Lombardi: How NFL offseason moves can make or break a team

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We have now entered the “Dick Vitale season,” not because our lives will be filled with college basketball—a Vitale specialty. Rather for the excitement towards certain players and the overreaction to moves made by NFL teams during the off-season. Vitale loves to go off, calling everyone and anyone who makes a play, a PTP (prime-time player), and most of the national media do the same when a once great player changes teams. Don’t believe me? Review all the Russell Wilson quotes after the trade—few doubters all lovers, all screaming like Vitale, he was a PTP who needed to cook. After a year, we are still waiting for Russ to don the apron.

I fully understand we still have one more game to go before the “official” off-season begins, but during this bye week before Super Bowl LVII, it might prove worthwhile to review our handicapping of teams from last year as they enter the off-season. Remember every year is a new year. Nothing is static in the NFL. Just ask the Rams.

 

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Every NFL off-season is fun, filled with over-the-top reactions and criticism for those teams who don’t follow the perceived media beliefs. If a losing team doesn’t make a move, then they get shot down, and if a winning team makes a few moves, suddenly, their stock rises. We all need to take a “Warren Buffett” approach when breaking down the off-season before placing any bets on over and under win totals. Buffett searches for companies with good structural leadership, solid culture, and the willingness to adapt to changing times. He invests in undervalued companies that can turn around with a few smart decisions. For example, last year, the Giants were a mess. Bad cap situation, and not much talent on the roster, but the change in leadership affected their record. The Vikings were a team with talent, who needed improvement in certain areas any by changing the leadership—shifting from defense to offense—they could improve. Both teams were undervalued last spring, both teams didn’t make any splashy moves in the off-season, and both teams cashed on their over totals.

Both teams will begin the ‘23 off-season with high expectations. They will assume a few moves here and there, along with returning their core elements from last year’s team, will close the gap on their competition. Wrong. Buffett’s investment strategy looks for teams that are undervalued, and now with the winning, the Vikings and Giants won’t fit that profile. Thus, be leery in making another investment. The NFL is much like the business world—going from good to great is the hardest step to take. NFL rules hinder winning, making it harder to select elite talent. Winning also requires teams to pay for last year’s success, meaning players who are free agents want their money.

 

This off-season will be the year of the quarterback. Where will Aaron Rodgers play? Tom Brady or Derek Carr? Does Lamar finally get his money? All fair questions. And no one knows the answers—yet.

One answer we do know is the Giants will pay Daniel Jones to have him remain their starter, even though they worked around him all season, allowing the scheme to help offset his liabilities.

If you study the final four teams, only the Chiefs have a quarterback on a huge contract—and Patrick Mahomes tilts the field with his play. You could never overpay Mahomes. He is that good. But you can overpay Dak Prescott, Joe Flacco, Kirk Cousins, Kyler Murray, and Russell Wilson. And once you overpay them, your team will struggle to get to the final four, unless they have a great season and the team around them stays healthy. Paying Daniel Jones 25 million a year makes sense. Paying him over 40 million per year is a killer and would make Buffett remove his “buy” signal off the Giants. The Giants aren’t good enough around Jones for him to take a huge chunk out of the cap. Since the salary cap entered the NFL landscape in 1994, one truth has been consistent: You can never overpay for greatness, but you can overpay for good. And often the free agent market is filled with good players who get overpaid, affecting the cap and destroying the ability to have adequate depth on the team. Once a team overpays, like the Vikings did for Cousins and the Giants will surely do for Jones, they significantly reduce their chances of getting to the final four. The signings might provide them with a “Vitale” moment, but in the long run, it will hinder their future success.

As fans, we hear the name of the player, remember him being great at one time, and then believe the signing will impact the team. We never understand the cap implications—how the overpayment might cause the team to lack quality depth at critical positions. Based on the 2022 season, most teams will now pay for quality backup quarterbacks. With over 70 different quarterbacks taking snaps in one season, the most since the strike year in 1987, the value of having a great backup is greater than ever. You cannot leave that position to chance. It takes one quality starter and one decent backup for any team to handle the long grueling season. And since the supply of quality quarterbacks is already low, the backup market this year will greatly increase, so players like Cooper Rush and Jarrett Stidham will benefit. Teams cannot risk losing their season when their starter goes down. Therefore, expect more attention and resources given to the backup.

As the off-season of quarterbacks begins, the most interesting aspect will be how much of the cap teams will be willing to spend and how many future assets they would trade to acquire Rodgers or Jackson. Rodgers and Brady would be short-term rentals for any team acquiring their services. How much are teams willing to spend in terms of draft capital for Rodgers if he is only going to play one more year? Brady is a free agent, so he comes with a cap charge, not an asset charge. Rodgers’ talents are worthy of a high pick—his uncertain future past next year isn’t. Yes, he would make the Jets or any team better, but if they don’t win the Super Bowl, was the deal worthwhile? The Rams would say yes; the Broncos might say no.

For us to make money in the futures market, we need to pay more attention to the salary cap charge, which affects the overall depth of teams—which is rarely discussed. By paying Josh Allen, (who deserved to be paid), the Bills lacked the needed depth to compensate for their injuries. By the end of the season, they were not the same team—on either side of the ball. We have to ignore the noise, the over-the-top love affair, the “Vitale factor” and understand that depth matters and teams with a great quarterback on a rookie deal can make more strides than a team with a high-priced quarterback.

I am excited for the game, and even more excited for the off-season.