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Using the OTC Valuation to Look at 2020 Free Agency

With the end of the regular season quickly approaching many of us are already looking at free agency next season as an avenue to fix our favorite teams. Usually we turn to cap space and see “team X has X amount of cap space” and immediately identify them as a team that is going to be active on free agents, but sometimes cap room can be very misleading and it can just be tied to the fact that a team has a lot of work to do with their current roster. To put some of it in better perspective I wanted to turn to our OTC Valuation model to see what quality of free agents teams really have in 2020.

It’s important to note that the OTC valuation is not a free agent estimate. In some cases numbers may wind up being close, but the calculations are based on spending within the NFL, which includes rookies who make peanuts yet often provide the most production, not what production equates to as a free agent. So please don’t read this as OTC says Dallas needs $112M to sign all their free agents. It may but that’s not what the valuation measures.

It does give us an idea of the general quality of the free agent class for each team, however, with probably a safe assumption that Dallas will likely have the most expensive group of free agents in the NFL. For example Amari Cooper will get paid far more than $14 million and change as a free agent but his valuation is around $5 million more than the next closest free agent receiver so this gives a good relative gauge of the strength of a free agent group. For every Cooper there will also likely be a player with a high valuation that ends up millions less than his valuation for a number of reasons as well.

The other main negative for the valuation tool is that injured players like an AJ Green will count as $0. Green will earn a pretty penny as a free agent even after missing the entire season. Likewise Drew Brees missed significant time which drives his number way down below any expected value. So certainly this isn’t a perfect model but I think it should do a better job of helping understand free agent expectations and decisions than just looking at cap space or snaps.

Here is how each team stacks up in 2020. The X axis shows a team’s projected 2020 salary cap space (this is not adjusted to 51 players so it only counts players under contract in 2020) while the Y axis has the OTC value of all unrestricted free agents currently on a NFL roster.

2020 NFL Free agent values

The top right quadrant shows the teams with above average cap space but either a lot of free agents to re-sign or at the least a few big dollar free agents to re-sign. Essentially this means that the teams cap space is likely a bit of a mirage if they want to keep some of the team intact. For many the cap space will vanish with pre-free agency extensions or franchise tags. If these teams want to make big changes it also will mean having to step away from some of the current members of the team in free agency.

The two standout teams here are the Cowboys and Buccaneers. Dallas’ season is on life support while the Bucs has pretty much been over for a month. For Dallas they have major decisions. Dak Prescott, Cooper, Byron Jones, Jason Witten, Maliek Collins, Robert Quinn, Randall Cobb, Michael Bennett, Sean Lee, etc…Its going to cost a lot to keep the team together if they opt to go in that direction but you have to consider what is the ceiling with the group as well. Screams like a situation where a new coach may need to come in. Tampa has the big decision with Jameis Winston as well as if they want to continue relationships with Ndamukong Suh and Shaq Barrett among others. Similar questions as Dallas except there is no coaching change possible. Perhaps the players simply are not the right mix even if they are individually talented.

Arizona is the third in this group but they are more about volume than a few high projected players. Their top free agent is likely DJ Humphries with old veterans Larry Fitzgerald and Terrell Suggs as the next two. Arizona may go year to year with the veterans but Id anticipate them as a team more likely to turn over volume and go younger for depth.

The bottom right quadrant has the teams with a few key free agents but not much cap space to re-sign them. That either means some type of changes or finding a way to keep first year cap charges really low. That may be more difficult next year if no CBA is in place. The Panthers, Rams, and Saints are teams to look at here. The Rams have Dante Fowler, Michael Brockers, and Andrew Whitworth as some pretty expensive players to make decisions about. For the Panthers the list will include Gerald McCoy, Tre Boston, Mario Addison, and James Bradberry. The Saints are basically all about the QB position. For the Rams and Panthers who will likely be on the outside looking in they will probably have to pick just one or two to keep while letting others walk.

The bottom left quadrant are the teams without much cap space but not too many decisions to make this year. Most of these teams have either one or two valuable free agents to consider or a few depth players. For teams out of contention these are likely easier decisions to let a player walk like a Vic Beasley in Atlanta and for those in contention they will have to decide if its worth keeping that one player or adding a few other parts in free agency. For teams out of contention this is the most likely group to probably make cuts where one of the prime reasons is cap relief. For teams in contention this may be the group that kicks the can on more players than they should.

The top left quadrant are the teams that one would expect to be the most active in free agency. They have tons and tons of cap room and few on the current roster worth spending it on. For teams like the Colts, Bills, Raiders, and even Ravens this presents a great opportunity to not only add to a playoff contender but to likely be able to structure contracts in free agency that leave little dead money after just one or two seasons. For teams like the Giants and Dolphins (and Bengals if they ever spent) it’s a potential avenue to quickly add short term solutions to a team in desperate need of roster help.

For those interested in a table form of the data the following table includes the value of the free agents, value per player, projected cap space and a ratio of the cap to value. For premium members who want to break down into values for individual free agents you can filter our season long valuations by 2020 cash which will allow you to quickly scroll through a teams potential free agents.

