The Key To Roster Building In The NFL

I’ll preface this by saying:  you can’t do anything without a quarterback.  That’s obvious.  Everyone knows it, so there’s really not even much point in bringing it up, except if you don’t bring it up, then wise-asses will come on here and tell me I forgot about the quarterback position.

There are all kinds of different types of quarterbacks that can win you a championship, as evidenced by the last decade or so of NFL champions.  Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, and Tom Brady are going to go down as all-time greats.  Joe Flacco, Eli Manning, and Ben Roethlisberger likely won’t.  Doesn’t mean they’re BAD; just means that no one is going to put them in their Top 10 All Time Greatest Quarterbacks list.

For the record, my picks:

  1. Joe Montana
  2. Tom Brady
  3. John Elway
  4. Peyton Manning
  5. Dan Marino
  6. Steve Young
  7. Johnny Unitas
  8. Brett Favre
  9. Drew Brees
  10. Warren Moon

But, that’s neither here nor there.  The point is, the quarterback is crucial.  It’s too early to say where Russell Wilson will fall on that list, but I’d venture to say we’d still be ringless if he had to carry a team with an underperforming defense last season.

And that’s what the elite quarterback will afford you.  The elites – like Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Brees, etc. – can cover up for just a so-so defense.  Of course, the fact that all of those quarterbacks only have one championship apiece will tell you that a quarterback can’t do it by himself (and, truth be told, the years their respective teams won it all, their defenses weren’t that bad).

The more talent you have around your quarterback, the less perfect your quarterback has to be (hence why Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger both have two championships each).  But, the NFL has a salary cap, and teams have got to find a way to fit 53 players into that cap (plus a little extra to make up for injuries and such).  So, HOW you build around your quarterback is just about as important as the quarterback itself.

There isn’t exactly one specific way to run your team, but I’ll tell you this much:  you’re not going to get very far without a good defense.  That means one of two things:  elite pass rush, or elite secondary (or, ideally both).  Without really delving deep into things, I think it’s pretty safe to say that at least half of NFL teams are pretty happy with their quarterbacks.  I don’t think it’s out of the question to say that at least half of the teams have a guy under center capable of winning it all (assuming everything breaks right and they have a good team around them).  So, you figure that at least half the time, your defense is going to face a pretty good quarterback.

Now, if you’re going to build a defense to combat all those pretty good-to-great quarterbacks, you’ve got to have one of the two aforementioned qualities:  an elite pass rush or an elite secondary.  It’s all about disrupting the quarterback’s timing and forcing him to do things he doesn’t want to do.  If you’ve got the pass rush, then odds are you’ll be able to force him to throw early; if you’ve got the secondary, then odds are you’ll be able to force him to throw late (and hopefully give your adequate pass rush enough time to get home).  So, it would stand to reason that if you’re building your roster to win a championship, you’re going to focus the bulk of your defensive salary cap on edge rushers and/or the secondary.

What you DON’T want to do is start pumping a bunch of money down into your linebackers and interior linemen.  Unless that interior lineman is in the Cortez Kennedy/Warren Sapp mold, you’re probably overpaying.  You can find wide-bodies just about anywhere, on the cheap, no problem.  Ditto linebackers.  People will point to some of the quality guys like Patrick Willis and Luke Kuechly, and I will admit that those dudes are pretty awesome at what they do.  But, you know who else is pretty awesome?  Bobby Wagner.  He’s a second round pick making a fraction of what those guys are making and will make.  Bobby Wagner isn’t heralded in the least, but he’s still awesome.  And, I would venture that you can find a TON of Bobby Wagners in the draft, which will save you money in the long run over massive extensions for the Kuechlys of the world.

Take a look at the Seahawks.  We’ve pumped some serious money into Earl Thomas, Michael Bennett, Kam Chancellor, and soon we’ll devote a whole bunch more into Richard Sherman.  Pass rush & secondary.  Where are we finding savings?  How about three linebackers (Wagner, Wright, Smith) all drafted in the 2nd round or later, all still on rookie deals.  Now, the Seahawks MIGHT extend one or more of those guys when the time comes, but I bet they’ll be mid-range contracts that don’t kill our cap for years to come.

