Utilizing Free Agency to Build a Team


As Ryan continues his excellent State of the Rebuild series, in which he looks at new General Managers and their situations, I thought it might be worthwhile to just give a general overview of the manner in which teams are utilizing free agency to build their starting rosters for the 2013 NFL season. For this I will look at the AFC (I’ll be happy to run the numbers for the NFC if requested) and use the current starting players listed on Ourlads depth charts. Traded players do not count when looking at free agency unless they signed a new contract with the team. For example Chris Ivory of the Jets would count (though he is not listed as a starter) but Alex Smith of the Chiefs would not.

Free agency is often a short sighted approach to building a football team. The NFL is a young man’s game and often the most productive years for a player come during the first six or seven seasons of a career.  For some teams this leads to a philosophy of extending draft picks early in their careers.  The manner in which this works is that a team, after a players third season in the league (it used to be his second season), extends the player for a period of anywhere from three to five seasons on top of his existing contract.

The benefit to this is that the player is locked up for what are considered his “prime” football years with minimal down  the road impact if the player needs to be released for dropoff in performance. The reason the impact is minimized is because bonus money can only be prorated over a 5 year period, leaving the final extension years often clean from a salary cap standpoint. Teams also have a great deal of leverage in these early extension negotiations and can lock up players at below market values. In general you are sacrificing the salary cap benefit of the rookie contract for long term salary cap flexibility. The 49’ers, Packers, and Eagles have all been major proponents of this strategy.

Of course there is risk involved in this strategy. First of all you have a very small sample size of real game action to evaluate the player. For many players you can throw a rookie season out simply due to the immense learning curve of the NFL, leaving a team with just one or two years to evaluate the talent. If the talent busts you are stuck with cap charges you never would have had if you allowed him to play the rookie contract out. This is how the Patriots got into cap problems with Aaron Hernandez. While that is an extreme example it shows the negative side of the early extension.

It can also be a difficult strategy to stick with because GM’s jobs are directly tied to wins and losses and this strategy is a better long term rather than short term strategy. You are sacrificing the opportunity to get better immediately to stay better over a longer period of time, which could lead to some losing seasons early in the philosophical transition. That often leads to a team going in the other direction and looking to build via free agency.

There are various types of building through free agency. There is the more short term enhancement designed to put a “win now” team over the top. The Broncos would be an example of this. They will have nearly $20 million(as measured by annual value) in new talent take the field for them this year, but three of those four players are signed for 2 or fewer seasons. This, in essence, gives the team a great escape if the “win now” team doesn’t win. There is no long term commitment whatsoever.

There is the barren roster situation which would be exemplified by the Raiders. The Raiders are essentially an expansion team and need bodies on the field. They have eight new starters signed as free agents, tied for most in the AFC.  They are not signing them to turn the franchise around; it’s simply better than the alternative of the completely unknown undrafted free agent.  Of those eight, six will be free agents after this season.   It is a stop gap solution with no long term damage.

There are other teams that see free agency as an opportunity to add one or two big pieces to the long term plan of the team. The Browns and Titans would both fit in that category. They added some significant big money players but not to the point where it completely overhauls their roster. These players are not short term solutions either but more admissions of either draft failures or a desire to not spend future draft allocations on these positions.

Finally you have the complete rebuilding approach. I find this to be the most fascinating to watch unfold because the expectations are not so much to build on what is in place but to turn a franchise completely around in a very quick manner.   Failure at the early stages of this process often lead to significant salary cap damage down the line. This strategy is completely opposite to the “extend early to avoid the cap pain late” approach. Teams that build this way often do not have a happy ending when the 28 year old free agent makes the turn past 30 and they have all kinds of guarantees or bonus prorations in their contracts. What makes this even more difficult is that you are not putting one or two parts into an existing system but multiple pieces. With limited practice time in the preseason it can leave units of 11 that need to function as 1 right out of the gate struggling for answers on the field. By the time they figure things out the season could be lost and GM’s jobs will be in jeopardy.

The two AFC teams utilizing this strategy this year are the Miami Dolphins and Indianapolis Colts, though there are differences to both internally in the way that they approached this. Miami is one of the most unique attempts at a quick rebuild that I can recall. They have more or less been waiting for the last two years for contracts to run out so that they had significant money to spend. Miami doled out over $42 million in annual salary to other teams’ free agents. That is nearly $8.5 million more than the next closest team.  They will have 7 new starters this year, nearly 1/3 of their starting roster.

