As every Jets fan knows, the NFL salary cap has been the bane of our existence since Mike Tannenbaum took over the reigns as GM. The Jets have used accounting tricks and kicked the can down the road year after year to live in a perennial quasi cap hell state. The Jets have traded up in the draft to grab high draft picks at the peak of their expense and the low point of their value to the team. The Jets have traded away draft picks to acquire high priced short term veteran players, and have signed pricy free agents, including their own free agents, to long term deals above market value. This tour de force of cap mismanagement is now coming to its natural fruition, as all the bills for years of head scratching decisions are coming due in a perfect storm of 2013 salary cap hell: this time it's for real, and it's angry.
The solution? Patience, and Moneyball, NFL style. What I hope to accomplish in this article is an outline of a comprehensive approach to managing the salary cap and building a roster for perennial dominance.
It Feels A Little Drafty
First rule of thumb: build through the draft. Draft classes are the biggest bargain in the NFL under the rookie wage scale - make full use of that bargain. Hoard draft choices. Ruthlessly cut older players who can be replaced at little or no detriment to the team by younger, cheaper players. Do not be afraid to give younger players a chance. Invest in building the NFL's premier college talent evaluation staff. Overspend to get the best talent evaluators around the league and do whatever it takes to keep them. Treat the draft as the single most important key to building a long term successful roster.
It's All About The QB
As many of you know, I am a great believer in a QB first, last and everything in between approach, Finding your franchise QB is the single most important goal of any NFL team. A great QB is as valuable as all other offensive starters combined. With a great QB you will be a perennial contender. Without one, everything else has to break right for you to contend. As difficult as it might be to find a great QB, it is surely that much more difficult to find great players at nearly every other position. So, a paramount principle - accumulate assets that will allow you to trade up and grab your franchise QB when he becomes available. If you make a mistake with your selection, be prepared to cut your losses as soon as it becomes apparent he is not the guy, and preemptively accumulate the assets necessary to trade up and choose your next guy. Repeat this process every 3 to 4 years until you have found the right guy. Do not settle for average - if your QB is decent but unlikely ever to be great, trade him or let him walk as soon as you have identified a new candidate. Never tie up big cap figures on average QBs. Pay up only for Pro Bowl level QBs. The corollary - when you find a true franchise QB, never ever let him go. Pay him whatever it takes to retain him. There is almost no cap figure too large to devote to a true franchise QB.
It's Not About The Backup
Never take up valuable cap space with backup QBs. Some teams spend as much as $3-4 million on a backup QB - don't be one of them. Why? First, with all the rules in place to protect the QB, they rarely go down for more than a game or two these days. So in most years a cap investment of $3-4 million will be completely wasted on an expensive insurance policy that never plays. Second, if the starting QB does happen to go down for a lengthy period of time, there is very little chance ANY backup will be good enough to keep the team in Super Bowl contention. The only goal worth striving for is the Super Bowl. Since a backup QB is very unlikely to get you there, any investment in a backup QB beyond the bare minimum is again wasted. In the unlikely event that the starter goes down for a long period, simply suck it up, endure a down season, and enjoy your improved draft position for the following year, when you should once again be in contention.
Youth Shall be Served
The rookie wage scale changes everything. Some GMs have adjusted accordingly, some have not. The Jets need to be among the teams that recognize that, aside from a franchise QB, draft picks are now the biggest value in the NFL. The salary cap creates a theoretical level playing field for all teams. There are only a few ways to consistently beat that field. One is with an elite QB. Another is with perennially having better drafts than your opponents. This is very, very difficult to do. It should be strived for, but not relied upon. A third way, and the easiest to actually implement, is to recognize and exploit market inefficiencies. The easiest market inefficiency to exploit is the undervaluation of young players under the rookie wage scale. Entire draft classes cost just $5 million under the cap now, and can be locked up for four years. This is where the core of your team should reside, every single year. You should have an average of at least 6.5 players from every first year class in the NFL. After 4 draft classes you should have at least 26 players on the roster who are young and inexpensive, approximately 12 of which should be starters at any given time. That gives you half your starters and 26 roster spots for approximately $28 million in cap space, accounting for rising salaries as draft classes move up.
Let My People Go
Aside from the players obtained from the most recent 4 drafts, the other 12 starters (allowing for one extra starter on each side of the ball to account for shifting packages) not coming from the previous 4 years draft classes should come from guys past the 4 year mark. As many of these as possible should come from guys you drafted who turned out to be good enough to retain for the long term. On the current roster, Nick Mangold, D' Brickashaw Ferguson, Muhammed Wilkerson, and Darelle Revis definitely fit that mold and should be long term core players. The jury is still out on guys like Quinton Coples, Stephen Hill, Demario Davis and Jeremy Kerley, and guys like David Harris, Dustin Keller and Kyle Wilson are borderline guys. The plan should be to avoid retaining borderline guys as much as possible, retaining only Pro Bowl or near Pro Bowl level talents. Any draftee not considered to be likely to reach that level should be traded for draft picks prior to the trade deadline of his 4th year. If there are no takers for trades, these players should be permitted to walk after their 4th year, when their price goes up but their value goes down. In this manner you should be getting at least 3 or 4 extra draft picks each year, whether by way of compensatory picks or trades.
