What’s valuable in the NFL? A great quarterback? Always—unless you’re the Eagles and can win with a backup. A great running back? Not usually—unless you’re the Rams and have Todd Gurley. A treasure chest of future second-round picks? Now you’re speaking Bill Belichick’s language. Welcome to Value Week, when we’ll be looking at what moves the needle for NFL teams—and what doesn’t.
By the start of the 2017 NFL season, the Jacksonville Jaguars had already committed a staggering amount of resources to their defensive line. Malik Jackson was entering his second season under the six-year, $85 million deal he signed with the Jags in March 2016, and former Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell had just been handed a four-year, $60 million contract to join Jackson along the front four. Combined with pass rusher Dante Fowler Jr., the no. 3 overall pick in the 2015 draft, Jacksonville’s line consisted of almost nothing but high-end assets by Week 1. Then, a month later, the team decided to take it even further.
Looking to salvage a struggling run defense, the Jags traded a 2018 sixth-round pick to the Bills for nose tackle Marcell Dareus in October. That move was the end of a precipitous fall for Dareus, who just two years earlier had signed a six-year, $96.5 million extension in Buffalo and looked like one of the best young defenders in football. After tallying 28.5 sacks through his first four seasons, Dareus has 7.5 total since 2015. And for all he contributes to the Jags’ run defense, his price tag—$10.2 million this season—is typically reserved for tackles who bring considerably more to a team’s pass rush.
Heading into this season, the Jaguars D-line is now set to count for $60.7 million against the salary cap. Considering the cap’s surge over the past several years, that’s easily the largest raw total ever paid to a single position group in NFL history. And when measured as a percentage of the salary cap, a figure that can be better compared to position groups across eras, that number becomes even more historic. The Jags’ rushers will account for 31.3 percent of the team’s cap this fall—the largest figure ever recorded in the six-year collection of positional spending data available on Spotrac. The average salary among Jaguars linemen is $4.67 million. No other team’s defensive linemen crack an average of $3.5 million. And what makes these numbers even more ridiculous is that world-ruining defensive end Yannick Ngakoue, a third-round pick nearing the end of his rookie contract, has a current cap hit of just $949,100. When his contract expires following the 2019 season, he’ll almost certainly command a deal that hits eight figures per year.
The damage done by Ngakoue, Campbell, and Co. last season was proof of how valuable a dominant front four can be. Jacksonville tied for second in the league with 55 sacks, scored five defensive touchdowns, and finished with an absurd -27.4 passing DVOA—by far the best mark in the league. But even though the team’s personnel has largely stayed the same from last season to this one, the investment has dramatically increased: Dareus’s cap hit has nearly doubled from its 2017 number; Campbell’s jumped from $10.5 million to $17.5 million; and Jacksonville spent its first-round pick on another defensive lineman—Florida product Taven Bryan—who will make $1.85 million this fall. This kind of a commitment—not just to a defensive line, but to a position group in general—is unprecedented. How it all plays out this year will be a useful exercise in testing the limits and benefits of doubling down on the strength of your roster.
Since the current NFL CBA was signed in 2011, there have been just a handful of position groups that approach the price of the current Jags defensive line—and the majority of those are also defensive lines. This isn’t surprising. Through the past decade or so, there’s been a higher premium placed on pass rushers compared to other positions across the league, the price of high-end interior players has ballooned, and need for depth along the line demands a larger rotation of players. Those three factors have combined to make elite defensive lines one of the most expensive position groups in the NFL.
There are, however, a few other groups that have accounted for more than 25 percent of a team’s cap in a given season. One example is the 2015 New York Jets’ secondary, which made a combined $38.8 million and accounted for 25.3 percent of the team’s salary cap. That group included Darrelle Revis ($16 million), Antonio Cromartie ($7 million), Marcus Gilchrist ($3.1 million), and Buster Skrine ($2.8 million), who were all signed in free agency that offseason. Mike Maccagnan’s overhaul of the secondary in his first season as the team’s general manager represented one of the most significant position-group reinventions in modern history. After years of former GM John Idzik hoarding cap space, the spending spree that year was inevitable, and Maccagnan used that cash to transform a horrid group of defensive backs into a viable unit. The move paid off in the short term: The Jets jumped from 21st in defensive DVOA to fifth and were a surprise 10-win team. But it took only a year for that experiment to fail, as both Skrine and Cromartie took significant steps back in 2016, and the Jets finished 28th in points allowed.
A more contemporary comparison for this year’s Jags will be the 2018 Cowboys offensive line. Two seasons ago, when Dallas was mowing opponents down with its running game, the team boasted the best offensive line in the league. But that group included three recent first-round picks (left tackle Tyron Smith, center Travis Frederick, and right guard Zack Martin), two of whom were still playing on palatable rookie contracts. This year, all three will make top-of-the-market salaries at their positions, and the danger of devoting that much capital to a single position is already looming. Frederick announced via Twitter on Wednesday night that he’s been diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome, an autoimmune disease that could sideline him for some time. Martin is dealing with a knee issue suffered in a preseason game. And while Smith looks healthy right now, he’s battled back problems that haunted the Cowboys in recent seasons. This is a roster on which Allen Hurns and rookie third-round pick Michael Gallup are battling to be the no. 1 receiver, and the situation at safety caused Cowboys fans to go into a frenzy when the Bengals released George Iloka earlier this week. If the offensive line can’t control games for Dallas, the Cowboys will lose the aspect of their team that truly makes them a threat.