Team UFAs 2019 Valuation Value per Player Projected Cap Space Cap to Value Ratio
Cowboys 22 $112,146,000 $5,097,545 $87,836,022 0.78
Patriots 16 $102,116,000 $6,382,250 $49,017,540 0.48
Buccaneers 19 $82,024,000 $4,317,053 $90,948,813 1.11
Panthers 14 $74,134,000 $5,295,286 $42,204,270 0.57
Cardinals 25 $69,907,000 $2,796,280 $74,343,047 1.06
Rams 11 $61,934,000 $5,630,364 $26,041,744 0.42
Jets 22 $55,662,000 $2,530,091 $62,121,439 1.12
Titans 16 $53,323,000 $3,332,688 $48,683,683 0.91
Seahawks 16 $53,014,000 $3,313,375 $66,020,838 1.25
Broncos 13 $51,522,000 $3,963,231 $67,536,620 1.31
Chargers 16 $51,298,000 $3,206,125 $58,810,928 1.15
Saints 15 $50,638,000 $3,375,867 $23,019,762 0.45
Texans 20 $50,088,000 $2,504,400 $75,023,651 1.50
Ravens 16 $47,330,000 $2,958,125 $56,147,155 1.19
Chiefs 17 $46,120,000 $2,712,941 $21,788,974 0.47
Falcons 20 $43,475,000 $2,173,750 ($956,802) -0.02
Giants 16 $42,259,000 $2,641,188 $63,759,654 1.51
Bears 16 $42,244,000 $2,640,250 $13,931,529 0.33
Raiders 22 $41,091,000 $1,867,773 $73,105,496 1.78
Packers 12 $40,174,000 $3,347,833 $26,871,008 0.67
Colts 12 $39,589,000 $3,299,083 $108,838,649 2.75
Vikings 16 $37,290,000 $2,330,625 ($1,525,991) -0.04
Redskins 13 $34,633,000 $2,664,077 $50,006,253 1.44
Eagles 15 $34,256,000 $2,283,733 $42,217,338 1.23
Lions 14 $33,853,000 $2,418,071 $47,069,415 1.39
49ers 11 $33,543,000 $3,049,364 $16,116,234 0.48
Steelers 9 $33,438,000 $3,715,333 $4,970,081 0.15
Bengals 12 $33,269,000 $2,772,417 $64,068,262 1.93
Bills 12 $30,931,000 $2,577,583 $88,531,260 2.86
Browns 7 $27,060,000 $3,865,714 $50,193,215 1.85
Jaguars 15 $24,915,000 $1,661,000 $2,177,217 0.09
Dolphins 11 $18,993,000 $1,726,636 $102,852,083 5.42

Top Roster Salary Cap Charges vs Cap Space in 2020

During the Rams debacle last night I made mention of how much money they have tied up in the top players of their team, which was quite a lot. So with that in mind I decided to look at the entire NFL and see just how much each team has invested in salary cap dollars in 2020 just on the top 5 players on their roster. I also wanted to see how flexible teams are in that regard so to do that I wanted to look at how much teams could save by releasing any of those top players.

Now its important to remember that cap charges are always flexible. Based on rules in place it may be harder to manipulate those numbers next year than in a normal year if the CBA is not extended, but restructuring requires doubling or tripling down on a contract by pushing sunk cap costs into the future. In essence a short term solution. Teams could, in some cases, also open cap dollars via trades of these players, but for these purposes I didn’t include that because trades are still relatively uncommon and for many of these teams a trade is not a feasible cap option either due to sunk prorated costs.

So here is a graph that shows on the X axis just how much in salary cap in 2020 is tied up in the top 5 players on a team and on the Y axis we see how much a team can save with releases from this group of players. The release side of the equation only considers players that result in a gain in cap space if a player is cut, so for a player like Jared Goff who would cost millions above his cap number to cut he just gets a value of $0 because there are no savings since he likely would not be released for cap purposes. The average cap sunk into the top 5 is about $76.5 million and the average that can be saved is about $30.8 million.

The worst place to be in the chart is the bottom right quadrant. The bottom right are teams that are well above average in cap dollars committed to just 5 players and have generally no flexibility. At least for 2020 the same top players the team had in 2019 are likely going to be back in 2020. Generally these are the WYSIWYG teams. The Rams, Falcons, and Eagles stick out like a sore thumb.

The Rams have $108 million committed to Goff, Aaron Donald, Todd Gurley, Brandin Cooks, and Jalen Ramsey. They can only lop off $13.7M through cuts and that would simply be if they cut Ramsey which you know they are not doing. None of the others offer any savings.  Atlanta and the Eagles we have talked about here for a few seasons now. Atlanta has always walked a tightrope with their cap while the Eagles have pushed more and more cap to the future for some time. Basically the year that Howie Roseman came back into power they made a number of decisions that were going to lock them into a core group and they have kept with that philosophy. The Eagles would be unable to save a dime cutting any of their top 5 while the Falcons would save a measly  $4.95 million if they cut Desmond Trufant.

