I’ve already explained how much sense the Chris Hogan move made from the Patriots perspective as he’s the perfect kind of undervalued player with potential that the Patriots have always been able to find under Bill Belichick. But yesterday, March 15th, was an absolutely quintessential Patriots day as they traded defensive end Chandler Jones to the Cardinals for guard Jonathan Cooper and the Cardinals second round pick, then signed 31-year old veteran defensive end Chris Long to a one-year contract. Jones is not an easy player to trade away after the best season of his career in 2015 with 12 ½ sacks, but there are multiple important reasons why the Patriots made this deal.
The first reason was seen in the AFC Championship game as Tom Brady was hit 20 times, which, according to Ben Volin of the Boston Globe, was the most hits taken by any quarterback during this NFL season. He also wrote that over his previous 17 games, Brady took 99 hits, an average of 5.8 per game and the most he had taken before Championship Sunday was 12 against the Eagles in December. In the four games before they played the Broncos, Brady had taken a combined 19 hits.
The blueprint for how to beat the Patriots was set by the 2007 and 2011 Giants and repeated by the 2015 Broncos. As Pro Football Focus’ Steve Palazzolo pointed out, “the way to slow down the New England Patriots’ offense is to create pressure with the front four and play tight coverage on the back end.” He goes on to talk about the terrific performances by Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware during that game with a combined four sacks, seven hits and seven hurries of their own before saying, “the great equalizer, especially against Tom Brady, is interior pressure. More importantly, getting pressure from more than one player makes it near-impossible for the quarterback to diagnose the defense, and Denver got plenty of help on the interior” from Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson.
Palazzolo points out that pressure with Denver’s great pass coverage gave Brady little chance for success and he finished 7-for-23 for 73 yards (3.2 yards/attempt) and a passer rating of 37.0 when pressured. This was all with Denver blitzing a season-low 17.2% of the time as their four-man rush created pressure on 19-of-39 drop backs with two sacks and 12 hits on those 19 pressures. While Brady was pressured on 35.3% of all snaps this season, the Broncos got pressure on 48.7% of drop backs with only four guys rushing. That’s impossible for a quarterback to deal with.
The real key point is that the Patriots were the quickest passing offense in the NFL with Brady throwing the ball with an average time to throw of 2.35 seconds. They’re leading the way as the league is pushing towards a quicker passing game as a chess move to the freaks that defensive coordinators have coming off the edge in the NFL today, but they couldn’t beat the Broncos’ pass rushers as they got to Brady in 2.16 seconds on average in that game.
Jared Dubin from CBS Sports pointed out in September 2015 that the time to throw in the NFL has been shrinking since 2012 as the percentage of throws in under 2.5 seconds has gone from 55.19% in 2012 to 56.56% in 2013 to 58.55% in 2014 to 63.49% of NFL drop backs through Week 3 of the 2015 season. Pro Football Focus had Brady at 2.09 seconds to throw over the course of his first 133 passes of the season, while Peyton Manning’s 2.24 seconds to throw in 2014 was the season record. PFF also Tweeted on December 7, 2015 that Brady’s average time to throw is heavily effected by Julian Edelman’s health. With Edelman through the first nine games of this season, Brady’s time to throw was 2.13 seconds; but without Edelman in the next three games , Brady’s time to throw averaged 2.65 seconds. Neil Greenberg from The Washington Post wrote in January that Brady’s average time to throw for the nine games with Edelman was 2.13 seconds, but 2.45 seconds in the seven games without Edelman. The first three games without Edelman were particularly difficult– as PFF Tweeted on December 7th that Brady’s time to throw was averaging 2.65 seconds– which may be why they went 1-2 over those three games. The Broncos had three sacks, while the Eagles had four sacks in their late fall wins against the Patriots. Another situation that illustrates the growing importance of these short, quick pass catchers in the NFL, especially with how things are trending league-wide. If Edelman was healthy, they might have broken Manning’s record by a tenth of a second, which is a lot of time when we’re talking about split seconds.
Through the first three weeks of the 2015 season, Dubin had Brady at 80.58% for the percentage of throws within 2.5 seconds of the snap, which is evident by that crazy 2.13 average time to throw through Week 9 with Edelman. Going back to 2011, Brady threw 61.37% of his passes within 2.5 seconds of the snap, then he dipped to 59.82% in 2012, which was likely due to a passing attack with Wes Welker leading the way (118 catches, 1354 yds, 11.5 ypc, 6 TDs), but a duo of Brandon Lloyd and Rob Gronkowski running deeper routes and combining for 129 catches for 1701 yards (13.2 ypc) and 15 touchdowns. In 2013, Brady got back over 60% with 60.88% before jumping up to 66.23% in 2014 and over 80% through those first three weeks of 2015. Not a huge sample size for 2015, but with a 2.45 second average over the course of the season for Brady even without Edelman for those seven games and you can see that Brady probably threw about 75-80% of his passes within 2.5 seconds of the snap.
So what does this all mean? It means that the cost of the interior offensive line is about to increase just like the cost of the interior of the defensive line has increased with contracts like Ndamukong Suh’s deal worth $19,062,500 a year, which is higher than any other non-quarterback. Suh’s signing was the Dolphins response to defending against the Patriots quick hitting offense, while the other teams in the division, the Bills and Jets, have their own heavy investments in the interior defensive lines. Like I said before, when Brady’s getting rid of it in 2.13 seconds when Edelman is healthy, interior pressure is needed due to the time it takes an edge rusher to make it to Brady. While the edge rusher is 10-12 yards away from Brady, defensive tackles are 5-6 yards away. Like I said in my post-Super Bowl 50 podcast, so much of what happens on the field can be broken down into the numbers.
