Next week I will be appearing on my friend Jack Duffin‘s podcast titled, “The Paul Brown Show,” so I’m looking over some of his questions for the upcoming episode to prepare. I hope you’ll be able to listen, I love talking about the Browns and the process they’ve gone through over the last few years; I’ll post a link on my Twitter when it’s up.
2018 Green Bay Packers (Cap Numbers as of 1/26; source Over The Cap.com; projected $179.5 M cap)
2018 New York Jets (Cap Numbers as of 1/26; source OverTheCap.com; projected $179.5 M cap)
Sunday night’s game between the Vikings and Eagles was still in question with 3:26 left in the second quarter and the Vikings dropping back to pass on a 3rd and five from the Eagles 16-yard line. They were down just 14-7 and at the time Eagles fans were sitting on the couch hoping for a stop just to force a field goal. The Vikings had just had a 61-yard, 11 play drive that was about to culminate in some points and, outside of their first drive that was a 9 play, 75-yard masterpiece that cut through the Eagles elite defense, it was the best they’d looked all night. Eagles fans had reason to feel nervous.
On that play, Vikings quarterback Case Keenum dropped back to pass, reared his arm back to throw, and was poised to throw to either Kyle Rudolph on a corner route for a touchdown to Stephon Diggs on an in-breaking route for a first down. Both receivers had a step on their defenders, so it may have been a touchdown or first down. Instead, Eagles first round pick Derek Barnett came around the edge, almost unblocked, to sack Keenum and force a fumble, which was recovered by Chris Long of the Eagles.
The Eagles didn’t go into their two-minute offense and in some ways seemed content with taking the ball into halftime up 14-7 with the promise of receiving the kickoff to start the third quarter. They started the drive with 3:16 on the clock and ran just two plays before the two minute warning with both plays going for two yards. After the two minute warning though, back-up quarterback Nick Foles led a drive that seemed to provide him with confidence for the rest of the game in a NFC Championship performance fit for a star.
On 3rd and six Foles hit running back Corey Clement on a swing to the left. Clement made a beautiful spin move at the line of scrimmage that forced Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr to miss on the tackle, then ran for eight yards and a first down, while getting out of bounds to stop the clock. The next play Foles hit Torrey Smith with a wide receiver screen for 11-yards and a first down.
Foles didn’t connect on his next two passes with both of them amounting to throwaways in the face of good coverage down field. On 3rd and 10 though, Alshon Jeffrey ran a 15-yard dig and go route that cornerback Terrence Newman bit on, which resulted in a 53-yard touchdown that brought the score to 21-7 in favor of the Eagles.
The Vikings earned one first down on their next drive, but unfortunately for them, rather than pin the Eagles deep, Ryan Quigley’s punt went into the end zone and the Eagles started at their own 20-yard line. With just 38 seconds on the clock, if the ball was inside the Eagles own ten-yard line, it’s likely they would have taken a knee and went into the halftime. Instead, on the first play, Foles hit running back Jay Ajayi behind the line of scrimmage in the flat and Ajayi ran for 11-yards and out of bounds after acquiring the first down. Foles then hit tight end Zach Ertz on another beautiful double move where he ran a 9-yard out near the sticks that burned safety Harrison Smith for a 33-yard out-and-up, while he also got out of bounds. Now on the Vikings 33-yard line, they were already within kicker Jake Elliott’s range, but another pass to Ajayi resulted in a 13-yard gain that made Elliott’s kick a more manageable 38-yarder. He made the kick and the score was 24-7 at the end of the half with the red-hot Eagles offense and a confident Nick Foles getting the ball to start the third quarter.
In my pregame write up I posted on Saturday, I mentioned that along with advantages on the offensive and defensive lines, I thought the Eagles had too many offensive weapons for the Vikings to stop all game. In the first drive of the third quarter, Torrey Smith became a focal point of the offense—a player who was fourth on the team in catches and yards on the season with 36 for 430, but is a talented enough player to have 1128 receiving yards for the Ravens in 2013 and earn a five-year, $40 million contract with the 49ers in 2015. In the Eagles’ offense though, he doesn’t need to be the top receiver; he’s instead in a role more suited for a player of his caliber. While Ertz provides an elite tight end, Jeffery draws the attention of the opponent’s top cornerback due to his abilities as a first-tier caliber receiver, while Agholor provides dynamic ability out of the slot.
On the first two plays of the drive, Foles hit Smith for four yards on a hitch, then six yards on an in route and a first down. Ajayi ran for three yards on first down, then Foles hit Jeffrey for 10-yards and a first down while getting laid out by Barr as he threw. Ajayi then ran for five yards on first down, running back LeGarrette Blount had a run for -1-yard, then Foles hit Smith on another wide receiver screen for a first down, running the same play they ran towards the end of the first half.
With the ball on the Vikings 41-yard line and the team steadily marching downfield, Doug Pederson made a tremendous and unexpected call. (The value of great coaching is immense, as the success of Foles might not work without Pederson’s great game planning these last two weeks.) Corey Clement took a handoff and immediately pitched it back to Foles for the flea-flicker. Torrey Smith acted like he was running his cornerback, Trae Waynes, off and then moving in to block him, but he did it in a lackadaisical manner that receivers sometimes will when the ball is being run to the opposite side of the field. When Waynes’ eyes went into the backfield to see where the ball was under the assumption that it was a running play, Smith took off and used his most valuable resource, his speed as a deep threat to beat Waynes and safety Harrison Smith over the top for a 41-yard touchdown. The Eagles fourth best receiving option over the course of the season had 58-yards on the 75-yard touchdown drive, and the score made it 31-7 and put the game seemingly out of reach for the Vikings with 10:05 left in the third quarter.
Not many teams have a player of Smith’s caliber in that kind of role, which is something the Patriots have traditionally done well and a strategy more teams should be trying to implement through their salary cap construction. Rather than spend heavily on a quarterback and top receiver, maybe spend on your quarterback, but find depth in the pass catchers through building the offense around a lower cost tight end with multiple pass catchers at mid-tier costs.
Between the score that made it 31-7 and Barnett’s sack when the game was 14-7, the Vikings ran just six plays for 22-yards. The Eagles had three scoring drives to the Vikings one drive. It’s that kind of performance at the end of a half, while getting the ball to start the second half that has helped the Patriots win so consistently and it was a great sign for Eagles fans that their offense was able to capitalize on the mistake and blow the game wide open. The Patriots are adept at hitting a field goal at the end of a half, then taking the ball to start the second half and going down for seven points, scoring 10 points before the opponent’s offense has a chance to respond.
