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Replacing Players With Cheaper Talent in 2021

A question I have been receiving lately deals with potential NFL cuts this year given the pandemic. This year is unique given the expected cap downturn and potential slashing of budgets by owners and I was thinking that maybe the NFL will be looking closer at certain positional groups rather than players.  We often talk of players being replaceable but usually we just talk in generalities of production without taking into account availability. So what I wanted to do here was look at what positions are usually available for cheap every year and contribute in the year they are signed.

To get a gauge of availability I went back and broke the players up into two player pools. One is the pool of available free agents. This includes undrafteds and street free agents along with the typical veterans. To qualify for inclusion the player had to have an annual average contract value of under $2 million. I chose that number because I think that rightfully fits the “cheap” category that would be of use to teams in the league this year. The player also has to have signed by August to eliminate in season signings. The second pool is draft picks. There is no cap on that salary as it is a pick every team in the NFL has to make whether its for an expensive 1st round player or a cheap 7th rounder.

I then identified how many offensive or defensive snaps each player played in the year they signed their contract. In other words if a player signed a two year contract in 2017, I don’t care what he did in 2018. I only care about what he did in 2017. The same goes for a draft pick. I need an immediate return if I am cutting a veteran player. I broke the snaps into two categories. One uses a low end filter of 200 snaps which identifies more of a depth signing. The second filters that further to 500 snaps which for many positions is a strong contributor number.

First let’s look at the veteran player pool from last year (minus this years cuts like Golden Tate) for players who earn more than $2 million a season.

$2M+ a Year Veteran Player Pool

PositionUnder 200 SnapsUnder 200 SalaryBetween 200 and 500 SnapsBetween 200 and 500 SalaryOver 500 SnapsOver 500 Salary
Edge4$13,195,20811$9,735,00034$12,845,681
Int. D-Line10$6,863,50015$6,001,66732$10,445,604
Safety3$3,641,6674$7,000,00032$7,872,760
Cornerback3$8,721,66710$5,519,08330$10,195,333
Guard4$6,550,0004$2,562,50029$8,114,977
Wide Receiver6$3,406,94511$10,474,77329$12,936,557
Linebacker7$7,857,1436$4,366,66728$8,847,589
Center4$5,550,0000$020$7,933,988
Left Tackle3$9,983,3333$16,333,33317$13,080,149
Quarterback8$7,671,8754$18,102,25017$27,970,882
Right Tackle4$8,562,5008$9,819,37514$6,671,036
Tight End3$3,988,88912$4,486,80612$7,911,833
Running Back5$6,413,1714$5,587,50011$9,475,727
Fullback1$3,250,0001$5,250,0000$0

My opinion is any player in the first two groups of players is potentially expendable unless his status was due to an injury that caused the player to miss most of the year. Those over 500 snaps moves more into the production side of the equation where we have to ask ourselves are these players on the field because they are good or because of their contract?  If it is the latter they may be considered a cut candidate.

Here is our first cheap player pool, identifying players who played between 200 and 500 snaps in their year of signing/drafting.

200- 500 Snap Player Pool

PositionFree AgentsDraft PicksTotal PlayersPlayers/YearTotal SnapsSnaps/Player
Int. D-Line53338621.528,553332.0
Wide Receiver41367719.2525,019324.9
Edge3735721824,796344.4
Cornerback4028681723,338343.2
Running Back28275513.7517,958326.5
Linebacker29245313.2517,024321.2
Safety3117481215,158315.8
Tight End32154711.7514,704312.9
Guard2712399.7513,353342.4
Quarterback1151645,085317.8
Left Tackle78153.754,542302.8
Center122143.53,957282.6
Right Tackle113143.54,669333.5
Fullback80821,923240.4

In my mind this is a pretty vibrant market for potential contributors. In particular I think both interior defensive linemen and wide receivers who are more expensive part time players should a bit worried about being asked into a pay cut or just released outright. Lower end edge rushers likely fit there as well. In general there are more than enough players who should be available that can replace every veteran who costs more than $2 million a year and played less than 500 snaps last year. Even if just using free agency the only positions of concern to replace on the cheap would be tackles, quarterbacks, and possible centers.

Now lets look more at the high end snaps.