To really understand the challenges Jacksonville will face this year, though, there are two recent defensive line groups that could shed some light on the issue. The first is the 2013 Vikings, who make this list in large part because of defensive end Jared Allen’s $17 million cap hit. For some perspective: That number is nearly equal to what Campbell—a 2017 Defensive Player of the Year contender—will make in 2018, under a salary cap that’s $54 million higher than it was in 2013. The Vikings were paying Allen like one of the most impactful players in the entire league that season, and while he finished with 11.5 sacks, which tied him for seventh in the league, he wasn’t playing with nearly the same game-wrecking presence that he had in earlier years. Minnesota’s defense collapsed that fall, finishing 32nd in points allowed as it was forced to lean on a secondary that was equal parts inexperienced (future star Xavier Rhodes was still a rookie) and injured (safety Harrison Smith missed half the season with a foot injury). The Vikings’ resources were disproportionately focused on a single position, and it came back to bite them.
If you’re trying to build a rosier case for the Jags’ strategy, look to the example set by the 2014 Lions. Detroit spent a whopping 29.4 percent of its cap on its defensive line that season, and the results were evident. The team finished third in points allowed (17.6 per game), and the combination of Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley (who played only eight games), and Ziggy Ansah looked like it could be a formidable front for years to come. The only problem was that Detroit’s offense mustered just 20.1 points per game, good for 22nd in the league. And the team’s rushing attack was even worse, averaging just 3.6 yards per carry behind an offensive line that featured 36-year-old Dominic Raiola, journeyman right tackle LaAdrian Waddle, and left guard Rob Sims, who’d be out of the league the following season. The Lions won 11 games and were a surprise playoff team that year, but their imbalance, especially along the lines, was obvious. When Suh left in free agency the following season, the Lions defense took a nosedive. And therein lies the inherent problem of shelling out so much cash in one specific area.
To truly grasp the potential consequences of the Jags’ spending habits, you first have to look at the overall makeup of their roster. With the defensive line and secondary checking in as two of the most expensive position groups in football, other areas inevitably have fewer resources. Jacksonville’s linebacking corps will make just 7.7 percent of the team’s salary cap this season, which is the 26th-highest figure in the league. And while that number is a bit skewed because starter Myles Jack is on the third year of his rookie contract and will make just $1.7 million this season, it speaks to the Jags’ glaring lack of depth at their two starting linebacker spots. Behind Jack and gamebreaker Telvin Smith, Jacksonville has only a collection of late-round picks and undrafted free agents. If either Jack or Smith loses time to injury, the hole left in the center of the Jags defense would be hard to ignore.
Jacksonville’s defense was remarkably healthy last season, losing only a pair of starts from Smith as the rest of the unit stayed on the field for the entire season. But injury luck like that is historically almost impossible to repeat, and with little depth at linebacker and necessary downgrades like the one at slot corner (the team signed D.J. Hayden after watching Aaron Colvin land a big deal with the Texans), every injury will have a larger impact than it would have had a season ago.
Even so, finding deficiencies in the Jags defense is nitpicky. This team has truly been skimping on offense. Wide receivers will account for 10.4 percent of Jacksonville’s cap this year (19th in the league), and that’s with the costs they had to cut this offseason. The Jags let Pro Bowl receiver Allen Robinson walk in free agency, while retaining Marqise Lee on a four-year, $34 million contract and handing former Colts receiver Donte Moncrief a one-year, $9.6 million deal. Moncrief’s deal is barely $2 million less than Robinson will make in Chicago this season for a significant downgrade at the position. Jacksonville will be betting on a group of young receivers that has shown flashes—Dede Westbrook, Keelan Cole, and second-round pick D.J. Chark—but at this point, their receiving corps is more theoretical than anything.
Jacksonville’s offensive line payroll is also on the lower end of the spectrum, accounting for just 15.1 percent of the cap, which puts it at 24th in the league. But the problem with the Jags’ offensive line isn’t how little they’ve spent on it this year, it’s how much they’ll spend on it next year—free-agent splurge Andrew Norwell’s cap hit alone jumps from $5 million this season to $16 million in 2019.
Look around the Jags’ roster, and concern becomes a theme. As of mid-August 2018, Jacksonville is already projected to be more than $19 million over the cap in 2019 with solely the players on its current roster. There are some logical cuts that could quickly save some cash (Dareus, Jermey Parnell, and Abry Jones, to name a few), but that’s a troublesome financial position to be in one year in advance.
Last year, with Campbell and cornerback A.J. Bouye spearheading the effort that made Jacksonville’s defense one of the more fearsome units in the NFL, we saw how the Jaguars’ spending habits could play out in an ideal scenario. But it doesn’t take long for the downside to those huge investments to become a reality. If the defensive line stays healthy and spends the season terrorizing quarterbacks for the second year in a row, the decision to go all in with this group will likely be celebrated as a ingenious bit of team-building. Should that not be the case, though, the way the Jags have assembled this roster may present them with severe challenges this fall and beyond.
Many aspects of last year’s Jaguars made them feel like the NFL’s next young, exciting team. But the way this squad was created may shorten Jacksonville’s title window to an even smaller timeline than we normally see with contenders.