Decision Day in Denver

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I’m surprised Florio hasn’t piped in with this one yet, since it’s right up his alley, but today is a D-Day of sorts for the Broncos. If they don’t choose to cut Peyton Manning today (they won’t, of course, as he played at an MVP level and was more than they could have ever hoped for, carrying a team with re-tread wide receivers to the AFC’s 1 seed and representing a massive upgrade over Tim Tebow), they’re on the hook for his 2013 and 2014 salaries at $40 million in total guarantees.

Maybe the reason this is such a non-item is that this year there’s no question as to his health and his effectiveness. And if Joe Flacco is worth $20.1 million a year, Peyton F. Manning is sure as hell worth $20.

24 Hours to Lots of Overpayments…

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As the title states, tomorrow is the opening of NFL Free Agency, and the flurry to get things done quickly and outbid competitors leads to a lot of inflated contracts.

Like many smart people, I’m of the opinion that it’s a better idea to wait and pluck some of the second tier players for much more affordable sums. These early march contracts almost never end up being good ideas.

Surely you know that PFT (or that stupid Twitter thing) will be your best source for news, but it’s worth noting that the posts made later in the days by Florio himself will contain a lot of quality analysis and numbers breakdowns. Another site I only recently discovered, Over the Cap, will also likely provide like-minded analysis and news. That site is the same author as the NY Jets page I found years ago, and his blog is pretty much exactly what I’d like this one to be if I had the time to update it that often. Additionally, he has mostly accurate cap data for EVERY TEAM in the league. What an excellent resource.

So keep an eye on those guys this week. And best of luck in seeing your team make only good decisions.

Filed under NFL, Opinion, Salary Cap

The Ravens are Screwed

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The title is a slight exaggeration, of course, and probably inaccurate because Ozzie Newsome and Eric DeCosta know what they’re doing when building a roster, but I’m still less than optimistic about the future of the Baltimore Ravens, especially now that it looks like they may end up losing Anquan Boldin.

Personnel isn’t my gig, and maybe I’m in the minority here, but I think Anquan Boldin is one of the most underrated players in the game. I believe I’ve seen (but can’t currently find a link to support so maybe my claim is unfounded) that at the time of his acquisition by Baltimore, he had the highest yards per pass attempt of any receiver in history. I never really understood why Arizona let him walk when they had both the cap space and a glaring need for receivers (as we have seen every year since Warner retired). But even if that statistic is wrong, all you have to do is watch the Ravens play to know that he is a very important piece of their offense. He’s not as versatile as Ray Rice, but he bails Flacco out more often than most realize.  He runs great routes, has great hands, and is as reliable as they come. Even with diminished foot speed, he’s a handful, and he’s open even when he’s covered because of his size and physicality. He’s a great safety net.

Basically, in my opinion he’s responsible for a lot of Flacco’s success, and consequently, also his giant contract.

And if the Ravens let him go instead of paying him a perfectly reasonable* salary, they could be looking at a seriously poor return on their quarterback investment. Especially in a few years when the cap hits start to get ridiculous (in 2016, his cap hit appears that it will be $29 million!). Because in those years, coincidentally, Ray Rice will probably start to slow down a bit too. And if those two things both happen, you’re going to end up looking at a very highly paid QB that has to do an awful lot more by himself than he has ever had to do. And in 2016, you may very well be looking at a cap hit that is crippling a team that suddenly doesn’t have anything even resembling an elite offense.

*- I understand the numbers from their point of view, and wholeheartedly agree that it’s always better to let someone go too early than too late, especially at that age. And every million counts. 6 isn’t a lot for a known quantity, though, even if it’s a slight inflation of his real value. They’re right to hope to lower the figure; but in my opinion paying him $6m is a better option than not having him at all.

I don’t like Flacco’s contract or think he’s worth it, but there wasn’t much of an alternative for the Ravens. In the end it’ll only be a few million dollars a year different, and they’re creative and smart enough to figure out ways to make that up elsewhere.

But Anquan Boldin shouldn’t be one of the guys they cast aside so save that cash. He’s more important than most people realize.

Joe Flacco is the NFL’s Highest Paid QB

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… for now, anyway.

PFT has the details. They nudged the AAV of the Drew Brees contract up just a touch, so now Flacco is being paid more handsomely than several QBs that are much better than he is.

The Ravens really didn’t have much of a choice, especially given that they didn’t want to have to apply a Franchise Tag, but one has to say Linta and Flacco are the big winners here. There aren’t any stats and there isn’t any game tape that tells you that Flacco is in the same tier of QB as guys like Rodgers, Brady, Manning, and Brees. None. And now, much like Eli Manning was when he signed his current deal, he is going to earn more money than all of those guys.

