Following the NFL is a learning experience. The National Football League offers its most avid followers a small-scale accounting degree on the side because it’s in those few dollars that immortality is budgeted for.
As is the case in sport, more often than not we tend to look at the on-field achievements of the collective, but the off-field calculations of a choice few is what makes this all tick.
The 2017 NFL salary cap stood at a firm $167 million. This is the figure every NFL team must comply with for its 53-man roster and ten-man practice squad. No Qatari billionaire is going to come in and increase the potential spend of the Miami Dolphins because this is a much more intricate operation.
What makes a winning roster?
What goes into making a Super Bowl-worthy roster? Well, a number of things. You need to have good scouting in order to draft talent – because these players’ contracts are on tiny figures for four or possibly five years. Second, you need good coaching – but almost as important – you need someone with a calculator who knows what he’s up to.
Let’s look at the way last year’s Super Bowl champions – the Philadelphia Eagles – constructed their 53 in compliance with a salary cap and in tandem with greatness. NFL finance is cyclical and comes in very distinct phases. This isn’t the first team to ever try this, nor will it be the last, but they are the first team to win a Super Bowl doing so. And by achieving that, they set the blueprint for countless others to follow.
The design was simple – spend in the trenches, like any good general going to war, the Philly backroom staff knew that wars are won here. And so it proved.
Per Spotrac, the Eagles didn’t have a single top-ten spend in any positional units outside their two lines. Their $34 million spent on the offensive line gave them a good return. Four of their five offensive linemen scored over 80 in PFF’s grades, with Jason Kelce notching a startling 93.9. Kelce and Brandon Brooks are athletic interior lineman – they can provide an offence with countless scheme possibilities and Kelce’s pull blocks provided running backs with lanes that you, the reader, could find.
Backs take the Eagles to the front
This is key. With many teams believing that premium backs like Ezekiel Elliott and Leonard Fournette were the way forward, the Eagles spent only $7 million on backs, adding Jay Ajayi from Miami and Super Bowl winner LeGarrette Blount to their roster. Along with Darren Sproles and Corey Clement it’s hard for DC’s to know who to put on the field to contain so many different types of runners. Run by committee – it alleviates killer injuries to a positional group, undercuts predictability and saves you potential cap penalties if one player underachieves.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Eagles ate offences alive, led by three time Pro Bowler Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham - with 9.5 sacks - recording a career high season. In total, the Phillies' defensive line cost 20.83% of their cap space and rightly so. The logic they had here was to alleviate poor defensive backs (23rd lowest spend on that unit in the league) with an aggressive pass rush.
Though their linebackers were seemingly average, they had their game plan locked down.
They opted for schematics and athleticism to account for linebackers who were average on paper (19th highest average spend in the NFL) and would often pick up free agent D-linemen who were comfortable in both run-stuffing and pass-rushing from the interior in sub-packages for versatility. Disguise is a defensive coordinator’s best friend, make no bones about it.
But maybe their biggest achievement was winning a Super Bowl with a backup quarterback. Only six teams spent less money on quarterbacks in 2017 and they lost their starter to a serious injury at the tail end of the season. What the Eagles did was build the above before they slotted Carson Wentz into the roster on a rookie contract.
A rookie quarterback solves their problems
Their scouting department combined with their analytics department to green-light a blockbuster trade with Cleveland to sneak up the draft order to nab the North Dakota State QB, Carson Wentz. This, by itself, was audacious enough but the then new head coach Doug Pederson believed Wentz would elevate the team for a decade at least. It’s early days, but with an 11-2 record before he went down and 2nd in the NFL in touchdown passes they may be right.
However, because the players around them were expected to achieve Pro Bowl calibre seasons and thus, increasing their wage demands, their window was small. They needed a failsafe. His name was Nick Foles – someone who could fit their scheme and operate at a semi-functional level if Wentz went down injured.
He did. He did. They won.
It so easily could have been Minnesota had their Teddy Bridgewater punt worked out a few years ago, but he couldn’t get over his injuries nor his mediocrity. This year, Dallas have a similar blueprint to that of Philadelphia’s, but Vegas only expect them to win 8.5 games, mainly due to the difficulty in their division that features the current Super Bowl champions, as well as a culture of tolerance to ill-discipline.
But the one thing that Dallas do have is the best offensive line in the country, as well as a top-six spend on the defensive line. They’ve got last year’s sack leader in Demarcus Lawrence and an unheralded defensive end in Taco Charlton. If Dak Prescott (a draft steal still playing on rookie terms) plays to a reasonable level, Dallas can steal a Wild Card spot and surprise teams in the run-in.
This is a game of numbers. The Super Bowl was won in the trenches. The trenches were prepared in a run-of-the-mill office in East Pennsylvania.