft like the Chargers did this year with Brandon Oliver whose performance kept them in the playoff hunt when Ryan Mathews, Danny Woodhead and Donald Brown all went down.

I have two players from the Colonial Athletic Association who I think could be great investments for the Giants in Lyle McCombs from Rhode Island and Kevin Monangai from Villanova. (Having played in the CAA, I’ll admit that I’m a little biased as I have a huge affinity towards players from my conference because I know how much talent is in the CAA.)

As things are projected now, they’re both projected to be undrafted free agents, but neither of them are lacking in talent or ability. They also fit into the smaller, pass-catching pass role that Ahmad Bradshaw (5’11”, 195) had with the Giants in years past. McCombs is 5’8”, 175 and Monangai is 5’8”, 215.

McCombs was a freshman All-American at UConn before going to URI for his senior year. His season was broken up into two three game chunks by a broken hand suffered in practice, but he came back with a vengeance in November with an offensive line that had come together a little bit over the course of the season.

Against the #1 team in the country, New Hampshire, McCombs averaged 8.2 yards per carry while running for 115 and two touchdowns. He ran for over 180 in the first half against Stony Brook before they just stuffed the box and dared the Rams to pass in the second half, which they couldn’t. McCombs added a fantastic one handed grab on a swing pass that showed his natural pass catching skills as well. He’s currently 5’8”, 175 and will be a high-value running back option for whoever drafts him or signs him after the draft.

Kevin Monangai has been a three-year starter at a great Villanova program, but has flown under the radar a little bit because of the Walter Payton Award winning quarterback he plays with, John Robertson. Since his sophomore year, Monangai has rushed for 2991 yards on 564 carries for a 5.3 per carry average and 28 rushing touchdowns. While Monangai’s only had 33 catches for 250 yards over the past three years, the Villanova offense has never been big on passing to the running back as they always have a quarterbacks who can take off and run shown by Robertson gaining 1272 yards this season and 1562 in 2013. Due to the archaic way that college football counts sacks against a quarterback’s rushing total, Robertson’s net rushing yards the last two seasons is 2483 with an insane 31 touchdowns.

I know that whichever team gets Monangai will be getting a steal whose perception has been hampered by the success of his quarterback running the ball, which takes nothing away from him. With two 1000 yard rushers in the backfield this season, Monangai and Robertson combined for one of the best zone read pairings in all of college football, so much so that Robertson is ranked as a top-10 quarterback in next year’s class.

Monangai is benching 400 pounds, squatting 700 pounds and running in the 4.5s, at a squat 5’8”, 215, he’s able to get lower than the defender and power through him, but also fast enough to beat him outside. He reminds me of another Villanova graduate: Brian Westbrook.

MY TAKE: 

I want the Giants backfield to resemble a bit of what they had in 2007 when they won the Super Bowl. Remember, Ahmad Bradshaw came on late in the season with a 151 yard game against the Bills in Week 15, then contributed in the playoffs with 52 yards per game in their Super Bowl run. Remember, Derrick Ward got injured and didn’t play again after Week 12 in Chicago, so the Giants needed him to carry some of the load and he did it very well.

Many of the best organizations in the NFL have taken to the strategy of drafting their two current or future lead running backs in consecutive years, like the Seahawks have prepared for the likely departure of Marshawn Lynch with Robert Turbin and Christine Michael. The Bengals have a balanced backfield with two long-term solutions in Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard.

I also feel that this strategy mitigates risk, if one of your RBs gets a career altering injury or is a bust, you have another young back to fall back on. The Dolphins are glad they drafted Lamar Miller out of The U in the 4th round the year after they took Daniel Thomas out of Kansas State in the 2nd round of 2011.

I think the Giants should draft Jay Ajayi in the 3rd round, I don’t think Yeldon will be available there, but Ajayi’s similarities to Lacy get me excited about the possibilities for him in this offense. The Giants should sign another back after the draft and being FCS level guys, McCombs and Monangai will probably be available and will prove to be very valuable assets. I do think that the Giants keep Orleans Darkwa as I’ve heard a lot of positive things about him, but I think Michael Cox could be moving on.

2015 Giants RB Cap Hit

At around $6.8 million when you add in another million to resign Henry Hynoski, that will probably put the Giants below the league average spending at the RB position for 2015. With the amount of production I think they’ll get out of this group, they’d be getting major bang for their buck and their running game could help balance the offense and give them a bit of what they need to win another Super Bowl. And the Giants are due, they win Super Bowls every 4 years. 2007…2011…2015?

