Agent's Take: The definitive 2019 Super Bowl tale of the tape for Rams vs. Patriots
Tom Brady may be a bargain, but his cap number is nearly three times that of Jared Goff
There isn't a specific blueprint for building a championship-caliber roster under the NFL salary cap. Super Bowl teams have been constructed in recent years with low-cost quarterbacks on rookie contracts (2012 49ers, 2013 and 2014 Seahawks) and higher-priced quarterbacks (2011 Giants, 2013 Broncos and 2016 Falcons).
The Eagles having a high-quality quarterback on a rookie contract, 2016 second-overall pick Carson Wentz, allowed for a bigger investment in his backup. It turned out to be a shrewd move when Wentz, who was a leading candidate for league MVP, tore multiple ligaments in his left knee late last season. Nick Foles rose to the occasion to become the rare backup quarterback to lead an NFL team to a championship. He earned Super Bowl LII MVP honors in the process.
The following graphic outlines the salary-cap charges for the Patriots and Rams key contributors at each position and on special teams. That's 32 players for the Patriots -- 16 each on offense and defense. The Rams have two fewer key players, with 13 on offense and 17 on defense.
Defensive positions are grouped more by actual function than label for a more direct comparison financially, especially with the front seven. Since the Rams run a 3-4 base defense, the outside linebackers are categorized as edge rushers. They would most likely be defensive ends in a 4-3 defense. Los Angeles' defensive ends are really interior lineman. They spend much more time inside than on the edge, for obvious passing downs.
Reserve list and dead money charges are tracked, as well. Dead money is a salary-cap charge for a player who is no longer on a team's roster. The Collective Bargaining Agreement's $215 daily amount for participating in a team's voluntary offseason workout program is included in the cap numbers.
Each NFL team's actual salary cap (known as adjusted salary cap) is typically different from the NFL's set amount because unused cap room can be carried over from one year to the next year and other adjustments can further increase or decrease cap space. The actual salary cap is currently $177.2 million.
The Super Bowl participants are operating with almost the same adjusted salary caps. Los Angeles' adjusted salary cap is $179.71 million, while New England's is just under $180.23 million. The league's average adjusted salary cap, according to NFLPA data, is $188.71 million.
The cap expenditures for the two teams are relatively equal. The Rams have used $179.2 of their cap room. The Patriots are at $177.056 million. Both teams are consistent with the league average of $178.101 million.
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Los Angeles' cap spending is heavily weighted toward the defense. It's $57.079 million offensively to $81.828 million defensively. New England allocates more of the cap to offense but isn't as skewed as Los Angeles. The breakdown is $69.23 million for offense and $61.228 million for defense. Although New England's offensive cap spending is a little more than $12 million greater, Los Angeles has a slightly higher average cap charge on this side of the ball. The 13 Rams average $4.39 million per player. The 16 Patriots have a $4.327 million average.
The Rams have several million more of total main contributor cap charges despite two fewer players. The cap expenditure is $138.9 million on 30 players. The Patriots have $130.46 million with 32 players. The average Rams offensive/defensive cap charge for these 30 players is $4.63 million. The Patriots average slightly below $4.077 million per player.
Because Tom Brady is a relative bargain, $5 million of incentives were added to his contract during the preseason. There were 20 quarterbacks who were either clear-cut starters or took the most snaps for their respective teams this season on veteran contracts. Brady's $20.5 million average yearly salary ranked 16th among the 20 veterans.
The incentives are considered likely to be earned because Brady reached the statistical achievements in 2017. In order to keep Brady's cap number, which is 12th highest in the NFL this season, the same because of the how the incentives are classified, $10 million of his base salary was converted to signing bonus so it could be prorated over 2018 and 2019.
Brady had a laundry list of performance milestones where he could have earned $1 million for each of the first five met, provided his offensive playtime was at least 70 percent and he threw a minimum of 224 passes. The specific milestones were: top five in NFL passer rating, top 5 in completion percentage, top 5 in yards per pass attempt, top 5 in touchdown passes, top 5 in passing yards, and each of the five categories paired with the Patriots winning this season's Super Bowl where Brady has 70 percent or more offensive playtime during the postseason. Since the $5 million of incentives were considered likely to be earned, the Patriots will get a salary cap credit in 2019 equal to that amount because Brady didn't hit any of the performance milestones.
