How do NFL teams allocate resources? Dave Archibald has looked at the real price of contract extensions and draft picks on quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, offensive linemen, the trends on offense in general and cornerbacks. In this installment, he looks at Super Bowl investment how the Carolina Panthers and the Denver Broncos were built.
The divergent approaches of the Broncos and Panthers demonstrate that there is no single way to build a successful NFL team. While both Super Bowl participants have used the bulk of their draft picks on the defensive side of the ball, how they have used those picks has differed and helped shape the very different schemes each team employs. They’ve also taken different approaches to cap spending and free agency. General managers John Elway (Broncos) and Dave Gettleman (Panthers) have built outstanding rosters, and an analytical look at the way the teams have invested in their rosters provides insight into the disparate team-building philosophies each franchise holds.
Investment Profile – Denver Broncos
The chart below shows how much the Broncos have invested in each position group relative to a hypothetical league average team. In the case of the defensive front seven, it shows investment relative to other 3-4 teams. The first column is investment in average salary, the second in draft capital (as measured by the draft trade value chart). For example, the Broncos invested 12% of their salary cap and 34% of their draft capital on outside linebackers versus the league average of 9% and 13% for 3-4 teams, so they appear on this chart as +3% in salary and +21% in draft capital:The Broncos employ an expensive veteran offense, with that side of the ball featuring their top three players in annual salary: quarterback Peyton Manning; wideout Demaryius Thomas; and left tackle Ryan Clady. But while they’ve spent money on the offensive side of the ball, their top draft picks have gone almost exclusively to the defensive side of the ball; they haven’t selected an offensive player with a first-round pick since Thomas and Tim Tebow in 2010.
The Broncos have been using those high picks on the defensive front, particularly on the edge. Von Miller, the second-overall pick in 2011, is one of the game’s most dominant defensive players, and Denver augmented his rush with veteran DeMarcus Ware and 2015 first-rounder Shane Ray. The team’s top picks in 2012 and 2013, Sylvester Williams and Derek Wolfe, also contribute as interior disruptors from the defensive line. Elway’s investment here has paid off, as evinced by his squad’s evisceration of the New England Patriots’ offensive front in the AFC Championship Game.
Meanwhile, the Broncos have skimped at running back and inside linebacker, two of the glamour positions of yesteryear. This has worked in part because of their ability to find late-round pieces at these positions, such as running back C.J. Anderson (undrafted, 2013) and linebackers Brandon Marshall (fifth round, 2012), Danny Trevathan (sixth-round, 2012), and Shaquil Barrett (undrafted, 2014). Those players aren’t stars, but they also aren’t weak points that an opposing team can easily exploit. With their outstanding pass rush and tight man-to-man coverage from veteran cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr. ($18M per year combined) and 2014 first-round pick Bradley Roby, Denver just needs their off-the-ball linebackers to be functional.
Investment Profile – Carolina Panthers
The chart below shows how much the Panthers have invested in each position group relative to the league average team. In the case of the defensive front seven, it shows investment relative to other 4-3 teams. The first column is investment in average salary, the second is in draft capital.
Few teams have more invested in their quarterback than Carolina does in MVP favorite Cam Newton, whom they selected with the 2011 first overall pick and then signed to a large extension before the 2015 season. Like the Broncos, the Panthers have spent money on offense and draft picks on defense, with Newton and 2014 wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin the only first-round picks on offense since 2008.
The shape of the offensive spending, however, has been different: While the Broncos invested little in running backs, the Panthers spend more than eight percent of their cap on backs like Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert, the second-highest paid fullback in the NFL. Also, they’ve spent less up front than Denver, starting rookie contract players Trai Turner, Andrew Norwell, and Mike Remmers on their underrated offensive line. They’ve avoided big spending on wide receiver, too, going with inexpensive veteran receivers Ted Ginn and Jerricho Cotchery to complement youngsters Devin Funchess and secret weapon, wideout Corey Brown.
No team spends less on the secondary than the Panthers, who ranked dead last in both dollar and draft pick investment in cornerbacks and in the bottom ten in both categories for safeties. Josh Norman, a fifth-round pick of 2012, is a breakout star at corner and figures to get a substantial raise when he hits free agency in the offseason. Aside from Norman, though, they’ve filled in the secondary similarly to how Denver has at running back and linebacker: with solid contributions from unheralded young players like 2014 fifth-rounder Bene Benwikere and 2014 fourth-rounder Tre’ Boston and cast-off veterans Charles Tillman, Cortland Finnegan, Roman Harper, and Kurt Coleman.
Part of the reason that the Panthers have been able to get away with lesser names in the secondary is because their linebackers cover so much ground. While the Broncos invested little in their off-the-ball linebackers, the Panthers have assembled the most talented group in the league with 2012 ninth-overall pick Luke Kuechly patrolling the middle, flanked by rookie first-rounder Shaq Thompson and veteran Thomas Davis, who boasts Carolina’s third-highest annual salary at $9M. While Denver plays heavy man-to-man schemes, the Panthers prefer a variety of zone looks; this approach takes some of the pressure off the corners, but it doesn’t work without underneath defenders who can cover the seams and make sure tackles. The talent that Kuechly, Davis, and Thompson bring allow the rest of the defense succeed.
Defensive end Charles Johnson is the second-highest-paid player on the team, but age and injuries have limited his 2015 production. The Panthers have gotten much of their pass rush from the middle, with A gap blitzes from their linebackers and interior penetration from 2013 draftees Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei. Short, a former second-round pick, has been a breakout star, leading his team – and tying for the league lead among defensive tackles – with 11 sacks.
According to overthecap.com, the Broncos had the third-least amount of dead money on the cap at about $5.5M. Guard Shelley Smith is their only cut player taking up more than $1M on the cap. The Panthers had less dead money than average, coming in at a little over $15M with DeAngelo Williams, Steve Smith, and Charles Godfrey each taking up more than $3M. Carolina fares much better when looking at dead draft capital – draft value invested in players no longer with the team. All of their picks from the first three rounds since 2012 are still on the team. Denver also ranks above-average in this regard, with the cut of 2013 second-round running back Montee Ball the only real blemish on their recent draft record.
Denver is investing quite a bit in a pair of offensive tackles on injured reserve. Left tackle Ryan Clady averages $10.5M per year – ranking third on the Broncos – but he’s missed the entire season with a torn ACL. That thrust rookie second-rounder Ty Sambrailo into a starting role, but Sambrailo himself suffered a season-ending shoulder injury only three games into the season. Denver has invested a fair amount in their offensive line, but that investment hasn’t seen the field much this year, and the line has suffered accordingly. Carolina suffered a big blow when 2014 first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin tore his ACL in the preseason, but otherwise they’ve stayed fairly healthy.
Investment analysis sheds little light on which team will prevail Sunday, but it illuminates how the teams were built, particularly with respect to their outstanding defenses. The Broncos are built from the outside-in, with terrifying pass rushers and lockdown man-to-man cornerbacks wreaking havoc on offenses. The Panthers are built from the inside-out, with their off-the-ball linebackers covering huge swaths of turf and limiting offenses to short gains. In each case, the scheme fits the personnel, which is a major reason why one of these two teams will hoist the Lombardi Trophy on Sunday night.
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