2015 NFL Review: Team Spending

We always debate about a number of topis when talking about the NFL including spending, the draft, and team building for the future. With the playoffs about to kick off on Saturday I thought we could look at what teams did this season in three areas: spending, roster construction, and roster contributions over the next day or two with a bit of  a focus on playoff versus non-playoff teams. To keep it from being too long I’ll split it into three parts and for part 1 we will look at the winners and losers when it came to spending money to build a competitive roster.

When I look at spending for a team I’m going to go away from the salary cap and use the sum of the annual contract value to better see the type of player that a team is targeting. While APY is by no means perfect to value a player, it’s much more sticky than a cap charge which is easily manipulated in a given year. I am also only going to look at the top 53 player contracts since those are, for the most part, the players a team expected to get the majority of the playtime in a season. It also puts teams on equal ground when comparing spending since a team ravaged by injuries may have 65 players on a roster compared to just 55 for lucky, injury free team. 

As things turned out for 2015, generally the teams that spent the most money on player costs are the teams who were successful. The average NFL team in 2015 spends about $135 million for their top 53 players. Of the 12 playoff teams, 9 were in the upper half of the league in spending and of the top 6 spenders in 2015, only the Cowboys missed the playoffs and that was a team whose season was derailed by injuries.

The only teams to make the playoffs with under average salary spending were the Steelers (very close to the average at $134 million), Texans ($130 million), and Patriots ($126 million). All told the playoff teams have an annual yearly investment of $143 million in their roster compared to just $132 million for non playoff teams.

Often a better way to break down the roster spending is to look directly at what teams spend on the top of the roster. This is where most of the spending is concentrated with teams spending about 60% on their top 10 players. When we look at spending on the top 10 players on any roster, almost all of the playoff teams rank in the top half of the NFL. Of those teams the Seahawks, Packers, Broncos, Bengals, Chiefs, Cardinals, and Steelers have all been successful for at least a few seasons. Those teams are heavily invested in the top five players on their rosters as well.

Of course the trick for many of these big spenders is to find ways to maintain roster flexibility while dipping into the high priced player market. Teams in the past such as the Saints, Cowboys, and 49ers were often derided for their approaches to huge salary players with little thought for the future.  Those teams, all of which were good for a period of time, were notorious for mismanaging their salary cap.  Those teams often would maximize that cap flexibility for a one year spending spree and then be left with an aging roster and no way to change it. With the hard crashes of teams in the past there had been a theory in the NFL that you cant have a team of stars and be successful for the long term.

Some of the current teams are attempting to debunk that theory by combining very wise cap management and roster building techniques with these massive player contracts.  The Bengals, Chiefs and Texas will rank near the upper tier of the NFL in cap space for 2016, the Redskins will be at the average once they release RG3, while the Seahawks and Packers will be just slightly below the average. It’s only the Steelers and Patriots that project to really have less flexibility with the cap next year.

When we look at lower spenders, the only successful one really has been the Patriots. If you were looking for a “moneyball” winner it’s them. Part of that is Tom Brady’s willingness to accept an under market contract, but they also have a very value minded approach to roster construction and using their dollars generally on top players at the lower cost positions and then bargain shopping or draft building for the more expensive positions. Their feeling is that the coaching and surrounding players can maximize the player output and hide the deficiencies  when they hit the bargain bin. I’m not sure if other teams in the NFL can duplicate that model since the Patriots have a level of stability mainly unheard of with Bill Belichick running the show forever with no threat of ever being replaced. The only other organizations that could show signs of that stability level would be the Steelers, Ravens, Bengals, Packers, and maybe Saints and they all have different approaches. Others who have tried by hiring members of the Patriots staff have failed.

Other low spending teams have become perennial cellar dwellers. The Bears, Bucs, 49ers, Raiders, Giants and Jaguars have all struggled for years to be competitive. The 49ers were the only ones to really have any success before poor drafting and a rash of retirements sent their roster into disarray.

The most disappointing teams this year, besides the Cowboys, in terms of return on investment were the Bills, Browns, Eagles, Dolphins, Colts, and Chargers. All made significant salary expenditures and none were remotely close to the playoffs. The Eagles, Browns and Dolphins all made major front office changes following the failures of the season and the other three teams were all rumored to have at least considered that option.  Miami, Buffalo and Dallas will all need to make some contract/roster changes next year to create cap space making it an even tougher season to swallow.

In part 2, which will be up later today I’ll look at how teams constructed their rosters and spent money on those roster segments.

Here is the team by team breakdown of  annual spending this season:

TeamTop 53 SpendAvg/PlayerTop 10 SpendTop 5 SpendProj. Cap Space