What makes their situation even more unique is that for all this money spent, $13.5 million of it is just for one year rentals. That $13.5 million represents the contracts given to TE Dustin Keller, CB Brent Grimes, and RT Tyson Clabo. Normally you would expect this more on a “win now” team where you go all in on a few short term pieces, but the Dolphins have shown no signs of being that type of team. They have been a steady as a rock 6 to 7 win team since their trip to the playoffs in 2008.

They also have five other starters in their walk year (Randy Starks, Paul Soliai, Chris Clemons, Koa Misi, and Richie Incognito) which could keep the Dolphins in line for another major overhaul in 2014. With a good deal of cap room to carry over into 2014 and some wiggle room  to restructure existing contracts, Miami could conceivably go on a large spending spree again in 2014, potentially under a new GM if the team fails in 2013. So it’s not really a big window of opportunity for the team as presently constructed but more of a one year vision with an open window to improve internally and externally in the future.

The Colts are different. They have taken an approach that you can take a relatively young overachieving team, and I’m not sure any team has ever overachieved more than the Colts last season, and quickly take it from the learning stages right into the advanced playoff stages. Indianapolis will have 8 new starters in 2013, 5 of whom are signed for 4 or more seasons. They committed 26 seasons to these 8 players so this was a long term plan, not a short term fix.

But the Colts are also making a leap of faith on the talent they acquired. These players are not so much proven talents as they are key backups now expected to start. The 8 players only combined for 72 starts in 2012. S LaRon Landry and RT Gosder Cherilus are really your only true proven starters. Almost everyone else the team signed long term comes with a huge “buyer beware” sign and the decisions left a number of people around the league wondering why they paid so much for some of the players.

That said I would consider this a more traditional approach to building via free agency with long term deals as the centerpiece. Normally teams might wait one more season rather than right after the rookie year of a number of key pieces but the Colts are young and cheap enough to where this may just be the prelude to the main event which could take place in free agency in 2014. They will be tough to outbid next year if they want to add more pieces.

I do think that many teams will watch the success or failure of the Colts and Dolphins very closely. There are a number of teams that are going to have significant cap room next season and what could be impatient owners and/or fanbases that want to see results fast. These teams include the Raiders, Jaguars, Jets, Browns, and Bears. If the Dolphins can go from a 7 win to an 11 win team it is going to be hard to state that you want to avoid free agency and build via the draft on a 3 year plan. But if Miami goes 7-9 again and the Colts fail to make the playoffs it will likely be another reason to not go wild in free agency.

A lot may hinge on these types of teams besides free agency philosophies. Spending in general was down last season on most positions other than QB and WR. The flat salary cap has made some teams a bit more cautious than they were in the past with their spending  and as a result free agency in 2013 was almost a non-event outside of a handful of contracts. Players need some of these big money contracts to actually result in improved won-loss records and playoff success to convince teams that spending is just as important as drafting.

I’d actually say it is far more important to the players to see players like Mike Wallace and Paul Kruger help turn the fortunes around of their franchise than it would be for a bargain chip like Wes Welker to push the Broncos to the Super Bowl. While a player like Welker would show that you can enhance your results by participating in free agency, his next to nothing contract would still signal that teams should put low caps on their offseason evaluations. If the big money items make a meaningful splash more bidding wars could ensue.

The following chart illustrates the annual amount spent per team on 2013 starters that came via free agency. The two lines show how many players were signed and how many total years were potentially invested in those players. If you would like to see an overview of the NFC feel free to send me an email.

2013 NFL Free agency


Is Victor Cruz Underpaid?


Yesterday WR Victor Cruz did an interview in which he said he felt as if he was underpaid and insinuated that the only reason he accepted the deal to stay with the Giants was to stay close to home. So let’s examine the situation a bit more in depth.

Now I think most people would agree that Cruz handled his negotiations poorly. He made his desire to stay in NY well known which immediately gave the Giants even more leverage, something that they already had an abundance of because of Cruz’ status as a Restricted Free Agent. He switched agents during the process somehow getting mixed up somewhat in the whole Jay Z mix, which only led to him reiterating he did not want to leave NY. In doing so went from being the biggest priority for a small firm to just one of many names in a large firm.  He signed his RFA tender, a move some (not all) would have advised against, rather than threatening a holdout. At the end of the day many sources claimed that Cruz ended up signing the same deal the Giants had on the table for him the year before.

That being said, I can understand Cruz’ statements and part of the problem can be the management of expectations by advisors around him. When you look at the salary scales and see players like Mike Wallace earning $12 million a season you have to wonder why you are only making $8.6 million a season. Cruz’ problems, beyond what was outlined above, are that he is primarily a slot receiver and that he is an incredibly specialized slot receiver at that.

