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Multiple First Round Pick for Player Trades

First round picks are rarely traded in the NFL for existing players. The first round pick has generally been classified as gold by NFL teams and for good reason- first round players have the best chance to be standout players and for the first four years of their career are dirt cheap. Normally it requires a pretty special player and a pretty special circumstance to do the first round for player trade, but we do get maybe one a year or every other year. Two first rounders has generally been crazy talk, which is one reason why franchise players never switch teams, but in the last two years we have three trades where teams have agreed to move two first round picks as part of a trade.  Why?

When the Bears traded for Khalil Mack and included two first rounders as part of the deal I just chalked that up Mack being an ultra special player and also that the Bears did get a 2nd round pick as part of the deal which isn’t that much less valuable than a 1.  The Texans then traded two first round picks for left tackle Laremy Tunsil which was just shocking on every level. Tunsil is a good player. Im not sure he is what would be considered a generational talent. Still it was the Texans who had no GM and were just doing things with no consideration for the long term.

Now we had a trade for cornerback Jalen Ramsey and that to me is the real eye opener. The Rams have a legit front office and are making a football move not really a desperation one. Sure they have been aggressive with some deals in the past but you can find justifications in much of what was done and many trades were more reasonable. Ramsey is a good football player. I don’t think he’s Khalil Mack nor am I certain that one player can make that kind of difference in today’s passing game even if he was Darrelle Revis in his prime. So is this a sign of things to come or not?

There have been many changes in the NFL post the 2011 CBA but one of them may be the lack of top tier talent every available in free agency. There was a time when legit great players hit free agency for a number of reasons relating to lack of cap space, cheap owners, and basic contract structures and/or rules that eliminated the franchise tag from consideration. The last of those players to hit free agency was probably Ndamukong Suh in 2015.

Using the new money annual contract value as the baseline for the ability to find a top player in free agency here is the breakdown of the amount of players that rank in the top 5 or top 10 at the position that were legitimately available in free agency.

Position Top 5 UFA Signings Top 10 UFA Signings
Quarterback 0 1
Running Back 1 3
Wide Receiver 0 1
Tight End 1 3
Left Tackle 1 2
Guard 3 4
Center 2 3
Right Tackle 2 5
Int. D-Line 0 1
Edge Rusher 1 3
Linebacker 2 4
Cornerback 2 5
Safety 3 7

From looking at those numbers it tells me that the places I can find help in free agency are in the interior offensive line, right tackle, safety, linebacker, and cornerback. At the other positions basically nobody shakes loose.

While the annual value of the contract does give up some idea of the type of contract that is being paid in free agency it doesn’t tell us the quality of the player. To get a better idea of where to players are coming from I turned to our valuation metric which basically readjusts everyone’s salary based on their performance this year. Here is the breakdown of the top 10 players at each position and the type of contract they signed (I did not include tight end because it was brought to my attention I may be missing some players).

Position Extension Drafted Free Agent Other Top FA rank
Quarterback 5 5 0 0 24
Running Back 1 7 1 1 10
Wide Receiver 3 6 1 0 9
Left Tackle 6 3 1 0 3
Guard 4 4 2 0 1
Center 4 2 3 1 2
Right Tackle 4 3 2 1 8
Int. D-Line 7 3 0 0 14
Edge Rusher 4 2 4 0 3
Cornerback 1 3 6 0 1
Safety 2 3 4 1 4
Linebacker 4 3 3 0 3

As you look through the list you will see the majority of top performers are either players on contract extensions or draft picks with the exception of (perhaps ironically since we are discussing the Rams) cornerback where the top players were signed as free agents. Safety and edge rusher also have quality players there too.

As I looked through the list for corners I noticed that not many of those free agents were highly regarded players- Brian Poole, Steven Nelson, Jason McCourty, and even the released Richard Sherman. Essentially this is more about finding a needle in the haystack (and since we are just doing a limited 5 or 6 game sample look here Id also imagine year over year not very consistent) and not doing the easy thing of signing a player to a big contract.

So rather than just say that there are players out there what if we averaged the performance of the top 10 salaried players who were signed as free agents at each position (again not including TE).

Position Valuation Max Value Avg. Contract $Cost/$Value
Quarterback $6,099,700 $21,079,000 $15,325,000 2.51
Running Back $3,436,800 $10,130,000 $5,642,500 1.64
Wide Receiver $6,592,100 $14,532,000 $10,747,500 1.63
Left Tackle $5,272,400 $15,756,000 $8,778,000 1.66
Guard $5,953,600 $11,779,000 $9,675,500 1.63
Center $5,113,300 $9,725,000 $7,399,333 1.45
Right Tackle $4,017,600 $8,066,000 $8,155,833 2.03
Int. D-Line $3,738,100 $10,433,000 $9,509,167 2.54
Edge Rusher $11,102,000 $19,951,000 $13,000,000 1.17
Cornerback $5,121,900 $11,278,000 $12,075,000 2.36
Safety $5,790,400 $11,950,000 $10,385,000 1.79
Linebacker $6,108,100 $11,556,000 $10,437,500 1.71

How does that compare with contract extensions? Here is the chart for extensions.

