One of the things that gets me most fired up from the team building side of things, the general manager side of things, and certainly not the agent side of things, is the way that the great organizations find a way to let top players find more money and leave in free agency.
I get fired up also at the realization that everything a team does should A) obviously go towards becoming a better football team, but b) should be largely done with the salary cap in mind. These aren’t very complicated ideas, but should be at the crux of NFL decision-making. In some of these cases, teams let go of an average player who they know has reached and shown his ceiling in favor of a younger player who could prove to be much more productive. A few teams who did this masterfully this draft were as follows…
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The Ravens are masters at this and the reason why I’m writing this article. Ozzie Newsome might be my favorite GM in the NFL and has coined a phrase I use time and time again when discussing their first round strategy, but also a strategy that I think every team should understand and implement. Newsome discusses trying to hit doubles, rather than swinging for home runs because when you swing for home runs, you tend to strike out more.
Breshad Perriman certainly has some issues of his own with drops, but they’re not huge issues as he’s proven his hands are incredible with some of the catches he has made His drops seem more to be “mental drops” where he loses focus, something that I think he will improve on this season and moving forward.
What the Ravens did with Perriman was get someone who is a similar player, a deep threat with 4.25 speed that will cost considerably less than Torrey Smith who just left for San Francisco for a five-year contract worth $40 million with an $8 million signing bonus.
As I wrote in my article on the WR bubble bursting, wide receiver will be a very interesting position to study moving forward as more and more great young receivers enter the league and depress the salaries of veterans due to the opportunity smart organizations have of replacing more expensive pieces with younger, similar pieces on their rookie deals. We saw wide receiver contracts get absolutely out of hand when Mike Wallace and Dwayne Bowe signed their deals and now they are falling back to earth.
The next just fantastic move by the Ravens was their trade up to select tight end Maxx Williams in the second round. This was a position I wrote about being a huge need and I even discussed the idea of drafting Williams in the first round in my mock draft, so it was cool for me to see that the Ravens agreed with me and had him with a first round grade for them.
In that mock draft I discussed the way that the Patriots, Ravens and Alabama Crimson Tide all use measurables and other analytics to find players who fit their systems. The tight end position is a great example of how the Ravens do this as they moved from Todd Heap to Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson to Owen Daniels, Crockett Gilmore and Maxx Williams fit the mold of what they’re looking for. Fifth round pick, Nick Boyle, while he is bigger still fits into the range of what you expect from a Ravens tight end.
In the third round, they selected the very talented, but sometimes unproductive Carl Davis who should be a great addition to that defensive line and help replace the departed and expensive Haloti Ngata. With last year’s second rounder Timmy Jernigan, the Ravens defensive line should be in good shape and much less expensive.
In the fourth round, Za’Darius Smith was drafted to replace Pernell McPhee at that pass rush position that the Ravens have always gotten tremendous productivity out of. McPhee left for a five-year, $38,750,000 contract in Chicago and the Ravens replaced him with a player that Daniel Jeremiah said, reminded him most of McPhee when he was evaluating him.
The Ravens might be the best at this strategy, even better than New England, although that’s like debating who your favorite kid is, or at least that’s a metaphor that people with kids use. These teams seem to identify their core players, then identify the level at which they are willing to pay a player without going above that figure. They also understand what’s coming out in the draft each and every year and we’ll see that with some of the perfect replacements that these next few teams have drafted.
Malcom Brown was just an illustration of the kind of great foresight that seems to go into all of their decisions. They let the 33-year-old Vince Wilfork leave for Houston and a two-year, $9 million deal and added Brown to a defensive tackle group that includes last year’s explosive, but injury prone Dominique Easley. Together, Easley and Brown could form the best young defensive tackle combo in the NFL.
Brown was one of the highest rated players on most people’s board, I remember the ESPN mentioning that he was 12th on someone’s board, so he was a tremendous value at #32 for the defending champions.
MMQB’s Andy Benoit makes a great point that the “Patriots will be blindly praised” as they are every draft season asking the question: how do they go defense with the first four picks and not address their huge need at cornerback? I have to assume that Belichick is comfortable with the guys he has there, but in analyzing their Super Bowl teams, they always spend a large percentage of their salary cap on their cornerback group, so it is surprising to me to see them spending only 8.61% of their cap on corner, but that’s not as low as you would think as they did sign Bradley Fletcher, Robert McClain and Chimdi Chekwa to add to Kyle Arrington, Logan Ryan, and Malcolm Butler.
McClain and Fletcher were both very poorly rated by Pro Football Focus, rating in with negative ratings at 90 and 92 respectively, so maybe Belichick thinks they will do better in the Patriots system. They did have much better seasons in 2013 with Fletcher getting a 2.8 rating, which was 44th, and McClain getting a -0.8 rating, which was 62nd. Maybe Belichick thinks he’s getting two guys at a very good value and they will not only outperform their contracts, but become very good cornerbacks for them.
