Since everybody likes my stuff at its shallowest and most nearsighted, I am going to try hard to stick with that program this week, as always. Thing is, to make the point I am going to attempt to make, I'll necessarily be borrowing from some pretty deep and farsighted economic concepts. Just take comfort in knowing that somebody else thought of them, not me, and try hard to picture me as just the meathead football guy who talks about what players and teams and games look like on video. Thanks in advance. Ready,,,,,,,,,, BEGIN.
1. Recall for a moment, if you've studied any economics, the Fundamental Economic Problem. There is scarcity in any economic system, or, to state it more simply, the world's finite resources are insufficient to satisfy all human wants. From this truth springs forth the concept of resource allocation, which is where we're heading today.
A professional football franchise is part of many economic systems, from the global economy, to the United States economy, to the regional and municipal level, and a league-wide level. It is also an economic system unto itself, with its own wants, and its own constraints. Decisions are made vis-a-vis the best way to maximize the utility of the factors of production, and as a consequence, to maximize the productivity of the system.
The maximum-productivity equation is being re-thought for the Broncos right now, obviously, with new blood in both the head coach and GM roles. Our team has resources, including, I hope, the new people in those two jobs. There are also constraints, which we're going to think about today, as a backdrop for this discussion.
An NFL team is limited in the amount of money it can spend on player personnel, in the form of a salary cap. The salary cap is notionally the same for each team, although teams are given credits and/or penalties against the previous year, depending on player earn-outs of incentives. Also, TV revenues are split evenly among the 32 teams. This is nice and socialist, and it encourages parity, which is key to the NFL's wide appeal. (Paraphrasing the words of Art Modell, the NFL is the only example in America where 30 (now 32) rich, white Republicans choose to conduct their business in a socialist manner.)
Total revenues of each team are not even, which adds an interesting dynamic to the mix. Cash-rich teams like the Redskins, Jets, and Cowboys can afford to pay bigger signing bonuses than smaller-market teams like the Bills and Bengals. I strongly believe that being really cash-rich works against the best interest of managing the football team, which i will circle back to shortly.
You run a football team, and you have $123 million to spend, with which to field a winner. What do you do? Well, the first thing I'd do is figure out what type of resources make teams win. This amounts to a large data analysis project on historical performance.
In my 20+ years of exposure to football, it has occurred to me that winning teams tend to have very good QBs, and they tend to be good on the offensive and defensive lines. You have to be solid in the other areas, but these are the keys, at least in my opinion. A guy who would almost certainly agree with me is Bill Belichick, and I think we're going to see that Josh McDaniels is of the same mindset.
If you look at the Patriots, the thing that jumps out is how highly they value Defensive Linemen. All three of their starters were their own first-round picks. By contrast, if you look at their LB corps and their secondary, it's mostly solid, cheap, spare parts kind of players. Junior Seau was really good for a long time, but he hasn't been for 5 years now. These days, he is merely competent. Same story with Rodney Harrison in the secondary. Deltha O'Neal was never much more than competent, and now he struggles to even toe that mark. They make do with these guys, because a lot is invested in their front 3, and lately, 2 LBs (Adalius Thomas and Jerod Mayo.)
Decisions were made as part of a resource-allocation strategy to proceed that way. This has been happening in Denver throughout the Shanahan era, also, but with a different strategic approach than what I think we're about to see.
The way I see the world, the best way to determine which resources to value the most highly, is to evaluate the skill-sets of each role in your productivity plan, and value those resources possessing the least common skill-sets the most highly. The world does this everyday in labor markets. Why does a medical doctor make more money than a guy flipping burgers at McDonald's? I'm sure that there are a few very industrious burger-flippers who work harder than some lazy doctors. Society values the doctor's work more highly, because not just anybody could do his/her job. Any idiot can flip burgers at McDonald's.
Quarterbacks are valued the most highly in the NFL, because their skill-sets are very rare, and because the fact that they touch the ball on every play boosts their value. You need a very good QB, and you'll need to pay him like one. That much is clear. Additionally, you'd like a really good Left Tackle to protect your QB. A good pass-rusher comes next, because defensively, nothing works better than hitting the QB. Then you'll take a run-stuffing interior defensive lineman, and then on to a CB to cover the other team's best receiver. After that, you start looking at receivers, interior offensive linemen, safeties, and linebackers who aren't pass-rushers. Then, finally, you get to running backs, tight ends and specialists.