Slot receivers are paid far less than players on the outside. That’s just the way the game works. Comparing Cruz to Wallace is essentially the same as comparing Jimmy Graham to Wallace. The position is valued differently, because of expectations and difficulty in finding players to play the two receiving roles. Now the Seahawks burst the market for a player who most would typecast a slot receiver in Percy Harvin. While some may argue Harvin can do more than just catch, it’s really just an outlier of a contract.  The real market is much lower than Harvin.

There is no escaping the slot stigma for Cruz. There were only 21 players last season that had at least 300 routes of which at least 50% of them came in the slot. Cruz was one of them with about 70% of his routes coming in the slot. When lining up outside, Cruz numbers dramatically fell. As a slot target Cruz’ YPC average was 15. On the outside the YPC fell to 8. Cruz could argue that his numbers were better the year before but the counter from any team would be that nobody was prepared for Cruz and 2012 represents a more realistic performance. His only way to prove otherwise was to play the year out, which he was unwilling to do.

As a slot performer there were few more productive. On a yards per route basis only Randall Cobb of the Packers was slightly better. Cruz was 12% more productive than Wes Welker, third among slot players, and far more productive than anyone else at the position. He battled some drop problems but so did Welker and Cobb, so it’s not like Cruz was that terrible in that regard, something people make him out to be. I think it would be fair to say that based on two years of play none are better in the league who play in the slot. However, he is still just a slot receiver.

A difficulty for Cruz is that his skills are unique, something not that uncommon to the position. A player like Welker is typecast because he is short and plays in an offense with a superbly accurate QB that looked his way far more often than most would due to the lack of outside threats. Interest in Welker outside of New England was lukewarm. Cruz is just as specialized, simply in a different way.

Cruz plays with a QB who is going to the Hall of Fame and likes to throw the football down the field. Eli Manning is not the most accurate of players and meshes perfectly with Cruz who is not the most accurate of route runners. They work in an offense that is designed with that in mind and takes their fair share of chances with the football. Cruz isn’t going to fit in an offense with Christian Ponder or Alex Smith playing QB. He might not even fit with Tom Brady at this stage of Brady’s career.

Just as how Welker had problems, Cruz might have had similar ones in free agency. You need a stronger arm QB, an offense not afraid to let him use it, and an offense that doesn’t typecast its players, i.e. slot is a possession only receiver. Off the top of my head I would view the Colts, Ravens,  49’ers, Saints, and Cowboys as teams that would do that. Neither Dallas nor New Orleans have money to spend nor spots to fill. The Ravens would be hard pressed for cash as well so it’s a limited market. I’m sure some other teams would get in the mix too, but he likely isn’t a plug in anywhere player.

Cruz, at $8.6 million a year, is the highest paid slot receiver in the NFL. Miles Austin might be considered a slot player now (about 70% of his routes come from the slot, the same as Cruz last year) and makes $9 million a year, but when signed he was considered an outside threat. Cruz will earn about 18.5% more on an annual basis than Marques Colston of the Saints and 43% more than Welker.  While those players are both older than Cruz, who will be 28 when his extension years kick in (Colston was 29 during his season of signing and Welker will be 32 in his), Cruz’ deal is worth more money than both and Colston in particular has shown the ability to play a bit more on the outside as well.

The other players who fit into the slot category with Cruz simply don’t make that much money. Cobb will see a payday soon, but guys like Santana Moss and Reggie Wayne are at the end of their careers while names like Jeremy Kerley, Davone Bess, Emmanuel Sanders, etc… are all on low cost deals and none of whom will break the bank when they hit free agency (Bess already signed for under $3 million a year).

Maybe Cruz is a victim of circumstance and will prove he can do more than what he has been asked to do so far. If that is the case I think he will have a strong argument that he is underpaid. But for the player that he is now and job he is asked to do he is very close to the right number. If he and his team had been a little more difficult on the Giants he probably could have pushed beyond $9 million a season, but even then it’s not the mega dollars that it sounds like Cruz feels he should have gotten.    All told Cruz is pretty much right at what the market would be expected to pay for his services.



Vesting vs Full Guarantees Focusing on the Broncos and Ryan Clady


One of our Twitter buddies had the following tidbit regarding Ryan Clady and his contract discussions:

On the surface that seems like a no-brainer of a contract for Clady. An $11 million APY in this market with $33 million guaranteed is a heist for the player. But whenever you see reports like this the first thing that should come into mind is whether the guarantees are real guarantees or not?

