Money Matters: Five Recent NFL Trends (Fantasy Football)
In this series, I’m diving into the hidden force behind the NFL, the straw that stirs the drink, the catalyst that springs the whole shebang into action. That’s right, we’re talking money.
My first article in this series talked about the common terms used when discussing fiscal football. In this article, we’ll go over some important contract trends that stand out in the analytics. The main dataset I’ll be discussing is positional spending for each team from 2020 – 2028; this is scraped from spotrac with the help of ChatGPT.
1. Not King For Long
Big contracts bode well for a fantasy player’s outlook… right? The long answer is that it depends on the contract: if money isn’t guaranteed, teams can save big by releasing a player before a contract is up. This creates kind of a perverse incentive: players who signed huge, non-guaranteed contracts might be the first to be released if they underperform because it clears up so much space on a team’s balance sheet.
We see a similar dynamic play out in the data. Each year, one player on every team takes the crown of ‘largest cap hit on the roster.’ Over a three-year span (2020 – 2022), there were 77 different players that at one point achieved the largest cap hit on a team. Most of them — 62 — had the largest cap hit just once. Put simply, players that are costing a team a massive cap hit are not that likely to continue doing so.
Of the five players who constituted their team’s largest cap hit each of the three years, four are QBs including, hilariously, Carson Wentz, who had the biggest cap hit for the Philadelphia Eagles, then the Indianapolis Colts, then the Minnesota Vikings. Joey Bosa of the Los Angeles Chargers rounds out this group, but the point remains: big-cap guys do not tend to stay that way. There are some hilarious names, too. Just last year, Kenny Golladay took up over 10% of the New York Giants‘ cap space, hitting the cap for $6 million more than the next highest player (Leonard Williams).
Things get a bit more interesting when you split cap hits between fully guaranteed money (signing bonus, which is prorated across years) and possibly not guaranteed money (base salary). There are only 70 different players in this three-year span who earned their team’s maximum signing bonus, and 86 different players who earned the maximum base salary (so only a few earned the max base multiple times). The lesson is intuitive but important: teams are much more likely to move on from players who don’t have guarantees written into their contracts.
2. Sad Day for Running Backs
We’ve seen over and over again how quick teams are to move on from running backs. Just last week, reigning All-Pro Dalvin Cook was released by the Minnesota Vikings to make cap space. In a general sense, we see this lack of investment played out across contracts.
The average NFL team spends just over 3% of their cap on running backs, despite RBs making up 6.9% of the players in this dataset. Wide receivers make 7.8% of the cap, quarterbacks 7.1%, and tight ends — yes, even tight ends — 3.4%. Put another way, despite RB being the most important position in fantasy, NFL teams invest less in RB than any other skill position.
In addition, contracts for backs have become less guaranteed. If we take the ratio of base salary — which often isn’t guaranteed — to the fully guaranteed signing bonus, we see that the median RB makes 22 cents guaranteed for every dollar in base salary, down from 33 cents last year. WRs actually made more in guaranteed signing bonuses than their base salary. Bijan Robinson already has the third-highest amount of guaranteed money among all RBs at the position!
The takeaway is a lesson that we all know too well from dynasty: RB fortunes can turn on a dime. It’s almost never too early to trade away a stud RB for more stable options. Only three running backs from 2020-2022 actually earned that elusive, non-guaranteed base salary of $10 million or more, and two are currently free agents (David Johnson and Ezekiel Elliott; Derrick Henry is the other one). Meanwhile, a whopping 18 wide receivers pulled down $10 million in base salary in that same span.
3. O-Line Investments
Per the common refrain, “Nothing matters unless the offensive line is good.” Teams appear to recognize this: in 2022, offensive linemen made 78 cents of guaranteed signing bonus to every dollar of non-guaranteed base salary, up from 67 cents in 2021. Remember, RBs were at just 22 cents.