Each of these teams will have tough decisions as to whether or not they try to kick the can or just deal with it. None of them have good cap situations next year, all in the bottom third of the league in projected cap room and none look like real contenders at the moment.

You can argue about what is the next best spot. I’d probably lean top left though it depends on your roster construction. Generally these teams don’t have big numbers invested at the top and they have the flexibility to change up the mix. That’s great for bad teams like the Giants, Bengals, and Bucs that don’t have a good mix of players and great for the Ravens, Texans, and Colts who are all playoff contenders.

The top right means you have big money invested at the top but a lot of flexibility. So if you are a bad team it means you may have a chance to overhaul your roster and create some cap space in the process. However it also probably means you sunk a lot into 2019 and if it didn’t pay off its going to lead to two lost seasons. The Jaguars, Bears, Panthers, and to a lesser extent Redskins it that category. The most interesting team is the 49ers. Because they frontloaded certain contracts, in particular the one for Jimmy Garoppolo, and use late vesting guarantees they have a lot of flexibility with some pretty expensive players if things went south or they wanted to move on from one underperformer.

The bottom left has plusses and minuses. If you are a good team it’s a good place to be. It means while you don’t have much flexibility with this particular group of players you also don’t have a great deal invested in the top, so in theory you should have room to add more players or re-sign your own without issue. Now there are a few things to consider before patting yourself on the back if you are a Saints or a Patriots fan. The Saints have Drew Brees in the top 5 at an artificially low cost ($15.9M) and the Patriots don’t have Tom Brady at all ($6.75M). Both are free agents in 2020 but have millions upon millions in voidable year dead money they accrues if they are unsigned. Brees’ cap jumps to $21.3M if he isn’t retained or retires while Brady’s goes to $13.5 million.  Both will get big salaries if they stay so in reality both should be more over to the right. Dallas should be in position to retain their players while the other teams are in position to push some of their top 5 down. Overall Id lean towards this being the second worst quadrant but again it depends on the status of the team.

Finally just a quick guide to see how these teams stack up in actual cap space I plotted the top 5 cap charges against the estimated cap space for each team once they reach 51 players through futures contracts. Not much surprising here other than it really shows you how most teams are teams of haves or have nots. Teams with a lot invested at the top don’t have much cap room. Those without big investments at the top don’t really invest anywhere and have huge cap room. This is more just a weird way with how the league has gone which is seeing more and more teams with either the “go for it” approach with little future consideration or “punt the season away” approach with all consideration toward the future.

Looking at Value Above Replacement Level Talent

With all the talk of MVP candidates, valuable and non-valuable positions, where to go cheap and where to go expensive I thought I could use our valuation models to take a look at just where teams are deriving the most value over what would be a “replacement level” player. You can read about our valuations here but in general they are based on participation, statistical achievements and PFF grades and the market value in which the player plays.

So how did I define a replacement level talent as that can be tricky. I’m a contract guy so I went into the pool of players to try to best identify the kind of players, who actually participate, that are actually available. What is available talent?  Available talent in my mind is anyone who signed as an undrafted free agent, anyone who was available as a street free agent who signed for no more than the league minimum plus a minor bonus, and any unrestricted free agent who signed a contract that qualified for the minimum salary benefit. Why these players?  Because they are the only players who were freely available to the entire league.  Here is the breakdown of all players that fit that criteria who are on pace to play at least 75 snaps this year.

Position Players Total OTC Value Snaps Value/Snap Value/Player
Quarterback 8 $22,424,000 1,175 $19,084 $2,803,000
Right Tackle 4 $9,525,000 653 $14,587 $2,381,250
Running Back 28 $39,609,000 3,078 $12,868 $1,414,607
Left Tackle 9 $26,743,000 2,402 $11,134 $2,971,444
Guard 15 $36,045,000 3,879 $9,292 $2,403,000
Cornerback 39 $65,947,000 7,622 $8,652 $1,690,949
Tight End 23 $30,680,000 3,812 $8,048 $1,333,913
Edge 19 $24,378,000 3,053 $7,985 $1,283,053
Wide Receiver 48 $47,481,000 6,695 $7,092 $989,188
Linebacker 27 $37,760,000 5,483 $6,887 $1,398,519
Safety 15 $15,619,000 2,389 $6,538 $1,041,267
Int. D-Line 40 $38,996,000 6,042 $6,454 $974,900

While we are dealing with a small sample especially for many positions (in particular right tackle as well as quarterback and left tackle) this at least gives us an idea of what is truly available to NFL teams that is the alternative to simply letting a player walk in free agency and replacing him with the cheapest options available. Of course even hitting a replacement level requires some skill as there are dozens of players who make it that don’t play many, if any, snaps in a given year.