Position Valuation Max Value Avg. Contract $Cost/$Value
Quarterback $22,484,900 $32,809,000 $30,011,333 1.33
Running Back $5,166,400 $11,388,000 $7,252,833 1.40
Wide Receiver $10,648,900 $18,509,000 $17,245,000 1.62
Left Tackle $6,552,500 $14,648,000 $13,040,000 1.99
Guard $6,209,000 $10,651,000 $9,995,390 1.61
Center $6,421,400 $8,949,000 $9,599,060 1.49
Right Tackle $5,077,300 $12,175,000 $7,639,667 1.50
Int. D-Line $10,776,400 $21,144,000 $15,726,667 1.46
Edge Rusher $9,958,500 $21,140,000 $18,141,667 1.82
Cornerback $4,540,400 $10,885,000 $12,412,217 2.73
Safety $5,453,700 $11,230,000 $8,540,000 1.57
Linebacker $7,055,200 $13,946,000 $12,165,906 1.72

Looking at the chart it would tell me that you are probably better off going out of your way to extend top players at QB, RB, WR, DT, LT, C, RT, and LB as long as the price is not outrageous than signing a top player in free agency at the same position. Edge, corner, and safety however are actually showing better performance in free agency. For corner and safety that makes some sense since we already pointed out that some of the top players were free agent signings. For the pass rushers I was generally surprised. Its still early in the year so this may just balance out by years end.

Now what if we look at the top performing draft picks?  Here are the top 10 drafted players currently still under a rookie contract at each position.

Position Valuation Max Value Avg. Contract $Cost/$Value
Quarterback $24,283,200 $31,417,000 $4,594,426 0.19
Running Back $10,769,200 $16,000,000 $2,173,146 0.20
Wide Receiver $15,022,300 $20,367,000 $1,808,321 0.12
Left Tackle $9,003,500 $18,238,000 $2,394,330 0.27
Guard $8,574,100 $10,836,000 $2,264,811 0.26
Center $4,410,500 $8,710,000 $1,244,637 0.28
Right Tackle $6,080,500 $10,507,000 $2,103,099 0.35
Int. D-Line $9,333,400 $12,219,000 $2,266,313 0.24
Edge Rusher $13,105,300 $17,510,000 $4,033,415 0.31
Cornerback $10,511,800 $13,505,000 $1,908,236 0.18
Safety $8,882,700 $12,731,000 $1,920,564 0.22
Linebacker $9,740,500 $14,280,000 $1,756,904 0.18

There is really no comparison here for any position except center and to some extent the interior D-line, unless just interested in hitting the max value where the truly special players perform beyond their rookie deals. The young talent are the best performers in the NFL and the cost benefit is just ridiculous compared to that of a veteran contract.

The chart really identifies why draft picks are so valuable and are usually safeguarded, but draft picks also take time to develop and take skill and/or luck to hit on. In some draft research I am working on with Brad we have identified that the general range of player expectation in the second half of the first round to between 40 and 53% of the average salary of a top 5 paid player at the position. For cornerback that would equate to a player who signs a contract worth between $5.8 and $7.7 million.

Those values are usually indicative of a player’s performance as a rookie so the class of players that a team like the Rams would expect to draft are Pierre Desir, Robert Alford, Bryce Callahan, Jonathan Jones, Ronald Darby, DJ Hayden, Brandon Carr, Darryl Roberts, and Johnathan Joseph. Might some of those players hit?  They might. Our research of past drafts at the position would indicate in the ballpark of a 20% chance of a major hit and 30% chance of a solid player (which is probably similar to the veteran market where we have 2 of those player performing at a $10M+ level and a few duds mixed in).

What is that 70-80% probability that the draft pick is not a top tier player worth to the team?  By making the trade the acquiring team does get the best of both worlds. They get a draft pick that they believe is already worth the top tier salary with no questions asked. They get the player for multiple years under the rookie contract timeframe which should mean the prime years of the player without the initial cost associated with the player’s development. When you factor in the age of someone like Ramsey (he just 24 right now) you may believe that the performance will extend further into those extension years than it would for other players. That should all be valuable to a team.

Of course the Rams will be paying Ramsey a new salary since he will likely hold out if they do not renegotiate his contract but for an acquiring team that cost is definitely looked at differently than trading for say a franchise player. Lets just say for the sake of argument the Rams sign Ramsey to a four year, $70 million extension. For the Rams that works out to somewhere around $85.5 million over six years, or $14.5 million a year, or about what the Jets paid for Trumaine Johnson.  There is far more value in getting a Ramsey at 24 with two rookie years remaining than no rookie years and signing him as a free agent.

Basically what we have in the trade is a 1st round pick for the player and then a 1st round pick for the premium of acquiring a rookie contract with multiple years remaining, maintaining the exclusive negotiating rights with the franchise tag, and getting the player in his prime rather than likely getting ready to come out of his prime. I can at least buy that logic.

Is Ramsey the best player to go with this strategy on?  I’m not sure on that. Ramsey has a great reputation but Im not sure that has played out the last year and a half. He was upset about his contract this year and was likely more in self-preservation mode while trying to get off the Jaguars. Marcus Peters, who he replaced, was more of a boom or bust type that also did things that would normally get someone paid in free agency especially if they had the cache of a Ramsey. Ideally, even with his age, the way to approach Ramsey is not to extend but to tag and maybe after the first tag see if you can recover some draft capital down the line, but I would think that Ramsey would blow up if they did not extend him in 2020 and that makes this a worthless trade.

So the question I have is whether or not this is the future of the NFL.  Teams have short windows of opportunity and the best chance to find immediate talent is not going to be through free agency or the draft but with aggressive trades like this one, unless the free agent pool gets larger and younger. Let another team absorb the cost of the draft pick and keep him for a few years and if the team is still struggling entice them with more draft picks to rebuild while you take their better pieces. It is a high cost to pay but if these teams start to be successful I would expect more teams to consider doing similar things in the future.  

Introducing the OTC Valuation Metric

I’d like to introduce to everyone the newest feature we have added to OTC and that is a weekly player and team valuation metric that is, I believe, the first mass attempt to better merge contract values with actual on field performance.