500+ Snap Player Pool

PositionFree AgentsDraft PicksTotal PlayersPlayers/YearTotal SnapsSnaps/Player
Cornerback25345914.844,084747.2
Guard25214611.537,381812.6
Wide Receiver11354611.530,967673.2
Linebacker23224511.335,070779.3
Safety15294411.034,460783.2
Int. D-Line1713307.517,496583.2
Edge1018287.017,788635.3
Tight End614205.011,928596.4
Left Tackle711184.513,703761.3
Quarterback313164.012,972810.8
Center87153.812,507833.8
Right Tackle410143.513,033930.9
Running Back29112.86,971633.7

Those first five positions are really interesting to me. Corner, guard, and linebacker are clear positions that have potential replacements for cheap in free agency while safety and wide receiver are a bit more draft dependent. Right now we are hearing about teams trying to bail on some expensive guards and I think this table says why as teams can find production on the cheap at these positions with 6 guards a year available for under $2 million who will wind up with at least 500 snaps on the year.

As you get deeper into the other positions it certainly becomes much more risky to dump expensive talent who contributes solely for cap purposes. The players are out there to help but the numbers are fewer which makes hitting on those players much more difficult.  So really I think it is those five positions where you may see more veteran player cuts/pay cuts.

One thing that teams that do look to go cheap should consider is signing multiple veterans if they can. When we are talking about contracts in the sub $2 million a year range they often come with almost no guarantee. The player pool that we looked at for veteran players has an average contract value of $1.5 million with about $360,000 in guarantees. So you can sign two or three players and likely have the total cost come out to around $2.1 million even if you had to cut two of them and pay their guarantee but avoid their salary. That is well worth it if you are cutting a player who will cost you $5+  million.

While this is going to be a big topic of discussion in the next week or two as teams gear up for free agency the reality is teams should be looking at things like this as ways to kind of game the salary cap. We talk of taking multiple stabs at it in the draft but there are ways to do that in free agency as well. It requires a sales job in free agency (players do want a chance to play and when you try to sign three cheap linebackers it may make linebacker 3 think twice before signing), but there are many avenues to finding production at much more affordable costs and maybe teams being forced to look at that this year will lead to some changes in the future.

OTC 2021 Free Agency Guide

  • Welcome to our very first OTC Football Free Agency Guide, a 240 page PDF that not only offers a preview of some of the top free agents in 2021 but an in-depth review of how teams have successfully (and not so successfully) utilized free agency in the past. The book hits on many of the topics that we discuss on OTC or social media outlets when we get into opinions on free agency as well as a unique retroactive look at free agency that is an area not really focused on in the past.

    The book is broken down into three sections and includes the following:

    Free Agent Outcomes From 2015 to 2019

    We look back at how much every team spent on free agents between 2015 and 2019 and how that spending translated into wins in the season of signing. We look at results of offensive and defensive spending based on the team’s prior seasons record to identify some of the biggest spenders in the NFL and what spending levels have brought some success. We further break down spending by position to compare the results based on spending levels and with the control groups who did not spend on a particular position in the offseason.

    Individual Positional Outcomes From 2014 to 2020

    We go back and look at every UFA who switched teams from 2014 to 2020 to identify contract expectations based on the size and length of a contract. Contracts are grouped in different ways to determine the expected years to be completed on a contract and ultimate contract outcome. We grouped every position into different salary tiers and compared the average various statistical performances in the two years leading up to free agency with how those groups performed in the year they switched teams and, where applicable, in future years.

    Free Agent Projections for 2021

    Finally, we have profiles of 77 unrestricted free agents that include thoughts on each player, their OTC valuation metric performance over the last two years, a list of five potential comparable players and how they compare statistically with the free agent and the key metrics of those contract to help frame the market of the player. Finally, we arrive at a projection that includes years, average annual value, and guarantee.

    If you are a premium subscriber you already have access to the OTC 2021 Football Free Agency Guide and you can download it from the link in the premium menu. If you are interested in becoming a premium subscriber you can read here about some of the features that it includes to get you more depth in evaluating contracts, seeing more data on team construction, or preparing for free agency.  If you do subscribe to premium you will be sent a second email with instructions for setting up the account. A few people have had these lost in spam filters and if that happens please let us know via the technical support form and we will get you the necessary link.

     

    If you are not a subscriber you can purchase the guide as a standalone for $24.95.

     

    We hope you enjoy this addition to OTC and we thank you for continuing to make OTC one of your football related destinations every week.