On the next drive the Vikings got the ball down to the Eagles seven yard line, but rather than have the ability to settle for a field goal in a closer game, the Vikings had to try to score a touchdown with about six and a half minutes left in the game because of the 24 point lead for the home team. Rather than kick a field goal and play football with over 20 minutes left, say if the game was 21-7 or 24-7 at the time.
Instead, the Vikings failed, the game was still 31-7 and the Eagles had the ball back. On the ensuing drive, the Eagles were moving the ball, then Foles hit Agholor for a 42-yard gain after he got behind Waynes on a scramble drill where he broke his route deep from its intended 10-yard out. Ajayi lost two yards on the next play, back-up tight end Trey Burton had a 12-yard catch for a first down, then Clement had a 14-yard rush that had 15-yard added to the end of it due to an illegal hands to the face penalty by Vikings defensive end Stephen Weatherly. Two plays later, with the ball on the Vikings five-yard line, Foles hit Jeffery for a touchdown over the middle of the field to make it 38-7.
The entire game was changed with Barnett’s sack fumble—and Barnett was drafted with a first-round pick that the Eagles received from the Vikings, along with a fourth rounder they used on running back Donnel Pumphrey, in exchange for Sam Bradford. This brings us back to a topic I’ve discussed many times on Over The Cap and will come back to many times in the future: the value of the quarterback.
We just watched an NFC Championship Game where both quarterbacks started the season as back-ups; Blake Bortles was in the AFC Championship Game as well, almost beating the greatest of all-time in Tom Brady. While Foles went 26 for 33 (78.8%) for 352 yards (10.7 yds/att) and three touchdowns and Bortles had a good game going 23 for 36 (63.9%) for 293 yards (8.1 yds/att) and one touchdown, Keenum was kept under pressure all game by an Eagles defensive line that goes seven deep. Bortles played poorly down the stretch though as the Jaguars offensive coordinator lost his nerve, became predictable, and went away from play action passing where Bortles had completed 91.7% of his play action passes on the day according to Pro Football Focus. Also according to PFF, Case Keenum was under pressure on 24 of his 50 drop backs. He ended the day completing 28 of 48 passes (58.3%) for 271 yards (5.6 yds/att) with one touchdown to two interceptions, while going 11 of 22 for 108 yards with an interception under pressure.
That interception under pressure was Patrick Robinson’s 50-yard interception returned for a touchdown that made the game 7-7. Chris Long hit Keenum’s arm while he threw, which caused his pass to not reach his target and instead fall into Robinson’s arms. The two biggest game-changing plays in this game, the interception that tied up the game early on as the Vikings seemed to be flowing on offense and a sack fumble when the Vikings had the opportunity to tie it up themselves, were caused by defensive pressure. While Foles had a great game, there are alternative strategies to success than the “you need a quarterback to succeed” school of thought that many people in the NFL and NFL media have adopted.
The key factor in this game was defensive pressure and it seems to be a key factor come playoff time. The Eagles got pressure on Keenum and the Jaguars vaunted defensive front didn’t get enough pressure on Brady as they only pressured him on nine of 42 drop backs, which is 21.4%. While Foles was kept clean for much of the day against a Vikings defensive line that wasn’t nearly as deep or explosive as the Eagles line, Keenum was under pressure all day with those pressures being deciding factors in the game. It kind of makes me question: what would this game have looked like if the Vikings didn’t trade for Bradford?
The Eagles started the 2016 offseason aiming for a three quarterback strategy, which I explain in Caponomics: Building Super Bowl Champions, as I had talked to members of their front office in November about the efficacy of a three quarterback strategy considering it was clear that Bradford was not the solution that would lead them to a Super Bowl. Rather than sign him long-term in an offense that thrives on mobility, the Eagles signed him to a flexible two-year contract that decreased dead money against the cap if he was traded. The deal gave Bradford the equivalent in guaranteed money that the franchise tag would have given him, while his potentially $23.5 million cap hit with the Eagles, which would have been over 14% of the cap signaled to me that they had no intention of keeping him beyond the 2016 season.
They signed Chase Daniel to a three year contract at $7 million per season, then they traded the Browns five draft picks in return for two and the right to move up to draft Carson Wentz, who has proven to be an ideal system fit for Pederson’s offense. This strategy was predicated on the understanding that quarterback is the most highly valued position in the NFL to the point where it’s overvalued—with the Eagles knowing they’d be able to trade Bradford to re-coup some of the picks they lost in the Wentz trade at some point with the hope being that he’d have a good season and, after the season, he would gain them something similar to the second-round pick and conditional pick the 49ers received for Alex Smith from the Chiefs in 2013.
Instead, Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater went down just before the 2016 season with a devastating knee injury and the Vikings, thinking they had a Super Bowl caliber team, traded the Eagles that first round pick and what ended up being a fourth round pick as well. They received even more than the 49ers were able to get for a more proven Smith as desperation at quarterback causes teams to overpay in a way they’d never behave for another position. The Eagles in turn got to draft a promising defensive end who helped turn the tide in this NFC Championship match-up with the Vikings and a 2018 fourth round pick, which they traded to Miami for running back Jay Ajayi who was one of the Eagles most valuable players in this game with 99 offensive yards on 21 touches. With Wentz being down, Ajayi has turned out to be a most vital move as the depth and talent in the backfield are something Foles can lean on.
With Wentz on a low-cost rookie deal, the Eagles have been able to eat the dead money that Bradford and the now departed Daniel have produced with the three players combining for 11.12% of the cap in 2017. And rather than hang on to Daniel, once Foles became available with the Chiefs declining his second year option, the Eagles signed him to a two-year deal that had a cap hit of just 0.96% in 2017. A very smart and, as we now see, important move for the Eagles to sign a player who knew Pederson’s offensive system that he was drafted to run by the Andy Reid regime when he and Pederson were in Philadelphia. In the trade to the Browns, they lost a first, third, and fourth-round pick in 2016, a 2017 first-round pick, and a 2018 second-round pick. They got back the 2016 first-round pick with the #2 pick that they used on Wentz and a 2017 fourth-round pick. Then in the Bradford trade they got back the 2017 first and fourth, which makes the Browns trade feel like they almost just lost the 2018 second-round pick, while the rest of the picks have been recovered with the only consequences being the loss of the pick and the dead money attributed to Bradford and now Daniel.