Suh’s contract is so expensive that on March 5, 2016, the Dolphins restructured Suh’s 2016 cap hit, which was about to be 18.42% of the cap by converting $20 million of his base salary to a signing bonus, which created $16 million in cap room for a team that desperately needed some as their 2016 Top 10 was going to cost 71.73% of the cap.
So point being, dollars are increasing on the interiors of both sides of the line as the top of the center market is now $9 million with Alex Mack in Atlanta, left guard Kelechi Osemele just signed a deal worth $11.7 million a year in Oakland and right guard Brandon Brooks just signed a deal worth $8 million per season in Philadelphia. In the past, this was a place where Belichick has exploited the league’s lack of understanding of the importance of interior linemen. After the Patriots signed Nate Solder to a two-year extension worth $20.1 million in September, Andy Benoit wrote about how our perception of the importance of the left tackle position is based off an old NFL. While Michael Lewis’s 2006 book, The Blind Side, is a great read, Benoit writes that “it’s told through the prism of the 1980s, when the likes of Lawrence Taylor menaced quarterbacks who often lined up directly under center and took seven-step drop-backs.” He goes on to point out that 30 years later, quarterbacks spend between 60-75% of their time in the shotgun, “where he almost immediately has a much wider scope of vision; if he’s righthanded, he sees the full right side of the field and almost all of the left. There is no “blind side” anymore. Yesterday’s seven-step drops are now more like five-step drops, but most QBs can’t even hold the ball that long. Quick strikes have become the norm; the best passers often throw in 2.5 seconds or less. Many times, even if a wide-aligned defensive end goes completely untouched by the left tackle, he still can’t reach the QB in time.”
To that point, a really incredible 10-yard dash time is around 1.5 seconds, so do the math: if an unimpeded 10-yard dash takes 1.5 seconds and Brady is about 10-12 yards from the rush and getting rid of the ball in 2.13 seconds when Edelman’s on the field, there is not much time for even the best rusher to get to him. (That’s where the importance of Denver’s elite pass coverage came in.)
Bringing it back to the Chris Hogan decision by the Patriots, it really is a perfect match because, as Brady is aging and the league is changing, the Patriots are going to ramp up the short to intermediate passing game. When they signed Brandon Lafell, he was considered a kind of big, versatile, slot receiver at 6’2”, 208-pounds, but with the Patriots he really only ran deeper routes, which is being phased out of the Patriots system a bit. They traditionally loved having a deep threat, especially with Randy Moss, but they don’t need that kind of outside deep threat anymore and they have someone who fills their newer deep threat need better in Gronkowski, plus Hogan can provide that as well with his low-4.4 speed. While a guy like Moss could provide them with the long ball down the sideline, Gronk can provide them with that–but, more importantly, the deep ball down the seams. Brady’s going to have his war with Father Time eventually and, while Manning did have four neck surgeries, we saw how he struggled throwing deep: so Lafell just doesn’t fit the future of their offense.
Dubin also wrote in September about the completion percentage around the NFL and for Tom Brady in throws under 2.5 seconds and as you’ll see below, the numbers are very, very interesting (remember, 2015 stats are only through Week 3):
The entire league is trending towards efficiency as I’ve detailed in articles like the Yards Per Target as a Metric article from February 2016 and you know Belichick’s leading the way as he always does. I wrote about it in the Hogan article and I’ll be writing and podcasting about it more in the future, but Belichick’s broken down the entire sport into the foundational principles of what it takes to accomplish the objective in every phase of the game, in every game and over the course of the season on the way to the final objective, which is a Super Bowl victory. He’s had a highly efficient offense since 2001 and, broadly speaking, that’s all driven by the foundational principles of moving the chains with consistency and being able to punch home sevens rather than threes in the redzone, but having the ability to kick the three with almost automatic consistency. One of the important facets of this for the Belichick offense over the years has been the efficiency of their passing game and that will be on full display in 2016 with a group of short, quick pass catchers like Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Dion Lewis, James White and Keshawn Martin, plus the 6’1”, 220-pound Hogan running short and intermediate routes like a faster and stronger version of Anquan Boldin.
The Patriots use their short passing game as a ball control system, and a high completion percentage increases that efficiency. When we’re looking at pass catcher and talking about efficiency, we should look at their catch rate and their yards per target. As an example, while a player like Mike Evans gave the Tampa Bay Buccaneers a solid 8.20 yards per target, it wasn’t very efficient as his catch rate was 50.3%. This means that on half of the times they threw him the ball, the play was unsuccessful; this is not what the Patriots are looking for. While every offense needs a pass catcher who can threaten the defense deep, the Patriots have enough of that in Gronkowski and they have no place in the future of their offense for a player with Mike Evans’ skillset.
The 2015 Patriots pass catchers battled injuries all season, but as a testament to the offensive system they’ve created and their ability to identify players who fit their system, they kept finding players who could provide them with what they needed. It’s also a bit of a supply and demand issue as the Patriots are able to pick from a huge supply of 5’9”-6’0”, 175-195-pounds receivers and 5’8”-5’9”, 195-205 pound pass catching running backs, which is why they’re also very inexpensive. During injury plagued seasons, Edelman gave them 7.86 yards per target with a 69.3% catch rate and Amendola was at 7.45 ypt with a 74.7% catch rate. At running back, Dion Lewis gave them a 7.76 ypt with a 72.0% catch rate in seven games and James White had a 7.59 ypt and a catch rate of 74.1%. They let Vereen go to the Giants for more money and replaced him with two less expensive players who combined for 798 yards on 76 catches (104 targets) for 7.67 ypt, which is incredible for a running back as the average for running backs is around 6.25% and I have the RB range around 5.5 to 7 yards per target, while the short, quick slot receiver range is about 7 to 8.5 yards per target. Welker was usually in that range; he got up to 9.07 ypt in 2011 due to their lack of a deep threat that season, which was an interesting stat I found that kind of supported my 7-8.5 ypt conclusion for that kind of player.
