NFL Offensive Investment by Position Trends

In the first five installments of the investment in offense series, Dave Archibald looked at team spending at various offensive position groups – quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, and the offensive line. Having covered the offensive positions individually, he now looks for trends in NFL offensive investment as a whole.

The chart below shows the amount of money and draft value expended on offense. Money is measured by average cap hit. This is not a perfect measure, as it can be inflated by “funny money”, or non-guaranteed years tacked on to the end of the long-term deals, but it serves as a rough indicator. Draft value is measured by cumulative Draft Trade Value Chart figures through the last four years, plus 2011 first-rounders (more on that methodology):All Offensive Quadrants

These figures represent only players currently rostered as of the beginning of the season, not “dead” money or draft value spent on players no longer with the team. Thus, they do not incorporate traded picks or players.

There are four groups according to spending pattern:

All O Quad Correlation

There are few surprises here: teams who spend money on offense see superior offenses, while those who don’t invest either money or picks see the worst performance. The big driver here appears to be the quarterback position, with star players like Cam Newton and Carson Palmer calling signals for “Money and Picks” teams and Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers, and Russell Wilson featured on “It’s Only Money” squads.

Money and Picks

Seven teams spend above both the league average of 47% of the salary cap, and 45% of draft capital ‒ though in most cases they are only slightly above-average. The Cowboys wield the biggest wallet, having given massive contracts to quarterback Tony Romo, wideout Dez Bryant, and left tackle Tyron Smith, while using first-round picks on Smith and fellow line-mates Zack Martin and Travis Frederick. Unfortunately for Dallas, they rank just 30th in points scored this season, thanks in large part to Romo’s two broken collarbones and Bryant’s broken foot.

The Cardinals have had more success, parlaying the seventh-most money and twelfth-highest percentage of draft capital into the NFL’s number-two scoring offense, keyed by big-money veterans Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald. Arizona has also used high picks on guard Jonathan Cooper, tackle D.J. Humphries, and wideout Michael Floyd, all of whom have played roles in 2015, but arguably not up to the level of their draft status.

Notable Performances: The two top-scoring offenses, the Carolina Panthers and Arizona Cardinals, are in this group. The Cardinals lead the league in yards per play (Y/P), net yards per pass attempt (NY/A), and expected points added (EPA). The Cowboys rank bottom-five in points, yards, and EPA.

It’s Only Money

These 11 teams spend more money than average but less draft capital. The 49ers rank eighth in dollar spending ‒ led by now-benched quarterback Colin Kaepernick ‒ but last in percentage of draft picks invested. San Francisco used a first-round pick on receiver A.J. Jenkins in 2012, who was so disappointing the team dealt him away after just one season. Perhaps chastened by that experience, all subsequent first-round picks have gone to defense. This formula has been less than effective in 2015, as San Francisco has the worst scoring offense in football.

The Packers have spent even less raw draft value than the 49ers (though a slightly higher percentage of their capital) but have had more success ‒ 12th in points ‒ behind high-priced quarterback Aaron Rodgers and mid-round draft picks like 2013 fourth-round tackle David Bakhtiari. Denver hasn’t used a first-round pick on offense since 2010, but they rank second in offensive spending with large contracts doled out to quarterback Peyton Manning, wideout Demaryius Thomas, and left tackle Ryan Clady.

The Seahawks rank 10th in spending and 30th in raw draft value, but this doesn’t factor in 2011 first-rounder James Carpenter (no long with the team) nor trades of first-round picks for wideout Percy Harvin (in 2013) and tight end Jimmy Graham (in 2015).

Notable Performances: The Patriots, Steelers, and Seahawks rank top-six in points, yards, yards per play, NY/A, and EPA. The 49ers are last in points and yards and bottom-five in several other categories. The Chargers have the worst yards per carry (YPC) average and rank bottom-five in points.

Youth Is Served

These nine teams spend less money than average but more draft capital. Generally speaking, these teams have young quarterbacks on inexpensive contracts, with Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton and St. Louis’s Nick Foles the priciest signal-callers in this cohort. The Colts have spent the third-least money but the most draft capital, including 2012 first-overall pick Andrew Luck and fellow first-rounders tackle Anthony Castonzo and receiver Phillip Dorsett. This doesn’t even include the team’s 2014 first-rounder, lost in a monster trade for former NFL running back Trent Richardson.

No team spends less money on offense than the Titans, whose five highest-paid players are all defenders, but they’ve used five consecutive first-round picks on the offensive side of the ball, including 2015 number-two-overall pick, quarterback Marcus Mariota.

Notable Performances: The Bengals rank top-five in points, yards per play, NY/A, and expected points added. The Bills and Buccaneers have top-five YPC figures. The Rams boast the league’s best YPC figure at 4.9, but they rate bottom-five in several other categories including the NFL’s worst NY/A and EPA. The Colts rank in the bottom five in several categories.

Doing It On The Cheap

These five teams spend less than average, both in terms of money and draft capital. The Texans stand out, ranking 29th in dollars spent and 28th in percentage of draft value. Of their last five first-round picks, only star wideout DeAndre Hopkins plays on offense, and they don’t have an offensive player averaging $10M per season. The Browns aren’t far behind, but this analysis doesn’t factor in 2012 first-round picks Trent Richardson and Brandon Weeden, neither of whom saw a third season in a Cleveland uniform.

Notable Performances: None of these teams stands out positively. The Browns rank in the bottom five in points, while the Texans are bottom-five in yards per play, NY/A, and YPC.

Top Correlations

Correlations between investment ‒ both salary and draft value ‒ in the various positions and offensive performance in a variety of metrics (points scored, yards, yards per play, NY/A, YPC, and EPA) can shed light on where the best offenses are investing their resources:

All Offense Top Correlations

None of the correlations are strong enough to draw definitive conclusions. Salary spending on quarterbacks accounts for four of the 10 positive correlations, reinforcing the importance of the position. Teams that spend money on the Interior offensive line ‒ traditionally thought to be a spot of lesser importance ‒ are also seeing good results on the field. Two positions show a moderate correlation to running efficiency: offensive tackle and wide receiver, the latter of which is surprising. Overall salary also makes an appearance.

Interestingly, teams that spend a lot of money on skill players (running back, tight end, wide receiver) show worse performance in NY/A, Y/P, and total yards. Teams that invest draft picks in the offensive line tend to see worse performance as well.

Conclusion

The individual studies of position groups didn’t find strong correlations, but looking at the whole offense it is clear that monetary spending helps drive offensive success. Specifically, the game’s top offenses feature highly-paid quarterbacks.

Beyond that, it is hard to draw conclusions. The most successful offensive teams are spending more money and fewer draft picks on the offensive line and investing fewer resources in skill players, but it’s not certain whether that’s a trend or a one-year blip. Unfortunately for the teams on the quarterback merry-go-round, there aren’t any obvious paths to offensive success for squads lacking a star signal-caller. Perhaps such teams are better off investing on the defensive side of the ball ‒ something we will study in future installments.

Follow Dave on Twitter @davearchie.

Dave Archibald knows pass defense, specifically how coverage, the pass rushexcellent cornerbacksversatile safeties and in-game adjustments can make a big difference.

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