If you want to win in the National Football League, you need to be better than your competitors. This is obvious, but there's a corollary: you need to find opportunities to do things that your competitors haven't figured out yet. That's part of the reason why I talked about aggressive decision making: coaches around the NFL are too conservative, and any team that thoroughly grasps that point should be able to see gains in wins with minimal effort.
This kind of thing applies more to personnel, however. Where can you find an advantage in the selection of personnel, and how can you use that to build your team?
The oddly-named Fantasy Douche summarized this train of thought in two succinct tweets.
The front office is primarily about informational advantages - what does your org know that no other org knows?— Fantasy Douche (@FantasyDouche) December 5, 2012
If your org only knows what every other org knows, you're average.You don't have any reason to expect your team to be long term winner— Fantasy Douche (@FantasyDouche) December 5, 2012
Let's expand this a little beyond informational advantage, because that's much too limited. It's not necessarily about information, but about the choices you make and how you exploit the advantages they give you. For instance, when the Bucs started running the Tampa 2 defense in the mid 1990s, they didn't have an informational advantage on that defense for very long: it's not a particularly complicated system, and it wasn't even new at the time. But the Bucs did know one thing that others didn't necessarily grasp: they could skimp on spending at certain positions (such as cornerback) because of this system.
A lot of these advantages are fairly well-known. For instance, teams that run the old Alex Gibbs-style zone running scheme don't spend on running backs. They grab late-round backs with very specific skill-sets and make them work in their system. Arian Foster and Alfred Morris are two examples of this phenomenon, but so was Terrell Davis. In a zone scheme, you need a running back who can stretch a defense running along the line of scrimmage, then stick his foot in the ground and get up the field. The back doesn't have to know how to run power plays, how to catch passes, how to make people miss in the open field. Thus, these teams can find running backs with limited skills and make them productive. They do something similar with offensive linemen, where they look for quick, athletic, undersized linemen -- players that don't fit a lot of other schemes, and can hence be had for a relatively low price.
Other examples exist everywhere. If you run a 4-3 defense, and you're smart, you don't spend on linebackers, for instance. In general, you don't spend huge money re-signing a backup to a relatively fungible position like running back. And when you do do those sorts of things, you can expect a lack of depth at other positions, and you can eventually expect to be fired. See: Panthers GM Marty Hurney, and probably Jaguars GM Gene Smith at the end of the season, too.
Other examples (with varying success) include the Seahawks looking for tall but stiff cornerbacks, Peyton Manning's Colts going for undersized defenders to defend the pass, the Jets going for quality over quantity in the draft and the Saints skimping on offensive tackles in favor of guards.
This can be applied on a much larger scale, too. Teams that have succeeded in the long term have shied away from free agents, because they represent short-term fixes that can turn into massive burdens in just a few seasons. This is why you repeatedly see teams like the Green Bay Packers, Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens trade away aging players for draft picks: aging stars decline, and spending money on old players often turns into a bad investment very swiftly. Another way to ensure you'll be able to hang on to good players: re-sign them early in their contracts, when they can still be signed to cheap contracts.
So what is Tampa Bay's advantage?
Where do the Tampa Bay Buccaneers look to save in their current system, and where do they look to spend? This is somewhat difficult to evaluate given the fact that the Bucs have just undergone an organizational shift, but we can make a few educated guesses. Keep in mind that we can measure 'spending' in two different ways: draft picks and the value of contracts. These two aren't entirely interchangeable, but they're both limited resources that must be allocated in an intelligent way.
The players you never skimp on: quarterbacks and pass rushers
This isn't specific to the Buccaneers: it should be a rule for every single NFL team. The two most important positions on the field are quarterback and pass rusher, and no team should try to save money or draft picks at these positions. A good quarterback can make up for almost any deficiency on offense, while pass rushers (whether defensive ends or defensive tackles) can mask a lot of issues in the back seven.
Unsurprisingly, the Bucs have obliged. They've spent two first-round draft picks and two second-round draft picks on defensive linemen since Mark Dominik came into office in 2009, and they of course spent a first-round pick on Josh Freeman. They haven't had the opportunity to re-sign any of those players yet, but we could see some big contracts over the next years.
The players the Bucs want to spend a lot on: wide receivers, strong safeties, running backs(?) and offensive guards.
The Bucs spent big, big money on two positions this offseason: wide receiver and offensive guard. Vincent Jackson and Carl Nicks received a lot of money to come to Tampa, and that clearly represent a conscious decision to focus on those positions. The Bucs have used a franchise tag (Antonio Bryant), a decent contract (Michael Clayton) a second-round pick (Arrelious Benn), a fourth-round pick (Mike Williams) and some big money (Vincent Jackson) to bring receivers to Tampa since Mark Dominik took over. We may even count Kellen Winslow among those players, since he was more of a receiver than a tight end. They want to surround their quarterback with weapons and refuse to skimp at that position.
We can see something similar at guard, or rather the entire interior offensive line. Davin Joseph and Carl Nicks both have massive contracts, while Jeremy Zuttah got a new contract this offseason too. The Bucs want to build their line from the inside on, and there's a good reason for that: they want to physically dominate the opposition in the trenches, and run the ball up the middle. In addition, a good quarterback and scheme can compensate for poor offensive tackle play, while that's harder to do for poor guard play. Freeman has certainly shown the ability to compensate for some poor pass-blocking at right tackle when Jeremy Trueblood was in there. One other note here: the Bucs aren't too fond of spending draft picks on the offensive line, and have done so just once over the past four drafts. Dominik has stated that he likes to let offensive linemen develop in the NFL before giving them a shot. Is that wise? Who knows.