The Bears owed Brandon Marshall $7.7 million this year and over $8 million in each of the next two seasons and he didn’t seem to be a part of the new regime’s plans, so they took what they could in a trade with the Jets and replaced him with a younger, less expensive and (sorry Brandon) less volatile player. (It’s worth mentioning that Marshall has vastly improved himself as a person over the course of his NFL career, but that’s still a knock on him that follows him around. I can’t say enough good things about the life changes he has made and his story is one that I’ve really come to respect.)
White is only one-inch shorter than Marshall and 15 pounds lighter, and he displays the same kind of skills that Marshall has. All of this for much, much less money, it was a great move for the franchise and a sign that things are looking up in Chi-Town.
A little bit more of a lesser-known instance of this kind of replacement is Harry Douglas being replaced by Justin Hardy in the fourth round. This offseason, the 29-year-old Douglas was given a three-year, $11.25 million deal in Tennessee, which has a cap hit of $3.75 million this season. Granted, that’s not too pricey a contract for a mid-range wide receiver, but certainly not something that the Falcons, who are already spending a lot of money on offense, needed to spend for a receiver who could easily be replaced in this year’s draft class. With Jones’ contract coming up at the ends of this season, they definitely didn’t need to spend money on Douglas at risk of leaving themselves in a position where they don’t have the kind of space they need for Jones.
They certainly went out and replaced him with one of my favorite players in the draft in Hardy. Douglas is 5’11” and between 175-180 pounds, while Hardy is 5’10”, 190, they are very similarly built players with similar skill sets and whom can both play inside and outside. Justin Hardy will be a great addition to this team and comes at a much better price than Douglas.
The Giants did a great job finding three players who can fill their three biggest needs. Going into the draft, they needed an offensive lineman, a safety and a pass rusher.
Ereck Flowers doesn’t really act as a direct replacement for anyone as much as he will be just filling the role of left tackle. The player who you could say he is replacing is David Diehl who retired after the 2013 season (and who’s great podcast with Joe DeFranco you can listen to here!). Flowers gives them a guy who can play both right and left tackle, which adds the same kind of versatility that Diehl gave the Giants. Diehl retired as well, so it’s not like the Giants let a more expensive player go and then drafted a new one either like most of the players that this article is discussing.
Landon Collins is the real kind of replacement out of this group. The Giants knew they didn’t want to re-sign Antrel Rolle near the three-year, $11.25 million deal that the Bears gave him after he really regressed last season and was the 81st of 87 safeties according to Pro Football Focus with a rating of -13.9. While he still could rebound to where he was in 2013 as PFF’s ninth best safety with an 8.0 rating, it wasn’t something that the Giants wanted to risk considering they’re relatively cap strapped this offseason.
What I think they did was identify Collins early in the process as the guy who could potentially replace Rolle and they went out and got him by trading up in the second round to get a guy who almost everyone gave a first round grade. Both players are 6’ with Collins packing a little bit more of a wallop with 20 added pounds, he led Alabama with 103 tackles and three interceptions in 2014.
Owamagbe Odighizuwa isn’t a direct replacement of any one player, but he could be Jason Pierre-Paul’s replacement if he leaves in free agency this offseason. His size is similar to Justin Tuck’s, who left for Oakland last offseason, at 6’3”, 271-pounds compared to Tuck’s 6’5”, 268, but I wouldn’t make that stretch to call them a direct comparison as I’ll do at the end of this article with Nelson Agholor and Jeremy Maclin. Meanwhile, JPP is 6’5”, 278-pounds.
Odighizuwa is a great addition to the front seven and shows that the Giants are building a roster in the image of their 2007 and 2011 championship teams. They have not forgotten the formula that helped them win those Super Bowls, which was a great front seven.
While I disagreed with the choice at the time, if they’re going to let TY Hilton go in free agency after this season, then they did a very good job finding his replacement. Even if he doesn’t leave, Phillip Dorsett adds a great dimension to this offense right away in 2015.
These measurables are almost identical with Dorsett at 5’9”, 179-pounds and Hilton at 5’9”, 178-pounds; Dorsett runs a 4.33 forty-yard dash and Hilton runs a 4.34. The Colts couldn’t have found a player more similar to Hilton if the goal is to eventually replace him. Much like the Agholor/Maclin comparison we’ll make later on, just a great job of getting a player at a position who has the same exact talents, skills and attributes that already succeed for your team.
If Hilton leaves, this ensures that Luck will have a player to pass to that might literally make him forget about TY Hilton by being Hilton 2.0. While I really disagreed with the pick on draft night considering their needs, the Colts always know their strengths and work to ensure that those strengths are never in doubt. With Hilton, Dorsett, Andre Johnson, Donte Moncrief and Duron Carter, the Colts won’t be without receivers, but they have ensured that if someone does get injured or if Dorsett or Carter struggle to adapt to the NFL, there will be someone there to step up.
They also seem to have prepared for if Dwayne Allen or Coby Fleener have to leave in free agency due to them and Hilton being free agents after this season, and Luck after 2016, from that great 2012 class. The Dorsett move helped, but also adding UMass tight end Jean Sifrin as an undrafted free agent helps as the 27-year-old is one of my favorite tight ends in the draft, an absolute freak and pass catcher.
