Football is constantly evolving, and today’s NFL is a passing league decided by matchups. Hybrid players aren’t just the latest trend; they’re necessary to survive. But that got me thinking - which positions do NFL teams value the most in today’s game? Everyone knows it’s a QB-driven league, but what about the rest of players? What positions are the Bucs prioritizing? The easiest way to find out is to look at where the NFL spends their money.
The new league year begins in 4 days and these numbers will surely change, but for the purposes of a rough league estimate things shouldn’t change that much while the Bucs numbers should change a lot in the next couple of months. The way I went about it is by utilizing contract value/year using overthecap.com. But, I didn’t count a position until I ran across at least two players.
QB - No surprise, the top 16 contracts in per year value went to Quarterbacks, with Jimmy Garoppolo’s new $27.5M per year contract on top.
Edge (4-3 DEs and 3-4 OLBs) - With teams and quarterbacks getting the ball out faster and faster every year, a quality pass rush is now a prerequisite for making the playoffs. The highest non-QB contract belongs to Von Miller at $19M per year.
DT - Teams still highly value players who can collapse the interior of the pocket, and eat up blocks in 2 gapping schemes and penetrate in one-gap schemes. After Quarterbacks, defensive line reigns supreme. Suh makes $19m/yr and Fletcher Cox $17m/yr.
WR - Find freaky athletes of all shapes and sizes and put them in space. Antonio Brown and DeAndre Hopkins make $17m/yr and $16m/yr respectively.
CB - Find freaky athletes (often now tweeners between linebacker and safety body types) to tackle other freaky athletes in space. The highest paid are Trumaine Johnson, Josh Norman (who makes the same as Mike Glennon at $15m/yr), Xavier Rhodes, and Patrick Peterson.
55 of the top 56 contracts in the NFL in per year value went to one of the above positions, with the only exception being Le’Veon Bell. If I were a GM these would be the positions I would spend almost all of my top 100 picks on. The rest:
LT - Protect your biggest investment. Russell Okung and Joe Thomas make just north of $13m/yr.
S - See CBs. Playmaking safeties are game changers. Eric Berry and Tyrann Mathieu make $13m/yr and $12.5m/yr respectively.
OG - I found it really interesting high-quality guards were considered more valuable than right tackles. Perhaps their value has increased in response to highly coveted interior DL. Kevin Zeitler and Kelechi Osemele lead the way.
ILB - The days of thumper run-stopping middle linebackers are long past. Now they must possess sideline to sideline speed. Unsurprisngly, Luke Keuchly and Bobby Wagner are tops.
RT - Perhaps the narrative (that I myself have believed in) right tackles are just as valuable in today’s game as left tackles should be revisited. Lane Johnson makes $11.25m/yr but Ricky Wagner is the next highest paid at under $10m.
C - Centers are considered the least valuable OL spot, despite often being responsible for protection checks and for being the only player other than the QB to touch the ball on every snap. Brandon Linder and Travis Frederick make around $10m/yr.
OLB - Since I counted 3-4 OLBs as edge rushers (they only drop into coverage maybe a quarter of the time on average) this hurt the positional value rank as it basically left just “4-3” OLBs. However, it makes sense since all teams run 4-2-5 nickel “sub” packages as their most common personnel anyway. Linebackers need to be really athletic to see the field or they’ll be subbed out for tweener safety types. The highest-paid players are Jamie Collins at $12.5/yr and Telvin Smith at $11m/yr.
TE - A handful of elite players in the entire league are matchup nightmares. This position also appears to have evolved into tweener WR types and those that have the size to block inline (much less be willing to) are becoming rare and perhaps even more valuable. The highest paid are Jimmy Graham at $10m/yr and Travis Kelce at $9.3m/yr.
RB - Hmmm. Le’Veon Bell had a cap hit of $14.5m but the next highest RBs were Devonta Freeman and LeSean McCoy at just over $8m/yr.
This order of the list changes slightly if you go by guaranteed money per year, with many more young players showing up early due to the structure of rookie contracts: QB, Edge, DT, WR, CB, OG, LT, RB, OLB, S, ILB, C, RT, TE.
So, how do the Bucs compare? Of course this won’t be perfectly analogous and is a little subjective because I didn’t always wait until there were two players before counting the position but this should still give us an idea of how Tampa Bay is structuring their team, or at least who they view as their core going into the 2018 league year. Also Jameis Winston is still on his rookie contract, but that should arguably give the team even more of an advantage.
WR - Even before Mike Evans’ blockbuster QB-money $55 million guaranteed contract the Bucs have WR as their most-valued position with Evans and Jackson having two of the Bucs’ 3 most expensive contracts.
DT - Gerald McCoy owns the 2nd highest cap number on the team and is still worth every penny.
OLB - Lavonte David is still criminally underrated.
QB - Jameis Winston’s cap number is $8m this season and if the Bucs pick up his 5th year option next season this will jump to at least $15m likely making him the highest-paid player on the team on a per year basis. Any multi-year contract extension will likely be significantly more than that.
OG - JR Sweezy’s contract is an albatross. He hasn’t been the same player since his back injury and the Bucs would save around $5m for cutting him but would leave the position completely depleted.
Edge - William Gholston’s and Robert Ayers’ $6.5m and $6m contracts respectively were a lot of money for very little production. Ayers may not be on the team in 2018. This position needs to be rebuilt.
OT - Demar Dotson is good when healthy and has the 9th biggest cap number on the team. Age and his body breaking down on him is a legitimate concern at this point. Donovan Smith is still on his rookie deal but all reports still indicate the Bucs believe he is a top 15 left tackle and will re-sign him so I combined OT up here.
CB - Brent Grimes is a free agent and may not be with the team in 2018, but him and Hargreaves come in right here. The Bucs had the worst pass defense in the league in 2017 and an infusion of talent is seriously needed. Hargreaves is a nickel corner so if Grimes does retire that leaves Tampa without any corners who can play at a high level on the outside.
Nobody else on the team (for now) makes more than $3m/yr, so I’ll list their positions in order:
S - Chris Conte got resigned! The White Unicorn has been a better player under Smith, but is still slow to react in deep coverage and an upgrade is needed. Justin Evans had a promising rookie campaign.
TE - OJ Howard clocks in here with the 13th highest per year value on the team but this is sure to move up if/when Brate is re-signed. If they do, the Bucs may have the highest-paid TE group in the NFL.
ILB - Kwon Alexander is still on his rookie deal.
RB - Jacquizz Rodgers and Peyton Barber should be welcoming some new friends shortly.
C - Hawley has retired from football which drops Center all the way down here. Ali Marpet is still on his rookie deal but should make significantly more after this season.
NFL Avg: QB, Edge, DT, WR, CB, LT, S, OG, ILB, RT, C, OLB, TE, RB
Bucs: WR, DT, OLB, QB, OG, Edge, OT, CB, S, TE, ILB, RB, C
Spotrac.com has the Bucs’ combined positional breakdown by $ like this: DL, WR, OL, LB, S, QB, TE, RB.
Who do you think the Bucs should go after when free agency begins?