A high-caliber quarterback on a rookie contract, like Jared Goff, is the most valuable commodity in the NFL because of the roster flexibility it can provide. Brady's cap number is nearly three times as much as Goff's, which is slightly more than $7.625 million. That could be changing soon because Goff, 2016's first-overall pick, became eligible for a contract extension when the regular season ended. The Rams have a history of extending the contracts of first round picks before their fourth season starts.
Todd Gurley dramatically re-set the running back market with the four-year, $57.5 million extension (worth a maximum of $60 million through realistically-achievable salary escalators) he signed in late July. The deal established new standards in practically all key contract metrics. His $45 million in guarantees are the most ever in a running back contract. The same goes for his $21 million signing bonus. At $14.375 million per year, Gurley became the highest-paid running back in NFL history. Gurley has the second biggest 2018 cap hit for a running back at just over $7.23 million.
C.J. Anderson, a late season pickup because of Gurley injuring his knee, is at the opposite end of the financial spectrum. He is making the prorated amount of his $790,000 league minimum salary ($92,941) for his brief stint with the Rams.
The Patriots have a different investment in running backs. James White is the highest paid at $4 million per year. The combined guaranteed money in the deals for the five running backs under contract to Patriots (Rex Burkhead, James Develin, Jeremy Hill, Sony Michel and White) is less than Gurley's signing bonus, at just under $20.35 million. Their collective average yearly salary of approximately $13 million is below Gurley's, as well.
New England utilizes a fullback more than practically every other NFL team. Develin received the second-most playing time among the league's fullbacks. He was on the field for 35.6 percent of New England's offensive snaps. Develin makes about $350,000 more per year the league average for fullbacks. The two-year extension he signed last June averages $1.8 million per year.
The Rams gave the Patriots their 2018 first-round pick (23rd overall) and a 2018 sixth-round pick to get Brandin Cooks and a 2018 fourth round pick in an April trade. Cooks was impressive enough in offseason workouts to land a new contract as the start of training camp was approaching before playing a down of football for the Rams. He received a five-year, $81-million extension (worth up to $84.5 million through salary escalators) with $50.459 million in guarantees. Cooks has had at least 1,000 receiving yards in each of the last three seasons with three different teams (Saints, Patriots and Rams). Robert Woods was probably the Rams' most important wide receiver -- with Cooper Kupp tearing his left ACL in the middle of season -- because of his ability to play in the slot and on the outside.
None of New England's wide receivers are compensated like Woods, whose contract averages approximately $7 million per year. Julian Edelman gave the Patriots a nice hometown discount with the two-year, $11 million extension worth up to $14 million through incentives he signed in 2017.
The Patriots have never been a team under Bill Belichick to make a big financial commitment to wide receivers. The only one to average at least $9 million per year on a long-term deal has been Hall of Famer Randy Moss a decade ago. This is why the Patriots were willing to essentially recoup the draft capital given up to get Cooks in a 2017 trade with Saints, by making a trade with the Rams. Cooks was scheduled to make $8.459 million on his fifth year before signing his extension and the Patriots were never going to pay him what the Rams are.
Tight end has been a different story with the Patriots. Rob Gronkowski's unhappiness with the six-year, $54 million extension he signed in 2012 to become the NFL's highest-paid tight end by average yearly salary was addressed for a second-straight year. The Patriots went with a "Band Aid" approach again rather than give Gronkowski the new deal he desired. In all, $3.3 million of not likely to be earned (NLTBE) incentives were added to Gronkowski's contract. He had the opportunity to earn $1.1 million for each of the following first three individual achievements met: (a) 80% offensive playtime, (b) 70 catches, (c) 1,085 receiving yards and (d) nine touchdown receptions. The thresholds are just above Gronkowski's 2017 statistical marks to make the incentives NLTBE.
Gronkowki didn't earn any of the incentives. Ankle and back problems kept him out of action for three games. He wasn't a dominant force like he normally is during the regular season.
Gronkowski's 46-man active per game roster bonuses were also increased from $750,000 to $1.75 million for this season. He made $812,500 more from these roster bonuses than he would have if there hadn't been an adjustment to his 2018 contract year.
The Patriots assumed the final three years of Dwayne Allen's contract worth $17.4 million when he was acquired in a 2017 trade with the Colts. Integrating Allen into the passing game has been difficult. Allen took a $1.5 million pay cut to $3.5 million to avoid getting released at the roster cutdown, with the ability to make the money back with incentives. A $5 million salary was bit pricey for primarily a blocking tight end.
