The Two Distinct Roster Construction Strategies in the NFL

With seven teams making changes to their quarterback position over the last two months, now would be a great time to discuss the two main team building strategies that teams typically employ in the NFL today, plus a third middle of the pack spending strategy that more teams are employing in 2018 than they have the last few years, which could make teams with less productive, but still competent veteran quarterbacks more competitive, although this strategy isn’t very widespread. This conversation is an extension of the conversation in chapter five of Caponomics: Building Super Bowl Champions where I discuss the quarterback market and how about half of the NFL spends over 10% of the cap on their quarterback each year, which decreases the potential strategic avenues to success for many teams with average quarterbacks being paid first tier money.

The two main strategies for success in the NFL today are to either spend over 10% of the cap on your veteran quarterback or have a rookie contract quarterback leading your team. Illustrated in the graphic below, you’ll see that 16 teams employ a strategy with a quarterback over 10% of the cap, 10 have a quarterback under 5% of the cap either as a veteran or on his rookie contract, and six teams have a potential starter between five and ten percent of the cap.

What we’re concerned with in this article and with most of the stuff I try to analyze from the team perspective is what teams have the highest probability of Super Bowl success by analzying the spending strategy they employ and those strategies start at the quarterback position. In today’s NFL the two main strategies of over 10% veteran quarterback versus rookie contract quarterbacks has created two distinct strategies. The over the 10% strategy typically leads to a roster centered around the quarterback and his performance, which can typically lead to some holes on the defensive side of the ball unless the front office can string together some great drafts and find low-cost free agents who can contribute.

Kirk Cousins’ signing to Minnesota looks like a great fit because they already built out the NFL’s best defense in 2017; they’ve added Sheldon Richardson in 2018 as well to fill a key need, and they’re just plopping Cousins in that very well rounded and talented roster. They have some savings on defense and rookie contract contributors, plus Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs producing at a level much higher than two players their combined cost of 3.90% of the cap would normally create with Dalvin Cook looking like a top running back at just 0.81% of the cap. They also have Latavius Murray, another starting quality running back, at 2.93% of the cap. The top two paid wide receivers and top paid running back cost for the past 23 Super Bowl champions of the cap era is 11.03% of the cap on average, so they’re getting elite production for 6.83% of the cap, which is 62% of that average Super Bowl cost. If you’re looking at that and the offense as a unit, that’s like having another 4.20% of the cap to play with. It’s those kinds of savings that allow a team to put out the money for Cousins and expect to still field a complete roster.

Some of those savings went to Kyle Rudolph as their top paid offensive skill player at 4.33% of the cap. He’s a tight end who could produce 600 to 700 yards if given the opportunity in their deep offensive skill group. He peaked with 83 catches for 840 yards and 7 touchdowns in 2016, but that was on 132 targets, which isn’t something he’s likely to see now that the offense appears much deeper, especially with today’s addition of wide receiver Kendall Wright who was one of the NFL’s top slot receivers with a Pro Football Focus tracked 80.4% catch rate with 1.36 yards per route tun out of the slot. Most importantly Rudolph provides them another elite mismatch that defenses have to deal with and a redzone target that helps improve the probability of touchdowns when the team gets down there. This is similar to the tight end based spending strategy I advocate for in Caponomics as the Patriots have created an offense in this same manner, with Rob Gronkowski, a much more productive tight end, as their key piece they’ve built around with low-cost receivers. The Vikings made the same move and Thielen and Diggs have exceeded expectations. The whole offensive skill group of the quarterback, top paid running back, top paid three receivers, and tight end cost 25.42% of the cap, which is actually far below what the teams with the two most expensive Super Bowl champion quarterbacks paid for their top offensive skill players as the 1994 49ers’ group cost 31.81%, while the 2015 Broncos’ group cost 29.16%. It’s those savings elsewhere that make the Cousins’ deal so sensible, but not every team that’s spending a lot of money on their quarterback has this kind of roster or these kinds of savings.

The rookie contract strategy is one we saw the Eagles and Jaguars use to success in 2017 as they had low-cost quarterbacks, which then allowed them to invest heavily on the defensive side of the ball, specifically their defensive lines. Investing heavily in the defensive line creates a scenario for teams where they can decrease the performance of their opponent’s quarterback to a level where their rookie contract quarterback can lead their offense to a better performance and secure victory.

The six teams with veteran quarterbacks between five and ten percent of the cap are the Bengals, Browns, Jaguars, Broncos, Cardinals, and Jets. This is a slightly higher total than in past years with it being just the Bengals, Bills, and Raiders, in the first year of the Derek Carr extension, being three teams executing this strategy in 2017. The Bears had Mike Glennon at 8.38% of the cap, but that quickly became a rookie quarterback situation and Glennon was simply a poor investment, so they would count as a fourth. The Bills obviously had their playoff success, but were ready to move on from Taylor as he became an over 10% of the cap player for them in 2018, which is just not what he’s worth as someone who produced just 187 passing yards per game in 2017. Taylor is now a Brown at 9.03% of the cap, but they have a cap of $241 million with cap carryover and he’s a great one-year bridge quarterback to help whoever they draft at #1 grow as a player and Taylor will help the team compete immediately. Out of these teams, the Jaguars, Broncos, and Cardinals stand a reasonable chance of being serious playoff contenders with the Jaguars being a serious Super Bowl contender after giving Bortles an extension that brought him down from over 10% to 5.64%. This allowed them to make some of the moves necessary to keep a solid roster around him as extra $9 million they gained from extending Bortles helped them secure both Marqise Lee and sign Donte Moncrief in what was a questionable decision. The Browns could even contend for a playoff spot with cap carryover bringing them up to a $241 million cap with 9 more draft picks to use in 2018 along with some big improvements already this offseason. The Jets have Josh McCown at 5.64% of the cap, plus Teddy Bridgewater at 3.39% of the cap, giving them two veteran quarterbacks who could potentially lead the team as Bridgewater has injury concerns. Both are on one-year deals.

The Broncos and Cardinals had down 2017 seasons in years where they came in with high expectations, but their signings of Case Keenum and Sam Bradford respectively put them in a position to compete. If the Broncos can improve their offensive line, Keenum might be playing with a similar strategic formula to what got him to the NFC Championship in Minnesota, while Bradford will have a good defense and a healthy David Johnson at running back. Having serious contenders in this window of quarterback spending is a trend I hope continues because the current quarterback market is in a place where average players are being paid first tier money, while great players at other positions don’t see those same kind of earnings.

With the over 10% of the cap crowd we get into a discussion regarding what a first tier quarterback is. In Caponomics, I define the first tier as between 10 and 13% of the cap, but with the understanding that many teams will breach that 13% of the cap ceiling as that’s just the way the quarterback market works. Like I also point out in the book though, only one Super Bowl quarterback was over 13% in Steve Young at 13.08% on a 1994 49ers team that had a little more cap space to work with as they re-signed 17 veterans in December 1993 to skirt the new salary cap rules coming into affect. The second highest cap hit for a quarterback was Peyton Manning at 12.21% in 2015 for the Broncos with his brother Eli being number three at 11.75%. Going down the list the only other quarterbacks to win at over 10% of the cap were on teams that had Hall of Fame level quarterbacks as the list expands to include Tom Brady, Brett Favre, and Drew Bledsoe in 2001 when Brady took over.

When deciding on whether a quarterback is a first tier player, he should be someone who has a stat line that reflects something similar to these metrics: 65% completion percentage, 7.5 yards per attempt, 260+ yards per game with the ability to go for 350 to 400 yards in a game if necessary like facing a great rush defense that stops your rushing offense, 30 touchdowns, and 10 to 12 or less interceptions. In my opinion, from Caponomics, “first tier quarterbacks should only be quarterbacks that a team would pick very few others, if any, over–they should be exactly what the team is looking for with what they’re trying to do on offense and who can elevate the play of the offense around them.” These players have to be elite because, by spending first tier money on them, they need to be elite for your team to compete unless the front office has gone on a streak of finding value to make up for the value suck an average quarterback at 12% of the cap can be.

I quote Jason in Caponomics with his assessment of the quarterback market after Matt Stafford’s record setting contract. Jason writes, “the salary cap is supposed to promote some type of competitive balance in the league. Generally, if you spend highly on one position it should mean that you have an area of weakness at another. The most expensive position has always been the quarterback, so if someone has a great quarterback they should have to break the bank for that player. It should create a system in which the team with the so-so quarterback has extra cap dollars (and dollars in their actual cash budget) to spend on other players to try to counteract the great quarterback” they’re competing against. There are quite a few teams who have been dragged either into the first tier with non-first tier quarterbacks or teams with first-tier quarterbacks who have to pay them 15% of the cap, when better quarterbacks are making less. This creates a situation where they don’t have the same opportunity to make up for that player being a lesser player through creating advantages elsewhere.

