Excerpt from Caponomics and The Mastery of the Patriots and Ravens

What follows is a first draft that I wrote today of an excerpt from the theories section of #Caponomics: Understanding NFL Roster Building through Super Bowl Champion Salary Cap Analysis. After posting this other excerpt, I realized I had to rethink how I approached the section as much of what I would be writing in that format would have crossover. I’ve since restructured the theories section into Front Office, QB Spending and Spending Patterns as those are the three major categories that I can fit almost everything I’ve come up with into.

So far, the Front Office section is 53 pages full of great information that I think you guys are going to like and I’m only about two-thirds of the way done with that section. I wrote all that this week, so things are moving along and we’ll hopefully have this out during training camp. I truly believe that this book will have an impact on how we understand the salary cap and NFL team building. I’m very proud of the theories in this book and believe that you guys will enjoy it more than a college football player loves a solid nine who does his homework. #Zinger

Just remember, if you like what I’m writing here and you want to receive bonus chapters when they available and be updated when the pre-sale begins, e-mail me at Caponomics@gmail.com!

What follows is one of my core beliefs regarding teams going after more expensive free agents:

  • They must be filling important roles in a way that no one player or combination of players could fill at a cheaper rate and provide the same or similar production. You must also understand the upcoming free agent markets and drafts because the players that will be available help determine how much you should pay a player. With that understanding of markets, you have to understand the totality of your team needs so that you can determine the best way with which to address your team’s needs. Lastly, you always have to understand your cap situation in the current year and in future years.

This should be obvious to teams, you shouldn’t be signing players for spots that could be easily filled for less money and result in similar production. This essentially means that your team is filling a hole rather than filling a role. When you’re filling roles, you’re drafting guys who will eventually take over for a veteran who’s cost will eventually out price the value that you have determined they are worth. When you’re filling a hole, that means that you have a hole on your roster because you were ill prepared for someone’s departure, you hadn’t drafted a player who was prepared to take over for when that veteran departed.

Even the best organizations are going to have holes somewhere, it’s impossible to simultaneously field the best team possible and be prepared for the future at every position in the NFL. That’s possible in a sport like baseball where you can be the best in the MLB, yet still have a fantastic farm system that has capable players who will be future stars whenever the veterans leave or retire. In the NFL though, you have no farm system and with a 53-man roster and eight practice squad spots, there isn’t a lot of room for developing players.

The reason you have to understand the free agent market and the draft is so you can determine where you’re going to go to address an issue on your roster. This is also why you need to know the totality of your team needs because that helps you determine how you’re going to address each need. If you only have seven draft picks, one in each round, but you have five needs, you’re going to need to figure out the right combination of signing and drafting for your team’s needs.

The Ravens were a team that masterfully getting rid of more expensive players through either trade or letting them sign elsewhere in free agency and then drafting the perfect replacement for them in the 2015 NFL Draft. With Haloti Ngata, he had a $16 million cap hit in 2015 that was just too restrictive for what the Ravens needed to address this offseason, so they traded him to the Lions with a seventh-round pick and got a fourth and fifth-round pick in return.

With that fourth-round selection from the Lions, they choose outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith who will be a tremendous fit for their defense, maybe even be Terrell Suggs eventual replacement as he enters the twilight of his career. It took them a year to replace Ray Lewis after he retired, but they did it perfectly with C.J. Mosley who might be the best young inside linebacker in the NFL and they’re positioning themselves to be prepared for the departure of Suggs or even Elvis Dumervil. To start though, Smith will probably be a situational pass rusher and take the spot that Pernell McPhee had in their defense before he signed that five-year, $38.75 million deal with the Bears. NFL Network’s Daniel Jermiah said that Smith reminded him most of McPhee while he was evaluating him, a testament to the incredible way the Ravens continually find identical players to fill roles.

Pro Football Focus had McPhee ranked as the second best 3-4 outside linebacker with a 26.0 rating and only Justin Houston in front of him, so he will be missed, but they couldn’t have found a better player to replace him with. Suggs and Dumervil were the fourth and sixth rated 3-4 OLBs, so the Ravens will just need those two plus Smith and Courtney Upshaw to pick up the 540 snaps that McPhee played in 2014.

