Friday, March 6, 2015

When Dumb Teams are Forced to Spend Money

By Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

NFL free agency is upon us, and with it comes one of the most interesting situations in sports: Dumb front offices with a ton of money they HAVE to spend.

You see, while the NFL has promoted competition through the use of a salary cap, it is the less-often discussed salary floor that makes free agency truly compelling. The base salary cap in the league is just over $143 million this year, but teams carry over unused cap space from 2014 to make their "adjusted caps" far larger.

Just look at the case of the Jacksonville Jaguars, who were around $25 million under the cap in 2014, leading to an absurd cap figure of $168.5 million this off-season!

As one of only three teams with payrolls currently under $100 million (the other two being Oakland and the Jets), the Jags also have the chance, or in this case, obligation, to spend lavishly. Jacksonville has over $69 million in cap space, but the Jaguars front office probably isn't salivating over the chance to build a contender in one off-season. More likely, the Jacksonville brass is stressing about reaching the salary floor for this league period.

The NFL instituted a "salary floor," or minimum each team must spend, and decided to measure it every four years. We are currently entering year three of the first such cycle set to end in 2016. To reach that floor, the Jags will need to spend 89 percent of their cap for this four year period.

Jacksonville has spent just 82.2 percent of its cap space since 2013, and will now be all but forced to spend the vast majority of its cap figure this off-season, just to position itself to hit the cap floor next year.

That's great news for a plethora of B and C level free agents who will likely cash in with Jacksonville, Oakland, Washington or New York (either team), since those teams will outbid most others simply because they have to.

This will, undoubtedly, lead to analysts and fans alike bemoaning the deals these teams sign non-star players to. It has already begun, as the Browns decided to address their constant quarterback issues by signing a guy that couldn't stay on the field in Tampa Bay to a three-year, $14 million deal, with $6.25 million guaranteed.

That quarterback is, of course, Josh McCown, a player who not only went 1-10 and found himself benched on the worst team in football at times last year, he is also 36 with a very limited sample (in 2013 with Chicago) of him being a productive NFL player.

Now, could the Browns have used this money a little better? Obviously, but Cleveland still sits an astonishing $50 million below the cap for 2014, and if they don't want to lose ground on the salary floor this season, the Browns almost have to overpay for players.

A huge problem for these teams is that the one commodity they could spend lavishly on to instantly become a contender simply isn't available. Forget finding a franchise quarterback in free agency, it's becoming rarer and rarer to even find serviceable starters on the open market.

As executives and owners have shifted their philosophy toward bringing back any decent starting quarterback at ANY cost, players like Joe Flacco, Jay Cutler, Colin Kaepernick and Andy Dalton have made bank, while combining to make just one Pro Bowl appearance during their mega-contracts (Dalton made last year's Pro Bowl due to injuries to Ben Roethlisberger and Peyton Manning, plus Tom Brady appearing in the Super Bowl. You can count that as a Pro Bowl appearance, I suppose).

Consider the fact that 21 of last year's NFL starters were drafted by their current teams, while two (Tony Romo and Austin Davis) were undrafted free agents.

That leaves nine regular starters from last year that were acquired through trades and free agency, and each of them has a unique story as to why they were moved, or they are simply poor players.

Among the traded QBs, Carson Palmer had knee injury issues, Alex Smith had Colin Kaepernick breathing down his neck and Jay Cutler's surly disposition and penchant for turnovers made him unbearable to the Denver front office.

Of those rare quarterbacks signed in free agency, Drew Brees was on the outs in San Diego due to the presence of Phillip Rivers, and a shoulder injury. Peyton Manning's career was in jeopardy when he left Indianapolis, and the rest of them just aren't any good (Brian Hoyer, Colt McCoy, Kyle Orton and Ryan Fitzpatrick).

So, what other option did the Browns have? It's not like they could just throw money at a franchise quarterback, because there is none out there.

Which leads to a huge dilemma in a league that prides itself on parity. The NFL Draft has essentially become a crap shoot, but you will most likely need to find a franchise quarterback on draft day. Then, in the off-season, your team with no chance of winning, because it doesn't have a franchise quarterback, will be FORCED to spend an excessive amount of money on players that won't fix your fundamental problem (which, again, is that you don't have a franchise quarterback).

So, what is a team to do?

Basically, stack the deck at every other position until you find the right quarterback. Fill out that defense and receiving corps in free agency, bolster your offensive line, and heck, add a running back and tight end while you're at it, but spend lightly on quarterbacks that you know aren't the answer.

Instead of giving McCown a huge pay day, wouldn't it have made sense for the Browns to spend big to bring back in-house free agent corner Buster Skrine or tight end Jordon Cameron, each of whom are expected to get big deals elsewhere (perhaps in Jacksonville or Oakland)?

Sure it would have. Then they could have spent lavishly on an outside weapon (maybe Philly's Jeremy Maclin, or they could splurge on Green Bay's Randall Cobb), so that when they did luck into the right quarterback, he would have a talented and experienced team around him.

It sure worked out well for Russell Wilson in Seattle, but hey, these are the Browns, Jaguars and Raiders we're talking about. What are the chances they show patience and exhibit sound judgement in the face of a mandatory spending spree?

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