It’s not much of a stretch to say that the Patriots, Broncos, 49ers, and Seahawks, and are four of the best organizations in the NFL. Over the last two years, these four teams are the only to win 23 games in the regular season or 26 games if you include the playoffs. In the salary cap era, being an excellent team means managing the salary cap well. And, broadly speaking, managing the cap well means finding good values for cheap and making sure the players you spend a premium on deliver commensurate production.
So is that true for New England, Denver, San Francisco, and Seattle? The invaluable Jason Fitzgerald of Over the Cap has salary cap data for each team in the league, which can answer half the problem. But how do we measure production? I decided to use the ratings from Pro Football Focus, since the website provides a rating of every player on every team (although I excluded special teamers from my analysis today).
One note about PFF data, which comes from Nathan Jahnke, a writer at the website. As he explained to me, PFF’s ratings are not necessarily designed for comparisons across positions. For each position, zero is average, but the magnitude a player’s rating can get to is somewhat dependent on the position they play. For example, PFF has never had a safety over a grade of +30, while five 3-4 DEs hit that mark in 2013. For my purposes today, this is not a big concern — it just means view the graphs with an understand that these are not designed to be the perfect way to compare a player. But in general, I think they work well. (And, of course, don’t think that just because Brandon Mebane has a higher rating than Russell Wilson that it means PFF thinks Mebane is a more valuable player.)
To avoid people using my graphs to scrub data and steal the hard work put in by by Over The Cap and Pro Football Focus in assembling the salary cap data and player grades , I have decided not to label either axis with salary information or player ratings. Just know that the X-axis (that’s the horizontal one) is for salary, and players on the left are cheap and players on the right are expensive. The vertical or Y-axis shows the PFF grades from worst (on the bottom) to best on top). Note: to compare across teams, I have used the exact same dimensions for both axes across all four graphs.
Let’s start with the Patriots graph:
To no one’s surprise, Tom Brady is the highest paid Patriot (remember, the farther to the right, the more expensive the player). We can heed Nathan’s cautionary remark about comparing across positions and safely assume that Brady’s the team’s most valuable player, too.
Perhaps what’s most interesting about this graph is the sheer amount of money the team has on IR or in dead cap space. New England has $27.5M on injured reserve, including Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, Sebastian Vollmer, Rob Gronkowski, and Tommy Kelly. The Patriots also have nearly $17M in dead money, with Brandon Lloyd, Jon Fanene, Aaron Hernandez, Chad Johnson, and Leon Washington being the five most expensive names on that list.
Three names stick out as “steals” for New England: Nate Solder, Rob Ninkovich, and Devin McCourty. And putting PFF ratings to the side, obviously New England has received a significant amount of production from Julian Edelman (who has cap value of $765K) and all three running backs, each of whom (Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, and LeGarrette Blount) cost under $1M in cap space. On the other side of the coin, the Patriots didn’t get much out of the money spent on Wilfork or Mayo, although that’s obviously due to injury. Let’s move on to the Broncos graph:
The first thing you would probably notice with the Denver graph is that the Broncos’ players simply have better ratings. And you’d be right: PFF has Denver as the #1 team in the league (in terms of combined offensive + defensive player ratings) by a pretty wide margin (San Francisco and Seattle are number two, but both are far behind Denver, while the Patriots are down at #10).
Denver has $24.7M on injured reserve, too, with Ryan Clady and Von Miller being the biggest names. And there’s close to twelve million in dead money thanks to Elvis Dumervil, D.J. Williams, and J.D. Walton, among others. The two biggest “busts” for the Broncos are Clady and Champ Bailey. Those are two of the three Broncos with cap charges of over $10M in 2013, and they’ve combined for just five starts. Fortunately, the other big-money player on Denver has been pretty good this year.
Denver got great production out of Miller when healthy, but he’s now gone for the year. On the “steal” side of the ledger you have players like All-Pro (and AV hearthrob) Louis Vasquez, Terrance Knighton and Demaryius Thomas.
