Football teams are businesses, and the best-run businesses spend wisely. How teams spend their money and the returns they get from those investments tell us a lot about how they are being run. The Patriots, who spend the most money on their secondary, have a league-leading 19 interceptions. The 49ers, who are the biggest spenders at defensive line, pressure the quarterback more often than any other team. The Dolphins, who have the cheapest offense and the cheapest defense, are, well, the Dolphins. Money matters.
Looking at a specific year’s salary cap hit is different from how we usually discuss contracts. Usually we look at salaries as averages over multiple years and consider contract extensions that haven’t kicked in yet. Russell Wilson is the highest-paid player by average annual salary ($35 million), but the highest cap hit in the league this year is Matthew Stafford ($29.5 million). Todd Gurley’s contract extension has barely kicked in, so the biggest cap hit at running back for 2019 is Arizona’s David Johnson ($9.8 million). A team’s salary cap breakdown in a given year is a snapshot, and the goal of this piece is to use the photo as a guide and add context to paint a fuller picture of the teams we are watching right now.
First, a few caveats:
—The following numbers are a player’s 2019 salary cap hit unless otherwise specified
—The salary cap is a percentage of overall league revenue. It rises every year because the NFL makes an increasing amount of money every year. This year it is $188.2 million, with wiggle room for some teams who have saved in years prior.
—Cap hits are not salaries. Cap hits are accounting figures. They include portions of signing bonuses, which have already been paid, and other figures that do not align perfectly with the money a player has been paid in a given year. Russell Wilson’s $65 million signing bonus was paid to him this year, but the Seahawks will spread the cap hit over the next five seasons.
With all of that in mind, let’s look at who is getting what they are paying for and who is not.
Getting What They Paid For
At the end of last season, Dolphins owner Stephen Ross said he was willing to wait a few years for Miami to contend for a Super Bowl but that he hoped a rebuild wouldn’t lead to a 3-13 season. Be careful what you wish for. The 0-7 Dolphins would be lucky to go 3-13 in 2019. Miami ranks last or second to last in the following categories:
- Points scored
- Points allowed
- Points per drive
- Points allowed per drive
- Yards per play
- Yards per play allowed
- Yards per pass attempt
- Yards per pass attempt allowed
- Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA
- Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA
- Time of possession
Based on how the Dolphins spend their money, this isn’t a surprise. They have the least cap space devoted to their offense ($38 million) and the least for their defense ($45 million) for players on their current roster.
The Dolphins lead the league in one category: dead money, or cap space devoted to players that have been cut or traded. The team hit its cap floor only because of a stunning $60 million in dead cap, almost three times the league average. Miami has nearly as much cap space devoted to dead money and players on injured reserve ($79 million) as it does to the players currently playing for the team ($87 million). Miami’s biggest cap hit this year is $18.4 million for Ryan Tannehill, whom the team traded to the Titans in March. The Dolphins’ third-biggest cap hit is $13 million somehow still left over from defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who the team released so long ago that The Shape of Water had just won the Oscar for Best Picture.
For most teams this would be a disaster. For the Dolphins it’s fine. Stephen Ross has other things on his mind, so general manager Chris Grier can trade everyone not named Xavien Howard. Tannehill, left tackle Laremy Tunsil, defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick, receiver Kenny Stills, running back Kenyan Drake, and defensive end Robert Quinn have all been traded in 2019. In exchange, Miami has an assortment of picks, including five first-round picks in the next two seasons, not to mention five picks in the first two rounds of next year’s draft. The Dolphins’ rebuild is set up well, but their current team calls to mind two other movies from the 2018 Oscars: Darkest Hour and The Florida Project.