As Michael Holley writes in Belichick & Brady, Belichick realized when he came to the Patriots that “the skill wasn’t just in acquiring good players anymore. It was an athlete/asset puzzle now.” This is why the Patriots have sustained this dynasty forever past the fact that Brady’s an elite quarterback. Throughout Belichick’s tenure they’ve let players go before they got too expensive and replaced them with less expensive, but still productive players who gave them much more value from a salary cap perspective. A player who produces seven sacks and 55 pressures against the quarterback for 2% of the cap is more valuable than the perceived elite edge defender who produces 11 sacks and 65 pressures for 9% of the cap. This concept is precisely why they were comfortable trading away Chandler Jones before earning their fifth Super Bowl in 2016. It’s my hope, and I believe it’s the hope of Jason, that the league starts to trend towards having some of these less productive players at a lower-cost, so the league can see more of a competitive balance with more than just these two main spending strategies for success with the expensive quarterback and the rookie contract quarterback model. This would also clear space for some of that money to go to other veteran players, which is a good thing considering that 17% of total salaries in the NFL in 2016 went to just 50 players and about 50% of the money goes to just 150 players, which is about 12% of the total league population, according to Jason Fitzgerald here at Over The Cap. With 17 quarterbacks on contracts currently over $20 million a year, much of that money is going to quarterbacks.

The second tier of the quarterback market is defined in Caponomics as being between six and ten percent of the cap and it’s the kind of quarterback who is a clear step below that first tier, like a Blake Bortles, which got me excited to see his extension slip him down right under this tier to expand the Jaguars window of success. This category of player is loosely defined by this kind of stat line: 61 or 62% completion percentage, 7.0 to 7.2 yards per attempt, 235+ yards per game, and a slightly worse touchdown to interception ratio than first tier quarterbacks. Bortles’ 2017 exemplifies this with a line of 60.2% completion percentage, 7.0 yards per attempt, and 230.4 yards per game with a 21 to 13 ratio.

Even Dan Snyder seems to be noticing the need to lower costs at the quarterback position as Alex Smith was signed to a contract that will keep him under 11% of the cap over the next three seasons, which isn’t second tier costs, but maybe my perceived second tier should be expanded to there considering the high costs so many are willing to pay over 13% of the cap. By going with Smith over Cousins, even with the trading of one of the top young cornerbacks in the NFL in Kendall Fuller with a third round pick, the Redskins may have given themselves some cap value and room to build out the roster. Looking at these next three years, the Redskins will save $5.6, $8.6, and $9.6 million in cap space versus if they paid Cousins the same amount he got in Minnesota and the Redskins still have Josh Norman and Quinton Dunbar at cornerback, so the position still has talent. Those millions in savings are enough to sign quite a few good players who could be key pieces that build out a better roster with Smith at the helm than what they would have had with Cousins.

In the coming years there are quite a few players who teams could, or should, find in the five to ten or eleven percent of the cap area. Smith is the top of this expanded market right now, which is what he’s seemed to always be, the top second level quarterback, which may have been a part of what led to him being in the same class as Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady for most wins since 2011. Maybe Smith’s slightly lower costs than the top of the quarterback market helped his teams field one or two more good players. Behind him, all five of the players currently in the five to ten percent of the cap group mentioned above should be there into the future, but it’s not that simple. Bortles, Keenum, and Bradford are on contracts that will bump past 10% at least in 2019, but they really haven’t proven to be first tier players at any point in their careers and teams would be best served extending them if they do well and hoping to keep them at a lower cost.

For example, if Bortles doesn’t prove himself to be better than he was in 2017 in these next couple seasons, then maybe both sides would be best served on a long-term deal that keeps him in the eight to eleven percent of the cap range for the foreseeable future because that version of Blake Bortles is only effective with an elite run game and defense, both of which Jacksonville has. Bortles is currently projected to consume 10.97% and 11.19% of the cap in the 2019 and 2020 seasons. He has a cap hit of $21 million in 2019 with just $5 million in dead money if he’s traded after June 1st in 2018 and $5 million in dead money if he’s traded or cut in 2020. This year and next year will be where the team makes their decision on what direction they want to go at quarterback dependent on his performance. If Bortles is the same player, then with so much young talent on the defense, I think they would look to continue to keep Bortles in a reasonable spending range or find another quarterback, rather than pay him first tier money.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see the team take Lamar Jackson if he’s there at the end of the first round because they might want to keep their options open and this would allow them to do that. It also makes Bortles expendable, which could help them get value back in a trade if they decide to go with Jackson to maintain this run-first, defensive model. Mobility at quarterback is a key factor in this run-first model because it adds another dimension to the offense if the quarterback isn’t producing at a high level passing. Remember, it was Bortles mobility that played a key role in helping them earn two playoff wins in January 2018 with 88 rushing yards to 87 passing yards against Buffalo, then some key rushes on the way to 35 rushing yards in the three-point win against the Steelers. In those two games he completed just 53.1% of passes for 301 total passing yards, so it’s not like a mobile rookie contract quarterback can’t produce at that level.

Teddy Bridgewater with the Jets and A.J. McCarron with the Bills are two players who are on contracts below 5% of the cap, but could be nice long-term pieces if they prove to be on that Bortles level this year and in the right situation for this five to ten percent range. They can both make their teams competitive if they play good defense. The Bills saw an opportunity to extend their window of using this run-first, defensive strategy with McCarron being just 1.69% of the cap in 2017, then a projected 2.7% in 2018.  He’ll help the team compete and provide a bridge to whoever they may draft in the first round this season.

Of the other current veterans, Eli Manning would be well served to take a page from the Brady and Patriots book on how to decrease cap hits, while maintaining reasonable earnings as he’s no longer a first tier elite player or at least he hasn’t been able to show us that behind a porous offensive line. He wasn’t very good in 2017 with Odell Beckham for only four games and he wasn’t very good throwing to anyone but Beckham in 2016 with a 105.3 passer rating when targeting him, but just a 78.9 passer rating when throwing to other receivers. If the Giants do keep Eli past 2018, it would have to be at a reduced rate and it could even be a favorable situation for both sides as he’s not in a position to be a 12 or 13% of the cap quarterback anymore, and having him closer to something like 8% of the cap might just extend his career and improve the team around him enough for him to compete again. Say Eli had a cap hit of $15 million in 2019 rather than his projected $23.2 million, that’s $8.2 million they have to improve the offense around him to elevate his play to a level he can’t create without a lot of help at this point in his career. Taking a lower cost in a player’s late-30s may actually extend the player and team’s window of opportunity to compete and continue to be paid. Getting paid $15 million to play quarterback at 42 is better than not getting paid $15 million if you still have the desire to play.

Cam Newton is on a first tier contract through 2020 with his last year being under 11% of the projected cap, but if he wants to extend his career past that he’s a very likely candidate to need to decrease to this tier to compete. He’s a big, mobile quarterback who isn’t very accurate and turns the ball over a little too much. He’ll be 32 years old in 2021 and, considering much of his value comes from running, I think his career is going to have a decline more similar to a running back than a quarterback’s career path. If he’s going to be on in the NFL past 2020, he’s not going to be worth 12% of the cap unless he drastically improves his accuracy and production in the passing game, but the team could be in a more competitive position and he could extend his career if he’s in the second tier. He will need to slightly improve his passing to deal with the rushing decline that will be coming eventually, but he’ll have the experience and intelligence necessary after a decade in the NFL to make the adjustments to his game. The Panthers are already built on a rushing based offensive strategy with a good defense, so Ron Rivera could continue to employ this strategy with him at a rate closer to 8% and the team could compete.

Joe Flacco could be perfect example of a second tier quarterback if he didn’t have the leverage after his Super Bowl win to catapult himself towards 14% and 15% of the cap each year on one of the NFL’s worst contracts from a value standpoint. In fact, his winning the Super Bowl was probably the single most impactful factor in today’s quarterback market. Through his first five seasons, he had a completion percentage of 60.5% with 7.1 yards per attempt and 220.4 yards per game. His seasonal touchdown-to-interception ratio was 20-to-11. That’s basically Blake Bortles 2017 season, so maybe he would have been signed to something closer to second tier value, maybe even below the 11% threshold for a few years and he could have been an Alex Smith type of value for the team. Instead, Flacco saw the richest deal in NFL history at the time and, considering who he is as a player, it essentially justifies the ever-increasing top of the market we see because every quarterback that comes into negotiations is justified in saying, “well look at what Flacco makes. I expect more than that.”