Let’s move on to Seattle, a team whose star quarterback takes up less than $700K in cap space:
PFF is not particularly high on Richard Sherman, but if you go by consensus opinion, he’s another enormous steal. Add in Brandon Mebane and Michael Bennett, and the Seahawks have a lot of stars on low salaries.
You hear a lot of sportswriters talk about how by paying stars like Wilson and Sherman relative peanuts, the Seahawks have been able to build a monster roster. But you don’t hear a lot about Zach Miller and Sidney Rice. Miller is the team’s starting tight end, but he’s 33-catch player… with a cap value of $11,000,000! In fact, Miller carries the highest cap charge of any Seahawk. Rice is on injured reserve with a cap number of $9.7M, although I suppose that pales in comparison to the carnage suffered by the AFC teams. Russell Okung missed 8 games this year and was just average when healthy, but he’s got a cap number of $9.5M. And while Bennett and Cliff Avril are great values at defensive end, Chris Clemons has been massively overpaid this year (to be fair, he was a very valuable player pre-ACL injury). Wilson and Sherman cover up a lot of sins, of course, but I do think it’s worth mentioning that Seattle has some of the most overpaid players of any of the top teams in the league. Add in $4.9M for 20 offensive snaps of Percy Harvin and $6M for Max Unger, who PFF grades as a slightly below-average center, and there’s a lot of highly-paid players in Seattle who aren’t the reason the team is in the NFC title game.
When we get to the 49ers chart, one thing stands out pretty quickly: San Francisco has done an excellent job at avoiding overpaying.
Vernon Davis ($8.7M), Carlos Rogers ($7.3M), Frank Gore ($6.5M) and Anquan Boldin ($6.0) carry the biggest charges, but all are productive starters (although PFF is not high on Rogers, I wouldn’t label him a bust). Ahmad Brooks and Michael Crabtree qualify as the biggest busts, but even that’s a bit of a stretch. Colin Kaepernick is barely visible on this chart, but he’s in the cluster of non-highly paid 49ers. San Francisco has less than $6M in dead money (with Nnamdi Asomugha and A.J. Jenkins being the biggest culprits) and only about $8M on injured reserve (with Mario Manningham being the only player with a cap value of over $1M). And the 49ers are getting incredible values out of players like Joe Staley, Aldon Smith, Navorro Bowman, and Patrick Willis. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say the 49ers’ salary cap management has been the best of the four teams still alive.
It’s a bit unfair to compare the AFC teams to the NFC teams here, because nobody would complain about paying Manning or Brady (in fact, the 49ers tried to do just that). But Seattle and San Francisco are obviously at a bit of an advantage at the quarterback position when it comes to salary. Still, some trends emerge:
- Denver has gone the star model approach: Manning, Clady, and Bailey have three of the five highest cap values of any of the players on the four teams. Conversely, San Francisco’s highest paid player is behind nine players across the other three teams.
- Seattle’s fourth highest cap charge (Marshawn Lynch) is the highest for a team’s #4 player among the four teams. The same is true for Seattle’s fifth highest paid player, and sixth,and seventh… all the way down to player 16. Seattle has a dozen players that carry cap charges of $4M+, compared to just eight for San Francisco, six for Denver, and five for New England. So while the Seahawks have a pair of cheap superstars (Wilson is the 29th highest paid Seahawk, Sherman the 36th), don’t be fooled: Seattle has shelled out a lot of money to its starting roster.
- From player 17 to player 28, San Francisco has the highest paid player compared to those players for the other three teams. That’s a depth move, and it appears to have worked out well for San Francisco. Of course, its nice when your star quarterback carries just the 26th highest cap charge on your team.
- The Patriots have generally gone the star model, too, but they have less money for their stars then Denver. One reason is that New England has an extra $5M in dead money on Denver, but as Jason Fitzgerald explained to me, the Broncos also have huge cap carryovers from prior seasons which artificially boost their cap limits. Denver had $11.5 million in carryover plus another $5.7 mil in adjustments for unearned LTBEs, grievances won, and of course the Jets payments for Tim Tebow which will actually give Denver another $1.5 million next year since there is a one year delay on the cap adjustment.