We’re also saving money on our interior line.  Brandon Mebane has a $5 million APY, and that leads the team on interior line spending.  Tony McDaniel is on a short-term, on-the-cheap deal, and the rest of our interior guys are on rookie contracts.

Of course, the Seahawks could always use a little more pass rush security.  Maybe Cliff Avril gets extended beyond this year.  Maybe we hit on someone in the draft.  Maybe we pick up another team’s cast-off.  Or, maybe we just try to hold the fort and steal another team’s outgoing free agent next year.

The point is:  pass rush & secondary = big money players.  Linebackers & interior linemen = savings.

On offense, the Seahawks have proven that a run-first model isn’t entirely out-dated.  Nevertheless, their spending in this area kinda sorta is.

Marshawn Lynch has the fourth-highest average per-year salary on the team (behind Harvin, Thomas, and Okung).  His contact runs out after the 2015 season.  Nobody really expects Lynch to see the final year of that deal as it’s currently configured, because nobody really expects Lynch to continue playing at the high level he’s been at the last three or four years.  Plus, there’s the whole issue with Russell Wilson getting his money after the 2014 season (when the team can negotiate an extension and finally pay him what he’s really worth).

As you can see from all the free agent deals for running backs this off-season, they’re not getting the kind of money they used to get even 10 years ago.  It sounds crazy when you think of someone like Chris Johnson, who can only get a 2-year deal; he was once the best runner in football and he’s NOT THAT OLD.  Same goes for these other guys.  What kind of a deal would Ben Tate have gotten even five years ago?  Now, he’s playing for peanuts, as is MJD, Darren McFadden, and every other running back who hits free agency.

Why is that?  Because teams are reluctant to go with the one-back system and instead opt for a By-Committee approach.  Because injuries are a son of a bitch.  And because all too often, a no-name guy from the back-end of the draft will enter the mix in the NFL and be just as good, if not better, than these over-paid mama’s boys (Trent Richardson) who somehow still get drafted high.

All of this tells me one thing:  you’re foolish if you’re pumping too much money into the running back position.

The Seahawks have the luxury of paying Marshawn Lynch a high salary because they’re paying next-to-nothing for Russell Wilson (and the quarterback position at large).  But, when Wilson’s commanding around $20 million per season, you’ve got to find ways to cut corners somewhere.  I would wager the Seahawks will pull some of that money out of the running back position (which is a shame, because everyone loves Marshawn Lynch with a passion).

It’ll be difficult, for the Seahawks more than others, because we DO rely on the run so much to make our offense go.  The run sets up the play-action pass.  The run keeps defenses honest.  The run also reduces the risk of turnovers, because if we’re successfully running the ball, then we’re not throwing as much.  If we’re not throwing as much, then we’re not throwing as many interceptions.  Bing, bang, boom.  So, the Seahawks can’t throw just any ol’ scrub in the backfield and expect to succeed.

To do what I advocate, you have to draft wisely and you have to draft often.  Finding value in a guy like Christine Michael (if he does, indeed, turn out to be the elite runner we all expect) will set us up for a good long while.  Yet, even if we were saddled with only Robert Turbin and whoever else via draft, I’d be content.

Because as long as you put value and talent into your offensive line, it really shouldn’t matter who you have at running back.

Under my system – which incidentally is the one the Seahawks have been using – you’ve got to have a great left tackle.  Russell Okung fits that mold.  He’s not quite Walter Jones, but then again, who is?  You SHOULD be able to cut corners a little bit on the guard spots, as long as you’ve got a great center.  The Seahawks have Max Unger, who is pretty terrific.  I’d like to see a breakdown of the best centers and how often they’re involved in lengthy playoff runs, because I think they’re WAY more important than most people give them credit for.

Under almost no circumstances should you be paying elite money to a guard.  Unless you know you’re getting someone like Hutch in his prime.  At which point, you should probably find a value center and make due with a so-so right tackle.  Obviously, you can’t pay everyone, but you should probably have at least two guys who are worthy of high-paying contracts.

If you’re a bad team, get that left tackle with a high draft pick.  There is ALWAYS an elite left tackle coming out in the draft.  So, if you have a high draft pick, make that guy your first priority.  Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have a wonderful coach like Tom Cable, so try to get yourselves one of those.