Then there's the running back in this category. Before Greg Schiano came to town, the Bucs didn't much care for spending money or draft picks on running backs, but that has changed. The running game has become a huge part of the Tampa Bay offense, and they drafted Doug Martin in the first round to become their bellcow back. Whether they'll eventually spend money to re-sign him to a big contract six years down the road remains to be seen (and may not be the wisest course of action), but clearly they do value a quality running back and they're willing to spend to have one.
Finally, there's the strong safety position. This appears to be a consequence of Greg Schiano's defense, as the Bucs trotted out a series of journeymen and late-round picks at safeties before he came to town. But the first draft pick of the Schiano era was safety Mark Barron, and you don't draft a player seventh overall if you don't value his position highly. In this case, the Bucs want a good strong safety who can be a force in the box as an eighth run defender, but who can also match up in man coverage on tight ends and slot receivers. That's perhaps where the Bucs differ most from other teams, which tend to place little value on safeties, or if they do, only on speedy free safeties.
Important players, but they can be replaced if they're too expensive: free safeties, cornerbacks and offensive tackles
The conventional wisdom used to be that the second-most important position on offense was that of left tackle. That's no longer the case, however, and it may never really have been the case. As defenses move their pass rushers around and offenses have learned to compensate for poor left tackles, they've become less and less important. And then there's the right tackle, who matters even less, for a reason poorly explained except by shouting 'blind side' over and over again.
Clearly, the Bucs have adopted this philosophy. Jeremy Trueblood was, for some reason, given a decent salary the past two years, but undrafted free agent Demar Dotson has done an adequate job and is being paid relative peanuts. Meanwhile, Donald Penn may have a big contract, but it's nowhere close to the top contracts at his position and doesn't represent a big burden on the team's salary cap. The Bucs will spend something on offensive tackles if they need to, but they won't go all out. Instead, they want to build their offensive line from the inside.
Meanwhile, free safeties and cornerbacks don't appear to be highly valued in this defense. The Bucs are currently starting multiple undrafted free agents at cornerbacks, because they simply haven't spent much on cornerbacks in the past years. They signed Eric Wright to a decent contract for a number two cornerbacks (and he could be gone next season, as the guarantee in his contract was voided by his suspension). That, a third-round pick spent on Myron Lewis and some late-round draft picks represent the sum total of investment at cornerback. Will this philosophy hold up in the future? This season, it appears to be costing them. The Bucs don't appear to be averse to spending at cornerback, having spent some decent money on Eric Wright, but they'd gladly save some money too -- as evidenced by their trading Talib.
We can see the same process at free safety. The Bucs haven't spent there in ages, and they're now starting Ronde Barber there. Barber's pretty good, but his backup is Ahmad Black (a fifth-round pick who was so unwanted by other teams that he spent time on the practice squad), and the Bucs aren't breaking the bank to keep Barber around.
Where they could save money, but don't : tight ends and linebacker
The rest of the league appears to be infatuated with versatile tight ends, but not so the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That doesn't mean they're saving at this position, though. Dallas Clark was a not-too-cheap free agent, while Luke Stocker is a fourth-round pick, Danny Noble an undrafted free agent and Nate Byham a street free agent. The Bucs occasionally use them to catch passes, but their main purpose is to act as blockers. The Bucs could save here, focusing on building a passing game with receivers, but so far -- they haven't.
Meanwhile, they continue to spend at linebacker, too. Quincy Black got a big contract in 2011, and the Bucs used a third-round pick on Mason Foster and a second-round pick on Lavonte David. And then there's Adam Hayward, who's getting decent money for a backup linebacker. This is a sport where most 4-3 teams decide to skimp, but the Bucs have actually invested quite a bit. Now, Foster and David appear to have been good investments - but they're still relatively easily replaced as 4-3 linebackers.
Where they do save money: nose tackles
The Bucs have a lot of nose tackles on the roster, and none of them get paid very much or represent a significant investment. This is the only place where they're actually managing to save money and draft picks.
A final saving: contract structure
There's one thing the Bucs have managed to do to save them money and limit their exposure to risk: they've consistently frontloaded guarantees in big contracts. That means that they pay more money up front, but have the luxury of limiting salary cap hits in later years, and making it much easier to cut ties with disappointing signings. Vincent Jackson and Carl Nicks, for instance, could be let go after three and two years respectively with no further financial or cap penalties. Most teams do the exact opposite: they backload contracts and push their cap penalties into the future, and that always comes back to bite them. In fact, that model was a big reason for the exodus of talent in Tampa Bay after the 2002 Super Bowl.
So where's the advantage?
Well, I'm not exactly sure. Skimping on nose tackles is hardly unique, and the Bucs don't appear to be focused on diminishing the importance of any single position. That's a problem, because you can't infinitely stack talent at every position: you must make decisions as to the relative importance of every position, and there have to be instances where you can save money. Instead, they even spend significant amounts on their kicker and punter.
The result is that the Bucs must simply be better at scouting draft picks and free agents to win in the long term. They don't have an information advantage, and don't appear to be saving anywhere to help their schemes. And being better than other teams at scouting every position is impossible to do in the long term.
Perhaps this is just a consequence of going through multiple schemes in four years. So far, though, the Bucs haven't exactly identified areas where they can save in the long term, seemingly spending on each position, though not equally at every position. This isn't necessarily an issue now: the Bucs have oodles of cap space and don't really need to find spots to save money, but a few big extensions will quickly turn this into a more pressing problem.
Is this simply a consequence of a few poor draft picks and not a conscious decision? Do the Bucs have an overall philosophy on how to build their team, on which positions to spend on and where to save? Or are they much more haphazard?