It starts in the trenches with the Rams. Almost half of the Rams' offensive cap charges are devoted to the offensive line. Signing left tackle Andrew Whitworth to a three-year, $33.75 million deal worth a maximum of $36 million with incentives during 2017 free agency helped transform what was one of the NFL's worst offensive lines into one of league's better units. The 37-year-old Whitworth, who has the Rams' largest offensive cap number at $9,180,831, right tackle Rob Havenstein and right guard Austin Blythe were named among Pro Football Focus' top 25 offensive linemen for this season. Havenstein, Whitworth and Blythe ranked 10th, 11th, and 23rd respectively.
New England's total offensive line cap expenditures are a little more than half of Los Angeles'. Signing right guard Shaq Mason to a five-year, $45 million extension (worth a maximum of $50 million with incentives) in the preseason was a smart move. The 2015 fourth-round pick probably would have been the most coveted offensive lineman in free agency if the Patriots had let him play out his rookie contract, given the explosion in offensive guard salaries over the last couple of years. It's conceivable that Mason could have become the fourth unrestricted free agent guard in as many years to set market by eclipsing the six-year, $84 million extension ($14 million per year average) containing $40 million in guarantees that Zack Martin received from the Cowboys in the offseason.
Thanks to Trent Brown, the Patriots were able to overcome the loss of left tackle Nate Solder, Brady's blind-side protector, to the Giants in free agency. Solder's four-year, $62 million contract made him the NFL's highest offensive lineman for a brief time. The massive Brown, who is listed at 6-8 and 380 pounds, was acquired from the 49ers for what was essentially a mid-fourth round pick during the 2018 NFL draft. The Patriots, who reportedly made a somewhat competitive offer to keep Solder, have Brown for only a $1.907 million salary this season before he hits the open market in March.
Adrian Clayborn was New England's biggest free-agent signing. He received a two-year, $10 million deal with $5.5 million fully guaranteed last March. New England's best pass rusher, Trey Flowers ($2,053,828 cap number), who has an expiring rookie contract, is on the verge of a big payday during free agency.
The Rams' average defensive cap number of $4.813 million for the 17 key contributors is almost as much as their collective edge rusher cap expenditures. That's because Samson Ebukam, Dante Fowler, Jr., and John Franklin-Myers are all on rookie contracts. Fowler was acquired from the Jaguars at the late October trading deadline for a 2019 third-round pick and a 2020 fifth-round pick to help shore up the outside pass rush. His cost to the Rams for a little more than half a season is approximately $1.925 million.
The Rams have devoted a lot of resources to the interior of their defensive line. Most notably, Aaron Donald, who is expected to be named NFL Defensive Player of the Year for a second-straight season over the weekend, became a charter member of the $20 million per year non-quarterback club. He was the first to break the barrier when the Rams gave him a six-year, $135 million extension with $86.892 million of guarantees in early September to end his lengthy holdout. Donald's $40 million signing bonus is the largest ever for a non-quarterback.
Five-time All-Pro Ndamukong Suh had multiple suitors after the Dolphins released him last March. He says two teams offered him significantly more money that the one-year, $14 million deal with additional $1 million in incentives, which have been earned, he took from the Rams for the chance to play on a Super Bowl contender. Suh's $14,502,150 cap number is the team's largest.
The Rams really use three interior linemen on the defensive front. Michael Brockers, who signed a three-year extension averaging $11,166,666 per year with slightly over $24 million of guarantees in 2016, spent considerable time at nose tackle last season before Suh's arrival.
The Patriots' cap charges on the inside for Malcom Brown, Lawrence Guy and Danny Shelton are about $750,000 less than Donald's $8.892 million figure, which is the smallest of three Rams interior players.
Mark Barron and Dont'a Hightower make up the bulk of Los Angeles and New England's respective linebacker cap charges. Hightower has the bigger cap number at $9,076,763. Barron's 2018 figure was originally $10 million before an early season contract restructure brought it down to just under $8.175 million. Both are on long-term deals averaging in the $9 million per year neighborhood. Hightower's has $2 million of annual incentives based on his defensive playtime and individual honors. He earned $625,000 in incentives this season by taking 74.2 percent of New England's defensive snaps.