To develop our valuation metric we are primarily using four signals to re-assign salaries in the NFL that I think can best explain the players true on field worth. While the formulas that we use are proprietary they are based on player participation, Pro Football Focus grades, raw statistical performance, and proprietary statistics developed by PFF.

So why these main categories?  I’ll explain my logic here.

While snap counts do not tell us much about a player’s performance they are telling us that the coaching staff must see something in that player to keep trotting him out there week after week. Even if the coach is simply forced by circumstance to play someone (such as the Jets most recent need to play a third string QB as a starter) there is value to just taking a snap. This is a prime reason why so many NFL incentives, in particular the rookie proven performance escalator, is tied to just playtime.

Statistical performances are big drivers of NFL salaries. While there are always exceptions to every rule, players who sack the quarterback more often than not get paid more than a rusher who hasn’t had much luck bringing a QB down. While we can argue over the efficiency of an Ezekiel Elliot the fact is he produces a ton of yards, first downs, touchdowns, etc…(well before this year at least he did) and clearly the NFL sees value in just production.

The second way we look at production is more through efficiency measures and trying to identify how much of that raw production is being produced by a player’s level of play versus just having an abundance of opportunities. Going back to Elliot you may be able to look at his yards per target in the receiving game, percentage of yards after contact, etc… and realize that when compared to league averages his efficiency is not that high. Mike Evans produced a ton more yards last year than would be expected of a player given his amount of times targeted in an offense while Jarvis Landry produced less. Using many PFF statistics give us the ability to better identify efficient production vs volume based production.

Finally the PFF grade gives an overview of how a player is performing on a play by play basis and gives more context to the quality of snaps being played and the quality of those stats, some of which may still be misleading due to other things that impact a play. I look at this as essentially having a seasoned scout telling me what level they really see a player at.

We take all of these numbers and use them to calculate how contracts should be attributed to players at each position based on how they are playing on a week by week basis as well as over the course of the entire season. 

It is important to note that this is NOT a free agent valuation. A free agent valuation is something very different as the baseline for those salaries is the veteran marketplace rather than the entire NFL market. Those numbers would likely be much higher for many players. This valuation we have is a way of distributing salaries in an equitable manner so that rookies and veterans would be valued on the same scale within the current market at that position.  This allows us to cap the market close to where salaries are currently slotted and is why a Patrick Mahomes isn’t valued at something like $40 million as we are working, more or less, within the constraints of the salary structure in 2019.

With that out of the way let’s look at what the valuation page will have.

At the top right of the page you will see the team by team view. Simply click on the expand button to see all 32 teams. This sums up the overall value of each team for the season or a given week. The second column shows you what the team is currently paying on an annual basis for their team. The final column shows you just how much more value a team is getting from their roster. For a majority of teams this will be positive because rookies provide so much value relative to their contract that teams have to either have an awful group of draft picks over the past few years and either bad injury luck or lots of overvalued veterans to not be getting value from their roster this early in the year. Veteran contracts also grow smaller relative to the cap each year and can quickly move to undervalued assets for a team if they continue to perform at a level close to their pre-free agent/extension status. Clicking on the headers of the table will sort the teams.

As you scroll down you will see a listing of all players that we have a record of this year. The first column tells you the player’s value that he receives for playing his primary position on offense, defense, or special teams. The total value column adds in, for offensive and defensive players, value for special team’s performance, if applicable. The next two columns will identify the player’s current average per year on his contract and the value he is providing the team this year. Finally we have a column looking at the salary for the player in 2020 and how that corresponds to where he is playing at this year as a rough guide for maybe seeing what players could be in danger of release next year. Again these columns are all sortable.

Above the table you will see filters so you can quickly filter by position and/or team the same way you can on our free agency page. At the top of the page you will also see a selection for the week so you can select which week you would like to view.

The valuation pages will be updated each week on either Tuesday or Wednesday to reflect the prior week’s action. For the first week or two we will have the entire page open, but will then be moving the season totals and ability to view the prior game data to the Premium section of OTC, which you can read about here. We will, however, add to our player’s page the valuation number so if you are just interested in one player you can see that without subscribing and Ill also try do a weekly post going over some of the better players of the week.

I think this will be a neat and interesting add to OTC and hopefully you will find it interesting as well. I’d also like to thank PFF for the great services they provide and remind everyone that if you really want to see a thorough week by week breakdown of every player in the league you should be subscribing to their PFF Elite plan and give it a look.

We will get a link up on the main page shortly but to view the current week valuation (and preview the full featured version) you can go to this page. You can also think about subscribing to the Premium for the ability to view everything once we move the full featured version to the Premium section after the next slate of games. I’ll post a new link to the preview version then as well.

Feel free to email any comments or suggestions on this or anything else OTC related and as always thanks for the support.

Age vs Cost: NFL Rosters in 2019

Normally I like to do things like this at the start of the NFL but with the mad rush of extensions right before the regular season began I decided to hold off until we were more current with all the contacts, but now that we are here we can do more roster cutups. The one I wanted to look at today was how old teams skew, relative to their average annual salary, at the top of the roster.

For this I looked at each team’s top 15 players annual salaries and then calculated the average age for each group. The graph is broken up into four quadrants. The top left quadrant represents the teams that trend more expensive and older. The bottom left are teams that are both young and cheap. The top right quadrant is where we get the older and expensive teams and the bottom right are those that are older but they don’t spend as much on those players. My feeling is the further off you are to the top right the more you have riding on this season. Those in the bottom left likely have the least riding on this year.

Age vs cost of top 15 NFL players

So a few takeaways. I think its safe to say that this is the Vikings year they have to win. They have more money invested in their top players and it is by a pretty significant margin- $10 million more than the next closest team. At an average age of 28.9 years they have moved slightly past the NFL average of 28.5 so in many ways its now or likely never for them, especially since the team is looking to be cap strapped next year without changes. I think you could argue similar things about the Rams as well but they don’t have the cap baggage next year.