Broncos Tag Safety Justin Simmons

The Broncos are applying the franchise tag again to star safety Justin Simmons according to Benjamin Albright.

Because Simmons was tagged last season his franchise tag number will not be based on the salary cap this year but instead will receive a 120% raise over last season’s salary. This will bring Simmons tag value to $13.729 million for 2021. It is doubtful that the Broncos used the exclusive tag as the cost of that tag would be $15.2 million and likely would go down if the team waited longer.

Simmons is still free to sign with any team in the NFL but given that nobody signed him last year to an offer sheet it would be safe to say that he will exclusively be negotiating with the Broncos. It would cost a team two first round draft picks if they signed Simmons to an offer sheet and it was not matched by Denver. This tag, as discussed in our free agency guide, was a given this year if no long term deal was reached. The cost is too cheap and the player too valuable to let him walk freely.

In my opinion the longer Denver waits the more expensive Simmons may become. There are a number of good free agent safeties who may push the market this year and there is the big albatross of a Jamal Adams extension that could come prior to the deadline to sign Simmons to a long term contract. If anything it probably pays to wait in Simmons case now depending on how strong an offer comes from Denver.

Because this is Simmons second franchise tag he won’t be tagged again as a third tag would escalate Simmons price to that of a quarterback. There have been very few non-quarterbacks who have actually played on a second franchise tag so I would think the odds are high that a long term deal happens sooner rather than later. We estimate the Broncos to have about $30 million in cap space, including the franchise tag for Simmons.

OTC 2021 Free Agency Guide

  • Welcome to our very first OTC Football Free Agency Guide, a 240 page PDF that not only offers a preview of some of the top free agents in 2021 but an in-depth review of how teams have successfully (and not so successfully) utilized free agency in the past. The book hits on many of the topics that we discuss on OTC or social media outlets when we get into opinions on free agency as well as a unique retroactive look at free agency that is an area not really focused on in the past.

    The book is broken down into three sections and includes the following:

    Free Agent Outcomes From 2015 to 2019

    We look back at how much every team spent on free agents between 2015 and 2019 and how that spending translated into wins in the season of signing. We look at results of offensive and defensive spending based on the team’s prior seasons record to identify some of the biggest spenders in the NFL and what spending levels have brought some success. We further break down spending by position to compare the results based on spending levels and with the control groups who did not spend on a particular position in the offseason.

    Individual Positional Outcomes From 2014 to 2020

    We go back and look at every UFA who switched teams from 2014 to 2020 to identify contract expectations based on the size and length of a contract. Contracts are grouped in different ways to determine the expected years to be completed on a contract and ultimate contract outcome. We grouped every position into different salary tiers and compared the average various statistical performances in the two years leading up to free agency with how those groups performed in the year they switched teams and, where applicable, in future years.

    Free Agent Projections for 2021

    Finally, we have profiles of 77 unrestricted free agents that include thoughts on each player, their OTC valuation metric performance over the last two years, a list of five potential comparable players and how they compare statistically with the free agent and the key metrics of those contract to help frame the market of the player. Finally, we arrive at a projection that includes years, average annual value, and guarantee.

    If you are a premium subscriber you already have access to the OTC 2021 Football Free Agency Guide and you can download it from the link in the premium menu. If you are interested in becoming a premium subscriber you can read here about some of the features that it includes to get you more depth in evaluating contracts, seeing more data on team construction, or preparing for free agency.  If you do subscribe to premium you will be sent a second email with instructions for setting up the account. A few people have had these lost in spam filters and if that happens please let us know via the technical support form and we will get you the necessary link.

     

    If you are not a subscriber you can purchase the guide as a standalone for $24.95.

     

    We hope you enjoy this addition to OTC and we thank you for continuing to make OTC one of your football related destinations every week.

Steelers and Roethlisberger Agree to a New Contract

Ben Roethlisberger had a $41.25 million salary cap hit for 2021, which was a clear albatross for the team and a number that could never happen. After weeks of debate about what would happen between the two sides they simply agreed on a new deal that saw the Steelers move a bit out of their usual comfort level and Roethlisberger take a $5 million pay cut to reduce his cap number by more than $15 million.

