Too good to be true? It’s because it is, stupid.
Between Twitter and Facebook, the only two social media platforms for which I pay attention, there has been incessant clamoring about Ted Thompson’s ineptitude during free agency. Why didn’t we sign [insert just about any well-known NFL veteran]?
Let me answer this question for you, and you should remind yourself of this answer every March before your knee-jerk bitchiness starts percolating through. In essence, there are three types of players in the NFL based on their contracts: Rookies, second-contract veterans, and seasoned veterans. Rookies are cheap. Second-contract guys tend to be the most expensive (depending on skill, of course), and seasoned veterans are the players who require new contracts at around a period–30 to 32 years-old–where their skills may be ready for a decline.
In an ideal situation, a team’s core talent is fulfilled using players in first and second contracts. This tells me two things: First, players on rookie contracts are playing at or above their salary, hence, they are extremely valuable to a wins per dollar spent metric. If they don’t perform to their contract, their effect on the salary cap is minimal. Second, players on second contracts with the same team have been evaluated in-house for up to four years, a significant period of time to be able to provide value judgment. General managers and coaches have the strongest sense of a player’s worth, or in business sense, management can appropriately match cost to production. When input of cost is proportionate to production, value is met. Why does this matter? The salary cap.
The salary cap is a (somewhat) rigid ceiling dictating how much money a team can spend on its players. More or less, teams must fall under the salary cap each year. For the sake of easy math, let’s make the salary cap 100. Well, remember how important Aaron Rodgers was to the Packers this year? Remember how him missing was a quick realization to fans how many wins he’s personally responsible for? That’s why he takes up 15% of the cap. OK, we’re down to 85, but we still have to sign 52 other players, some of which are playmakers like Clay Matthews. He’s on a second contract and cannot be let go. He represents a 7. Josh Sitton is one of the best guards in pro football, he’s a 4. We’re now at 26, over 1/4 through money spent but yet only 3/53 through an NFL roster. We resigned Sam Shields to a pretty big deal, so he gets a 5. Tramon Williams is in an older, yet still lucrative deal worth a 5, and T.J. Lang is a veteran on a second contract worth a 3. Don’t forget about the forgettable Morgan Burnett contract: 5. As it turns out, it’s easier to build a roster of solid players in line with the cap when you have production working on its rookie deals worth a 1 (maybe 2 for a top pick) like Eddie Lacy, Randall Cobb, Micah Hyde, Mike Neal, Casey Hayward, et al.
So Green Bay has cap room to go spend though, you say? Going into the new league year where free agency begins, the Packers had 16 unrestricted free agents. No longer could the Packers negotiate a contract where cost was equal to production, instead, the double-edged sword called the free agency markets would dictate salary (the cap number). Personally, I was OK to see B.J. Raji walk along with quite a few others. I think most fans were fine with that, too. The absurd, complete belligerence about signing big names comes now.
“SIGN STEVEN JACKSON!” — 2013
Steven Jackson stat line this past season: 12 games, 156 rushes, 542 yards, 45.2 yards/game, 3.5 average yards/carry, 0 100+ yard games, 6 TDs
What did Green Bay do? They drafted Eddie Lacy.
Eddie Lacy’s stat line this season: 15 games, 284 rushes, 1178 yards, 78.5 yards/game, 4.1 average yards/carry, 4 100+ yard games, 11 TDs
This isn’t an anomaly, aberration, or an exception to the rule. It’s a microcosm. Moreover, Jackson is being paid $12 million over 3 years. Lacy is making $3.4 million over 4. In terms of production, Lacy is clearly a better choice. In terms of value, the place where production is proportionate to cost, is not just clear, it should be revelatory.
“Seattle signed all those players last year and they won the Super Bowl!”
Yes, they did win the Super Bowl. Yes they did sign all those players. But go back and reread the cap number examples. Who were the most dominating players on the Seahawks? Richard Sherman, Bobby Wagner, Russell Wilson (premium position/premium price). They are all on rookie contracts. Seattle could afford to spend because they didn’t yet have to spend on their own. Just wait until all of those players are to get the second contract, specifically Wilson. Additionally, veterans entering into free agency are looking for a retirement pay day. They want the contract to financially support them and their family for life. Money talks. Seattle signed Michael Bennett to a one-year contract. Cliff Avril, I believe, signed a two-year contract. Once they need to resign their core players from the draft, those free agent signings will have expired. Seattle played all season long with house money. It’s easy to gamble when you have nothing to lose.
“San Francisco has owned Green Bay the last three years.”
Yes they have, there’s no denying that. But see above: Kaepernick is producing wins above his rate of compensation. When he needs a new contract, some key pieces will have to go. Aldon Smith is still on a rookie contract. The ‘Niners are so damn good on defense precisely because they sucked so much ass for so long. Most of the defense is comprised of top round draft picks.
My thesis is thus: successful teams locate value. Copycats chase unicorns. The Saints just mortgaged their future to sign Byrd. Goodbye Jimmy Graham after next season. Washington always signs the big name in free agency. How many NFC East titles has that won? The Dolphins spent big last year, and good thing Mike Wallace lived up to…oh wait, nevermind.
When players enter free agency knowing a big pay day is coming, they are likely in the midst of or exiting their prime. They expect to be payed based on past production, and teams pay them for that. The issue, though, is that the arrow is trending flat to slightly down (or even more so). When GMs identify players of their own who are entering their prime, they are paying not only for past performance, but also ascending production. It allows for value.
And on that note, I’m going to make a prediction. Denver will struggle next year. They’ll make the playoffs, but they won’t win the Super Bowl. I don’t think they’ll even make it. Manning’s arm is dead against the top NFC teams. Seattle exploited the wobbly duck for the one worst piss poundings I’ve ever witnessed in a Super Bowl. They just signed DeMarcus Ware and Aqib Talib. Both contracts are based on prior performance and not on future production. David Bahktiari shut down Ware last year. Bahktiari makes damn near close to the rookie minimum as a 4th round pick. Ware makes a guaranteed $10 million. Once Manning retires, the most important position becomes pedestrian at best. Denver will not have money to pay anyone to make up that deficit. They will be one of the worst teams in the league very, very soon.
You do the math, dummy.