The past two years the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have gone after elite talent with a vengeance -- and they've paid those players very well. Signing Dashon Goldson to a five-year, $46.25 million contract was just the latest in a series of high-profile acquisitions for the Buccaneers. Last year, the free agents they brought in included Vincent Jackson on a five-year, $55,555,555 contract and Carl Nicks on a five-year, $47.5 million deal. Then there's their reported interest in Darrelle Revis. The Bucs' m.o. over those two years: grab top talent and pay them top dollar.
The philosophy was succinctly described by Mark Dominik last week: "We're going to continue to look in any way that we can to improve the football team. Just know that coach, myself, our front office, we're still all looking. The Glazer family continues to provide us resources, and we're going to continue to look to see if there's anything that we think is rare and unique or a player we really think can help our football team." (via the Tampa Bay Times)
The Buccaneers also added some lower profile free agents, though. This season, that includes Kevin Ogletree, Tom Crabtree and Jonathan Casillas. Cheap players who can compete for depth. Last season, those players were Nate Byham, Tiquan Underwood, D.J. Ware, Jamon Meredith and Gary Gibson. None of those players are playing on contracts worth more than $1.4 million per year.
That dichotomy between cheap free agents and very expensive, top-notch players is the Buccaneers' new philosophy in a nutshell. But it wasn't always like this.
Overpaying for mediocre talent
In the early years of the Mark Dominik regime, the strategy appeared to be very different. With the exception of trading for Kellen Winslow, the Buccaneers focused on the draft and a select few mediocre free agents to fill in starting roles.
The draft was where the core of the team had to come from. The draft is still an important part of building the team right now, but back in 2009, 2010 and especially 2011 (when the only free agent of note was punter Michael Koenen) drafting was all the team seemed to do. The Bucs would try to bring in a few starters through free agency -- in fact, Mark Dominik went on the record to say that that was what free agency was for. The philosophy at the time was to build the team through the draft, and sign free agents to replace failed draft picks. But they failed repeatedly to bring in quality starters.
Sean Jones, Derrick Ward, Michael Clayton, Keydrick Vincent represent the major failures of that strategy. It led the Buccaneers to overpay for mediocre talent. The only successes they did have in giving decent money to starters was in re-signing their own players. Donald Penn and Davin Joseph were both re-signed during that time to solid but not elite contracts and they were certainly worth the money they received. They were the exception, though. As Stephen Holder put it: "There have been some questionable signings by the Bucs and other clubs in recent years where average players got salaries usually reserved for elite ones."
This wasn't a new strategy: it had been learned from Bruce Allen and the previous regime. They made it a continual habit to sign mediocre players to decent contracts in an effort to unearth some hidden gems. I can't remember that strategy succeeding even once, and it simply led to a roster loaded with a middle class with little production. Players like Ryan Sims, Jimmy Wilkerson, Jeff Garcia and Ike Hilliard littered the roster. Mediocre players signed for just a little too much money, without making a huge difference.
The new strategy: squeeze the 'middle class'
Yes, there's a middle class in the NFL. Rams executive vice president Kevin Demoff defined it as those players earning between $3-4 million per year. While Demoff linked the decline of that middle class to increased efficiency in the draft, there's also another factor here: a salary cap that has remained relatively flat for the past years, while the contracts top players are receiving continue to increase. With a mandatory minimum of 53 players on a roster, teams must find a way to fill the rest of their roster with less and less money as top players earn more and more. That naturally leaves less money to spend on the "middle class", and they are getting squeezed as a result.
This is clearly visible in the Buccaneers' salary structure. I've broken it down below, widening the middle class to $3-5 million because the $3-$4 million range seemed unnecessarily restrictive. I went by the 2013 cap numbers, with two exceptions: I used the average per year for Vincent Jackson and Carl Nicks because their contracts have been structured with very low cap figures this season and very high cap figures in every other season. You should also note that these numbers are somewhat speculative -- they're based on sources like Rotoworld and Spotrac and reports from ESPN and there will always be a few mistakes in there. The overall picture will still be correct, however.
