The draft is the single most effective and cost-efficient way for franchises to replenish their roster. While the 1st round gets most of the headlines, the subsequent rounds are where teams can pick up young contributors at minimal cost. Leading up to draft day, this makes discussions about depth charts and draft needs important, but there is one aspect that is often overlooked.
You can guarantee that when GMs and their staffs write names on those cards, they have looked at more than just the shape of their depth chart. They must consider their upcoming free agents (both next offseason and the offseason after that), their possible and likely cuts in coming seasons, and not just how their roster looks currently, but how it is likely to look in 6 months, a year, or even 3 years.
This aspect is even more crucial for the best teams in the league. Those teams often have more highly-paid talent on their roster, and thus less cap space. This makes re-signing valuable veteran contributors more difficult. They also usually have fewer immediate holes in their rosters, meaning they can afford to look at near-future roster problems, and use the draft to try and extend their Super Bowl window. Once they have a core of great talent, teams are not merely content with one year of success, they want to build around that core and maintain the balance of their roster. Keeping an eye on contract and cap situations is an important part of that.
In this article, I will go through some of those contending teams (if your team is not on here, it does not mean I rule them out as a contender!) and see where their contract & cap situation may indicate potential moves on draft day.
- Nick Easton and Tom Compton are the most likely guard pairing on the pre-draft depth chart, and both are off-contract after this season. Easton has been serviceable when on the field, but has struggled with injuries, and Compton is more of a depth option. The Vikings have the fifth-cheapest offensive line in football and will need to invest some draft capital into the guard spot in particular. The question really becomes whether they use a 1st or 2nd round pick to find a better Day 1 player than Easton or Compton, or use several later picks to add depth and versatility to their interior.
New Orleans Saints
After exercising Andrus Peat’s 5th year option, the Saints will have some of the lowest cap space in the league for 2019, but their 2019 class of free agents will not feature many cap-munching extensions. Mark Ingram will be playing to push into that 2nd tier of RB contracts (he should thank Jerick McKinnon) but that’s about it.
- This is a big talent need anyway, with the Saints only bringing in 37-year-old veteran Ben Watson on a one-year deal to supplement the disappointing Coby Fleener. Fleener will stick around this year after the Saints absorbed a $3.4 million in full guarantees for him post-Super Bowl 52. Drafting a TE would be wise for instant need, as well as medium/long-term as Fleener is a possible cap casualty next year when he would play on a $9 million cap hit, with $5.8 million in cap savings available by his release.
- It’s worth noting that the Saints have five linebackers hitting unrestricted free agency after 2018, and although none of them are penciled in as starters, that’s a lot of uncertainty at the position, and it could be in their best interest to add some young linebacker talent to their roster.
Los Angeles Rams
The Rams lack a top-86 pick in this draft so they’ll just be in a position to maximise their return from those later picks. So take any “needs”, and how they might address them, with a grain of salt. However, it’s still interesting to look at their cap situation for the near future.
They currently have a lot of cap space set aside for 2019, but they will need every penny of that as an immense amount of talent becomes due for extensions (or 5th-year options). Todd Gurley, Aaron Donald, Ndamukong Suh, Lamarcus Joyner, Rodger Saffold, Marcus Peters, Brandin Cooks – there’s a lot of production in that list. With $99 million in cap room for 2019, they should be able to fit most of those in, if not all, but it may take some clever structuring. Their situation shows the extreme benefit of having a solid starting quarterback at such a cheap price.
New England Patriots
- The Patriots will welcome the return of Julian Edelman to the field, and their receiving group is looking ok for 2018, but looking ahead there may be some change. Basically every other presumed contributor from wide receiver this season will be hitting free agency: Hogan, Cordarrelle Patterson, Dorsett, Jordan Matthews and Kenny Britt. Those aren’t expensive names, but there’s proven production in there and they are likely to lose a couple to the market. A young receiver in the draft could be a valuable addition to offset those losses, and provide some longer term continuity to the position.
- Dwayne Allen can be cut for no loss, and behind him there really isn’t a lot more depth to the position in New England. I could definitely see the Patriots dip into the TE draft class, even in one of the early rounds, to add a threat opposite Rob Gronkowski, and accounting for the future as well.
This salary cap aspect of draft discussions might just be the most applicable to the Jaguars, as they are currently $16 million OVER the cap for 2019, and will have some hard decisions to make on free agents down the road.
- This one probably applies to the upcoming season anyway, but it will certainly be a huge need next offseason when Donte Moncrief’s 1-year prove it deal runs out. He’s really a rental for this Jaguars team as they should be unable to extend him at anywhere around his current APY, which is quite high given his recent (lack of) production. The Jaguars need a long term weapon out wide.
- The Jags have both TJ Yeldon and Corey Grant on expiring contracts, and could go in for a new young back to compete with them this year and take over backup/3rd down duties next year and beyond. Yeldon has shown some promise and could command interest in the market.
- Bud Dupree has had his 5th-year option exercised, but if he can’t finally push on this season, there’s every chance they cut him, as the option is only guaranteed for injury. They spent a 1st rounder on TJ Watt so it’s doubtful they go edge rusher in the 1st again, but I don’t think it would be a bad idea to look at an edge rusher in the middle rounds. Also, their backup Anthony Chickillo, who had three sacks last season, is a free agent in 2019.
The Eagles have a lot of money committed over the next few seasons relative to the league average, however they also have just one top-100 pick in the draft. Due to that, I doubt they will be picky on needs, they will probably prefer to just take the best players they can get, as almost all of their picks are in the 4th-7th rounds.
- This is one of the lesser talked about needs for the Eagles, and that may be because on face value the current 4-3 defensive end group in Philly is superb, with an ideal mix of young, prime and veteran players. However, Brandon Graham hits the market after this season, and with his stellar play he may command a salary that is beyond the reach of the cap-strapped Eagles. Chris Long has been an important rotational player and he is also in a walk year, with age/retirement an added factor. The Michael Bennett addition looks like a very wise one when you consider these possibilities, and an upside 4th-round defensive end could be some further insurance.
- This is a clear priority in my opinion. Mychal Kendricks could very well be a cap casualty within the next year. Injury-prone MLB Jordan Hicks is in a walk year, and may have to prove his ability to stay healthy to get extended. Linebacker is an important part of Jim Schwartz’ defensive scheme, and Nigel Bradham’s recent extension reinforces that fact. Another young linebacker could be a good option with the Eagles’ 1st selection.
Will Eddowes is a 21 year old college student from New Zealand. Will is in his fourth year of study at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, pursuing degrees in law and economics. Despite living so far away from football, Will has developed a strong passion for the game, particularly the front office aspects of salary cap analysis and team building/scouting. Follow Will on Twitter @WillEddowesNFL