Hogan will likely provide them with something in the 8.5-9 yard per target range with a catch rate between 60-70% as he’ll probably get short to intermediate routes with some deep passes sprinkled in. Lafell had 6.96 ypt in 2015 and it was due to a 50.0% catch rate, which is something the Patriots wanted to improve on.
And as I’m writing this, the Patriots have completed a trade for Martellus Bennett who will fill the Aaron Hernandez role that they tried to fill with Tim Wright and Scott Chandler the last two years. In the end, they’ve basically traded Chandler Jones and a fourth round pick for Jonathan Cooper, Martellus Bennett, a second round pick and a sixth rounder. Their salary cap situation with Cooper and Bennett will be basically the same as what it would have been with Jones and they’ve gotten themselves another second rounder and now have another sixth rounder rather than a fourth. Jones would have likely gotten the franchise tag in 2017 with all the free agents they need to re-sign. The Patriots 2017 free agents include: Jabaal Sheard, Marcus Cannon, Sebastian Vollmer, Rob Ninkovich, Alan Branch, Matt Slater, Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins, Logan Ryan, Duron Harmon and Malcolm Butler.
Martellus Bennett didn’t have a great 2015 as he dealt with rib injuries as well as some difficulties adjusting to a new coaching staff, but from 2012 to 2014, Bennett had 210 catches on 311 targets (67.5% catch rate) for 2,301 yards (11.0 ypc/7.40 ypt) and 19 touchdowns. Even with a down 2015, since 2013, Bennett is second in the NFL among tight ends in yards after contact trailing only Rob Gronkowski. This is a huge addition to an already deep group of pass catchers and the mismatches that this offense can create are basically endless. I don’t know how you prepare for an offense with Gronkowski, Edelman, Hogan, Amendola, Bennett, Lewis, and White.
Jonathan Cooper was never very effective during his time with the Cardinals, but he was chosen with the 7th pick in the 2013 draft out of North Carolina, so he has to be talented. In a move that can only be described as Michael Jordan-esque for the offensive line community, Dante Scarnecchia was drawn out of his 2013 retirement and rehired by the Patriots on February 16, 2016 after the Patriots let Dave DeGuglielmo go. During his time with the Patriots, Scarnecchia has made beautiful music with far less talent than what Cooper likely possesses and Cooper will be entering a much easier offense for linemen in the Patriots’ quick hitting Erhardt-Perkins versus the Cardinals’ Air Coryell. While Brady was in the bottom half of the NFL with 3.80 air yards per attempt and 5.90 air yards per completion, Carson Palmer led NFL starting quarterbacks by a large margin with 5.39 air yards per pass attempt and 8.47 air yards per completion. These offenses couldn’t be more different and Cooper will be an integral part of the Patriots offensive line.
Doug Kyed from NESN.com says that Cooper “was not the primary compensation” in the trade for the Patriots as they were more concerned with getting themselves another high draft pick as they’re without a 1st rounder due to DeflateGate, which might be rephrased as GoodellGate in good time. This gives them back-to-back picks in the second round at 60th and 61st overall in the 2016 NFL Draft. Knowing the Patriots like I do after these last few years at Over The Cap, one thing is certain: they love their draft picks. Why is a longer conversation, but the basics are that drafting contributors is a much lower cost than finding them in free agency and it allows them the opportunity to keep them at a lower than market rate through an early extension.
While Cooper wasn’t the primary objective, the Patriots knew what they were getting a young guard with upside and athleticism. Kyed goes on to say that Cooper is nearly as athletic as Patriots left guard Shaq Mason, whom Belichick has referred to as “one of the most athletic offensive linemen I’ve coached.” With Mason and Cooper, plus Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer and then either David Andrews or Bryan Stork at center, Kyed says the Patriots could have one of the most athletic offensive lines in the NFL next season.
On the Patriots four Super Bowl champion teams, they had 14 total starting offensive linemen and only four were drafted in the first two rounds and only three of those guys were drafted by Belichick. Damien Woody was drafted by Pete Carroll in the first round in 1999 and he played center on the 2001 Patriots and left guard on the 2003 team. Current left tackle and left tackle for the 2014 Patriots, Nate Solder, was drafted in the first round of 2011, while right tackle Sebastian Vollmer was drafted in the second round of 2009. The left tackle on their first three championship teams, Matt Light, was drafted in the second round of the 2001 draft.
Want to hear a shocking fact? Outside of those four picks in the top two rounds, only three of them by Belichick, the Patriots have only drafted three other linemen who have started on their four Super Bowl champions and none of the linemen drafted have been guards. In 2000, the Patriots drafted their right tackle for the 2001 team, Greg Randall, in the fourth round and their 2014 center, Bryan Stork, was drafted in the fourth round of 2014. Dan Koppen, their center for their 2003 and 2004 teams, was drafted in the fifth round of 2003.
Starting in 2001, their left guard was Mike Compton, a player known for his versatility, who was actually drafted in the third round of the 1993 draft by the Lions and was signed by the Patriots at a low-cost in 2001. Their right guard was Joe Andruzzi who signed with Green Bay as an undrafted free agent in 1997 and was signed by the Patriots in 2000 after he was released by the Packers. Andruzzi, who went to FCS Southern Connecticut State would go on to be their starting right guard on the 2003 team and their starting left guard on the 2004 team.