The Ravens could begin to plot their move on from him in 2019, then release or trade him in 2020. This will be his 35-year-old season, so if I were the team that traded for him, I’d try to extend him for a few years in this second tier area and make a run with him. All this said about Flacco’s contract, we all must still acknowledge the masterful job by the Ravens front office to continue to field a really good roster around him. We can’t fault them for paying him what they paid him: he was the franchise quarterback, he just earned the team their second Super Bowl, he was the first real franchise quarterback the organization had ever had with their first Super Bowl coming completely because of their defense, and he had a four-game playoff run with a 57.9% completion percentage, 1140 passing yards (285 yards per game), and 9.1 yards per attempt with 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions. There was nothing they could do but sign the guy and they’ve done a great job building their defense around that contract, they’ve provided a real example of how to draft and spend around that quarterback to extend a competitive window even with such a value suck.

Teams can still be successful spending over 10% of the cap on a quarterback, that’s clear, but as stated earlier, it has to be a high performing player with a well-constructed team around him. No matter how good a quarterback is, he still needs a great roster around him. That was a bit of the issue with Peyton Manning throughout his career as he cost an average of 13.35% of the cap from 2001 through 2015. By comparison, Brady only had one year that breached 13% of the cap, which was 2006, the year Manning cost 10.36% of the cap and edged past the Patriots in the AFC Championship by a 38-34 score. Throughout his career, Manning was on teams slanted towards playing offense, while Brady was on more complete rosters. From 1998 through 2015, Manning’s defenses were on averaged ranked 15th in the NFL in points allowed at 21.6, while Brady’s defenses from 2001 through 2016 averaged 18.6 points allowed per game, which ranked about eighth. When you spend more on the quarterback, he must be an elite player, but many teams aren’t paying that kind of money to truly elite players.

I can’t blame teams for paying their franchise quarterbacks. The NFL is a win now league with the potential for being fired a year after you’re hired if things aren’t working out, which is a difficult position to be in for any general manager or head coach who just secured his dream job. There are a handful of quarterbacks over 10% of the cap in 2018 who might not be that kind of elite quarterback though like Joe Flacco, Derek Carr, Eli Manning, Cam Newton, and the unproven Jimmy Garoppolo. Again, not blaming teams for spending this way, whether you have an elite quarterback or not, leads to a situation where there has become a real opportunity for teams that hit on their rookie contract quarterbacks to compete for Super Bowls with more complete rosters than these high spending opponents. As noted in Caponomics, my sister and her classmates at McCombs Business School at the University of Texas did a regression analysis of every quarterback from 2011 through 2015 and found that 8.67% of the cap is a tipping point for quarterbacks where their cap hit can begin to affect their team’s chances of winning.

On the way to a Super Bowl, teams face multiple elite teams, all with their own strategies for success. Some of those teams have great offenses, some have great defenses, and some are great at everything like the 2016 Patriots and 2017 Eagles. If you don’t have a complete team that’s good in every phase of the game, you could run into an opponent that can drag you into the kind of game you can’t excel in or they might just be better than you across the roster. This is why the rookie contract quarterback strategy has become popular after seeing what the 2013 Seahawks and now the 2017 Eagles were able to create around good rookie contract quarterbacks with an elite rushing attack, great offensive line play, and defense with a pressure producing defensive line.

As I’ve said many times, if the game does come down to the quarterback position, then using money saved on a quarterback to invest in the defensive line, whose pressure can drastically decrease the performance of the opponent’s quarterback’s efficiency is a really strong strategy. Sam Monson from Pro Football Focus found that simply applying pressure to quarterbacks in 2016 dropped passer ratings from 96.7 to just 62.5 as a league-wide average. We remember how much pressure Peyton Manning was under in that Super Bowl victory for the Seahawks. In the NFC Championship Game against the Vikings, as I detailed here, the Eagles had two game changing plays because of pressure. Patrick Robinson had an interception returned for a touchdown because of Chris Long putting pressure on Case Keenum and hitting his arm to cause a floater to fall right into Robinson’s arms, which made the game 7-7. This was the Vikings second drive of the game after a nine play, 75-yard drive that made it 7-0 and looked easy– it was a real game changing play. The next game changing pressure was Derek Barnett’s sack-fumble with 3:25 left in the first half when it was 14-7 and the Vikings were on the Eagles 16-yard line driving to score. The Eagles recovered the fumble, went down field, made it 21-7, then hit a field goal before the half as well to make it 24-7. The Eagles got the ball at half, scored again to make it 31-7 and the Vikings were suddenly down 24 points, rather than seven, and had run just six plays since the fumble. This put them in a desperate position. They had to go for it on 4th and goal from the Eagles 7-yard line on the next drive, where they turned it over on downs, and the Eagles went down to make it 38-7 and the game was effectively over. Yes, Nick Foles played very, very well, but without those two turnovers created by pressure, it would have been a completely different game.

One of the big things about having a rookie contract quarterbacks is that if you can get near first tier performance levels, even second tier performance levels out of these quarterbacks on contracts that cost a maximum of four and a half percent of the salary cap, you’ve got an opportunity to get a similar performance to what others pay as much as 15% of the cap . This can lead to a scenario where the team is getting that production with as much as 10% of the cap more to spend on other positions. And to this point, there are quite a few 2018 contenders with rookie contract quarterbacks because of this and great talent around him. Six teams that jump off the page at you are the Eagles, Cowboys, Rams, Texans, Chiefs, and Titans with each of them making moves this offseason partially made possible because of the lower-costs they have at QB.

Just looking at these teams in terms of what they’re creating, the Eagles have maintained the roster that earned them a Super Bowl last year and may have even improved in some places. The Cowboys are basically still the same roster that went 13-3 in 2016 and would’ve made the playoffs in 2017 if Ezekiel Elliott wasn’t suspended for six games. The Rams were one of the best teams in football in 2017 at 11-5 and they’ve added Aqib Talib, Marcus Peters, Nickell Robey-Coleman, and Ndamukong Suh. They’ve gone from a pretty weak secondary to what may be the NFL’s best, while adding one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL to a team that may have the best in Aaron Donald. That’s the kind of improvement that teams can make with this low-cost under center, which is why they’ve become an early favorite to win the Super Bowl.

As an aside, Scott Barrett and I have had this conversation in recent weeks, a team’s play caller may be the second most important position on the field considering the jump we saw from Jared Goff from 2016 to 2017 with the addition of Sean McVay. Think of how good Matt Ryan was in 2016 compared to a slight decline in 2017 after Kyle Shanahan left for San Francisco. The importance cannot be understated.

Houston already had a great defense before injuries derailed them in 2017. The defense got them a playoff win after 2016 with Tom Savage at quarterback, so with Deshaun Watson under center in 2018, they’re in position to compete. They already had J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus, and D.J. Reader creating pressure in the front seven, while they’ve added Tyrann Mathieu and Aaron Colvin to a defensive backfield that needed improvements, as it was one of their weaknesses in 2017. They signed three offensive linemen in Zach Fulton, Senio Kelemente, and Seantrel Henderson in an attempt to improve , while also adding an elite special teams player in Jonathan Bademosi to improve in the important and oft-forgotten third phase of the game.

The Chiefs are hoping to get the same production out of Patrick Mahomes they came to expect out of Alex Smith, but for 9.5% of the cap less, which allows them to make improvements like signing Sammy Watkins to a $16 million a year contract that will consume most of those savings. Tennessee keeps investing in their defense, at running back, and along the offensive line to build up a winnable formula with the mobile Marcus Mariota, setting up a situation where he’s not expected to throw for 270 yards a game for them to win because he might not be that player yet. They re-signed right guard Josh Kline, then added cornerback Malcolm Butler, and running back Dion Lewis. They re-signed 3-4 defensive end DaQuon Jones for a reasonable $7 million a year after the career year he was having was cut short by injury.