San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers are the antithesis of the Dolphins. While the Dolphins are the cheapest NFL team beginning a long rebuild, the 49ers are the most expensive and just completed one. The undefeated 49ers cost a league-high $218 million, or $30 million over the $188 million salary cap (they can do that because they have rolled over savings for years and because the salary cap is complicated). San Francisco spends the most money on its defensive line ($46 million), and the second-most money on its front seven defenders ($60 million). It shows. San Francisco’s defense is no. 2 in Football Outsiders’ DVOA, behind only the Patriots, and San Francisco is the no. 1 pass defense.The 49ers pressure quarterbacks (hurries, knockdowns, and sacks) on just under a third of dropbacks, the highest in the league. That’s despite blitzing roughly one in six plays (15 percent), the second-lowest rate in football. Their ability to generate pressure with a four-man rush is one of the biggest reasons the team is undefeated, and it excels because the 49ers have five former first-round picks in their line. The team drafted four of them (Nick Bosa no. 2 in 2019, Solomon Thomas no. 3 in 2017, DeForest Buckner no. 7 in 2016, and Arik Armstead no. 17 in 2015) and traded for one (Dee Ford, whom Kansas City selected at no. 23 in 2014). Last year the 49ers had two interceptions, the fewest in NFL history. GM John Lynch decided to double down on their pass rush instead of adding to the secondary. The moves have worked. The 49ers already have 10 interceptions, tied for the second most in football.
The Cowboys have paid Dak Prescott less than $5 million in his four NFL seasons, a pittance for a team Forbes values at $5 billion. The team has taken the savings from Prescott’s contract and poured it into its offensive line.
Dallas famously drafted a great offensive line, but less well-known is how much the team has paid to keep them around. The Cowboys spend more money on blocking than any team in football, with $52 million this season, or more than a quarter of their budget, devoted to their line. Throw in their running backs, led by Ezekiel Elliott, and the Cowboys are spending $59 million on their running game, or $10 million more than any other team and $20 million more than the $35 million average of the other 31 teams.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and his son Stephen wisely invested to retain the core of their offensive line years ago when they gave left tackle Tyron Smith, center Travis Frederick, and guard Zack Martin deals for a combined 20 years. All three are still among (if not the) best at their position when healthy. This offseason the Cowboys signed right tackle La’el Collins to a contract extension, shoring up four of five spots in the line, and then extended Elliott to shore up the entire running game. The Cowboys have gone beyond having an elite offensive line. Now they have an elite offense. They have the no. 1 offense by simple metrics like yards per play and complex ones like DVOA. They are no. 2 in yards per drive, no. 3 in points per drive, and top five in points per red zone drive.
Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs have an elite passing offense and a bad defense, which is exactly how they’ve allocated their money. Kansas City spends just over $5 million at QB, the fifth-lowest in the league (Mahomes has made more money than Prescott, but he might be even more underpaid). Whereas the Cowboys took the savings from Prescott’s contract and invested it in their blocking and running game, the Chiefs have mostly spent it at pass catcher. The Chiefs have spent the third-most money in the league on receivers and tight ends combined. Sammy Watkins’s $19 million cap hit this season is the highest for a non-QB offensive player, and Travis Kelce’s $10.8 million hit is the second highest for a tight end.
The spending translates to the other side of the ball. The Chiefs are one of three teams spending less than $50 million on their defense this season. The others are the Dolphins, whose owner is focused on 2021, and the Raiders, who traded away defensive end Khalil Mack so they wouldn’t have to pay him. The Chiefs spend almost half of what the Vikings, their opponent this week, spend on defense. The players at the front seven positions cost Kansas City a combined $27 million, the third-lowest behind … the Raiders and Dolphins. Relatedly, the Chiefs defense this year has been their Achilles’ heel. Kansas City started 4-0 but has dropped three of its last four, including games to the Colts and Texans, when both opponents ran the ball down the Chiefs’ throats for nearly 40 minutes of time of possession, which is almost unheard of for an offense as good as Kansas City’s. Their run defense ranks 30th by Football Outsiders’ DVOA, one spot ahead of the Dolphins. A bad run defense isn’t always a sign of a bad defense, but it is when they can’t get off of the field. The Chiefs are in the bottom quarter of the league in yards allowed per drive but in the top quarter of points per drive and yards per drive. Kansas City tried to fix its problems on defense this offseason after losing the AFC championship game, but it didn’t fix its fundamental problem on defense.
