Positional value has remained relatively static in the NFL in recent years. Aside from the running back market crash and a small dip in the demand for safeties in 2018, conventional wisdom about where teams should allocate resources hasn’t changed much. Quarterbacks still matter above all else, and a few select positions typically come next in the hierarchy.
Pass rushers have been near the top of that list for years, and that’s shown in the league’s contract numbers. At $23.5 million per season, the Bears’ Khalil Mack is the only non-QB whose deal ranks in the top 10 in the league by average annual value. The franchise tag for defensive ends, which sits at $17.1 million, is the second-highest franchise-tag value in the NFL. Playing on the franchise tag for the second straight year, Cowboys defensive end Demarcus Lawrence will make $20.6 million in 2019. That figure ranks 19th in the NFL by AAV; Broncos edge rusher Von Miller comes in at no. 20 at $19 million per season. Other than QBs and all-world outlier Aaron Donald, the highest-paid players in the NFL make a living by chasing QBs. But some teams have started to change how they value the position, and come draft time, that shift could affect how clubs look at the best class of edge rushers in recent memory.
Smart franchises that are trying to crack the league’s elite examine the most successful teams and try to mimic their strategies. And if you want to learn how to win, there’s no better place to look than New England. The Patriots are the paragon of smart NFL team building. They exhaust every possible resource in pursuit of finding value and inefficiencies, and postmortems on their rosters year to year can provide valuable league-wide insights. For example, anyone who studies how Bill Belichick and Co. allocate resources can see that New England never, ever breaks the bank for a pass rusher. When star defensive end Trey Flowers hit free agency this spring, Belichick was content to let him sign with the Lions on a monster five-year, $90 million deal with a whopping $56 million guaranteed (that AAV comes in just behind Miller at no. 21 in the league). In 2016, when former first-round pick Chandler Jones was entering the final year of his contract, the Pats dealt him to Arizona for reserve guard Jonathan Cooper and a second-round pick.
And Belichick doesn’t limit his frugality to players he drafted, either. New England often looks for edge rushers in the free-agent and trade markets, but rarely dabbles in high-end talent. The Patriots have been to four Super Bowls in the past five seasons. None of those Super Bowl teams ranked higher than 23rd in percentage of the cap allocated to true edge rushers (i.e. Dont’a Hightower’s number is excluded from 2016), and twice, they’ve finished dead last (2017 and 2014). In 2018, they ranked 30th at 5.7 percent.
Part of the reason the Patriots do this is because they value flexibility—and they achieve that by employing multifaceted players. Hightower is nominally an off-ball linebacker, but New England regularly uses him as an edge rusher in passing scenarios. The same goes for Kyle Van Noy. New England prefers to spend its money on players who can fill multiple roles depending on the situation, rather than shelling out for a single rusher who makes a living on the edge. Belichick and his staff will take Michael Bennett and Hightower for the price of Trey Flowers any day, and armed with a deep, interchangeable group of front-four players, they’re still able to wreak havoc with a combination of twists and line stunts.
The Chiefs got a close-up view of that strategy in last season’s AFC championship game. New England used an array of line stunts to record nine quarterback hits and four sacks, with eight different players notching at least one hit on league MVP Patrick Mahomes II. By contrast, Kansas City was locked into a more traditional defensive roster construction last season, due in large part to Justin Houston’s $20.6 million cap hit. The Chiefs allocated 22.9 percent of their cap to edge rushers—the third-highest figure in the league. Despite shelling out all that money, Tom Brady’s quick release and the Pats’ stellar offensive line held Kansas City’s vaunted pass-rushing pair of Houston and Dee Ford in check (neither recorded a QB hit), and New England won the game 37-31.
Brady’s lightning-fast decision-making may seem like an exception, but release times have decreased across the league in recent years. In 2018, 13 quarterbacks finished with an average time to throw of 2.5 seconds or less. In 2011, there were only six. As quarterbacks continue to get rid of the ball quicker, edge rushers could see their impact diminish. And though defenders who play closer to the ball—like Aaron Donald and Fletcher Cox—have become more valuable, it’s arguable that edge rushers are having less of an impact than at any point in the modern era.
If teams start to follow New England’s lead, and the overall pass-rushing market declines, where will all that extra money go? For the Patriots, those resources go toward beefing up the secondary. New England rarely makes aggressive forays into free agency, but the two notable exceptions to that rule have come in its pursuit of top-tier cornerbacks. The Pats made a splash in 2017 by handing Stephon Gilmore a five-year, $65 million contract (with $40 million guaranteed) that made him one of the highest-paid cornerbacks in football. That deal came three years after New England landed Darrelle Revis on a one-year, $12 million contract; Revis was named first-team All Pro that season and played a pivotal role in the Patriots’ run to a fourth Super Bowl win. And though Belichick’s expensive moves in free agency have been reserved for corners, he hasn’t been afraid to spend at safety, either: Devin McCourty has carried at least the third-highest cap hit on the roster for each of the past two seasons.
All of that spending combined to give New England the second most expensive group of defensive backs in the league last season (21 percent of the cap was allocated to DBs, behind only the Ravens at 22.2 percent). Kansas City ranked 11th at 13.8 percent, but that number is a bit misleading. Of the $24.8 million the Chiefs spent on their secondary, $13 million went to safety Eric Berry, who played just three games (including one in the playoffs). No one else in the secondary counted for more than $5.2 million against the cap in 2018, and no Chiefs cornerback had a cap hit higher than $2.1 million. Take Berry’s contract out of the equation, and the Chiefs spent less on their secondary than all but a handful of teams.
This spring, the Chiefs have been making moves—and while their AFC championship game loss may not be the catalyst behind it, the team’s plan so far has been noticeably Belichickian. First, Kansas City released Houston and avoided his $21.1 million cap hit for 2019. Then, after giving Ford the franchise tag, general manager Brett Veach elected to trade the 28-year-old Pro Bowler to San Francisco for a second-round pick. (Berry was also released in a move that had become all but certain after he played in just three regular-season games over the past two seasons.) With plenty of cap space available from those moves, the Chiefs gave a market-setting deal to safety Tyrann Mathieu; they were also in play for cornerback Ronald Darby, who eventually signed a one-year deal to remain with the Eagles. Rather than spend a huge chunk of their available dollars on Houston or Ford, the Chiefs were content to ship both out of town and replace one with former Browns edge rusher Emmanuel Ogbah, who will count for about $1.3 million against the cap in 2019.
Two of the top teams in the league eschewing expensive edge rushers in order to fortify other position groups doesn’t necessarily constitute a trend. The Eagles devoted 19.9 percent of their cap to edge rushers when they won the Super Bowl two seasons ago, which was the second-highest mark in the league at the time. San Francisco was happy to grab Ford from the Chiefs and hand him $33.4 million guaranteed in the process. And we’re less than a year removed from the Bears trading a pair of first-round picks to Oakland to land Mack and make him the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history.
Many teams are still looking for a premium pass rusher as one of their franchise cornerstones, and this year’s draft comes with no shortage of those players. With guys like Ohio State’s Nick Bosa, Kentucky’s Josh Allen, and Mississippi State’s Montez Sweat all near the top of many draft boards (and about three to four other edge rushers who could also go in the first round), this month’s draft will likely be dominated by big-name pass rushers. The NFL’s conventional wisdom may not have shifted enough yet to stop those guys from flying off the board early, but as the smartest team in football continues to find bargains up front—and other successful franchises start to follow suit—it might be time to wonder if they should.