Of course, there are quite a few teams with top paid quarterbacks who are among the top contenders like the Patriots, Steelers, Chargers, Packers, Vikings, Falcons, Panthers, Saints, Seahawks, and maybe even the upstart 49ers, but these two distinct strategies have created a real opportunity for teams with rookie contract quarterbacks as they can get similar production levels for as much as 10% of the cap less than others. Teams have an easier road to turning their organization around with the right pick at quarterback under this CBA than the previous one as rookie contract quarterbacks were getting out of control, so this is a big win for all sides in the previous CBA. The dynamic of these two strategies will continue to play out until more teams can create a viable alternative in between the two, but for now, these are the main ways in which to perceive how most teams are built. Are they investing heavily at quarterback and basing their strategy for success around the quarterback and do they have the potential savings and low-cost, but productive players elsewhere to make up for his high costs and develop a complete roster? Or do they have a quarterback on his rookie contract and have they made the moves around him to build up the offense and defense in a way that helps elevate his play and the entire team’s performance?

The fact of the matter is that no matter what the team has at quarterback, Super Bowl champions have to be competent in every phase of the game, so the game comes down to who solves the athlete/asset puzzle the best. It’s up to each organization to identify their strategy, then make the moves to maximize their potential with this strategy by identifying the valuable players they can find to surround their quarterback whether through the draft or through free agency. The kind of spending you have at quarterback also influences this, meaning that if you have an expensive quarterback, you might then want to find the lower cost value on the defensive line like the Patriots do every year signing pressure producing defensive ends at a low-cost like Chris Long and now Adrian Clayborn. If you have a rookie contract quarterback like the 2017 Eagles , then you might want to invest almost 28% of the cap in your defensive line with a 2017 first round pick going to defensive end Derek Barnett as well.

The decision made at quarterback affects the decisions made around the rest of the roster in a variety of ways from the money available to the rest of the players to the kinds of players you’re going to want to invest in to achieve your strategy for success based on what you have at quarterback, so choose wisely and create a situation that has the highest probability of success for the on-field strategy that you’re employing. Understanding the spending at quarterback creates the framework for understanding how teams spend along the rest of the roster, so this provides at least a starting point for analyzing how each team is constructed.

Zack Moore is a writer for OverTheCap.com and author of the recently released book titled, “Caponomics: Building Super Bowl Champions,” which is now available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter @ZackMooreNFL. 

The NFC Championship and the Sam Bradford Trade

Sunday night’s game between the Vikings and Eagles was still in question with 3:26 left in the second quarter and the Vikings dropping back to pass on a 3rd and five from the Eagles 16-yard line. They were down just 14-7 and at the time Eagles fans were sitting on the couch hoping for a stop just to force a field goal. The Vikings had just had a 61-yard, 11 play drive that was about to culminate in some points and, outside of their first drive that was a 9 play, 75-yard masterpiece that cut through the Eagles elite defense, it was the best they’d looked all night. Eagles fans had reason to feel nervous.

On that play, Vikings quarterback Case Keenum dropped back to pass, reared his arm back to throw, and was poised to throw to either Kyle Rudolph on a corner route for a touchdown to Stephon Diggs on an in-breaking route for a first down. Both receivers had a step on their defenders, so it may have been a touchdown or first down. Instead, Eagles first round pick Derek Barnett came around the edge, almost unblocked, to sack Keenum and force a fumble, which was recovered by Chris Long of the Eagles.

The Eagles didn’t go into their two-minute offense and in some ways seemed content with taking the ball into halftime up 14-7 with the promise of receiving the kickoff to start the third quarter. They started the drive with 3:16 on the clock and ran just two plays before the two minute warning with both plays going for two yards. After the two minute warning though, back-up quarterback Nick Foles led a drive that seemed to provide him with confidence for the rest of the game in a NFC Championship performance fit for a star.

On 3rd and six Foles hit running back Corey Clement on a swing to the left. Clement made a beautiful spin move at the line of scrimmage that forced Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr to miss on the tackle, then ran for eight yards and a first down, while getting out of bounds to stop the clock. The next play Foles hit Torrey Smith with a wide receiver screen for 11-yards and a first down.

Foles didn’t connect on his next two passes with both of them amounting to throwaways in the face of good coverage down field. On 3rd and 10 though, Alshon Jeffrey ran a 15-yard dig and go route that cornerback Terrence Newman bit on, which resulted in a 53-yard touchdown that brought the score to 21-7 in favor of the Eagles.

The Vikings earned one first down on their next drive, but unfortunately for them, rather than pin the Eagles deep, Ryan Quigley’s punt went into the end zone and the Eagles started at their own 20-yard line. With just 38 seconds on the clock, if the ball was inside the Eagles own ten-yard line, it’s likely they would have taken a knee and went into the halftime. Instead, on the first play, Foles hit running back Jay Ajayi behind the line of scrimmage in the flat and Ajayi ran for 11-yards and out of bounds after acquiring the first down. Foles then hit tight end Zach Ertz on another beautiful double move where he ran a 9-yard out near the sticks that burned safety Harrison Smith for a 33-yard out-and-up, while he also got out of bounds. Now on the Vikings 33-yard line, they were already within kicker Jake Elliott’s range, but another pass to Ajayi resulted in a 13-yard gain that made Elliott’s kick a more manageable 38-yarder. He made the kick and the score was 24-7 at the end of the half with the red-hot Eagles offense and a confident Nick Foles getting the ball to start the third quarter.

In my pregame write up I posted on Saturday, I mentioned that along with advantages on the offensive and defensive lines, I thought the Eagles had too many offensive weapons for the Vikings to stop all game. In the first drive of the third quarter, Torrey Smith became a focal point of the offense—a player who was fourth on the team in catches and yards on the season with 36 for 430, but is a talented enough player to have 1128 receiving yards for the Ravens in 2013 and earn a five-year, $40 million contract with the 49ers in 2015. In the Eagles’ offense though, he doesn’t need to be the top receiver; he’s instead in a role more suited for a player of his caliber. While Ertz provides an elite tight end, Jeffery draws the attention of the opponent’s top cornerback due to his abilities as a first-tier caliber receiver, while Agholor provides dynamic ability out of the slot.

On the first two plays of the drive, Foles hit Smith for four yards on a hitch, then six yards on an in route and a first down. Ajayi ran for three yards on first down, then Foles hit Jeffrey for 10-yards and a first down while getting laid out by Barr as he threw. Ajayi then ran for five yards on first down, running back LeGarrette Blount had a run for -1-yard, then Foles hit Smith on another wide receiver screen for a first down, running the same play they ran towards the end of the first half.

With the ball on the Vikings 41-yard line and the team steadily marching downfield, Doug Pederson made a tremendous and unexpected call. (The value of great coaching is immense, as the success of Foles might not work without Pederson’s great game planning these last two weeks.) Corey Clement took a handoff and immediately pitched it back to Foles for the flea-flicker. Torrey Smith acted like he was running his cornerback, Trae Waynes, off and then moving in to block him, but he did it in a lackadaisical manner that receivers sometimes will when the ball is being run to the opposite side of the field. When Waynes’ eyes went into the backfield to see where the ball was under the assumption that it was a running play, Smith took off and used his most valuable resource, his speed as a deep threat to beat Waynes and safety Harrison Smith over the top for a 41-yard touchdown. The Eagles fourth best receiving option over the course of the season had 58-yards on the 75-yard touchdown drive, and the score made it 31-7 and put the game seemingly out of reach for the Vikings with 10:05 left in the third quarter.

Not many teams have a player of Smith’s caliber in that kind of role, which is something the Patriots have traditionally done well and a strategy more teams should be trying to implement through their salary cap construction. Rather than spend heavily on a quarterback and top receiver, maybe spend on your quarterback, but find depth in the pass catchers through building the offense around a lower cost tight end with multiple pass catchers at mid-tier costs.

Between the score that made it 31-7 and Barnett’s sack when the game was 14-7, the Vikings ran just six plays for 22-yards. The Eagles had three scoring drives to the Vikings one drive. It’s that kind of performance at the end of a half, while getting the ball to start the second half that has helped the Patriots win so consistently and it was a great sign for Eagles fans that their offense was able to capitalize on the mistake and blow the game wide open. The Patriots are adept at hitting a field goal at the end of a half, then taking the ball to start the second half and going down for seven points, scoring 10 points before the opponent’s offense has a chance to respond.

On the next drive the Vikings got the ball down to the Eagles seven yard line, but rather than have the ability to settle for a field goal in a closer game, the Vikings had to try to score a touchdown with about six and a half minutes left in the game because of the 24 point lead for the home team. Rather than kick a field goal and play football with over 20 minutes left, say if the game was 21-7 or 24-7 at the time.