To calculate value above replacement I looked at the current OTC Value for each player and calculated what the value for the average 2019 replacement level player would be if the replacement player played the same amount of snaps as the “name” player. Here is the top ranked player at each position:

Position Player Value Above Replacement
Quarterback Lamar Jackson $19,154,436
Edge TJ Watt $17,063,498
Wide Receiver Mike Evans $15,746,498
Int. D-Line Aaron Donald $13,351,399
Cornerback Marcus Peters $9,925,903
Linebacker Kyle Van Noy $9,586,608
Left Tackle Ronnie Stanley $8,935,411
Safety Marcus Williams $9,138,263
Running Back Christian McCaffery $8,841,316
Guard Brandon Brooks $7,146,824
Tight End Travis Kelce $5,912,556
Right Tackle Ryan Ramczyk $3,389,942

Looking further I wanted to break down the groupings into players that provide the most percentage of value above replacement just to get an idea of what positions are the ones where perhaps the top end talent makes the most different. I was actually surprised, but perhaps should not have been, that among players with 150 snaps on the year it’s the edge rushers, receivers, and interior defensive linemen that dominate the lists. Top players here would be Nick Bosa, Amari Cooper, and Donald. This should have been apparent to me since those positions are often so draft heavy and there is usually a big gap in athleticism between those draft picks and the UDFA types but for whatever reason I was just assuming it would be QB. QB does jump to the top if we consider the amount of players that provide at least 25% value per snap.

Here is the breakdown of each position for players with at least 150 snaps on the year and the amount who provide at least 50% value above  and 25% value above a replacement player.

Position Players 50% VAR  25% VAR
Quarterback 36 27.8% 69.4%
Int. D-Line 111 39.6% 62.2%
Tight End 72 19.4% 61.1%
Wide Receiver 127 39.4% 59.1%
Edge 110 39.1% 58.2%
Linebacker 92 21.7% 43.5%
Safety 88 22.7% 39.8%
Left Tackle 41 12.2% 36.6%
Running Back 62 9.7% 30.6%
Cornerback 163 11.7% 27.0%
Guard 78 2.6% 19.2%
Right Tackle 37 0.0% 5.4%

Finally I looked at every player who has played at least 10 snaps this year to determine the total level of players who perform under the replacement level.

Position Players Neg. VAR
Quarterback 55 25.5%
Tight End 110 26.4%
Edge 148 35.1%
Safety 129 35.7%
Linebacker 150 37.3%
Left Tackle 59 40.7%
Wide Receiver 192 47.4%
Int. D-Line 170 50.6%
Guard 97 51.5%
Cornerback 222 55.9%
Running Back 119 60.5%
Right Tackle 49 65.3%

Again since that right tackle sample is so small I’d throw out that number entirely and while all of these really require a few years of data that one in particular I think needs far more as it doesn’t really pass the smell test.  The others are not surprising. There are a large number of replaceable running backs and that’s been something most have argued for some time. Cornerback may surprise some but probably should not. Teams have to employ a lot of secondary players many of whom carry more special teams value than value as a corner. While they are in on some defensive plays that is not their primary role. Guard is a position I would like to look at more. My feeling I’ve had on guard is that teams have overvalued the position in recent years. This happened back in the late 2000’s before teams realized that there really wasn’t much of a thing as high end play and that it’s more interchangeable. As salaries rise I wonder if that happens again.

Overall I think an early takeways are that quarterback, edge rusher, wide receiver, and interior defensive line are the positions you should aim to keep each year and mainly look in the draft for cheaper talent because the market isn’t there to find viable alternatives. Safety, tight end and linebacker are also positions to likely keep in house but there is limited reason to buy a high end player if there are other options open to the team in free agency. Left tackle is probably in the same category. I think at corner there is logic to having a top talent whether through the draft or free agency but from a depth perspective there is talent available and teams should be wary of overpaying. Guard, running back and perhaps right tackle are the spots where teams can probably think most of going cheap if an existing option becomes too expensive or they need to cut back somewhere to cover positions like receiver.

As I said above this is a pretty small sample but I think a fun topic to discuss and a different way to look at things and maybe better assess the way teams build their lineups. None of this means that it’s a given you can just drop a guy and find someone on the street better as well. Even though we are giving a baseline to replacement talent remember that the NFL signs hundreds of players off the street every year who don’t even make a team. There is also no guarantee that the replacement pool would play at the same level if they were given more responsibility the way many starters are. After the season is over I think Ill go back and retroactively look at 2016 through 2018 and see how the numbers change with a better sample of players to work with.

Here are the top 100 players on the season and as I do some more work on this after the season well probably add something along these lines to our premium OTC Valuation tool.

