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Searching for Superstars in the NFL’s Bargain Bin

Something is seriously wrong when midtier players are fetching big-money contracts during the NFL’s free-agency frenzy, while superstars like Odell Beckham Jr. and Antonio Brown can be acquired at cut-rate prices

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Former Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson used to tell a story about how he cut a linebacker named John Roper for falling asleep in a team meeting in October 1993. It was supposed to send a message to his team about breaking the rules. It’s also worth noting Roper was not very good. “If Troy Aikman fell asleep in a meeting, I’d go over and whisper, ‘Wake up, Troy,’” Johnson later explained.

It seems unbelievable to have to say this, but apparently it needs to be said: Having good players on your team is a good thing. This seems like it should be established by now, considering how long humans have been playing team sports. If, for instance, you have one of the league’s best players under contract, especially if it’s a manageable one, you should do everything you can to keep him, including making exceptions for him. Inexplicably, two separate teams, the Steelers and Giants, failed to follow that logic this week when they traded Antonio Brown and Odell Beckham Jr, respectively. In the process, we learned a lot about how teams view elite talent and how they view the modern game. If, in a league dominated by passing, two elite wide receivers can change teams for less-than-equal value, it is clear that teams don’t care as much about talent as they should.

For the second time in a week, I must make this point: It would take an unholy amount of damage in the locker room to turn a legitimate superstar’s production into a net loss for the team. Brown was the best player on the sixth-best offense in the NFL in 2018. Beckham not only had over 1,000 receiving yards in 12 games but when he threw a touchdown pass last October, it traveled more yards in the air than any touchdown pass Eli Manning had thrown in a year. The Giants’ plan looks to be in shambles: They took a running back, a position with a notoriously short shelf life, second overall in last year’s draft. They’ve since switched gears to a full-scale rebuild after trading Beckham, their best player, because they thought he was sort of a jerk. For some reason, NFL teams have decided to minimize talent. It seems ludicrous to say that acquiring superstars is an inefficiency to exploit in the NFL, but here we are. Let me repeat: Having good players is a good thing.

Superstars in the NFL are generally undervalued and underpaid. There are reasons for this: They rarely reach the open market because teams can use the franchise tag as well as offer cap-friendly contract extensions before that time. Middle-tier players set the benchmarks for pay, and then the actual superstars sign extensions with their current team for a little more. Kirk Cousins is not the best quarterback in football, but the Vikings gave him what was, at the time, the highest amount of immediately guaranteed money ever last year: $84 million for three years. Shortly after, Atlanta’s Matt Ryan and Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers re-negotiated their deals for slightly more. Trey Flowers’s new deal should probably not include more than $40 million guaranteed at signing in a league where Aaron Donald got $50 million when he signed his extension last year. Olivier Vernon is not, and never has been, the best pass rusher in football, but he got the biggest defensive end contract in history three years ago because he hit the open market. Salaries at most positions are not rising along with the salary cap, which has exploded by $65 million since 2013.

What happened earlier this decade to the quarterback position is now happening to nearly every position: Superstars are not getting paid what they are worth, and middling players are getting paid more than they are worth. The gap in cap hits between a star who re-signs with his team and an above-average player who happens to hit free agency is almost nonexistent. This has tightened the market for veteran, top-tier players, leaving them undervalued. It’s not much of a risk for the Raiders to give up a third- and a fifth-round pick to pay Brown less money per year than Jets linebacker C.J. Mosley and nearly the same amount as quarterback Blake Bortles (the Jaguars are eating $16.5 million after his Wednesday release).

If a team wants to get rid of its superstar, a smart team should do everything it can to acquire him. This undervaluing of stars has reared its head a handful of times this offseason. Running back Le’Veon Bell plays an undervalued position and sat out all of last season, but he’s been a threat to reach 2,000 yards from scrimmage when he’s healthy. The market for him should have been much higher than the $35 million in guarantees the Jets offered, especially when you consider teams had one billion dollars in available cap space. Running back contracts tend to age poorly, but a short-term contract worth a lot up front would have been nothing for a cap-rich team. Safety Earl Thomas was one of the best-performing players of 2018 before his season-ending injury in late September, and has at times in his career been one of the best players in the league. But he was inexplicably relegated to the second wave of free agency, netting less guaranteed money in his contract from the Ravens than Landon Collins received from the Redskins. Thomas will replace Eric Weddle in Baltimore’s secondary, who’s one of two safeties that has performed better than Thomas during this decade. Weddle signed with the Rams for $6.25 million guaranteed. I give up.

“Culture wins football,” Chip Kelly said, and he tried as hard as possible to prove it in Philadelphia by getting rid of good players. This line has shown to be partly true. Culture can differentiate between talented teams, but no team lacking in talent is going to win the Super Bowl. Sorry. Over the entire history of football, smart coaches have made exceptions for talent. That’s part of the deal of being talented.

Trading a player like Brown or Beckham is the result of a sport tricking itself into believing that talent is meaningless. I believe in the power of leadership and intangibles, but that comes after having good players. I am also skeptical of how much damage one player with an attitude problem can do, especially if, in between having a bad attitude, he destroys defenses. The Rams have built a team around the idea that stars can fit in the same galaxy. Patriots coach Bill Belichick values leadership and locker-room harmony too, but no one takes more low-risk fliers on “problem” players than he does. He usually doesn’t find them to be much of a problem. Oh, and he tried to trade for Beckham.

What exactly was the Giants’ fear when it came to keeping Beckham? “He had become too much of a pain in the ass,” a source told SportsNet New York. “And there was a real fear that eventually it would get worse.” Was he so destructive that they had to move on from him at the start of the new league year, after giving him more than $20 million guaranteed last year alone? What the hell was he doing? The Giants have swapped out a fear that it would “get worse” to a near certainty that their roster is worse than it was on Monday. If I were an owner, and a coach or general manager came to me and said a superstar was such a problem that he needed to be dealt for less than equal value, I’d have more questions about the coach or general manager than the player. Players can be problems. They can complain, they can want more shine. The coach’s job is to fix those problems, not run away from them. As Don Draper said, “That’s what the money is for.”

The best-case scenario is that the Giants net a player in the same universe as Beckham with the 17th overall pick they received from the Browns as part of the deal. Then they can cross their fingers that by the time that player becomes a contributor they haven’t decided to trade him for some reason.

It is one thing to say you value a harmonious locker room, but you shouldn’t go so far as actually getting rid of your best players in search of it. Brown’s final few weeks as a Steeler weren’t encouraging for his future with the team, but it was probably a better idea to run it back and at least try to make it work with him rather than get rid of him for almost nothing. Instead, they got two mid-round picks and the biggest dead cap hit in history.

I’ve watched both Brown and Beckham up close in practice, and they are both phenomenal. Brown is more of a technician in practice than he gets credit for—I’ve seen him remain on the field an hour after everyone else, practicing different angles on the JUGS machine. Sometimes he has people drape themselves on him so he can practice contested catches, something I’ve never seen before. He’s not for everyone; one day, at last year’s training camp, he appeared to have his own personal water guy. But it’s not as though he aimlessly floats around during practice. He’s as locked into each rep as anyone I’ve seen in the league. Raiders GM Mike Mayock said Brown is “as good a practice football player and works as hard as any football player I have seen in my life.”

Beckham, too, is known for his work ethic. I haven’t seen him in practice as much as Brown in the past year or so, but the last time I talked to him, we talked about how he was rearranging his entire life by pretending to be left-handed because he thought that’d help his catch radius. He was brushing his teeth with his left hand. To catch better. Actions speak louder than words, and these guys work their asses off. Now they get to do it for someone else.