With their fifth-round pick from the Lions, they ended up packaging it with their second-round pick to trade up to grab tight end Maxx Williams who they had projected as a first round talent and who will replace Owen Daniels, who left for a three-year, $12.5 million contract and be insurance for if Dennis Pitta can’t return after his second major hip injury in as many years. In my writings at Over The Cap, I keep coming back to the way that the Ravens, Patriots and the Alabama Crimson Tide 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 Pitta, and Ed Dickson, then they let Dickson go and added Daniels and Crockett Gillmore, then of course, they dropped Daniels and added Williams. Their fifth-round pick, Nick Boyle is a little bigger and more of a blocker, he gives them a bit of a project who will be ready once the team moves on from Pitta. We can’t forget that they had Shannon Sharpe in 2000 and 2001 as he was the veteran who helped Todd Heap prepare to take over his spot.

Every single one of these tight ends fits this same mold, same size and same skills. Considering that Ozzie Newsome was a Hall of Fame tight end for the Browns during his playing days, it’s no surprise that he’s been a master at finding tight ends. It’s almost unbelievable, but prior to the draft, Jeremiah compared Maxx Williams to Todd Heap.
The way the Ravens fill roles with identical players is just a brilliant phenomenon to watch.

In the first round, they drafted wide receiver Breshad Perriman out of UCF to replace Torrey Smith who left for a five-year, $40 million deal in San Francisco. Perriman and his 4.25 speed will cost $21,694,670 less than Smith will cost the 49ers and while Smith is a great receiver, he isn’t an irreplaceable player. The Ravens got a player in Perriman who can produce at the same level and instead of paying an average of $8 million per year for about 50 catches for 750-1000 yards per season, they’ll be paying about $2 million per year for that.

Finally, to replace Ngata, the Ravens used their third-round pick on the very talented, but sometimes unproductive Carl Nicks from Iowa. They also had a perfect player to fill Ngata’s spot already on their roster in last year’s second rounder, Timmy Jernigan, so their defensive line should be in very good shape and much less expensive moving forward.

While this point is about what teams should be sure to do when they sign an expensive free agent, this was how the Ravens perfectly addressed the other two major issues involved in this point, they had a complete and perfect understanding of their needs and how the upcoming market could solve them. Something that you’ll hear often in this section, the Ravens know exactly who they are as an organization and what they need.

The reason they didn’t go out and sign a big-time free agent was because they didn’t have the cap space as we saw with the main reason why they traded Ngata, but boy, was that some kind of trade or what? Like I said above, they knew they’d have Jernigan, versatile veteran Chris Canty who they released and then re-signed at a lower rate, and the rookie Davis to ensure they’d have stability. Then with the two picks they got from the trade, they drafted Smith with one as a perfect replacement for McPhee and then they used the fifth-round pick in a package to move up to draft Maxx Williams who would replace Daniels and will be their long-term solution and be that Todd Heap type playmaker for them for a decade or more. He’s a complete player and the Ravens might have missed out on him if they didn’t have extra draft picks to trade up. That’s the added bonus of piling up your draft picks, you can use extras to trade up for players you really want that might not fall to you and still end up with nine or ten for yourself.

According to Jamison Hensley from ESPN, as of February 4th, 2015, the Ravens had a projected $141.9 million projected to the 2015 salary cap. With a projected salary cap between $140 and 145 million at the time, they had to cut a few players and they couldn’t sign basically any of their own big time free agents other than Justin Forsett who they signed for three-years, $9 million. For a normal team, this would have been pretty tough to overcome with guys like Daniels, Ngata, and Smith leaving, I know time will tell, but I think that the Ravens actually turned this negative into a major positive for them and have this draft will be the base of their next Super Bowl roster along with previous picks like Mosley, Jernigan, Lorenzo Taliaferro, Ricky Wagner, Kelechi Osemele and others.

When we’re talking about the aspect of players filling important roles, like I said before regarding DeMarco Murray going to the Eagles, that was tremendous maneuvering this offseason with Chip Kelly trading a running back to Buffalo for Kiko Alonso who is inexpensive and was the ninth rated inside linebacker by PFF in 2013 before he was injured in 2014. McCoy dances a lot in the backfield, which Kelly doesn’t like, while Murray is the one-cut and go style of runner that Kelly likes. In a year with a pretty weak inside linebacker group in the draft, they got Alonso, then added Jordan Hicks in the third round who was the #1 linebacker in the country coming out of high school before injuries plagued his first few years at the University of Texas before a Second-Team All-Big 12 senior year. In the 3-4 defense, inside linebackers are very important run stoppers and Kelly got himself two good ones in two different ways this offseason.

