We still look at advanced analytics as more of a baseball thing. Moneyball and all that nonsense hasn’t exactly taken the NFL by siege in the same fashion.
Accordingly, that mindset lends us to believe that the occasional misfire on a draft class is something we can mask with savvy free agent acquisitions and a timely trade. However, with the new collective bargaining agreement capping rookie contracts, it gives teams the rare opportunity to capitalize on a burgeoning young star’s formative years before he becomes eligible for a veteran contract that takes up a colossal chunk of the salary cap.
Identifying players that can make immediate and significant contributions to your franchise in the NFL Draft has become as critical as ever with veteran salaries rising. Any tool that can be used in this pursuit of cheap, young talent is paramount. And while some may argue their merits in a game that has so many variables that are difficult to quantify, the fact remains that analytics have become a part of football and they’re here to stay.
Now, whether or not it’s analytics that lead you to that fifth-round defensive end who gives you three years of starter level production for a fraction of the price or it’s shear luck, the point remains: The NFL Draft is more important than ever.
This year, there’s several teams handicapped by an aging roster, salary cap limitations or some sadistic combination of both, and those are the teams who’ll need the 2014 NFL Draft to yield immediate results most. These are the five teams with the most to lose in this year’s draft:
No. 1: The Dallas Cowboys
Jerry Jones is the guy with the pet giraffe on those DirecTV commercials with a different accent. He’s got opulence. He’s got the outlandish stadium and the big contracts that go with it. Unfortunately, what he’s also got on his hands is a nightmarish salary cap situation. The ‘Boys had to offload and take redos on several big contracts just to slide in under the salary cap in time for the league’s new fiscal year, and next season Tony Romo’s cap hit (which actually got much smaller when he restructured his deal this offseason) and expiring contracts for Dez Bryant and DeMarco Murray mean they’ll be in for another cap crunch. If they don’t go out and hit a home run with the 2014 NFL Draft and find several capable contributors that could develop into stars, 2015 could be the year where they finally have to tear it all down and rebuild.
No. 2: The Pittsburgh Steelers
Simply put, the Pittsburgh Steelers are getting old (in the philosophical sense). They had to swallow a large sum of dead money in the LaMarr Woodley release and they had to restructure deals for Troy Polamalu and Heath Miller to lighten their cap load to a manageable state. Now they just have to get younger and their first real chance at doing that will be in a few weeks at the draft. As an organization, the Steelers are generally pretty pragmatic and you have to have confidence that they’ll get everything straightened out, but that process could be demonstrably longer if they don’t get the 2014 NFL Draft right.
No. 3: The Carolina Panthers
If you take a look at the Carolina Panthers roster, you’ll be impressed by the amount of homegrown talent it features. Unfortunately, they’ve assembled that roster and hung on to it by doling out money to mid-level free agents after their rookie contracts expired. Last season, the continuity of that roster led them to a 12-4 season, but next year Cam Newton’s contract expires and the year after that 2013 Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly’s deal expires, too. What that ultimately means is that the Panthers will have to cinch up their belts and let go of some of those overpriced, homegrown players, and they’ll need a slew of able-bodied youngsters from the 2014 NFL Draft to be ready to step into their places if they are hoping not to see a significant drop-off.
No. 4: The St. Louis Rams
Poor attendance and poor results lately have made the Rams a perennial contender for a move back to Los Angeles or to some other emerging market, but the Rams biggest problem is probably Sam Bradford. Beyond the fact that Bradford can’t seem to get healthy, he was the last No. 1 pick from the old collective bargaining agreement and he’ll carry a salary cap hit of over $17 million into 2014. Nowadays, rookie wage scales protect franchises from calamities like these, but, for now, the Rams are stuck. If they hope to dig themselves out from under that terrible contract, they’ll have to have a solid showing in the 2014 NFL Draft and find some quality players for a bargain-bin price.
No. 5: The Chicago Bears
Chicago general manager Phil Emery and his staff have proven themselves to be expert finaglers of the salary cap, converting base salary into signing bonuses and incentives to alleviate some of the stress they’ve been under the past two offseasons, but the fact remains that despite another impressive showing in free agency, they need to get younger on defense at every level. They’ll likely address concerns in the secondary and along the defensive front with their first two picks, and if they don’t get those picks right, they could be in trouble when all those free agent acquisitions get into the second half of those creative, back-loaded contracts.