Guaranteed salary can take on many forms, only one type of which is truly guaranteed. We touch on this more in depth in our Caponomics videos, but the basics are that in the NFL you can be cut for skill, injury, or salary cap reasoning. Unless upon signing your salary is guaranteed for all three terminations the guarantees are nothing more than fancy words designed to make a deal sound amazing in the press when in reality the deal may be worth nothing close to the reported numbers.

The Broncos in particular rarely seem to fully guarantee players salary. They often use a “vesting” mechanism in which the player will convert a partial guarantee into a full guarantee by meeting some condition, typically being on the roster on a certain date. The vesting guarantees can be long horizon (more team friendly) or short horizon (more player friendly).  In the Broncos case it is normally the latter.  The structure of such guarantees are of even more importance when dealing with the Broncos who do not usually give their players large signing bonuses, which act as a deterrent towards early release due to salary cap implications.

So how do these deals work in practice?  We can first look at Peyton Manning who received a $96 million dollar contract. Technically the deal contains $96 million in guarantees, but the reality was just the first season was guaranteed. If released after that season and before the trigger event Manning would not have received another penny. To trigger his guarantees Manning has to pass a physical before the 2013 LY which activated $40 million in full guarantees, unless an injury occurs related to his original neck injury.  In 2015 and 2016 he has the ability to lock in yearly guarantees by passing a physical. This was both a player friendly structure (frontside) and team friendly (backside) with the rolling guarantee structure.

Wes Welker signed a 2 year $12 million dollar contract that was reported to be 100% guaranteed. That was only the case in regards to injury.  If Welker makes it thru the season in one piece and is released prior to the start of the 2014 League Year the Broncos will not owe him a penny. He needs to be on the roster to activate his guarantee.

Former Bronco Elvis Dumervil received tremendous press coverage when it was reported that his contract contained over $43 million in guaranteed money. As things turned out most of those guarantees were against injury only with him required to be on the roster every year for the guarantees to really mean anything. Dumervil missed out on $12 million in 2013 when he was released before the vesting date. Dumervil’s contract was incredibly team friendly.

So as we turn to Clady the question is just how much of the $33 million will be truly guaranteed and how much will need to be earned?  I would think it is doubtful that it would be fully guaranteed as the Broncos simply do not concede on that point. On top of that there is considerable precedence at the position. Joe Thomas,  D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Jake Long, and Duane Brown all have partial guaranteed contracts with possibilities of earning full guarantees along the way. None had their deals fully guaranteed upon signing.

Thomas’ deal could be a good starting point for an idea of potential structures.  Thomas’ contract was reported to contain $44 million in guaranteed money. The only amount fully guaranteed upon signing was a $6 million dollar signing bonus, $4 million roster bonus, and $8 million dollar Paragraph 5 salary. Another $20.5 million was guaranteed for injury and would become fully guaranteed by being on the roster a few days following the Super Bowl each year, a date that is considered more player friendly that dates pushing into the actual league year. $5.5 million was only guaranteed for injury.

Using that same structure and eliminating the portion of the guarantee that simply doesn’t vest we can get a signing bonus around $5 million and $10 million in fully guaranteed money that will be paid out in 2013. His 2014 salary would be $9.3 million and 2015 salary would be $8.7 million, both of which would be guaranteed for injury only and converted to full guarantees if he is on the roster in February of each year. Using that structure Clady’s cap charges would be $11 million, $10.3 million, and $9.7 million with backend charges of $11.5 and $12.5 million. His dead money in those last two years would only be $2 million and $1 million respectively which would fit in with the Broncos current Manning window.

So I’ll be very interested to see how it all breaks down, but I would not be surprised if its something similar to what I have outlined above.I think the key is just how much money they can push the Broncos on in the first two years. Those are two seasons where the guarantees are most likely to be realized. If Denver tries to push more vesting guarantees into 2015 then it is a deal Clady may reject unless he can earn those guarantees by being on the roster in 2014 rather than 2015.



Best & Worst Contracts: The Denver Broncos


A few weeks ago Jason LaCanfora published a list of best and worst contracts in the NFL so I thought it might make a good idea for us to do the same here at OTC, with a team by team approach. I’ll try to be a bit more analytical in terms of why money was paid and how it fits in the market, but the general premise is the same. The one key difference is outside of restructured rookie contracts under the old CBA we will only use veteran contracts as there is a big difference between best draft picks and best contracts.  Please note that there is a difference between a bad player and a bad contract when discussing some of the selections. Clicking on a players name will take you to his salary cap page.

