The Ultimate Blueprint for Managing NFL Cap Space

Vincent Frank@VincentFrankNFLCorrespondent IApril 10, 2013

Courtesy of Yahoo
Courtesy of Yahoo

The start of the new league year in March brings all this hoopla surrounding free agents and which teams are going to be the most active. To me, it is all about making the headlines immediately following the Super Bowl and attempting to build a team from the outside in. 

This rarely works in the National Football League. 

We have seen this somewhat disastrous front office model play out with teams like the Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins, Oakland Raiders and even the Dallas Cowboys over the last decade.

It is the idea that we are going to look for short-term fixes and band-aids on lingering problems within the makeup of the roster and structure of the front office. 

The proof is in the pudding. 

In 2011, the Philadelphia Eagles went out and built a team that former top 10 pick Vince Young would end up dubbing "The Dream Team." They threw plenty of money around, but the results on the field obviously didn't match the amount of money the Eagles decided to spend that spring. 

Player Position Contract  
Michael Vick Quarterback five years, $80 million (extension)  
Nnamdi Asomugha Cornerback five years, $60 million   
Jason Babin Defensive End five years, $28 million   
Cullen Jenkins Defensive Tackle five years, $25 million   
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That's nearly $200 million that Philadelphia doled out for three players that are no longer on the roster and one (Michael Vick) that will be battling for a starting job during training camp in 2013. In fact, the best signing Philadelphia made that offseason was Evan Mathis at just $735,000. The underrated guard started 31 games over the last two seasons. Pro Football Focus even graded Mathis out as the best overall guard in the NFL this past season (subscription required). 

It goes without saying that the veteran earned the five-year, $25 million contact he received from Philadelphia last March. 

This brings me to my first point in the article. Paying top-notch money to "sexy" free agents won't get it done. Instead, teams need to focus on bringing in valuable veterans to mesh with solid draft classes in order to build depth up and down the roster. Philadelphia failed to do this back in 2011 and that's a primary reason it has won just 12 games in the last two seasons. 

For comparison's sake, let's take a look at the two reigning conference champions. 

The Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers utilize the very same front office and salary cap philosophies. They will not overpay to retain "key veterans," aren't going to be free spenders on the open market and tend to build from within. 

This is magnified by the fact that the largest free-agent contract that either team doled out last offseason was the two-year, $7.4 million contract that San Francisco gave to Mario Manningham. While the veteran receiver played an important role throughout a majority of the regular season, a serious knee injury forced him to miss the postseason and Super Bowl. In essence, the reigning NFC champions got to the ultimate game without major productions from any of its low-key free-agent signings. 

On the other hand, Baltimore's largest acquisition last offseason was an average veteran named Jacoby Jones, who did play a key role in its success in the playoffs. That being said, the core of the Super Bowl champion Ravens was built internally. 

All said, 72 percent of the players who suited up for both teams in Super Bowl XLVII were homegrown talent. 

Baltimore and San Francisco have gone out there and signed some free agents and even traded with one another this offseason. 

That being said, neither went out and spent a whole lot of money to retain individuals that I would call "role players." 

Player Position Contract NFL Starts
Dannell Ellerbe Linebacker   five years, $34.7 million 14 
 Paul Kruger Linebacker   five years, $40.5 million  6
 Ricky Jean-Francois Defensive Line  four years, $22 million   2
Delanie Walker Tight End  four years, $17.5 million    40

In no way am I indicating that these four players weren't valuable to their teams in 2012. Instead, it's the idea that good organizations with solid front office structures are not going to overpay for role players. They would rather let other teams pay these players the type of money that makes them seem more valuable than they really are. 

Delanie Walker's cap hit of $2.987 million this upcoming season is more than what Rob Gronkowski is going to count against the New England Patriots' cap. This is what separates the Tennessee Titans from teams like the Patriots, Ravens and 49ers. 

In addition, Dannell Ellerbe is set to count more against the Miami Dolphins cap in two of the next three seasons than Patrick Willis will count against San Francisco's cap. 

That is just plain ridiculous. 

As you can see in the link above, San Francisco structured the Willis contract by taking a large cap hit of $17.7 million this past season. It was in position to do that as a vast majority of its young players were still under rookie contracts. As the 49ers start to sign these youngsters to extensions, Willis will be making below-market money. 

Here is some food for thought. According to Pro Football Focus, San Francisco's offensive line ranked No. 1 overall in the NFL (subscription required). This despite the fact its starting five averaged just $1.3 million in base salary last season. Their combined base salary of $6.7 million was less than Doug Free is expected to earn this upcoming season with the Dallas Cowboys, barring a renegotiated contract. 

Some may conclude that San Francisco's situation was rare. After all, a majority of its starting offensive linemen were playing under rookie contracts. This isn't true. 

Joe Staley was in the fourth year of a six-year, $28.1 million extension that saw him count a whopping $13.8 million against the cap in 2009. Meanwhile, Jonathan Goodwin was an under-the-radar free-agent acquisition from the New Orleans Saints prior to the 2011 season. San Francisco inked Goodwin to a three-year, $10.9 million contract a mere weeks after the New York Giants signed David Baas away from the 49ers on a five-year, $27.5 million contract. 

It doesn't take a genius to figure out how that worked out. Bleacher Report's Matt Miller ranked Goodwin as the fifth-best center in our NFL 1000 series, while he had Baas all the way down at 29 on the list. 

You can look up and down San Francisco's roster and find contracts that are structured for the team to have consistent success for the foreseeable future. General manager Trent Baalke utilizes the philosophy that building a contender is done from the inside out, not the outside in. 