Agree? Disagree? Let me know what you think! Tweet me @ZackMooreNFL

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Average NFL Draft Picks by Position from 2010-2014

First off, for anyone who wants to be an NFL agent and get certified this year, the date to file is from January 5th to February 5th. The non-refundable application fee is $2500 and the seminar and examination are July 23-24 of 2015 in Washington DC. If you have any more questions, including what the exam consists of, go here.

In my preparation for next year’s draft class, my first one as a certified agent (as long as I pass the test), I’ve come to the realization that an agent needs to understand how positions are drafted on top of where his players are ranked in their position. An agent should understand if the 35th best wide receiver has a chance at getting drafted or the 15th best quarterback.

Past that, if an agent has a lower-risk client who is the 50th best running back, but the agent believes in him and is just hopeful he’ll get into a camp and show teams what he can do there, then it’s good to know that 55 running backs made camps last year. When you’re a young agent going after guys who probably won’t be drafted and many who might not make a team, it’s good to know how many players make NFL camps and make rosters, so that you can figure out if your client is better off going to the Canadian Football League as soon as possible, so that he can get film and continue to improve his game because he’s unlikely to get an NFL opportunity right now.

Personally, I gained a bit of experience as an intern over the years working on getting guys in the AFL and Canada. While you’re not going to make a ton of money, it’s good experience for a younger agent without needing to be certified by the NFLPA.

Below is data I put together from NFLDraftScout.com, one of the best resources on the Internet to find draft rankings and a potential NFL Draft prospect’s measurables. Be sure to click on the table, so that you can enlarge it in another tab and see it clearly.

5 Year NFL Draft Average by Position (2010-14)

There are various uses for this from the agent and team side, it allows agents to have a realistic perspective on where their clients are likely to be drafted and for teams it helps them understand how to get value. Great teams like the Patriots that don’t have an immediate team need, sometimes just draft the best player on the board. They also understand that they can find a lot value at certain positions later in the draft. The Seahawks have done a great job getting value in the late rounds and after the draft at the wide receiver and cornerback position the last few years.

I don’t want to go on too long with this because I think the table raises more questions than anything, so I’ll leave you with a few questions I jotted down when compiling this:

  • On average, how many underclassmen enter the draft at each position? And how does that affect the senior classes at each position? If you’re an agent looking at a running back who’s ranked 40th in the senior class, will he still make a camp?
  • How many of those in camp make a roster? At each position?
  • How many undrafted players make a roster at each position each year?
  • Which position has the most players that make it purely as special teamers as rookies?
  • What does all of this say about where teams can find value?

I’ve got quite a few more questions I came up with, but my brain is donezo right now, might revisit this in the morning. And like the wonderful old lady who worked the cash register at URI’s CVS at the top of campus used to say, “you have an excellent!”

@ZackMooreNFL

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@ZackMooreNFL: Revisiting the Running Back Position and Positional Value

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I was COMPLETELY wrong on a few levels with this article that I wrote back in August regarding how teams should invest in the running back position. I looked at it the wrong way looking at a few cases like David Wilson, Doug Martin, Darren McFadden and Ryan Mathews. No one doubts that these guys are great athletes and football players, but injuries have really hampered their careers over the years.

I also looked at what I perceived as overspending from the Vikings on Adrian Peterson, Toby Gerhart and Matt Asiata in 2013 as they spent the most in the NFL on the running back position at $17.5 million. I compared them to a Patriots team that spent $14.4 million less and got more production out of Steven Ridley, LeGarrette Blount, Brandon Bolden, and Shane Verren. So, while I took the Vikings 5-10-1 and Patriots 12-4 records as the example that proved my hypothesis, I was using the wrong hypothesis.

The new answer to the running back position, especially with the 2011 CBA, is through drafting them. As Bill Barnwell from Grantland explained, signing a free agent RB to a multi-year deal in his late-twenties has proven to typically be a horrible investment. Check the table below:

