Here’s to Our New, Cost-effective, Overlords

The company line of the national media outlets regarding the Redskins’ offseason is that they’ve been uncharacteristically quiet.  This is wrong for a number of reasons.  First of all, the Redskins were way less active than they were now just two years ago in 2008, when they basically sat on their hands until the draft.  Just one year before that, the Redskins quickly moved to sign London Fletcher when the Bills let him walk, brought back Fred Smoot, and then didn’t really do anything else until it came time to go bargain basement shopping for third and fourth receivers.  This is hardly an unprecedented patience.

Secondly, the Redskins have been quite active in free agency.  In fact the mere interview of players such as Larry Johnson, Joey Porter, Barry Sims and Chad Clifton, represent a lot of the same free agency strategies the Redskins have employed in the past.  You may or may not have known that the Redskins have made more signings than the rest of the NFC East combined, which is really all that needs to be said about the team’s “lack of activity.”  The biggest diffence from past years is that the media has worked to justify a reputation of the Redskins making noise just for the sake of making noise, which is untrue.

Look, I believe the Redskins improved by a greater margin by adding Albert Haynesworth, than they did by adding everyone they have added so far this offseason, even including a potential big-name signing like Porter.  This is not going to be a space where I preach the virtues of not spending as opposed to spending, because that would imply that teams can’t get anywhere by adding talent through money.  That’s not true.  The Redskins were a poor pass defense last season with Albert Haynesworth, and they might have been a dreadful pass defense without him.  The Redskins were the best defensive team in football in stopping power runs last year.  Things like that can get lost in the wash when you lose 12 games, but Haynesworth proves that money can buy you great things.

There’s no reason to believe the Redskins are done being big spenders when opportunity presents itself.  What’s different now is that they’ve taken a clear, and cost-effective approach to spending.  This means the following: if you bring in a player for a visit and he doesn’t represent elite talent, the Redskins now have a price tag in mind with that player.  The idea, rather than to sign the first guy who walks through the door, is to sign the guy who’s agent is going to bill the player in line with what he brings to the team, instead of as a guy who is trying to maximize his value with the Redskins.

Cost-effective does not mean that the Redskins will not be signing old players.  Larry Johnson fit perfectly into the Redskins budget, but whether or not he has any value as a runner remains to be seen.  Joey Porter might sign here and push younger, cheaper players with greater upside (but also a learning curve) to a bench role.  Rex Grossman signed for below-market rate prices, but he’s still Rex Grossman back there.  Cost-effective decision making doesn’t improve your roster, but by engaging in it’s practice, the Redskins will avoid the situations in the past where the rookies have to defer to the veterans because of finances.  What it does do is prevent a roster from being loaded up with Chad Clifton, Levi Jones, and Tony Pashos types.  The veteran stopgap has a place and role, and on a 4-12 team in desperate need of an offensive injection in the buttocks is not that place or role.

Even in an economic climate as such, with a dynamic and uncertain future for the NFL, the Redskins have absolutely no need to be bargain hunting.  Building a team in the NFL is unlike building a team in any other sport, which is to say, that a team can have a philosophy to do nothing but draft it’s own players, sign it’s own undrafted free agents, and then load up 80% of it’s payroll with huge mega-deals given to the most irreplacable parts of it’s team, when the time comes.  This is the Polian-Colts model.  There’s no need for bargain hunting with the most successful of all NFL models, because all the roster spots in his team that would go to stopgaps have been given to 22-26 year olds with developmental upside, in hopes of finding the next great player to give a huge contract to.  The Steelers, Packers, and Patriots (particuarly the latter, who turns over it’s entire roster 2 or 3 times a decade) don’t really go bargain hunting either.  These teams spend money, often a lot of money, in their team building model, yet, they don’t use the open market to skimp on cost on the back end of their roster.