It’s an unfortunate situation for the Vikings because I can’t fault them for making the trade as, considering their 2017 season, they clearly had a roster that could compete for a championship, but they also made it happen with “journeyman” Case Keenum under center and Bradford on the sideline, injured again with his bad knees.
With Bradford at 10.78% of the cap on the Vikings bench after ceding the job to Keenum, that team could have been much improved around Keenum or another quarterback without that trade and without the expense of Bradford or the two picks they lost because of it. It’s unfortunate for the Vikings that Bridgewater got hurt because the roster had already been constructed in this run-first, defensive model that just needs an efficient quarterback already and Bridgewater was doing a good job in that role with a career 64.7% completion percentage and just nine interceptions in 2015. Bridgewater is accurate, he’s mobile, and he protects the football, which are three keys to victory with this kind of young, rookie contract quarterback, similar to what the Eagles have when Wentz is healthy. Pairing that young mobile quarterback with an effective rushing offense, as the Vikings, Eagles, and Jaguars did in 2017, is the key to success for a team built in this model. A good running game makes play action makes him more effective, which improves the odds of success for the quarterback with any distance created between his pass catchers and the players defending him increases his margin for error.
Instead of having Bridgewater at 1.31% of the cap with Keenum at 1.14%, the Vikings also had Bradford at almost 11% without those two picks. Together they cost 13.23% of the cap, rather than the under three percent of the cap that Bridgewater and Keenum with a rookie contract quarterback as the third stringer would cost. Just playing the scenario out, the Vikings may have been able to sign another offensive and defensive lineman with that money; maybe they sign another receiver as well so they have more options. Maybe they had the cap space to sign center J.C. Tretter to a contract, rather than starting 2017 third round pick Pat Elflein at center. Maybe the first round pick they gave up for Bradford is another offensive or defensive lineman and maybe the fourth rounder is a contributor on special teams. Maybe the Vikings might have had a better rushing offense if Dalvin Cook was healthy and this NFC Championship Game would have looked different as well? The Vikings had a formidable roster, but the Eagles clearly had a better one that was deeper at numerous key positions.
While it could have worked out, I’m typically against these kinds of short-term moves to win now, rather than the longer-term viewpoint. I understand the position the Vikings were put in, but philosophically, they could have traded the Chiefs for much less to get Nick Foles last year. Interestingly, Vikings GM Rick Spielman also liked Foles according to Ian Rapoport and it’s likely he could have gotten him for less and re-signed him for less, giving the team more cap room to spend on pieces around the quarterback. If Pat Shurmur could get this kind of season out of Keenum, he probably could’ve done the same with Foles. Both offensive play callers in this game illustrate the value of great coordinators and the importance teams must place in hiring elite creative problem solvers to their coaching staffs.
Bradford had a good season in 2016 with a 71.6% completion percentage and 258.5 passing yards per game with 20 touchdowns to five interceptions, but even with Bradford under center the Vikings only went 8-8. With all three quarterbacks on their roster free agents in 2018 and considering the roster construction and on-field strategy they already have in place that is built on running the football with Dalvin Cook coming back and defense, I would likely go for whoever the cheapest quarterback is between Bradford, Bridgewater, and Keenum. If Bradford’s knee is an ongoing concern, then I would cross him off that list. Same with Bridgewater. If they can sign Keenum to a three-year contract worth about $15 million per year, like Jason Fitzgerald has predicted here at Over The Cap, then that could be a good deal with him never breaching 9% of the cap. If Bridgewater is healthy and they can sign him to a two-year deal worth the $6 to $7 million that Jason predicted in that same article, that would be an even better deal as the Vikings would really be primed to continue building on this strategy for success.
The Eagles lost 7.48% of the cap in 2017 to Bradford and Daniel with Bradford also carrying $11 million (7.08% of the cap) in dead money in 2016, which was manageable because of Wentz being on the rookie contract. Outside of the dead money cap hits, they lost out on one more draft pick than they gained through the Wentz and Bradford trades. The ability for the Eagles to maintain depth on their roster and overcome dead money cap hits comes from the strong caponomics they used this season with no player making over Lane Johnson’s 5.89% of the cap heading into the season. Alshon Jeffery ended the season at 6.50% of the cap after signing an extension. Philadelphia’s balance has been maintained through a strong spread of spending that sees 26 cap hits over one percent of the cap, plus the ability to still draft Wentz and Barnett as difference makers at two very important positions. They had 18 cap hits over two percent of the cap with much of their roster depth coming in this area.
Nick Foles had a superstar caliber game, but the game turned on two great plays by Eagles’ pass rushers and the Vikings offense was off balance all night because of that pass rush as well. When a team has a rookie contract quarterback or doesn’t have an elite quarterback available to them, they must build their roster in this fashion. With first Wentz and now Foles performing at this high level under Pederson’s tutelage and a pass rush that produced pressure almost 50% of the time against the Vikings (after a season of producing pressure on 40% of all passing games) the Eagles pose a real threat to dethrone the Patriots as they’ve created a formula that can get pressure with just four pass rushers with seven defensive backs behind them, which has beaten Tom Brady before. The Jaguars almost beat the Patriots in Foxboro using this strategy that Tom Coughlin used to beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl twice, so if the Eagles can produce at the same level they did against the Vikings, the city of Philadelphia may see it’s first Super Bowl champion.
Zack Moore is a writer for OverTheCap.com, an NFLPA certified agent, and author of the recently released book titled, “Caponomics: Building Super Bowl Champions,” which is now available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter @ZackMooreNFL.
The common line of thinking in the NFL is that you need a great quarterback to succeed, which has driven the league to the point where half the NFL every year pays over 10% of the cap to about half of the league’s quarterbacks. Every quality of quarterback is in this group, yet only one quarterback still in the playoffs is over 10% of the cap– and that’s Sam Bradford at 10.78% for the Vikings who went down with an injury and now isn’t even starting over the “journeyman” Case Keenum, who is paid 1.14% of the cap. Tom Brady has set an example with his cap hit between eight and nine percent of the cap this year and in 2016, which allowed the Patriots to field the best defense in 2016 and the best scoring defense in the NFL this year from week five on.