YearOldNewPlayerContract
2011CARCARDeAngelo Williams5 years, $43 million
2011NYGNYGAhmad Bradshaw4 years, $18 million
2011SDNODarren Sproles4 years, $14 million
2011INDNEJoseph Addai3 years, $14 million
2011GBCLEBrandon Jackson2 years, $4.5 million
2011MIACLERicky Williams2 years, $2.6 million
2011CINCINBrian Leonard2 years, $2 million
2012OAKCHIMichael Bush4 years, $14 million
2012SEASEAMarshawn Lynch4 years, $30 million
2012SDCARMike Tolbert4 years, $10 million
2012ATLATLJason Snelling3 years, $4 million
2012NECINBenJarvus Green-Ellis3 years, $9 million
2013STLATLSteven Jackson3 years, $12 million
2013MIADETReggie Bush4 years, $16 million
2013NYJTENShonn Greene3 years, $10 million
2013NESDDanny Woodhead2 years, $3.5 million
2013CINCINCedric Peerman2 years, $2.2 million
2013HOUJACJustin Forsett2 years, $2 million
2013CARNYJMike Goodson3 years, $6.9 million
2014TENNYJChris Johnson2 years, $8 million
2014HOUCLEBen Tate2 years, $6.2 million
2014OAKNYGRashad Jennings4 years, $10 million
2014JACOAKMaurice Jones-Drew3 years, $7.5 million
2014INDSDDonald Brown3 years, $10.5 million
2014GBGBJames Starks2 years, $3.2 million
2014NEPITLeGarrette Blount2 years, $3.9 million
2014SFBUFAnthony Dixon3 years, $3.5 million
2014MINJACToby Gerhart3 years, $10.5 million
2014NYGNYGPeyton Hillis2 years, $1.8 million

Barnwell asks the question: “How many of those deals would these teams sign again if they had the chance?” The only one that everyone would sign again would be Marshawn Lynch’s extension with Seattle and the Justin Forsett deal even though he didn’t hit until he got to Baltimore. Look at that list though, guys who are no longer in the NFL, but their contract was supposed to run through at least this season: Joseph Addai, Jason Snelling, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Mike Goodson, Michael Bush.

Then you’ve got Ben Tate who was cut by not just the Browns, but the Vikings this season, the same year he signed the original deal. Maurice Jones-Drew and Toby Gerhart were incredibly ineffective. Even LeGarrette Blount was released by Pittsburgh before he went back to New England and performed well. Chris Johnson is a part-time player being paid $4 million a year, more than the entire Bengals and Broncos backfield who both produced very well this season.

You can’t give up on running backs just because they’re a very risky position though, as I kind of alluded to doing in my August article. With the advent of the passing game, it might actually make having a great running back MORE important, it certainly makes having a great running game more important as more quarterbacks than ever are throwing for big numbers. With the increased emphasis on throwing flags for defensive players getting handsy in the passing game, passing numbers exploded this season.

In 2014, there were 11 quarterbacks with over 4000 passing yards and nine with over 30 touchdown passes. In 2002, only four quarterbacks had over 4000 yards and zero had over 30 passing TDs. Admittedly, that was the first year I looked at and the only year in the 2000s where a quarterback didn’t have a 30 touchdown season, but the average 30 touchdown seasons per season since 2000 is 3.14 quarterbacks per year. In 2003, 2005, and 2006, there was just one quarterback with a 30 touchdown season in each year: Favre, Palmer and Peyton Manning respectively.

Even Jay Cutler, a player who got benched for the mighty Jimmy Clausen threw for 3812 yards and 28 touchdowns this year. As these passing rules become the norm, there will be an increased need for a great running game to separate from the competition.

From 2010 to 2014, teams with a 1000 yard rusher have a .550 winning percentage and teams without a 1000 yard rusher have a .457 winning percentage. This year, six of the top eight rushers in the NFL made the playoffs and the other two, Arian Foster and LeSean McCoy went 19-13 this season.

Now a counter point to many of the top rushers being on many of the top teams is that since they’re ahead in games much of the times, they run the ball more often, but I don’t think that that’s a fair assessment. Just this season, Alfred Morris and Matt Forte combined to go 9-23 and both rushed for over 1000, while in years past, Morris, Jamaal Charles, Steven Jackson, Maurice Jones-Drew, Peyton Hillis, and Cedric Benson have all been on teams that were 5-11 or worse. Sometimes teams that are bad run the ball because that’s all they can do well, which can certainly be said for Charles’ 2012 Chiefs, MJD’s days in Jacksonville, and Steven Jackson’s career in St. Louis.

For the six-playoff teams that didn’t have a top rusher, there are other plenty of other factors at play that can explain their lack of a top rusher, but their success.

The Lions had Joique Bell run for 860 yards and 7 touchdowns, with Golden Tate acting as a bit of a supplement to the running game with his ability to turn short, high percentage passes into bigger gains with his 691 yards after catch, the most in the NFL for a receiver with only Matt Forte and Le’Veon Bell in front of him. They also boasted a defense that was second in the NFL in yards surrendered and third in points. All of that with Matt Stafford having almost 4300 yards passing.