At least until Matt Ryan, Tony Romo, and Aaron Rodgers sign new deals.

As several smart people have noted, this will just keep pushing the salaries for premium QBs higher, which then squeezes guys at other positions. There’s a shrinking middle class in the NFL these days, and while this isn’t something that we can specifically blame on De Smith, the NFLPA, and the new CBA, this unintended effect of the natural workings of the market is probably going to wipe out whatever progress was made towards paying veterans that came with the new rookie wage scale.

Cap News: 2013 Cap Number, Franchise Tag Amounts

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Some news:

1) Mike Florio has two sources that peg the 2013 Salary Cap at $123 million precisely. Chris Mortenson had it at $123.9 though. $123 seems like a safe bet. So it’s a modest increase, small enough to say that the cap has been roughly flat now for three years. This trend doesn’t show all that many signs of reversing either, even as the new TV contracts kick in. The new CBA looks more and more like a victory for owners and the better GMs and a loss for the players. And some teams and GMs are going to find their backs against the wall as the expected increases don’t happen. Those problems are what impact and screw over the NFLPA, as perfectly useful players will lose their jobs because of mismanagement and bad assumptions made by GMs.

2) Albert Breer of the NFL Network has the franchise tender amounts by position.

QB: $14.9 million

DE: $11.18 million

CB: $10.85 million

WR: $10.54 million

OL: $9.83 million

LB: $9.62 million

DT: $8.45 million

RB: $8.22 million

S: $6.9 million

TE: $6.07 million

K/P: $2.98 million

Filed under CBA, NFL, Salary Cap

Falcons Cut Abraham; May Pursue Freeney (?)

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There are far too many roster moves being made for me to post them; that’s not my goal for this site anyway. You can use PFT or Twitter for that.

But one caught my eye: The Falcons cut John Abraham.

Cutting a player a year early is always better than cutting him a year late. And Abraham, while productive, is a declining player. Even if it’s a slow decline, it’s a decline. And it will only get quicker.

But Abraham is still productive, and his cap hit of just north of $7 million really isn’t bad. At all.

Still, if the Falcons think his talents are diminished and that he’s not worth that, they’re right to make the move.

What I don’t get – if true – are the rumblings that they may pursue Dwight Freeney.

As I’ve noted before, I’m a Freeney FAN. Capital letters. But I don’t see any way whatsoever that he’ll end up with a contract that provides the Falcons (or any team) with a cap number that is substantially lower than Abraham’s. And given that they’re basically the same age and that Freeney is a bit of a decline and injury risk too, I would have a very hard time – as an outsider – figuring out why a contending team would release a reasonably paid aging pass rusher only to replace him with a very similar player that is also in decline , but who will also be much more likely to command an overpriced retail-level contract due to his reputation, the market, and his expectations.

It just doesn’t make sense to me. So I’m guessing they have other things in mind.

There’s Always More to the Story

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This morning, Bill Polian sat on a panel at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference about “sports breakups,” in which he told us several excellent stories about the emotions involved with cutting players and firing coaches (and what makes a coach last) and in which he also showed some of his famous stubbornness and made the laughable assertion that the Colts could very well have kept Peyton Manning AND Andrew Luck after the 2012 draft.

It occurred to me that a lot of people just assumed that the reason Bill Polian was fired was because he stopped hitting home runs in the draft and because he was incorrectly (but also occasionally correctly) regarded as a jerk.

That’s certainly part of it; the drafts certainly contributed. But what they contributed to – the 2012 salary cap situation – is the bigger issue, more than anything draft or behavior-related. Because the 2012 Colts were going to be screwed even if Peyton Manning’s neck had been 100% all along.

Much has been made about all the dead money that the team carried. And without some June 1 designations, they could have had even more cap trouble. And sure, if Manning had been kept, they wouldn’t have eaten quite the same sum of his contract all in one year. (They just would have been locked into eating millions more of it in future years, making it even worse.) But people tend to forget just how bad the rest of the Colts roster was by 2011. Manning made everyone around him better, sure, but he wouldn’t have been able to do very much with what was left in 2012 after all the necessary cuts would have been made.

So it is very very convenient and interesting that a mere four hours later, Bob Kravitz published a gem of an interview with Colts owner Jim Irsay, wherein he touches on some of the things that everybody forgets: Keeping and paying Peyton Manning would have crippled not only the 2012 Colts, but several more years worth of teams as well. It simply could not work. At all. And being a good and smart owner, Irsay knew it all along.

“…and he understood the cap room situation where, if he’d stayed, there would have been no Reggie Wayne, no Winston Justice, no Samson Satele, I’m not sure about Robert Mathis. We couldn’t have kept anybody. I mean, our offensive line would have been even worse than it was. The worst thing you can imagine would have been to see (Manning) struggling with a team completely deprived of talent, being 1-6 or something like that and then calls for Andrew to come in and play over Peyton. I could see it happening. The cap situation was that dire.