New England Patriots
The Patriots defense has sucked the souls from their opponents this season. New England’s defense has allowed four touchdowns (two passing, two rushing), the same number as that unit has scored (two pick-sixes, two fumble recoveries for touchdowns). New England has 19 interceptions already, by far the most in the league and the second-most thus far in the 21st century. Their point-differential through eight games is 189, representative of a 23.6-point margin of victory, the second most since World War II, behind the 2007 Patriots.
New England’s defense is dominant in large part because its secondary is the best in the league. The Patriots have three of Pro Football Focus’s 20 highest-graded cornerbacks with Jonathan Jones (no. 2), Jason McCourty (no. 8), and Stephon Gilmore (no. 22). They also have three of the highest-graded safeties in Devin McCourty (no. 4), Duron Harmon (no. 20), and Terrence Brooks (no. 21).
The Patriots’ secondary is also expensive this year. While New England has skimped at pass rusher, running back, receiver, and even gotten a discount on Tom Brady, it’s paid its players in pass coverage. McCourty’s cap hit this year is $13.4 million, the highest on the team after Brady. Cornerback Gilmore is the fourth-highest paid player on the team and one of the only significant long-term contracts the Bill Belichick Patriots have signed in free agency.
Kirk Cousins has the second-biggest cap hit this year, and, after a bumpy start, he has been … worth it? Here are the top passers in the NFL this year by yards per attempt when touchdowns, interceptions, and sacks are accounted for (adjusted net yards per attempt):
- Patrick Mahomes (9.5)
- Kirk Cousins (8.8)
- Russell Wilson (8.6)
- Aaron Rodgers (8.0)
The three leading contenders for MVP, plus Cousins. The same four players top the passer rating leaderboard. Cousins has the highest completion percentage above expectation for players with more than three starts, just ahead of Wilson and Prescott. Cousins has, by any metric, been as good as almost anyone for the last month. Perhaps that’s why he won the NFC Offensive Player of the Month.
Not Getting What They Paid For
The 1-7 Falcons are not the worst team in football, but no team has as wide of a gap between who they are and who they thought they would be entering this season. In terms of pure cash spent on players this year (which is different than the salary cap), the Falcons handed out more than a quarter of a billion dollars in 2019, the most in the league. So far it has netted them one more win than the Dolphins, who have handed out the least in the league. Atlanta has allowed the most points, the second-most points per game (behind only the Dolphins), and the third-most first downs (183). Despite spending the seventh-most money on their secondary, they have the lowest team pass coverage grade on PFF. They are also tied for the fewest interceptions in the league (two), have allowed the second-most passing touchdowns (19), the second-highest opposing passer rating (117.6), and the second-highest adjusted yards per pass attempt (9.7), and knocked down the second-fewest passes (17).
The Falcons spend the 11th-most money on their front-seven defenders but have the worst pass rush in the league. Atlanta has seven sacks in eight games, a mark matched or beaten by 10 players this season. Their two most expensive defenders in 2019 are cornerback Desmond Trufant, who is the 66th-highest-graded cornerback on PFF, and outside linebacker Vic Beasley, who is the 93rd-highest-graded edge defender out of 108 qualifying players. Beasley has 1.5 sacks this season, second most on the team. The Athletic reported last week that the Falcons picked up Beasley’s $12.8 million option in 2019 because they were worried that not doing so would upset CAA, the agency that also represents Julio Jones and Grady Jarrett. Instead it clogged their cap the way the Falcons wish Beasley could clog gaps.
Their future is bleaker than their present. Atlanta currently has the second-least cap space for next season, with less than a million dollars available. They are one of four teams with more than $200 million lined up for their current top 51 players, along with the Vikings, Bears, and Jaguars.
