NFL roster construction is a zero-sum game. When a team signs a big-money quarterback, pass rusher, receiver, or corner, they’re limiting what they can invest at every other position. In a salary-capped league, every team faces the same questions: Offense or defense?
How much is each position worth? Where can you cut corners? Where do you have to pay the full sticker price?
There have been a couple of exceptions in the past 20 to 30 years, but it’s a generally accepted reality that in order to win consistently, you need a good quarterback. A quick glance at the league’s worst teams annually reveals a common element: the lack of a developed, healthy star behind center.
Good quarterbacks are rare, though, and their pay reflects that: By average annual value, the top 14 (and 20 of the top 22) highest-paid players in the NFL are signal-callers. So when it comes to salary-cap management, there are essentially three types of rosters: the ones that pay a quarterback big money, the ones that pay a young quarterback rookie-contract money, and the ones that don’t do either.
Whatever category a team fits into, the distribution of cap space is a balancing act. The way they prioritize their spending often says a lot about their organizational values and schematic philosophies. Here’s what the salary-cap tea leaves tell us about what a few teams are thinking.
(Note: All Spotrac numbers reflect the cap hits for each full 90-man roster. As teams cut down to 53 players in the next month, some highly paid players could get cut, which would affect these rankings.)
We’re Punting This Season
The Saints are a great example of how not to build a roster under the NFL salary cap. After back-loading the cap hits for Drew Brees’s contract, the team is set to spend one-fifth of their allotted cap pie on the quarterback position in 2016. New Orleans now has to choose between giving him a long-term deal, which would alleviate his cap charge this season, and letting him play the at his current price tag. Brees currently carries a league-high $30 million cap charge, which severely handicaps just about every other positional group on the roster.
Our Guy Will Beat Your Guy in a Shootout
Unlike the Saints, the Patriots have balanced the need to pay their elite quarterback with the rest of their roster needs. Tom Brady’s $14 million cap hit in 2016–18th among QBs leaguewide — makes him possibly the best bargain in football. With just over $950,000 going to Jimmy Garoppolo, who will likely start the first four games of the season as Brady serves his suspension, the NFL’s most consistent franchise has just $15 million of cap money invested in the quarterback position. This cap management has allowed New England to prioritize building around Brady, and that’s been the team’s identity: The Patriots have $86.8 million invested on the offensive side of the ball, fifth most in the NFL. Defensively, they’re 26th in spending.
The bulk of New England’s investments start inside and move outward: The team’s offensive line will cost almost $30 million against the cap in 2016 (seventh most in the NFL), with the cap hits led by bookend tackles Nate Solder ($10.3 million cap hit) and Sebastian Vollmer ($5.2 million). Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett could net the team 20-plus touchdowns in 2016, but the pair headlines the most expensive tight end group in the NFL. But overall, the offensive spending has paid off: Only the Broncos have scored more points — and won more games — than New England over the past three seasons.
That Worked Well, so Let’s Try It Again
Redskins GM Scot McCloughan knows that the offense is ultimately what got them an NFC East division title and a trip to the playoffs last year — the Redskins outscored all but two teams in the league while going 6–2 over the NFL’s final eight weeks — and he’s putting his money on that side of the ball again in 2016.
The Redskins have $91.8 million currently dedicated to offense — second most in the league. Of that figure, $20 million will go to Kirk Cousins on a franchise tag, and the rest is being spent on giving him the best chance for success as possible. Trent Williams ($10.7 million) is his blindside protector, and guard Brandon Scherff counts $4.8 million against the cap. They’ve got the fourth-most expensive receiver corps in the league, featuring two big-money guys in Pierre Garcon ($10.2 million) and DeSean Jackson ($9.3 million), and their tight end group will cost them another $9 million–plus, including Jordan Reed ($3.4 million) and Vernon Davis ($2.4 million). For a second year running, Cousins should have plenty of options in the red zone.
It’s All About the Benjamin
The Steelers also spend big on offense, with a league-high $92.1 million currently dedicated to helping Ben Roethlisberger (and his $24 million cap hit) score a lot of points. Antonio Brown ($12.4 million) is one of the most impossible players to defend in the sport, and his cap hit reflects the value in that. The offensive line (headlined by Maurkice Pouncey’s $10.6 million cap hit, guard David DeCastro’s $8.1 million, and tackle Marcus Gilbert’s $6.5 million) is the fifth-most expensive leaguewide, which demonstrates Pittsburgh’s desire to keep Roethlisberger upright long enough to chuck it deep to Brown.
The Steelers are consistently explosive on offense as a result of their targeted spending. No team had more pass plays of 40-plus yards in 2015 than the Steelers.
No Risk It, No Biscuit
Bruce Arians strictly adheres to the “no risk it, no biscuit” deep-passing game. He requires a guy who can throw the ball deep and playmakers who can get under it down the field.
Arizona’s $83.3 million offensive payroll ranks ninth in the NFL, and most of it goes toward guys who can make big plays. They’ve got the second-most expensive receiver group in the league, with about $29 million pooled out to the newly extended Larry Fitzgerald ($15.9 million cap hit in 2016), Michael Floyd, Jaron Brown, John Brown, and J.J. Nelson. Quarterback Carson Palmer, who also signed a one-year, $24.5 million extension last week, is the perfect catalyst for the Arians system: His 8.7 yards per attempt led the league in 2015, his 2,923 yards gained before the catch (essentially yards the ball traveled through the air on completions) was best in the NFL by almost 200 yards according to Pro Football Focus, and he posted the most yards before the catch per attempt (5.4) recorded in nine years.
