2018 New York Jets (Cap Numbers as of 1/26; source OverTheCap.com; projected $179.5 M cap)
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.
1995 Dallas Cowboys Review
Figure 1: Top 30 Cap Charges
In Moneyball, the main crux of the entire philosophy lies with the fact that each team only has 27 outs each and winning and losing depends on what you do with those 27 outs. This is why the Moneyball philosophy doesn’t like taking risks like stealing bases or trying to move runners over with sacrifice bunts because they determined that the risks of a stolen base are not worth the reward and giving up one of your 27 outs to move a runner over with a bunt is not worth the reward. In my opinion, Moneyball’s biggest impact on the game of baseball was the increase in the value placed on on-base percentage rather than batting average because it’s more important to get on base than worry about how the player got on base.
If you’re here on Over The Cap, then you probably have an understanding of Moneyball, so I won’t bore you, but the strategies allowed the Oakland Athletics to compete with teams like the Yankees who would spent as much as $80-100 million more than the Athletics on their payroll. Of course, in the NFL, no team can spend that much more than another due to the salary cap, but that just means that finding value where others don’t is just more important because every single team has to do it, rather than just a few small market teams.
Some examples of how we could mirror Moneyball are below. I’ve thought of these while writing Caponomics:
- They argue that a college baseball player’s chance of MLB success is much higher than a high school player. So in the NFL, we should think about which positions are the easiest to project in the draft and which we can find low-cost, but valuable free agents.
- What stats are we currently overvaluing like the MLB overvalued batting average for so long and what could we replace them with? What’s our on-base percentage equivalent?
- We know that tackles are a near useless statistic because of how they’re recorded and because of the difference in schemes that result in certain players having more opportunities for tackles than others. How should teams evaluate defensive players? And for that matter, how should we evaluate offensive players considering that they’re reliant on the players around them and their coaching staff to put them in position to succeed and get noticed?
- Considering that every team has the same salary cap in the NFL, does that make it all the more important to create your own value system for your organization? Do you have to create your own unique system for finding players who are undervalued by the market?
- Which positions are over and undervalued?
- What kind of plays result in the most turnovers? What play’s risk outweighs the reward?
- Over the years watching football with my dad, we’ve both discussed our disdain for the short out in certain situations because of the risks associated with the short pass being a interception return for a touchdown and the reward being a five yard gain.
- How important is it to create a unique “x-factor” in your organization that increases the value that you get out of players?
- For the Belichick reign in New England, he had offensive line coaching legend Dante Scarnecchia and now Dave DeGuglielmo and they have had some of the least expensive offensive lines in the NFL. The average for the starting offensive line for a Super Bowl champion is 11.17%, but the Patriots average for their four champions of the cap era is 6.53%, which is an astounding 58.5% of the Super Bowl average.
- Like I wrote the other day, the Eagles believe in their sports science program and have a stength, conditioning and injury recovery guru in Shaun Huls. You can check out a great MMQB article on him and his work with retired Navy SEAL Robbie Stock here.
And the biggest question in my opinion:
- The fact that each MLB team has 27 outs to score more runs than the other team, what’s the equivalent in football that we should start our philosophy from?
Those are just a handful of the questions and ideas we should be considering when we think about NFL Caponomics. There are many more, but for the sake of this article, let’s focus on those as well as the main, critical last question.
Analyzing the last two Super Bowl champions, the Patriots and the Seahawks, has taught me a lot about this Caponomics philosophy I’m trying to create. At the 2105 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in February, Patriots VP of Player Personnel, Nick Caserio, took part in a panel and gave us a little peek behind the curtain when he spoke of their midseason trade for Akeem Ayers. Caserio spoke of Ayers’ on-field production and the numbers we can look at like tackles, assists, sacks, quarterback hurries, quarterback pressures. Then he said “you have to look at the player within the scheme and how he is actually used.” He goes on to talk about how he played off the line of scrimmage at UCLA and during his first three years in Tennessee, but that a scheme change with the new coaching staff didn’t work out for him, which made him an expendable piece for the Titans.