Estimated 2020 salary cap space vs sunk costs (guaranteed, dead, & prorated $)— Jason_OTC (@Jason_OTC) October 20, 2019
Top right- Healthy cap and ability to create more
Top left-Healthy cap but harder to create more
Bottom right- Below avg. cap but can create more
Bottom left-Below avg. cap and harder to create pic.twitter.com/Dy2p7oGvxE
Atlanta is going to have to make some hard choices. It’s going to have to cut starting center Alex Mack and safety Keanu Neal, which will clear up roughly $14.5 million—enough to pay breakout tight end Austin Hooper with some money leftover. With Matt Ryan, Jones, Devonta Freeman, Trufant, Jarrett, Deion Jones, and Ricardo Allen all locked up long term, the Falcons have gone to amazing lengths to keep the core of a 1-7 team together.
Los Angeles Rams
The Rams spend the most money in the league at running back, led by Todd Gurley’s $9.2 million cap hit, the second-highest in the league. Gurley, whose knee issues have become an undeniable problem, is averaging 3.9 yards per carry this season (34th of 44 qualifying rushers) a year after averaging 4.9 yards per carry (11th of 49 qualifying rushers).
The team’s offensive line woes are a major part of his decline. Last year the Rams were the highest-graded run blocking team and the seventh-highest-graded pass blocking team. This year the Rams are the 26th-highest-graded run blocking team and the 28th-graded pass blocking team. The short explanation is the Rams spend the most money at tackle and the least money at guard in the league, and they’re getting what they paid for at guard but not at tackle. Of the 51 guards who have taken 350 or more snaps this season, L.A.’s Austin Blythe ranks 43rd by PFF grading, while guard Joseph Noteboom ranks 44th.
Rams left tackle Andrew Whitworth has the highest cap hit of any offensive lineman in football this year at $16.7 million, but he is tied for the 12th-highest graded tackle this season by PFF. On the other side of the line, Rob Havenstein has the fourth-biggest cap hit of any right tackle, but he has allowed the fourth-most quarterback pressures of any tackle this season (30). Of the 45 tackles who have played 400 or more snaps this season, Havenstein is ranked 43rd by PFF.
New York Giants
Half the point of having a rookie quarterback is the cap savings that come with it. Yet the Giants are spending the third-most money on quarterbacks this season, more than the Packers, Seahawks, and Saints. Eli Manning has a bigger 2019 cap hit ($23.2 million) than Drew Brees ($23 million), and Daniel Jones has a bigger cap hit ($4.7 million) than Patrick Mahomes ($4.5 million). They’re also allocating $12 million to left tackle Nate Solder this season (ninth-biggest cap hit), and he’s allowed 33 pressures and seven sacks this season, each the second-most among all tackles. He’s been so bad that the team reportedly tried trading him at the deadline. Janoris Jenkins, the fourth-biggest cap hit at cornerback, is the 58th-highest graded corner this season.
If you add up how much each team spends on quarterbacks, running backs, and tight ends, the top three teams are all in the NFC North. The Packers and Vikings at no. 1 and no. 2 respectively is not surprising. The Bears at no. 3 is surprising, considering Mitchell Trubisky is on a rookie contract. Chicago’s Trey Burton, the fourth-highest cap hit of any tight end this season, has been phased out of the offense after being signed away from the Eagles last offseason. Burton, the guy who threw the Philly Special pass, has 14 catches for 84 receiving yards in six games this year. Chicago also has the second-highest cap allocated to receiver this year with $15.6 million going to Allen Robinson, $6.5 million going to Taylor Gabriel, and $4.2 million going to kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson. They’ve been solid, but Trubisky has not been able to get them the ball. Chicago is the 21st-most-efficient passing offense per Football Outsiders and the 28th-most-efficient passing offense by adjusted net yards per attempt, which tallies yards per pass accounting for touchdowns, interceptions, and sacks. The only other teams under 5.0 ANY/A are Washington, Cleveland, Miami, and the Jets.