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The Three New Rules for Building a Super Bowl Contender

The story of the NFL is a story of winning teams that react to changes and losing teams that ignore them. Want to win it all? Find a rookie quarterback, pay up for free agents, and don’t be afraid to make trades.

Tyrann Mathieu Getty Images/Ringer illustration

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.

In January 1995, Tom Benson, then the New Orleans Saints owner, still hadn’t gotten over losing a bidding war for Deion Sanders, and he wanted to let everyone know how angry he was about the San Francisco 49ers’ ability to fit so many stars under the league’s new salary cap: “This is a farce,” he said. Benson told reporters in another story: “What kind of a Mickey Mouse organization do we have here?”

The panic was brought about by the 49ers utilizing signing bonuses and deferring payments to free agents like Rickey Jackson and Ken Norton Jr. A few weeks after these stories ran, the 49ers routed the San Diego Chargers in the Super Bowl. This stretch from 1994 to 1995—the first in which a salary cap existed in the NFL—is a beautiful study in how flat-footed the league can be in the face of important change. Before the next season, decision-makers were reluctantly accepting the cap as something to focus on. One executive told The Baltimore Sun: “The 49ers didn’t want to wait four years to rebuild.” Another executive lamented you didn’t get six years to develop a player because they’d leave after four. And a third expressed regret that you couldn’t build a team the same way the old Steelers or Cowboys had decades before: “Now we’re into a new wave, trying to find a shortcut to the championship.” Hilariously, the 49ers were, unrelated to Sanders, later part of a big wave of teams (including another Super Bowl champion, the Denver Broncos) that got busted for salary cap violations at the end of the decade. Despite that, their status as one of the first teams to attempt to figure out the salary cap should not go unnoticed.

This little brouhaha, over two decades ago, is the sort of thing that plays out over and over again in the NFL. One team figures something out, the idea is met with immediate skepticism, that team then performs well, and the approach eventually is adopted by everyone else. Jimmy Johnson once told me an incredible story about how many coaches would complain to him about the “college” defenses he was employing in his first year with the Cowboys. Of course, a few years later the entire league was trying to rip off his Dallas defenses, and it became an NFL defense. If you are not adapting, you’re going to be lost, and it’s going to happen quickly and obviously. With that in mind, I decided to create some new rules for building a team in 2018. You know, the kind of story that, if I were writing it in 1994, would include such revelations as “Hey, you guys should look into understanding the salary cap.”

1. Bargains Are Everywhere

In the years since the 2011 collective bargaining agreement, the biggest change has been how many paths there now are to building a perfect team. The deal itself limited rookie salaries and led to, along with NFL revenue increases, a huge spike in the salary cap, which has risen at least $10 million in five consecutive offseasons.

In 2016, the Green Bay Packers made a playoff run with just two players drafted by other teams on their 53-man roster; it was an almost ridiculous extension of the “build through the draft” philosophy employed by many teams throughout the past two decades. The draft is still hugely important; in fact, hitting on your draft pick is now more important than ever because the player is cost-controlled more than ever before. Carson Wentz will make about $5 million less in cap dollars than Matt Ryan did in his third season (2010), despite the fact the salary cap has risen nearly 50 percent since the beginning of the decade. But for the first time in the modern era, even the most conservative team builders are now so flush with cap space that they agree that free agency is a good way to spend some money.

“The draft has to be front and center of how you build a football team. [Rookies] are younger, they are less expensive than veteran players. That’s the way the CBA is set up. I didn’t set it up. That’s just the way it’s set up,” said Titans general manager Jon Robinson. “You try to maximize those players. Then you supplement with free agency.” Robinson added former Patriots Malcolm Butler and Dion Lewis this offseason.

Two things are happening: The first is that there are mega-bargains in the draft, and the second is that the rising cap has made it so almost all middle-class free agents are bargains as well.

Look at the Eagles last year: Alshon Jeffery was an inspired one-year deal at less than $10 million. This season, Houston’s Tyrann Mathieu and Minnesota’s Sheldon Richardson, with cap hits of $7 million and $8 million, respectively, will probably both look like steals by Halloween. You start contending by hitting on your draft picks; you win the Super Bowl by hitting on the free agents to help those picks out. Hell, the 49ers gave a fullback the biggest deal at that position in history, and that doesn’t even seem completely ridiculous! It’s a brave new world.