Instead, the Vikings failed, the game was still 31-7 and the Eagles had the ball back. On the ensuing drive, the Eagles were moving the ball, then Foles hit Agholor for a 42-yard gain after he got behind Waynes on a scramble drill where he broke his route deep from its intended 10-yard out. Ajayi lost two yards on the next play, back-up tight end Trey Burton had a 12-yard catch for a first down, then Clement had a 14-yard rush that had 15-yard added to the end of it due to an illegal hands to the face penalty by Vikings defensive end Stephen Weatherly. Two plays later, with the ball on the Vikings five-yard line, Foles hit Jeffery for a touchdown over the middle of the field to make it 38-7.

The entire game was changed with Barnett’s sack fumble—and Barnett was drafted with a first-round pick that the Eagles received from the Vikings, along with a fourth rounder they used on running back Donnel Pumphrey, in exchange for Sam Bradford. This brings us back to a topic I’ve discussed many times on Over The Cap and will come back to many times in the future: the value of the quarterback.

We just watched an NFC Championship Game where both quarterbacks started the season as back-ups; Blake Bortles was in the AFC Championship Game as well, almost beating the greatest of all-time in Tom Brady. While Foles went 26 for 33 (78.8%) for 352 yards (10.7 yds/att) and three touchdowns and Bortles had a good game going 23 for 36 (63.9%) for 293 yards (8.1 yds/att) and one touchdown, Keenum was kept under pressure all game by an Eagles defensive line that goes seven deep. Bortles played poorly down the stretch though as the Jaguars offensive coordinator lost his nerve, became predictable, and went away from play action passing where Bortles had completed 91.7% of his play action passes on the day according to Pro Football Focus. Also according to PFF, Case Keenum was under pressure on 24 of his 50 drop backs. He ended the day completing 28 of 48 passes (58.3%) for 271 yards (5.6 yds/att) with one touchdown to two interceptions, while going 11 of 22 for 108 yards with an interception under pressure.

That interception under pressure was Patrick Robinson’s 50-yard interception returned for a touchdown that made the game 7-7. Chris Long hit Keenum’s arm while he threw, which caused his pass to not reach his target and instead fall into Robinson’s arms. The two biggest game-changing plays in this game, the interception that tied up the game early on as the Vikings seemed to be flowing on offense and a sack fumble when the Vikings had the opportunity to tie it up themselves, were caused by defensive pressure. While Foles had a great game, there are alternative strategies to success than the “you need a quarterback to succeed” school of thought that many people in the NFL and NFL media have adopted.

The key factor in this game was defensive pressure and it seems to be a key factor come playoff time. The Eagles got pressure on Keenum and the Jaguars vaunted defensive front didn’t get enough pressure on Brady as they only pressured him on nine of 42 drop backs, which is 21.4%. While Foles was kept clean for much of the day against a Vikings defensive line that wasn’t nearly as deep or explosive as the Eagles line, Keenum was under pressure all day with those pressures being deciding factors in the game. It kind of makes me question: what would this game have looked like if the Vikings didn’t trade for Bradford?

The Eagles started the 2016 offseason aiming for a three quarterback strategy, which I explain in Caponomics: Building Super Bowl Champions, as I had talked to members of their front office in November about the efficacy of a three quarterback strategy considering it was clear that Bradford was not the solution that would lead them to a Super Bowl. Rather than sign him long-term in an offense that thrives on mobility, the Eagles signed him to a flexible two-year contract that decreased dead money against the cap if he was traded. The deal gave Bradford the equivalent in guaranteed money that the franchise tag would have given him, while his potentially $23.5 million cap hit with the Eagles, which would have been over 14% of the cap signaled to me that they had no intention of keeping him beyond the 2016 season.

They signed Chase Daniel to a three year contract at $7 million per season, then they traded the Browns five draft picks in return for two and the right to move up to draft Carson Wentz, who has proven to be an ideal system fit for Pederson’s offense. This strategy was predicated on the understanding that quarterback is the most highly valued position in the NFL to the point where it’s overvalued—with the Eagles knowing they’d be able to trade Bradford to re-coup some of the picks they lost in the Wentz trade at some point with the hope being that he’d have a good season and, after the season, he would gain them something similar to the second-round pick and conditional pick the 49ers received for Alex Smith from the Chiefs in 2013.

Instead, Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater went down just before the 2016 season with a devastating knee injury and the Vikings, thinking they had a Super Bowl caliber team, traded the Eagles that first round pick and what ended up being a fourth round pick as well. They received even more than the 49ers were able to get for a more proven Smith as desperation at quarterback causes teams to overpay in a way they’d never behave for another position. The Eagles in turn got to draft a promising defensive end who helped turn the tide in this NFC Championship match-up with the Vikings and a 2018 fourth round pick, which they traded to Miami for running back Jay Ajayi who was one of the Eagles most valuable players in this game with 99 offensive yards on 21 touches. With Wentz being down, Ajayi has turned out to be a most vital move as the depth and talent in the backfield are something Foles can lean on.

With Wentz on a low-cost rookie deal, the Eagles have been able to eat the dead money that Bradford and the now departed Daniel have produced with the three players combining for 11.12% of the cap in 2017. And rather than hang on to Daniel, once Foles became available with the Chiefs declining his second year option, the Eagles signed him to a two-year deal that had a cap hit of just 0.96% in 2017. A very smart and, as we now see, important move for the Eagles to sign a player who knew Pederson’s offensive system that he was drafted to run by the Andy Reid regime when he and Pederson were in Philadelphia. In the trade to the Browns, they lost a first, third, and fourth-round pick in 2016, a 2017 first-round pick, and a 2018 second-round pick. They got back the 2016 first-round pick with the #2 pick that they used on Wentz and a 2017 fourth-round pick. Then in the Bradford trade they got back the 2017 first and fourth, which makes the Browns trade feel like they almost just lost the 2018 second-round pick, while the rest of the picks have been recovered with the only consequences being the loss of the pick and the dead money attributed to Bradford and now Daniel.

It’s an unfortunate situation for the Vikings because I can’t fault them for making the trade as, considering their 2017 season, they clearly had a roster that could compete for a championship, but they also made it happen with “journeyman” Case Keenum under center and Bradford on the sideline, injured again with his bad knees.

With Bradford at 10.78% of the cap on the Vikings bench after ceding the job to Keenum, that team could have been much improved around Keenum or another quarterback without that trade and without the expense of Bradford or the two picks they lost because of it. It’s unfortunate for the Vikings that Bridgewater got hurt because the roster had already been constructed in this run-first, defensive model that just needs an efficient quarterback already and Bridgewater was doing a good job in that role with a career 64.7% completion percentage and just nine interceptions in 2015. Bridgewater is accurate, he’s mobile, and he protects the football, which are three keys to victory with this kind of young, rookie contract quarterback, similar to what the Eagles have when Wentz is healthy. Pairing that young mobile quarterback with an effective rushing offense, as the Vikings, Eagles, and Jaguars did in 2017, is the key to success for a team built in this model. A good running game makes play action makes him more effective, which improves the odds of success for the quarterback with any distance created between his pass catchers and the players defending him increases his margin for error.

Instead of having Bridgewater at 1.31% of the cap with Keenum at 1.14%, the Vikings also had Bradford at almost 11% without those two picks. Together they cost 13.23% of the cap, rather than the under three percent of the cap that Bridgewater and Keenum with a rookie contract quarterback as the third stringer would cost. Just playing the scenario out, the Vikings may have been able to sign another offensive and defensive lineman with that money; maybe they sign another receiver as well so they have more options. Maybe they had the cap space to sign center J.C. Tretter to a contract, rather than starting 2017 third round pick Pat Elflein at center. Maybe the first round pick they gave up for Bradford is another offensive or defensive lineman and maybe the fourth rounder is a contributor on special teams. Maybe the Vikings might have had a better rushing offense if Dalvin Cook was healthy and this NFC Championship Game would have looked different as well? The Vikings had a formidable roster, but the Eagles clearly had a better one that was deeper at numerous key positions.

While it could have worked out, I’m typically against these kinds of short-term moves to win now, rather than the longer-term viewpoint. I understand the position the Vikings were put in, but philosophically, they could have traded the Chiefs for much less to get Nick Foles last year. Interestingly, Vikings GM Rick Spielman also liked Foles according to Ian Rapoport and it’s likely he could have gotten him for less and re-signed him for less, giving the team more cap room to spend on pieces around the quarterback. If Pat Shurmur could get this kind of season out of Keenum, he probably could’ve done the same with Foles. Both offensive play callers in this game illustrate the value of great coordinators and the importance teams must place in hiring elite creative problem solvers to their coaching staffs.