So it’s worth pointing out that, if the Redskins are going to be bargain hunters, they should “be their own man” about it, and not try to copy the way that the small market teams such as Buffalo, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Jacksonville have always used free agency to round out a flawed roster, as opposed to improve.  There are models of successful, cheap free agency shopping, namely: the 00-02 Raiders, the 09 Saints and Jets, and really, the Gibbs 2.0 Redskins prior to the 2006 FA disaster.  The issues of bargain shopping are apparent in that list: it’s unsustainable.  The Raiders became a terrible team well before they became a punchline, the Redskins went down from the end of the Gibbs era through the Jim Zorn era, and the Saints and Jets don’t project to have a lot of staying power (though the uncapped year rules will help extend their stay as top teams).

The idea here is to promote strong organizational structure first and foremost.  Once you have that, plug and play economics make a lot of sense, and while the opportunities for arbitrage in free agency aren’t what they are in the draft, they exist.  I would spend tons of money, if I could, to build and promote this organizational structure.  When it comes to players who could make an entire scheme run smootly for multiple years into the future, like Haynesworth, age and salary are meaningless numbers.

(A side note: at this point in the authoring of this column, Joey Porter has come to terms with the Cardinals.  Rather than use up time revising the parts where I speak of his hypothetical signing, I will leave them up because it doesn’t change the point of the column any.)

The Redskins, notoriously, lack structure on both sides of the ball.  They’re plan on offense, since 2007, has been to reap whatever benefits of Jason Campbell’s development they can without giving him a lot of help.  On defense, it’s been to stack that side of the ball with talent, and then to let the coaches, who have not been the exact same people throughout but have never been the head coaches/final arbiters, sort it all out.  The biggest benefit to the Mike Shanahan/Bruce Allen hires has been that they come in bringing some of that strucutre with them.  Whether Jim Haslett is the right man to bring this to the defensive side remains to be seen, but we know he has the pieces.

So it’s interesting that, given the institution of the Shanahan oligarchy on the offensive side of the ball, the Redskins have not spent hardly any money to change the status quo.  If anything, they’ve spent to upkeep it: Casey Rabach, Mike Williams, tenders to Will Montgomery, and Stephon Heyer.  Clinton Portis and Mike Sellers both surviving the axe that a bunch of lesser names got.  Jason Campbell and Santana Moss surviving (non-serious) trade talks, so far.

(I support the immediate split of the Campbell-Moss passing tandem that has led the team in passing and receiving for the last three seasons.  In my opinion, Campbell should be kept because he has the most value, but if you changed the QB, you might be able to get something out of Moss, still.  It makes hardly any sense to keep the both of them, as the lack of change around him has been one of Campbell’s main hinderences as a Redskin).

A pause in the action for some Redskins draft talk

I still believe the Redskins plan to select an offensive tackle and a quarterback with their first two draft choices, though, not necessarily in that order.  I can tell you that there’s some fire to the rumors that the Redskins are considering S Eric Berry with the 4th overall pick, though, I’d be surprised if that came to fruition without a trade down (Berry has limited suitors in the top 6 or 7 of the draft, and both of those suitors have primary focuses on the offensive side of the ball).  I also think Mike Shanahan will be willing to break his notorious streak of avoiding running backs in the first round if the right opportunity presents itself.  I don’t think C.J. Spiller would be a reach, at all, at no. 4, but I don’t think the Redskins are seriously entertaining the thought of drafting him there.

Furthermore, I think it’s a complete pipe dream that the Redskins might address the offensive line with both of their first two picks, and I’d go as far as saying that the team has a greater chance of passing on an offensive lineman with both of their first two picks than to use them both on lineman.  I think it might be a good idea to use both of the picks on lineman, but I’ll be the first (and not the last) to say: it ain’t happening.

As far as the team’s interest in Tim Tebow: I think it’s real, but there’s not a whole lot of fire there.  By that I mean that the Redskins would be open to taking Tebow as a quarterback prospect, but that they aren’t going to: 1) use either of their top 40 draft choices on him, or 2) trade up in the draft at any point to get him.  So, for Tebow to be a Redskin, he would have to be on the board in the fourth round, which is highly improbable, and even if he was, there would have to be a highly unlikely series of events occur just to have Tebow top the team’s board at that point.  In short, the Redskins will interview Tebow as seriously as any other prospect with a private workout–and they’ll come away impressed–but Tebow will not be a Redskin.