Their left guard on the 2003 team was Damien Woody, who had moved over from center with the drafting of Dan Koppen, but they let Woody go after the season as he signed a six-year, $31 million contract with the Lions. This may have been a lesson for Belichick that interior linemen who are drafted high and perform can become too expensive for his formula, so just stick with finding your low-cost guys year after year as the Patriots clearly have an eye for that and Dante Scarnecchia seems to be able to develop them.
On the 2004 team, Steve Neal was their right guard and, like Hogan or Nate Ebner, he came out of college without the typical football background as he was one of the best college wrestlers in NCAA history out of California State-Bakersfield. Belichick inserted him at right guard in 2004 and he would be a solid player for the Patriots through 2010 when he was healthy. The logic over the last few years especially is that the left tackle should be the best pass blocker, while the right tackle should be your best run blocker. With Cooper, the Patriots are getting a young, talented player who could build on a solid run blocking skill set, which he displayed last season with a decent 71.0 run blocking rating according to Pro Football Focus, but his 45.2 pass blocking rating dragged down his overall rating to 61.6. I have to think that Belichick and Scarnecchia have seen something on tape or elsewhere that made them believe they can help develop the 26-year old guard into a solid starter for them.
In 2014, left guard Dan Connolly and right guard Ryan Wendell were both undrafted free agents. They even traded away star guard Logan Mankins to the Buccaneers for Tim Wright before the season as he had become too expensive for the Patriots taste and he wouldn’t agree to a restructure. Connolly was picked up by the Jaguars as a UDFA in 2005, eventually waived and then signed by the Patriots on September 13, 2007 and he stayed with them until retiring in July 2015. Wendell was signed by the Patriots as a UDFA in 2008 and outside of being waived and re-signed to their practice squad a couple of times, he has been a Patriot ever since.
Speaking of the idea that the right tackle should be your best run blocker, Belichick and Scarnecchia were able to develop an undrafted free agent and a seventh rounder into the starting right tackles of their 2003 and 2004 teams. In 2003, Tom Ashworth was their starting right tackle and was for the first six games of 2004 before being injured and replaced by Brandon Gorin who was a seventh round pick in 2001 for the Chargers and released after the 2002 training camp, then signed by the Pats.
I don’t know enough about offensive line play to give you a deep discussion on this, but at the surface it seems that Belichick and Scarnecchia have an ability to identify a skill set in these lower ranked offensive linemen coming out of college; it seems that they’re great at identifying strong run blockers as, since they get rid of the ball quickly in their offense, they don’t need the best pass blockers. The Seahawks have seemed to be able to do this under Pete Carroll as well with one example being their moving college defensive end J.R. Sweezy to right guard, but he just signed a five-year, $32.5 million contract with the Buccaneers. Sweezy was a heavyweight North Carolina state champion in high school wrestling, which may have added to a unique skill set in the running game like Neal’s.
Like what I said in the Hogan article about the Jets, Bills, and Dolphins finding solid slot cornerbacks to cover guys like Amendola and Edelman, there’s a similar chess strategy going on in the interior of the lines. While the Dolphins have signed Ndamukong Suh, the Bills have invested heavily in Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams, while the Jets have Muhammad Wilkerson and Leonard Williams. Like with the slot cornerbacks, their division rivals are responding to them, so they have to respond to that like they responded with the Hogan and Bennett deals. Just when your opponent has made the proper adjustments to what you’re doing, respond by addressing it and then throwing a new problem at your opponent.
Mason and Cooper are two of the more athletic guards in the NFL and they’ll have terrific depth behind them with Tre Jackson and Josh Kline. Add David Andrews or Stork at center and they probably have the best young interior offensive lines in the NFL and maybe the deepest interior offensive line in the NFL. The Cardinals were in the process of converting Cooper to center this offseason, so he’ll add even more versatility, which the Patriots love.
While the Mankins move made plenty of sense from a financial perspective, the loss was definitely felt on the line as they had their share of struggles the last two years, while he continued to be one of the best guards in the NFL before retiring quietly the same day as Peyton Manning. The players who played for them in 2015 gained valuable experience and Cooper will be an infusion of talent whom they hope will improve and fill that loss of Mankins long-term.
The entire league is going to shift spread spending on both the offensive and defensive line more evenly across the line over the next few years as the league continues to shrink the amount of time that quarterbacks take to throw, so I think the Patriots have realized that and have made a move to address that fact. If Cooper shows the talent the Patriots believe he has, the Patriots will re-sign him and have a duo of run blockers in Mason and Cooper who will be able to handle these big run stuffing defensive tackles in the AFC East and who will continue to improve on their pass blocking in this quick hitting offense. Even with the issues they had in pass protection in 2015, they were 30th in the NFL in rushing. While I know LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis both got injured, the run blocking had a ton of room for improvement. Goal number one is winning your division, so Mason and Cooper will help address a strength of their divisional opponents.
Bringing it back to Chandler Jones, we know he’s a fantastic player and he’s only going to get better, but as Jason wrote in his article on this trade, “Jones’ fate with the Patriots was likely sealed when they saw the contracts come in for Malik Jackson and Olivier Vernon in free agency. Jackson landed a $14.25 per year million contract off a 5.5 sack season while Vernon, who was generally the second pass rusher in Miami, scored $17 million a year. If those players are worth that, it means Jones is close to $20 million a year. That’s generally not a winning formula in the NFL and the Patriots have always avoided the big money game with their players. The Patriots see more value into turning those players into future draft capital and/or decent upside/low risk talent. They got both this year with a late 2nd rounder and Cooper, who has talent, but has been inconsistent and injury prone. He also plays a far lower cost position if he does play well. While the Patriots do hold an option for him in 2017, don’t expect them to exercise that option as it’s well over $10 million and right now he’s a $3 million a year player.”