Seeing as Joe Lombardi came over from New Orleans and implemented the same offense, it’s no surprise that the Lions were able to go 11-5 without a 1000-yard rusher because the Saints have been winning without one for years. During the Saints Super Bowl winning 2009 season, their leading rusher was Pierre Thomas with 793. Combined with Mike Bell, Reggie Bush and Lynell Hamilton, they had 1962 rushing yards, which is a very good total for a team, it’d place them in the top 10 this season. On top of the rushing yards from the running backs, Bush and Thomas had 86 catches for 637 receiving yards. Altogether, these four backs had 23 total touchdowns. In fact, the Saints haven’t had a 1000-yard rusher since Duece McAllister in 2006.

A side note, the Lions only spent $11.9 million (8.9% of the cap) on their offensive line this season, which could be a huge explanation for their lack of a running game and Matt Stafford being sacked 45 times, the fourth most in the NFL. It was pretty ironic for me to see them play the Cowboys who drafted the player the Lions should have drafted six picks before with Zack Martin.

For a Lions team that has all the pieces to be great, they really didn’t need a right end with the tenth pick (as I said here). Now, I think Eric Ebron is a fantastic athlete and could be a great tight end, but Martin would have been a stalwart on that offensive line. Not to mention the insanity of drafting a tight end when they just signed Brandon Pettigrew to a four-year, $16 million deal with half of it guaranteed. In the end though, that’s why the Lions are the Lions and not the Patriots.

Arizona is a bit more of an anomaly, but helped along by having the NFL’s best coaching job this season by Bruce Arians. They had a very bad season rushing with only 1308 total rushing yards, which was 31st in the NFL, only beating out the Raiders. They also, shockingly, had a defense that was 24th in yards given up, but gave up the fifth least points.

Of course, Denver was helped by another stellar year by Peyton Manning, with 4727 yards and 39 touchdowns, but they really seemed to gained control of their season when they committed to the running game in November. To win in the playoffs they seemed to know that they’d have to balance out a little more than they may have been in the past with their leading rusher in the September loss against the Seahawks being Montee Ball with 38 yards. In fact, in their losses to Seattle, New England, St. Louis, and Cincinnati, their leading rusher had 38, 18, 29 and 83 yards respectively. No matter how good Manning is, they knew they’d have to be ready to run in the playoffs and with a team of their caliber, outside of trying to get the bye week in the first round, the regular season is a bit of practice for the postseason.

The Broncos also have had maybe the most valuable running back by committee (RBBC) in the NFL with C.J. Anderson, Ronnie Hillman, Montee Ball and Juwan Thompson combining for 1727 yards and only costing the team $2.7 million or 2% of their salary cap. (A point that we’ll revisit later.) The Broncos also have the second best receiver in terms of YAC as Demaryius Thomas had 647 of them. His ability to turn those short outside screens into big plays is a huge benefit for an offense. Wes Welker, while he didn’t blow anyone away this season, also acts as a bit of a running game catching 49 of 64 targets at 9.5 yards per reception.

Indianapolis is another team without a 1000-yard rusher that had a great season, again, having an elite quarterback helps you do that with Andrew Luck throwing for 4761 and 40 touchdowns. They did get 1612 on the ground with Trent Richardson leading the way, plodding to 519 on a 3.3 average. I do think that Ahmad Bradshaw’s injury is one of the biggest of the season that no one’s really discussed much considering the Colts are a top contender. Before Bradshaw got hurt, the Colts were averaging 33.2 points per game and after, just 24.6.

When you don’t have a great running game, you need to think of other ways to do the same kind of thing, which is why they did a great job with how they used Boom Herron against Cincinnati, especially considering how well Bradshaw played against them earlier in the year. The Colts also had a surprisingly decent defense that managed to give up the 11th most yards and 19th most points. Of course, playing the Jaguars and Titans twice does wonders for your record, along with the Redskins and the Giants when they were in the middle of their mid-season disaster. Right there, you’ve got 6 wins. The Colts are one year away from being great and a lot of that falls on their lack of a running game and getting a few more pass rushers, which they’ll get immediately when Robert Mathis is healthy next season.