That's a pretty stark picture right there. Only three players qualify for middle class status (and only that many because I slightly widened the definition). Moreover, I would call only one of those players truly middle class. Punter Michael Koenen is included in this group, and he's getting paid near the top of his position group -- hardly middle class. Mark Barron is there, but his salary is determined by his draft status. The final player is Jeremy Zuttah, and he's the only one you could truly call middle class: a solid starter being paid good money, but far from top money for his position.
In previous years, players like Sean Jones, Derrick Ward, Michael Clayton, Stylez G. White, Jerramy Stevens, Jeremy Trueblood, Ryan Sims and Chris Hovan would have fit into that middle class. I don't think the Buccaneers are worse off for replacing those players with either cheaper (mostly drafted) players, or top-notch free agents.
This kind of roster-building can be problematic, though. To show you why, here's another graph depicting the team's 2013 cap hits.
Note that I'm using the average per year for Nicks and Joseph instead of their actual cap hits this season to more actually reflect the future state of affairs. Still, that's a pretty stark picture: 58% of all cap hits are coming from just 8 players. Meanwhile, the bottom 30 players represent just 15% of the entire salary cap. Who are those 8 players taking up such a humongous amount of the salary cap?
One very important note here: these players are only going to take up a bigger part of the pie in the future. While Eric Wright will probably be gone, he will more than likely be replaced by Darrelle Revis -- who will take up up to twice as much salary cap space. Both Nicks and Jackson see their cap hits go up in future years, albeit by small amounts. While Gerald McCoy isn't likely to earn more in a future contract, he won't be far off from his current cap number.
The biggest change will be Josh Freeman, though. His already hefty cap number will only increase -- if he receives an extension. That's the most likely area for the Buccaneers to save in the future. If they decide to replace Freeman with a drafted quarterback, they will be in a much more healthy salary cap situation. If they extend him and add Darrelle Revis, they could see the top 9 players take up as much as 75% of the salary cap.
This has one consequence: it means filling the rest of your roster with cheap labor. Most notably, drafted players. That's where the biggest savings on the roster come from.
|Players||Salary Cap Hit|
These nine starters take up just $14 million in cap space combined, one fifth of the cap space taken up by the 8 superstars on the roster. While the cheap drafted labor of the bottom 30 players on the roster is the depth you need to survive in the NFL, these starters are what you need to make the economy of superstars work. You need to draft at a high level consistently to constantly replenish your roster with competent starters who can function as cheap labor on their rookie contracts to offset the costs of the superstars.
The implication of this kind of roster-building for the draft is that you cannot afford to draft backups or depth early on in the draft. Having cheap labor on the bench would mean needing another expensive starter at another position -- and that's the kind of thing that leads to an unstable cap situation in the long term. This kind of economic thinking probably played a big role in the Buccaneers letting both Michael Bennett and Roy Miller walk. They couldn't afford to bring them back at middle class or better salaries. Bennett's position was being filled by cheap labor under contract for a few more years in Da'Quan Bowers, while Roy Miller plays one of the few positions that can be perennially filled with cheap labor. They simply won't fit the economics of the team under this model.
Differences with other teams
This philosophy stands in stark contrast with the philosophy of several other teams. One team everyone compares themselves to is the New England Patriots, who have generally done a good job of exploiting market inefficiencies. Their philosophy is pretty different, as they have a much more layered structure. They pay seven players average salaries per year exceeding $5 million, per Spotrac. Those players take up just over $56 million, compared to the $71 million taken up by the Buccaneers' top eight players -- which is likely to expand to some $78 million if Darrelle Revis is added.
The Patriots have a very different philosophy when it comes to adding free agents, too. They will pay their own top players good money, but they only bring in role players when it comes to outside free agents. Players like Steve Gregory, Rob Ninkovich, Deion Branch and Leon Washington are their typical free agent targets. Players who won't be full-time starters, but players who can play a specific role for a couple of years and do that well at a low price point.