As the old cliché goes, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” and in no sport is that more true than football. Baseball is a team sport with a very individualized component because, while you are reliant on your teammates to play defense if you’re a pitcher or get on base if you’re a hitter, you’re alone up there on the mound or at the plate. In football, a trade could send you from a place where there literally is no use for you because you don’t fit into the new staff’s plans, to a place where you become an All-Pro.
To use an example that’s much easier for us all to picture and understand, Wes Welker isn’t Wes Welker if he’s not in the Patriots offense. If you tried to put Wes Welker in Torrey Smith’s role on the Baltimore Ravens, you’re not going to be successful. We should look at trying to make a two-point stance linebacker into a hand in the ground defensive end the same way. When I was in college and saw some of my teammates get shifted from one position to another, especially the transition that one kid made from fifth-string freshman quarterback to sophomore defensive end in the rotation to starting offensive guard, you realize that unlike any other sport, a position change in football is like changing the entire sport you’re playing, it’s an entire different set of skills and responsibilities.
Another great example is Russell Wilson. He’s become a superstar and a Super Bowl champion because he’s in an offense that’s built to his strengths, which allows him to thrive. If you put him in an offense that’s asking him to throw 40-50 times a game without Marshawn Lynch in the backfield and he won’t have the same success that he’s had in Seattle.
Caserio continued by saying they merge their draft process and pro personnel evaluation process when they look at a fourth year guy like Ayers. The Patriots scouting staff looks at how they evaluated him coming out and his measurables, then analyze his actual production and see if it’s a match that makes sense for the team.
Caserio states, “You’re taking previous information that you’ve accumulated with information that is happening in the league, and ultimately making the decision. In the end, it was just kind of a mismatch probably between scheme and what he was asked to do.” He goes on to mention that you’re never quite sure how things are going to go with a player until you see how he fits into your system on the field, but he showed the kind of versatility that allowed them “to use him in a multitude of roles and he was able to benefit the team as a result.”
He also shared that bit about Chandler Jones in the 2012 draft process saying that his “height and weight met the team’s standards, as did his arm length, while his 10-yard split was a bit lower than desired.” Caserio noted that his “ability to play with leverage, bend and collapse the pocket was much tougher to quantify from a data perspective,” but obviously, they saw enough out of him as a player to draft him.
This goes back something I wrote about in an article titled, “An Agent Perspective on Trent Richardson Signing with the Raiders and Some Raiders Thoughts,” regarding Nick Saban and Alabama’s recruiting process:
What makes Saban such a fantastic coach is that he recruits players who fit his system. One example that I read in The System: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football, is that Saban follows what he called “the blueprint” for success. According to the book, Andy Staples in Sports Illustrated, stated that the “blueprint targeted high school athletes who fit certain character/attitude/intelligence criteria and position-specific height/weight/speed guidelines tailored to Alabama’s offensive and defensive schemes. Cornerbacks, for example, should ideally be between six feet and six feet two inches and about 190 pounds and run a sub-4.5 forty-yard dash; linemen should stand no less than six feet two because as ( Kirby) Smart (defensive coordinator) drily noted, ‘big people beat up little people.’”
They state that they might not be interested in guys who might be five-star players as seen by recruiting websites, if they don’t fit their parameters at Alabama. Smart states, “Sure there are exceptions to the rule, but we don’t want a team full of exceptions.”
It’s no surprise to me that Belichick and Saban are at the front of the industry in the way that they analyze potential players. Saban was Belichick’s defensive coordinator from 1991 to 1994 with the Cleveland Browns, so I’m sure they have had many conversations on these theories over the years. These two coaches know what they need for their team to succeed because they’ve turned the game of football into a science. They’ve taken a hypothesis, tested it, made changes when they needed to be made, hammered it down until it worked and just done it over and over again on every theory or football idea they have.