Bradford had a good season in 2016 with a 71.6% completion percentage and 258.5 passing yards per game with 20 touchdowns to five interceptions, but even with Bradford under center the Vikings only went 8-8. With all three quarterbacks on their roster free agents in 2018 and considering the roster construction and on-field strategy they already have in place that is built on running the football with Dalvin Cook coming back and defense, I would likely go for whoever the cheapest quarterback is between Bradford, Bridgewater, and Keenum. If Bradford’s knee is an ongoing concern, then I would cross him off that list. Same with Bridgewater. If they can sign Keenum to a three-year contract worth about $15 million per year, like Jason Fitzgerald has predicted here at Over The Cap, then that could be a good deal with him never breaching 9% of the cap. If Bridgewater is healthy and they can sign him to a two-year deal worth the $6 to $7 million that Jason predicted in that same article, that would be an even better deal as the Vikings would really be primed to continue building on this strategy for success.

The Eagles lost 7.48% of the cap in 2017 to Bradford and Daniel with Bradford also carrying $11 million (7.08% of the cap) in dead money in 2016, which was manageable because of Wentz being on the rookie contract. Outside of the dead money cap hits, they lost out on one more draft pick than they gained through the Wentz and Bradford trades. The ability for the Eagles to maintain depth on their roster and overcome dead money cap hits comes from the strong caponomics they used this season with no player making over Lane Johnson’s 5.89% of the cap heading into the season. Alshon Jeffery ended the season at 6.50% of the cap after signing an extension. Philadelphia’s balance has been maintained through a strong spread of spending that sees 26 cap hits over one percent of the cap, plus the ability to still draft Wentz and Barnett as difference makers at two very important positions. They had 18 cap hits over two percent of the cap with much of their roster depth coming in this area.

Nick Foles had a superstar caliber game, but the game turned on two great plays by Eagles’ pass rushers and the Vikings offense was off balance all night because of that pass rush as well. When a team has a rookie contract quarterback or doesn’t have an elite quarterback available to them, they must build their roster in this fashion. With first Wentz and now Foles performing at this high level under Pederson’s tutelage and a pass rush that produced pressure almost 50% of the time against the Vikings (after a season of producing pressure on 40% of all passing games) the Eagles pose a real threat to dethrone the Patriots as they’ve created a formula that can get pressure with just four pass rushers with seven defensive backs behind them, which has beaten Tom Brady before. The Jaguars almost beat the Patriots in Foxboro using this strategy that Tom Coughlin used to beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl twice, so if the Eagles can produce at the same level they did against the Vikings, the city of Philadelphia may see it’s first Super Bowl champion.

Zack Moore is a writer for OverTheCap.com, an NFLPA certified agent, and author of the recently released book titled, “Caponomics: Building Super Bowl Champions,” which is now available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter @ZackMooreNFL. 

Breaking Down The NFL’s Final Four

The common line of thinking in the NFL is that you need a great quarterback to succeed, which has driven the league to the point where half the NFL every year pays over 10% of the cap to about half of the league’s quarterbacks. Every quality of quarterback is in this group, yet only one quarterback still in the playoffs is over 10% of the cap– and that’s Sam Bradford at 10.78% for the Vikings who went down with an injury and now isn’t even starting over the “journeyman” Case Keenum, who is paid 1.14% of the cap. Tom Brady has set an example with his cap hit between eight and nine percent of the cap this year and in 2016, which allowed the Patriots to field the best defense in 2016 and the best scoring defense in the NFL this year from week five on.

The other three teams in the NFL Playoffs Final Four have constructed a run-first, defensive model that’s taken awhile to catch on as teams are now copying the model the 2013 Seahawks used to successfully beat Peyton Manning’s top ranked offense that year. The league is a copycat league, but these trends take a few years to take hold as teams need time to re-construct themselves in the image of the roster they’re copying. While the Vikings are spending over 10% of the cap on Bradford, they had already begun the process of building this run-first, defensive model with Teddy Bridgewater at quarterback before the injury; but because of the low-costs they had on offense, they were able to splurge a little on Bradford. As Andrew Beaton of The Wall Street Journal realized in an article on the Vikings, their 40.1% of the cap spent on offense is less than all but two Super Bowl champions, the 2004 Patriots and the 2012 Ravens, two teams that also had some larger investments on the defensive side of the ball. When a team does have a first tier quarterback (over 10% of the cap) and high spending on defense, the team then has to find some serious values somewhere on the offense to compete for a championship with this model because there isn’t enough money to go around if you’re paying conventional rates for wide receivers and the offensive line.

It has worked out for the Vikings because they have just $9.3 million invested in quarterback Case Keenum, running back Latavius Murray, and wide receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. Thielen performed at the level of a first tier wide receiver in 2017 with 91 catches for 1276 receiving and four touchdowns, which is a performance that can typically cost between six and nine percent of the cap, but which the Vikings got for just 2.24% of the cap. Stefon Diggs performed at a level that could cost something like 4% of the cap with his 64 catches for 849 yards and 8 touchdowns, but he cost just 0.50% of the cap as he’s a fifth round draft pick on his rookie contract. Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon created 945 and 991 offensive scrimmage yards, while consuming 2.27% of the cap, which is something that could cost four or six percent of the cap for an elite, complete running back.

Keenum is still being talked about in journeyman terms, but his 67.6% completion percentage with 22 touchdowns to just 7 interceptions, 3547 total passing yards for 236.5 yards per game and 7.4 yards per attempt was first-tier production. Most importantly, he was efficient: the Vikings had the ninth highest net yards per attempt passing, the second least interceptions in the NFL and the 11th most passing yards in the NFL. While he was very inexpensive, he still performed at a level similar to what someone at Bradford’s costs could produce, which reminded me of what Tom Brady did for the 2001 Patriots taking over for Drew Bledsoe who consumed 10.29% of that year’s cap. In fact, Keenum’s offense is more productive and more efficient than the Brady-led offense was that year. The Vikings also spent just 11.60% of the cap on their offensive line, which is very low for the whole group, but according to Football Outsiders they were the 19th best run blocking line in the league and the sixth best pass blocking line. They were able to piece together an offense that was 10th in the NFL in points scored and 11th in yards produced with many inexpensive and unheralded players, which is a big part of why Pat Shurmur will be the New York Giants’ next head coach.

This idea that you need a quarterback to great succeed isn’t unfounded; quarterback is the most important position at every level, but when a team over-invests in the position as some teams do, then the rest of the roster typically begins to have holes that are exposed come playoff time when your team plays a complete team like one that’s in the top 10 in offense in defense, top 10 passing and rushing, and so on. It’s rare that a team finds so much value as the Vikings have, which is why it’s critical to spend intelligently at this position. Even if a team hits on a quarterback at a 10%+ rate, it can typically create roster issues elsewhere and it typically also takes finding value at positions that supplement the quarterback, like wide receiver. Aaron Rodgers is unquestionably one of the best quarterbacks of all-time, but with a cap hit of 12.16% in 2017, plus Randall Cobb at 7.58% and Jordy Nelson at 6.92%, the team was highly likely to have a defense that ranked in the bottom third of the NFL regardless of Rodgers’ health. A large investment in a small handful of “great” players also decreases the number of “good” players a team can have on their roster.

While Bradford was costly over 10%, the Vikings had 27 players over 1% of the cap, which is a good metric for measuring how many “good” veteran players a team has on their roster. Looking at the Super Bowl champions from 1994 through 2009, before the new CBA locked in the low rookie contract rates we see today, the average champion had 27 players over one percent of the cap. The new CBA actually created the unintended consequence of an increase in top end pay typically going to quarterbacks, receivers, cornerbacks, defensive ends and offensive tackles, while most of the “good” veterans in the middle have been priced out of the league by less expensive rookie contract players.