PLAYER Position OTC Positional Value Position VAR
Lamar Jackson QB $30,834,000 QB $19,154,436
Russell Wilson QB $32,070,000 QB $18,367,505
Dak Prescott QB $29,734,000 QB $17,691,835
Deshaun Watson QB $29,771,000 QB $17,461,655
T.J. Watt Edge $21,567,000 Edge $17,063,498
Mike Evans WR $20,009,000 WR $15,746,703
Michael Thomas WR $19,638,000 WR $15,531,727
Joey Bosa Edge $19,752,000 Edge $15,488,046
Chris Godwin WR $19,963,000 WR $15,431,206
Danielle Hunter Edge $19,799,000 Edge $15,207,664
Aaron Rodgers QB $27,867,000 QB $15,137,802
Tom Brady QB $27,264,000 QB $14,916,487
Myles Garrett Edge $18,539,000 Edge $14,546,534
Everson Griffen Edge $19,195,000 Edge $14,499,859
Brandon Graham Edge $17,854,000 Edge $14,324,660
Khalil Mack Edge $18,834,000 Edge $14,322,513
Matthew Stafford QB $24,933,000 QB $14,264,901
Za’Darius Smith Edge $18,449,000 Edge $14,089,227
J.J. Watt Edge $17,755,000 EDGE $13,906,262
Carson Wentz QB $25,933,000 QB $13,814,498
Amari Cooper WR $16,901,000 WR $13,503,928
Chandler Jones Edge $18,978,000 Edge $13,476,381
Aaron Donald IDL $16,927,000 IDL $13,351,399
Nick Bosa Edge $16,134,000 Edge $13,123,680
Shaquil Barrett Edge $17,298,000 Edge $12,922,257
Cameron Jordan Edge $16,868,000 Edge $12,723,820
Justin Houston Edge $15,338,000 Edge $11,912,464
Dante Fowler Jr. Edge $16,039,000 Edge $11,894,820
Kyler Murray QB $24,457,000 QB $11,708,717
Derek Carr QB $22,380,000 QB $11,559,227
Calais Campbell Edge $15,401,000 Edge $11,512,338
Tyler Lockett WR $16,130,000 WR $11,470,550
DeAndre Hopkins WR $15,906,000 WR $11,445,126
Cameron Heyward IDL $14,625,000 IDL $11,423,739
Kirk Cousins QB $24,134,000 QB $11,252,128
Julio Jones WR $14,529,000 WR $11,089,376
Von Miller Edge $15,349,000 Edge $11,045,121
Gardner Minshew QB $22,871,000 QB $11,019,677
Courtland Sutton WR $14,658,000 WR $10,828,315
Cooper Kupp WR $14,743,000 WR $10,750,199
Grady Jarrett IDL $13,673,000 IDL $10,549,189
Jameis Winston QB $23,331,000 QB $10,544,549
Patrick Mahomes QB $20,008,000 QB $10,542,209
Kenny Golladay WR $14,272,000 WR $10,307,567
Matt Ryan QB $20,642,000 QB $10,088,407
Marcus Peters CB $15,247,000 CB $9,925,903
Fletcher Cox IDL $12,695,000 IDL $9,887,443
D.J. Chark Jr. WR $13,336,000 WR $9,868,008
Philip Rivers QB $22,347,000 QB $9,865,897
Marvin Jones Jr. WR $13,826,000 WR $9,790,647
Kyle Van Noy LB $12,603,000 LB $9,586,608
John Brown WR $13,407,000 WR $9,527,671
Jared Goff QB $21,793,000 QB $9,464,571
D.J. Moore WR $13,475,000 WR $9,425,463
Jadeveon Clowney Edge $13,296,000 Edge $9,247,639
Arik Armstead Edge $12,340,000 Edge $9,209,906
Preston Smith Edge $13,645,000 Edge $9,189,407
Luke Kuechly LB $13,656,000 LB $9,145,185
Marcus Williams S $12,976,000 S $9,138,263
Richard Sherman CB $13,421,000 CB $9,034,339
Ronnie Stanley LT $15,816,000 LT $8,935,411
Casey Hayward Jr. CB $14,136,000 CB $8,901,424
Allen Robinson II WR $12,716,000 WR $8,893,407
Christian McCaffrey RB $16,305,000 RB $8,841,316
Laremy Tunsil LT $15,075,000 LT $8,840,162
Brian Poole CB $13,391,000 CB $8,822,643
Demario Davis LB $12,663,000 LB $8,806,425
Bud Dupree Edge $13,324,000 Edge $8,620,875
Emmanuel Sanders WR $12,217,000 WR $8,607,167
Jamie Collins Sr. LB $11,710,000 LB $8,535,212
Jarvis Landry WR $12,549,000 WR $8,456,911
Terron Armstead LT $15,184,000 LT $8,414,748
Cory Littleton LB $12,681,000 LB $8,321,693
Keenan Allen WR $12,432,000 WR $8,290,267
Demarcus Lawrence Edge $11,229,000 Edge $8,058,982
Jimmy Garoppolo QB $20,538,000 QB $7,961,476
Justin Simmons S $11,844,000 S $7,914,733
Benardrick McKinney LB $11,560,000 LB $7,896,254
Matt Ioannidis IDL $11,054,000 IDL $7,891,464
Dalvin Cook RB $14,006,000 RB $7,854,895
Tre’Davious White CB $12,917,000 CB $7,838,164
Baker Mayfield QB $19,469,000 QB $7,808,520
D.J. Reader IDL $10,068,000 IDL $7,750,959
DeForest Buckner IDL $10,489,000 IDL $7,720,168
Kenny Clark IDL $11,310,000 IDL $7,695,674
Julian Edelman WR $11,803,000 WR $7,654,175
Jamal Adams S $11,465,000 S $7,646,877
Robert Woods WR $11,985,000 WR $7,609,230
Josh Jacobs RB $11,726,000 RB $7,556,632
Gerald McCoy IDL $10,103,000 IDL $7,514,884
Olivier Vernon Edge $11,126,000 Edge $7,484,871
Anthony Castonzo LT $14,668,000 LT $7,475,669
Aaron Jones RB $12,599,000 RB $7,464,500
Michael Brockers IDL $10,482,000 IDL $7,429,185
Tramon Williams CB $9,485,000 CB $7,408,474
Deion Jones LB $11,315,000 LB $7,403,331
Odell Beckham Jr. WR $11,563,000 WR $7,336,163
Andy Dalton QB $18,033,000 QB $7,326,733
Trey Flowers Edge $10,661,000 Edge $7,323,298
Marcus Davenport Edge $10,553,000 Edge $7,303,132