Similarly to the systems in place in New England and Alabama, in Seattle, Pete Carroll has a connection to Nike’s SPARQ rating, which is “a formula developed with the help of Seahawks strength and conditioning coach Chris Carlisle” according to Chris Wesseling of NFL.com. The SPARQ score is calculated using a player’s weight, 40-yard dash time, 20-yard shuttle, vertical jump and kneeling powerball toss.
For years, I’ve heard to Joe DeFranco of DeFranco’s Gym talk about some of the issues with the NFL Combine tests and he agrees that they can be improved, especially on positional basis. Seahawks GM, John Schneider agrees as he thinks the 10-yard split is a better metric for offensive lineman and the broad jump is better in general.
According to Field Gulls, the Seahawks’ 2013 draft class had the NFL’s highest collective SPARQ score and the 2014 class was near the top, if not the top. Some late-round SPARQ stars according to Wesseling are Malcolm Smith, Luke Willson, Jermaine Kears and Jeremy Lane. And the Seahawks and Patriots aren’t the only team looking into different measurements and systems to analyze players.
What this all means is that teams are beginning to find ways to make their scouting process unique to their organization.
I got off on a bit of a tangent there, but I think that covers a lot of what I was alluding to in the first few questions. Let’s get back to that 27 outs question.
During college, our coaches would talk about a few things we needed to do every week to win games. One was to win two of the three phases: offense, defense and special teams. Another thing we always went over after each game were big plays (plays over 20 yards), turnover ratio, third down conversions, red zone scoring, and winning on first downs (four or more yards on offense and less than four on defense). While I’ve begun to look in all of these for Caponomics, analyzing the 2012 Ravens and their playoff run brought the importance of turnovers and turnover ratio to my attention.
During those playoffs, Joe Flacco had a historic 11 touchdowns to zero interceptions, which only Joe Montana has done before in his 1989 Super Bowl run. Overall, they had a turnover ratio of +6 as they had four turnovers to 10 for their four opponents. The Ravens defense forced six interceptions, one from both Andrew Luck and Colin Kaepernick and two each for Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.
Interestingly, on a per game basis, the Ravens four playoff opponents ran for 7 more yards per game and 24 more passing yards per game. There’s obviously more to a game than offensive yards, but the Patriots had 72 more yards than them, while the 49ers had 101 more yards.
A few weeks ago, I had compiled the regular season stats for the 21 Super Bowl champs of the cap era, so I knew there was something worth looking into, but I also wanted to look at the playoff touchdown-to-interception ratio for the 21 starting quarterbacks of those teams.
Figure 1: Regular Season Turnover Ratio (Click on the figures to enlarge them.)
Figure 2: Playoff Stats for Super Bowl QBs
So in 71 total games, these 21 quarterbacks have only 35 interceptions to 120 touchdowns. If you divide 71 games by 16, you get 4.4375; so when we divide touchdowns and interceptions by 4.4375, we’ll get the regular season average.
The Super Bowl QBs would have averaged 27.0 touchdowns against 7.9 interceptions over a 16 game season. If you take out Peyton Manning’s 2006 playoff run, which is a real outlier with seven interceptions in four games, the numbers end up at 27.9 touchdowns against 6.7 interceptions.
To put those numbers in perspective, the least interceptions that Peyton Manning has thrown in a season is nine, Joe Flacco’s least is 10, and Drew Brees threw seven in 15 games in 2004. Three of the best quarterbacks in the NFL have two single digit interception seasons between them.
Aaron Rodgers has quite a few single digit pick seasons. In 2009, Rodgers had 30 touchdowns against seven interceptions. In his MVP 2011 season, he had 45 touchdowns with six picks, 39 and eight in 2012 and in his MVP year in 2014, he had 38 touchdowns with a mere five interceptions. Outside of Rodgers’ first season as the starter when he had 13 interceptions, he’s averaged 32 touchdowns and only 8 interceptions per season.