Jackson is projected to consume an average of 9.29% of the Jaguars cap from 2016 through 2021, while Vernon’s contract is projected to average 9.45% of the cap over the next five years with the Giants. As I’ll explain later, the Patriots salary cap formula doesn’t allow for a second player to be taking up around 10% of the cap with Brady making that much.
With this Jones move, they then signed veteran Chris Long to a deal that hasn’t been disclosed yet, but will likely be a low to mid-tier contract for a defensive end, and they also signed linebacker Shea McClellin to a contract that’ll likely have a cap hit in the 1.50-3.50% range. While they lost Jones, they still took steps forward on defense this week and it’s clear from what Jason explained that Jones wasn’t going to be a part of their future plans. Not only because he’s been a great player for them, but with that first round label, Jones was going to command far too much money for a team that likes to be built like the Patriots do. By going out and getting Long, they did something they’ve always done so well in this dynasty and that is find those lower cost defensive linemen who are, for whatever reason, at a depressed contract value for the production that the Patriots will be able to get out of them. On their early-2000s teams, Bobby Hamilton and Ted Washington represent two examples of this in action and they used players like them as bridges to their next great defensive lineman who they’ll draft like a Richard Seymour, Ty Warren, or Vince Wilfork.
On all four of the Patriots Super Bowl teams, they’ve actually had a higher than average top cap hit at 11.46% of the cap compared to the Super Bowl average of 9.37%. In 2001, Drew Bledsoe took up 10.29% of the cap, Ty Law was at 11.74% and 12.67% on the 2003 and 2004 teams, while Brady was at 11.13% in 2014. The second cap hit is where they start to fall back down to earth with Ty Law, Ted Johnson, Tom Brady and Vince Wilfork averaging only 6.08% of the cap compared to a Super Bowl average of 6.94%. The Patriots Top 2 cap hits cost 17.16%, 16.60%, 18.95%, and 16.83%, which is just barely above the 16.31% average for Super Bowl champions.
From 2016 through 2019, Brady’s projected cap hits are 9.02%, 8.46%, 12.36%, and 11.49% for an average of 10.33%, which is right around his average of 10.44% over the last 11 seasons. (Interestingly, Brady will be taking up less of the cap than Brock Osweiler, who will average 10.36% with the Texans over the next four.) So with those numbers in mind, the top cap hit will be Brady these next four years and, especially in 2018 and 2019, there just isn’t enough room in the Patriots formula for Brady at 12.36% and 11.49% and then Chandler Jones at 8-12% of the cap himself as that creates a top heavy cap construction that the Patriots don’t want to employ. With Brady’s 12.36% cap hit in 2018, even having Jones at a really conservative 8% of the cap would almost beat the Steve Young and Jerry Rice Top 2 Super Bowl record of 21.64%.
Since Belichick’s been their head coach and general manager, he’s had 16 first round picks and he’s drafted:
- 3 Defensive Ends: Richard Seymour, 2001; Ty Warren, 2003; Chandler Jones, 2012
- 3 Defensive Tackles: Vince Wilfork, 2004; Dominique Easley, 2014; Malcom Brown, 2015
- 3 Defensive Backs: Brandon Meriweather, 2007; Patrick Chung, 2009; Devin McCourty, 2010
- 2 Tight Ends: Daniel Graham, 2002; Ben Watson, 2004
- 2 Linebackers: Jerod Mayo, 2008; Dont’a Hightower, 2012
- 1 Offensive Guard: Logan Mankins, 2005
- 1 Running Back: Laurence Maroney, 2006
- 1 Offensive Tackle: Nate Solder, 2011
He’s drafted every offensive and defensive position in the first round except for wide receiver and center. My theory for why he doesn’t try to draft wide receivers early is that he knows that if they play up to the standards that the Patriots are hoping they’ll play up to, they’ll be far too costly when they hit the free agent market for them to retain their services for the value that they want for their Patriot Super Bowl formula. When Brady retires, that may change for a few years if they have a quarterback at a low salary cap hit as they’ll be able to use those years to spend heavily on a non-quarterback like they did with Ty Law in 2003 and 2004.
This is an important point Jason and I have been making this offseason: if you’re paying a player like Osweiler 80% of what the top of the quarterback market is and almost 100% of what Brady is being paid, then you are not getting the same production value and that hurts you in your team’s quest for the Super Bowl. When I was discussing the Broncos’ formula and the rest of the quarterback market in February, I was stressing how important it was for these teams to get Kirk Cousins, Sam Bradford, and Osweiler at a numerical value that was representative of the real value that each player will provide that team as a proper allocation of resources can make all the difference as the Patriots have shown over time.
Part of how the Patriots have kept that proper allocation of resources going is through the great job they’ve done drafting. The first way they’ve done this is by averaging 9 draft picks a year from 2000 through 2015, while a division rival like the Jets have only had 6.8 per draft. The Patriots had 35 more draft picks over those 16 drafts, which is 35 more chances to hit on a player who could provide you with value much higher than their cost on their rookie deals and creating the opportunity for the Patriots to extend them before their rookie contract ends, thus not allowing them to hit the free agent market and see their contract value increase. The ability to extend players early means that the Patriots have the opportunity to secure these homegrown players below market value for their entire career through this drafting and extending process.