He nabbed that very same philosophy from the New England Patriots, who have been to a total of five Super Bowls in the last 11 seasons. 

A couple weeks ago, I asked a simple question in an article here on Bleacher Report. "Does loyalty really exist in the NFL?

After extensive research and conversations, I came to the conclusion that it doesn't; and nor should it. 

If you want your franchise to be loyal, that's fine. Just don't expect success on a consistent basis over an extended period of time. 

The Patriots are a perfect example of this. They have let key cogs walk over the course of the last decade or so, but still sit atop the NFL in terms of consistently contending for a Lombardi Trophy. 

Back in 2006, New England traded Deion Branch to the Seattle Seahawks in exchange for a first-round pick. The primary motivation for this trade was that the Patriots didn't want to sign Branch to an expensive contract extension after one breakout season that saw him nearly amass 1,000 receiving yards. 

Instead, Seattle decided that Branch was worth $39 million over six seasons

Over the course of the next four years, Branch averaged just 44 receptions for 559 yards and under four touchdowns per season with Seattle. It then ended up trading Branch back to New England for a lowly fourth-round pick in 2010.

Instead of spending all that money on a one-hit wonder, Seattle could have stored the cash away for a rainy day and retained a valuable first-round pick in 2007. As it ended up, Anthony Spencer, Joe Staley, Eric Weddle and LaMarr Woodley were all on the board when Seattle was slated to pick that April.

While New England didn't necessarily hit with its selection of Brandon Meriweather, I highly doubt that Bill Belichick and company would have been able to swing a deal for Randy Moss just a year later if it had signed Branch to that expensive extension. 

Everyone wants to blame the myriad of free-agent losses suffered by Baltimore over the last month on Joe Flacco's new contract. I am here to tell you to take a step back and look at it from the Ravens' perspective. 

First, isn't the goal of each franchise to hoist the Lombardi Trophy? Wasn't Flacco an important member of Baltimore's Super Bowl-winning club from this past season? If your answer to those two simple questions is an emphatic yes, there is no reason to question Baltimore's decision here. 

More importantly, it's vital to look at how Flacco's contract was structured. 

Flacco is set to count an average of $12 million against the cap over the next three seasons. This is less than what the Houston Texans are paying Matt Schaub during the same span. Flacco's cap hit is then set to average about $25 million in the final three years of the deal

The way this contract is structured, it pretty much seems ripe for an extension at some point in the next couple seasons. That would push back the cap hits and spread them over the length of the new extension. 

We saw the same thing with the New England Patriots and Tom Brady. The two sides came to an agreement on a three-year, $27 million extension back in February; a deal that saves New England $15 million in cap room over the next two seasons (via ESPN). 

You can expect the Atlanta Falcons and Green Bay Packers to follow suit. Both Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers are due for extensions and these franchises are going to look at the Patriots as well as the Ravens as models.

Heck, the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks will be looking at how these contracts are structured when they have to retain their young franchise quarterbacks. 

While certain teams find it necessary to build their rosters with a free-agent model, the most successful franchises in the National Football League act with more restraint and think twice about adding a multitude of exterior free agents to a roster that they're attempting to mold into a championship contender. 

It isn't a coincidence that these franchises I mentioned in this article all use the same model. I can even add teams like the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers to the list and it wouldn't seem watered down. There are a few basic premises that creates the ultimate blueprint for managing NFL cap space. 

* Structure contracts with the sustained health of the salary cap in mind. 

* Look two or three years down the road. 

* Build through the draft before delving deep into free agency. 

* Accumulate a high numbers of draft picks in order to create flexibility on draft day. 

* Let role players walk of other teams are willing to pay them "star money." 

This list could go on for a while. There are multiple strategies that successful NFL teams utilize in order to create sustained success. 

While the Baltimore Ravens found themselves in a bit of a pinch this offseason with so many players reaching the end of their deals, general manager Ozzie Newsome did a masterful job signing some under-the-radar outside free agents to lessen the blow. 

In San Francisco, general manager Trent Baalke spent $6 million and a sixth-round pick to acquire a valuable wide receiver (Anquan Boldin), who had torched his defense just a two months prior in the Super Bowl. This move represented the largest single-season contract that the 49ers have thrown at a player from outside the organization in his tenure with the team. It is also a one-year deal without any salary cap ramifications beyond 2013. 

I highly doubt that these two teams will meet again in the Super Bowl next February, but that isn't the point. They are utilizing a model that was created by New England, Green Bay and Pittsburgh before. 

Other teams such as the Seattle Seahawks, Atlanta Falcons and Cincinnati Bengals are also attempting to copy what these successful franchises have done in the past. 

I will say one thing. All the teams listed above will be in contention for the Lombardi Trophy come January, while the Philadelphia Eagles, Dallas Cowboys, New York Jets and Oakland Raiders are sitting at home watching horrible commercials with the rest of us. 

If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, I am pretty sure those teams who utilize the blueprint I mentioned above are perfectly fine being insane.

After all, I don't think anyone can call Bill Belichick or Jim Harbaugh sane........

All contract information provided by Spotrac. 

Vincent Frank is an NFL featured columnist here at Bleacher Report. He was hired prior to the 2011 season and couldn't be happier working with a great group of individuals here. In addition, Vincent is the head sports editor over at eDraft, co-host of Draft Sports Radio, which airs every Monday and Wednesday from 3 to 6 p.m. ET, and a fantasy writer for Pro Football Focus.

Go ahead and give him a follow on Twitter @VincentFrankNFL.


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