While I was disappointed with the pick at first, the Colts did get CB D’Joun Smith, DE Henry Anderson, S Clayton Geathers, DT David Parry, and ILB Amarlo Herrera in the second through sixth rounds to fortify their defense. They added a great RB option for them with Josh Robinson who I think will be a great fit and OG Denzell Goode to help that average offensive line.
Those moves kind of justify the Dorsett move as they ensured that their wide receiver group will have a long-term #1 WR candidate for, potentially, the next 8-10 years.
With all of the trade talk swirling around Muhammad Wilkerson and his contract being up at the end of the 2015 season, the Jets took away a ton of Wilkerson’s leverage and may just let him leave in free agency because he’s going to be paid a lot of money. The Jets were very lucky to have the #1 player on almost everyone’s draft board fall to them at #6, so regardless of what’s going on with Wilkerson, they probably would not have been able to resist getting such a dominant player that fits the Jets defensive attitude.
With Wilkerson at 6’4”, 315-pounds, Williams is very similar at 6’5”, 302-pounds and will be a tremendous addition to the line this year and could be the replacement of Wilkerson moving forward.
The Browns had a great draft this year taking care of needs and getting solid players. The main replacement player I see in this draft is defensive tackle Danny Shelton who will eventually supplant Phil Taylor who is on the last year of his contract and will probably get paid enough to leave in free agency and not be worth the Browns resigning at 28-years-old.
Shelton is 6’2”, 339-pounds, while Taylor is 6’3”, 335-pounds, they’re two very similar sized athletes and Shelton was such a playmaker for that Washington Huskies defense last season. He should be a great addition for the Browns and with Duke Johnson, Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West, the Browns are in a great position to build a team in that run-first, defensive model that the Ravens have used for years.
The Chargers moved up to get their guy, their running back of the future; Melvin Gordon and he will replace Ryan Mathews who left for Philadelphia in free agency. While Ryan Mathews is a good player and should do well with the Eagles, Gordon is a good replacement for him, while Danny Woodhead, Donald Brown and Branden Oliver can handle the pass-catching that Mathews did well when he was healthy.
Rather than resign the oft-injured Mathews, who signed a three-year deal worth $11 million in Philly, they identified their guy in the draft and went out and got him. While I won’t claim they’re identical players, they do offer some of the same things, just Gordon will be better. Gordon is 6’1”, 215, while Mathews is 6’, 220.
Man, the Eagles have become an absolute joy to analyze this offseason, Chip Kelly has really influenced my Caponomics education and given me example after example of strategies for team building. He’s another guy who surprises me with the manner at how fired up I get when looking at the way he does business because he does some things that are that kind of simplistic brilliance with which Belichick operates. When you really analyze the roster and understand how he’s trying to build his team, everything he does seems to make sense.
Back at the beginning of free agency, the Eagles didn’t really challenge the deal that the Chiefs offered Jeremy Maclin, which was five-years, $55 million with a $12 million signing bonus. Eagles fans everywhere were worried about the pass-catching options “only” being Jordan Matthews, Zach Ertz, Riley Cooper, Josh Huff, Miles Austin, Brent Celek and Darren Sproles. They were very hopeful that Kelly would draft a pass-catcher in the early rounds of the draft, while many even argued that Kelly believed in his system so much that he didn’t think he needed great receivers to run it. I thought that he just believed that Matthews and Ertz were prepared to be 1000-yard receivers, Josh Huff would step up, and I believed that Miles Austin would give them a very good season as a third option.
While at some point I mentioned the Nelson Agholor and Maclin measurables and comparisons that I had heard seen on NFL Network, I didn’t think that Kelly would be able to get him because he’d fall into that early-second round range. Instead, Kelly did what Ozzie Newsome talks about, he went swinging for doubles and I know he hit one with Agholor.
Evan Silva tweeted this out after the pick:
Maclin: 6’/198, 4.48, 10’ broad jump, 35 ½” vert, 7.06 3 cone
Agholor: 6’/198, 4.42, 10’5” broad jump, 36 ½” vert, 6.83 3 cone
Maclin turns 27 this year, while Agholor turns 22
That’s the kind of absolute perfection that I’m talking about when I discuss this strategy. Rather than hope Agholor fell to them in the second round, which could have happened although it was not likely, Kelly got a player who will be almost exactly what Maclin was for them last season, but according to the #20 NFL Draft slot will cost much less money.
In 2015, due to Maclin being in the first year of his contract with the signing bonus and all, he has a cap hit of $3.4 million, while Agholor’s is projected at $1.6 million. In 2016, when Maclin’s number moves up to $12.4 million, Agholor will only be at $2 million. Through the first four seasons of these contracts, it is projected that the Eagles will save $32,703,526 by having Agholor instead of Maclin.
Keep in mind, in this offense, with their similar attributes and talent levels, Agholor should have similar production to what Maclin would have given them. So with that similar production from Agholor, the Eagles now will have $32.7 million to spend on other needs.
Now that, that’s Caponomics.
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Caponomics is a book that analyzes the Super Bowl champions from the last 21 seasons, creates theories based on this analysis and then uses those theories to discuss why 2014 teams were or were not successful.