Conventional wisdom in the NFL is that you build your team through the draft. The Ravens, Giants, and Packers recently won championships based mostly on the strength of the players they drafted.
This year’s Super Bowl participants, Seattle and Denver, laugh in the face of convention.
There’s no doubt that the Seahawks and Broncos have plenty of homegrown talent in their starting lineups. But Seahawks general manager John Schneider and Broncos executive vice president John Elway haven’t been afraid to spend big in free agency, and be aggressive in trades.
In recent years, the Seahawks have splurged on free agent receiver Sidney Rice, tight end Zach Miller, and defensive ends Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett, and Tony McDaniel, while swinging major trades for Marshawn Lynch and Percy Harvin (who has played just two games this season but will appear in the Super Bowl). The Broncos, obviously, spent big on Peyton Manning two offseasons ago, and also signed receiver Wes Welker, defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, linebacker Shaun Phillips, cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and center Manny Ramirez in free agency, while claiming Chris Clark off waivers.
“Just great examples of using literally every aspect available to build your team,” former Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum said. “It’s representative of two opportunistic front offices.”
The Broncos and Seahawks certainly have two things in common — success in the draft that has allowed them to spend freely in free agency, and a tremendous but shrinking window of opportunity to win a championship.
The Broncos were able to afford paying Manning $60 million over three years because Demaryius Thomas ($2.59 million cap number), Eric Decker ($1.5m), Von Miller ($4.9m), Julius Thomas ($651,000), and Danny Trevathan ($506,000) are still playing on their rookie contracts. They have a one- or two-year window to win a Super Bowl before Manning retires, and before they have to pay their young stars.
And the Seahawks were able to splurge for Harvin and their three defensive ends because Russell Wilson ($681,000), Richard Sherman ($600,000), Doug Baldwin ($560,000), Golden Tate ($880,000), Earl Thomas ($3.5 million), Bruce Irvin ($1.9 million), and Bobby Wagner ($979,000) are playing on their rookie contracts. The Seahawks will have to pay big money for Sherman and others in the next two offseasons, and likely won’t be able to retain all of their talent.
Per the new collective bargaining agreement, Wilson can’t renegotiate his contract until after the 2014 season, so Schneider took advantage of his cap savings at quarterback last offseason to load up his roster with veterans and make a Super Bowl run.
“They’re taking advantage of the window they have with Wilson’s low cap number, because you’re never going to get Richard Sherman this cheap again,” said Joel Corry, a former NFL agent and now a salary cap expert for CBS Sports.
“It’s a built-in $18 million savings compared to Peyton Manning and the Broncos,” Tannenbaum added.
Schneider, 42, has impressed many around the league with the roster he has built in four seasons in Seattle. He worked for eight years as a top personnel man in Green Bay after stints with the Redskins, Seahawks, and Chiefs.
“He always was a guy who was a hard worker who did a thorough job, and you knew he’d be a good personnel man as he went throughout his career,” former Redskins and Texans GM Charley Casserly said. “He’s got a good scouting background, I think he’s aggressive, and you can see that with the moves he makes.
“And they’ve done a good job of finding not only good players late in the draft, but also identifying exactly what they’re looking for. For example, at corner — long-armed guys that can run. They don’t have to be great change-of-direction guys, but they have to have the ability to play press-man coverage.”
Schneider is also well-regarded around the league for his creativity. In addition to his free agency hits and trades, he signed cornerback Brandon Browner from the CFL and hit big on controversial draft picks such as Irvin and Wagner, while finding Sherman in the fifth round.
“He’s been around for a long time and doesn’t have an enemy in the industry,” Tannenbaum said of Schneider. “John’s just one of those people that’s never had a bad day. He’s a problem solver by nature and he’s a great evaluator, he loves what he does. The results speak for themselves.”
In Denver, Elway has been the face of the franchise and brought stability to the front office, but three other people are at least equally responsible for stocking the team with young talent — current contract negotiator Mike Sullivan, former GM Brian Xanders, and former coach Josh McDaniels.