Another part of this proper allocation of resources is using the draft picks wisely, knowing where you can find proper value. Examples of this that I’ve already discussed with the Patriots are how they don’t draft receivers early due to a cost on their second contracts as the top of the market has guys like AJ Green, Julio Jones, Dez Bryant and Demaryius Thomas making between 8-11% of the salary cap. With Brady just under 10.50% of the cap and shooting for that 16-17% of the cap area for their Top 2, the Patriots were never going to be able to have that top, high cost wide receiver for Brady.
I explained in the Hogan article how Belichick got around that largely by breaking down the objective into what needs to get done and that’s moving the chains with consistency and having players who can score in the red zone. Rather than enter the top of a market that’s too expensive like wide receiver is, Belichick went with the tight ends in the 2010 NFL Draft to give them Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez and he’s trying to recreate that with Gronk and Bennett. With Gronk and Hernandez though, their 2014 cap hit would have been 7.55% of the cap if Hernandez didn’t literally turn his 2014 cap hit into dead money and that is 1.66% of the cap less than what Demaryius Thomas cost the Broncos in 2015 at 9.21% of the cap. The big tight ends provide the offense with the kind of big mismatch that the big, prototypical wide receivers create all over the field and provide the Patriots with a red zone target to help ensure those trips end in sevens, not threes.
Their 2004 team with 2002 first round pick Daniel Graham and veteran Christian Fauria combined for nine receiving touchdowns that year along with 46 catches on 68 targets, which is a 67.6% catch rate, for 559 yards (12.2 ypc/8.2 ypt). That was also the year that they drafted Ben Watson in the first round and they allowed him to take it slow that season and grow into his role knowing that tight ends typically don’t produce statistically until year two at the earliest. This was their first attempt at creating the duo-tight ends that they created with Gronk and Hernandez and now with Gronk and Bennett.
In 2005, Watson and Graham combined for 45 catches on 79 targets (57.0% catch rate) for 676 yards (15.0 ypc/8.6 ypt) with seven touchdowns between them, plus Christian Fauria added two of his own with only 57 yards on 8 catches on the season. In 2006, Watson and Graham combined for 70 catches on 125 targets (56.0% catch rate) for 878 yards (12.5 ypc/7.0 ypt), but only five touchdowns. After that season, the Broncos signed Graham for $30 million over five-years and Watson took over the starting role. Watson was their starting tight end through 2009 averaging 29 catches for 334 yards (11.5 ypc) and four touchdowns per season before he signed with the Browns for $12 million over three years. They then signed Alge Crumpler for a veteran presence and drafted Gronkowski and Hernandez who both had two of the best rookie seasons for tight ends in NFL history. Together they combined for 87 catches on 123 targets for a 70.7% catch rate with 1109 yards (12.7 ypc/9.0 ypt) and 16 touchdowns. This was the year that the double tight end set became a must-have fixture of this offense because of the production value. The fact that they were able to get that kind of production out of two rookie tight ends speaks to how well the Patriots can identify the skills needed for a tight end to be successful.
The wide receiver and tight end conversation is similar to the cornerback and safety conversation with the Patriots providing an example in both. From 2012 through 2019, Gronk is projected to cost the Patriots an average of 4.44% of the cap, while Calvin Johnson was projected to cost the Lions 11.05% per year if he didn’t retire. With Gronk and Hernandez costing the 2014 Patriots 1.66% less than Thomas cost the 2015 Broncos, Gronk and Bennett will only cost the Patriots 7.60% of the 2016 cap, while AJ Green will cost the Bengals 8.37% of the cap. The Patriots use the savings from being in the tight end market to double up and get two big targets for the price of one. Every defense tries to have one guy who can cover a tight end well, but it’s very unlikely you have two who can cover the 6’6”, 265-pound Gronkowski and the 6’7”, 248-pounds Bennett in the red zone as they don’t make many athletes who can cover guys with the size, speed and strength of those two tight ends. Gronk averaged 16.3 yards per catch and 9.8 yards per target in 2015, so he provides the kind of big play ability and deep threat that those top receivers provide as well.
For receivers, the Patriots have gone with the short, quick types at wide receiver and running back who average in that 7-8.5 yard per target range with a 65-80% catch rate that makes it like an extended running game where you don’t hit 100% of the time, but you hit at enough of a rate where it’s 7-8.5 yards per target provide you with something that moves in much bigger chunks when it’s working than a running game can provide. Remember, that’s seven to eight and a half yards per target, that’s not yards per completion, so that means that yards per target equals yards per play. From 2011 through 2014, Brady had an average completion percentage of 71.1% on throws that happened within 2.5 seconds of the snap, so these passes to the short, quick guys were completed with a high level of efficiency, thus making this style of ball control offense deadly. People have always used the term possession receiver as a kind of pejorative that meant the player wasn’t a big play threat, yet it’s becoming clear to me that Belichick saw something others didn’t, he saw that these “possession receivers” were hugely important to offensive efficiency, but can be found in the 1.50-4.50% of the cap range. He saves money by having two receivers on every Super Bowl team who are in that 5’9” to 5’11” 185 to 195-pounds range, but provide them with an efficiency that helps consistently move the chains and, due to their quickness, they can also find openings in the red zone. During his six seasons as a Patriot, Wes Welker had 37 total receiving touchdowns, which is about six per season, while Edelman has 17 in the three years since taking over for Welker, which is six per season as well. Last year, Edelman, Amendola, James White and Dion Lewis combined for 16 receiving touchdowns, which speaks to their ability to get open in a small space.