Our Defense Is Better Than Your Offense
The Seahawks can no longer benefit from Russell Wilson’s sub-$850,000 rookie-contract salary, but they’ve still neglected their offense in terms of cap spending to an almost comical degree. Outside of Wilson (an $18.5 million cap hit in 2016), Doug Baldwin ($9.2 million), and Jimmy Graham ($9 million), they don’t have any offensive player costing even $3 million against the cap this season; overall, they have just $66.2 million allocated to their offense, 29th in the NFL. And despite a strong organizational emphasis on running, they’re no longer throwing much money at it. Seattle’s entire offensive line takes up slightly more than $10 million in cap space (last in the NFL), and its running backs group costs only $3.6 million (28th).
Instead, Seattle has spent big on Pete Carroll’s first love: the defense. The Seahawks have seven defensive players that will count more than $6 million against the cap in 2016, two more than any other team in the NFL: cornerback Richard Sherman ($14.8 million), safeties Earl Thomas ($9.9 million) and Kam Chancellor ($6.1 million), pass rushers Michael Bennett ($7 million) and Cliff Avril ($6.5 million), and linebackers K.J. Wright ($6.3 million) and Bobby Wagner ($6.1 million). They’ve backed up the spending with performance: Seattle’s led the league in fewest points allowed for four years.
Maybe It’s Time to Give Andrew Luck Some Help
The Colts can no longer reap the cap benefits from Andrew Luck’s rookie contract either, and his record five-year, $123 million contract will boost his cap hit from $7 million in 2015 to more than $18 million in 2016. Add in Dwayne Allen’s four-year, $29.4 million deal and his $8.9 million cap hit (second among all tight ends), and 2016 may signal a turning point for the Colts: they were 29th in offensive cap spending in 2015, and head into next season 13th on the list.
We Have a Good Young Quarterback, So We’ll Have the Lobster
Does your team have a clear “franchise” quarterback who’s still playing on his rookie deal? Congratulations, you’ve captured a unicorn. Now’s a good time to spend big at other positions.
The Raiders find themselves in that window with Derek Carr going into his third season. The former second-rounder out of Fresno State looks primed to make a huge jump in 2016, and his 55th-ranked $1.5 million cap hit helped Oakland go on a shopping spree in the offseason. The Raiders beefed up their offensive line with guard Kelechi Osemele and tackle Donald Penn, signed corner Sean Smith, grabbed pass rusher Bruce Irvin, re-upped Aldon Smith, and inked safety Reggie Nelson. The Raiders now own the NFL’s most expensive offensive line and 12th-most expensive receiver corps — both key investments in Carr’s development — but their 10th-ranked cap spending on defense should pay dividends in the form of protected leads and provided turnovers.
The Jags pulled out their checkbook this offseason as well, looking to strike while the guy they believe is their franchise quarterback, Blake Bortles, is still on his rookie deal. Bortles goes into his third season counting just $5.6 million against the cap, and the savings there allowed Jacksonville to sign pretty much everyone. Once the offseason dust settled, the Jags had become the league’s biggest spenders on defense.
The Vikings find themselves in a similar situation: Teddy Bridgewater is heading into his third year, and his $1.9 million cap hit — 44th among QBs — allows Minnesota the luxury of paying RB Adrian Peterson $12 million against the cap (most in the NFL). The Vikings have also assembled the second-most expensive offensive line in the league by signing guard Alex Boone ($6.7 million) and tackle Andre Smith ($3.5 million), both of whom should assist in Peterson’s effectiveness and Bridgewater’s development.
With likely improvement coming from Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston, the Titans and Bucs are probably not far off from similar spending sprees.
Screw It, We Don’t Need One Anyway
The Broncos are one of the outliers: a Super Bowl–caliber team without a good quarterback. When Brock Osweiler left for Houston, they threw veteran journeyman Mark Sanchez $4.5 million to serve as a stopgap until 2016 first-round pick Paxton Lynch emerges. Instead of spending on a franchise quarterback, they chose to sign Von Miller to a huge new contract. Denver has the third-most expensive defense in the league going into 2016, and the team has invested heavily in its secondary (third most in the NFL) and linebacking corps (fifth).
Hey Neat, Look What We Found
Then there’s the Bills, who managed to find themselves a veteran backup who seemingly turned into a real franchise quarterback. Tyrod Taylor finished seventh among quarterbacks in ESPN’s QBR metric and eighth in Football Outsiders DVOA in 2015 after signing a paltry three-year, $3.35 million deal. Taylor’s 36th-ranked $3.1 million cap hit among quarterbacks in 2016 helped Buffalo re-sign left tackle Cordy Glenn to a five-year, $60 million deal that includes a $6.2 million cap hit in 2016. It also allows the Bills to continue to spend big on defense — defensive lineman Marcell Dareus ($14.6 million), cornerback Stephon Gilmore ($11.1 million), pass rusher Jerry Hughes ($7.6 million), defensive lineman Kyle Williams ($6.3 million), and cornerback Aaron Williams ($6.1 million) form the team’s big-money nucleus. Plus, the leeway Taylor’s contract provides makes the released Mario Williams’s $7 million cap hit sting just a little less. If only Rex Ryan could get all those guys to play at a level higher than the 24th-best DVOA.