NFL CBA Suggestion Series

Earlier this year I partnered with my co-author of Crunching Numbers, Vijay Natarajan, to touch on 10 things that we thought should be worth looking at in the next CBA. Some may be a bit out of reach but its better to aim high than just settle for something because its easier. Here are the links to the 10 articles.

CBA Suggestion Number 1: Reducing the Length of Rookie Contracts to Two Years

CBA Suggestion Number 2: Revamp the Rookie Contract Rules

CBA Suggestion Number 3: Increase Mandatory Injury Protection

CBA Suggestion Number 4: Raise Team and League Wide Spending Requirements

CBA Suggestion Number 5: Reinstitute Salary Cap minimum Spending

CBA Suggestion Number 6: Salary Cap Amnesty Clause

CBA Suggestion Number 7: The Elimination of the Funding Rule

CBA Suggestion Number 8: Improve the Revenue Split

CBA Suggestion Number 9: Revamp the Franchise Tag System

CBA Suggestion Number 10: Increase Minimum Salaries

Contract Lessons Learned From Myles Garrett’s Suspension

The big NFL news of the day centered around a crazy ending in Thursday night’s football game where a brawl broke out in the final seconds when Browns defensive end Myles Garrett hit Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph with Rudolph’s football helmet. Garrett was suspended for a minimum of 6 games and it is a costly suspension- $1,139,912 to be exact- and possibly more if the Browns also go after $1.787 million in bonus money, though I highly doubt the Browns will do that. It was as dirty a play as I can recall and certainly right up there with Albert Haynesworth’s head stomp of Andre Gurode back in 2008. While Garrett deserves the max penalties here this is a good learning example for those looking to work as a sports agent or negotiate contracts on the team end because the structure of Garrett’s contract will ultimately cost him more money because of the suspension.

NFL contracts are made up of various components. You can read all about those in Crunching Numbers (on sale on Amazon, yes I know a shameless plug) but for 1st round rookies the majority of contracts come down to three elements- Paragraph 5 salary (base salary as we call it on OTC), an August roster bonus, and a signing bonus. The total amount isn’t in question but the way that the deals are divided up generally in and in particular the split between roster bonuses and P5 salary.

Many rookies in the NFL are able to negotiate contracts that typically break down as follows- a large signing bonus that is dictated by the CBA’s slotted salary system, minimum P5 salaries each season, and a larger roster bonus in the final three contract years that is earned in August to reach the maximum year over year raise allowed by the CBA. Though the contracts are going to be worth the same amount of money no matter how it is broken down there is one important consideration.

When a player is suspended by the NFL or the team every week’s salary is forfeited for games missed. Roster bonuses are not. That forfeiture calculation is entirely different and it is also not mandatory except in the case of a PED violation where typically they are. The difference can be costly. Lets look at how Garrett would have fared had he negotiated a more favorable contract structure.

Component Salary Max forfeiture Min Forfeiture
Paragraph 5 $645,000 $227,647 $227,647
Roster Bonus $2,584,750 $456,132 $0
TOTALS $3,229,750 $683,779 $227,647

So at a minimum Garrett’s contract structure cost him $456,133 and more likely $912,265.  Again none of this is to condone Garrett’s actions just that when people look at rookie contracts as a nothing issue sometimes they don’t fully protect the player as well as they could be protected.

So how uncommon is Garrett’s structure?  Well we can go back and look at the data to see. This contract structure more or less was invented in 2012 in what I called “the Tannehill compromise” so let’s use 2013 as a starting point and see how many top 5 and top 10 picks used the “Tannehill compromise” structure rather than the standard one Garrett used.

Year Top 5 Top 10
2013 60.0% 70.0%
2014 60.0% 50.0%
2015 80.0% 50.0%
2016 40.0% 50.0%
2017 40.0% 50.0%
2018 100.0% 100.0%
2019 80.0% 60.0%
AVG 65.7% 61.4%

While not incredibly uncommon Garrett certainly was in the minority here. It is also worth noting that a larger portion of top 5 players did get the more player friendly structure in the first three years of their contract but not the fourth.