Tom Brady had an astounding 36 touchdowns and only four interceptions in 2010. Brady had nine in 2014 and eight in 2007 and 2012. Excluding the 2008 season he played part of one game in before tearing his ACL, Brady has averaged 30 touchdowns and 11 interceptions over the course of his 13 full seasons.
So, the playoff average for these Super Bowl quarterbacks is around what Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers are at their best, just without as many touchdowns. I think that’s a real insight into the kind of quarterback play that wins Super Bowls. Those touchdown-to-interception numbers would indicate a fantastic season for any quarterback, but they’re even more impressive when you consider that they’re against the best defenses in the NFL in the playoffs. To be a Super Bowl championship QB, you don’t have to be as good as Brady or Rodgers, you just have to protect the football as well as they do.
Drew Brees only averaged 244 passing yards per game during his 2009 Super Bowl run, which is the worst average of his six-playoff appearances and speaks to the importance of protecting the football over huge yardage totals in the playoffs.
While the Saints had the sixth best rushing offense in the NFL that year with 2106 yards and they went off for 171 yards against the Cardinals in the Divisional Round, they averaged only 59.5 rush yards per game against the Vikings and Colts. Their x-factor was their +7 turnover ratio in the playoffs, Brees threw zero interceptions and their defense created turnovers. During the regular season, the Saints defense was second in the NFL with 39 takeaways and they were third with a +11 turnover ratio.
The Saints were a below average defense, they were 20th in the league in points allowed that season and they were outgained by 218 yards against the Vikings and 100 yards by the Colts, but the turnovers forced saved them. They forced five turnovers against the Vikings, then beat them in overtime and Tracy Porter put the Super Bowl away with a 74-yard interception, while the Colts were driving to tie the game late in the fourth quarter.
Looking at the turnover ratio for all 21 Super Bowl champs really boosted my confidence in this theory.
Figure 3: Playoff Turnover Ratio for Super Bowl Champs
These figures are undeniable. The 1999 Rams were the only team with a negative turnover ration, but the only game where they had more turnovers than their opponent was an 11-6 win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers where they had 309 total yards to the Bucs’ 203.
As parity increases in the NFL, which I argue it has exponentially during the cap era over the years and it will continue to increase, it becomes more and more important to win the turnover battle in the playoffs because the margin for error shrinks.
Aaron Gordon from SportsOnEarth.com wrote an article on December 10, 2013 breaking down what an average 2013 NFL game looked like, up to that point, in terms of things like score of the winner and loser, the amount of plays, how many kickoffs, and, thankfully, the average amount of possessions in a game:
There will be a total of 24.7 possessions, or about 12 per team and 3.2 of them (13 percent) will end in turnovers. There will be 2.3 fumbles, but only 1.2 of those fumbles (50.7 percent) will be lost (because fumbles are recovered randomly, as these numbers demonstrate). Two interceptions will be thrown. There will be 3.1 passing touchdowns and 1.6 rushing touchdowns. You can expect a defensive touchdown every other game. There will be 10.3 punts — 2.5 of them will be fair caught — and of the 4.1 field-goal attempts, 3.6 (87 percent) will be made.
Taking that estimate of 12 possessions per team, per game, if a team plays three playoff games, that means 36 possessions for both sides and four playoff games means 48. This amplifies the importance of your possessions on your playoff run. A positive turnover ratio in the playoffs is exponentially more impactful than the same positive turnover ratio during the regular season.
Back to the 2012 Ravens, for the sake of this example, if they and their four-playoff opponents both start with 48 possessions, then +6 means six possessions that are wiped out for the other team, meaning six possessions where the opponent has a 0% chance at scoring. It also means that the Ravens have six more possessions, while we can subtract six from the other team because, while it was a possession, nothing can happen from it. Now, the Ravens have 54 offensive opportunities, while their opponent has 42. That’s a huge difference.