The other three teams in the NFL Playoffs Final Four have constructed a run-first, defensive model that’s taken awhile to catch on as teams are now copying the model the 2013 Seahawks used to successfully beat Peyton Manning’s top ranked offense that year. The league is a copycat league, but these trends take a few years to take hold as teams need time to re-construct themselves in the image of the roster they’re copying. While the Vikings are spending over 10% of the cap on Bradford, they had already begun the process of building this run-first, defensive model with Teddy Bridgewater at quarterback before the injury; but because of the low-costs they had on offense, they were able to splurge a little on Bradford. As Andrew Beaton of The Wall Street Journal realized in an article on the Vikings, their 40.1% of the cap spent on offense is less than all but two Super Bowl champions, the 2004 Patriots and the 2012 Ravens, two teams that also had some larger investments on the defensive side of the ball. When a team does have a first tier quarterback (over 10% of the cap) and high spending on defense, the team then has to find some serious values somewhere on the offense to compete for a championship with this model because there isn’t enough money to go around if you’re paying conventional rates for wide receivers and the offensive line.
It has worked out for the Vikings because they have just $9.3 million invested in quarterback Case Keenum, running back Latavius Murray, and wide receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. Thielen performed at the level of a first tier wide receiver in 2017 with 91 catches for 1276 receiving and four touchdowns, which is a performance that can typically cost between six and nine percent of the cap, but which the Vikings got for just 2.24% of the cap. Stefon Diggs performed at a level that could cost something like 4% of the cap with his 64 catches for 849 yards and 8 touchdowns, but he cost just 0.50% of the cap as he’s a fifth round draft pick on his rookie contract. Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon created 945 and 991 offensive scrimmage yards, while consuming 2.27% of the cap, which is something that could cost four or six percent of the cap for an elite, complete running back.
Keenum is still being talked about in journeyman terms, but his 67.6% completion percentage with 22 touchdowns to just 7 interceptions, 3547 total passing yards for 236.5 yards per game and 7.4 yards per attempt was first-tier production. Most importantly, he was efficient: the Vikings had the ninth highest net yards per attempt passing, the second least interceptions in the NFL and the 11th most passing yards in the NFL. While he was very inexpensive, he still performed at a level similar to what someone at Bradford’s costs could produce, which reminded me of what Tom Brady did for the 2001 Patriots taking over for Drew Bledsoe who consumed 10.29% of that year’s cap. In fact, Keenum’s offense is more productive and more efficient than the Brady-led offense was that year. The Vikings also spent just 11.60% of the cap on their offensive line, which is very low for the whole group, but according to Football Outsiders they were the 19th best run blocking line in the league and the sixth best pass blocking line. They were able to piece together an offense that was 10th in the NFL in points scored and 11th in yards produced with many inexpensive and unheralded players, which is a big part of why Pat Shurmur will be the New York Giants’ next head coach.
This idea that you need a quarterback to great succeed isn’t unfounded; quarterback is the most important position at every level, but when a team over-invests in the position as some teams do, then the rest of the roster typically begins to have holes that are exposed come playoff time when your team plays a complete team like one that’s in the top 10 in offense in defense, top 10 passing and rushing, and so on. It’s rare that a team finds so much value as the Vikings have, which is why it’s critical to spend intelligently at this position. Even if a team hits on a quarterback at a 10%+ rate, it can typically create roster issues elsewhere and it typically also takes finding value at positions that supplement the quarterback, like wide receiver. Aaron Rodgers is unquestionably one of the best quarterbacks of all-time, but with a cap hit of 12.16% in 2017, plus Randall Cobb at 7.58% and Jordy Nelson at 6.92%, the team was highly likely to have a defense that ranked in the bottom third of the NFL regardless of Rodgers’ health. A large investment in a small handful of “great” players also decreases the number of “good” players a team can have on their roster.
While Bradford was costly over 10%, the Vikings had 27 players over 1% of the cap, which is a good metric for measuring how many “good” veteran players a team has on their roster. Looking at the Super Bowl champions from 1994 through 2009, before the new CBA locked in the low rookie contract rates we see today, the average champion had 27 players over one percent of the cap. The new CBA actually created the unintended consequence of an increase in top end pay typically going to quarterbacks, receivers, cornerbacks, defensive ends and offensive tackles, while most of the “good” veterans in the middle have been priced out of the league by less expensive rookie contract players.
From 2011 to 2016, the average Super Bowl champion has averaged just 24.2 players over one percent of the cap. The 1998 Broncos had 31 players over one percent, the 2003 Patriots had 30, and the 2009 Saints used cap rollover to carry 32 players on their roster over this number. The Vikings have an older school approach that was made possible by their roster construction strategy leading into the Bridgewater Era and it seems almost unaffected by the one big investment in Bradford. They’ve gotten top tier production out of cornerback Xavier Rhodes at 6.24% of the cap, which is the bottom of the first tier for that market, while defensive end Everson Griffen gave them 13.0 sacks at 5.15% of the cap, which is actually a second tier price. Bradford was a good player for them in 2016, he led the NFL with a 71.6% completion percentage and gave them 258.5 passing yards per game with 20 touchdowns to just five interceptions, so he produced at a high level, so it’s not like he’s a wasted cap figure—he just go hurt, and Keenum has played at a similarly efficient level. The cap hits of Bradford and Rhodes consumed 17.02% of the cap for two good players fits right into the 16-18% range we want to see teams cap their top two player costs to provide themselves the opportunity to build out the rest of their roster as Minnesota has done. Their top three with Everson Griffen costs 22.17%, which is in line with what the Patriots have in Tom Brady, left tackle Nate Solder, and safety Devin McCourty at 21.62% of the cap, a good rate for three top of the food chain players.
Looking at the Super Bowl Champions data from my just released book Caponomics: Building Super Bowl Champions, the top paid quarterbacks for the 22 capped champions have been all over the map, which caused me to seriously question the concept of most of the NFL deciding to pay quarterbacks franchise quarterback money over the last few seasons once they hit their second contract as long as they proved they were the team’s starting quarterback.