If you want something to watch over the course of the season that will greatly affect the team’s plans for the 2011 draft, keep an eye on those cornerbacks.  The salary structure of the defense suggests Hall has the most job security, and that’s correct.  But don’t lose sight of the fact that the guy who created the offensive gameplan designed to take advantage of Hall’s weaknesses as a cover corner was Denver’s Mike Shanahan.  Shanahan will role with Hall this year, but if he’s going to need to find a scapegoat for the continued failure of the pass defense, it won’t be free agent Carlos Rogers, who Shanahan reportedly is quite fond of.  Jim Haslett is going to use Hall like he was used in his days as a Falcon, but the team will probably eat the remainder of his guarenteed contract if he underperforms in 2010.  And that could determine the Redskins needing to address the position in the draft.

How the Redskins can use bargain shopping to their advantage

So here we are, just a month before the draft, and the front office has sat on a majority of the money it created on the day it purged ten veterans.  This is probably a good thing, given that there’s been no place to spend it.  Coming off a 4-12 season, the players who have earned a contract extension are, well, they all played the defensive line last year.  Players like Chris Wilson and Lorenzo Alexander have been in talks to get their share of the pie (Heyer, as well, though his piece involves things that aren’t NFL-type money), based on their contributions, but neither have contracts thus far.  You’ll notice something: both Wilson and Alexander were undrafted.  So was Fletcher.  Reed Doughty was a 6th round pick, and non-tendered last season before resigning for the league minimum.  The organization’s most obvious “keepers” were hardly valued at all on draft day.  But when we move on to the guys whose names have been circulated in trade talks: Jason Campbell, Carlos Rogers, Rocky McIntosh, Andre Carter, Laron Landry, and Santana Moss, every last one of these guys were top 40 draft choices when they came into the league.  You can throw the untradables (due to contract size against 2009 “production”) like Haynesworth and Hall into that category as well.

My point is that the Redskins should look at bargain shopping, or cost-effectiveness as a way to get up to speed at positions that are overvalued by the draft, specifically, in the passing game.  Quarterbacks and receivers (and receiving backs, although Shanahan doesn’t use them) are among the worst valued players in the draft by current measures, with pass defenders (defensive ends, safeties, and corners) just behind them.  Teams that don’t get adequate pass offense and defense do not win in the NFL, so it’s critical to get up to speed at these positions.  The problem with the draft is that draft position spent at these positions doesn’t correlate to success in these areas as well as it does in run focused areas.

If you want to rebuild the rush offense that the Redskins have struggled with, investing draft picks in backs and offensive lineman is usualluy more than sufficient to be able to run the ball.  But having the ability to run without having the ability to pass is pointless.  It can make the difference between 4-12 and 8-8 (as the Redskins could run in 2008, but not in 2009).  To get past that point, the Redskins need to improve at defending the pass from last year without losing their ability to move the chains through the air.  This leads to the argument I’ve been trying to set up throughout the piece: the Redskins would be better off moving from journeyman to journeyman at the quarterback position throughout the Shanahan tenure than they would be spending one high pick on a QB and screwing up his development.

If Jason Campbell is the now, and not the future, that’s fine.  But why would a cost-effective organzation go out of their way to determine what that future would be right away?  Doesn’t that defeat the whole purpose of investing in cost-effective options?  For example, if the idea behind rebuilding the Redskins is to 1) stop giving all this money to marginal players, and 2) create a culture where the team gives much smaller amounts of money to a whole bunch of contributors, giving a whole bunch of money to a developmental player seems like it would be missing the point.  The Colts built their roster by adding a bunch of developmental types, and paying the ones who performed consistently.  The Patriots found their franchise quarterback by sticking with their franchise starter, and then turning the keys over to the young gun when Bledsoe got hurt.  The Pats turned crappy luck into a free opportunity.

(The biggest difference between the Redskins of the past decade and the Patriots of the past decade is that, had Ramsey/Brunell/Campbell gotten hurt–which happened in 2007–they wouldn’t have turned the keys over to Tom Brady even if they had him on their roster.  The Redskins weren’t any “luckier” {in the regular season, at least} in 2007 than the Pats were in 2001, but whereas the Pats found an elite quarterback from the sixth round, the Redskins found a guy whose age prevented him from getting even 8 figures on the open market two months later.  Can you imagine how much money Brady would have made if he became an unrestricted free agent after the super bowl?  Would someone have given him 9 figures?  It’s possible.)