Wes WelkerBest Contract: Wes Welker

I get the knocks on Wes Welker. I’ve had those same debates when discussing values on him with followers of my work. Welker is considered by many to be a product of a system in New England, and to some extent they are correct. Not many teams funnel the pass attack through the slot the way the Patriots did and even fewer teams have a QB capable of pulling that off the way Tom Brady has with Welker. So yes the stats are inflated due to an incredibly high amount of targets, but even if you normalize the numbers he is still a plus 1,000 yard receiver.

I think there is a perception that Welker is an old player because they associate him with Brady and Brady has been around for so long, but Welker was never a member of those Super Bowl winning Patriots teams. He’s only 32 and WR’s can definitely be productive until 34. Denver signed him for $6 million a season plus some incentives. If they choose to walk away next year they can do so with only $2 million in dead money, a number that compares favorably to other older WR’s like Steve Smith and Santana Moss. It’s $100,000 less dead money than they already have locked into Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, another one year trial player.

The signing of Welker also fits the Broncos perfectly in that they have a short window with Peyton Manning and he fits perfectly in with that window. One thing noticeable in that playoff game against the Ravens is that Manning did not have the same zip he used to have on his passes which makes the addition of Welker very important in the short term.   Welker is more talented than the 36 year old Brandon Stokley who filled that role last season and Manning’s natural abilities may force him more to Welker type routes than he would have gone to back in his prime.

There is also a long term benefit to the signing. His contract works as both leverage and insurance against WR Eric Decker, a talented young player about to hit free agency who will almost assuredly see his numbers drop.  Last year he produced nearly 1,100 yards with Stokley only stealing around 550 yards. Welker will be far more productive than Stokley and give the Broncos multiple options with Decker. While Decker  can be a future building block of a team it has to be at the right price and with Demaryius Thomas already well on his way to being a big money player when his deal is up in 2015 you want to keep Decker on as low cost a contract as possible. Welker gives the Broncos the best chance to see that happen.

Joe MaysWorst Contract: Joe Mays

Denver does not really have many truly bad contracts. They are very tough negotiators and use structures to make cutting players as painless as possible on the franchise. With most of the most overpriced players gone from the team there were a few names to consider here and I narrowed it down to two players- Mays and G Chris Kuper.

Kuper has always been overpaid, with his salary closer to the top quarter of the league while his play at best would be average, but he was always a starter and injuries have made it hard to say one way or the other on him. I could easily see choosing him as well. Likewise Mays was also always a mediocre player but with no track record as a starting player in the NFL and for some reason the Broncos seemed to fall in love with him, rewarding him with a 3 year $12 million dollar deal in 2012.

The ILB market is a pretty flat market in terms of price and the $4 million APY actually ranks in the top half of the position in the NFL. For defenses whose base package is the 43 his contract ranks around 6th. 37.5% of his deal was guaranteed, a top 10 number for veteran players at ILB. That’s a pretty hefty price to pay for a player whose true upside is really that of special teams ace.

Though Mays was also injured last year, he had been benched prior to his injury and relegated to special teams again. It really should have come as no surprise given his history with both the Eagles and Broncos. Still it’s not so bad of a deal that it is impossible to escape and it is quite possible that the Broncos will cut him during training camp, making this more of an overpriced contract rather than an outright bad one. They do still owe him $500,000 in guaranteed salary but assuming he has offsets that is money they will never really have to pay him this season as a team will sign him for the minimum to play specials and be a backup linebacker. If released his cap is only $666,666 with a $166,668 cap charge remaining in 2014.

Check out Our Other Best & Worst Contract Articles

AFC East: Buffalo BillsMiami DolphinsNew England PatriotsNew York Jets

AFC North: Baltimore RavensCincinnati BengalsCleveland BrownsPittsburgh Steelers

AFC South: Houston TexansIndianapolis ColtsJacksonville JaguarsTennessee Titans

AFC West: Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs (July 9)

Planning Wide Receiver Dollar and Draft Spending


In doing the best and worst contract articles and then re-hashing yesterday some old thoughts on Mike Wallace I thought what might be interesting was to look at just how important a WR is to a specific offense when deciding to throw money at them. Normally I would just look at WR targets for this but with the TE’s in the news in New England I thought I would include them as well.