The model isn’t perfect, obviously.  The Seahawks had two great linemen and a bunch of injuries last year and really struggled to protect the quarterback.  That’s where your QB comes into play.  You can put a crappy QB behind an elite O-Line and make some hay.  You probably won’t win many championships, but you can consistently make the playoffs.  The worse your O-Line is, though, the better your quarterback must be.  Russell Wilson probably isn’t an elite QB just yet, but he was good enough to make up for all the injuries and inconsistencies we suffered last year.

And, of course, that leads us to the passing game.  You can run the football all you want, but unless you can throw the ball when it counts, you’re not going to go all the way.  Ask Adrian Peterson about that, I’m sure he’s got some stories to tell.

Like I said at the top, you need the quarterback, but it helps if he has talent to throw to.

Some quarterbacks – like Brees, Peyton Manning, etc. – will turn any receiver into a 1,000 yard threat.  Others – I’m looking at you Andy Dalton, Colin Kaepernick, Jay Cutler, etc. – need their receivers to elevate their games.

Andy Dalton would be a poor man’s Kyle Orton if he didn’t have A.J. Green.  Kaepernick was God-awful last year without Crabtree!  And Jay Cutler’s a fucking mess WITH guys like Brandon Marshall, but just imagine how terrible he’d be without him.

Now, say what you will about our receivers, but I think they’ve been pretty great.  And, until Percy Harvin came along, they’ve been relatively cheap as well.

Again, a great quarterback will make up for a lot of deficiencies.  I have no doubt that someone like Russell Wilson makes someone like Jermaine Kearse a better football player.  It’s tough to say what Kearse’s ceiling would be in an offense that passes as much as New Orleans or Green Bay, but I bet it would be higher than you’d think if you had someone like Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees throwing the ball around 35 times a game.

Our offense doesn’t need to over-spend at the wide receiver position, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t.  If you can get someone like Percy Harvin, you probably should do it.  If you draft someone and he turns out to be the next Calvin Johnson, then you should probably do whatever it takes to keep him.

This can be a little tricky, because if your #1 receiver is making top quarterback money, AND if you happen to have one of those top quarterbacks, then you can get into a situation like they’ve got down in Detroit.  The Lions should probably worry about pumping their resources into an offensive line, or a secondary, to round out their team (and not, for instance, over-pay for someone like Golden Tate, but you didn’t hear that from me).

There are talented receivers out there in the draft and among the undrafted free agents, but you gotta be smart about it.  I would more than be in favor of an A-B-C salary structure for your top three receivers.  Your A-player gets the lion’s share, your B-player gets a healthy mid-level contract, and your C-player is probably a rookie or a young guy on a cheap deal.

In short, on offense, you’re going to want to pump a lot of money into the quarterback and the offensive line.  Stay away from overpaying running backs and tight ends (unless you’ve got one like Jimmy Graham that plays more like a wide receiver anyway).  And, just be smart about paying your receivers.  If you’re only going to throw 20-25 times per game, maybe don’t throw all your eggs into the receiver basket.  But, don’t leave the cupboard completely barren either.

The point of all of this is to say that the Seahawks are doing it the right way.  If you root for another team, and they happen to be struggling, then follow the money.  Where are their big-money contracts going?  Would they be better off putting that money elsewhere?  Are they making the same mistakes over and over?  Then, you might be a redneck Mariners fan, and get out of my brain.

The Importance Of Drafting “The Right Quarterback”

I was reading something about the Vikings last week.  As you may or may not know, they cleaned house over the last few weeks and are now looking to start over.  The GM was in place, but the head coach is brand new, and it looks like the quarterback position is going to get a once-over.  In this article I read, it was mentioned that they “need to find the right quarterback”.  I don’t know why, but that particular phrase stood out to me.

What is the “right quarterback”?  I would suggest it’s the quarterback that takes you to – and hopefully WINS – the Super Bowl.  Now, does it matter how you get that quarterback?  Actually, it does.

This latest Super Bowl is one of those rare exceptions of a game that didn’t feature a matchup of quarterbacks who were drafted by their respective teams.  Russell Wilson was, but Peyton Manning wasn’t.  In looking backward, you’ll notice a trend; among Super Bowl participants, the overwhelming majority drafted “the right quarterback” and rode him all the way to the end.