While much of the NFL was increasing pay in veteran quarterbacks to the point where the top 15 players at the position all make money in the same high cost range, it opened a huge opportunity for teams with low-cost quarterbacks, specifically players on rookie contracts—like Seattle, to use their quarterback’s low-cost years to build a team in the run-first, defensive model that’s worked. The two Steelers champions were built off the rookie contract of Ben Roethlisberger as well. The 2012 Ravens were able to take advantage of Flacco’s last year on his rookie deal. The 2003 and 2004 Patriots were able to take advantage of the low-costs of Brady’s early years. This is a model teams should be following to build up the roster during the low-cost rookie contracts that will allow him to lean on a good roster, then when the quarterback hits his prime and higher earning years, the team can be more reliant on that quarterback as they’ll have to be because of his higher costs.
This is the model being used by Jacksonville, Philadelphia, and the Vikings. Even though Carson Wentz was an MVP candidate averaging 253.5 passing yards per game with 33 touchdowns to 7 interceptions, the team had the NFL’s third best rushing offense, which created the balance that made Wentz a better player and keeps this team competitive with now under Nick Foles under center for the injured Wentz.
Jacksonville has built their model with Blake Bortles at just 3.94%, which allowed them to spend 27.00% of the cap on their defensive line, which is similar to the 28.18% the Seahawks spent on their defensive line in 2013. The Eagles spent 21.80% of the cap on their defensive line and the result was seven players with over 20 pressures produced in 2017 and they were the only team to generate pressure on more than 40% of passing plays. The four defensive lines that are left all have elite talent and depth; the Vikings might actually be the weakest in the depth department with just five defensive linemen with over 38% of snaps played, while the Eagles have seven playing over 40% of defensive snaps. With Shamar Stephens out for their game against the Eagles having played 38.59% of their defensive snaps this season, the Vikings depth might be tested and this lack of depth on the line may show with a weaker pass rush in the fourth quarter, so that’s a storyline to watch.
The 2013 Seahawks set a blueprint with a remarkable eight defensive linemen playing between 46 and 58% of snaps, which may be the start of a trend as coaches understand that the explosive and violent nature of the position makes it vital to have multiple good players who can perform at their highest capabilities, rather than a couple better players who can’t perform at their highest capabilities due to fatigue. The 2016 Patriots had six defensive linemen play between 44 and 65% of snaps. The 2017 Eagles have seven players between 40 and 65% of snaps. The 2017 Jaguars had Calais Campbell, Yannick Ngakoue, and Malik Jackson all playing between 73 and 78% of snaps, Abry Jones and Dante Fowler, Jr. played 46.96% and 44.83% respectively, while Marcell Dareus has played between 43.5% and 66.2% of snaps in his last seven regular season games for the team. It’s critical to create depth across the line to execute this low-cost, potentially lower-performing, quarterback strategy as the goal is to nullify the other team’s quarterback. If you’re playing a team with an elite quarterback, a general vision of your goal is to decrease or slow down his performance to the point where your quarterback can be more productive and/or more efficient. Your quarterback doesn’t necessarily need to out-produce the player in yardage, but the goal is for him to be more efficient with a rushing attack at his disposal that the elite quarterback might not have and a better defense than that quarterback. We saw this strategy succeed for the Seahawks against the Broncos while Manning threw for 280 yards to Wilson’s 206 yards, Wilson had a better completion percentage and 2.5 more yards per attempt than Manning. Wilson had 8.2 yards per passing attempt, while Manning had 5.7 per attempt. The Seahawks defense also gave up just 27 rushing yards, while their own offense created 135 on the ground. While Manning was only sacked once, the Seahawks constantly moved him off his first read, disrupted his processing, and forced two interceptions.
The Eagles executed this style of decreasing the quality of play of the other team’s elite quarterback against the Falcons with Matt Ryan completing 22 of 36 passes (61.1%) for 210 yards (5.8 yds/attempt) and one touchdown, while their back-up Nick Foles completed 23 of 30 (76.7%) for 246 yards (8.2 yds/att). The effect of great coaching like Doug Pederson’s game plan cannot be understated. As Danny Kelly wrote for The Ringer, Foles “leaned on dump-offs, check downs, and run-pass options,” which helped facilitate the win and put Foles in his comfort zone. Continuing, he wrote, Foles’ stats were padded by receivers and running backs picking up yards after the catch and he had an average depth of target of just 5.2 yards per Pro Football Focus, which was almost two full yards short of any other quarterback that weekend. They hope he is able to do a little more against Minnesota this weekend with much more accuracy on deep passes than he showed against Atlanta, while the defense maintains the same kind of pressure they put on Ryan. Minnesota is happy to have Case Keenum and his 55.7% completion percentage under pressure, which was second in the NFL in 2017 behind Jimmy Garoppolo and slightly better than Tom Brady at 55.5%.
In looking at past champions during the research process of writing Caponomics, I found something that should be common sense, but we’ve lost sight of with our acceptance in the notion that you need a great quarterback to succeed at all costs, which has driven the price of the market up to heights that make it hard to compete for many teams. As seen above, Steve Young has a record cap hit of 13.08% and only seven of the 22 salary capped champions have had a quarterback over 10% of the cap, yet half the league seems to do it every year. What the research has taught me is that Joe Flacco at 14.70%, Kirk Cousins at 14.34%, Matt Ryan at 14.22%, and Carson Palmer at 14.45%–and if you include any other large cap expenditures with those players–creates a situation where these teams can only compete for a championship if they get some kind extreme, unlikely value out of other parts of their roster.
The 2016 Falcons almost pulled off a Super Bowl win with Matt Ryan and Julio Jones combining for what would have been a record-setting 25.54% of the cap, with the previous record being Steve Young and Jerry Rice at 21.64%, because they had a defense almost entirely filled with rookie contract players. The probability of hitting on as many rookie contract defensive players as they did is very low and it was the lack of depth on defense that ended up doing them in with the Patriots running 99 plays during that game and wearing them out by the time the final whistle blew.
It was very helpful that Dan Quinn and the Falcons organization was able to look at the 2013 Seahawks as their defensive prototype as well because they had player prototypes in their head that allowed them to build out their defense with a lot of success. Along with Kyle Shanahan’s elite offensive mind, they’re an example of the extreme value produced by great coaches. Their young defense improved as the 2016 season went along, but they were still ranked 27th in points allowed, 25th in yards allowed, 28th in passing yards allowed, and 17th in rushing yards, which was exploited by a Patriots offense that was third in points scored, fourth in yards gained, fourth in passing yards, and seventh in rushing yards.