The Patriots are the only team in the NFL with a top 15 that averages over 30 years of age. Even if you pull Brady out of the mix they average over 30. They are more or less the lone team in the NFL that seems to be following the older path of the NFL that solid veterans are better than unproven rookies even if the upside is not there. One of the key differences here though is that the Patriots group is cheap. The cost of $123 million per year is 6th lowest in the NFL. In the “old days” one of the flops using this strategy was signing players towards their 30+ years to large contract extensions that killed the teams. This is a more economical use of resources.

The Eagles may wind up representing that older philosophy by next year. They are the second oldest team in the NFL at 29.9 years and they are locked into some expensive contracts with void years to limit the cap costs. 12 of their top 15 will be 29 years old by years end.

The other teams in the older side of the bracket that I found a little surprising are the Titans, Cardinals, and Bills. Tennessee did really begin to go all in on more veterans the last few years in hopes of getting something out of Mariota and they need to make the playoffs this year. Arizona Im surprised has not purged more of their team. They have really relied on older player signings to round out this roster. The Bills are another team that I knew signed some cheap veterans to fill the roster but I didn’t realize that they still had so many that were also in their highest paid category.

On the younger end I was surprised by Atlanta. I look at the Falcons as an older team (they do have the oldest overall roster in the NFL) and one that has probably had their window close, but they wound up slightly under the NFL average with a top 15 of just 28.3 years old. They do have the third most expensive group behind the Vikings and Rams so clearly anything but the playoffs would be disappointing, but they are not as over invested in older talent at the top of their roster as I thought.

Once Dallas gets their extensions done they will skyrocket into a similar spot as the Falcons, but probably a year behind where Atlanta is now. Dallas is going to be in a win now mode starting in 2020 if they don’t win it all this year.

Houston stands out like a sore thumb. This is a team with huge amounts of cap room but also a reputation of being one of the cheapest teams in the NFL and it shows. They have a good team but I think you can argue they are wasting the peak of Watson’s years by not at least being closer to the league average in spending. They have the 5th least amount of money invested in their top 15 players. They will be an interesting team to watch next year in free agency. They could open the wallet and go after some good talent or they could pull a Grigson era Colts deal and look for cheap veterans with name value.  With no expensive draft picks they should be spending next year.

Oakland being the youngest team surprised me only because I associate Gruden with looking at the older talent, but for the most part they have kept those contract numbers low so they don’t land in their top 15. They have a number of prime years free agent signings but those are balanced out by first round type contracts on the back end of their top 15 paid players.

Patriots Release Antonio Brown

In a story that just seems to keep repeating itself Antonio Brown has been released again this time by the Patriots and again questions come up regarding his contract. Ill preface this article by saying that this is a situation Ive really never seen before so I’m just offering an opinion based on my understanding of the rules and what has been said about his contract.

Brown signed his contract with New England on the 9th of September following a public divorce with the Raiders just a few days earlier. The contract structure was stunning to me because of how Brown had behaved all offseason. Rather than tying most of the contract to being on the team and active the Patriots went all in with $10 million in guarantees, $9 million of which came as a signing bonus, and just $500,000 tied to playing on Sunday. All of this was absurd because signing bonus money is not the easiest thing to recover if things go south. Salary is a different story.

I can only venture that the Patriots did this because they had salary cap troubles (they had a very tight cap situation) and wanted to be able to split the charges for Brown over two years by including a second season on the contract worth $20 million that for all intents and purposes was a void year used to dump $4.5 million from the signing bonus. I’m going to assume they had enough of a relationship with Drew Rosenhaus that they were convinced that Brown was fine and only looking to leave Oakland and didn’t do much to really see if there was any additional off the field that could be a concern. This would explain why the deal came together so quickly.

The NFL CBA is pretty strict with what can cause forfeiture of a signing bonus. Refusing to practice triggers forfeiture. Going to jail triggers forfeiture. Non football injuries trigger forfeiture. PED violations trigger forfeiture. Retirement triggers forfeiture. Being accused in a civil matter does not trigger forfeiture. Being a bad guy does not trigger forfeiture. Being a distraction does not trigger forfeiture. All those things trigger is the internal question of “why did we sign this guy in the first place”.

Forfeiture is also not an all or nothing situation. It more or less proportionate for the time missed due to whatever triggers it and it is based on the prorated portion of the bonus, not the entire bonus. At the initial stage there can be a lump sum loss(I believe its 25% of the prorated number in the regular season) but then it moves into weekly forfeiture. I cant see forfeiture being in play at all.

Now this is not the only avenue for the Patriots to try to recover the bonus. It has been reported that the first installment of Brown’s signing bonus was set to be paid on September 23. This, to me, explains the timing of the release as the Patriots will have him all cleared out from the organization when they decide to withhold payment. The question is whether they have a leg to stand on.

Most Patriots contracts contain what are essentially morals clauses. Such language states that the player has represented that he is not engaged and will not engage in any unlawful or immoral conduct and that there are no pre-existing circumstances that would prevent the player from fulfilling the contract. These clauses extend to the signing bonus as well as any other parts of the deal. So the Patriots more or less will need to prove that Brown was either engaged in some type of immoral behavior that they were not made aware of before signing the contract or after signing the contract.

If the Patriots do not make the payment Brown will file a grievance against the Patriots to force them to pay the $9 million. They will be an arbitration issue and while I have not really followed all the drama surrounding Brown the last few days because I was pretty much just sick of it my assumption is they will argue that this is a private matter between two (or more) adults. Perhaps it was juvenile but not immoral and illegal especially if no charges were filed prior to his release. I would also think that there are probably more than a few other Patriots in history that they can point to as example of what would be considered similar ‘immoral’ conduct that were allowed to complete their contract. That’s not a knock on the Patriots as it would likely happen with every other team just that it’s the Patriots treatment of similar situation that would be an issue in the grievance not how the other 31 would have handled it.  