It’s worth mentioning that McCoy was also the third worst running back in the NFL in 2014 according to PFF with a -9.3 rating, his -7.2 pass rating was the worst in the NFL. What people don’t realize is that the Eagles offensive line was one of the best in the NFL last season with PFF rating them as the Eagles #1 run blocking offense in the NFL. While their rating of 85.7 was 30 points higher than the Cowboys who were second, their rush rating was 22nd at -3.1, largely because McCoy had a -1.4 rushing rating behind the best blocking in the NFL.

On top of that, he was supposed to take up 8.34% of the cap in 2015, but instead his $3.4 million in dead money will end up being only 2.37% of the Eagles cap. With the money they saved, they got themselves TWO running backs in Murray and Ryan Mathews, a former first round pick with injury issues, but whom the Eagles are hoping to help reach that full potential through their sports science program. Murray and Mathews will cost 4.89% of the cap in 2015 and it still leaves 0.52% of the 5.41% of the cap the Eagles saved trading McCoy for Alonso. (I just love demolishing McCoy’s childish and pathetic accusations that Chip Kelly is a racist.)

So through all of that the Eagles got rid of McCoy, a guy who didn’t fit into their offense and has never struck me as the best locker room guy, and got themselves a linebacker in Alonso and two great running backs who fit what the offense needs in Murray and Mathews. With Murray, Mathews and Sproles, Kelly will have the kind of three headed attack that he always had in Oregon and have fresh legs all game. That’s how you create cap space and execute on signing more expensive free agents.

When the Patriots let Wes Welker walk in free agency on March, 14, 2013 before his 32-year old season for a two-year, $12 million deal with Denver and they signed the 28-year old Danny Amendola to a five-year, $31 million deal the same day. In hindsight we all wonder why they did it, but it made complete sense because Julian Edelman did not have his breakout season until his 105 catch, 1056 yards and six touchdown 2013 campaign and by every analytic measure, Amendola was the perfect replacement for Welker. The Patriots knew they had something in the 27-year old Edelman as he had shown promise when he had opportunities and had 21 catches for 235 yards and three touchdowns in 2012, but they weren’t willing to bet on him without an insurance plan. It’s also a huge illustration of how well these great organizations can prepare for the future as they drafted the Kent State quarterback in the seventh-round of the 2009 draft as Welker’s eventual replacement and they gave him four full seasons to transition and prepare to take over for Welker. That’s not something that every team has the patience for or can even understand. I wonder how many head coaching staffs had been fired that were in charge of their organization’s 2009 draft and weren’t around by the time Edelman broke out in 2013? It takes organizational stability to be able to build for the future like that.

Looking back at a great analysis of slot receivers by PFF regarding the 2010 season, you see the almost exact production out of Amendola and Welker. Marques Colston had 696 yards to lead all receivers in terms of yards gained out of the slot, but Amendola had 662 compared to Welker’s 585 to round out the top three. Amendola led all slots with 80 catches and 107 targets and Welker was second in both with 64 and 86. Austin Collie led with an 81.97% slot percentage, while Amendola was second with 74.77% and Welker third with 74.42%. Amendola had the shortest depth of his targets at 5.30 yards and Welker was second with 5.45. Amendola had the most yards after catch with 349 and Welker was second again with 302.

Just one signature stat after another from PFF and both guys were almost identical. Welker is 5’9”, 190-pounds, while Amendola is 5’11”, 183, essentially the same kind of players and the Patriots were betting on the fact that Amendola would become Welker for them. He did not as he faced some injuries in 2013 and Edelman took off as the replacement for Welker as Brady’s only real, consistent option in an injury plagued year for the Patriots pass catchers. Amendola didn’t have a terrible year as he had 54 catches for 633 yards (11.7 ypc) and two touchdowns in 12 games, but they were expecting more from him.

What ended up happening is the Patriots asked Amendola to restructure his contract after the 2014 season and he’s got a more manageable salary than the escalating figures in the second half of that contract. The first two years of that contract were $3.575 and $4.7 million, which were both very reasonable figures and for a total of $8,275,000, it was $3.725 million less than Welker’s contract. The real magic of this is with that extra $3.725 million saved by not signing Welker, they ended up using $3.515 million to pay Julian Edelman as he signed a four-year, $17 million contract on March 18, 2014. Edelman’s cap hits were $765,000 and $2.75 million in 2013 and 2014.