When Manning, Sullivan, and coach John Fox arrived in Denver, the Broncos already had Demaryius Thomas, Decker, Knowshon Moreno, and several other talented young players. They have supplemented them with Julius Thomas, Miller, and several hits in free agency, including Welker, Knighton, and Rodgers-Cromartie.
“They’re willing to do some stuff where they give guys more than the minimum salary and incentives, which is a little unusual with what’s done by most teams,” Corry said.
That said, having success at all levels of the draft — from the first round to the low rounds to undrafted free agents — is still the biggest key to building a championship roster. Many recent teams that have “won” the offseason have failed to make the playoffs, such as the Dolphins and Buccaneers last year, and the Eagles’ “Dream Team” from two years ago.
Only after hitting on several draft picks can a team afford to spend big in free agency like the Broncos and Seahawks.
“I think you still have to have a staple of the draft. Otherwise, you can’t balance your budget,” Casserly said. “But I think you have to have a combination of both the draft and free agency. You have to do all of those things, can’t live on one of them.”
BACK TO BUSINESS
Season over, Patriots turn attention to cap
With the Patriots’ offseason upon us, let’s take a look at a few tidbits concerning the salary cap:
■ The cap is projected to be $125 million-$126 million next season, and the Patriots can add $4.1068 million in unused cap space from 2013. But the team does not enter the offseason in great cap shape, with nearly $127 million committed to the top 51 players, plus dead money from players already cut. The Patriots almost certainly will need to extend, restructure, or cut players in order to create space, with Vince Wilfork ($11.6 million cap number), Dan Connolly ($4.083 million), Stephen Gostkowski ($3.8 million), Isaac Sopoaga ($3.5 million), and Steve Gregory ($3.183 million) as prime candidates.
■ Complicating matters is Aaron Hernandez, who is on the books for a $7.5 million cap charge next season. The Patriots are in an awkward position of having to root for Hernandez to be officially charged in the 2012 Boston double murder, which would thwart his grievance against the team and give the Patriots recourse to recoup his entire $12.5 million signing bonus. The Patriots will likely be able to reduce his cap charge by $3.25 million once they avoid paying him his final bonus installment in March (which he is fighting), but any other cap relief will only come if they can recoup dollars already paid to him, which seems unlikely given his legal costs and other bills.
■ Also complicating matters is safety Devin McCourty receiving a $3 million salary escalator for 2014 based on him playing 80 percent of snaps in each of his first four seasons. McCourty’s cap number was supposed to be $2.115 million but instead will be $5.115 million, giving the Patriots incentive to sign him to a contract extension and lower his cap number for next season.
■ Danny Amendola may be fighting for a roster spot come March 11, the first day of the 2014 league year. Amendola signed a five-year deal worth $28.5 million ($10 million guaranteed last March), and $2 million of his $3 million base salary in 2014 becomes guaranteed if he’s on the roster at 4 p.m. on March 11. Amendola is coming off a disappointing season in which he missed four games and lost Tom Brady’s trust, and could be in danger of being cut. It would cost the Patriots $4.8 million against the cap to outright cut him, which seems unlikely given their tight cap situation, but they could designate him a post-June 1 cut, which would give him cap charges of $1.2 million in 2014 and $3.6 million in 2015. The Patriots could then use those savings to sign free agent Julian Edelman.
Reminders that it’s not all fun and games
It’s that time of the year, when legal proceedings start to dominate the NFL news cycle, and three significant items made headlines last week.
In Florida, the family of slain Redskins Pro Bowl safety Sean Taylor finally received some closure, six years after his death, when 23-year-old Eric Rivera was sentenced to more than 57 years in prison after being convicted of second-degree murder and armed burglary. Rivera told police that he and three others did not expect Taylor to be at his Miami home at the time of a robbery attempt, and Rivera confessed that he shot Taylor after he confronted them at his bedroom door with a machete. Taylor was only 24 when he died.