If you look at pay scales in the NFL, it follows that order pretty closely. RBs and WRs get inflated a little higher than they should, because they are statistic-generating players. This is how a guy like Derrick Ward is going to strike it rich next weekend, when, if he were a lineman with no stats, he'd be known as a middle-of-the-pack guy. He's solid, but not special. Other than that, the scale follows a scarcity-dependent scheme.
One of the reasons I like NationalFootballPost.com so much is that they don't hesitate to apply examples from other sports to football. They realize that there are lessons to be applied to football, from other sources. Eric Musselman, who was a coach for a few NBA teams, writes on there from time to time, just about coaching in general. It's very value-adding, in my opinion.
Because an NBA roster only has 12 players on it, and because they also have a salary cap, I want to use them to make my point. There are only three classes of player in the NBA. There are stars, there are role players, and there are warm bodies. An NFL roster should be thought of similarly, although the "warm body" class of the NFL is less prevalent, and tends to include 2-3 young developmental types, at the most. In football, almost every player on the team will see action in one phase of the game or another.
Where NBA teams always run into problems is when they confuse the classes of the players at the edges of each group. You picked a guy in the last part of the first round of the draft 3 years ago. He's a solid player, and he averages 15 points per game, and he may be able to do more with increased minutes. Do you pay the guy star money, or do you let him walk?
Pretty clearly, you have to let him walk away. He's a good player, but he is replaceable. An NBA roster needs 2-3 stars, 5-7 solid role players (who are paid like role players,) and 2-3 warm bodies for practice.
A strong personnel department knows that it is in the business of consistently replacing its role players. That is 90% of its charge. The other 10% is contingency planning for the loss of irreplaceable players, which you hope only happens at retirement time, but can happen with injuries too. That 10% is where you draft Matt Cassel in the 7th round, thinking that with 3 or 4 years of coaching, he may be able to fill in if Tom Brady ever gets hurt. With the 90% of your focus, you're looking at OLBs to replace Mike Vrabel next year, and safeties to replace Rodney Harrison, this year or next.
NFL teams have to be constructed in a balanced way, like NBA teams, or you get the 2008 Cowboys, or the 2001 Redskins. It looks great on paper, but it doesn't work on the field. The cash-rich teams are the ones who tend to run into this, and then they go to cap hell later, once the prorated bonuses sit on the cap as dead money. It's detrimental to their operations, obviously. You can pay out a bunch of cash in a front-loaded deal, but you have to pay the price over the life of the contract.
If the Broncos want to compete for the playoffs this year, they're clearly going to have to overpay for a few of somebody else's replaceable players. This year, I am okay with that, as long as the need to do so diminishes every year, into the future. You'd like to get to the point like the Chargers, where you're not generally signing any free agents at all. Some of your replaceable players leave, and you get compensatory picks for them. That's doing it the right way, there.
For now, the Broncos need 5-7 new defensive starters, through a combination of the draft and free agency. Best case scenario, to me, is that you find 3 guys who can start as productive rookies in the draft, and that's if you draft really well. Filling those spots starts on Friday. Let's hope for some good shopping, and wise resource allocation.
2. I promised I'd list 10 defensive players I am interested in as free agents. Here goes.
a. Chris Canty DE Dallas Cowboys - We need a legitimate 5-technique DE. Canty is the best one available, and he's only 26 years old. He's 6'7" and 300 pounds, and he's a difficult assignment for a RT in the running game. What I really like about him is that he tries hard every play, which is always a question for a D-Lineman. Canty is still the number 1 free agent on my list, weighing value and cost.
b. Mike Wright DE New England Patriots - This is another 5-technique guy, who has played very well as a rotation player for the Patriots. He is 26 years old, and a bit shorter and stockier than Canty at 6'4", 295 pounds. He really played his best football this season, as injuries gave him more minutes than he'd been accustomed to. He's going to get paid, but not as well as Canty will.
c. Igor Olshansky DE San Diego - Igor likely won't be back in San Diego, because he's exactly the kind of player I mean when I cite replaceable role players. He's really just a competent guy, and nothing special. I think he has less value to the Broncos than Canty or Wright would.
d. Channing Crowder ILB Miami - Crowder is only 25, and he's very talented. He really started to put it all together this past season, after playing somewhat in the shadow of Zach Thomas in the past. There was no talk of Thomas being missed in Miami this season, which is saying something. Crowder is going to cost some money, but he's at the top end of the role-player class, and has the potential to get to the bottom end of the star class. To the Broncos, I think he's worth what it will cost to get him. To the Dolphins, it's pretty clear that he isn't, as it appears they won't be involved in the bidding at all.