From 2011 to 2016, the average Super Bowl champion has averaged just 24.2 players over one percent of the cap. The 1998 Broncos had 31 players over one percent, the 2003 Patriots had 30, and the 2009 Saints used cap rollover to carry 32 players on their roster over this number. The Vikings have an older school approach that was made possible by their roster construction strategy leading into the Bridgewater Era and it seems almost unaffected by the one big investment in Bradford. They’ve gotten top tier production out of cornerback Xavier Rhodes at 6.24% of the cap, which is the bottom of the first tier for that market, while defensive end Everson Griffen gave them 13.0 sacks at 5.15% of the cap, which is actually a second tier price. Bradford was a good player for them in 2016, he led the NFL with a 71.6% completion percentage and gave them 258.5 passing yards per game with 20 touchdowns to just five interceptions, so he produced at a high level, so it’s not like he’s a wasted cap figure—he just go hurt, and Keenum has played at a similarly efficient level. The cap hits of Bradford and Rhodes consumed 17.02% of the cap for two good players fits right into the 16-18% range we want to see teams cap their top two player costs to provide themselves the opportunity to build out the rest of their roster as Minnesota has done. Their top three with Everson Griffen costs 22.17%, which is in line with what the Patriots have in Tom Brady, left tackle Nate Solder, and safety Devin McCourty at 21.62% of the cap, a good rate for three top of the food chain players.

Looking at the Super Bowl Champions data from my just released book Caponomics: Building Super Bowl Champions, the top paid quarterbacks for the 22 capped champions have been all over the map, which caused me to seriously question the concept of most of the NFL deciding to pay quarterbacks franchise quarterback money over the last few seasons once they hit their second contract as long as they proved they were the team’s starting quarterback.

While much of the NFL was increasing pay in veteran quarterbacks to the point where the top 15 players at the position all make money in the same high cost range, it opened a huge opportunity for teams with low-cost quarterbacks, specifically players on rookie contracts—like Seattle, to use their quarterback’s low-cost years to build a team in the run-first, defensive model that’s worked. The two Steelers champions were built off the rookie contract of Ben Roethlisberger as well. The 2012 Ravens were able to take advantage of Flacco’s last year on his rookie deal. The 2003 and 2004 Patriots were able to take advantage of the low-costs of Brady’s early years. This is a model teams should be following to build up the roster during the low-cost rookie contracts that will allow him to lean on a good roster, then when the quarterback hits his prime and higher earning years, the team can be more reliant on that quarterback as they’ll have to be because of his higher costs.

This is the model being used by Jacksonville, Philadelphia, and the Vikings. Even though Carson Wentz was an MVP candidate averaging 253.5 passing yards per game with 33 touchdowns to 7 interceptions, the team had the NFL’s third best rushing offense, which created the balance that made Wentz a better player and keeps this team competitive with now under Nick Foles under center for the injured Wentz.

Jacksonville has built their model with Blake Bortles at just 3.94%, which allowed them to spend 27.00% of the cap on their defensive line, which is similar to the 28.18% the Seahawks spent on their defensive line in 2013. The Eagles spent 21.80% of the cap on their defensive line and the result was seven players with over 20 pressures produced in 2017 and they were the only team to generate pressure on more than 40% of passing plays. The four defensive lines that are left all have elite talent and depth; the Vikings might actually be the weakest in the depth department with just five defensive linemen with over 38% of snaps played, while the Eagles have seven playing over 40% of defensive snaps. With Shamar Stephens out for their game against the Eagles having played 38.59% of their defensive snaps this season, the Vikings depth might be tested and this lack of depth on the line may show with a weaker pass rush in the fourth quarter, so that’s a storyline to watch.

The 2013 Seahawks set a blueprint with a remarkable eight defensive linemen playing between 46 and 58% of snaps, which may be the start of a trend as coaches understand that the explosive and violent nature of the position makes it vital to have multiple good players who can perform at their highest capabilities, rather than a couple better players who can’t perform at their highest capabilities due to fatigue. The 2016 Patriots had six defensive linemen play between 44 and 65% of snaps. The 2017 Eagles have seven players between 40 and 65% of snaps. The 2017 Jaguars had Calais Campbell, Yannick Ngakoue, and Malik Jackson all playing between 73 and 78% of snaps, Abry Jones and Dante Fowler, Jr. played 46.96% and 44.83% respectively, while Marcell Dareus has played between 43.5% and 66.2% of snaps in his last seven regular season games for the team. It’s critical to create depth across the line to execute this low-cost, potentially lower-performing, quarterback strategy as the goal is to nullify the other team’s quarterback. If you’re playing a team with an elite quarterback, a general vision of your goal is to decrease or slow down his performance to the point where your quarterback can be more productive and/or more efficient. Your quarterback doesn’t necessarily need to out-produce the player in yardage, but the goal is for him to be more efficient with a rushing attack at his disposal that the elite quarterback might not have and a better defense than that quarterback. We saw this strategy succeed for the Seahawks against the Broncos while Manning threw for 280 yards to Wilson’s 206 yards, Wilson had a better completion percentage and 2.5 more yards per attempt than Manning. Wilson had 8.2 yards per passing attempt, while Manning had 5.7 per attempt. The Seahawks defense also gave up just 27 rushing yards, while their own offense created 135 on the ground. While Manning was only sacked once, the Seahawks constantly moved him off his first read, disrupted his processing, and forced two interceptions.

The Eagles executed this style of decreasing the quality of play of the other team’s elite quarterback against the Falcons with Matt Ryan completing 22 of 36 passes (61.1%) for 210 yards (5.8 yds/attempt) and one touchdown, while their back-up Nick Foles completed 23 of 30 (76.7%) for 246 yards (8.2 yds/att). The effect of great coaching like Doug Pederson’s game plan cannot be understated. As Danny Kelly wrote for The Ringer, Foles “leaned on dump-offs, check downs, and run-pass options,” which helped facilitate the win and put Foles in his comfort zone. Continuing, he wrote, Foles’ stats were padded by receivers and running backs picking up yards after the catch and he had an average depth of target of just 5.2 yards per Pro Football Focus, which was almost two full yards short of any other quarterback that weekend. They hope he is able to do a little more against Minnesota this weekend with much more accuracy on deep passes than he showed against Atlanta, while the defense maintains the same kind of pressure they put on Ryan. Minnesota is happy to have Case Keenum and his 55.7% completion percentage under pressure, which was second in the NFL in 2017 behind Jimmy Garoppolo and slightly better than Tom Brady at 55.5%.

In looking at past champions during the research process of writing Caponomics, I found something that should be common sense, but we’ve lost sight of with our acceptance in the notion that you need a great quarterback to succeed at all costs, which has driven the price of the market up to heights that make it hard to compete for many teams. As seen above, Steve Young has a record cap hit of 13.08% and only seven of the 22 salary capped champions have had a quarterback over 10% of the cap, yet half the league seems to do it every year. What the research has taught me is that Joe Flacco at 14.70%, Kirk Cousins at 14.34%, Matt Ryan at 14.22%, and Carson Palmer at 14.45%–and if you include any other large cap expenditures with those players–creates a situation where these teams can only compete for a championship if they get some kind extreme, unlikely value out of other parts of their roster.

The 2016 Falcons almost pulled off a Super Bowl win with Matt Ryan and Julio Jones combining for what would have been a record-setting 25.54% of the cap, with the previous record being Steve Young and Jerry Rice at 21.64%, because they had a defense almost entirely filled with rookie contract players. The probability of hitting on as many rookie contract defensive players as they did is very low and it was the lack of depth on defense that ended up doing them in with the Patriots running 99 plays during that game and wearing them out by the time the final whistle blew.

It was very helpful that Dan Quinn and the Falcons organization was able to look at the 2013 Seahawks as their defensive prototype as well because they had player prototypes in their head that allowed them to build out their defense with a lot of success. Along with Kyle Shanahan’s elite offensive mind, they’re an example of the extreme value produced by great coaches. Their young defense improved as the 2016 season went along, but they were still ranked 27th in points allowed, 25th in yards allowed, 28th in passing yards allowed, and 17th in rushing yards, which was exploited by a Patriots offense that was third in points scored, fourth in yards gained, fourth in passing yards, and seventh in rushing yards.

The four remaining teams this year have all been competent passing the football, but–outside of the Patriots at second in passing yards– the rest of this group is outside of the top 10. The Patriots were 10th in the NFL in rushing yards, while the Jaguars, Eagles and Vikings ranked first, third, and seventh with passing offenses that ranked 17th, 13th, and 11th in yards produced. The Vikings ranked first in both points and yards allowed, while their defense was second in yards allowed both passing and rushing. The Jaguars were ranked second in both points and yards allowed, while ranked first in passing and 21st in rushing, an issue that may have been remedied in a big way with the acquisition of Marcell Dareus mid-season. The Eagles were fourth in both points and yards allowed, while they were 17th in passing defense and first in rushing yards allowed giving up just 79.2 yards per game on the ground. The Patriots were fifth in points allowed, but may have some defensive weaknesses being ranked 29th in yards allowed with the 30th ranked passing defense and the league’s 20th ranked rushing defense. The Patriots did seem to right the ship a bit from a yardage perspective later in the season. Having the league’s fourth best redzone defense as well helped them.