Per multiple reports Roethlisberger agreed to reduce his salary from $19 million to $14 million with all but $1.075 million coming in the form of a signing bonus. In order to reduce the cap charges the Steelers added four voidable contract years which will leave the team with a $10.34 million dead money charge in 2022 if Roethlisberger retires. This is not a typical type of contract for the Steelers at all, but it allows them to save $15.34 million on the cap in 2021 instead of just $5 million.

As for the pay cut it reminds me of the Peyton Manning pay cut in 2015 when the Broncos asked him to slice his pay from $19 million to $15 million. Manning had the ability to earn the salary back in incentives (which he did) and I dont know if that is the same here or not. Pittsburgh is usually anti incentives in contracts as well. I would guess there is a no tag clause if Roethlisberger is to continue playing.

All of the posturing for a $5 million pay cut for a legendary QB in Pittsburgh seems a bit pointless, in my opinion. In the grand scheme of things is $5 million going to be the difference between re-signing Bud Dupree and extending TJ Watt and not being able to do it? The only difference in salary cap savings is $1 million so there is no material difference in the cap situation between a $19 and $14 million salary. I guess every little bit helps.

If Ben completely falls apart physically this year I would expect the team to approach him about reworking his contract for 2022 so they can designate him a post June 1 and spread out that $10.34 million cap hit, similar to what the Steelers did with Drew Brees this year.

The Steelers who started the offseason around $25 million over the salary cap are now projected to be around $3.6 million under the cap floor for 2021. The team has a number of free agents and work to do with their cap but this was the big one to get done first.

OTC 2021 Free Agency Guide

  • Welcome to our very first OTC Football Free Agency Guide, a 240 page PDF that not only offers a preview of some of the top free agents in 2021 but an in-depth review of how teams have successfully (and not so successfully) utilized free agency in the past. The book hits on many of the topics that we discuss on OTC or social media outlets when we get into opinions on free agency as well as a unique retroactive look at free agency that is an area not really focused on in the past.

    The book is broken down into three sections and includes the following:

    Free Agent Outcomes From 2015 to 2019

    We look back at how much every team spent on free agents between 2015 and 2019 and how that spending translated into wins in the season of signing. We look at results of offensive and defensive spending based on the team’s prior seasons record to identify some of the biggest spenders in the NFL and what spending levels have brought some success. We further break down spending by position to compare the results based on spending levels and with the control groups who did not spend on a particular position in the offseason.

    Individual Positional Outcomes From 2014 to 2020

    We go back and look at every UFA who switched teams from 2014 to 2020 to identify contract expectations based on the size and length of a contract. Contracts are grouped in different ways to determine the expected years to be completed on a contract and ultimate contract outcome. We grouped every position into different salary tiers and compared the average various statistical performances in the two years leading up to free agency with how those groups performed in the year they switched teams and, where applicable, in future years.

    Free Agent Projections for 2021

    Finally, we have profiles of 77 unrestricted free agents that include thoughts on each player, their OTC valuation metric performance over the last two years, a list of five potential comparable players and how they compare statistically with the free agent and the key metrics of those contract to help frame the market of the player. Finally, we arrive at a projection that includes years, average annual value, and guarantee.

    If you are a premium subscriber you already have access to the OTC 2021 Football Free Agency Guide and you can download it from the link in the premium menu. If you are interested in becoming a premium subscriber you can read here about some of the features that it includes to get you more depth in evaluating contracts, seeing more data on team construction, or preparing for free agency.  If you do subscribe to premium you will be sent a second email with instructions for setting up the account. A few people have had these lost in spam filters and if that happens please let us know via the technical support form and we will get you the necessary link.

     

    If you are not a subscriber you can purchase the guide as a standalone for $24.95.

     

    We hope you enjoy this addition to OTC and we thank you for continuing to make OTC one of your football related destinations every week.

Giants Release Tate and Mayo

The Giants have started their 2021 roster cutting by informing Golden Tate and David Mayo that they will be released this year.

The Tate signing in particular is one that the Giants probably wish they had back. It got off to a terrible start with Tate being suspended for four games for PEDs and finishing the year with under 700 yards. It got worse this year with Tate being unhappy with his usage and being sent home at some point. He finished this year with under 400 yards.

Tate’s signing was always a questionable signing. Tate had been traded mid season to the Eagles in 2018 and performed poorly with under 300 receiving yards in 8 games. The Giants still pursued him and signed him to a lucrative four year, $37.5 million contract of which about $23 million was guaranteed. Tate voided those guarantees with his suspension which game them an opportunity to release him in 2020 but the Giants decided to chase the contract instead paying $10.352 million against the cap for him. Tate was going to count for $10.852 million on the cap this year and his release will save the Giants $6.147 million.