Another team with a sharply contrasting philosophy would be the Indianapolis Colts, run by 2012 general manager of the year Ryan Grigson. They've gone on a veritable "middle class" spending spree these past two offseasons, adding a slew of players making decent money, but shying away from the big money free agents. The same can be said for the San Francisco 49ers, the Baltimore Ravens and some other successful teams -- although most perennially successfully teams tend to shy away from free agency altogether.
Of course, there are also examples of big spenders with success. The Seattle Seahawks, for instance, have regularly made big waves in free agency and trades and they aren't doing too shabbily. The same can be said for the Denver Broncos to an extent.
Why this new philosophy?
We can speculate on the reasons for change, but it's impossible to know for certain. Did the Glazers prevent the Bucs from spending before the new CBA was established? Did Mark Dominik come to new insights? Is Dominik fearing for his job and trying to improve the quality of the team rapidly so he won't be fired? Is Greg Schiano behind this change in strategy?
All of these explanations are plausible, and I can't rightly favor one over the other. I can say that this appears to be a fairly radical break from the past. The realization that top talent is what you want in free agency, and that you need to pay top dollar to get it, is new. The Buccaneers aren't looking for value at a decent price, and that philosophy has failed them regularly in the past. At least with this new philosophy they are getting the top talent they want, even if the price is high.
Is it sustainable?
The question we should now be asking ourselves is: can the Buccaneers sustain this kind of model? The answer to that question really depends on what's going to happen in the future. Are we going to continue to see a flat salary cap, which seems unlikely, then the Buccaneers may be faced with some tough decisions in having to annually let go of some of their highly paid players. They may also be faced with a different problem: changing economics.
If the salary cap remains relatively low, top players may see their salaries decrease as the NFL adjust to these new realities. That will make the Buccaneers' top players look increasingly overpaid, while other teams manage to collect top talent at lower prices. That would be a genuine issue. Another possibility is that elite talent continues to get paid, as it is now, and we'll see an increasing middle-class squeeze. If that happens the Buccaneers will look like pioneers who devised the new model for the future NFL.
On the other hand, if the salary cap expands, as is to be expected with new TV deals kicking in, the Bucs will be able to sustain this model fairly easily. As the salary cap grows their current top players will take up an increasingly smaller percentage of the salary cap. Although the salaries of new top players will undoubtedly increase, this should be proportional and there's no real reason why the Bucs -- if they're smart about their spending -- would hit a ceiling.
In addition, the way they have structured their contracts will allow them to cut bait after two or three seasons on every top player without future problems. This means that if they do run into salary cap problems, they should be solved fairly easily by getting rid of some of the top players. If the Bucs had faced a cap crunch this season, for instance, they could consider cutting Eric Wright (who's likely gone anyway), Donald Penn and Davin Joseph. That would save a combined $19.5 million against the cap, a sizable amount. Of course, having to cut players of Penn's and Joseph's caliber isn't a pleasant proposition -- but it shows that this system won't lead to massive, multi-year salary cap problems.
All of this hinges on one idea though: the Buccaneers must be able to find starters in the draft year after year. So far, they've done a decent job at that. Each draft under Mark Dominik has yielded at least two starters. Josh Freeman and Roy Miller (who will now need to be replaced) in 2009. Gerald McCoy and Mike Williams in 2010. Adrian Clayborn, Da'Quan Bowers and Mason Foster in 2011. Mark Barron, Doug Martin and Lavonte David last season. If they fail to produce starters from the draft, though, the economics fall apart. They won't have the cheap labor to complement the expensive, top players. Moreover, they also need to find depth players late in the draft and as undrafted free agents to round out the roster. Again, Dominik has done a good job of collecting those players in the past. He just needs to continue doing it.
The team's new philosophy is certainly more exciting than its previous draft-only approach. It certainly places the Buccaneers firmly in the center of media attention. But it remains to be seen whether this kind of roster building will be successful and sustainable. Teams who spend big in free agency only rarely succeed when the playoffs come around, and so far the Buccaneers have been forced to enjoy a holiday in January every year since 2009. Its time for a change in that department. Will their new philosophy finally get them to the playoffs again?