Point being, all four of the teams left have complete rosters. Yes, each has some issues: the Patriots have some issues in yards allowed, the Jaguars have issues with Blake Bortles passing the ball, while Nick Foles and Case Keenum can perform, but leave us with some question marks heading into Championship Weekend. All four of these teams have coaches who have created strategies for success that can overcome the issues they do have and we’ll see on Sunday who can execute those strategies best. But none of them are really bad at any phase of the game.

My take is that the Patriots will move past the Jaguars as they will be able to make the Jags’ offense one-dimensional. While the Patriots don’t rank well from a yardage standpoint, they do have elite defensive backs who can cover a wide variety of match-ups, while the Jaguars don’t present match-ups in the passing game that should scare a backfield with McCourty, Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon, Stephon Gilmore, and Malcolm Butler. I think the Patriots offense uses their running backs extensively in the passing game as a means to beat the Jaguars pass rushers and avoid throwing at their elite cornerbacks. The match-up of Danny Amendola versus slot cornerback Aaron Colvin will be an x-factor in this game, while it would surprise me if Jacksonville or anyone else figures out how to stop a healthy Rob Gronkowski. We’ve seen the Patriots execute this quick passing game to success in past playoff match-ups and we’ll probably see it again on Sunday. I think the Jaguars keep it close for the first half, but the Patriots find some advantages they can take over the course of the whole game, as they usually do.

Both the Eagles and Vikings will be facing better defenses than the ones they faced last week, and that’s not to say the Falcons and Saints don’t have good defenses, but both the Eagles and Vikings have elite defenses. My take is that the Eagles will be able to produce enough pressure with their pass rush to decrease Keenum’s efficiency as, while he’s performed well under pressure, he hasn’t seen a defense that produces as much pressure as the Eagles do. With the passing attack slowed down, the Eagles will also be able to stop a rushing attack that, while it ranked well over the course of the season, doesn’t scare me with neither Murray or McKinnon averaging over four yards per carry and ranking 23rd in the NFL in yards per attempt at just 3.9.

The Eagles on the other hand weren’t just third in the NFL in rushing, but they were also fourth in the NFL averaging 4.5 yards per carry. While the Vikings lost their best running back, Dalvin Cook, early in the season, the Eagles added their best running back, Jay Ajayi, midway through the year. Ajayi had 499 offensive yards in seven games and averaged 5.8 yards per carry. LeGarrette Blount had 766 rushing yards and a light workload for him with just 173 carries, which has likely kept him a little fresher as the season has gone into January and provided the team a great, power back to close the game out in the fourth quarter, a very valuable tool. Undrafted rookie Corey Clement is the final piece with 444 offensive yards this season as he really came on in the second half the year and showed considerable explosive quickness. He and Ajayi combined for 8 catches for 75 yards against the Falcons, which will likely be a key against the Vikings to give Foles high percentage completions. They’ll look to execute screens, swing routes, flat routes, and other quick passes. They may even look to hit one of these running backs on a wheel for a big play after Minnesota spent the week watching Philly’s backs catch short balls, which could be a big play Pederson has circled on his call sheet.

I imagine it will be a low-scoring game that’s won in the trenches; I think the Eagles have the better offensive and defensive lines. While Jason Peters is out, which has affected their performance, the rest of their offensive line has been elite all season with Jason Kelce, Brandon Brooks, and Lane Johnson being three of the best in the league at their positions. The Eagles defensive line will dictate the way the Vikings are able to play offense, while the Eagles offensive line will allow their offense the time to throw the quick passing game and the push running the football to control the clock. I don’t see the Eagles receivers and tight ends having a quiet night either, they have too much talent across the offense for Minnesota to stop everyone–even with Foles at quarterback. That said, the Vikings are the NFL’s best defense and Case Keenum has had a very efficient season. This game is more of a toss up than the AFC match-up, but I’ll take the Eagles.

Zack Moore is a writer for OverTheCap.com, author of the recently released book titled, “Caponomics: Building Super Bowl Champions,” and an NFLPA Certified Agent. You can follow him on Twitter @ZackMooreNFL.

“Caponomics: Building Super Bowl Champions” Now Available on Amazon

Now available on Amazon…

 CAPONOMICS: Building Super Bowl Champions

By Zack Moore

 

Amazon Book Link

Amazon Kindle Link

 An NFL version of Michael Lewis’ “MONEYBALL: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game,” Moore’s CAPONOMICS offers insight into principles and analytics to help teams win Super Bowls…

Moore gives fans a much greater understanding of their team’s decisions…the opportunity for more educated conversations…and, even perhaps, greater value on their Fantasy Football team.

CAPONOMICS…

  • Offers greater understanding of salary cap principles behind free agency and draft moves a team makes—or should make.
  • Provides insight into equating cap value with on-field production to properly assess a player’s production value.
  • Shows how to evaluate quarterback value to avoid overspending and, instead, elevate talent level on the rest of the roster.
  • Discusses how to combine analytics with traditional stats, strategy, coaching philosophy, and more to provide a better understanding of how teams can more effectively spend their cap dollars.
  • Examines moves the Patriots made to compete for championships under Belichick and shows how other teams can replicate this roster construction strategy and use the salary cap as a strategic tool.

CAPONOMICS shows how the NFL can use data and analytics to create sustainable, competitive teams that can compete for Super Bowls.

Michael Lewis’ MONEYBALL (2004) shows how the 2002 Oakland Athletics proved they could compete with the New York Yankees with a far smaller payroll. And, Jonah Keri’s THE EXTRA 2% (2011) follows the Tampa Bay Rays road to the 2008 World Series after finishing in last place in the AL East in nine of their previous 10 seasons of existence.

By using data and analytics to construct rosters, the A’s and Rays took advantage of previously undervalued skill sets to create winning seasons.

With the salary cap, proper resource allocation is even more important in the NFL. Yet, no one had written a book about this topic…until now!

Breaking down salary cap use of the 23 cap-era Super Bowl champion teams and showing how they were constructed from a percentage of salary cap perspective, CAPONOMICS cross-analyzes player value across years with a constantly changing salary cap. Based on his analysis, Moore proposes theories and a blueprint for how teams should be using their salary cap dollars.

From the front office and head coach to the draft and free agency, readers will see how franchises should be making decision in Chapters 1 through 4.

Chapters 5 through 9 analyze how to break down each position, how to spend at each position, and how to maximize return on investment from a salary cap perspective. Moore shows how a team can spend their resources to create a winning season. Chapter 10 provides a value-based argument for increasing the rookie contract structure.

Chapter 10 discusses how current rookie structure is paying many players far below their value through analysis of Jason Fitzgerald’s work in quantifying a draft pick’s value over the course of their rookie contract.

Over the last 17 years, the New England Patriots have proven the potential of effective team-building within the cap. CAPONOMICS clearly analyzes their success!

Vikings Decline Option on Adrian Peterson

In the comes as no surprise category the Vikings will not pick up an $18 million option on star running back Adrian Peterson, making him a free agent in 2017. Peterson, who is a hall of fame running back, missed 13 games last season with an injury and only ran for 1.9 yards per carry. He will be 32 this year but carries enough name value to where a market should develop for him. Continue reading Vikings Decline Option on Adrian Peterson »

The Wolf Of Broad Street: The 3 Quarterback Strategy and Asset Trading

Last November, I spoke to a contact with the Eagles regarding the potential for a three quarterback strategy; up to that point in the season, it was clear to me that Sam Bradford was not someone they wanted to rely on as their quarterback of the future without another long-term option. It was a strategy I saw the 1989 Dallas Cowboys use when they selected Troy Aikman first overall in the draft and Steve Walsh in the first round of the supplemental draft. Rather than bet on one quarterback, they decreased the chance of being without a competent starter by acquiring two high potential guys.

Continue reading The Wolf Of Broad Street: The 3 Quarterback Strategy and Asset Trading »

Thoughts on Harrison Smith’s New Contract

The full details of Harrison Smith’s extension hit the internet today which gives us the ability to better evaluate the contract. Smith’s $10.25 million new money average per year, $28.578 million injury guarantee, and $32.25 million three year value are all high points among safeties under long term contract. So what were the tradeoffs and how strong is the contract?  Let’s inspect further.

Continue reading Thoughts on Harrison Smith’s New Contract »