My philosophy on this is when you get into the playoffs, you’re going against the best in the NFL, and so the margin for error becomes even smaller. When I was playing at Rhode Island in the Colonial Athletic Association, which is the best FCS (D1AA) conference, you understand how small the difference between winning and losing becomes. All the teams in that conference are recruiting the same high school players, they’ve got the same amount of time to train in the offseason, the same amount of time to practice per NCAA rules, the same everything. So when it comes to game day, about five to six plays determine the outcome of the game, even in a 14 or 21 point game, it’s still only a few plays that mean the difference between a win and a loss.
This is only amplified in the NFL because it’s the 0.0001% of players. There are only 1696 players on the 53-man rosters of the 32 teams in the NFL and the competition is obviously fierce. The margin for error in any NFL game is small, it’s even smaller in the playoffs, it’s about who makes the least mistakes, who gives themselves the best chance to win.
The last piece thing I read that got me thinking about all of this was this piece by John Clayton about the 2013 Seahawks Super Bowl win. I knew about Pete Carroll’s competition Tuesdays when he was at USC that have now turned into Wednesdays because of the change from playing on Saturdays to Sundays, but I didn’t know about the rest of the themed practices.
In the article Clayton wrote, he writes the following:
“Carroll translates a plus-two differential into giving a team an 83.6 percent chance of winning. If you go plus-three, forget about it. During the regular season, NFL teams were 21-1 if they had a plus-three or better margin. The Seahawks were plus-four and won the Super Bowl.”
That plus-four doesn’t take into account the safety that started the game for the Broncos where center Manny Ramirez snapped the ball over Manning’s head and recovered by Knowshon Moreno in the end zone. A safety is the worst kind of turnover, two-points for the other team and they get the ball.
Clayton’s article also says that Carroll meets with his quarterbacks on Mondays and stresses the importance of protecting the football in big games. Carroll says, “turnover ratio is the path to victory in the NFL.”
The best teams in the NFL win the turnover battle, that was clear to me from the regular season stats for these Super Bowl champs and looking at the 2014 list as the Packers, Patriots, Texans, Seahawks and Cardinals make up the top 5 and the top 10 had a combined record of 103-53 (.660 winning percentage). The bottom 10 in turnover ratio had a record of 69-87 (.442).
What really makes champions in January and February might just be the team that wins the turnover battle above all else. Of course, there’s more to it than that, but I think this will be a key point of analysis for us moving forward. In terms of the cap, we should look for ways to create turnovers and protect the ball by investing in quarterbacks, left tackles, pass rushers, and cornerbacks above all else.
If we want to create our own Moneyball-esque ’27 outs’ barometer for the NFL, I think 12 possessions is a good place to start. Turning the ball over means that you’re giving up one of your 12, if your defense gets a takeaway, then you’ve got yourself an extra one.
Please leave your thoughts and comments below.
Tweet me: @ZackMooreNFL
If you want to purchase The First Annual Caponomics: Understanding NFL Roster Building through Super Bowl Champion Salary Cap Analysis, which has analysis like this in it, please e-mail me at Caponomics@gmail.com, so that I can put you on our e-mail list for people interested in purchasing the book.
If you join our e-mail list, I will send you a chapter on the 2014 Lions and then the 2014 Patriots once they are completed. I will probably throw in a bonus chapter on the 2012 Ravens or 2013 Seahawks as those are coming along nicely.
I’m currently in the process of getting some legal stuff handled for the book and then I can put the pre-order up on Amazon, otherwise, it would already be up there. Thanks for your support and feel free to send me any questions or ideas to that e-mail address.
Here is our updated look at the type of NFL free agents and explaining some of the ways to look at free agency.
Unrestricted Free Agents– These are players who have at least four years of accrued service in the NFL, whose contracts expire or void following the 2014 season. An accrued year is defined as a season in which a player was on a NFL roster for at least 6 weeks, which includes injured reserve. These players are only eligible to sign a contract with their current team between now and 4PM on March 10, 2015. On March 7 unrestricted free agents can begin to negotiate with other teams, but they may not sign new deals until the 10th. UFA’s do count towards the compensatory pick equations that are used to compensate teams who lose more valuable or total UFA’s than they sign.
