With the NFL salary cap “only” creeping up to $123 million for the 2013 season, teams are looking for bargains in order to offset any dead money or, virtually, dead players on their rosters. More than ever the need to rebuild, retool and reload with young talent in the draft is the most vital aspect of a team’s off-season. Sure, there are teams like the Bucs and Dolphins that are poised to make a splash in free agency, but teams like the Steelers and Cowboys are more fascinating to follow as they frantically restructure deals to get under the cap by March 12th.
Relying on free agency to build your team is a death sentence, and the only way to sustain success in today’s NFL is to continuously draft good players that are on cap friendly deals for a few years before they cash in with a big money extension. That, or get franchised and/or make it to free agency like Jake Long and Mike Wallace will. There’s a reason football junkies are locked into the draft for three straight days. It’s the most important aspect of building a team, and some teams have found gems that they have under control at a ridiculous price. But who are those teams lucky enough to have a difference maker at a low cap number? I’m glad you asked…
Colin Kaepernick $7.1 million over 2 years: A year from now, Kaepernick will be counting his money after a big money extension, but for now he’s a steal. He’s already got a Super Bowl appearance on his resume despite starting just 10 games. The only way he doesn’t get that extension is if he morphs into Jim Druckenmiller during OTA’s. Kaepernick flashed brilliance in the playoffs, but his ability to throw from the pocket was more impressive. As teams get a better handle on the pistol, he’ll need to continue to deliver big money throws like the skinny post he threw perfectly to Michael Crabtree in the Niners 45-31 playoff dismantling of the Packers.
Russell Wilson $1.9 million over 3 years: Why is Kaepernick ahead of Wilson? Well, it’s for the same reasons that teams passed on Wilson… His height. What’s in Wilson’s favor, however, is that he’s signed for two more years before he’s due an extension. Wilson’s a joy to watch and he throws a great deep ball, but I just think Kaepernick’s better.
Andrew Luck $7.1 million over 3 years: Luck didn’t win rookie of the year, but he’s first guy I’d take to lead my franchise for the next 10 years. He’s also ahead of RGIII because Griffin’s knee ligaments are now made out of homemade pasta. With the talk of Matt Ryan possibly being next in line for a massive Joe Flacco like extension, my money is on Luck (and Aaron Rodgers, of course). He’s the prototype and will unlikely ever be an injury concern that our next player is.
Robert Griffin III $6.9 million over 3 years: RGIII is as electrifying as any player in the league and is a first class individual that you want being the face of your franchise, but the image of him gimping around in that Wild Card Game is still nauseating. He had no business being in that game while being so obviously hobbled, and it’s a legitimate question to ask if we’ve seen the last of him running around and through defenses. I hope not, but two big knee injuries before you’re 24 should worry every Redskins fan.
Aaron Rodgers $19.7 million over 2 years: When Rodgers saw the Flacco paper, he had to crack a smile. If the Ravens QB is worth $52 million guaranteed, isn’t Rodgers worth $60 million? He’s a steal right now, but that will change shortly. What’s interesting to follow, is how the Packers handle their cap with Rodgers, Clay Matthews and B.J. Raji all coming up for extensions in the near future.
Cam Newton $5.7 million over 2 years: Make no mistake, I’m not a Cam Newton guy, but his cap friendly number is a blessing for a team that should know what they have in Mr. Showtime a year from now. If he harnesses all of that talent and stops throwing off his back foot, he could elevate himself into the Kaepernick, Wilson, Luck and RGIII level. If not, Jim Harbaugh’s going to look like a genius for identifying the best QB in that 2011 draft.
Von Miller $5.5 million over 2 years: Miller is ahead of the next guy on the list because of his ability to drop in coverage as well as rush the passer with sheer ferocity. He’ll get his massive extension next year, but for now, he’s the owner of one of the best team friendly deals in the league.
Aldon Smith $4 million over 2 years: Smith’s shoulder injury hampered him as much late in the season as Justin Smith’s partially torn triceps, but he’s right on Miller’s heals as the best young outside linebacker in football. Smith needs to improve dropping in coverage, but he’ll be better prepared to be an every down player after making that transition in his 2nd year.
Richard Sherman $1.2 million over 2 years: Yes, he’s annoying as hell when he refuses to shut his mouth and play ball, but he’s charging at Darrelle Revis for best corner in the league. He’s due “only” $550K in ’13 and $650K in ’14, which makes him an absolute steal. However, if he doesn’t start asking for a new deal this off-season, it’s definitely happening a year from now.
Tom Brady $57 million over 5 years: I know people have been dissecting Brady’s new deal and, yes, it’s a lot of money for a 35-year-old QB. But having said that, TB12 closes out this list because you know exactly what you’re getting every time he steps on the field. Plus, his cap friendly deal will allow the Patriots to remain a Super Bowl contender for the duration of the 3-time Super Bowl winner’s career.
This list will look a lot different in a year, but for now, these are the top bargains in a league where every dollar counts. Finding cornerstone pieces in the draft and having them tied up for a couple of seasons allows your team to get better in other areas while planning how to pay franchise caliber players. One of the great things about the draft, is seeing a team steal (or stumble into) a player in the 2nd or 3rd round that could drastically alter their future.
Louie Ruffolo Jr.
Follow me on Twitter @LouieLayups