Replacing Players With Cheaper Talent in 2021

A question I have been receiving lately deals with potential NFL cuts this year given the pandemic. This year is unique given the expected cap downturn and potential slashing of budgets by owners and I was thinking that maybe the NFL will be looking closer at certain positional groups rather than players.  We often talk of players being replaceable but usually we just talk in generalities of production without taking into account availability. So what I wanted to do here was look at what positions are usually available for cheap every year and contribute in the year they are signed.

To get a gauge of availability I went back and broke the players up into two player pools. One is the pool of available free agents. This includes undrafteds and street free agents along with the typical veterans. To qualify for inclusion the player had to have an annual average contract value of under $2 million. I chose that number because I think that rightfully fits the “cheap” category that would be of use to teams in the league this year. The player also has to have signed by August to eliminate in season signings. The second pool is draft picks. There is no cap on that salary as it is a pick every team in the NFL has to make whether its for an expensive 1st round player or a cheap 7th rounder.

I then identified how many offensive or defensive snaps each player played in the year they signed their contract. In other words if a player signed a two year contract in 2017, I don’t care what he did in 2018. I only care about what he did in 2017. The same goes for a draft pick. I need an immediate return if I am cutting a veteran player. I broke the snaps into two categories. One uses a low end filter of 200 snaps which identifies more of a depth signing. The second filters that further to 500 snaps which for many positions is a strong contributor number.

First let’s look at the veteran player pool from last year (minus this years cuts like Golden Tate) for players who earn more than $2 million a season.

$2M+ a Year Veteran Player Pool

PositionUnder 200 SnapsUnder 200 SalaryBetween 200 and 500 SnapsBetween 200 and 500 SalaryOver 500 SnapsOver 500 Salary
Int. D-Line10$6,863,50015$6,001,66732$10,445,604
Wide Receiver6$3,406,94511$10,474,77329$12,936,557
Left Tackle3$9,983,3333$16,333,33317$13,080,149
Right Tackle4$8,562,5008$9,819,37514$6,671,036
Tight End3$3,988,88912$4,486,80612$7,911,833
Running Back5$6,413,1714$5,587,50011$9,475,727

My opinion is any player in the first two groups of players is potentially expendable unless his status was due to an injury that caused the player to miss most of the year. Those over 500 snaps moves more into the production side of the equation where we have to ask ourselves are these players on the field because they are good or because of their contract?  If it is the latter they may be considered a cut candidate.

Here is our first cheap player pool, identifying players who played between 200 and 500 snaps in their year of signing/drafting.

200- 500 Snap Player Pool

PositionFree AgentsDraft PicksTotal PlayersPlayers/YearTotal SnapsSnaps/Player
Int. D-Line53338621.528,553332.0
Wide Receiver41367719.2525,019324.9
Running Back28275513.7517,958326.5
Tight End32154711.7514,704312.9
Left Tackle78153.754,542302.8
Right Tackle113143.54,669333.5

In my mind this is a pretty vibrant market for potential contributors. In particular I think both interior defensive linemen and wide receivers who are more expensive part time players should a bit worried about being asked into a pay cut or just released outright. Lower end edge rushers likely fit there as well. In general there are more than enough players who should be available that can replace every veteran who costs more than $2 million a year and played less than 500 snaps last year. Even if just using free agency the only positions of concern to replace on the cheap would be tackles, quarterbacks, and possible centers.

Now lets look more at the high end snaps.

500+ Snap Player Pool

PositionFree AgentsDraft PicksTotal PlayersPlayers/YearTotal SnapsSnaps/Player
Wide Receiver11354611.530,967673.2
Int. D-Line1713307.517,496583.2
Tight End614205.011,928596.4
Left Tackle711184.513,703761.3
Right Tackle410143.513,033930.9
Running Back29112.86,971633.7

Those first five positions are really interesting to me. Corner, guard, and linebacker are clear positions that have potential replacements for cheap in free agency while safety and wide receiver are a bit more draft dependent. Right now we are hearing about teams trying to bail on some expensive guards and I think this table says why as teams can find production on the cheap at these positions with 6 guards a year available for under $2 million who will wind up with at least 500 snaps on the year.

As you get deeper into the other positions it certainly becomes much more risky to dump expensive talent who contributes solely for cap purposes. The players are out there to help but the numbers are fewer which makes hitting on those players much more difficult.  So really I think it is those five positions where you may see more veteran player cuts/pay cuts.

One thing that teams that do look to go cheap should consider is signing multiple veterans if they can. When we are talking about contracts in the sub $2 million a year range they often come with almost no guarantee. The player pool that we looked at for veteran players has an average contract value of $1.5 million with about $360,000 in guarantees. So you can sign two or three players and likely have the total cost come out to around $2.1 million even if you had to cut two of them and pay their guarantee but avoid their salary. That is well worth it if you are cutting a player who will cost you $5+  million.

While this is going to be a big topic of discussion in the next week or two as teams gear up for free agency the reality is teams should be looking at things like this as ways to kind of game the salary cap. We talk of taking multiple stabs at it in the draft but there are ways to do that in free agency as well. It requires a sales job in free agency (players do want a chance to play and when you try to sign three cheap linebackers it may make linebacker 3 think twice before signing), but there are many avenues to finding production at much more affordable costs and maybe teams being forced to look at that this year will lead to some changes in the future.

OTC 2021 Free Agency Guide

  • Welcome to our very first OTC Football Free Agency Guide, a 240 page PDF that not only offers a preview of some of the top free agents in 2021 but an in-depth review of how teams have successfully (and not so successfully) utilized free agency in the past. The book hits on many of the topics that we discuss on OTC or social media outlets when we get into opinions on free agency as well as a unique retroactive look at free agency that is an area not really focused on in the past.

    The book is broken down into three sections and includes the following:

    Free Agent Outcomes From 2015 to 2019

    We look back at how much every team spent on free agents between 2015 and 2019 and how that spending translated into wins in the season of signing. We look at results of offensive and defensive spending based on the team’s prior seasons record to identify some of the biggest spenders in the NFL and what spending levels have brought some success. We further break down spending by position to compare the results based on spending levels and with the control groups who did not spend on a particular position in the offseason.

    Individual Positional Outcomes From 2014 to 2020

    We go back and look at every UFA who switched teams from 2014 to 2020 to identify contract expectations based on the size and length of a contract. Contracts are grouped in different ways to determine the expected years to be completed on a contract and ultimate contract outcome. We grouped every position into different salary tiers and compared the average various statistical performances in the two years leading up to free agency with how those groups performed in the year they switched teams and, where applicable, in future years.

    Free Agent Projections for 2021

    Finally, we have profiles of 77 unrestricted free agents that include thoughts on each player, their OTC valuation metric performance over the last two years, a list of five potential comparable players and how they compare statistically with the free agent and the key metrics of those contract to help frame the market of the player. Finally, we arrive at a projection that includes years, average annual value, and guarantee.

    If you are a premium subscriber you already have access to the OTC 2021 Football Free Agency Guide and you can download it from the link in the premium menu. If you are interested in becoming a premium subscriber you can read here about some of the features that it includes to get you more depth in evaluating contracts, seeing more data on team construction, or preparing for free agency.  If you do subscribe to premium you will be sent a second email with instructions for setting up the account. A few people have had these lost in spam filters and if that happens please let us know via the technical support form and we will get you the necessary link.


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