Salary Cap and Free Agency Primer

Based on the reported figures of $9 billion annual revenue in the NFL and the 48% reported figure that is the players cut, it seems reasonable to now assume that we know that the NFL salary cap in 2011 is going to be set at $135 million, give or take a few thousand dollars.

A more significant revlation, per the negotiations, is that all teams are going to have to exceed a salary floor of $130.7 million.  I’m not going to set the focus here, and if worst comes to compliance, raising the base salary of productive players isn’t the most difficult thing in the world to do.  This bit is going to focus on what the salary cap means for the Redskins spending.

Lets start with the dead cap.  Oh the dead cap.  The Redskins project to have at least $30 million of deadcap in 2011.  That figure includes Clinton Portis, Santana Moss, and Andre Carter, who are already released, and it also includes players who have no role on the team such as Donovan McNabb, Derrick Dockery, and Artis Hicks.  That number does not include Albert Haynesworth, Ma’ake Kemoeatu, or Casey Rabach, who have a clear role, but may not be back for various reasoning.  If we add those three to a release list, it adds another $8 million to the Redskins deadcap in 2011.

You can see at least why the team may not want to just up and release/trade Albert Haynesworth if he can just be buried.  $3 million of cap space to deadcap isn’t very much in the grand scheme.  It’s about 2% of the cap.  But when about 18% of the salary cap is already occupied by players no longer on the team, maybe there’s some extra incentive in trying to suck a bit of performance out of the teams’ heavy investment.

The good news is the Redskins have plenty of room.  Their salary obligations are in the $66 million range in the first estimate and would drop down to $51 million if all players listed above are released.  Then we have to add the deadcap obligation back in.  After deadcap, the Redskins are in $96 million in the most probable estimate, and they are in $89 million if they are to go away from Haynesworth, Rabach, and Kemoeatu as well.  The last piece of math here is to add in the rookie salary obligation, which isn’t yet known since rookies slot values are dependent on CBA agreement, but historically about $4 million is a good guess for the number of players the Redskins have.  Finally, lets throw in six million (or seven million in the second case) total to the figures I have above for the minimum value of “cost-free” futures contracts necessary to field a 53 man roster.  This reprensents the cost of the Redskins to field a team if they made no pre-season releases (beyond what is already accounted for above) and made no free agent signings above the league minimum.

The range where I have the Redskins sitting in terms of “unavoidable” cap obligations is at $106 million on the high end, and $100 million on the low end.  Again, that is the cost to the Redskins of fielding the cheapest possible 53 man roster including every draft pick and the possible transactions listed above with no additions.  According to the salary cap, the Redskins have $29 million to go out and spend on 2011 salary.  According to the salary floor, they have to spend $24 million.  It is a foregone conclusion that, unless the Redskins opt to keep and pay Donovan McNabb and Jamaal Brown and a couple of other of their own free agents, they will be active in free agency.  The new rules dictate this aggression.

What can $24 million get the Redskins on the open market?  If spent optimally, it can buy about two wins worth of talent (or roughly one elite free agent and one sub-elite free agent) However, the problem with analyzing the football labor market when compared to something like the baseball labor market is that it’s nearly impossible to optimize spending a lot of dollars to upgrade a football team.  The reason is that, unlike in baseball, the annual supply of players who hit the open market who unquestionably, and vastly improve the talent level of their new teams is highly limited.  This year, you’re looking at Sidney Rice and Nnamdi Asomugha.  If one team (say, I dunno, the Redskins) spent $18-$20 million of 2011 salary on these two players, they would likely be two wins better for it in 2011, all else equal.  But even then, rarely would all else be equal.  As a CB, Asomugha’s value fluctuates based on his teammates and the scheme.  Paired with DeAngelo Hall in a zone blitz scheme?  Nnamdi is probably not worth a full win upgrade.  Paired with Hall in a man scheme?  Probably close to two wins.  Paired with Kevin Barnes and Phillip Buchanon in a zone blitz scheme?  More than a win.  The salary required to sign him is the same, but the return is very dependent on everything else the Redskins are doing.  That’s how football markets work.

Albert Haynesworth was the same deal.  He was a two win player in the Jim Schwartz scheme, tops among defensive lineman in 2008.  In the Greg Blache scheme, he wasn’t worth quite one win.  He was theoretically worth a lot more to Jim Haslett, but couldn’t consistently get on the field and affected the Redskins 2010 season to the tune of perhaps one-half win.  If we’ve seen the end of Haynesworth in Washington, he affected the Redskins defense to the tune of about one win over two years, earning roughly one fourth of the money the Redskins paid him for those seasons.  This, although highly unorthodox, is possible with NFL free agents.  Even Asomugha is no exception.

