Resources are fundamentally finite in the NFL. Teams have a certain amount of cap space and a certain amount of draft capital to spend as they see fit. It is simply not feasible for a team to stack itself with veteran superstars at every position because the cost would be too high. Just as it wouldn’t be possible for a team to simply draft the 15 best players every year because there are 31 other teams scouting and selecting the same prospects.
Teams have to decide which areas they want to focus on. There is no definitive right area for them to do so. The Seahawks are built around their secondary, the Packers are built around their passing game and the Broncos are built around their pass-rush. All three have won Super Bowls in the recent past.
There are, however, wrong ways to allocate your resources. And several teams have fallen into very obvious traps in free agency. So, what are some of the ways teams have misused some of their very precious cap space over the past week?
San Francisco 49ers: Signing a Non-Franchise Quarterback
There are two kinds of quarterbacks you want in the NFL. Either you want to have Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady, true franchise caliber superstars you can win Super Bowls with. Or, you want someone so horrifically bad that you’ll be in position to draft the next Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady.
The Browns trotted happily along that path last year. They took a risk-free shot at Robert Griffin III on the less than 1 percent chance he might reach that vaunted franchise quarterback level with a change of scenery. But once that percentage dropped to zero, they gleefully tanked the season away. Had their quarterback play been competent, they might be picking fifth right now instead of first. You’ll see how important that is next year when Myles Garrett is rampaging over offensive linemen as if they were scared villagers in a monster movie.
The 49ers signed the worst possible quarterback they could have in Brian Hoyer. There is no universe in which Brian Hoyer is winning a Super Bowl. Give the 49ers Julio Jones and the 2000 Ravens’ defense and it isn’t happening. But Hoyer is just good enough to win you a few games. Case in point: Hoyer’s win over Detroit last year moved the Bears from the No. 2 overall pick to the No. 3 overall pick. That might not seem significant this year, but imagine that happening in a year where franchise quarterbacks were available to be picked. It would be that much harder for Chicago to get one. And San Francisco is in that same position now.
It would be an easier pill to swallow if the 49ers had signed him for the league minimum, but they dedicated actual cap space to Hoyer. They’re paying him $6 million per year. That’s more than J.C. Tretter is getting and he’s one of the most versatile offensive linemen in football. And, Hoyer is going to negatively impact this team. He won’t be the franchise quarterback, but he won’t help get them their franchise quarterback either. It’s the worst of both worlds, and the 49ers decided to spend real money on him rather than on a player who could have been helpful when they eventually do return to contention. (If that even happens under this regime, which is already in a fair bit of question).
San Francisco 49ers and New York Giants: Signing Fullbacks to Lucrative Contracts
Fullback is inarguably the least important position in football. No fullback in the NFL played even 500 snaps. Kyle Juszczyk might be the best in the league, but he couldn’t prevent the Ravens from finishing with the fifth-fewest rushing yards in the league. He’s a useful receiver, but an actual wide receiver coming off of a 37-catch year at 7.2 yards a pop wouldn’t approach $5 million annually. (Well… we’ll get to that later).
Think of the price on a per snap basis. $5.25 million for 465 snaps (what he played last year, leading the league among fullbacks) is $11,290 per snap. Bruce Irvin just signed a deal last year worth $9.25 million annually. He played 996 snaps and was paid $9,964 per snap. Do you really want to pay more than 10 percent more per snap to a fullback than a do-it-all linebacker? That doesn’t seem particularly smart does it?
There simply is no longer a use for dedicated lead blockers anymore. The vaunted Dallas running game used Keith Smart on only 144 snaps. It makes game-planning too easy for the defense. There are simply more things you can do with an extra receiver or tight end on the field. The 49ers essentially just paid a Mercedes price to get a Model T.
The Giants get something of a pass, because Rhett Ellison is really more of a fullback/tight end hybrid, but given their history of poor resource management (signing a dedicated special-teamer in Dwayne Harris to a big deal, for example) it wouldn’t be at all surprising to think they simply decided fullback was something to invest in. It’s not. You find fullbacks on the scrap heap. That’s where the Ravens, a smart team, found Juszczyk. And it’s where they’ll find his replacement. Speaking of which…
Indianapolis Colts and Tennessee Titans: Signing former Patriots to Lucrative Contracts
This could really be applied to several teams. The Ravens are usually a good example and so are the Packers. But the Patriots are at the top of the list. Signing Patriots comes with a very damning caveat: it means Bill Belichick has seen them up close and decided he didn’t want them anymore.
Bill Belichick was perfectly willing to spend on a corner. He signed Stephon Gilmore. If he thought Logan Ryan was good enough to get that caliber of contract he would’ve given it to him himself. He traded a second-round pick to get Kony Ealy. If he felt comfortable bringing back Jabaal Sheard, do you think he would have done that?
Betting on Bill Belichick to be wrong is almost never a wise proposition. What generally happens when a Patriot leaves is that he might have one productive year, but will ultimately fail to live up to whatever massive contract he gets. There’s a reason we aren’t all wearing Brandon Spikes Bills jerseys.
Martellus Bennett could’ve ended up on this list, but Ted Thompson is just so risk-averse that if he was willing to sign him to such a big contract, it was probably thoroughly researched and well thought out. But Logan Ryan is a slot corner who’s now making more annually than Chris Harris Jr. got a few years ago. Jabaal Sheard is a pass rusher who has basically averaged five sacks per year over the past four seasons, and he’s now making Carlos Dunlap money. These are risks Bill Belichick wasn’t willing to take. Why should the Colts or Titans feel any better about them?
Los Angeles Rams: Signing Role Players From Bad Teams to Starter Contracts and Baselessly Expecting Them to Improve
This is a mistake teams make very often. They see a role player wallowing on another team and think he would flourish in their system. It can work—under the right circumstances. Maybe there’s a cornerback on a team with no pass rush and several injuries who’s pressed into outside duty when he’s a better fit in the slot, for example. Typically, it involves a good player being blocked by better players at the same position. Or, going to a team with more talent that can better utilize his overall strengths.
None of those circumstances are present for Robert Woods. He has been the epitome of mediocrity so far, averaging 50 catches per year on a team that has played .500 football over the past three seasons. He wasn’t blocked by better players, as he was a starter and Sammy Watkins, the team’s No. 1 receiver, missed plenty of time with injuries. He’s not joining a better team either. The Rams are worse than the Bills and Jared Goff is worse than Tyrod Taylor.
The Rams simply signed a bad player to a contract that would typically be demanded by a good player. No other team would’ve paid Woods half this much. They were bidding against themselves.
Woods wasn’t the only Bills receiver to get stupidly overpaid by someone else. The 49ers, whose constant appearance on this list should be a red flag, gave Marquise Goodwin $4 million annually. He has 49 career catches. If you added the annual value of what the 49ers are paying Goodwin, Hoyer and Juszczyk, they could have matched the annual value on literally any free agent that has signed so far this offseason. Would you rather have a fullback, a non-franchise quarterback and a backup receiver, or Calais Campbell? Want someone younger, I’ve got Stephon Gilmore on standby. If you want a skill position player, Alshon Jeffery was out there. Or, help on the offensive line could’ve been had with Kevin Zeitler.
The mistakes the 49ers are making are going to reverberate for years to come. It’s not just that the players they signed are bad. Having bad players on your team isn’t the end of the world. But when the opportunity cost of those bad players is extremely good ones, it just goes to show how poorly San Francisco has managed their resources.