The Panthers made the playoffs without a top rusher because they played in a bad division and they got hot at the right time. They were 3-8-1 going into December and reeled of four straight wins behind a running game and a defense that came alive. During the four game winning streak, Jonathan Stewart ran for 401 yards on 79 carries (5.08 ypc) with one touchdown to finish the year with 809 yards on the ground. Cam Newton averaged 66 per game on the ground in his three December games and the team averaged 188 rushing yards per game in the month, while they only averaged 107 in their first 12 games. They did have 2036 rushing yards on the season, which was 7th in the NFL this year.

Simultaneously, the defense became the team they were in 2013 when they started their fourth and fifth round rookies together in the defensive backfield, safety Tre Boston and cornerback Bene Benwikere, in Week 14. During those four games, the defense gave up only 43 points, with the Seahawks being the only team to outdo them giving up a mere 33.

The sixth and final playoff team without a 1000-yard rusher is the New England Patriots. No one is surprised they’re in despite a lack of a top running back, but The Patriot Way is about finding guys to fill roles and making do with what you have. The creative coaching of the Belichick regime is why they make the playoffs every year no matter who they have…well, as long as they have Tom Brady. This year, they had 1727 rushing yards, mainly between Shane Vereen, Stevan Ridley, Jonas Gray, and LeGarrette Blount, but even Julian Edelman got involved with 94 rushing yards.

Of course, having Tom Brady allows you to skip having a top rusher and still win. As you can see from the quarterbacks on this list of playoff teams that you can make the playoffs without a top rusher, if you have a top passer, not that surprising. To add to that, you can make the playoffs without a top rusher if you have a great RBBC with great backs to fill different roles in the offense.

This year, there are 11 teams that I think did a very good job putting together a balanced and deep RBBC. These include the Saints, Lions, Patriots, Chargers, Eagles, Rams, Redskins, Chiefs, Bengals, Seahawks and Bills. I know some of these teams have well-rounded lead backs, but they’ve got players behind them that are more than capable of filling in, as many of them displayed this season.

Two teams who haven’t done a good job in creating a deep RBBC are the two that have the most well rounded backs in the NFL, the Bears and the Steelers, something that hurt the Steelers in the playoffs when Bell went down. Forte had 1038 on 266 carries and 102 catches for 808 and 10 total touchdowns, while Bell carried the ball 290 times for 1361 and caught 83 balls for 854 yards with 11 total touchdowns.

While they’re both fantastic backs who anyone would want on their team, their teams are constructed in a way that leaves the teams in a really bad spot if either of them goes down. While the Kansas City Chiefs have a more than capable backup in Knile Davis who has stepped in and performed very well when Jamaal Charles has been hurt in the past as well as a young pass catching threat in De’Anthony Thomas, both of these teams seem to have no one who can replace Forte or Bell at all. Of course, getting rid of an unhappy LeGarrette Blount in the middle of the season didn’t help the Steelers.

Meanwhile, the Seattle Seahawks did a fantastic job constructing their backfield. They did this by betting on two players, both of whom have proved to be capable backups, ready to accept Marshawn Lynch’s role when he, presumably, moves on at the end of his contract.

In 2012, they drafted Robert Turbin with their fourth round pick and in 2013, they drafted Christine Michael with their second rounder. In three seasons, Turbin has basically gotten one full season of work with 928 yards rushing on 231 carries and 43 catches for 427 yards and two receiving touchdowns. To the outside observer, he looks like he could become a well-rounded starting running back when Lynch leaves, while we’ve all heard about the tremendous potential of Christine Michael, we just haven’t seen much of it on the field yet outside of a few exciting plays.

By drafting two running backs in the last two years, leading up to the end of Lynch’s contract, they’ve really set themselves up for the future and mitigated the risk that one of them could be a dud or have a career altering injury, which is what every team should try to do in constructing a backfield.

In my opinion, I think the Cincinnati Bengals have the best running back situation in the NFL, they also have gotten the most bang for their buck with two top players while only spending $3.7 million or 2.8% of their salary cap on Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard. They’re the perfect example of how to build your backfield through the draft, the only risk being that every team isn’t going to hit on two running back draft picks in a row like the Bengals did.

In a normal year, Hill would be the Rookie of the Year with 1124 rushing yards on 222 attempts (5.1 ypc), 9 touchdowns and 215 receiving yards on 27 catches as the lead back for a playoff team. Bernard missed three games, but finished the year with 680 rushing on 168 carries (4.0 ypc) as well as 43 catches for 349 yards and 7 total touchdowns.

