Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
23 Oct 2009
by J.I. Halsell
This week on "Under the Cap," we take a break from the position-by-position analysis of the league's highest paid starters in order to take a look at the Redskins' flawed approach to roster-building. Given that I worked in the front office of the organization for two seasons, I have the unique perspective of having seen that philosophy first hand. As a native Washingtonian, it pains me to see the current state of the organization.
In my Wednesday interview on Washington's "The Sports Fix" on ESPN 980 (click to hear the entire interview courtesy of ESPN 980), one of the prominent issues we discussed was the Redskins' heavy investment in a few players and how this impacts the overall roster and the depth and quality of that roster.
One perspective that I failed to mention is how this approach impacts a team's salary cap situation, particularly when it doesn't have draft picks to fill out its roster. The Indianapolis Colts, who have spent a ton of money on a few players (e.g. Manning, Clark, Sanders, Freeney), are in contention year after year. Heavy investment in a few players, then, isn't the problem -- although a great quarterback can cover up a lot of deficiencies. The key to the Colts and the key to effective salary cap management is the ability to find skilled, cheap labor to offset those expensive few.
This skilled, cheap labor comes in the form of draft picks. When you build your reserves through the draft, not only are you saving a ton of money on the cap, but you're (hopefully) developing your next solid starter or maybe your next great starter. In Tennessee, they drafted a cornerback named Cortland Finnegan in the seventh round, who made cap-friendly peanuts -- relatively speaking -- on his rookie contract, before getting a lucrative contract extension after proving to be a Pro Bowl-caliber player. Similarly, the Eagles drafted starting guard Todd Herremans late in the draft, allowing them the benefit of a cap-friendly contract, before signing him to a lucrative extension.
In Washington, aside from the 2006 draft class' late round selections -- Kedric Golston, Reed Doughty, and (up until this year) Anthony Montgomery -- the team hasn't had draft picks to use or, when they did have picks, failed to select players that stayed with the team. In 2007, The Redskins used a fifth-round pick on Dallas Sartz. He didn't make it past training camp. In 2008, in the third round, Washington drafted Chad Rinehart. He was inactive the entire season, and appears to have been benched this year after getting an opportunity to fill in for Randy Thomas. In 2009, the Redskins used a third-round pick on Kevin Barnes. He has yet to be active for even one game this season.
All of that said, when you have these issues in the draft, you have to fill your roster with more expensive veteran back-ups, a point I failed to make in the interview yesterday. For example, a player like Dallas Sartz, who would've had a cap number of under $300,000 as a reserve linebacker, doesn't make the team in 2007. You, as a manager, are then are forced to sign a veteran linebacker such as a Randall Godfrey for a $1 million cap number. Or, instead of drafting an inexpensive offensive lineman in any of the recent drafts in order to build depth and hopefully develop that draft pick into a starter, the Redskins have been forced to sign more expensive veterans such as Jason Fabini, Todd Wade, or Will Montgomery as reserves.
Another dynamic to acquiring quality, cheap labor is that because the cheap labor isn't significantly impacting your cap, you then have unused cap space that you can then roll over into the next capped year. We'll again use the Eagles as an example. They build through the draft cultivating young talent (particularly on both the offensive and defensive lines) and then roll the unused cap space over into subsequent years. This additional cap space allows the team to have a salary cap of $148 million this year, while a lot of clubs -- including the Redskins -- have a salary cap of less than $130 million. In the case of the Eagles, this higher cap gives them an advantage: They can continue to acquire cheap talent, but at the same time take their shots on, as I said on Wednesday, an Asante Samuel in 2008 or a Jason Peters in 2009 (or even a Michael Vick). In Minnesota, where they have a $139 million cap, this advantage gives them the means to sign Brett Favre, after signing Sage Rosenfels to a relatively expensive back-up quarterback contract, to a $12 million contract. This is where effective and efficient cap management gives you the means to dramatically improve your club by taking calculated gambles here and there on veterans.
Another flaw to the Redskins' approach to roster building, particularly as it relates to its impact on the cap, is that instead of signing an Albert Haynesworth to a lucrative free agent contract, the club should be seeking to reap the same inexpensive benefits that the Titans were able to reap when they drafted Albert Haynesworth. Instead of signing a hugely expensive Albert Haynesworth via free agency, the Redskins should be trying to find the next Albert Haynesworth in the draft. That way, if the kid turns into a star, you've had him under contract for about three seasons at a low cap number, yet receiving high-quality play. Unlike signing a veteran from another team and system, you'll know whether that player is a good fit for your organization and your system before investing a ton of money; you're not going to have this same assurance with a veteran from another team (e.g. Adam Archuleta, among others). In Tennessee, Finnegan was a home-grown talent, drafted and cultivated by the club. The same can be said for Herremans in Philly. How many late-round or undrafted players (because there's no excuse for missing on guys in the first two rounds) have the Redskins cultivated into starters or contributors at a cheap price? Heyer, Golston, Doughty, Horton, and that's about it.
Until there is a fundamental change in philosophy on how the Redskins approach roster building, one cannot expect for this team to be a consistent, winning organization.
Next week: The top ten offensive lineman contracts article that we postponed for this look at Washington.
Follow J.I. Halsell on Twitter: @SalaryCap101
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