Often when a good player is traded for a draft pick or let go in free agency where the team gets a compensatory draft pick we hear the argument that the likelihood of the pick or picks acquired turning out to be as good as the player lost is very small, so the trade or the decision to let the player leave in free agency was a poor one. But the true cost/benefit analysis in such a decision goes beyond whether or not the draft pick(s) acquired ever turn out to be as good as the player who left. There is the additional benefit of freeing up cap space, and the players that can be acquired with such cap space. In addition sometimes we hear that it’s a mistake to let a player go because there are no players as good as the player lost readily available at his position that can be acquired, so the team will be hurt by weakening that position. However, this again does not take into account a full cost/benefit analysis, as it is possible that the team could strengthen another position with the cap space freed up more than it hurts the position of the player being let go.
An interesting illustration of this is the decision by the Jets in 2016 not to aggressively pursue re-signing Damon “Snacks” Harrison. That decision has been widely criticized. Perhaps that criticism is warranted. But the true costs and benefits of the decision to let Harrison leave in free agency go well beyond the fact that the Jets lost a good player in Snacks.
The New York Giants signed Damon Harrison to a five year, $46.25 million contract in free agency during the 2016 off season. But that $46.25 million isn’t the “real” structure of the deal. Nearly every lengthy deal in the NFL contains years tacked on at the end with little or no guaranteed money, effectively making those years team option years. The more accurate way to characterize such deals is to examine when the dead money on the deal is no longer so prohibitive that it effectively prevents the team from cutting the player; that gives you the “real” length of the deal for all practical purposes. In the case of Snacks his deal is “really” a 3 year deal with two years of team options tacked on at the end. The total money to be paid to Snacks over the first three years of his deal is $30 million, making his deal “really” a 3 year, $30 million deal.
Let’s assume that for the Jets to keep Snacks in the fold they would have had to also give him a three year, $30 million deal. It’s possible Snacks would have given the Jets a discount, but there was little at the time to suggest that would be the case, so let’s assume it was not the case. So the Jets, by letting Snacks go, freed up $30 million in cap space.
In addition, the Jets acquired a 3rd round compensatory pick, pick #107 in the 2017 draft, in compensation for losing Snacks in free agency. That pick #107 was traded away by the Jets in exchange for picks #125 and #204. Pick #125 was then traded away for picks #141 and #197. So that one compensatory pick resulted in the Jets picking three players in the 2017 draft. With pick # 141 the Jets selected wide receiver Chad Hansen. With pick #197 the Jets selected cornerback Jeremy Clark. And with pick #204 the Jets selected cornerback Derrick Jones.
Chad Hansen has played little so far, collecting three receptions for 33 yards. Jeremy Clark has been on the non-football injured reserved list for the entire 2017 season. Derrick Jones has been on the 53 man roster but has not seen the field the entire season. Thus far there has been little benefit from these draft choices, but their careers are just beginning. In another two years we will have a much better handle on what, if anything, these players can contribute to the Jets.
To replace Snacks at nose tackle the Jets signed Steve McLendon to a three year, $10.5 million deal. If McLendon plays for the Jets in 2018 the Jets will have saved $19.5 million in cap space over three years at the nose tackle position by signing McLendon instead of Snacks. While there are no exact matches in free agent contracts the Jets have recently signed, the three recent deals closest to the $6.5 million a year over three years in cap savings the Jets achieved by replacing Snacks with McLendon are as follows:
- Kelvin Beachum - three years, $24 million
- Brian Winters - three years, $21.5 million
- Morris Claiborne - 1 year, $5 million, cost in years 2 and 3 yet to be determined, if the Jets end up deciding to retain Claiborn long term
You might also include the Josh McCown deal for one year at $6.5 million, but the chances of McCown being retained for three years seem remote, so I think that is a less tenable option.
Let’s put the whole picture together now. The cost of the decision to let Snacks go in free agency is obvious: loss of an excellent nose tackle. The benefits are Steve McLendon, Chad Hansen, Jeremy Clark, Derrick Jones and one of either Kelvin Beachum, Brian Winters or Morris Claiborne. Would you make that trade? I think the answer is yet to be determined, pending the developing careers of the three 2017 draft choices. Whether or not you would make that trade, the issue is a bit more complex than whether the nose tackle position takes a hit without Snacks manning it, or whether the draft choice(s) turn out to be as good as Snacks. By letting Snacks go the Jets managed to acquire a good nose tackle, though not as good as Snacks. The Jets also managed to either solidify the offensive line or the defensive backfield, depending on which player you choose to sign with the cap savings, and they managed to acquire three young players who may or may not become useful pieces for the team going forward. If one or more of those young players becomes a useful piece the Jets also managed to acquire a very inexpensive piece or pieces for the next four years, freeing up more cap space in the future. Whether or not the entire package of players acquired by the Jets is enough to justify letting Snacks go in free agency, the issue presented, as illustrated by the Snacks case, is always more complex than just asking what are the odds any draft pick(s) obtained will turn out better than the player lost.