The four remaining teams this year have all been competent passing the football, but–outside of the Patriots at second in passing yards– the rest of this group is outside of the top 10. The Patriots were 10th in the NFL in rushing yards, while the Jaguars, Eagles and Vikings ranked first, third, and seventh with passing offenses that ranked 17th, 13th, and 11th in yards produced. The Vikings ranked first in both points and yards allowed, while their defense was second in yards allowed both passing and rushing. The Jaguars were ranked second in both points and yards allowed, while ranked first in passing and 21st in rushing, an issue that may have been remedied in a big way with the acquisition of Marcell Dareus mid-season. The Eagles were fourth in both points and yards allowed, while they were 17th in passing defense and first in rushing yards allowed giving up just 79.2 yards per game on the ground. The Patriots were fifth in points allowed, but may have some defensive weaknesses being ranked 29th in yards allowed with the 30th ranked passing defense and the league’s 20th ranked rushing defense. The Patriots did seem to right the ship a bit from a yardage perspective later in the season. Having the league’s fourth best redzone defense as well helped them.
Point being, all four of the teams left have complete rosters. Yes, each has some issues: the Patriots have some issues in yards allowed, the Jaguars have issues with Blake Bortles passing the ball, while Nick Foles and Case Keenum can perform, but leave us with some question marks heading into Championship Weekend. All four of these teams have coaches who have created strategies for success that can overcome the issues they do have and we’ll see on Sunday who can execute those strategies best. But none of them are really bad at any phase of the game.
My take is that the Patriots will move past the Jaguars as they will be able to make the Jags’ offense one-dimensional. While the Patriots don’t rank well from a yardage standpoint, they do have elite defensive backs who can cover a wide variety of match-ups, while the Jaguars don’t present match-ups in the passing game that should scare a backfield with McCourty, Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon, Stephon Gilmore, and Malcolm Butler. I think the Patriots offense uses their running backs extensively in the passing game as a means to beat the Jaguars pass rushers and avoid throwing at their elite cornerbacks. The match-up of Danny Amendola versus slot cornerback Aaron Colvin will be an x-factor in this game, while it would surprise me if Jacksonville or anyone else figures out how to stop a healthy Rob Gronkowski. We’ve seen the Patriots execute this quick passing game to success in past playoff match-ups and we’ll probably see it again on Sunday. I think the Jaguars keep it close for the first half, but the Patriots find some advantages they can take over the course of the whole game, as they usually do.
Both the Eagles and Vikings will be facing better defenses than the ones they faced last week, and that’s not to say the Falcons and Saints don’t have good defenses, but both the Eagles and Vikings have elite defenses. My take is that the Eagles will be able to produce enough pressure with their pass rush to decrease Keenum’s efficiency as, while he’s performed well under pressure, he hasn’t seen a defense that produces as much pressure as the Eagles do. With the passing attack slowed down, the Eagles will also be able to stop a rushing attack that, while it ranked well over the course of the season, doesn’t scare me with neither Murray or McKinnon averaging over four yards per carry and ranking 23rd in the NFL in yards per attempt at just 3.9.
The Eagles on the other hand weren’t just third in the NFL in rushing, but they were also fourth in the NFL averaging 4.5 yards per carry. While the Vikings lost their best running back, Dalvin Cook, early in the season, the Eagles added their best running back, Jay Ajayi, midway through the year. Ajayi had 499 offensive yards in seven games and averaged 5.8 yards per carry. LeGarrette Blount had 766 rushing yards and a light workload for him with just 173 carries, which has likely kept him a little fresher as the season has gone into January and provided the team a great, power back to close the game out in the fourth quarter, a very valuable tool. Undrafted rookie Corey Clement is the final piece with 444 offensive yards this season as he really came on in the second half the year and showed considerable explosive quickness. He and Ajayi combined for 8 catches for 75 yards against the Falcons, which will likely be a key against the Vikings to give Foles high percentage completions. They’ll look to execute screens, swing routes, flat routes, and other quick passes. They may even look to hit one of these running backs on a wheel for a big play after Minnesota spent the week watching Philly’s backs catch short balls, which could be a big play Pederson has circled on his call sheet.
I imagine it will be a low-scoring game that’s won in the trenches; I think the Eagles have the better offensive and defensive lines. While Jason Peters is out, which has affected their performance, the rest of their offensive line has been elite all season with Jason Kelce, Brandon Brooks, and Lane Johnson being three of the best in the league at their positions. The Eagles defensive line will dictate the way the Vikings are able to play offense, while the Eagles offensive line will allow their offense the time to throw the quick passing game and the push running the football to control the clock. I don’t see the Eagles receivers and tight ends having a quiet night either, they have too much talent across the offense for Minnesota to stop everyone–even with Foles at quarterback. That said, the Vikings are the NFL’s best defense and Case Keenum has had a very efficient season. This game is more of a toss up than the AFC match-up, but I’ll take the Eagles.
Zack Moore is a writer for OverTheCap.com, author of the recently released book titled, “Caponomics: Building Super Bowl Champions,” and an NFLPA Certified Agent. You can follow him on Twitter @ZackMooreNFL.
As I was writing Caponomics: Building Super Bowl Champions, which is now available on Amazon (paper edition/kindle), I realized there are two distinctly different styles of constructing a championship roster.
The first roster construction strategy is the obvious one, investing in a top tier quarterback, which means over 10% of the cap, and thus creating, by default, a quarterback centric roster due to the large investment. This is the most used strategy in the NFL with 15 teams with quarterbacks over 10% of this year’s $167 million salary cap.
The second strategy is to invest in a rookie contract quarterback and build a complete roster around him with the hopes that the rookie contract quarterback will perform at a reasonably efficient level to help guide that team to a Super Bowl. While the Eagles had 11.12% invested in Wentz including dead money charges to Chase Daniel and Sam Bradford and the Bears were at 11.54% with Mike Glennon and Mitch Trubisky, they still executed this kind of strategy that will allow them to take advantage of the rookie contract quarterback’s low cap numbers before they hit their second contracts. The Patriots have become such a deep roster over the last two seasons because of Tom Brady’s 8.87% cap hit in 2016 and his 8.38% cap hit in 2017 as the Patriots have adjusted for him being, theoretically, past his prime and paying him accordingly. During what we might consider prime years from ages 28 through 34, Brady averaged 10.94% of the cap.