Wide Receivers cost a hefty sum in this market. When you sign one of them for a large value and expect them to become some type of incredible upgrade you need to know if you are getting a true number 1 or a piece to a puzzle. A true number 1 is someone who has proven that they can be the lone dominant target on a football team and still succeed. Being a cog in the offensive wheel and then being expected to handle 30-35% of the targets on a team is unrealistic. If the player doesn’t have the track record of doing so, you need to plan on allocating more money or draft picks to the position to get the best out of the free agent.

The average top target on a team in the NFL in 2012 was 29.1%. 17 players qualified above that number. Only two of the 17 were primarily slot receivers (Victor Cruz and Wes Welker) and only 1 Tight End made the cut (Jimmy Graham). The low total for a top target was 19.3%, which was the number for Josh Morgan of the Redskins. The high was Brandon Marshall of the Bears with 48.2% of their receiver targets, showing either how bad the Bears WR corps. are or how little QB Jay Cutler trusts anyone on that team.

But as we look further into the numbers its important to identify the help that the player receives. For that we look at the separation between the top receiver on a team and the second most targeted receiver on a team. If the gap is large I have more confidence that we have a player who can perform in a number 1 role on a team.  The average result for the top player on each team was a 7.5% differential.

In this case only 13 players qualified. Again top of the chart was Marshall with 35.9% more targets than Earl Bennett. The most surprising name in the top was Jeremy Kerley of the Jets. He was only targeted 95 times and it was likely more of a reflection of how bad the Jets passing game was than anything else. The least impactful top target was Graham with only 1.1% more targets than the next highest on the Saints.

If you combine the two qualifiers you can get the group of players who were given what I would consider elite treatment last season. These are the players I would feel most comfortable signing to be the primary target on my team and not worrying as much about the downside of the move. I know they can perform without the great assistance other players will get.


This list is very different than top receiving yards. Gone from that list are Dez Bryant, Vincent Jackson, Demaryius Thomas, Roddy White, Julio Jones, and Marquez Colston. That doesn’t mean that these players are not true number 1’s just that I would have more reservations about them if I were to sign them as a free agent and my next best option is Early Doucet. When you are the primary target like this a team knows that not only is the ball coming your way 1 out of every 3 chances but also that there is nobody else significant they need to worry about. It changes the way you play defense and makes it far more difficult on a receiver.

For the less productive players from a yardage standpoint, who would be Dwayne Bowe, Larry Fitzgerald, Stevie Johnson, and maybe Cruz and Michael Crabtree, my attention needs to go first to the QB and then to the team. If the QB is good (only Cruz’ is as Crabtree only played a handful of games with Kaepernick) then I may want to improve the players around him. Maybe a little too much is being asked of him. In Cruz’ case this is mitigated if Hakeem Nicks could stay healthy for 16 games. For the others I need to make a QB change first rather than jumping on the WR train.

Using a chart like this isn’t going to tell you who to sign or who not to sign its just a way to help better plan for your future. If Miles Austin for example has never shown the ability to be the man in an offense I am taking an incredible risk by paying him $11 million a year to come to say Minnesota. The day I make that decision to do that I also am making a decision to likely invest at least one of my top two draft picks on a Wide Receiver and also bringing in a 1A type that can be productive and demand 20% of the passes thrown his way. Very quickly my allocation needs to move from $11 million to $19 million plus a draft pick.

But if I sign Bowe for $11 million and have a decent QB I can probably get by with lesser players around him. I may not need to waste that draft pick any more. I might be able to avoid the secondary star. That $11 million is probably going to turn to $16 million or stay around $11 million and I’ll allocate a draft choice instead. I may be able to get two low cost players to pair with Bowe whereas Austin needs two higher priced ones. This is a piece of planning that will spiral into disaster if not followed by a team.

Of this list the two interesting situations will be those created by Crabtree and Welker. Crabtree was likely lost for the season giving the 49’ers nothing to fall back on. They acquired Anquan Boldin (25.8%), but Boldin was one of three highly targeted players in Baltimore. Vernon Davis was only targeted 16.7% of the time. It is a very different situation in Baltimore than San Francisco which leaves Boldin in what could be a bad situation with Crabtree out.

Its similar in New England.  They replaced Welker with Danny Amendola. Amendola was a 22.5% target last year which was 4.2% higher than the next player. That may be better than it appears since he did miss 4 games last year, though the productivity was low. The Patriots approach here is clear- blame the QB. But they have also seen changes to their corps replacing Brandon Lloyd (23.6%) and Aaron Hernandez (15.1%) with Michael Jenkins (18.6%), Donald Jones (16.8%),  and Jake Ballard (DNP).  Both Jenkins and Jones are going to be looked at as QB upgrades improving numbers, one of which will be asked to fill Lloyds shoes.