But what do you do when those rookies then need a new deal? You sign them to an extension as soon as possible and then watch the market rise. The Bengals have an elite player like Geno Atkins making less than $10 million against the cap this year. The reason is simple, said Carolina general manager Marty Hurney: “It used to be you came in, [signed] a guy a year early, and saved money. There are no bargains when you come in a year early. What you get is the ability to negotiate that contract in the current market, not the market that’s going to be a year from now which will just increase.” Build accordingly.

You know what else can be a bargain? Seemingly huge quarterback salaries. Since the cap is rising, those deals, which typically feature a lot of sticker shock, end up bargains as soon as they are signed. “Look at Cam’s contract three years ago and where it stands now,” Hurney said. Salaries rise so quickly that even mega-contracts will look cheap. In 2016, Cam Newton ($19.5 million) made within $5 million of the top-paid quarterback, Eli Manning. In 2018 he’s $16 million behind Jimmy Garoppolo. Drew Brees will make $10 million more than him in 2019. Brees will also make $12 million more than Aaron Rodgers in 2019.

“It’s just going to keep going up and up,” Hurney said.

Here’s the rule of thumb: The most recently paid quarterback is the richest, and the one who signed farthest in the past is the biggest bargain.

2. If You Can Go All in, You Should

This week, Over the Cap published a great study about how teams are currently built. Only three of the teams that are spending more than $50 million on their top three players made the playoffs last season. The six that didn’t were the Lions, Giants, Redskins, Broncos, Cardinals, and Chargers—none of which are considered Super Bowl contenders heading into this season. The ones that did make the playoffs—Minnesota, Atlanta, and Pittsburgh—all expect to be back this year.

However, the sweet spot seems to be paying a premium to your top 10 or 15 players. As the author of the Over the Cap piece, Jason Fitzgerald, points out, this can be partially explained by the fact good teams tend to hand out more extensions because … they’re good teams filled with good players who are worth extending. But there’s also clearly some benefit to spreading the wealth, he wrote: “Of the 9 teams that value their top 10 at a minimum of $110 million, 7 made the playoffs last season. Those teams were (in order of salary), Vikings, Jaguars, Falcons, Steelers, Panthers, Eagles, and Rams. The only two to not make the playoffs were the Packers, who were impacted by the loss of Aaron Rodgers, and the Broncos.”

Philadelphia Eagles v Los Angeles Rams
Carson Wentz
Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Stacking good contracts—mostly between about $9 million and, say, $15 million—is easy to do if a team wants to go all in. They can either: (1) simply spread the wealth around and make sure that no one outside the quarterback gets too much money, or (2) have a good quarterback on a rookie contract.

The latter, of course, is the ideal. The Eagles are not the Eagles if Wentz is making $25 million, as they likely wouldn’t have had the depth needed to win a Super Bowl with a backup quarterback. The Rams could not have assembled a defense that looks like it could start a Pro Bowl by itself if Jared Goff was making more than $8 million against the cap this year. However, a cheap-but-incompetent signal-caller doesn’t do much good. Had Goff stayed at his 2016 level, which was among the worst rookie performances in history, it wouldn’t matter who the Rams added to the defense. Instead, Goff showed improvement and the entire organization knew to shift into win-now mode. Meanwhile, there are other teams who could, and probably should, be doing the same, but are definitely not. Look at Dallas. Former Charger Nick Hardwick tweeted earlier this year: “As far as teams in the NFL with a strong QB on a rookie deal go, Cowboys have done the least to build a winner around him and are blowing a window of opportunity.” The windows close quickly. Some teams get this; others will regret they didn’t get it as soon as they sign their quarterback to a huge deal.

3. Trades Are Good

Now you have cost-controlled players everywhere. You have the ability to fit them all under the cap. And you have a draft setup where a few hits on cheap, elite players can change your entire outlook. What does that lead to? Picks-for-players trades! This is the team-building trick that has picked up the most steam in the past two years, and this offseason was its official moment: Tyrod Taylor, Jarvis Landry, Aqib Talib, Marcus Peters, Robert Quinn, and Michael Bennett all moved. Brandin Cooks can’t stop getting traded. Jimmy freaking Garoppolo was dealt for a second-round pick before last season’s trade deadline, and the 49ers easily gave him the biggest contract of all time.

We are two years removed from The Sporting News calling the Saints’ salary-cap management “irresponsible,” and it seems impossible a team could ever get in perennial cap trouble again like that. In fact, New Orleans was one of the best teams in the league last year! It’s hard to find something that can’t be fit within the salary cap in 2018—even for the Saints.