Under the new CBA, the draft has proven to be the way to build a backfield as 26 of the running backs that I estimate would start if they were healthy were drafted by their current team or acquired as undrafted free agents. Only the Jets and Seahawks traded for their starting running backs and four were picked up through free agency: Justin Forsett (Ravens), Rashad Jennings (Giants), Ahmad Bradshaw (Colts), and Steven Jackson (Falcons). The second contracts for running backs has too often become paying players for what they’ve done, rather than what they’re going to do in the future. Steven Jackson is the only of those three backs who was a superstar before signing his deal, which is why he got $12 million over three years to rush for around 3.5 yards per carry.

The Broncos have also constructed a great backfield through the draft and undrafted players. They didn’t even make a play for Knowshon Moreno after his great 2013 season of 1038 rushing on 241 (4.3 ypc) with 60 catches for 548 and 13 total touchdowns, even though he ended up signing for one-year, $3 million with Miami, which was a pretty team friendly contract for a 27-year old running back coming off a career year with over 1500 yards from scrimmage. They ended up doing well for themselves though with the attack of Anderson, Hillman, Ball and Thompson.

Like the Seahawks, the Broncos drafted in a way that prepared them when Moreno walked by drafting Ronnie Hillman in the third round of the 2012 draft and Montee Ball in the second round of the 2013 draft. They picked Anderson up as an undrafted free agent in 2013 and Thompson as one in 2014. By constructing their roster this way, the running back position only costs them $2.7 million or 2% of their cap which allows them to lock up the receivers and offensive line they need to make this offense keep on rolling with Peyton Manning.

So to wrap this up, the way to construct a team’s running back position is through the draft, not through free agency as the new CBA makes it difficult to pay running backs in their late twenties what they’re actually going to be worth for you, rather than what they’ve done previously.

For teams that draft a great running back, it might be better to sign them to an extension before their contract is up like the Eagles did after LeSean McCoy’s All-Pro 2011 season, his third in the league. This allows McCoy to cash in and the Eagles to have him locked up through his 29-year old season.

Similarly, the Chiefs signed Jamaal Charles to a five-year deal during his December of his third-year with the team, 2010, then to a two-year extension in 2014 that keeps him with the team through his 31-year old season. Considering that Jamaal Charles can move into a role as more of a pass catcher, it’s not far-fetched to think that he could be productive through that season.

If your team doesn’t have a great lead running back though, your team needs two things: a) then you need a great offensive coaching staff that can get creative with how they use their running backs, b) a front office and coaching staff that have a great eye for low-cost talent and c) a front office and staff that work with each other to put the right pieces in place.

A great example of this in action of the years has been the Saints and Patriots, but, like I said before, the Broncos have done a great job of that this season. A last point to be made is that the turnover at the running back position is quick. Four of the 15 running backs who ran for 1000 yards in 2011 are out of the NFL, Michael Turner, Cedric Benson, Beanie Wells and Willis McGahee.

Another four were healthy this season, but are on their last leg in Maurice Jones-Drew, Steven Jackson, Shonn Greene, and Chris Johnson as they combined for 1858 between them with MJD only having 96 yards on 2.2 per carry and S. Jax averaging 3.7 per carry. Ray Rice was suspended, but beginning to near the end of his career anyway with only 660 yards last year on 3.1 yards per carry.

Reggie Bush and Ryan Mathews missed most of the season due to injury. The only of these 15 that played well this season are LeSean McCoy, Arian Foster, Marshawn Lynch and Frank Gore who seems like the ageless man. Meanwhile, the top 12 passers in terms of yardage in 2011 were all still starting in the NFL this season and 14 of the top 15 are still in the NFL. Of the top 15 passers in 2011 (which included Josh Freeman and Mark Sanchez), 10 of these passers were in the top 15 this year.

If I had to bet on the runners to still be running for 1000 yards in a season in 2017, I’d bet on these four Eddie Lacy, Le’Veon Bell, Jeremy Hill and Lamar Miller. Even if your team has one of those four guys, but especially if they don’t, then it’s time to go out and draft yourself a running back!

@ZackMooreNFL

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Exploring Positional Investments: Running Backs

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My last blog at AllAmericanHustle was about running backs and their value in fantasy football as well as their value in the NFL. Sadly, I have reason to write about this subject again as David Wilson will be hanging up his cleats after two injury plagued seasons with the New York Giants.

Seeing as Wilson is a former first round pick, this goes back to the point I was making in the previous blog: running back is simply too physical a position to spend a first round pick on.