David Mayo joined the Giants in 2019 on a minimum contract after he was cut by the 49ers. Mayo played in nearly 57% of the defensive snaps for the Giants that season and had 52 tackles. He was also a special teams mainstay. He signed a three year contract worth $2.8 million a year and $3.5 million guaranteed in 2020, but saw his defensive participation drop to under 20%.

Mayo was going to count for $2.3 million on the cap this year which is somewhat reasonable for a special teams standout. His cut is probably tied more to the expected cap downturn and the Giants needs to fill so many voids on their offensive and defensive units. They will save all of the $2.3 million with the cut.

The Giants were more or less right around the estimated cap limit so when these moves become official they should be around $8 million under the cap.

Saints Release Jared Cook and Josh Hill

The Saints continue their move toward cap compliancy with two expected releases of tight ends Jared Cook and Josh Hill. The Cook contract was an interesting on and I’ll explain the reason behind the release given that we had him listed as a free agent.

Cook had signed a two year contract in 2019 that contained a void year for 2021. That void year allowed the Saints to stick $2 million in salary cap proration in the future and fit him in their tight salary cap situation when signed. There were rules in place at the time due to the potential expiration of the CBA that would have actually counted the $2 million against the 2020 salary cap since there was no acceleration allowed in the final league year had the CBA not been extended.

Since that kind of defeats the purpose of the void year the Saints instead negotiated a contract with a massive roster bonus that would kick in for 2021 if he was still on the roster. This would allow them to keep the $2 million in 2021 even if the CBA was not extended since they could then release him on the first day of the new league year. With the new CBA in place they could release him early and not worry about the cap charges. So basically this accomplished the same thing as a void but allowed them to work within the worst cap constraints possible.

So if you have been using OTC for estimated cap space his release doesnt change anything since we were reported the contract based on the intent rather than the actual execution and always had just a $2 million charge for him.

Hill on the other hand was on the Saints roster at a $3.3 million cap charge. His release will cost the team $750,000 in dead money, creating around $2.5 million in cap room.

We currently estimate the Saints to be about $65 million over the cap not including a recent extension that was signed yesterday by RFA JT Gray.

Raiders Looking to Trade Trent Brown; Release Gabe Jackson

The Las Vegas Raiders are trimming their roster in preparation for the 2021 season with Josina Anderson reporting that the team will cut guard Gabe Jackson and Ian Rapoport saying that they are also shopping right tackle Trent Brown.

The Jackson release was one that I expected to happen even before this year began. Jackson had a $9.6 million cap charge with no dead money if released. Jackson has been a solid player for the Raiders and bounced back from back to back years in which he did not play 16 games to play nearly every snap for the Raiders. Jackson had signed an $11 million per year contract back in 2017 that predated the Jon Gruden regime coming in. I would expect Jackson to land with a team pretty quickly once the release is official, though at a lower price tag.

Brown is one I speculated about earlier based on an astronomical contract for a right tackle and a constant injury history. Brown was the Raiders prized free agent signing in 2019 inking him to a four year contract that average $16.5 million a season, the largest contract ever (at the time) for an offensive lineman. They went that high because Brown was likely to have suitors at left tackle.

Brown has been pretty unreliable the last two seasons, starting off well enough in 2019 before a pec injury landed him on IR. He played 11 games and made the Pro Bowl that year but only played in five games this year, including a trip to the Covid list and a tough time coming back from it.

Brown’s contract was frontloaded with the Raiders picking up $36.75 million of the $66 million contract in the first two years. With only 16 games played that winds up one of the worst returns on investment in the league.

Brown’s contract is only $14 million this season and there are few tackles available in the NFL this year in free agency which gives the Raiders an opportunity here to find a team willing to take a chance this season. Brown may not have the best reputation in the NFL and the injuries are a clear problem but for a team with a gaping hole at left tackle Brown could be worth a gamble given how expensive the position has gotten since Brown signed the deal.

The Raiders should have about $2.5 million in cap space once Jackson’s release is official. If Brown if cut or traded that will jump to $16 million. The Raiders have a large number of players who could be cut in the coming two weeks to clear a good deal of cap room for free agency.