Brown also has a $1 million salary guarantee. Guarantees generally have much broader language regarding the voiding of the guarantee. Conduct detrimental to the team, speaking badly about the team, harming the teams reputation through actions, etc…My guess is they can point to these as hurting the teams reputation as a way to void the guarantee. If so Brown would likely file a grievance as well on that. Brown will have earned two weeks salary regardless of the guarantee so, $125,000 has already been paid. Even if the guarantee was voided Brown should be entitled to $250,000 in termination pay if he decided to file for it which is an additional $125,000. I would imagine that there are also offsets on the guarantee if some other team decides to take the plunge on him. The $500,000 in per game bonuses is lost to Brown with the exception of the $33K he earned for the first game.  

So all told my feeling is that Brown will count for $5.75 million against the Patriots salary cap this year (the guaranteed salary, the signing bonus proration, and the proration of his per game bonuses) and $4.75 million next year with a grievance pending if they withhold payments. If he is successful with his grievance the only change will be a $466,667 credit applied to the Patriots 2020 salary cap for per game bonuses that counted on the cap but were unearned.

If Brown were to lose a grievance the Patriots should be a $4.5 million cap credit in 2020 for the signing bonus, an $875,000 credit for guaranteed salary that was voided, and the same $466,667 credit for the roster bonuses.  The $4.5 million dead money from the signing bonus in 2020 would also vanish from the books. There would be a chance that they would take a charge for $125,000 in termination pay if he filed that following the loss of a grievance.

There are a few other scenarios depending on what they do with the guarantee and if he signs elsewhere, but for the most part it will be one of these two situations. I would lean towards the first one being the most likely outcome where he would win a grievance but again that’s just my opinion on it.

I can’t say Ive seen anything like this before. At the start of the year Brown was set to earn $15.125 million with Pittsburgh. He was then scheduled to earn the same from Oakland following a trade in March with a guarantee for another $14.5 million. He lost most of that. He then signed with the Pats set to earn up to $15 million with incentives. He may have lost most of that.

If the Patriots play hardball and Brown is unsuccessful with a grievance he will end up making around $1 million this season- one weeks salary from the Raiders and two weeks salary plus a per game roster bonus payment from the Patriots. In the meantime Brown will have left the three organizations with somewhere around a combined $28 million in dead money while only playing one game this year.

The Tanking Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins organization should be embarrassed by the start of their season which has seen the team outscored 102-10 in their first two games. Miami turned themselves by choice into an expansion team this offseason taking on over $50 million in dead money charges and doing their best to pretty much move any player with a pulse without a significant contractual guarantee to ensure they get the number one pick in the draft. The Dolphins could have gotten there anyway with a team that at least puts up a little fight rather than one that just rolls over and plays dead but Miami opted for the latter approach to make sure nothing could really get in their way. Is it worth it?

The concept of tanking isn’t necessarily new in the NFL though I’m not sure we have seen it happen under these circumstances. Indianapolis did it in 2011 in the “Suck for Luck” season but that occurred because of an injury to Peyton Manning and subsequent poor start with veteran Kerry Collins that ended with him landing on IR halfway through the year. They then kind of embraced being bad but it wasn’t by choice and the actual total roster teardown took place the following year.  The Raiders hit the reset on their roster in 2013 simply because they had mismanaged their roster and salary cap so badly that they had no other option but to rip themselves apart. The closest example would be the Browns in 2016 taking a cautious approach to their offseason but even they were out there attempting to win, they just didn’t and made the most of a bad situation.

In my mind Miami is going to be the real test case for the concept. They have amassed over $110 million in cap space for 2020 and multiple draft picks through their trades. Even the harshest critic of the Dolphins approach can’t complain about the haul they received for left tackle Laremy Tunsil in what may be the most lopsided trade in the NFL for a player since the Herschel Walker trade in 1989. In the process though they have fractured the organization and the locker room, making one wonder if they can attract free agents to Miami if there are similar financial offers elsewhere in a league that is going to be filled with teams with big cap surpluses.

The success of the strategy really hinges on being able to draft a spectacular quarterback to finally be the heir to Dan Marino’s legacy. That is of course no guarantee. The first question to ask is will a quarterback be available that is worth the number one pick. In the salary cap era of the NFL the following QBs were drafted number 1 overall: Peyton Manning (1998), Tim Couch (1999), Mike Vick (2001), David Carr (2002), Carson Palmer (2003), Eli Manning (2004), Alex Smith (2005), JaMarcus Russell (2007), Matt Stafford (2009), Sam Bradford (2010), Cam Newton (2011), Andrew Luck (2012), Jameis Winston (2015), Jared Goff (2016), Baker Mayfield (2018), and Kyler Murray (2019). That’s basically around 60% of NFL drafts in which we see a QB go number one. Its 72% since Manning’s draft so a bit higher since 98.  

The second hurdle is who on this list is so good that it’s worth being this bad to get?  Peyton Manning is really it. Vick was spectacular for some time. Luck was pretty good as was Newton. None turned a team into a perennial Super Bowl contender. Players like Palmer, Stafford, Eli Manning, and Smith have all had very solid, long careers and Eli did win his two Super Bowls but for the most part they would put Miami right back to where they were before tanking- a team that trends around 500 with the occasional season that sees them qualify for the playoffs. Better than most of the Tannehill era? Sure, but worth not trying for a season?  That’s hard to say. Couch, Carr, Russell, and Bradford were all busts. Winston is trending toward that category. Its too early to say on the other three. Goff has the most experience and looks to be in the solid but not spectacular category. Lets call it 60% they find a decent QB, 30% a flop, and 10% a legit game changer.