  • Baltimore/San Francisco – Yes/Yes
  • NY Giants/New England – Yes (technically no, but he was traded on Draft Day by San Diego)/Yes
  • Green Bay/Pittsburgh – Yes/Yes
  • New Orleans/Indianapolis – No/Yes
  • Pittsburgh/Arizona – Yes/No
  • NY Giants/New England – Yes/Yes
  • Indianapolis/Chicago – Yes/Yes
  • Pittsburgh/Seattle – Yes/No
  • New England/Philadelphia – Yes/Yes

In the last ten Super Bowls, you’re looking at only 4 teams who didn’t draft their quarterbacks.  Three of those teams – Denver, Arizona, and New Orleans – picked up future Hall of Famers via free agency (the 2005 Seahawks, of course, had Hasselbeck, who we picked up in trade from Green Bay, where he was drafted while Holmgren was still their head coach).

So, when Minnesota talks about “finding the right quarterback”, they mean “drafting the right quarterback”.  And, since there’s no time like the present, you can expect them to draft one this May, in the hopes that they will have found the next Russell Wilson or Joe Flacco or Aaron Rodgers.

Obviously, the quarterback doesn’t do it all.  But, it’s next-to-impossible to get where you want to go without one.  That’s why we REALLY need to sit back and appreciate just how rare of a find Russell Wilson is.  I’m not even talking about the fact that he’s a 3rd round pick (though, that is amazing in and of itself); I’m just talking about the fact that the Seahawks found a quarterback of his calibre at all!

It’s absolutely no coincidence that the Seahawks finally won their first Super Bowl only after they found their franchise quarterback.  Dating back to the 1992 season (where free agency coalesced into the free agency we more-or-less know today), there have been only six Super Bowl winning teams that did NOT draft their quarterback:

  • 1994 49ers
  • 1996 Packers
  • 1999 Rams
  • 2000 Ravens
  • 2002 Bucs
  • 2009 Saints

Again, you’re talking about four of those teams who managed to pick up current or future Hall of Famers (Steve Young, Brett Favre, Kurt Warner, & Drew Brees), with the other two teams featuring a couple of the best defenses of the last generation.  Literally anyone, living or dead, could have quarterbacked those 2000 Ravens to a Championship.

But, look at that!  16 of the last 22 NFL Champions somehow lucked into their quarterback via the draft.  And, just because I’m a glutton for punishment, I went back and checked out every single Super Bowl winner.  Of the 48 NFL Champions, 36 drafted their quarterbacks.  Among the notable champions who weren’t drafted by their Super Bowl-winning teams are Len Dawson and Johnny Unitas (both originally drafted by the Steelers of all teams), Jim Plunkett (twice a champion for the Raiders), Joe Theismann and Doug Williams (both champions with the Redskins).

I don’t know what the point of this post is, other than to emphasize how much of a crapshoot it all is.  When you’ve tried and failed to craft a championship football team for decades upon decades, it can really feel hopeless.  You tend to question every single move your team has ever made and every single move they make going forward.  Then, in an instant, all of that changes.  You don’t know it right away, of course; think back to where you were when Russell Wilson was selected by the Seahawks in April of 2012.  You surely didn’t think, “That’s it!  We’re going to win a Super Bowl within two years!”

Yet, here we are.  And, the best part?  When you win so early, there are always opportunities for multiple.  In looking back at past winners, you’ll notice a lot of repeating names:

  • Starr
  • Staubach
  • Griese
  • Bradshaw
  • Montana
  • Aikman
  • Elway
  • Brady
  • Roethlisberger
  • Eli Manning

Those ten quarterbacks account for over half (26) of the 48 Super Bowl champions.  Only Jim Plunkett has managed to win more than one Super Bowl while not being drafted by the team that won them.  I think that says a lot.  About how lucky the Seahawks are, for starters.  And about how important it is to find your guy and cultivate him from Day 1.  The right quarterback can immediately turn around a franchise.  That means recognizing what you have and not giving him away.  That means building around him to put him in the best position to succeed.

And that means, if you’re currently a franchise in need, don’t try to go for the quick fix by picking up some doofus off the street.  I can all but guarantee the Chiefs, for instance, will never win a championship with Alex Smith at the helm.  That says nothing of Smith’s abilities.  That’s just playing the percentages.  The only chance you have to succeed through free agency is to obtain a future Hall of Famer, and what are the odds of that?  As I said before, if you’re smart, you hang onto those guys for dear life.  So, in reality, you have to be EXTREMELY lucky.  Even luckier than you have to be to just draft the right guy in the first place.