Of the 12-playoff teams, those with quarterbacks over 10% of the cap are the Steelers, Chiefs, Vikings, Saints, Panthers, and Falcons. Those with top paid quarterbacks on rookie contracts are the Jaguars, Titans, Eagles and Rams. The Bills with Tyrod Taylor at 5.82% and Patriots with Brady are in this middle group of teams with veterans under 10%. The only other teams with a top paid quarterback who was still on their roster and making under 10% of the cap who weren’t on their rookie contract were the Jets, Bengals, Raiders, Bears, and 49ers.
The main blueprint that teams may be following for a quarterback centric team model is the 2006 Colts team that had 10.36% invested in Peyton Manning, then 16.25% of the cap invested in their starting offensive line with 6.77% consumed by left tackle Tarik Glenn and 4.71% in right tackle Ryan Diem. This team also had 6.27%, 5.00%, and 3.39% invested in their top three receivers of Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, and Brandon Stokley with the investment in the line and pass catchers intended to help the team win shoot outs with a sub-par defense.
The blueprint that teams using the rookie contract strategy is the 2013 Seahawks who had just 4.49% of the cap invested in their quarterback position with 0.55% invested in second-year quarterback Russell Wilson and Matt Flynn consuming 3.25% of the cap with his dead money cap hit. They used the money saved at quarterback to invest in a starting offensive line that cost 18.59% of the cap with left tackle Russell Okung at 7.76%, right guard James Carpenter at 1.69%, Max Unger at 4.88% in the middle, right guard JR Sweezy as the bargain at 0.40%, and right tackle Breno Giacomini at 3.86%. (As they transitioned into the second contracts of the stars that made up the core of that team on rookie contracts their investment in the offensive line decreased and we’ve seen the consequence of that as Wilson is routinely running for his life and they can’t create a conventional rushing attack.) They also invested in pass catchers like tight end Zach Miller at a Super Bowl record 8.94% of the cap, who was also a good run blocker, and wide receivers Sidney Rice at 7.89%, and Percy Harvin at 3.98%. One could argue that all three of those investments were poor, but in principle they were reasonable considering the low-costs at quarterback, the ability of good receivers to elevate a young quarterback, and the successful experience of the two receivers in Darrelle Bevell’s West Coast system when he was previously in Minnesota.
The key of that Seahawks team was their ability to run the football with an elite defense that excelled against the pass. With the savings at quarterback, as well as an elite cornerback group on rookie contracts consuming just 3.70% of the cap, they also invested heavily in their defensive line to the tune of a Super Bowl record 28.18% of the cap. With shut down defensive backs, this created a defense that gave up a league leading 172 passing yards per game and 4.8 net yards per pass attempt.
This is the cap construction example that the Jaguars have been clearly following over the past few years with Blake Bortles on his rookie contract and their quarterback group consuming 6.0% of the cap. Like that Seahawks team the Jaguars have 27.0% of the cap invested in their defensive line with big money cap hits being Malik Jackson at 9.28%, Calais Campbell at 6.29%, Dante Fowler, Jr. at 3.84%, Marcell Dareus at 3.43%, and Abry Jones at 2.40%. They’re assisted by a cap rollover that has extended their salary cap to about $206.5 million, which makes Jackson’s cap hit of $15.5 million only 7.5% of this higher cap figure. Similarly, the Seahawks had Chris Clemons at 6.64%, Red Bryant at 6.18%, Brandon Mebane at 4.23%, Michael “Man of the Year” Bennett at 3.90%, and Cliff Avril at 3.05% as a means of creating pressure on the quarterback.
Investments across the defensive line allow for teams to have a depth of pressure producers that allow for the team to play these linemen a lesser percentage of snaps that allows them to keep their legs fresh throughout the game and throughout the season. It may be a trend that the Seahawks helped popularize in 2013 with eight players playing between 46 and 58% of snaps. That’s a surprising stat at first glance, but it’s even more surprising when considering the amount of money they invested in players with two players over six percent of the cap and five over three percent. When a team invests heavily in a player, common logic would indicate they intend on them playing almost every snap, but that was not the case with this Seahawks team as they were able to make those kinds of investments because of their savings on many core rookie contract players.
The best pass rushing team in the NFL this year was another team that has executed well during their starting quarterback’s rookie contract, the Eagles. According to Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus, “the Eagles defense finished the year with 41 more total pressures than any other unit. Only team to generate pressure on more than 40% of passing plays.” As he aptly points out with Wentz down, “this is what can win them playoff games.” That Eagles team finished the season with seven players playing between 40 and 65% of snaps, which equals a depth of talent and fresh legs. I liked a Jon Gruden metaphor from October while he watched the Eagles: the fresh legs are like having relief pitchers with blazing fastballs. While the starting pitcher may wane in the later innings, the relievers can come in with fresh, powerful stuff.
The Jaguars didn’t have the same kind of spread of snaps, but the signing of Dareus was likely a part of a push to make them more balanced in this way. Over the course of the season Calais Campbell, Yannick Ngakoue, and Malik Jackson all played between 73 and 78% of snaps, Abry Jones played 46.96% and Dante Fowler, Jr. played 44.83%, while Dareus has played between 43.5% and 66.2% of snaps in his last seven games for the team.
I don’t have the Pro Football Focus metrics or the total pressures for the 2013 Seahawks, but they were eighth in the NFL with 44 sacks and the 2017 Jaguars were second with 55. Some of those Jaguars linemen played a lot of snaps for good reason: Campbell had 14.5 sacks, Ngakoue had 12.0, while Jackson and Fowler both had 8.0.
With the low costs at quarterback, teams with rookie contract quarterbacks are able to invest in a defense with an equation in mind. The idea is that their rookie contract quarterback won’t be in the position to carry a team to victory over the course of the season, unless they become a Wentz or DeShaun Watson type of player early in their career. Working under the premise that quarterback is the most important position on the field, the goal of these teams is to create a defense that decreases the opponent’s quarterback to the point where your “lesser” quarterback can outperform that elite quarterback you’re facing in the playoffs. Most importantly, with a good rushing attack and defense, the team is looking for their “lesser” quarterback to be more efficient.