In Dallas, former Cowboys defensive tackle Josh Brent was sentenced Friday to 180 days in jail and 10 years probation after being convicted of intoxication manslaughter in the death of Jerry Brown, a member of the Cowboys’ practice squad and Brent’s college teammate at Illinois.
Brent was found to have a blood-alcohol level at 0.18 percent, more than twice the legal limit of .08, when involved in a December 2012 car crash. The sentence seemed lenient for Brent, who was also convicted of DUI in 2009. Brent hasn’t played in the NFL since the crash, though he did attend the Patriots-Jets game in Week 2 as a fan.
And in New Orleans, former 14-year safety Darren Sharper, who last played for the Saints in 2010, has been accused of committing a sexual assault, a day after he was arrested on rape charges in Los Angeles. It is unclear if there is one or multiple accusers in the New Orleans and Los Angeles cases. Sharper, 38, lives in Miami, played in five Pro Bowls for the Packers, Vikings, and Saints, and has been suspended without pay from his job with the NFL Network.
Credit the NFL for at least trying something new to spark interest in the Pro Bowl, generally regarded as the least-relevant all-star game among the four major sports (though it has the best TV ratings). But the two-day “draft,” with team captains Jerry Rice and Deion Sanders picking the teams playground-style, was a snooze-fest. Not only did it barely register with the public, but the Associated Press posted several photos of players sitting around, bored out of their minds, while waiting to be drafted (there’s a great shot of Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski playing rock, paper, scissors).
Try as it might, the NFL will never be able to make the Pro Bowl anything more than a laughable exhibition game. We propose it finally scraps the game altogether, and instead invite the all-stars out to Hawaii for a skills competition similar to the combine – 40-yard dash, passing accuracy drills, catching drills, Oklahoma Drill, and more. This would be way more entertaining than a glorified flag football game, anyway.
Interesting to hear Bill Belichick actually second-guess himself this past week on his paid appearance on WEEI. Belichick said he regretted going for it on fourth and 3 when trailing, 20-3, late in the third quarter against the Broncos instead of kicking a 47-yard field goal that would have cut the score to 20-6. Logan Mankins allowed a sack on the play, and the Patriots wasted a precious scoring opportunity.
The Patriots eventually cut the score to 26-16 on two fourth-quarter touchdowns, but failed on a 2-point conversion and onside kick.
“Those 3 points would have been good to have at the end of the game if we would have made the kick,” Belichick said. “I don’t think you’re going to beat Denver kicking field goals, but if we would have had a field goal with the touchdowns we scored later on, those would have been important points for us.”
Belichick also said the knee injury suffered by Aqib Talib was nothing “that would be of that kind of significance.”
While the focus of this year’s draft will be on top quarterbacks Teddy Bridgewater, Johnny Manziel, and Blake Bortles, remember the name Jimmy Garoppolo, the best prospect to come out of Eastern Illinois since little-known Tony Romo.
Garoppolo, who looks the part at 6 feet 3 inches and 225 pounds, threw for 5,050 yards and 53 touchdowns in leading the Panthers to a 12-2 record this season.
He earned MVP honors at last week’s East-West Shrine Game, and continued to turn heads in Alabama after receiving a late invitation to the Senior Bowl.
Fresno State’s Derek Carr will likely be the fourth quarterback off the board, but don’t be surprised if Garoppolo leap-frogs some more notable names, such as Alabama’s A.J. McCarron and Clemson’s Tajh Boyd.
The NFL has accredited 5,205 media members to cover the Super Bowl, the most in history.
Meanwhile, players on the winning Super Bowl team will make $157,000 — $23,000 for winning the divisional round, $42,000 for the conference round, and $92,000 for the Super Bowl. Members of the losing team will make $111,000 — the same amounts for the divisional and conference rounds, and $46,000 for losing the Super Bowl.Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.