Players Yearning To Be Free
Another 2-4 starters should come from selected Pro Bowl level or near Pro Bowl level talents from outside free agents, signed to long term deals. Examples on the current Jets roster would be Antonio Cromartie and maybe Santonio Holmes, prior to his injury. You would thus sign only 1 top end free agent every one or two years on average. The final 4 starters should be solid veterans in the Yeremiah Bell mode, guys who will provide a year or two of solid NFL veteran play and can be signed for cheap. Your 8 star FA starters will cost about $9 million on average against the cap. That brings the cap figure to $100 million. The 4 solid vets will cost you maybe $6 million against the cap. Now you have 38 roster spots and every starter for approximately $106 million. Fill in the other 15 spots, including the kicker, punter, long snapper, 2 backup QBs and 10 other guys with a mix of UDFAs and some cheap fill in FAs and you get another $10-12 million for a $116-118 million cap figure, with any remaining amount retained for in season signings.
Trading Back To the Future
By following the above roster guidelines you should be able to obtain 3 or 4 extra draft choices each and every year, whether by trade or by compensatory picks. These will be vital for the next phase of roster building: trading into future years. In general trading a pick in the current year's draft for a pick in the following year's draft results in moving up one round. So, for instance, you should be able to trade a 2013 7th for a 2014 6th or a 2013 3rd for a 2014 2nd most years. Beginning in 2013, make an effort to trade a low round pick and a high round pick for better picks in the following year's draft every year. This will result in losing 2 picks in 2013, but those should be covered somewhat by the extra picks obtained via trade or FA compensation. After 2013 you will then have an extra high pick and an extra mid round pick every year. By doing this every year you will soon have the extra high level picks necessary to obtain your franchise QB when he becomes available, without completely gutting that year's draft class. Trading back in years is one of the only foolproof ways of continually moving up in the draft over time without losing picks.
The Last Shall Be First
Don't be afraid to trade away low level picks, even multiple low level picks, in order to move up in the current year's draft and/or trade into a future year. The extra picks acquired through trade and FA compensation will prevent you from having small draft classes and cushion the blow to your draft class, and you will be able to obtain much more valuable mid round picks, which are much more likely to become difference makers than 6th or 7th rounders. 7th rounders in particular should be aggressively traded away, as they are in general not much more valuable than UDFAs.
Past The Expiration Date
Player contracts should always be structured so that the Jets can cut guys with no cap hit and ideally achieve substantial cap savings at any time past the 29th birthday. While guys can and do have long successful careers past 30, those are the exception rather than the rule. Retain only the best of the best past age 30. Better to cut or trade guys a year or two early than a year or two late. Ruthlessly maintain a young, fast, athletic and cheap core of young players.
It's A Small World
Make the investment in scouting foreign talent. Baseball and basketball teams already scour the globe looking for talent; it is only a matter of time before NFL teams invest heavily in doing likewise. The Jets should get out front of this trend. Of particular interest initially should be foreign basketball, track and rugby athletes whose athletic talents and skill sets most easily translate to the NFL. While this is unlikely to result initially in a bounty of NFL talent, a patient, long term approach should result in a small but measurable edge in finding foreign free agents who can help the team, as well as a leg up in the future as this approach becomes more mainstream.
Find prospects among basketball players and track athletes. This is a growing trend in the NFL. Get out front of it and invest in the scouting resources necessary to find the occasional diamond in the rough from other sports.
Stats All Folks
Invest heavily in building mathematical models for success. Find the best analytical mathematicians you can and set them to work running sophisticated statistical analysis and building mathematical models for what really matters when evaluating talent and putting a team together. This kind of statistical heavy lifting, sabermetric approach is already de rigeur in baseball talent evaluation and is just starting to catch on in basketball. In football it is still in it's infancy, practiced primarily by websites like Football Outsiders. Investing long term in refining the crude models currently available and identifying market inefficiencies in the way teams value certain skill sets and statistics should pay major dividends over the long run, as the Jets over time begin to consistently acquire undervalued players whose contributions exceed the value of their cap numbers.
All of the above guidelines are just that: guidelines. They are not meant to be rigidly followed no matter what. Being an effective GM requires the wisdom to know when to be flexible like Gumby and break some of your own rules. So strive to follow the overall blueprint while allowing for flexibility when unusual circumstances warrant it.
Putting It All Together
Taking the steps outlined above should keep the Jets ahead of the pack in terms of exploiting market inefficiencies, and that should over time result in a consistently superior on the field product. When every team has the same amount of money to spend, long term success depends on spending yours more wisely. I've outlined here a comprehensive strategy to do just that.
By taking the above steps the Jets can establish a long term perennial contender, while simultaneously getting out and staying out from under cap hell. When and if a franchise QB is found, that contender will likely turn into a team capable of winning multiple Super Bowls. It CAN be done, if the Jets have the will and the foresight to stop going for the short term fix and really plan a winning long term strategy. By taking these steps, the Jets can exit cap hell forever and finally make the salary cap their friend. That would indeed be a feather in the Jets' cap.