When the Patriots beat the Rams in Super Bowl 36, a great many things were different in the NFL than they are today. The game on the field was certainly different, as teams still used the I formation as an offensive staple. Big time bell-cow tailbacks were a most important position, and often times these types of players were in the conversation for the Most Valuable Player of the league. Kickoffs were still coming down between the 5 yard line and the goal line, and returns were an important part of the game. Players who left missed time with concussions might have been questioned by local media, and even coaches, perhaps even referred to as “soft”. Remember the good old days? I was a sophomore in high school in February of 2002, so I sure do.
Another part of the League that has changed is the way teams compile their rosters. We have all heard it, and if you look closely you can see it. The middle class contract is becoming an extinct species in the national football league. Rather than signing mid-tier free agents to fill out depth charts and compete for spots on special teams, front office types are trending towards completing their rosters with late round draft picks and undrafted free agents. In September of 2016 Adam Schefter of ESPN tweeted out that “…there are more undrafted free agents on NFL rosters today  than there are first and second round draft picks combined ” citing the Elias Sports Bureau. Another interesting statistic came from CBSsports.com; last year teams signed 622 UDFA’s and 98 [16%] made a Week One roster. From that same lot, another 33 were signed to practice squads, which for those of you not interested in math, means that 37% of UDFA’s were earning NFL paychecks.
The paycheck part of this may hold the clue to the thought process behind this influx of young, relatively cheap labor. To create the most apples to apples comparison we can, let us examine the price of a 7th round draft pick compared with that of an UDFA in terms of signing bonuses. The same article on CBSsports.com mentioned earlier provided a most interesting fact regarding the money owed to these two groups respectively. The average 7th round draft pick was given a signing bonus than come out between $40,000 and $50,000 [this is why I use the term relatively cheap labor, since that’s more than the median income in the U.S.A.] which is quite affordable in the NFL, land of monopoly money. UDFA’s were not just cheaper; they were on average roughly one tenth of the price of the signing bonus of a 7th round pick, coming in at just over $4,000. Now compare that to a veteran minimum contract, and you can see why General Managers around the league are turning towards the UDFA to fill out their roster.
Most teams in the NFL have at least a couple super star players, or at least star contracts. Quarterbacks are the obvious example, wide receivers, left tackles, and tight ends are all candidates for big contracts these days if their performance dictates it. On the other side of the ball big time pass rushers are becoming more coveted than ever, and really “elite” cornerbacks are harder to find than ever, and the very best are commanding salaries that rival and sometimes exceed the contracts of their opposite numbers whom they shadow all over the field. As we all know, the salary cap in the NFL is a very pliable figure and there are many ways to manipulate, if not outright circumvent it. We’ve heard the Hoodie says as much in numerous sound bites and in these parts, what Bill says, pretty much goes. The owner’s cash budged is a much more restrictive measure for NFL front office types these days. General Managers and other executives are constrained more by the amount of money their bosses want to spend-or more accurately how much they want to keep-than the flimsy numbers issued by the league office. These days’ franchises must keep their big time players, more than ever before. It sells jerseys at the pro shop, gets you on the cover of Sports Illustrated, or more importantly these days on the cover of Madden, and what owner doesn’t want their star receiver to be a fan favorite in Fantasy Football Drafts around the country? Oh yea, and not to mention, they can occasionally help you win games. With all this fun money flying around in the league and super stars cashing in at unprecedented levels, there just isn’t a lot of money left to pay the mid level free agents that would make up the middle and bottom of depth charts, run the scout team, and play on special teams. The GM’s have found a source of cheap labor to replace this so called middle class, often times to the detriment of the product’s quality.
The New England Patriots have been almost unarguably the most consistent team in the NFL for the last 16 seasons. We all know the numbers; only twice they’ve missed the playoffs, they average an AFC Championship appearance every other year [6 straight but who’s counting], they seemingly roll out of bed and win the division, and oh yea-five Super Bowl wins. Obviously their coach and quarterback are at the top of the list for their success, I don’t think this is a question, or a debate. There have been big, huge, massive clutch plays made my numerous members of their teams over the years; receivers, running backs, linebackers, defensive backs, kickers, return men, and everyone else in between in the biggest of big games. One of the often unnoticed parts of the consistent triumphs by this organization is the construction of their roster. Sure they have expensive contracts, just like every team does. Of course they have weaknesses and holes on their roster, every team does. The Patriots, however, under this regime have done a tremendous job of affording themselves tremendous flexibility by not backing themselves into a corner with massive contracts to superstar players that they can’t get out of. And by doing this they have made themselves better, and given themselves the ability to “load up” in a year when they want to and construct a roster for the ages, just like they did in 2007, just like they did heading into 2017.
The Patriots-more accurately Bill Belichick-have in many ways used something of an old school approach to building their roster. Rather than going out and spending a huge amount of money on a single pass rusher and crippling their budget, they have opted for many mid level types, both contractually and from a draft pick standpoint. The Ninkovich and Andre Carter types have been very much a staple for this team on the defensive side of the ball. These are players who are not great at anything, but are good or at least competent in a great many areas of the Patriots ever evolving scheme. On the other side of the ball a player like Brandon Bolden is a fine example of a middle class player. A player who can carry the ball in a pinch, pass protect, catch screens and is a core special teams player, not to mention his value in the locker room. Players like Bolden have been a consistent presence on Patriot rosters all through the Belichick era. Another fine example is their receiver core. This year, it is a group that is almost an embarrassment of riches, except for the fact that none of them are rich by NFL standards. According to overthecap.com [a fantastic website for salary cap research] the highest cap number of this group is Julian Edelman, coming in at $5,750,000 which is actually 6th highest on the team. For comparison, the Steelers whom were defeated by the Patriots in the AFC title game have Cameron Hayward as their 6th highest cap number at $10.4 million, the Seahawks have Doug Baldwin at $9.65 million, and the Falcons whom are considered a young team place Mohammad Sanu 6th at $7.4 million.
The discipline exhibited by the Patriots in their roster construction has been nothing short of brilliant during this fantastic run of sustained excellence. As they move closer to gearing up for yet another charge for what looks for all the world to be a 6th Super Bowl championship [they’re currently 5-1 according to Westgate Las Vegas Sports Book] we ought to take a minute and appreciate how they’ve gone about building their roster and appreciate the attention to detail and discipline they’ve shown in doing so. It is after all the same discipline and attention to minute details that they show on the field and sidelines. It is this discipline that affords them the financial flexibility to make a tactical strike in free agency, and go get a player like Stephon Gilmore, or Revis three years ago, and allow them when the time is right, to load up their roster and put the rest of the league on notice.
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