In terms of salary, half of the top 10 highest priced players did not make the list. They include Percy Harvin(injured), Wallace (26.4%/2.9%), Vincent Jackson (30.2%/4.3%), DeSean Jackson (17.4%, -6.7%), and Miles Austin (22.1%,-5.4%).  V. Jackson is probably in the perfect situation in Tampa with Mike Williams (25.9%) doing just enough to help him.  Wallace is going to go to Miami and pair with Hartline and Dustin Keller, who should be able to replicate the Steelers formula of 3 players with 20% looks. He will likely need that to succeed. DeSean Jackson could easily be released next year if he continues to underperform.

Steelers Match Offer Sheet for Sanders; Could they Consider Trade?


As reported in multiple places tonight the Pittsburgh Steelers decided to match the Patriots $2.5 million dollar offer signed by WR Emmanuel Sanders. The Steelers now have a binding agreement with Sanders and he is no longer a free agent. I admit that I was a bit surprised that the Steelers matched the offer due to their cap position and the fact that absent a long term contract Sanders will simply become a free agent after the 2013 season.

With that in mind I wonder if the Steelers would now approach the Patriots about a trade for Sanders. The whole process is in many ways a game of poker. The Steelers showed part of their hand when they placed the $1.323 million dollar tender on Sanders. The Patriots revealed their hand when they placed a number value on him that fell in between that of a 1st and 2nd round tender. Now the question is would the Steelers take that knowledge and go back to the Patriots and offer the Patriots Sanders for a 2nd round pick or a combination of other draft choices?

For as good as the Patriots are their receiving corps. is in a bit of disarray. Leading receiver Wes Welker is gone to Denver and Brandon Lloyd wore out his welcome and was let go after just one season. They replaced Welker with the upside of the younger Danny Amendola but Amendola is a walking injury, having played in just 12 games the last two seasons. TE’s Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowksi missed 11 games combined last year and both are injury concerns, with rumors out there that Gronkowski could miss the entire preseason. That leaves the Patriots with veteran Michael Jenkins as their most reliable receiver, a player who never once topped 800 yards in a single year. Backups Julian Edelman and Donald Jones have missed 10 and 12 games respectively over the last two years, with both finishing the 2012 season on injured reserve.

The Patriots have gone down the chasing of a RFA and trade route before when they acquired Welker from the Miami Dolphins in 2007. The Patriots had indicated that they were going to sign Welker to an offer sheet and the Dolphins seemed to make it known they would match a standard offer rather than take back the 2nd round compensation. Rather than going through the process the Dolphins and Patriots worked out a trade in which the Patriots gave up a 7th rounder in addition to the 2nd rounder to acquire Welker. It proved to be one of the great trades in the NFL as Welker had a great career in New England while Miami struggled to find competent receivers. the Patriots do have two 7th round picks this year that could be used in a trade.

Because the Patriots has signed Sanders to an offer sheet the trade process becomes a bit more convoluted as Sanders now essentially has a no-trade clause to the Patriots. Per the terms of the CBA Sanders can only be traded to New England if he agrees to such a trade. This little known rule came into play in 2009 when the Jets had matched an offer sheet from the Cleveland Browns to S Abram Elam. The Jets later included Elam in a draft day trade with Cleveland in which they acquired the right to draft QB Mark Sanchez. Without Elam’s consent the trade could not have happened. Also if traded before the 19th the NFL Players Association would also need to approve of the trade in addition to Sanders. While I don’t think that would be an issue, considering he signed with the Patriots in the first place, but it is a factor to consider when going the wild speculation route.

I’m sure we will get a better idea in the next 24-48 hours if the chasing of Sanders is over, but this is just another thought to consider when working through the planning process of managing your roster and trying to extract the most value you can from your players


A Look at the Slot Receiver


This was an interesting week for the slot receiver. You had the Seahawks pay a massive price for Percy Harvin while the prolific, but much older, Wes Welker had trouble finding a job.  Meanwhile Welker was replaced by the younger Danny Amendola while Victor Cruz twists in the wind hoping someone will bite despite his restricted free agent status. So I figured why not go ahead and take a closer look at these players, Cruz’ contract, and examine the Amendola for Welker swap that has agitated a number of New England fans and made countless others scratch their head at the move.

Slot Performance

To start with I wanted to examine each players stats when they line up in the slot. For Harvin and Welker these are 3 year averages while for Cruz and Amendola it is just 2. The NFL averages are a 3 year average for all players with at least 25% slot targets as reported by Pro Football Focus.