Has there been other game changers in the draft?  Sure but you could have gotten them without the number one pick and while they are going to have their shot at moving those guys up the board since they will control the draft Im not sure why we would expect them to pass on a Trubisky for a Mahomes if the majority of the NFL thought that was the correct pick. Realistically what the number 1 pick does is prevent them from getting stuck with the Ryan Leaf or RGIII player if it is a two person draft with a QB needy team ahead of you in the draft and ensures that if it’s a one QB draft that they get the guy. Clearly there is a benefit to locking those scenarios in, but how great is that benefit? 

The lack of game changers at the QB position is why I question this kind of approach to building a team. I’ve long been a fan of a team that has perfected the art of tanking, albeit unintentionally, in the New York Jets and I’m still waiting to see my Joe Namath. The Jets had the number 1 pick in 1996 but there was no QB and the Jets choice was Keyshawn Johnson. They had it again in 1997 but Manning decided to go back to college and the Jets ended up trading down (twice) and out of selecting a stud left tackle (Orlando Pace and later Walter Jones) for James Farrior and more draft picks. From 1997 to 2008 the Jets made the playoffs a few times and made the AFC title game in 1998.  The Colts the next year had number one and got Manning leading to a decade of greatness.   

If you are tanking what if that scenario happens to Miami? You have this war chest of draft capital to use that should, in theory, make your team in 2020 much better and out of the running for the number 1 pick in 2021. You have this giant war chest of cap room in 2020 that you would use to make yourself better and likely out of the running for the top pick in 2021.

While you can always trade back and out of the picks (Cleveland did this passing on Carson Wentz) the salary cap war chest is probably going to be very CBA dependent. Right now teams are allowed to carry over as much cap room as they want year to year but with the CBA expiring there is no guarantee that cap money that goes unspent in 2020 will carry to 2021. In the last CBA negotiation it was a fresh slate in terms of cap adjustments. The NFL also requires teams to spend 89% of the cap between 2017 and 2020 so Miami will have to spend money just to meet the 89% threshold.

While the Browns right now are considered the shining example of tanking and getting a QB in Baker Mayfield I think its worth noting that they did not really tank in the year they selected him. They signed a number of moderate to high priced free agents including Jamie Collins (they traded for him the year before), Kevin Zeitler, JC Tretter, Kenny Britt, and Jason McCourty and used their top draft pick on Myles Garrett.  While they were still carrying large amounts of cap space over to 2018 the goal was pretty clear that they were trying to be better and not finish the year winless. They happened to be that bad because of bad luck and coaching and landed Mayfield, who may or not be a game changer.

That brings me back to the same question- what if it doesn’t work in the 2020 draft? Do you then tank the 2020 season to ensure you get a top pick in 2021?  Sign players for other teams to meet your financial requirements and then trade them off? Hope the CBA is extended and carryover exists? What message does that send to the players in the locker room and whoever is showing up to the games? What happens if its no different than the 95/96 Jets when no QBs exist worth taking in the draft? Or do you just do what the Browns did and try to improve and see what happens? If you elect to do that well what was really the point of what you did this season?

And then I have the final question. Given that the only reason to do something like Miami is doing is to break the 8-8 funk and get to be a consistent 10+ game winner shouldn’t you not put all your eggs in one basket next year even if you do get a QB?  This is something that has never been done before in the NFL. I thought the Cardinals this year would be the first to take back to back first round QBs and have them battle it out, but they quickly decided Murray was the guy and traded off Josh Rosen (ironically to the Dolphins).

Given that the majority of top picks turn out to be good but not great I think for this to really work you not only need to try to optimize your chances for a top pick but also to optimize your chances at making the right pick. Miami stuck with Ryan Tannehill because they anointed him their guy in 2012 and luckily for them they never bypassed on anyone of note in the draft because of Tannehill but what if you were the Jaguars with a Blake Bortles causing you to pass on a Deshaun Watson or Patrick Mahomes?  Or if the Cardinals because of Rosen passed on the potential upside of Murray.  If you are doing all of this to maximize your opportunities I think you should be approaching it that way if you have the chance to pick again until you know that the player you draft is indeed special.

All told I just don’t think that this is the best way to do things in the NFL. I think there were probably other ways to get to the same goal and at least play semi-competitive football. Maybe this wasn’t the Dolphins plan originally either. They did make a trade for Rosen and did sign Ryan Fitzpatrick, both of whom in theory should give you a better chance of winning games than signing a Christian Hackenberg off the street. Perhaps they just saw how bad things were looking in the summer and then made the decision to go much harder at being the worst team in the NFL right off the bat.

Perhaps I’m wrong and this is the best way. Maybe Miami is 100% sure of a guy in college that will be in the draft that they can not get if they are not number 1. Maybe there are other teams out there capable of winning just 1 or 2 games that could cost them the pick. If its indeed a successful offseason for the Dolphins they won’t be the last to go this deep into the tank. If it is not it will probably be the last for some time to just punt on a season before it begins.  

Antonio Brown Asks for Release from the Raiders

The Antonio Brown situation continues to get weirder and weirder by the day. Now just a few days before the Raiders season opener Brown has requested his release after the Raiders informed him that his salary guarantees no longer exist due to his conduct.

Still the situation is not exactly cut and dry. While everyone goes crazy these days for guarantees I have long been of the belief that they are so easy to void, especially for players that have a history of issues, that focusing on guaranteed salary is not really all it is cracked up to be. You can void guarantees for a number of reasons, such as not willingly practicing, being suspended for conduct detrimental to the team, PED violations, and so on. When team issues occur the team has to prove that the player has indeed warranted the punishment which also results in the void occurring.