Every UFA is eligible for the franchise or transition tag, unless it is explictily stated otherwise in his contract. Teams have between February 16 and March 2, 2015 to apply the tag to a player. A team may only use the tag on one player each season. The application of the tag means the team extends a one year, fully guaranteed contract to player worth a running average of the top 5 or 10 salaries at his position as a percentage of the salary cap over the prior five seasons. Because the salary is so high it is usually only reserved for top free agents.
Once the tag is applied the team receives the right of first refusal on any contract offer a player signs with another team. In addition, if the franchise tag is used the team will receive two first round draft picks as “trade” compensation if the player signs with another team. Because of that provision the franchise tag essentially bars unrestrictred free agents from free agency and locks them into negotiating only with their current team.
There are usually tiers/waves to unrestricted free agency. The Tier 1 players are the big name players who break the bank within the first few days of free agency. These players are the biggest name talent such as Ndamukong Suh and Dez Bryant. Such players receive large guarantees that likely run into the third year of a contract and genuinely excite the fanbase as a signal of change. These names appeal to even the most casual of football plans.
The Tier 2 free agent won’t command as much money but often proves to be more of a value. Some teams will only target this tier of player from day 1 while others may wait the Tier 1’s out and then jump to the second tier which is a backup plan of sorts. Often these Tier 2s are the ones that people like me may say “that’s a pretty good value compared to…” and more diehard fans see strong benefits in the player. Both the free agent and the team sometimes will wait to see if the free agent trends shown by the tier ones changes the salary dynamic, though there is a risk to that strategy.
Tier 3 free agents are those who may have something to prove. These are players that may wait out the free agency process or need to wait until others are signed to try and locate ideal situations. They might be a veteran coming off an injury or two, such as Brian Orakpo, or a young player who fell out of favor with a new coaching staff or had something else impact his play. Such players can be very cheap and sign for bargain basement prices with an eye on the future. In many cases they want to find the best situation (long term opportunity, stable staff/front office, etc…) that can provide them with a true audition rather than taking a few extra dollars with a less desireable situation.
Tier 4 free agents are those who may have difficulty finding a home in the spring and may be working through the early summer or training camp months to find a position. They likely need to wait out the draft and then find teams that did not fill holes with drafted players. These are the players that will be competing with the low draft picks and undrafted players for those last few spots on a roster in camp.
Restricted Free Agents– These are players that have at least three years of accrued service in the NFL. Due to changes in the draft process, which now mandates four year contracts, these players are almost exclusively Undrafted Free Agents. In this case the team with which they finished the 2014 season holds the right through March 10 at 4PM to extend a tender offer to the player. A tender allows the former team to exhibit a level of control over the player in free agency, similar to the franchise tag. At a minimum every tender allows them to match the offer sheet made by another team. RFAs are allowed to negotiate with other teams, even if a tender is applied, starting at 4PM on March 10. Tenders count on the salary cap as soon as applied, provided they factor into the Top 51, which most do.
The team can place one of three tenders on the player. The highest tender is the 1st round compensation tender, meaning if another team signs the player and the original team decides to not match it the new team will have to give the team a 1st round draft pick in 2014. If the team does not own their first round pick (such as the Bills) they are unable to sign the restricted free agent. The other tenders are a 2nd round tender, original draft round, and finally right of first refusal tender. The ROFR means you get no compensation if you decide to not match the offer sheet. Teams have five days to match the new offer sheet. During that time period the player will count on both teams’ salary cap.
The tender offer is a non-guaranteed one year contract amount based on the compensation level. In 2014 the tenders were $3.113 million for the 1st round tender, $2.187 million for the 2nd round tender, and $1.431 million for the original round and ROFR tenders. Those numbers will rise by a minimum of 5% and a maximum of 10% this season, with the number being based on the official salary cap limit. The RFA free agency period is shorter than that of the regular unrestricted free agent, ending this year on April 24. Once the April 24 deadline passes the player can only negotiate with the team that tendered them.