Out of the group Amendola lined up in the slot an incredible 82.9% of the time. The league average for slot players with at least 25% of snaps in the slot was around 55% so he has almost no use anywhere else on the field. That was far higher than Welker’s 74.4% of the snaps. In terms of targeting there was little difference. Amendola saw the ball come his way slightly over 28% of the time he lined up in the slot, which is slightly higher than Welker at 26.4%. Harvin was the lowest at 25.2%. 19% of the time the slot guy gets the football.

The catch and drop rates, which kind of go hand in hand, in the slot are the first signs of some differences. Harvin had the best catch and lowest drop rate of the group. Amendola and Welker had nearly identical catch rates but the drop rate for Welker is much higher than average and far higher than Amendola’s. Part of the reason the catch rate for Welker is so good is because of Brady. I could see that being a factor in the replacement as there could be a feeling that Amendola will have a catch rate well above Welker’s in this offense. Cruz is around average in catches and well below average in drops. He does run deeper patterns however.


I think these are the categories that upset the New England fan about losing Welker. Amendola’s actual production once he catches the ball is terrible. He is below the league average in both YPC and YPT. The excuse of Sam Bradford only goes so far.  For the Patriots to consider him a replacement they are making the leap of faith that Bradford is the only reason his production when catching the ball was so bad.  Interestingly enough three players were all below the league average in YPC. Victor Cruz is in his own universe as a slot player. Now the Giants play their offense different than other teams but the production is outrageous. If you are going to run a down the field attack offense he is the guy you need. As a possession receiver I think you can make a strong argument for both Harvin and Welker.

Outside Performance

Can these players bring anything outside of the slot?  Lets look.


When lining up outside Amendola has the lowest percent of passes caught though in this case the QB he was working with likely makes more of a difference since these are most likely more difficult passes. Both he and Harvin has big drops in their catch efficiency- 11.1% for Amendola and 7.0% for Harvin- compared to the other two. Cruz actually caught a slightly higher percent of passes when lining up outside than he did in the slot. Welker’s drop rate of 11.7% would be alarming.


This was the one area where Harvin stood out with a higher effectiveness in both YPT and YPC when lining up outside. He is the player who lines up on the outside the most and the numbers give reason to play that way. He is a more effective player on the outside and the Seahawks must be banking on him playing there more often and putting up far better numbers with a better QB. Welker and Amendola would both be a notch below, though the two were similar in effectiveness.

Who Would You Choose And At What Price?

Not taking age into account it is hard to see a real clear reason why the Patriots would take an often injured Amendola over Welker. Even when you factor in age the Patriots are a win now team not a win in 3 years team. Amendola is probably going to be less effective on the outside than Welker and its hard to see Brady having such an incredible effect that his yards in the slot would skyrocket up. The one thing that New England may have taken into account is the high number of drops from Welker. He had the famous one in the Super Bowl and while that was not a great pass it was one a great receiver should make. If the Patriots think they are getting somebody more versatile than Welker I don’t see any justification for that line of thinking. That being said I think the numbers do paint a pretty clear picture of why many said Welker is a system receiver that would be much more pedestrian outside of New England.

Of this grouping Cruz is the best receiver and it is by a wide margin. It makes the negotiations interesting for him and the Giants. Harvin’s new money is more than $12.5 million year and he received that in exactly the same contractual situation as Cruz, with his rights held up at under $3 million a season.  Prior to that contract I would have assumed that the Giants and Cruz would be working off the base of someone like Marques Colston and determining a value over his $7.25 million a year deal, likely settling between $9 and 10. Harvin’s deal changes everything and gives Cruz a reason to at least seek $13 million a year.

While there is a clear market correction going on around the NFL, most likely because of the ultra high investments in a team QB, Wide Receiver has not been impacted. If anything it has gotten stronger with the deals given to Harvin, Mike Wallace, and Dwayne Bowe. I don’t think Cruz can convince the Giants that he deserves that money now. The Steelers held firm on Wallace last season and Cruz has only had two years in the NFL of note. They will want to see a third. My guess is they will also argue that Harvin is an outlier and to just eliminate the deal from the equation.

In many ways I can see Cruz’ future being tied in with Harvins. If Harvin plays well this season lining up mainly in the slot there will be a number of teams that jump of Cruz as a UFA next season, assuming Cruz has another 1000+ yard season. The NFL is a copycat league and if they see a trend heading that way teams will jump on it. If Harvin does not play well that will be justification for not over-spending on Cruz and tie him in with the rest of the slot market.