e. Andra Davis ILB Cleveland - Davis is 30, which is old for this list. He's experienced in the 3-4, and he's a backup/one-year stopgap/starter type. He'll be cost-effective, and he'll produce more than he gets paid for. Both he and Crowder are from the University of Florida, and both played in 40-fronts there, and transitioned into 30-players at the NFL level.
f. Andre Goodman CB Miami - The bad news is that Goodman is 30. The good news is that he just had, by far, the best season of his career, and it's a relatively low-mileage 30. This is the guy who was in Brandon Marshall's pocket and directly caused his worst game of the season. The guy looked like a legitimate #1 CB all season. I like Goodman on a shorter-length deal, and I think he is a better player than the next two guys I'm about to list.
g. Ron Bartell CB St. Louis - I was all proud of myself for being onto this guy, and then it slipped into the MSM that the Broncos were interested in him. He's big, physical, and smart, and he does his best work in press man-to-man coverage. I saw him not tackle all that well in run support, which detracts a little bit from his value. I think he's a solid #2 corner, and should be in consideration.
h. Jabari Greer CB Buffalo - Greer is a good nickelback, and a passable #2 CB. He's my third choice at the position. If you're wondering why not Bryant McFadden, it's because I think he isn't a very good football player.
i. Sean Jones SS Cleveland - Jones is 26, and has been an impact player in the League when healthy - especially in 2006, when he should have made the Pro Bowl. He's experienced, and he's a thumper in the running game, who shows good tackling form. The thing I've always liked about him is that he's also good in coverage, especially for a SS. He's very high on my list, as I have seen a lot of him, living in Cleveland.
j. Yeremiah Bell SS Miami - I know, I know. That's 3 Dolphins. I love Yeremiah Bell, which I have mentioned before several times. He was Miami's leading tackler, and he's extremely active, and instinctive in finding the ball. His knock is that he is 30, and he doesn't really catch the ball so well, but nobody's perfect.
3. So, let's say I have my druthers. As of February 23, 2009, my ideal off-season looks something like this.
Free Agents Draft
Name Pos Initial Cap Number (MM)
Ryan Fitzpatrick QB 1.5
Michael Pittman RB 1
Chris Canty DE 6
Channing Crowder ILB 5
Andre Goodman CB 5
Sean Jones SS 4
Round Name Pos School Consensus Grade
1 Brian Cushing LB USC 1st
2 Ron Brace DT Boston College 2nd
3 Scott McKillop ILB Pittsburgh 3rd
4 Derek Pegues S Mississippi St 3rd-4th
5 James Davis RB Clemson 4th-5th
5 Sammie Lee Hill NT Stillman 5th
6 Ellis Lankster CB West Virginia 5th-6th
7 John Gill DT Northwestern 7th-FA
7 Ryan Succop K South Carolina 7th-FA
So, the starting defense looks like this, in my concept.
Why Cushing at 12, and not Maualuga? Because pass rushers are rarer than inside-pluggers, and because Cushing reminds me of Kevin Greene when I watch him.
4. Andre Smith must be the stupidest human being alive. He was in the mix to be the first pick in the draft, and by showing up to the combine fat, unprepared and without an agent, and then leaving Indianapolis early without telling anybody, he probably just fell out of the top 10. Well, unless the Raiders take him, which is always a possibility. In any case, he cost himself a lot of money.
5. I've been seeing a bit of Jon Gruden on NFL Network lately, and he ought to stick to coaching. He's a pretty bad fit for TV, because he can't seem to get away from coach-speak and cliches.
6. As I watched the combine coverage, there was a big disconnect between the unofficial 40-times and the official ones. Ian Johnson ran a 4.38 unofficially, and the official time on him was almost a tenth-of-a-second slower. It seems that this shouldn't be the case, and if the league is going to announce the results, they ought to announce them officially, in real-time.
7. I can't believe I spent my whole afternoon Sunday with the combine on, but I did. I was doing a bunch of other stuff simultaneously, including writing part of this, but it was on long enough that I got some material twice.
8. The following are my uninformed predictions for the landing spots of 10 top free agents.
Kurt Warner - Arizona
Derrick Ward - Cleveland
TJ Houshmandzadeh - Seattle
Jason Brown - Detroit
Albert Haynesworth - Tampa Bay
Bertrand Berry - Arizona
Bart Scott - Baltimore
Ray Lewis - Dallas
Brian Dawkins - Philadelphia
Jermaine Phillips - Chicago
See you next week, when we'll discuss early free-agent signings around the NFL.