As we have discussed before, paying Manning’s option bonus last year would have locked him in for the next four seasons. Tom Condon negotiated a gem of a deal (and don’t believe what Polian said this morning about it “absolutely” being up for re-structuring; there was no incentive whatsoever for Peyton to do that and Condon wouldn’t have). And doing that would leave the team without the successor that fell into their laps and without a whole lot of other pieces to build with either.

Pardon the pun, but the team got Lucky as could be in 2011. A healthy Manning would’ve taken them to the playoffs, but the team would have struggled for the next decade. Heck, even one more win might have ensured that same fate! 2011 was a necessary evil, and may very well have been one of the best things to happen to the franchise since their previous #1 pick in 1998.

I think the world of Bill Polian. But draft misses – or even just singles where he used to hit doubles – led to him paying to keep veterans like Gary Brackett and Kelvin Hayden and Joe Addai where he previously made the difficult but correct decisions like letting Mike Peterson and Edgerrin James walk. And those contracts spread signing bonus prorations out into their years of decline and kicked the can down the proverbial road. 2012 was going to be a bloodbath, Manning or no Manning. And it was all avoidable. There’s always more to the story, of course, but the 2012 cap situation was a mostly-overlooked element that played a very large role in the switch that landed Ryan Grigson in Indianapolis.

Tom Brady’s Extension: The Patriots Always Win

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The other night the Patriots did something that helps their chances more than any play, call, coaching decision, or game possibly could in 2013: They extended their Hall of Fame QB on a below-market deal and cleared a TON of salary cap space in next few years to give them flexibility and allow them to keep their best players and contend, as usual, for a Super Bowl title.

The basics of the deal are simple: Three years, $27 million get added to his contract (which had previously been a 4/72 extension that set the benchmark for Manning’s Colts contract’s average value of $18 million), extending Brady through 2017, when he will be 40. Looking just at that, it’s easy to say Brady is being unselfish, or maybe just call him honest for admitting that he’ll be in decline as he ages to 40 and that he’ll be worth less money. In reality, they’ll probably give him more money in those years with a future renegotiation, but even if they don’t, it’s a brilliant move now, and it’s the exact opposite of all the restructurings that other teams are doing that just push more and more bonus money into future years, creating enormous cap numbers like the $26.4 million that’ll be on the Saints’ books for Drew Brees in 2015 (or like whatever absurd figure will be required in the later years of the pending Flacco mega-deal if the first year or two is supposedly “cap-friendly” as folks keep saying). Instead of just converting salary to bonus and sticking more money into the remaining years of an existing contract, the Patriots get to push it farther into the future, but in reasonable numbers.

Instead of a cap hit for 2013 of $21.8 million, Brady now occupies just $13.8. His cap number is similarly manageable for the duration of his contract; nice easy math places it at 13,14, and 15 million in the final years (with $6m bonus proration and salaries of 7, 8, and 9 million dollars). In exchange for (maybe) taking less in the end, Brady gets a $30 million signing bonus now. The Patriots aren’t without risk here, though. If Brady retires, the $30m bonus prorations will still come into play. They could still face a year of cap hell if Brady doesn’t play til age 40. But that’s no more risky a bet than any other QB contracts. It’s a lot safer than the pending Flacco deal, if you ask me.

The Patriots get to keep a QB and Brady gets to look unselfish. But more importantly, Brady gets to keep his weapons, because now the Patriots have eight million more dollars under the 2013 cap.

Even more importantly, the Patriots can once again point to Brady’s contract – as they did nearly a decade ago – as an example of a player putting the team ahead of money. Basically, they can squeeze other guys into taking less too. And they may actually be the only team to ever truly get multiple players to actually take less money in exchange for a greater shot at a title, rankling agents everywhere.

The Patriots haven’t had the same luck/talent/synergy with their defense that they had a decade ago, but they’re still kicking everyone’s ass when it comes to decision making. Even if Brady re-re-negotiates to a market-level deal for the final three years of his career, this deal is a huge help to their chances, and it’s a better and more useful re-structuring than the ones we see every few days (most of which have been the Steelers, at least so far) from other teams.

There’s nothing tricky or novel here, contract-wise. It’s just an example of a great working relationship between a dominant team that never makes mistakes and a dominant player that almost never makes mistakes. Kudos to the Patriots and to Brady for being smart and patient enough to get this done. Everybody wins. In New England, anyway.

How the Steelers can help Joe Flacco and hurt their Rivals

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One of the reasons I like Mike Florio is because he thinks of things that wouldn’t occur to most fans. Anyone can write a website full of links to other news, but he has a curious eye and a bit of a nerd streak like me when it comes to things like the CBA and the cap.