The fact that these short, quick players produce touchdowns is something that I’ve never heard discussed before. While Welker and Edelman have both averaged six touchdowns per season in the Patriots offense, it’s not that far behind what a player like Calvin Johnson averaged over his nine year career as his 83 receiving touchdowns come out to just over nine per season. While that’s three more per season than what Welker and Edelman averaged, the Patriots were getting more out of their other pass catchers as they had more money to spread around.
Not including 2013 because he only played five games in that season, Julio Jones had 32 touchdowns in the other four seasons, so that’s eight per year. While he was on his rookie deal for most of that time, he’s now continuing that production on a much bigger contract. While he might be worth his 7.98% projected average cap hit through 2020, the money might be better used if it’s spread out a bit like the Patriots have. He was huge for Atlanta in 2015 with 136 catches on 203 targets, which is a terrific 67.0% catch rate for such a high volume receiver, for 1871 yards (13.8 ypc/9.17 ypt) and eight touchdowns, but with the high cost of Matt Ryan at 15.30% in 2016 coupled with Jones at 10.24% in 2016, it becomes an expensive cap situation with a Top 2 of 25.54%, which is 3.90% higher than that 21.64% Top 2 for the 1994 49ers that we discussed earlier and higher than both Steve Young and Demaryius Thomas’ record cap hits at their position.
Not only do they save money at wide receiver on some players who can still get open in the red zone, they have Gronkowski at that tight end market discount and in the five seasons that he’s played 11 games or more, he’s averaged 12.2 touchdowns per season. Even using his seven game 2013, Gronkowski’s averaged 11 touchdowns per season and, while he doesn’t provide the kind of yardage that Johnson or Jones have been able to explode for, that money is clearly spread out amount pass catchers in a very efficient way. Remember, it’s critical to score sevens not threes when you get in the red zone and the Patriots have found a way to do that with many different kinds of receiving mismatches.
While the rest of the NFL has been reaching for the high cost, prototypical WR1, the Patriots just looked at the objective of what they’re trying to accomplish offensively and created a new solution. This has been a huge help for them to save money, while still getting elite performance. As the offense became more passing oriented as Brady’s career progressed, the spending on pass catchers increased, but not to the extent that their biggest conference rival, Peyton Manning’s Colts and Broncos, did. When you break it into the Top 4 pass catchers, the Manning champions spent an average of 16.26%, while the Brady champions averaged 9.80% of the cap and the Super Bowl average is 11.14%. Those Super Bowl figures only tell a part of the story as the 2007 Patriots may have created the most value in the passing game out of any Patriots team with Wes Welker a relative unknown when they signed him and Randy Moss on a lower-cost contract due to struggles in Oakland.
The Patriots were 22nd in the NFL in passing yards in 2001, but they’ve been in the Top 12 every year since with most of those years being in the Top 5, yet they’ve been spending much less than Manning’s teams, which is why they’ve been able to consistently build a more complete team around Brady. I touched on this in the Manning/Brady article I wrote last February, but the advantage the Patriots had is even more shocking when you look at the money saved on pass catchers.
Bringing it back to Chandler Jones, defensive end has probably become a position that, like wide receiver, will no longer be worth drafting in the first round for the Patriots as the market has exploded and has now become a market that they won’t involve themselves in as they will be unable to draft and extend defensive ends to favorable contracts. Defensive end, outside pass rusher in general, will likely now be the kind of position they’ll look for low-cost pass rushers like Rob Ninkovich, Jabaal Sheard, and Chris Long.
Rather than enter the top of the market for pass rushers, they signed Sheard from the Browns and he’ll make 4.39% of the cap in 2016 as their top pass rusher, which is solid for a player they’ll likely rely on for 10-12 sacks this season. Ninkovich was a 2006 fifth rounder with the Saints who didn’t do much before signing with the Patriots, but they took a chance on him, it paid off and they were rewarded with a productive pass rusher who has averaged seven sacks per season between 2010 and 2015. They’re hoping Chris Long can provide them with similar production.
While the interior of the lines have become more expensive the last few years, they still don’t even approach where the defensive end/outside linebacker or left tackle market are. Here are the averages of the average per year for the Top 5 players at each offensive line position:
- LT: $12,371,200 (7.97% of 2016)
- LG: $8,150,000 (5.25%)
- C: $8,835,465 (5.69%)
- RG: $6,964,771 (4.49%)
- RT: $6,350,000 (4.09%)
On the defensive line, just looking at OTC’s Top 5 for 4-3 defensive tackles and 4-3 defensive ends, the 4-3 DTs are actually more expensive at $13,835,580 (8.91% of 2016) compared to an average of $11,122,564 per year (7.16%) for 4-3 DEs. If you take Suh, Dareus and Kyle Williams out of that Top 5, you find that the Top 5 4-3 DTs that aren’t in the AFC East only cost $9,783,080 (6.30%). Wilkerson is at $15,701,000 himself as a 3-4 defensive end.
This Cooper move signifies a change that’s coming in the Patriots spending as they now have to respond to what the Dolphins, Bills, and Jets have done in their division and what the rest of the league is clearly starting to respond to with increasing contracts on both interior lines. In the future, we may even see the Patriots start to draft some offensive guards in the first round, which is something they’d probably consider preposterous in the early-2000s as they knew they could find value elsewhere. Plus, looking at the Top 5 averages for the interior offensive line, if you draft well, you can lock them into contracts that have cap hits between 4.00-6.00%, so they’re manageable second contracts unlike defensive end or wide receiver.