Often once the RFA free agency period is complete teams will use the leverage to reduce the costs of these contracts, specifically for the low tendered players, since they know the players’ options are limited. What they will do is offer the player a minimum salary and a guaranteed bonus somewhere between $100,000 and $300,000. The total compensation is lower but at least there is some job security.
Just because a player is extended a tender does not mean he can’t find a new home. Teams will sometimes work out trades for these players at lower compensation levels. For example the Saints tendered RB Chris Ivory in 2013 at the 2nd round level with the hopes of trading him as he was going to be unaffordable on their salary cap once the roster expanded to 53 players. Before the draft he was traded to the Jets where he signed a three year contract.
If a player is not tendered or the tender is rescinded before a player is signed he immediately becomes an unrestricted free agent that is free to sign with any team in the NFL. These players should not factor in the compensatory draft equations. It is rare that RFAs switch teams but it does occasionally happen- last season Andrew Hawkins signed an offer sheet with the Browns which the Bengals failed to match.
Exclusive Rights Free Agents– Players with less than two accrued seasons are the exclusive property of their former team provided the team makes a one year tender offer for the minimum salary. So for a player that was in his first year in 2014 on a $420,000 contract, the team will place a $510,000 tender on the player and own his rights, assuming he earned a credited season (if no credited season was earned the player woud receive a $435,000 tender). Unlike RFA’s the ERFA is not allowed to negotiate a contract with another team once the tender is applied. Essentially they are locked in for another season with their original team. If no tender is made or the tender is rescinded then the player becomes and unrestricted free agent. If that occurs they do not factor into the compensatory equation. Tenders count on the salary cap as soon as applied, provided they count in the Top 51, which they usually do not.
Street/Other Free Agents– These are players who had contracts that extended into at least 2014 with a NFL team but were released from the contract. Players who were released or not on an active roster prior to the playoffs were free to sign futures contracts for the 2015 League Year in January. Now that the Super Bowl is complete, teams can begin to release players under contract for 2015. Unlike unrestricted free agents who are not allowed to sign until March 10, these players are free to sign with any team in the NFL once released from their contract.
Usually players released from their contract during this period are those who don’t factor at all into the future plans of a team and the team sees fit to let them have an early chance at free agency, which is what occured last season with D’Qwell Jackson of the Browns. These players do not factor into any compensatory equations and would be the type of free agent that draft conscious teams like the Ravens and Packers would target once available.
We maintain a very accurate database of free agents at OTC that is often used (and copied) by other sites. I dont think you will find a better resource than the one here though. We list every UFA, RFA, and ERFA that we know of (some mistakes in status are bound to happen so please let me know if you see an error) and once loaded you can use the menu above the table to quickly change the view without having to reload pages or anything like that. So you have the option to select all unrestricted free agents in the NFL and then drill that down into position or by team by simply slicking a menu button. Or just to look at every position there is.
We are the only site that I know of that breaks the offensive line down into all 5 positions and defensive tackles down into what defense they play. we’ll also be updting for some other positions in the future. Players are listed in order of their prior contract annual value, but you can click on a table header to change that. I firmly believe that this is the best free agent resource you can find.
If you want to learn more about the draft process and compensatory picks check out Nick’s draft page he developed that includes his process for identifying all the compensatory selections in the draft. This compensatory forecast is unique to OTC so when you see it showing up elsewhere just know it came from here. We have estimates for each teams salary cap pool there as well.
Jason is the founder of OTC and has been studying NFL contracts and the salary cap for over 15 years. Jason has co-authored two books about the NFL, Crunching Numbers and the Drafting Stage, which are widely circulated in the industry and hosts the OTC Podcast. Jason’s work has been featured in various publications including the Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, NFL Network and more. OTC is widely considered the leading authority on contract matters in the NFL.