Garrett is also only the second first overall selection since 2013 to not get the favorable structure. I would imagine that this happened because the prior year Jared Goff also took a less favorable structure from the Rams. The reason for this was because the majority of the considerations here really deal with offsets on guarantees and the Rams always give their top picks a “no offset” clause on all guarantees. So I would imagine the Browns leaned on that with Garrett but did not have the same luck the next year with Baker Mayfield.

I heard on ESPN radio this morning the hosts (I cant recall who but I think it was Mike and Mike Jr on the discussion) kind of focusing on voiding of guarantees but who cares about that. If Garrett was a bad player that would be an issue. He isn’t and guarantees mean nothing for good players because they are not getting cut.  For them its just words on a piece of paper and they don’t get to have those words there any more. So yes he will lose his guarantee in 2020 but it’s meaningless.

So in the end it’s a small thing but small things can be costly. And this should not just be something heeded by people representing top draft picks. There has been a movement in recent years to raise P5s very high while reducing signing bonuses and to a lesser extent offseason roster bonuses. For players the less you have in the P5 the less risk you have from situations like this. Get as much money as you can in up front bonuses- either signing or roster- and you should be more protected.

Spending vs Performance: QB, WR, & RB

The other day I posted something on Twitter comparing the performance of the top 5 running backs vs numbers 30 to 35 and a few people were curious about how QBs stacked up in the same category. Since the secondary selection for running backs was pretty random I thought I’d just do a post looking at every grouping for running backs, quarterbacks, and receivers to see if there are any patterns at all for this year.

Running Backs

For the running backs I decided to look at the top 65 players. To calculate performance I used essentially a net yardage calculation where a running back was awarded a point for every rushing and receiving yard and 20 points for a touchdown. You can argue the worth of a rushing TD as well as if there should also be anything added for first downs, but for a quick calculation I think this is fair. Each point on the chart represents the average salary and performance of five players. The highest would be players 1 to 5, then 2 to 6, 3 to 7, etc… with the last being the average of 61 to 65.

spending on running backs

The numbers are a bit all over the place for the running backs. Generally speaking the high cost runner is not really providing a major benefit and in general teams should probably avoid any player for more than $5 million or so a year with $3 million likely being the better range. The spikes in the cheaper zones look to fall into the late first round/early second round area of the draft, proving some good bang for the buck.  But overall I think it’s fair to say that currently spending/drafting high doesn’t equate much with performance.

Wide Receiver

For receiver we have the top 100 players and like with running backs a net yardage based on receiving yards and touchdowns. Again first downs are important as is use in an offense but for a basic, quick look I felt this was sufficient. Again each chart represents the average annual salary of five players along with the average net yards for each grouping (1 to 5, 2 to 6, etc…)

Wide receiver spending

I found this one very interesting. Clearly there is far more correlation (at least in the 2019 season) between spending on wide receivers and the performance of the group.  For the most part highly paid receivers are giving you a premium to justify the investment. I see two clear takeaways here. One is that if you notice you will see a dip starting around point 7. Partly that is due to an injury to AJ Green but it also includes a group of players in that range (Brandin Cooks, Sammy Watkins, Jarvis Landry, etc…) who were all overpaid relative to their performance. Essentially these were players who should be paid as number 2’s that landed as 1’s as free agency approached.

The second is the giant dip you see in the $10 million range. This is really the “reach” zone of the NFL where teams go overboard signing the Albert Wilson’s and Quincy Enunwa’s of the world to expensive contracts because they are the best of a bad bunch that is either going to be a free agent or available in  free agency. This is also the range of the “prove it” contract guys who more often than not don’t prove it and either fail to perform or continue to get injured. If it’s a one year gamble I guess its ok, but there is more value being found on number 3s with upside or simply turning to the draft. Maybe if there is some interest I can further break this part up into rookies vs veterans to see if there is more of a trend among rookies vs the lower level vets.

Quarterback

For QB’s I looked at the top 40 players and used adjusted net passing yardage as the performance metric. I did not include rushing stats for QBs in that calculation.

Quarterback spending

There is certainly more correlation between the spending on a QB than on a RB though like with receiver this probably merits more of a rookie vs veteran breakdown. The numbers in the lower part of the chart typically encompasses first round draft picks but unlike with receivers also includes some QBs that were never expected to play (Chase Daniel, Tyrod Taylor)  and simply signed as insurance policies. That said rookies are high risk and for every Mahomes there is a Trubisky to balance things out as well.

The one thing I do feel confident in saying is that the idea of signing a “cheap but expensive” QB (those guys who get $20M or so a year just because that is what a starting QB gets) is probably a bad one. It makes more sense for teams to move to a low cost starter like a Ryan Fitzpatrick and pair him with a mid level draft pick than waste cap room on Eli Manning or Joe Flacco.