Brown has had numerous transactions that should satisfy the requirements to void the guarantees. He was out of practice due to a non football related injury. He held himself out of practice due to not liking his helmet. He went after the GM in a heated exchange over a fine he received which officially began the paper trail from Raiders GM Mike Mayock necessary for the void. He then missed practice due to the confrontation. He posted a phone call with his head coach in a slick video. He was fined, though not the maximum amount, for conduct detrimental. He asked for his release so Im assuming he wont be with the Raiders today.

If the Raiders release Brown they would only take a miniscule charge on the salary cap of $333,333 which is from his guaranteed workout bonus. Per a source he did not earn that bonus so the team would get a credit on the cap for that number in 2020. However it is possible that Brown would file a grievance over his lost guarantees. If a grievance is filed the Raiders would immediately take on a charge of $11.95 million until the case is heard.

Sometimes these grievances can go on forever. Other times they can be quick. If the Raiders lost the grievance they would then take a full $29.875 million salary cap hit and cash charge this year. Not only is that a fortune to pay for a player who never played a snap for the team but it would push them over the 2019 salary cap, forcing them to quickly restructure other contracts to comply with the cap.

Things are also complicated if the Raiders do not release or suspend Brown for the first game of the season. If Brown is on the roster he would receive full protection of his 2019 (but not 2020) $14.625 million salary through the Termination Pay protection provided to veterans in the CBA. Termination pay can also be voided through actions where the team demonstrates that the player is not putting forth a good faith effort to fulfill his contract. Again this requires written warnings, and so on, so it would mean needing more drama in the regular season. (edit per Adam Schefter the team already has done this) If not on the roster for week 1 the only 25% of the players salary is guaranteed through Termination Pay. That is certainly a big number but not  the full amount.

Teams have the right to fine a player up to one weeks pay and/or suspend him for up to four weeks for conduct detrimental to the team. While the Raiders already fined him I do believe they can still suspend him based on how I read the CBA. That may be the most likely outcome.

During this entire process that has occurred I have wondered a few times if this is simply Brown looking to retire from the NFL or maybe just get to play for a different team. This is where there is an entirely different consideration. Brown’s contract was traded from the Steelers to the Raiders. With a trade the acquiring team retains the rights to recover any remaining signing bonus prorations from a contract via the forfeiture clauses of the NFL CBA.

The bonus that Brown received from the Steelers was $19 million, $11.4 million of which is still outstanding. The Raiders, if Brown walks away from the team, have the right to recover $11.4 million from Brown in addition to not paying him his guaranteed salary. If Brown is released the Raiders do not recover that money.

That is such a significant amount of money that it should really complicate matters. Unlike the retirement of Andrew Luck which had more support from his team this is a completely fractured relationship. I can not imagine the Raiders simply letting Brown walk away without issue if things get there.

If Brown is released there is no team in the NFL after what has transpired that would touch him for the kind of salary he has from the Raiders. There are teams that would certainly take a chance if he wants to play but there would be no guarantees Im sure.

He has tried to mend fences so many times with the Raiders Im not sure if they can do so again. If they can the way to do it is to probably rework his contract again where both sides would need to show faith in the other. A compromise would be to split his salary this year between 46 man bonuses and base salary and then have a guarantee kick in for 2020 if he remains cordial with the organization through not missing practices, strong participation, no suspensions, etc… through 12 or more games. But I think the Raiders have to protect themselves if they try to do this again to not get stuck with the full salary if they don’t play him in a given week.

Looking at the Cowboys Contract with Ezekiel Elliott

The numbers are now in on Ezekiel Elliot’s 6 year, $90 million contract from ESPN’s Todd Archer so let’s break the deal down.

Cash Flows of the Contract

This is a pretty straightforward contract that simply takes the most recent top of the market contract and slightly builds on it. Essentially it is what we are used to seeing happen with quarterbacks when each newly signed player jumps the last by a few dollars. Here is the new money breakdown by season.

Player Year 0 Year 1 Year 2 Year 3 Year 4 Year 5 Year 6
Ezekiel Elliott $15,100,000 $24,700,000 $37,100,000 $48,000,000 $58,000,000 $73,400,000 $90,000,000
Todd Gurley $15,000,022 $28,050,022 $37,050,022 $47,050,022 $57,500,000  – – 
Le’Veon Bell $14,500,000 $28,000,000 $39,500,000 $52,500,000  – – 
David Johnson $12,000,000 $18,750,000 $30,000,000 $39,000,000  –  – – 

For the most part Elliott will outearn Gurley by $100,000 over the prior existing years of the contract, $50,000 by the 2nd year of the deal, $100,000 by the 3rd year of the deal, and $500,000 by the 4th year of the contract. That is when Gurley’s contract ends. Those two contracts are really in a class all by themselves compared to the other players.

There are two differences here which do work in Dallas’ favor. One is that they they do get a nice discount through the first “new year” of the contract, which is the 2021 season. They will pay Elliott $3.35 million less than the Rams will Gurley over the same timeframe. I think this is important for two reasons. One is that Dallas does have a number of free agents coming up and while I don’t anticipate them being cash starved this does give them more room to work with their current players. The second, and more on this in a minute, is that there is a fair reason to believe that Elliott will void his guarantees at some point so the less money paid early in the contract the more that will be saved overall.

The second difference is that Gurley does have $2.5 million in escalators in his contract that can increase his salary on the tail end, which I do not believe that Elliott has. Gurley has already earned $1 million of that so his potential earnings should exceed Elliott’s over the same timeframe. If I am wrong and Elliott has escalators than this is not something in the Cowboys favor and simply continues to mimic the Gurley contract.