My point is that NFL teams can spend the market rate and expect to improve by a certain amount of wins, but they need to make the relevant changes to their own team and meet the free agent signing halfway in order to turn market value on their signing.

It wouldn’t appear then that the Redskins are in a particulary good position to improve the quality of their team through free agency.  Still, they have to go and spend the money.  And it’s my belief that instead of overpaying the best players on the market, Asomugha and Rice, the Redskins are far more likely to give money to value free agents that fill need.  Here are some players and the positions which it would make sense for the Redskins to spend their money, making the assumption that the Redskins will be willing to spend at every position rather than desiring to buy big on one or two value-increasing players.

Quarterback: Any of my resources at this position would go towards either Drew Stanton or Nate Davis amongst young veterans, or someone like Scott Tolzien, Pat Devlin, or Jerrod Johnson among undrafted free agents.  None of those players will be costly and only Stanton appears to have any competition in terms of signing bouns.  None of these players are potential 2011 solutions, with the lone exception of Davis.

Runningback: Two names to watch here.  Darren Sproles, who the Redskins may have tipped their interest in last year, and Jerious Norwood, a gamebreaker who the Atlanta Falcons gave up on way too early.

Wide Receiver: My philosophy given the loaded state of the Redskins WR corps is go big or go home.  If Sidney Rice won’t sign here for big money, I would not go after anyone.

Tight End: The only names available this year are Zach Miller of the Raiders and Kevin Boss of the Giants.  There’s no demand for TEs this year, so there’s a good chance that Miller and Boss return to their current teams.  The Redskins will not be interested anyway.

Offensive Tackles: The Redskins may need to find an upgrade on Jammal Brown and some depth that can handle the tackle position if Trent Williams can’t play 16 games at a high level.  Ryan Harris of the Denver Broncos, a Shanahan draft choice in 2006, should be an obvious target.  Harris is one of the few FA tackles who can play a little bit.  The others are Marshal Yanda of the Ravens, Tyson Clabo of the Falcons, and Doug Free of the Cowboys.  Those three all played in a man blocking scheme in 2010.  Another guy who really improved his play in 2010 was Raiders offensive tackle Mario Henderson, who was a turnstyle in 2009 but has put together a pretty nice career otherwise.  Oakland did a lot of zone blocking under Tom Cable.

The top left tackle available is Baltimore’s Jared Gaither.  A couple other FA RTs I like a lot are Seattle’s Sean Locklear, and Pittsburgh’s Willie Colon.

Those are the top eight OTs available.  If the Redskins can’t get any of those guys to play RT, bringing back Jammal Brown really is the best remaining option.  Jeromy Clary of the Chargers, Jeremy Trueblood of the Buccaneers, Khalif Barnes of the Raiders, and Stephon Heyer all have really struggled in recent years, and wouldn’t really even offer quality depth over what the Redskins had last year in 2010 Heyer.  Matt Light of the Patriots could be a bargain at the right price, but probably shouldn’t be considered a better investment than Brown unless he comes significantly cheaper.  Same deal for Jermon Bushrod of the Saints.

Guards: The Redskins also have a need for a quality guard.  Possible targets include Davin Joseph of the Bucs, Chris Chester of the Ravens, Harvey Dahl of the Falcons, Justin Blalock of the Falcons, Robert Gallery of the Raiders, Mike Brisiel of the Texans, who played for Kyle Shanahan in Houston, David Baas of the 49ers (expected to re-sign), Kyle Kosier of the Cowboys, and Deuce Lutui of the Cardinals.  Baas and Chester can both play Center as an added bonus.  Also available at the Guard position: Darryn Colledge of the Packers, Max Jean-Gilles of the Eagles, and Evan Mathis of the Bengals.

Who are the best of the bunch?  Colledge comes from the zone scheme, but he was never regarded as much of a run blocker.  I don’t think he’s coming here.  Evan Mathis is a really good player.  Kosier has been aging and injured, but he’s long been a useful lineman for the Cowboys.  Both of the Falcon lineman are a major part of that team’s success, and it wouldn’t hurt to buy a piece of that.  And Brisiel has really, truly blossomed under the Texans’ zone scheme.  I feel he is the most likely to make the transition from Houston to Washington.  I would avoid Gallery and Lutui.