Bad Teams Should Use the Season to Challenge Conventional Wisdom

Not a salary cap post today just a general post on football and maybe trying to find something useful out of what is effectively garbage time football for many NFL teams as we move down the stretch of the season. Last night was pretty much a complete debacle in Dallas with extremely conservative decision making during the 4th quarter, poor clock management, and a general lack of awareness of the flow of that game. Everyone watched it unfold and realized it but I can’t say that it’s that unconventional of an approach even if this was perhaps to a much larger extreme. While there is certainly a very group of people that call for more aggressiveness it doesn’t happen in most game situations because while its one thing to have the math support things being in your favor for looking at something like 3rd and 6 as a pretty makeable down and distance if we plan it as a two play approach the fact is in practice there is nothing to base things on and just like with the salary cap and contracts usually it takes a few people to put things on the table before others “buy in”. Why don’t those teams exist late in the year?

Watching a surprisingly high scoring and somewhat disjointed Giants/Jets game many referred to as the “toilet bowl” we saw both the good and bad. When stuck in no mans land at the Jets 39 the Giants opted to go for it on 4th and 4 and ended up scoring a touchdown on the play when a Jets defender slipped and the defense didn’t have much in the way of deeper support to prevent a big play. Im sure the coaches logic here was that the odds were they would only pick up 19 yards on a punt or miss a field goal so they had nothing to lose by taking a shot at it since the end result for the Jets starting point on the drive was pretty much set in stone and there was tons of game time.

Yet later in the game the coach defers on a 4th and 2 while down 4 and time running shorter. The difference here was a non-conversion could kill you because you were on your own 44 and you could flip field position with a punt. IMO the Giants lost the game with that decision because the Jets ended up marching down the field, killing around 5 minutes and scoring a field goal to go up 7. Most likely had the Giants gone for it on 4th and not converted that would have been the same result except the Jets would have not taken nearly as much time off the clock to get their field goal attempt. Again you can get math to back it all up but you wont find many games to prove it. The Jets could have iced a game with a 4th and 1 a bit later but opted for a punt instead but for the most part the worst outcome there was a tie and overtime.

Thinking about all of this I wondered why don’t some teams now take some of those risks. Not the Garrett’s of the world in a playoff chase but the Gases and Shurmurs of the world. The NFL is filled with awful teams this year. The Bengals, Redskins, Dolphins, Jets, Giants, Falcons, Browns, Broncos, etc… are all going nowhere other than the top of the draft. While some of those coaches, even first year ones, are fighting for a job just doing the status quo isn’t going to help them. Why not use this time to get some actual game data on doing more “unconventional” things and actually getting something positive out of a bad 2019 season that you can bring to 2020.

While some may argue that bad teams doing this isn’t going to exactly be a good look since these teams are among the worst offenses in the league shouldn’t it be eye opening if it does allow them to be more competitive down the stretch or upset more than a team every 5 weeks?  Many of them also happen to play each other so the ineptitude on offense and defense of these teams should balance it all out.

Its always kind of amazing to me that there is little to gain for these bad teams at the end of the season. They talk about “evaluating young players” down the stretch but 90% of the time those are evaluations of players who quite frankly are not going to mean much to a rebuild if it even happens. But finding out ways to be different, especially with a bad roster, is actually something that could be meaningful. That doesn’t mean limiting it to just decision making options on 3rd and 4th downs and evaluating real world outcomes. It could be the type of offense you run. The play selections. Gambling more on defense or maybe loading the field with defensive backs. Use this time to help you change things up in 2020 rather than selling the focus of the team on seeing if a 7th round draft pick may or may not be able to be a 5th or 6th linebacker in 2020.

I think its important to remember that one of the “innovations” of the last 15 years came in garbage time years ago. The Carolina Panthers in late 2006 started using their running backs in a direct snap formation in what was pretty much a lost year where they were down, I believe, to their 3rd string QB. Panthers offensive coordinator, Dan Henning, was at least sold enough on that idea from 2006 to further implement a package that came from the college ranks in his Miami offense in 2008 which turned into the “Wildcat” that took the NFL by storm for a few years. While nobody really had success with the package once teams figured out how to play against it Miami was able to ride that set of plays into an unlikely playoff season simply because they had practiced enough of it in the summer and it caught everyone off guard.

Now the wildcat was more or less a gimmick but the ability to gather useful game data late in the year should be more than just a gimmick with more long term impact but also similar short term results if analyzed properly to devise meaningful game plans in 2020 that would also just as likely catch teams off guard at first before the general math behind it takes over as teams adjust to new strategies. But to just waste these next games doing the status quo week after week, year after year, just seems foolish and helps nobody in the long run.  The Giants had a great opportunity to play against the norm of punting yesterday and learn something, but instead fell into the trap of just doing the norm because that’s what everyone does, put the lesser of their two units back on the field to try to stop the Jets in 3 plays, and ultimately lost another game without learning anything in the process. There is no reason for that when you have nothing to lose in the first place given how the season has gone this year.