Even though the defensive tackle market is getting more expensive, the Patriots know it’s slightly over-inflated by the Dolphins and Bills in their desperation to finally stop the Patriots, so the Patriots have drafted Dominique Easley and Malcom Brown in the last two drafts to give them two young guys in the middle who will have less expensive second contracts than a player like Jones.
I keep saying it, but the Patriots clearly have their formula for what’s needed to win a Super Bowl and every decision has been thought out in terms of what it means now and what it means for the next three years, five years, etc. They understand that some markets aren’t worth drafting high as they’ll become cap killers on the second contract due to over-inflated markets. Instead, the Patriots will find talent in markets like defensive tackle, linebacker, safety, tight end, guard, center, and running back are all positions that I think the Patriots will be targeting in the first round for the next few seasons.
The Patriots have left tackle Nate Solder at a reasonable 6.71% of the cap through 2017, but that’s a position that may be deemed too expensive on the second contract for the Patriots to draft them in the first round in the near future. Considering that left tackle is decreasing in importance with the quicker time to pass in the NFL today and the Patriots are leading the way, I think their money is better spent equitably across the whole line. The Patriots Super Bowl teams agree with me too as left tackle wasn’t the highest paid starter on any of their championship teams.
This Jones moves means that they’ll now give pass rusher (DE or OLB) the same “too expensive” label as wide receiver and start to secure those mid-tier free agents at the position like they have with Sheard and Long these last two years.
Of course, once Brady retires, quarterback becomes first round eligible and all of this probably changes as well until they find their next franchise quarterback. In the years between Brady and the heavy spending on their next franchise quarterback, the Patriots will use that time to spend heavily on one defensive star like they did with Ty Law during 2003 and 2004, then they’ll adjust when the quarterback spending needs to increase just like they did by letting Law go to the Jets for a deal that could have been worth as much as $28.5 million in the first three years and $50 million over seven. It is worth mentioning that the Patriots have found a handful of mid to late-round quarterbacks who have had stuck around the NFL for more than one contract, which is rare for these kinds of players. Ryan Mallett, Brian Hoyer, and Matt Cassel have all gone on to start for teams outside of New England, while Matt Cassel earned a contract in Kansas City that saw him earn $46 million in total cash over his four years there according to Spotrac with that 2008 season of his.
Cassel threw 33 passes in college for 192 yards with zero touchdowns and one interception, but the Patriots drafted him in the seventh round and he threw for 3693 yards with a 63.4% completion percentage, 21 touchdowns and 11 interceptions during that 2008 season where Brady went down and he led the Patriots to an 11-5 record. He played well in 2010 with the Chiefs leading them to a 10-5 record under center in Charlie Weis’ Erhardt-Perkins offense. That season, he had a completion percentage of 58.2% with 3116 yards, 27 touchdowns and only seven interceptions. While he hasn’t played well outside of those two seasons, it’s still remarkable that Belichick was able to identify a player like Cassel and that he works in the system.
Tom Brady speaks to this as well. Belichick is able to find the right quarterback in late-rounds because, just like Bill Walsh finding Joe Montana in the third round of the 1979 NFL Draft, coaches who innovate and create their system know the specific attributes that the system needs to succeed.
Their 2014 second round pick, Jimmy Garoppolo, was, and still is, another back-up quarterback and insurance policy for the Patriots for if Brady were to get injured, but his contract runs up in 2017, while Brady’s runs out in 2019, so he will likely be traded for draft picks like some of the other quarterbacks were and it’s likely that they’ll draft someone in the 2017 NFL Draft. Considering that Belichick keeps finding quarterbacks outside of the first round and they plan on continuing to be drafting at the end of the first round for the next four seasons, they’ll have to find themselves another quarterback who isn’t a Top 10 pick and that may finally be the quarterback who tries to fill the shoes of a New England sports God. Tough gig.
Every team should have their own formula for success and it should have some basis in the Caponomics figures for what’s worked for past Super Bowl teams. The reason the Patriots have a dynasty is because they’ve created their formula, they understand it and they’ve stayed true to it for 16 years, never making the kind of rash decisions that a division rival like Miami made signing Suh to a contract worth over 10% of the cap when they knew Ryan Tannehill was up for something in the 9-12% of the cap range. Coming into this offseason, the 2016 Bills had Mario Williams at 12.92%, Marcell Dareus at 9.45% and Charles Clay at 8.77% for a Top 3 that cost 31.14%, which is 2.32% of the cap more than the Super Bowl record of 28.82% set by the 2015 Broncos with Manning, Thomas and Ryan Clady. The Bills don’t have a high-cost quarterback to worry about, but Williams’ cap hit would’ve been higher than the Super Bowl record, while Dareus and Clay would be just below the records of 9.82% by Warren Sapp and the 8.94% the Seahawks spent on Zach Miller.
While the division around the Patriots has gone crazy for the last 16 years, the Patriots have held steady and stuck to the plan, never going after some exciting, expensive piece in free agency and using their understanding of those markets to guide draft picks and trades. And rather than just let Jones get to free agency and walk like other teams might, the Patriots knew they couldn’t afford him, so they made the move. They spun Jones and a fourth rounder into Martellus Bennett, Jonathan Cooper and a sixth rounder and lost nothing in cap space. The Patriots make the kinds of decisions that an organization in any industry can learn from.
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If you want to hear more about this, episode #8 of The Zack Moore Show will be up in a few days and that will expand on what is discussed here. You can listen and subscribe on iTunes by searching The Zack Moore Show, but if you don’t have iTunes, then you can listen on Soundcloud here.