Every sports team is under pressure to win, particularly in the NFL. The regular season is a mere 16 games and teams have to figure out ways to win quickly. A slow start can kill a season, unlike other sports where teams have weeks, even months, to turn their season around. Coaches get about three years, if they're lucky, to turn a struggling franchise into a winning one. General managers are constantly under the microscope as well, and when they start feeling the pressure, they'll spend. Whether it's bringing in free agents, or overpaying their own players in fear of losing them, the constant pressure leads to some serious financial decisions. Sometimes the money spent doesn't pay off, sometimes it does. The best approach is building through the draft, but not all organizations are patient enough to wait for a five-year plan to come together.
The NFL's salary cap for the 2013 season is $123 million, but under the league CBA, certain teams can spend more if they were under the cap in previous years. For example, if a team spent $20 million less than the 2012 salary cap of $120.6 million, that extra $20 million can be spent in 2013, so that team's limit is $143 million for this season. All that extra money can be accrued in order to spend over the cap this season. Teams also must spend a minimum of 88.8% of the salary cap to ensure all teams become competitive.
Last offseason we saw a few teams spend quite a bit on free agents in hopes of making the playoffs, as GMs were under fire, including those of the Miami Dolphins, Tennessee Titans and the Detroit Lions. Here are the current top 10 highest-spending teams in the league. Has the spending led to results?
10 Jacksonville Jaguars - $125.5 million
Put aside the fact that the Jacksonville Jaguars have shown improvement and some promising signs for their future. It's still another season in which they're not going to the playoffs. Due to their conservative spending habits, they were afforded the right to go over the $123 million cap. They actually could've spent $20 million more, but even that probably wouldn't have propelled them to the postseason.
Either way, it doesn't appear their money has been spent effectively. They have a good young receiving corps, with Justin Blackmon and Cecil Shorts, but they don't have a bona fide star. Maurice Jones-Drew is past his prime and they don't have a franchise quarterback, which is about the best investment a team can make. The bottom line is, if you spend more than 22 other teams in the league, you shouldn't be having a losing season and finishing in your division's basement.
9 Cincinnati Bengals - $126.2 million
The Cincinnati Bengals have approached building a franchise the right way. They certainly had their lean years, but now they arguably have the most balanced roster in the league. While they still haven't become the dominant team they should be, whether it's due to coaching, inconsistency at quarterback or being in a tough division, the Bengals should be giving more.
Their money is tied primarily in the stars they drafted, such as Michael Johnson ($11.5 million), Leon Hall ($8.5 million) and Geno Atkins at $7.1 million. They were forced to spend more this season, due to the money accrued from paying just over the cap floor the past few seasons. The team has decided to invest that money in their own players. They have made the playoffs the past two seasons, losing in the wild card round both times to the Houston Texans. Cincinnati is on the brink of an AFC North title this season, but the franchise has not won a playoff game since 1990.
The Bengals won't be on this list for long, as they will undoubtedly revert to spending just above the cap floor. Teams that have been handcuffed from spending this season due to incurring cap penalties will spend a lot more next season than the Bengals will. If the team does what they're capable of this year and contend for a Super Bowl, then we'll have to say they've spent their money more wisely than anyone else. For now, all we can say to them is, you get what you pay for.
8 Chicago Bears - $127.7 million
One of the league's most storied franchises, the Chicago Bears have seen mixed results from their recent spending habits. They've made the playoffs just three times in the last decade, although they have been to a Super Bowl, losing to the Colts, and went to the NFC Championship just three seasons ago, where they lost to Green Bay. They finished 10-6 last year, but missed out on a tiebreaker to the Vikings.
The Bears have fielded a solid team this season and are in playoff contention, as Josh McCown filled in nicely while Jay Cutler was hurt. The Bears' problems partly stem from money being invested in older players. Julius Peppers is 33 with a cap hit of over $14 million. Lance Briggs is 33 and his cap hit is $7 million. Cutler himself still hasn't quite shown he's worth a cap hit of over $10 million. He's 30 as well. Charles Tillman is 32 with a cap hit of $8 million. These are all really good players, as Tillman and Briggs arguably played the best football of their careers last season.
What this number means for the Bears is that they'll need to take advantage of the short window they have before their top players reach a roadblock in their careers. It's not a problem now, but it may be a couple of years down the road, if there's no championship to show for it.
7 Tampa Bay Buccaneers - $127.8 million
The Buccaneers made a huge splash last offseason when they traded for Jets CB Darrelle Revis. They handed him the richest contract to any defensive back in the NFL with a cap hit of $16 million for the next five years. While Revis has played to his capability, the Buccaneers haven't seen a reward in the win column. In fact, they are guaranteed to finish worse than their 7-9 record from 2012 when their defense was ranked last against the pass. They are 15th this season; something Revis has helped them out with. The team is just a mess in general with Josh Freeman being released earlier this season, although Mike Glennon has given some hope for the Bucs' future.
The best the Bucs can possibly finish this season is 6-10. Maybe their problems stem from a lack of leadership, but one thing's for certain: they want more bang for their buck.
6 Tennessee Titans - $128.8 million
The Tennessee Titans spent quite a bit of money in the offseason to bring in quality free agents. Mike Munchak was on the hot seat, and the pressure of not making the playoffs in five seasons got to them. It doesn't look like the extra money will lead to more wins than last season, though. The Titans will still finish with a losing record in 2013.