So it’s no surprise that he noticed an interesting link between the Ravens and the Steelers with regards to the upcoming Joe Flacco contract negotiations.

There’s nothing new or earth-shattering here, really, but it’s also not something most people would notice. Under the calculation of the salary paid under the Exclusive franchise tender, Flacco’s salary is affected by the cap number for rival QB Ben Roethlisberger, since his is one of the five highest for 2013. Big cap numbers are generally something that teams would like to negotiate downward, but the Steelers may have more to gain by putting the screws to the Ravens than they do by re-negotiating Ben’s contract. They’d surely love to explore ways to lighten that cap hit, but they can do that any time. Might as well hurt your arch rival’s leverage a little bit by waiting a while before calling Ryan Tollner.

Overpaying Flacco

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This is not a new discussion, but after winning the Super Bowl more people are talking about Joe Flacco and just how big a contract he’ll command from the Ravens this offseason.

I have been fascinated by Flacco ever since he was drafted out of Delaware. At the time, I disliked Matt Ryan (I no longer do) and loved the underdog element to the Flacco story, given his background of losing out to Tyler Palko and transferring to a school not known for football prowess. I thought Flacco was decent value at 18 for Ozzie Newsome and I thought that it was likely that he’d end up better than Ryan and at a much lower price.

Over several years of watching him, though, I found myself annoyed more often than impressed. He’s got perhaps the game’s biggest arms but habitually underthrows receivers. He often “succeeds” by having defenders flagged for cheap DPI when the receiver hits them while slowing down to wait for an underthrown ball. (This is a huge pet peeve of mine, largely because there simply isn’t a good solution for it, but you’re still rewarding incompetence.) Even two of his long touchdowns, including the tying score in Denver, were underthrown. And he cost his team four points in last season’s AFC title game when he hung a ball up for Torrey Smith that should have led to an uncontested touchdown in the first quarter but instead ended in a field goal from the one (another pet peeve, especially in that situation in a scoreless game against the Patriot offense). Throw in the games against tough defenses wherein he played at a level no better than Mark Sanchez – a painful 10-9 Ravens-Jets game from 2010 comes to mind and it’s not among his worst, stats-wise – and there have been plenty of games where he left me, as a fan, smacking my head.

I should point out that I’m a big fan of the type of offense that the Ravens run, with the emphasis on throwing deep, and from personal experience I know just how much harder it is to throw to the sideline than it looks, even on short tosses. I know that the offense isn’t going to lead to jaw-dropping efficiency sometimes, and I know that it’s tougher to be accurate on difficult throws. Still, I often found myself thinking “if only they were getting better QB play, they’d be a real force.”

Things are different now, though. Flacco, while still inconsistent in 2012, put together a truly dominant run of four playoff games capped by a title, and now his agent Joe Linta is claiming that Flacco should be the highest paid QB in the game.

That’s ridiculous, of course, but that’s Linta’s job. And given the nature of contracts and evolution of salaries, it’s not reasonable to suggest that Flacco’s new deal simply slot in at salaries slightly lower than better QBs that signed deals years ago. Given the nature of the market, though, it’s likely that he’s going to be overpaid. We’re now left to sit back and wait to learn by how much. The Ravens may elect to risk giving him the non-exclusive franchise tag, which pays him $14.6 million in 2013 if a deal isn’t reached, but with the sad state of quarterbacking in the lower third of the league, it’s entirely possible that someone might be willing to give up the two picks required to steal him away. As Mike Florio points out, that leaves the exclusive franchise tag, which sits currently at over $20 million. Linta seems to think he can extract that much PER YEAR over the life of a new contract, which makes the exclusive tag a bit more palatable, but the team has a bit of a cap crunch so it’d be nice to work out a deal that saves them some money to be used on guys like maybe Anquan Boldin, who I think is criminally underrated by most of the media and makes every QB he plays with look a lot better.

The reality of the situation now is that there are other teams out there willing to overpay Flacco, and while Newsome has shown himself to be able to make dispassionate decisions and go strictly by his rules and values (like during drafts), the Ravens will be a significantly weaker team if they play hardball and let Flacco walk. There just aren’t any passable replacements at that position this year (or any year, in ordinary circumstances). So they will have to overpay as well, and in doing so, they’ll weaken themselves in other areas. The question will be by how much.

Boy would I love to be a fly on the wall in a room with Pat Moriarty and Ozzie Newsome during their calls to Linta. The Raven front office is one of the best in the game, and the team reached the pinnacle this year largely by avoiding big mistakes with the cap. This year they may have no option but to make one. But if any team can limit the damage, it’s them. It promises to be interesting.