The Patriots made a rare high-priced free agent signing in 2017 with cornerback Stephon Gilmore. After a rocky first month last season, Gilmore has lived up to his five-year, $65 million contract containing $40 million in guarantees. Gilmore took his game to another level this season. He was arguably the NFL's best cornerback while earning first-team All-Pro honors.
The Rams brought in a new cornerback tandem by being extremely active in the trade market during the offseason. Two-time All-Pro Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib, whose streak of five-straight Pro Bowl selections came to an end this season, were acquired respectively from the Chiefs and Broncos. Talib's $11 million base salary is tied as the third highest for a cornerback this season. Peters, a 2015 first-round pick, is making about one-sixth of Talib at just under $1.75 million as he is in the fourth year of his rookie contract. His salary takes a big jump next season. Peters' fifth-year option is for $9.069 million.
Nickell Robey-Coleman, who is fortunate he wasn't called for pass interference late in the fourth quarter against the Saints in the NFC Championship Game, is one of the league's higher-priced third cornerbacks. He signed a three-year, $15.675 million contract with $8 million in guarantees in March after joining the Rams in 2017 on a one-year deal for little more than $850,000. He has a $5,131,665 cap number this season.
Each team has a large cap charge for a safety. Patriots safety Devin McCourty has the NFL's second-biggest cap hit at the position at $11,942,095. Lamarcus Joyner, who was designated as a franchise player by the Rams for $11.287 million, is right behind McCourty on the safety list. Both have the second biggest 2018 cap figure on their teams.
The Patriots have more of the cap allocated to safety than any other defensive position group. Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon are both signed to multi-year deals averaging right around $4 million per year and have 2018 cap numbers in the $3.8 million range.
The Rams and Patriots have similar special teams cap expenditures. Each team's collective cap charge is above $7.5 million. New England's kicker and punter duo, Stephen Gostkowski and Ryan Allen, have the league's second-highest combined kicking specialist cap charge at just over $7 million. Gostkowski is the NFL's highest-paid kicker with a $4.3 million average yearly salary.
The Rams have the league's second-highest paid punter in Johnny Hekker. His deal averages almost $3.475 million per year. Hekker has the most guarantees in a punter contract at just over $10 million.
Neither team has a substantial amount of the cap devoted to injured players, although both suffered significant losses. The biggest cap charge between the teams belongs to the Patriots with Isaiah Wynn ($2,080,387), who was selected 23rd overall in last April's draft. Wynn tore an Achilles in the preseason. New England's charges include wide receiver Josh Gordon, who was suspended indefinitely by the NFL for violating the substance abuse policy in late December following an 11 game stint with the Patriots after being acquired from the Browns in an early-season trade. Gordon was the most talented wide receiver the Patriots have had since Moss.
The Rams losing Kupp was a big blow. Kupp was on track for an 80 catch/1,100 receiving yard/12 touchdown reception season when he tore his ACL. He has the Rams' biggest individual reserve list cap charge at $885,401.
Dead money exists because of how salary cap accounting rules operate. Signing bonuses, option bonuses and certain roster bonuses are prorated or spread out evenly over the life of a contract for a maximum of five years. When a player is released, traded or retires, the remaining proration of these salary components immediately accelerate onto his team's current salary cap.
There are two major exceptions to this general rule of bonus proration accelerating. Only the current year's proration counts toward the salary cap with transactions occurring after June 1. The bonus proration in future contract years is delayed until the next league year beginning in the following March. A team can also release two players each year prior to June 1 (known as a Post-June 1 designation) that will be treated under the salary cap as if they were released after June 1. With a post-June 1 designation, a team is required to carry the player's full cap number until June 2 even though he is no longer a part of the roster. The player's salary comes off the books at that time unless it is guaranteed.
This means dead money is typically a sunk cost where money isn't owed to a player. Only if there are salary guarantees when a player is released will there be a payment associated with dead money.
The Patriots and Rams don't have excessive dead money compared to other NFL teams. Los Angeles' biggest dead money comes from trading linebacker Alec Ogletree ($6.4 million) and wide receiver Tavon Austin ($4,001,720). New England's only dead money charge over $1 million is for linebacker Shea McClellin ($1,908,334). $1.075 million relates to McClellin qualifying for the Collective Bargaining Agreement's injury protection benefit, since multiple concussions derailed his career.
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