You look at former first-rounders like Ryan Matthews, Darren McFadden, Doug Martin and even CJ Spiller, these guys have all been banged up for much of their careers. It’s a brutal game and it’s a game where every dollar teams spend counts due to the salary cap. It’s not like baseball where teams like the Yankees, Red Sox or Dodgers can afford to make a couple bad calls, every NFL dollar counts.

If you analyze salary cap spending by position, you realize that, like any business, the numbers tell a story.

Running back is a position where there isn’t much difference in spending between a 12-win plus team and a 12-loss plus team, for that matter, neither is wide receiver. My belief in this is because there has been a growing talent pool as well as coaching systems that allow them to plug and play guys who fit their systems.

What really stands out to me is that five of the seven teams with the highest amount of money dedicated to their running backs did not make the playoffs, with the Seattle Seahawks getting in along with the Carolina Panthers, and they made it while overpaying for the running back tandem of Deangelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. The Panthers were led by a defense that they got a tremendous value out of.

Adrian Peterson is arguably the best player in the game, but the $17.82 million that Minnesota spent on running

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backs last year ate up 14.49% of their salary cap at a position that 12-win plus teams spent about $7.35 million, or 7.87%, of their cap on. That $10.47 that 12-win teams saved on the running back position could have been instead used to sign a guy like Wes Welker for $6 million a year like the Broncos did.

The Seahawks spent $10.8 million on a backfield led by Lynch and his production helped them win a Super Bowl, but this is also due to the incredible value they’ve found on the defensive side of the ball in guys like Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas, both of whom signed extensions this offseason, thus shrinking the amount of money available for other positions.

Business is about allocating your resources in a manner that gives you the best chance to succeed and, in my opinion, it’s become apparent that running back is too high-risk a position for teams to be risking 10-15% of their salary cap on. In any business, you have to mitigate risks and no matter how good a guy like Adrian Peterson is, he becomes too high-risk an investment when you can find lower-cost solutions as well.

Last season, the New England Patriots had 12 wins and made it to the AFC Championship Game, while only spending $3.39 million on a backfield that included Steven Ridley, LeGarrette Blount, Brandon Bolden and Shane Vereen. Unsurprisingly, THREE of these four backs missed at least two games with Vereen missing half the season.

Even with the injuries, these four Patriots ran for 2,024 yards and 18 touchdowns while catching 80 balls for 679 yards and 3 touchdowns.

The Minnesota Vikings backfield of Peterson, Matt Asiata and Toby Gerhart rushed for 309 less yards and 3 less touchdowns. They only had 47 catches for 272 yards and 1 touchdown receiving.

So for $14.43 million less, the Patriots got much more production. This is the perfect illustration of the future of football and of course, it’s exemplified by the Bill Belichick coached Patriots. Oh, and did I mention the Vikings went 5-10-1? Adrian Peterson is a great player, but it’s almost a curse that he’s so good that he’s seemingly worth so much money as he’s only won one playoff game in his career and that was back in 2009. Part of it’s due to them putting a lot of money in him and a couple other players, but a large part of it is also because the Vikings haven’t spent money wisely or used draft picks effectively.

I know an NFL insider who was at Christian Ponder’s pro day a few years ago and he spoke to a Vikings personnel member who was not impreseed, but they were so quarterback needy that they felt they had to pull the trigger on Ponder in the first round that year. Well, we all know what happened there.

What we’re looking at is teams running their business in the same manner you would run yours. Look for the lowest cost options you can find that help you succeed. Mitigate risk like the Patriots, 49ers, Rams, Lions, and other teams have by stocking up on quality running backs through the draft and free agency. Find guys who fit your system at a lower cost.

When you’re someone who gets as fired up as I do about business and football separately, it’s a beautiful thing to see when they come together like this.

Look at the Cleveland Browns, their newly acquired big free agent pick up Ben Tate will cost them $6.2 million against the cap over the next two season, but it’s the third round talent Terrance West, from last year’s CAA champions and D1AA runner up, Towson Tigers, who might win the starting job. West has a four year deal worth $2.7 million, which might be a much better return on investment than Tate who was oft-injured as a back-up in Houston. Of course, we must remember, they will complement each other, so there’s the value in that too.

West had 4,854 rushing yards and 84 TDs in a mere 37 games during his three years at Towson and, having played in the CAA at Rhode Island, I’m excited to see him open the eyes of the football community to the quality of CAA football. West is a great example of the growing talent pool that the NFL has to choose from, the ability to find guys like Alfred Morris out of FAU in the 6th round of the 2012 draft, a guy who has vastly outperformed his first round counterpart Trent Richardson from Alabama.