The Houston Texans are perhaps the team closest to living this mantra. Their cap hit to offensive linemen jumped nearly 10% from 2021-2022 (as a proportion of the cap limit), and they are currently third on the list of 2023 offensive line cap spending. Laremy Tunsil tops the charts here with a team-leading $26 million cap hit after signing his monster, $50 million guaranteed contract, but the second biggest cap hit on the team is going to fellow offensive lineman Tytus Howard, and guard Shaq Mason lands at eleven on the list. All told, the Texans are making a serious investment in their line, which could bode well for C.J. Stroud and Dameon Pierce.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Tennessee Titans have barely invested in their line. They have the second lowest cap spend in 2023 (only the Seattle Seahawks are lower) and spent an absurdly low 2.4% of their cap last season on the line. This is after ignoring left tackle Taylor Lewan’s 7% cap hit, who landed on IR. Eventually, Lewan was released to save his upcoming $15 million in base salary, another example of a big, non-guaranteed base salary being an incentive for teams to move on from players! The highest-paid offensive lineman on the Titans going into 2023 is Aaron Brewer, who has one year and $4.3 million of base salary that would be voided if he were released. All of this doesn’t bode well for 29-year-old Derrick Henry — who will be 30 in January — who already has to deal with a QB carousel. If I’m a dynasty manager, I’m trading the Yeti to a contender.
4. Richest Rooms
We can break down 2022 cap payments by position and across teams. While the biggest cap hit unsurprisingly went to the Kansas City Chief’s QB room (18.5%), the next two most expensive position groups are the OLBs and WRs of the Los Angeles Chargers. The OLBs are Khalil Mack and Joey Bosa, who are owed over $32 million in cap hit this year, most of that guaranteed. The WRs are, of course, Mike Williams and Keenan Allen, who command over $25 million in cap hit, also mostly guaranteed.
All of these players, of course, should be on the team this upcoming season. But for the 2024 season onward, things get more interesting. Keenan, Williams, and Bosa all have potential outs in their contracts, for $26, $12, and $22 million in dead cap, respectively. Khalil Mack is still under contract, but his payments are very base-salary heavy ($17.5 million) and so he has a small dead cap if he was released ($15 million). If all players stayed on the team in 2024, their total cap hit would be an absurd $142 million, or 63% of the total cap.
Put all of that together, and it’s very likely that the star players of the Los Angeles Chargers look very different next year. This could be good news for young Quentin Johnson, who is on his rookie deal through 2026 and could reap the benefits of older, star WRs departing. It might not be good news for Austin Ekeler, at least in the sense of returning to the team. Ekeler is an unrestricted free agent this offseason, and the Chargers might not have the bandwidth to resign him to a serious deal. “Awesome Excellent” will still get a job, of course, but it might not be as fantasy-friendly.
5. GMs Don’t Have Crystal Balls
One of Mike’s common refrains is that teams get things wrong. It’s true that coaches and scouting departments have more information — and possibly even more technical know-how, although you’ll never hear me admit it — than the average fantasy analyst. It’s also true that they sometimes make mistakes, and we can’t take their contract decisions as gospel.
For instance, in 2022, the New England Patriots and Washington Commanders were in the top four in terms of cap percentage to skill players (QB, RB, WR, TE). That is surprising since the ‘Manders and Pats were bottom-half offenses in terms of scoring (and, honestly, looked much worse for part of the year).
Hilariously bad contracts abound. The Chicago Bears‘ highest cap hit in 2021 was Allen Robinson. The Miami Dolphins‘ in 2022 was Mike Gesicki. Jonnu Smith and Nelson combined for 607 yards, two touchdowns, and $25 million against the cap for the Patriots last season. Neither of them are still on the team.
Now, don’t hear what I’m not saying. It is of course still important to closely monitor team spending patterns and the players that they make serious fiscal investments in. This informs us about how teams plan to use certain players, and their general strategy moving forward. But…if a contract seems ludicrous to you, like you’re missing out on secret information, like this valuation just couldn’t possibly be right…it just might be a crazy contract after all.
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