Suck For Luck Impotence Rankings

To take the title one step further (HO-HO, it’s funny because most people do power rankings, but this … this is the opposite of that …), I was going to rank all the teams on a scale of 0 to 500 million sperms.  But, that seemed to be a bit … gross.

I don’t know why, but one of my favorite moments of every week during football season is when ESPN comes out with their Power Rankings.  It’s a pointless exercise:  what do a bunch of eggheads over at ESPN think is the order of NFL teams from best to worst?  But, whatever, I find it entertaining.  I like lists!  Something so inconsequential can make people so batshit crazy with rage (unlike the BCS rankings – which actually does have an effect on a team and where it finishes in relation to the National Championship – and which deserves all the batshit crazy rage foisted upon it).

For instance, I find this week’s list interesting.  They have the Seahawks as the very worst team in the NFL.  I guess I’m a little surprised, but I also find it somewhat encouraging.  Who knows; maybe all this negativity surrounding the team will lead to a black cloud of despair, which will in turn lead to more and more losses!  (I also find their list interesting because I don’t trust Green Bay’s defense as far as I can throw it; I don’t think they’re long for the ranks of the undefeated).

The following is a list of the teams I feel have the best chance of getting Andrew Luck.  Unlike the ESPN poll, this will be a list steeped in futility, with the Number 1 team being the very worst of the worst.  Also, unlike ESPN, I’m not just going to look at what happened in the previous week and make a snap judgment.  I mean, all of a sudden Buffalo rises 11 spots just because they got a last-second touchdown in their win over Oakland?  What does THAT mean?  That one touchdown makes them 11 spots better than if they hadn’t scored at all on that drive?

Also, I’m not in the business of ranking ALL the teams here.  Because who cares if Green Bay or New England have the lowest odds of drafting Andrew Luck?  My list is only going to include the top (or bottom, depending on how you look at it) ten or so teams.

Finally, for the record, I decided to wait until after Week 2 because it would be idiotic to rank the teams beforehand.  You don’t REALLY know how well most teams are going to play in the preseason.  And after one week, all you know is that half the teams won and half the teams lost.

So, here we go.  The Week 3 Suck For Luck Impotence Rankings:

  1. Seattle (0-2) – A real test is coming up this weekend.  Seattle’s home opener is going to be one of their most important games of the season.  Losing games like these to teams like Arizona is what separates the bad from the real suck-asses.  A loss this week makes 0-5 a veritable lock before the BYE.  A win here and the Seahawks are thrown into a tizzy.
  2. Cincinnati (1-1) – Yeah, okay, so they beat Cleveland in Cleveland.  I still refuse to buy this offense!  The only thing they’ve got going for them (which ultimately will send them tumbling down my list if I’m wrong) is their creampuffy schedule.  Cincy’s next five games:  vs. SF, vs. Buf, @ Jax, vs. Ind, @ Sea.  We’ll see how off-base I am if they lay the lumber to the 49ers this weekend.
  3. Indianapolis (0-2) – You could make the argument that Indy has played the worst overall football of anyone in the league through their first two games.  I’m not gonna argue with you too much, but I will say that Houston looks pretty damn good this year.  And as for Cleveland, they shocked some teams last year and I expect that to continue this year.  Nevertheless, Kerry Collins is awful.  BUT, the main reason I won’t put them lower on the list is:  while Collins is awful, he’s still a veteran.  These veteran types, if they stay healthy, always tend to squeak out a victory here and there that nobody expects.  Granted, it probably won’t happen this week against the Steelers; I’m telling you, it’s gonna happen.  And, if Peyton Manning doesn’t get shut down for the entire season, I’d be on the lookout for some cheap wins at the end to take them out of the Suck For Luck Sweepstakes.  Until Manning is officially put on IR, I’m going to be hard-pressed to put Indy at the top of my list.
  4. Jacksonville (1-1) – ESPN has the Jags ranked 21st.  That’s INSANE!  They cut David Garrard, they barely beat the Titans in week 1 at home, and now they’ve got themselves an official Quarterback Controversy.  Pick your poison:  Mr. 4-Interception Luke McCown, or Rookie Blaine Gabbert.  Don’t sleep on Jacksonville; they may have started out 1-0, but they might end up 1-15.
  5. Kansas City (0-2) – KC scares me right now.  They’ve been outscored 89-10 in the first two games.  They lost Jamaal Charles for the season (among many other injuries).  Matt Cassel has 4 picks to his lone TD.  AND, their first place schedule isn’t doing them any favors (well, I take that back, they do go to Indy in week five).  What I’m hanging my hat on right now is this:  they’ve played two of the best offenses in the NFL.  Detroit and Buffalo have been shot out of a cannon and are keeping pace quite well with the likes of New England, Green Bay, and New Orleans.  Plus, in spite of the injuries, KC isn’t THIS bad.  They’re not going to continue to get blown out by 40 points every game!  Cassel will pick his game up and KC will end up with 4 or 5 wins probably.  Don’t forget, the AFC West isn’t THAT good.
  6. Carolina (0-2) – The Panthers are CERTAINLY a much better team than I gave them credit for, and that comes all the way down to Cam Newton being the second coming of Johnny Unitas.  Back-to-back 400-yard passing games, back-to-back 1-score defeats to the likes of Arizona (on the road) and the NFL champion Green Bay Packers (at home).  And guess what!  This week they host their expansion sisters Jacksonville.  If that doesn’t spell 1-2, I don’t know what does.  Mark my words, Carolina will beat at least one playoff-bound team this year (to go along with a handful of non-playoff bound teams).  I fully expect Carolina to drop on my Suck for Luck rankings as the season progresses.
  7. Cleveland (1-1) – I have to put the Browns on here because they lost to the Bengals at home.  That’s pretty much my only reason.  They have a ton of winnable games this year and will likely be the 2011 version of the 2010 Oakland Raiders (except, they already lost a game in their division, so I guess scratch that).
  8. Miami (0-2) – Tough start for the Dolphins.  Two home games, two home losses.  It’s not getting ANY easier with three road games against Cleveland, San Diego, and the Jets.  In fact, the more I look at this thing, the less I’m liking the looks of the Dolphins.  They play the NFC East (which appears strong across the board), and the AFC West (which is bad, but is it any worse than the Dolphins?).  I have to hold onto my belief that the Dolphins are better than this and will gut out some victories here and there.  But, I’m definitely keeping them on my radar after they lose their next three games.  Unless they don’t (which, you know, they HAVE proven to be a better road team the last couple years).
  9. Minnesota (0-2) – First of all, McNabb is done.  He’s done-er than done!  That having been said, they’ve still got AP, and just because McNabb is done doesn’t mean he’s not going to look a little frisky every now and then.  The only concern for Seattle Suck For Luckers is:  will McNabb get injured before leading them to a few victories?  Because if Ponder is pushed into the fire too soon, it could be a long Vikings season.
  10. Washington (2-0) – These chickenfuckers are terrible, and yet they’re 2-0!  How about THAT.  I fully expect the ‘Skins to come crashing down to Earth in the coming weeks, but those 2 wins might be more than enough to prevent them from the top spot in my rankings (and from the top spot in next year’s NFL Draft).
  11. San Francisco (1-1) – Here’s a team that should be 2-0 (and if they were, they wouldn’t be on my radar right now).  But, look at their short body of work so far.  It took two special teams return touchdowns for them to beat the lowly Seahawks; then they gagged one away in overtime against the Cowboys and Tony Romo’s punctured lung!  They play 8 of their next 14 games on the road (which is just a stupid way of saying their first two games were at home), but I fully expect them to win enough games to keep them away from the top spot.  Nevertheless, this would be the PERFECT place for Luck to land.  49er nation would eat him up a la mode.
  12. Denver (1-1) – I can see the Broncos getting bumped off this list in favor of someone like Arizona (ESPECIALLY if they lose in Seattle this weekend), but just look at them right now.  They got beat on Monday night at home against the hated Raiders, then it took all of their might to hold off the Bengals (again, at home).  Denver would be another perfect spot for Luck to land.  Oh, what am I saying, they have The Tebow!  They couldn’t POSSIBLY need another quarterback!