I think there is an arbitrage oppotunity at the quarterback position, and it’s to structure your roster like this: {veteran starter, second year backup, first year backup}.  That means, don’t spend a first or second round pick on a quarterback.  Not until the market conditions change and a capped draft system allows college quarterbacks to stay and develop longer, and thusly, the market corrects itself.  The “veteran starter” can be anyone.  It can be the same guy for five straight years, or it can be a different guy every single year.  The idea with the veteran starter is that you’re trying to get the best player, for your scheme, that the market will allow you to have, without making a long-term financial commitment.  Right now, Jason Campbell fits perfectly in this role.  The free agent market offers, well, Jeff Garcia and not much else.  You could probably acquire Byron Leftwich from the Bucs for just a seventh round pick, and that’s basically free.  Anyway, the idea is to get a player in at the quarterback position that you can win now with this year with no advanced financial committment.  This allows a team to spend all of its high draft picks in trying to build a team up through the draft.

Then, every year in the draft after the second round, you take advantage of the organizational structure you are building and draft a quarterback.  In his first year, he’s set aside as a third stringer, and plays only in an emergency situation.  But the idea is that he makes a huge improvement between year one and year two, and then by the second preseason he plays (as the backup), you have some idea of what his future looks like.  By the third year, or in some cases, the fourth year, the player can either move to veteran starter status, or leaves the organization via trade or release.  The system can sustain itself for as long as necessary, because eventually, if the team drafts well, it won’t be long before the organization drafts a late rounder that exceeds the team’s best projections for it, and lands that huge contract, mitigating the draft risk at a misvalued position.

Addressing the counter-argument

So, obviously, if this plan is so good, you’d wonder why all teams wouldn’t copy it at all positions.  That’s a fair point.  The simple answer is that the draft values the effect on the running game of it’s prospects quite well.  If you spent your later round picks on running backs and blockers, and space-eaters, and hard-hitters, you probably would not uncover very much overlooked talent, at least in the time you would have before getting fired.  So the system is not designed to take advantage of the opportunities that aren’t there.

Furthermore, defensive backs are already ridiculously hard to value as is, and this strategy relies on strong internal valuation of prospects.  Teams are much better at evaluating their own receivers, pass rushers, and quarterbacks as opposed to cover corners and safeties.

So I would apply this method of thinking to pass rushers, and receivers as well, as it should hold up.  But then you run into the issue of roster space: no position gets the roster space that quarterback does to sit players with no intention of playing them.  Your 4th and 5th receivers need to be able to play special teams.  This is an easy plan to execute if your team doesn’t value special teams coverage or blocking, but undervaluing those things does make it quite difficult to win games.

Quarterback, with it’s deeper-than-necessary depth chart and 3rd QB roster exemption for gameday (you can be inactive, and still play), is the most perfect position to adopt a cost-effective strategy yet.  At the other positions (as in WR and DE), throwing high draft picks at supremely talented players and hoping for the best might be an inevitable evil.  You need to be strong at those positions to win in the NFL, as the Colts, Patriots, and Steelers obviously are (the Redskins strength of pass rush of the present is an advantage that should not be wasted), and sometimes when statistical context is weak, your scouts just need to be trusted to be right.  Context is not weak at the quarterback position.

I have no problem with teams who already have $80 plus million in a single player backing him up with a veteran.  This cost-effective strategy is all about finding a franchise QB where their has not been one for a decade+.  It’s, in fact, the polar opposite strategy of the one the fallacious one Bears executed last year.  But for franchises like the Vikings, Cards, and Redskins, this would be a great idea that would speed the rebuilding process and keep teams from guessing in the dark.

Will our cost-effective overlords be open to such an idea?  Probably not, but the mere suggestion of it is only possible due to a fundamental change in the way the Redskins do business.  Whether that’s a positive change, or a negative change is yet to be decided.

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