Beneficiaries of a pass happy league

As previously posted, the NFL has entered into the video-game-like passing era. There is little debate on what is more entertaining, the week 14 shoot out of Ravens v Browns 47-42 or the 24-3 Rams v Pats… fans are not here for “defensive battles”, which is more likely to be a function of offensive struggles. Aside from the increase entertainment, who are the beneficiaries of this pass happy league? Or specifically, who has benefited the most financially on the field from this evolution of the most competitive league on the planet.

Any Given Sunday - The NFL Circle of Parity 2019 : nfl
One of the many illustrations over the years of the circle of parity

Breakdown of Active Cap Allocation

My initial thoughts, was that as a group, the offense has been the ones to benefit the most. Surely in terms of cap allocation, teams are more focused on the offense, but this is not the case. Positional spending for the defense has trended up since 2005 (see below), while the offense has seen the opposite. This is due to variety of factors like, contract changes (QB rookie deals) or increased analytics (realizing that RBs aren’t as important to an offense). Because of the changes, NFL teams are finding a more equal approach to cap allocation (it should be noted that the numbers below are against active roster).

A more balanced effort has been given in active roster cap allocation

Positional spending provides further evidence that the scales have shifted. In looking at the position group allocation compared to the overall group that a position finds itself therein. In other words, how much cap space does a QB take up for the total offense cap. How teams budget their money and each contract can be overwhelming to grasp, so simplicity is key here. I will highlight a few of the positions.

Running back have fallen 5% since 2005 in Cap Allocation of the Offense
  • QB: This has been sideways in cap space allocation. Two reasons (1) the premium for a starting QB is known and accepted (some will be overpaid), (2) the market rate for a starting QB is set for several years, (3) “starting QBs” are locked into longer term contracts and are held on to. Side note – more confirmation that the QB value will not diminish or change. It will likely always be around 20% of the offensive cap space.
  • RB/FB: So if you haven’t been paying attention and you are still in “we need a marquee running back”, then you need to re-think it all… League wide, there has been less of an emphasis on needing to pay big $$$ for RB and not even having a FB. Just some recent examples, Todd Gurley, David Johnson, Christian McCaffrey, or Ezekiel Elliot…. WHY?!! Now there are some cases where teams invest heavily in the position (like my 49ers, who spent 33% of offensive cap in 2020).
  • OL: This is inline with my expectations. The offensive line has been burdened with protecting the most important player on a team more than ever before. Alternatively, defenses are investing more in their direct opposition, the DL.

On the other side of the football, the results show a slight increase in paying the DL and DB’s; again, confirmation bias of the pass happy league. Edge rushers are cornerstones of putting pressure on the QB. The 2020 Buffalo Bills lead the league in this area, pouring in almost 27% of total cap space into their DL, which is almost half of their defensive cap allocation.

Alternatively, the challenge of covering WRs has never been higher. Being a DB in the NFL has to be one of the most athletically challenging positions on the field. Finally, the LB who is counter opponent to the RB has seen a decline in prosperity, but not as dramatic as the RB.

Playoff Bound

But as a GM or fan, besides being entertained, the ultimately the question is: what leads to a winning season and playoffs? The simple answer is, it depends. This really isn’t surprising. Each franchise is in different stages of the a lifecycle, different cultures and philosophies, and different divisional rivalries. With that being said, here are some interesting findings from the 2020 playoff teams.

There are four teams that spend less than 25% of their cap on the QB (1) Ravens ~8% (2) Chiefs ~8% (3) Bills ~10% (4) Browns ~ 15% (5) Bears (~22%). These are all teams that have starting QB’s on their rookie deals. This allows these teams to focus their cap spending on other areas that align with the overall strategy. The Ravens are the only playoff team to have over 30% of offensive cap space to their running back core. While the Chiefs have thrown almost a combined 60% of their offensive cap on the WR and TE positions. The next highest was the Bears at 48%. Finally, this has allowed these franchises to put more money towards the OL.

Alternatively, the Colts spend 63% of their cap on the offense and ~75% of their offensive cap is spent on the QB and OL positions. The Steelers have also allocated ~75% of their offense into their QB and OL groups. The only team that has allocated more on their QB and OL is the Washington Football Team at ~82%. Makes sense as none of these teams have a dual threat QB and all have a traditional pocket passer. However, the Rams, who have a traditional pocket passer in Goff, had forgo paying their OL more, under 20% of offensive cap, as their QBs took 38% of their offensive spend. This forced them to be more balanced in their cap with their other offensive groupings. The Rams rely heavily on play action and quick hitting passes.

Defensively the themes are a little harder to see and vary significantly more. For instance, the cap allocation for LBs and DBs for the Buccaneers is a whopping 65% for LBs and 13% for DBs. The Titans are virtually the inverse, with 61% to DBs and 14% to LBs. What is obvious to see the average allocation for the DL is the highest of any group at 40%, LB are at 29%, and DBs are at 32%.

There is a saying (and I am not 100% sure if Billy Graham said it) that goes like, “Give me five minutes with a person’s checkbook, and I will tell you where their heart is.” Well, I have spent some minutes on this and from what I can tell, there are many rivers that lead to the ocean. There is no strong correlation between wins and any positional spending. To be honest, it really bummed me out! But, what I can confidently say that eventually you pay a premium for the QB position, so if you get a good one, hold onto them! The Chiefs were right to lock up Mahomes and Watson has got to get out of Houston!

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