2015 NFL Review: Roster Usage and Future Prospects

For our final look at the rosters I wanted to see how often we see teams using their specific players and if we can better pinpoint which playoff teams are destined to keep competing for the playoffs and what outside teams maybe can get in over the next few years. While we will look a bit at salaries here, mainly we are going to look at how often each roster category contributed via playing time on offense and defense. Again we are cutting off all figures at the 53 when ranked by APY. You can check out Part 1 and Part 2 on spending and roster construction if you havent already by clicking the links)

Just as we saw in part 2, the biggest difference we see between playoff and non-playoff teams is quality of extended players. The average playtime for an extended player for a playoff team is around 60% compared to just 53% for the non-playoff teams. So not only are these teams utilizing the mechanism more, but in general it is paying off for them. A higher number of quality players playing a higher number of snaps, should be successful.

The Seahawks, Steelers, Packers, and Bengals saw over 25% of all snaps go to players who are playing on contract extensions. Those numbers are well above the 16% median. Also above that figure are the Panthers, Vikings, Texans, and Patriots.

Breaking that down into a % salary/% playtime ratio we can see some of the more efficient spending trends by those teams and others in the NFL. 8 of the playoff teams rank in the top half of the NFL in terms of getting the most bang for their buck. For other teams like the Eagles, 49ers, and Cowboys who also have good ratios it probably indicates at least a reasonable valuation by their front office of how much money to extend to a player. This is in contrast to Giants, Lions, and Titans who, between injuries, lack of production, and the high prices of certain positions, spent a good deal of money on their own players who did not contribute enough.

Teams that gave a high percentage of playing time to UFAs were generally unsuccessful. The Jets blew the field away with a whopping 52.9% of their playtime given to veteran players who either came from other teams or re-signed after the season came to a close. No other team was even close to that figure. The Jets did surprisingly finish with 10 wins but just missed the playoffs.

This category was a wasteland of non-playoff squads with only the Broncos ranking in the top 11. The Bears, Titans, Giants, Saints, and Jaguars were all reliant on such players and had tough seasons. The Bears, Raiders, Jaguars, and Titans all were given the double whammy by spending a large chunk of their roster dollars compared to the playtime figures. The Steelers, Bengals, Colts, Panthers, and Falcons were the most efficient spenders getting their UFA contracted players on the field and having them contribute.

The average use of drafted players on the rookie contract was around 38%.  This fits in with the systems the NFL has always had in place targeting 35 and 45 percent playing time as thresholds for certain calculations. While teams were generally spread out in use, I think these can be useful for initially identifying teams that may be in line for declines in the future. Generally teams that have rookies that contribute are the teams that can maintain or create success.

The NFL generally runs in cycles and a team in a successful veteran cycle needs to be able to churn those veterans over a two to three year period and promote draft picks into those salary slots to maintain that success. In that regard the Redskins, if their players deserve the playtime, look like a team poised to keep improving as 48% of their playtime went to rookies. The Chiefs were at 45% and the Vikings at just under 44%. The Cardinals, Texans, and Packers all ranked above 40% as well.

The Rams, Jaguars, Lions, Raiders, 49ers, Dolphins, and Titans were the non-playoff teams with over 43% given to drafted players.  If there were teams to get in a new cycle of promise it most likely would come from this grouping if those rookies can develop into quality players.

On the other end of the spectrum you have the Steelers, Seahawks, Panthers and Broncos all under 35% for draft picks. The Seahawks do get UDFA contributions, but even then are still low. These are the teams that you probably look at with less of a plan in place for the succession of their current stars and the ones most likely to hit a rough patch in the next year or two if they don’t have the young talent needed to maintain the solid cycle.

Probably the most efficient way to look at the cycle is to project expected roster turnover and determining the snaps you need to replace. We can estimate this by considering all players that will have 9 years or more pass since their draft year be considered replaceable in 2016. Players with 8 years will be replaceable in 2017 and 7 years in 2018. The expectations clearly are for today’s rookies to be tomorrow’s veterans on those extension type contracts to maintain the success over the next three seasons.

The Jets should be very worried about their long term prospects. While they ranked highest in the league with UFA playtime they were lowest in the NFL with draft picks at just 26%. That’s years of bad drafting across two regimes and this year is critical for them to hit in the draft not just on one player but on multiple players that can contribute in some manner. 44% of their snaps came from old veterans that will have 9 or more years in the NFL next season. That is asking a lot for that age group to still contribute, but the Jets will need them to do that because they do not have players ready to step in. When these plyers do leave that will clear about 50% of the Jets salary from their books.

The Colts, Panthers, Steelers, Browns, Saints, and Falcons all will likely need to replace a significant portion of their contributors next year if they want to either continue their success or become successful. The league average is just under 25% and these teams are all above 30%.

Other teams who may not have as much playing time invested in these older players do have large financial commitments in a few older players. The Chargers had over 50% of their salary this year allocated to older players while the Ravens have about 46%. A significant portion of that comes from the quarterbacks, who have a longer shelf life than other positions, but it still shows a heavy reliance on older players as the money is not solely attributed to that position. The Texans and Seahawks, on the other hand, have just 20% of their salaries sunk into older players and the Rams led the league with just 12.4%. Of the playoff teams Seattle is the most equipped to bring the team back next year with minimal impact on performance. The Rams. Jaguars, Dolphins, Bucs, Eagles, and Raiders also won’t be forced to replace teams because of age.

As we look further out to the three year period we should expect teams to look pretty different. The average change should be 44% if you want to maintain prime career players. The Panthers, Colts, Steelers, and Jets, and Saints are all above 50% and the Browns and Broncos are not far behind. These teams need to really begin that plan for succession now.

Some teams will likely lose some big name players during that period even if its not as high a percentage of the overall roster. 73% of the Broncos payroll and 68% of the Packers payroll three years from now will be towards what is considered out of the prime and towards the end of a career. They are teams that not only needs contributors but some real star power in these next few drafts. This is also why when we look at the Broncos current offseason players like DeMarcus Ware and Aqib Talib need to be lost to maintain younger talent like Malik Jackson and Derek Wolfe to best secure the future. The Lions will lead the NFL with over 75% of their payroll considered out of the prime by 2018.

On the opposite end of the spectrum if you were betting futures and you liked the rosters of the Rams Dolphins, 49ers, and Raiders those are teams that do have pieces in place to make that transition, assuming that their younger players actually develop. Of the playoff teams the Texans, Seahawks, Vikings, Redskins and Chiefs all look to have the best setups for the next three seasons and to remain competitive, barring injury, during that time.

The following tables will break down playing time by roster category and future percentage of roster turnover. You can sort the tables by clicking the headers.

Team2016 Replaceable PT2017 Replaceable PT2018 Replaceable PT2016 Replaceable Salary2017 Replaceable Salary2018 Replaceable Salary