Centers: Money at this position could be well spent on Chris Spencer of the Seahawks or Samson Satele of the Raiders in order to bring in a younger player who could do a better job than Casey Rabach.  Or not.  I am clearly not a line guru.  Rabach’s doing great out there!

Nose Tackles: Someone is going to give Aubrayo Franklin a crap ton of money to play nose tackle, and it’s probably going to be the Redskins, but I am not sure I would want Franklin at whatever price.  He’s a really good player though, and he could reasonably be promised the starting job here.  If he wants financial security in excess of $15 million guarenteed, I’d prefer someone else committ that kind of cash to him.  Brandon Mebane of the Seahawks isn’t a traditional nose tackle, but he’s a much better pass rusher.  Kris Jenkins, most recently of the Jets, is a Maryland product who absolutely wanted to avoid the Washington Redskins last time around.

Now, I would look at the bargin bin for players who could come in and contribute at multiple places in the defensive front, including the defensive tackle position.  Ron Edwards and Shaun Smith are coming off decent half seasons in the much improved Kansas City Chiefs defense.  Gerrard Warren played nose tackle for the Patriots last year in relief of Vince Wilfork at times, and it was Mike Shanahan who resurrected his career in Denver.  Gabe Watson is a large nose tackle who has failed to reach his potential thus far as a Cardinal, but could be a valuable reclamation project.  Fellow Michigan teammate Alan Branch has the exact same story, although is both younger and more accomplished than Watson.  Branch, who was rated as the no. 2 DT in the 2007, and was once thought to be the Redskins target which became LaRon Landry, is going to cost more than Watson, but could pay off for a budding 3-4 defense.

Defensive Ends: Their are three names here who are accomplished in the 30 defense.  Cullen Jenkins of the Packers should probably be the no. 1 target of the Redskins in free agency beyond either Rice or Asomugha.  The other two are veteran Shaun Ellis of the Jets, and Marcus Spears of the Cowboys.  For much less money/a shorter contract, the Redskins can chase Jacques Cesaire, a successful defensive end for many years with the Chargers.

Linebackers: Just like TE, the Redskins are not at all weak here, but I still think that signing OLB Matt Roth, most recently of the Cleveland Browns, would be an intelligent signing for a growing 3-4 defensive front.  If the Redskins deem their ILB depth to be inadequate, they can go a couple of places: veterans Kevin Burnett (San Diego, formerly of Dallas), Eric Barton (Cleveland), or Takeo Spikes (San Francisco).

Safeties: After signing O.J. Atogwe and drafting DeJon Gomes, the Redskins have little left to do at the safety position.  With that said, there are five really good players with expiring contracts: Brodney Pool of the Jets, Danieal Manning of the Bears, Quintin Mikell of the Eagles, Dawan Landry of the Ravens, and Eric Weddle of the Chargers.  I wouldn’t have gone after Landry for obvious reasons, but I am actually kind of disappointed that the Redskins ended up with Atogwe with this kind of talent available at the postion.  I suppose its nothing that releasing Kareem Moore can’t make me feel better about.

Cornerbacks:  The Redskins are going to require some sort of help here.  This class is loaded: Nnamdi Asomugha, Jonathon Joseph, Ike Taylor, Carlos Rogers, Chris Carr, Josh Wilson, Kelly Jennings, Eric Wright, Richard Marshall, Drayton Florence, Philip Buchanon, William Gay, and Michael Adams.  The Redskins need at least one, and probably two out of this group.  Asomugha will be the primary target because of Mike Shanahan’s longtime admirance of his abilities, but Ike Taylor and William Gay are the scheme fits who can come over from Pittsburgh and help this team win.  Then again, Carlos Rogers and Phillip Buchanon both performed well last year, so it remains to be seen what will come of them.

What can $24 million buy?  According to the team’s needs, I predict the following:

QB Tolzien, RB Norwood, FB Vonta Leach/FB Lawrence Vickers, OT Ryan Harris, OT Stephon Heyer, G Mike Brisiel, NT Aubrayo Franklin, DL Gerrard Warren, LB HB Blades, CB Phillip Buchanon, CB William Gay

Overall, $24 million is going to get the Redskins 11 players, at an average salary of about $1.9 million this year, putting the cap number for the 2011 Redskins at round $132 million, in compliance with the CBA that is expected.  Or so I predict in June.