Andy Levitre, Delanie Walker and Bernard Pollard were brought in. While they have contributed, the team hasn't gotten much better on the whole. They are tied to Chris Johnson's $12 million cap hit, which is a lot for most running backs, much less one who may not even top 1,000 yards this season (despite the fact that the team invested heavily in their offensive line).
The Titans look like they will be starting over next season, likely with a new head coach and quarterback. They may have to take a different approach to improve their team.
5 Minnesota Vikings - $129.3 million
Another team not quite getting the highest yield from their investments. The Vikings made the playoffs last year, on the back of Adrian Peterson, who is undoubtedly worth his $13.9 million cap hit. The Vikings are now looking at a top-five pick in the 2014 draft. They will likely say goodbye to Jared Allen this offseason, which would save them $17 million in cap space. While Allen is still a great player and great leader, changes are invariably made when a franchise is struggling.
The Vikings will have to find a franchise quarterback, whether it's through free agency or the draft, and that will take cap space. A franchise QB is essential to making the Vikings a winning team. It will take some of the load off of Peterson as well.
4 Philadelphia Eagles - $129.6 million
The Philadelphia Eagles restructured Michael Vick's contract last offseason to avoid paying cap penalties. His cap number remains at $12 million this season and he's now the team's backup with Nick Foles grabbing the bull by the horns while Vick was injured. Vick is likely gone next season, which will save a ton of cap space for Philly. They'll need the money to pay other stars, such as DeSean Jackson, LeSean McCoy and the inevitable raise they'll have to give Foles if he's their starter heading into 2014.
After a last-place finish in the NFC East in 2012, the Eagles are on the cusp of a division championship in 2013. Regardless of their finish this season, they will likely be even more aggressive in spending, as the franchise is rich in history, but still seeking its first Super Bowl.
The Eagles always spend big and whether they win or not seems only to depend on the law of averages.
3 Denver Broncos - $133.6 million
Now we're really getting to the teams who have seen a reward for their spending. The Denver Broncos made their biggest splash in 2012, when they signed Peyton Manning, possibly the biggest free agency signing in NFL history. Manning carries a $17.5 million cap hit and he's worth every penny for the Broncos, as he's turned them into a powerhouse.
It's Super Bowl or bust for Denver in 2013, following their disappointing playoff loss to Baltimore last year. Manning will likely win his fifth MVP trophy this season and would've won last year, had Adrian Peterson not carried the Vikings to the postseason.
The Broncos have also invested in building a great team around their centrepiece, particularly on offense, as their total cap hit for offensive players is at $66 million compared to $47 million on defense. Champ Bailey accounts for a $10 million cap hit himself.
Denver has seen the results from their spending, but they've built such high expectations that they'll be seen as a failure if they can't take advantage of the short window they have with a 37-year-old Manning as their quarterback.
2 Seattle Seahawks - $134.2 million
With the Seattle Seahawks likely to secure home-field advantage in this year's playoffs, they are certainly a Super Bowl contender. Their defense is dominant and their second-year quarterback carries himself, and his team, like a seasoned veteran. They're loaded with talent on both sides of the ball and have built their team primarily through the draft.
They have overpaid a few players, such as tight end Zach Miller, with a cap hit of $11 million. Percy Harvin has a cap hit of $5 million, yet has only played in one game this season. However, they also have some of the biggest bargains in the league on their roster, as both Russell Wilson and All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman carry a cap hit under $1 million. Earl Thomas is perhaps the best safety in football, and his cap hit is a mere $3.5 million.
Their roster balances out nicely for the Seahawks, and while the bad contracts they have on the team will eventually catch up to them, they have the most depth in the league. This team has a chance to build a dynasty.
1 Kansas City Chiefs - $135.1 million
The Kansas City Chiefs were 2-14 a year ago. Now, they're playoff bound and just a couple of steps behind the Broncos. The difference is while the Broncos are built to win now, the Chiefs are built to be a long-term contender if the core of their team is kept intact.
Jamaal Charles, arguably the league MVP for 2013, is a bargain at a $4.3 million cap hit. The Cheifs' money is invested primarily in their defense, with Tamba Hali at over $15 million and Eric Berry over $10 million. Alex Smith was brought in via trade, and is paid right around his value at $8.5 million.
The Chiefs were able to spend in the offseason, as they accumulated cap space by saving their money over the last few years. It's finally paid off for them this year, as they will have a great shot at knocking off either the third or fourth seed in the playoffs' opening round. While they lost both their meetings with Denver this season, they showed they can hang with them. If they get a third crack at the Broncos in the playoffs, perhaps they can knock them off. Either way, the money they've invested in their stars has helped them ignite their passionate fan base.
Some of the league's notoriously high spenders, such as the Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins and Pittsburgh Steelers did not make this list, due to them having to pay cap penalties for previous seasons. Teams that have spent over the cap had to cut players prior to this season, which is why there were some surprising teams on this list for 2013. Don't worry; the usual suspects will revert to their habits and will find themselves in similar situations soon enough. While every NFL team can afford to spend, it's all about using it wisely. Investing money in the right players, at the right positions and at the right contract length. That is where the difference lies between teams that turn into winners and those just trying to stay afloat in the playoff race.
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