Apparently the NFL is slowly turning into MLB with all the trade activity of the past few weeks. Trades, with the exception of draft day trading, have always been pretty rare in the NFL. In season trades for starters were almost unheard of due to the difficulties in sometimes fitting new players into a system, but the times are changing.
It began with the big trade of Trent Richardson from the Cleveland Browns to the Indianapolis Colts which was followed up by back to back moves that brought starting Left Tackles to the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens. There are plenty of more rumored trades on the horizon and with weeks to go until the trading deadline maybe some more materialize. So why the seeming increase in trade activity? Let’s look at some of the reasons.
The 2011 CBA plays two major roles in facilitating trades. The first is the rookie wage scale which applies to Richardson and should play more of a role in future years. I touched on this when looking at the Richardson trade, but essentially the new CBA has eliminated the use of the option bonus and not likely to be earned incentives and escalators from all rookie contracts. While the trade of Richardson was certainly expensive in cap dollars for Cleveland it was a few million less than it would have been in the old CBA. For the acquiring team they only take on reasonable base salaries rather than highly escalated salaries of the old style rookie contracts, giving them reason to take a chance on what seems to be an underperforming player. I’d expect to see more trades of high draft picks like this in the future.
Perhaps the biggest reason lies in the changing of the spending requirements of the CBA. Under the old CBA team spending was tied to salary cap dollars. Teams were required to spend around 90% of the unadjusted salary cap number. That, in turn, led to less carryover for each NFL team and the utilization of a good chunk of cap space by the time the season began. Trading away a piece that saves you a few million dollars likely meant that you would need to find a way to re-spend those cap dollars to be compliant with the salary cap limits by the end of the season, making you think twice about such a move.
The way that the salary cap is structured for most teams now makes it easier to make these moves. There are no salary cap minimums and the cash minimums are maintained over 4 year periods. You no longer have to sink money into players you do not want in a given year. Now teams can just perform a salary dump while they prepare to rebuild. Huge carryovers give teams added cap space to absorb large accelerated charges with minimal problems and may give teams more room to absorb new players. While the latter was not the case with the Steelers and Ravens, in the future my guess is teams with cap space to spare will be making these trades, and some of those teams would not have existed before 2011.
I tend to think the trades also show the more progressive movements and general youth in the front offices. I certainly think there was a time when the NFL front office looked at everyone not in the NFL as a complete outsider to the NFL system. What they did or suggested would never work because they have never been on a sideline or in a huddle. Much of the league has moved away from that. Many GM’s in the NFL come from financial management backgrounds much moreso than football backgrounds. They have a much different approach to managing contracts and the risk management associated with cap structure than before.
In my years of primarily following the Jets salary cap I used to note how the team was using guaranteed salary in lieu of large signing bonuses to get players under contract. They were not the only team doing this by any means, but it was a very different approach than the traditional “give a star a monster bonus” approach that was used for many years. Teams like Tampa Bay have taken it a step further and eliminated signing bonuses entirely. While these contracts can be a problem if the players fail to perform they are all very open ended for trade possibilities. The dead money of the trade in these scenarios is limited giving teams every opportunity to move a player. While it has not happened yet, I would imagine it is something that may happen more in the future. It’s an example of the league moving forward.
We see more openness in the NFL now than ever before. The opinions of those in the media or sitting in the seats maybe has some merit to it. Teams are embracing statistical analysis and “outside the NFL” evaluations and thoughts. That would have been unheard of 15 years ago. Teams are starting in analytical departments, giving credence to various people who don’t work in the NFL but immerse themselves in a facet of the NFL such as statistics. That type of change also means more outside the box thinking that sees the regularity of trades in the NBA and MLB and begins to think “why not” the NFL. I mean if you can sign a player off the street in September and get him up to speed why not simply execute a trade? It’s just a matter of making the financials work and teams are getting more advanced with that every year.
Now for all I know this will be the end of the trades for this season in the NFL, but I think we are beginning to see the start of a new direction in the NFL, one that is open to trades and constructing contracts to facilitate them.