Guarantee Structure

Again we have a contract that more or less mimics Gurley’s guarantee dates with Elliott receiving guarantees on his 2021 salary by being on the roster in 2020 where his salary was already guaranteed and then guarantees on his 2022 salary in 2021 when his salary is already guaranteed for that year.  Those are very favorable guarantee structures for a player because it creates a situation where you are paying a lot of money to a player just to make sure his salary the next year does not exist.

Effectively what it means is that Dallas would have to pay Elliott $19.8 million in 2020 to avoid his $9.6 million 2021 salary from guaranteeing or $9.6 million in 2021 to prevent his 2022 $12.4 million salary from guaranteeing. The odds of that are slim and none.

That said the way the salaries work do benefit the Cowboys as to where they are after 2020.

Elliott Gurley
Fully Guaranteed At Signing $28,052,137 $21,950,000
Fully Guaranteed Year after Signing $37,652,137 $40,000,000
Fully Guaranteed Two Years After Signing $50,052,137 $45,000,000

While in most cases I would say that this slight difference in relatively meaningless I look at Elliott similar to the way I look at Le’Veon Bell, although for different reasons. Guarantees in NFL contracts are easily voided in most cases. At the very least a NFL suspension for any reason would void the guarantees in a contract. If Dallas got very aggressive with Elliott you could probably find a way to void a guarantee for being in the wrong place at the wrong time and having an incident reflect poorly on the organization.

If the guarantees do void then Dallas has the potential to escape at an earlier date either via a release or a renegotiation. Again not likely but Dallas has built in a better structure for that purpose than the Rams did.

Other Contract Mechanism Comparisons

Both Gurley and Elliott received essentially the same prorated bonus money. Prorated bonus money is the stuff that sticks to the salary cap as dead money in the event that a player is cut so the more the better for the player. Gurley received $21 million while Elliott will receive $20.5 million as a signing and an option bonus. For the Rams the $21 million should give them more protection in the event of a contract breach since signing bonus prorations can be recaptured. Recapturing option bonuses are more limited in scope and Elliott has a $13.5 million option.

Gurley’s contract is stronger in regard to roster bonuses where he has millions coming his way either for being on the roster in March or reporting to training camp. These are harder to recover in the event of suspension whereas Elliot’s salary, all base salary other than the two prorated bonuses, would all be lost on a proportionate basis if suspended. These are minor things but stronger for Dallas than LA.    

The Salary Cap Consequences.

While the cap charts for Elliott may look like there are early escape points there really are not. Barring a suspension there is no reason to think that Elliott will not earn his $50 million. The cost to cut on the salary cap in 2020 would be a whopping $25.8 million. If he is on the roster in 2020 than the cost to cut in 2021 grows from $14.9 million to $24.5 million. Once on the roster in 2021 than the cost to cut in 2022 grows to $23.2 million. This is all because of the favorable vesting schedule on his base salary guarantees. If Dallas negotiated 5th day of the same league year vesting dates those 2021 and 2022 years would be $14.9 and $10.8 million during the offseason which are not great but doable. So unless the guarantees void for some reason his cap hits of $13.7 and $16.5 million will happen in 2021 and 2022.

The true exit year of the contract is 2023 when his dead money is just $6.7 million on a $15 million salary cap charge. If his performance declines by then it is certainly feasible to release him or renegotiate a lower salary at that point with no problems.

One thing in looking at this contract is that Dallas should make 100% certain they never touch it for cap relief. Right now 2023 is a viable escape. Its not if they start converting salary to bonuses in 2021 or 2022. Due to the large prorated bonuses this should immediately be moved to the never restructure pile.

The Six Year Length

The contract runs 6 new years which means Dallas controls his rights for 8 years. I have seen some people say that this was a big thing for Dallas since the longer you control a player the better but with a running back I don’t think it matters. The odds of Elliott being effective at this salary level for 8 seasons is very slim.  Basically those added years allowed them to hit a $15 million rather than $14.5 million annual value, but other than that there is really nothing gained or lost by either side for doing the long contract.

The one area where it could benefit Dallas is with Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper. Dallas has strongly favored long contracts for their players that run much longer than NFL norms. This is the case for all their contracts and is the case with Elliott as well. By doing a long deal with Elliott that should allow them to continue to stand their ground on looking for a long term deal with the other two players.

What Took So Long

In seeing how the deal shakes out there is absolutely zero reason that this should have taken all of camp to accomplish. It is too close to the Gurley deal for this to have really been an issue. I don’t know if one side or the other was just being unreasonable but if the contract looks very much like another NFL contract it is one that should not take that long to complete.

Alternative Course of Action

Had Dallas played out the franchise tag process the contracts would likely have been able to tag Elliott at charges somewhere around $11.5 million in 2021 and $13.8 million in 2022, which also would have been his cap charges in those years, both of which are lower than his current cap charges.  He will earn about $12 million more by playing on a contract than going through the tag process, assuming of course the tag doesn’t change in the new CBA.

The tag process is the optimum way to manage a running back but it also creates a constant headache with an unhappy player which can spill into the locker room as well.

In my mind Dallas only had two courses of action. Either do what they did and do a big deal now or fight for four years about the tag. By doing the deal now Dallas basically folds $13 million of virtually guaranteed existing salary into a new contract and gets the benefit of prorating now rather than years from now making it harder to cut. That’s why waiting until 2020 or 2021 to extend makes no sense.

The tag process is easier said than done. The option year is more or less a tag and we see how that is working out for the Chargers and Melvin Gordon or how the actual tag worked out with Bell and the Steelers last season. With so many free agents coming up I can understand why that wasn’t a pathDallas wanted to follow .