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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