The Super Bowl between the Seahawks and Broncos was a good example of this. Peyton Manning completed 34 of 49 passes (69.4%) for 280 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions, while Wilson went 18 for 25 (72.0%) for 206 yards and two touchdowns, but most of Manning’s production came toward the end of the game after it was already decided. While Manning threw for just 5.7 yards per pass attempt, Wilson recorded a much more efficient 8.2 yards per attempt. While the Wilson led Seahawks were ranked 26th in the NFL in passing yards in 2013, they were sixth in the NFL in net yards per attempt at 7.0, which illustrates some of that efficiency across the year. They didn’t ask Wilson to carry them, but because of the running game they had, it helped him elevate his play to a very efficient level.
For the Jaguars, Blake Bortles does not provide the same kind of efficiency that Wilson provided, but they did average over 20 more passing yards per game than that Seahawks team. They did have a higher performing offense with 366 yards per game compared to 339 for Seattle; they even ran for more yards per game at 141 compared to 137 as the NFL’s best rushing offense in 2017. The Jaguars defense is about on the same level as the Seahawks’ teams, but have a weakness as the NFL’s 21st ranked rushing defense, which they worked to fix with the trade for Dareus. The Jaguars were fifth in points scored with 26.1 per game and second in points allowed at 16.8. The Seahawks were eighth in points scored with the same rate of 26.1 per game and first in points allowed at 14.4.
Jacksonville has done a solid job replicating a strategy that worked before for that Seahawks team on the defensive line and on the back-end with shutdown corners and top performing linebackers. According to Pro Football Focus, the Jaguars three linebackers were all ranked in the top 30 players at the position with Telvin Smith ranked 7th, Paul Posluzny ranked 15th and Myles Jack at #30. Their cornerbacks are undoubtedly the best combination in the NFL with Jalen Ramsey ranked second with a 92.2 overall rating and free agent addition AJ Bouye ranked fifth at 90.4. Aaron Colvin is a pretty good slot cornerback as the 57th ranked cornerback overall with the 14th best passer rating against him in the slot at 86.8. The organization smartly signed two free agents at safety, one of the most affordable and longer lasting positions in the NFL, with Tashaun Gipson as the 11th ranked safety and Barry Church ranked 21st.
One issue that may come for the Jaguars in this playoff run is Bortles being less efficient than Wilson and Leonard Fournette, the powerful and high performing rookie, being less efficient than we’re led to believe by his traditional stats. As Scott Barrett pointed out on Twitter, if we remove his two longest runs of the season, Fournette would average just 3.29 yards per carry. Since October 19th, Forunette has averaged only 3.22 yards per carry. Barrett writes that, “both figures would rank last among all 32 running backs to see at least 150 carries.”
If Fournette, Chris Ivory, TJ Yeldon and Corey Grant can produce in the playoffs, this is a very dangerous team as Bortles can be relied on to perform at an average level and the team could win with their strategy for success. Those running backs combined for 742 receiving yards this year as well, which is another efficient and reliable way to move the ball. Bortles completed 60.2% of passes this year, had 7.0 pass yards per attempt, and 230.4 yards per game. There was some talk of Bortles “elite” play during December as he had a four week run where he completed 68.8% of passes for 9.11 yards per attempt and 321 yards per game with 9 touchdowns to 3 interceptions—but that was against a Colts defense ranked 28th against the pass, a Seahawks defense without Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor, a Texans defense derailed by injures and ranked 24th against the pass, and a 49ers defense ranked 22nd. He fell down to Earth with a 44.1% completion percentage, 158 passing yards, and two interceptions against a Titans defense in Week 17 that was ranked 25th against the pass. Bortles did have 322 rushing yards, which is another added dimension that could prove helpful as a quarterback with added mobility can extend drives on third down and extend plays in the redzone to find the open man.
Their wide receiver group is a group that isn’t talked about much, but which could be an x-factor in the playoffs as with Dede Westbrook and Allen Hurns now both healthy with Keelan Cole and Marqise Lee; they go into the playoffs with four receivers who averaged over 46 receiving yards per game. This is all without their assumed number one receiver Allen Robinson going down in week one with a torn ACL. Jacksonville has multiple players who could create advantageous match-ups for Bortles over the course of the playoffs. How much better could this Jaguars team be if Robinson was healthy? Although, that’s not a “what if” game that can be played in a league where everyone has suffered some kind of serious injury. How good could the Chiefs be if Eric Berry was healthy? What about the Patriots if Dont’a Hightower wasn’t on the IR? How would the Steelers defense look if Ryan Shazier was healthy?
With all of that said about their offense, this is a team that is going to need their defense to perform to the best of their abilities during the playoffs. I can’t foresee the Jaguars winning a Super Bowl if they’re forced to score 21 or more points in the four games. They’re going to need a performance like the 2013 Seahawks defense who gave up 15 points to the Saints in the Divisional Round, 17 points to the 49ers in the Conference Championship and just 8 points against a Broncos offense that was the league’s best and performed at a historic pace. Bortles and the offense are also going to have to play turnover free football and the defense is going to have to force some. They were 19th in the NFL with 23 turnovers, but second with 33 takeaways. The 2013 Seahawks were fourth in turnovers with 19 and the best in the league with 39 takeaways, a trend they continued in the playoffs with just one turnover and eight takeaways.
We’ll see over the next few weeks if the Jaguars can replicate the strategy the Seahawks used to win their Super Bowl. If they don’t, they may have to try to win with Bortles on the fifth-year of his rookie contract, making over 10% of the projected $179.5 million salary cap as a non-elite quarterback. With the cap rollover, they will still have over $16 million in cap space heading into the 2018 offseason, so they could still compete with this model. Key free agents, though, will be inside linebacker Paul Posluszny, wide receivers Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson, guard Patrick Omameh, and cornerback Aaron Colvin, so there will be holes to fill. We’ll see if one of the more analytics-focused front offices in the NFL is able to keep this success going.
Zack Moore is a writer for OverTheCap.com, author of the upcoming book titled, “Caponomics: Building Super Bowl Champions,” and NFLPA Certified Agent. You can follow him on Twitter @ZackMooreNFL.
No disrespect to Mr. Tanier, but his article titled, “NFL Moneyball is Hurting the Browns, Jets, Bills and Competitive Balance,” uses the same tone he uses with his Twitter politics and it’s created not only an inaccurate article, but an annoyingly inaccurate article that will confuse the many people who read that article to what Moneyball actually is, which compelled me to respond to it.