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.