This offseason, Shutdown Corner's Frank Schwab and Eric Edholm will look into what is overrated and underrated in all aspects of the NFL. We fully expect your angry emails and comments that are sure to follow.
OVERRATED AND UNDERRATED: Roster building technique
Frank Schwab: Overpaying for known mediocrity at quarterback
The market on quarterbacks is very inefficient, and that won't change soon. Guys like Matthew Stafford, Jay Cutler, Joe Flacco, Eli Manning and Sam Bradford have been average NFL starters at best for most of their careers, but are paid better than the best non-quarterbacks in the league. We live in a world in which Cutler (one Pro Bowl and one playoff appearance in seven seasons and never a season rating better than 89.2) has a $17.5 million base salary this year, more than Adrian Peterson and Calvin Johnson combined (they'll make $16.75 million in base salary this year, according to Spotrac).
San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick's big contract this week wasn't quite as good for the player as first reported, but the fact is that if Kaepernick is average or better, he's going to get a lot of money. Because the 49ers won't let him go. In the free-agency era, no average or better quarterback has ever hit the open market in his prime, unless his former team had a clear backup plan in place, like Philip Rivers behind Drew Brees in San Diego. The Bengals are going to re-sign Andy Dalton. The Chiefs are going to re-sign Alex Smith. How do we know? Because history tells us so. Teams are far more worried about the unknown at quarterback (most general managers don't have job security to weather a rebuild, never forget this) than overpaying a player at that position that can never play up to his salary. It's not the smartest way of operating. Would a team be better off investing their mediocre QB money into three good starters instead? Most likely. But that approach is not going to change anytime soon.
Eric Edholm: Trading up into the top 10 of the draft
Did you know that from 2004 to 2010, there were only two instances of a team from outside the draft's top 10 trading up for a top 10 pick? True story. The two key players targeted in those deals: Derrick Harvey in 2008 and Mark Sanchez in 2009. Both swings and misses.
Sanchez at least played well for a stretch, but the Jets' trade partners — the Browns — were able to maneuver those picks into landing Alex Mack, now the highest-paid center in the league. Sanchez was cut this offseason and is now a backup in Philadelphia. The Jaguars moved up to the Ravens’ spot to land future bust Harvey while the Ravens used those picks to land a guy named Joe Flacco.
One reason deals were not common in that era was because picking in the top 10 of the draft was cost prohibitive. Rookie deals were monstrous prior to the 2011 CBA, but more friendly economics have opened up more trade activity up top.
In the past four drafts, we’ve had a flurry of trade activity that included three deals in which a team moved into the top 10: the Falcons going after Julio Jones in 2011, and the Dolphins getting Dion Jordan and the Rams landing Tavon Austin in 2013.
Jones could be a star if he stays healthy, but that remains a big if. The Dolphins’ new regime already appears confused about what to do with Jordan, and the Rams certainly overplayed their hand on Austin.
You could argue that all three of these teams paid too much to move up. It’s not as simple as looking at whom the other teams drafted and figuring out which team got the better end of the deal. You have to look at who was available in the range below where they picked initially.
The Falcons had the right idea moving up into the top half of the first round in 2011, as an astounding 12 of the first 16 picks of that draft already have made at least one Pro Bowl. It was insanely talent-rich. We just are left to wonder if Jones was the right target, or if they should have gone after a pass rusher such as Aldon Smith, J.J. Watt or Robert Quinn, all of whom were picked below Jones.
Moving up to target one player is always a risk, and teams that trust their scouting staffs appear to be better suited by moving down and collecting more picks, or standing pat.
EE: Undrafted free agents
The draft is the most tried and true way to build an NFL team from the ground up, but the work should not be done after Mr. Irrelevant’s name is called.
Smart teams such as the Seahawks, Packers, Patriots, Ravens, Chiefs and a few others work the phones when the draft is over and try to get the best of what’s left. The thinking is that of every eight or 10 players you add to your roster, there’s a good chance that one or two of them could stick.
I remember asking Andy Reid at the Super Bowl in 2006 about how his Eagles’ roster was comprised of a fairly large number of former undrafted players, and after nearly a week of boilerplate answers, his eyes lit up. He spit out a stat that I never forgot: Every year, there are more undrafted free agents on NFL rosters than there are first-round picks. This study of the 2012 season backs that up, and what it shows is that the 412 former UDFAs on rosters — an average of almost 13 per team, or nearly a quarter of a 53-man roster — are not only a higher number than the former first-round picks but also more than the number of combined second- and third-round picks (or fifth-, sixth-, and seventh-round picks combined also, if you want to look at it that way).
You could make up a pretty good team of former undrafted rookies in the game today: Arian Foster, Tony Romo, Jason Peters, Victor Cruz, Cameron Wake, Sam Shields, Wes Welker, Michael Bennett, Vontaze Burfict, Brent Grimes, Tramon Williams, Chris Harris, Tramaine Brock, Evan Dietrich-Smith, Brandon Browner, Doug Baldwin, Stephen Bowen, Antonio Gates, Chris Clemons, Dannell Ellerby, Cullen Jenkins, Junior Galette, Ryan Clark, Brian Hoyer, Fred Jackson, Austin Howard, Alex Boone, Ramon Foster, Damon Harrison, Danny Amendola, Chris Clark, Wesley Woodyard, Nate Washington, Marcel Reece, Jameel McClain, Mike Tolbert, Danny Woodhead, Donald Penn, Chris Ivory, LeGarrette Blount, Jerrell Freeman, Pierre Thomas, Lance Moore, Lyle Sendlein, Mike DeVito, Heath Farwell ... and heck, we’re not that far from a full 53 right there.
The Seahawks sent out a newsletter to agents touting their terrific track record for churning out undrafted free agents. We’re not exactly sure why other teams are not aggressive in mining talent this way.
FS: Free agency (as long as it's smart)
John Elway has gotten a lot of attention for building the Broncos back into a winner, but maybe not that much attention for how he has done it. Nobody has worked free agency better.
According to USA Today's breakdown, of the final four NFL playoff teams last year, the Broncos had 10 unrestricted free agents, and the other three teams combined had 15. Then Elway doubled down on his free-agency approach this offseason, signing Aqib Talib, DeMarcus Ware, Emmanuel Sanders and T.J. Ward, the best group of four free agents for any NFL team.
Free agency isn't evil, no matter what Packers general manager Ted Thompson wants you to think. No, you can't go out spending like Daniel Snyder at a high-limit room in Las Vegas, dumping $100 million on mistakes like Albert Haynesworth. And free agency doesn't replace the draft as a building tool; you still need to hit on your picks. But Elway has shown that finding the right veterans in free agency is a great way to build a winner. The Broncos have had the best record in the AFC two years in a row, with an overtime playoff loss and a Super Bowl loss. That's a very good run, and they and the Patriots are the co-favorites in the AFC this season.
Free agency has gotten a bad reputation because people point to the extremes, and the failures. Elway is showing that if free agency is used right, you can build a very good team relying on that approach.
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