Together Amendola and Edelman cost $4.34 million or 3.53% of the 2013 cap compared to Welker at $4.15 million or 3.37%. In 2014, those figures were $7.45 million and 5.60% for the duo in New England and 5.75% for Welker in a very disappointing season for him. For almost the exact same percentage of what the older, declining Welker would have cost the Patriots got two players. Here were the stat line for the two seasons with Amendola and Edelman together against Welker:

Amendola/Edelman, 2013: 159 catches, 1689 yards (10.6 ypc), 8 touchdowns

Welker, 2013: 73 catches, 778 yards (10.7 ypc), 10 touchdowns

Amendola/Edelman, 2014: 119 catches, 1172 yards (9.8 ypc), 5 touchdowns

Welker, 2014: 49 catches, 464 yards (9.5 ypc), 2 touchdowns

While Welker only had 21 punt returns for 144 yards (6.9 ypr) over the last two seasons, Amendola almost had that by himself with 16 for 132, while adding 20 kick returns for 482 yards, a 24.1 average. Meanwhile, while Welker was a kind of situation punt returner, Edelman was their primary punt returner as he had been since 2010 and he had 673 yards in 30 returns for an 11.2 average and one touchdown against Welker’s Broncos, his fourth of his career.

It’s very important to note that they might not have been able to re-sign Edelman to that new contract if they had Welker at something near what he cost Denver as they has used up 99.82% of their cap. If they did re-sign Edelman with Welker on the books, then maybe they wouldn’t have been able to sign one or two of the important pieces for that Super Bowl team like a Patrick Chung or a Brandon Browner. For everyone who’s ever said that they missed on that Amendola contract, myself included even though I understood why they did it, I never understood how perfect it was until now.

Do you think the Patriots have this down to a science or what? Those are the kind of moves that make champions. Like with this and the Ngata move by the Ravens, this stuff can be so complex that it takes someone like me dedicating months and months of their time and hitting on the right kind of frequency by realizing a point that should be made regarding the cap to go down a road to discover these moves and be able to communicate them. It just makes me wonder what else we’re missing out on and what kind of strong business moves these general managers and coaches are making that we’re not appreciating. It’s just very exciting stuff and I really look forward to keep trying to find this stuff for us to enjoy because these are the masterful moves that we’ve got to appreciate these coaches for. Rather than the morons who call into talk radio and bloviate about how dumb they think their team is during their lunch break on a Monday after a loss in September, we’ve got to appreciate the kind of precise cap management that’s going on in places like New England and Baltimore. The way they let Welker go and got two for the price of one for the next five years rather than just two is just beautiful stuff.

This all come full circle back to our main point that we started with, free agency should be all about filling roles in a way that no one else can for you. The best organizations aren’t going out and just signing free agents that they want or signing them to be this player that they’ve never had before, a real game breaking, x-factor. The best organizations go out and find free agents who can fill a role for them rather than fill a hole. The Patriots and Ravens have been successful for a long time, they know the exact kind of athlete that they need at every single position, so they go into the offseason each year with a plan that is determined by their cap space, their own free agents, the amount of draft picks they have, their needs, the free agent market and draft class. By understanding their needs, they understand the exact type of athlete that they are looking for at each position that they need to fill and they determine what the best route for addressing these needs are based on their favorite potential suitors for the roles and the value that they’ve placed on them as well as the role that they’re filling. As we saw with the Amendola/Edelman and Welker example, the Patriots and Broncos were essentially spot on in both of their assessment of what the player in that slot receiver role in the Earhardt-Perkins offense was valued at. The Patriots just did a better job of determining the best way to get the most value for that cost as they had determined Welker was a combination of no longer as valuable as he once was and re-signing him probably would have restricted their ability to sign Edelman long-term and secure their future at that position.

You can go out and get the big-time, expensive free agents, but make sure they fit into your system, make sure you have a defined role for them, make sure you aren’t overpaying for someone who you could get the same production out of through some cheaper avenue and make sure you understand exactly what your team needs are, so that you can properly address each need.

Tweet me: @ZackMooreNFL

If you liked the kind of cap analysis that went into this article, please e-mail me at Caponomics@gmail.com, so that you are added to our e-mail list and get some bonus finished chapters as they become available. A couple weeks ago, I sent out our chapter analyzing the 2000 Ravens. Coming soon will be the 2014 Patriots and 2014 Lions.

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.