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Jason and I have both analyzed teams salary cap spending and we both realize there’s a “Moneyball” angle in the NFL, we just have to find it. This new pattern of running back usage is definitely one of the most interesting aspects of our study as there are becoming a few schools of thought. There is what the Vikings and Titans have done by making their running back one of their largest investments, then there’s the running back by committee school of thought that has been famously used by teams like the Saints.

Last year, the Detroit Lions paid their running backs $12.85 million less than the Vikings and got 722 more total yards out of Reggie Bush and Joique Bell than the Vikings got out of Peterson, Asiata and Gerhart. With former Saints quarterback coach Joe Lombardi as the Lions offensive coordinator, we can expect a huge year from a three headed attack of Bush, Bell and Theo Riddick.

This new style of offenses has allowed teams to plug-and-play guys that fit their scheme. It matters less how talented the league thinks you are, but how you fit the system, and this allows teams to get low-cost options that fit what they’re doing and, thus, save them money, while still performing at a high level. The other benefit of this, is that, say Bush, Bell or Riddick go down for the season, you still have two other running backs you can rely on. This year, if Adrian Peterson goes down, Matt Asiata is the starter, if Reggie Bush goes down, the Lions still have Joique Bell. On top of that, you can sometimes even find a guy on your practice squad or in free agency that fits your scheme and can function as your third back. So by using a running back by committee approach, you mitigate risk.

The best coaches, as seen by Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, also mold their system to fit their pieces. While I’ve explained how these new systems have found the pieces that fit them, they also go out and find players who are talented and then put them in spots where they can succeed, even if they already have good players at that position.

The Seahawks place a premium on pass rushers, like many teams do because great pass rushers are game changers. One team that sticks out in my mind of using this method for success was the 2007 Giants defense that was led by Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck and Michael Strahan. During the 2013 offesesaon, the Seahawks had just signed Cliff Avril and Quinn called Michael Bennett the next day to convince him that they could use him to the best of his abilities. It was an affordable one-year, $5 million deal for a top rusher who had 9 sacks the year before in Tampa Bay. It doesn’t matter what kind of defense you run, you just need guys who can get to the passer.

A major point on running back performance is that much of their production comes down to their offensive line, same with quarterbacks. And again, just like any business, where can you spend your money to get the best return on investment.

Running back used to be one of the premier positions in the NFL, in fact, before the advent of free agency, people thought all the money would go to running backs, but they were surprised to see it go to positions like left tackle among others. Markets always have a way of correcting themselves and football is no different.

The question becomes, again, like in all businesses, what is the next big thing?

This is among the things we’ll be analyzing and I’m honored to be a part of the Over The Cap team!

Zack Moore

All American Hustle

Follow Zack at: @ZackMooreNFL

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Camp Position Battles: David Wilson vs. Andre Brown

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2013 Cap Hit – Wilson: $1,519,205; Brown: $2,023,000

Amount Remaining on Salary – Wilson: $6,684,502 ($5,382,979 guaranteed); Brown: $2,023,000 ($0 guaranteed)

The salaries for the New York Giants’ top two running backs subtly represent the different areas they are in their respective careers. Wilson, 22, is entering the second year of his 4-year rookie deal. Brown, 26, has been through multiple teams’ training camps before finding a nice role with the Giants.

This is less of a position battle because both guys will see plenty of action on the field this season (For what it’s worth, both will be drafted before Round 10 in fantasy leagues this year.) What makes this situation interesting, however, is Coach Tom Coughlin’s relationship with running backs in general. Coughlin (generally) doesn’t care about a contract or what the front office’s expectations for a particular player are.  If Wilson’s fumbling problems resurface or he struggles to find holes in opposing defensive lines, the percentage of carries will tilt in Brown’s favor. If Wilson can show a little more of the electricity on display during his time at Virginia Tech and holds on to the ball, Coughlin will (perhaps begrudgingly) reward him with the ball.

The majority of the carries could prove to be great experience for Wilson, who figures to be on the roster until at least 2015. Brown could be gone next summer (and should he have a productive season, likely will be gone). But if the coaching staff believes Brown will give the Giants a better shot to win, he will see much more than his current third-down back role with the team.

Look for Wilson to have a bigger role early, but for Coughlin to lose trust at the season goes along. Brown was clearly a player that Coughlin enjoyed utilizing in different sets and situations before he went down with injury last season. Luckily for the Giants, I am not the coach. If it were up to me, I would be sending Henry Hynoski up the gut with the ball on downs one to three.