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Yes, Pace Really Did Bargain Shop

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As the offseason begins to give way to the promise of actual football, it might be time to look at how last year’s contenders built their rosters.

NFL: Washington Redskins at Chicago Bears Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

There are a lot of ways to look at the salary of NFL teams. In fact, the system allows for manipulation, and it is typical for teams to structure deals in such a way that from the outside, in isolation, they might not make sense; a player might have an insanely high or low cap hit for a single season that does not represent his “value” to the team, but rather what makes sense on a ledger for a few months.

That said, I thought it would be interesting to compare the salary structures of the 12 playoff teams from 2016 with the salary structure of the 2017 Bears. Unless otherwise noted, all figures come from Spotrac and make use of the “cap hit” numbers for the season in question. Although Spotrac tracks players on IR separately, it still includes them in its overall cap hit tallies, and they are included here, as well. For those feeling sorry for the state of injuries on the Bears, the Dolphins had more than 20% of their cap on IR.

First, I think most fans understand on an intellectual level how top-heavy NFL rosters are, but here are a couple of notes to demonstrate this point. On average, playoff teams last year had 50% or more of their cap space taken up by just 10 players. Green Bay and Pittsburgh actually hit the 50% mark with just 7 players, while the Patriots (11) and the Falcons (12) spread the wealth out just a bit more. Quarterback was obviously one of the top two spots for every playoff team except the Raiders, but there needs to be an asterisk there because Tony Romo was not part of the Cowboys’ playoff run even though he commanded nearly 14% of their cap space.

After that, however, easy and tidy boxes break down. The Falcons have only two players who commanded at least 5% of their cap space (Matt Ryan and Julio Jones), whereas Seattle (6) and Miami (7) clearly had a few more players making a bigger chunk. Leaving aside the quarterbacks, 42 players took at least 5% of their teams cap hits. Cornerback (8) and wide receiver (8) are the most represented, but only because “Edge” is broken into DE and OLB. However, while every position on defense is represented in this group (including 3 free safeties and 1 strong safety), the same cannot be said of offensive positions. Right tackle and running back are absent, even though there are three are interior linemen (two centers and a guard). Looked at in terms of top five player salaries per team, guards get shown a little more love, but the same general trends hold.

Dallas, New England, Pittsburgh, and Seattle all lack a pass-rusher in their top 3 (partially an artifact of the way caps were structured), and while 7 of 12 playoff teams had at least one pricey wide receiver and half had at least one expensive corner, the real trend is that there were clear stars who commanded high-end paychecks on these teams and that nearly any position was worth an investment. Outside of quarterback, there was not a single position that demanded money from every playoff team.

How about the 2017 Chicago Bears? 13 players are needed to reach the 50% mark, reinforcing the idea that Pace has been bargain shopping. In fact, only one player on the roster earns 5% or more of the cap (Mike Glennon). Meanwhile, while Pace does seem to have gotten the word about how to value (or not) the right tackle position (3.5% of the salary cap, 8th on the roster) and running back, Bobby Massie is still the 8th-highest paid right tackle in the league right now. To be fair, in terms of yearly contract value he’s closer to what the 16th RT in the league is making (Greg Robinson) than he is to the 5th (Bryan Bulaga. Note that none of this is to say what he deserves, merely how he is paid compared to his peers.

The good news is that there seem to be a number of ways to build a competitive roster, because at least a third of the playoff teams last year failed to put money behind a position that the others valued. There were teams with massive payouts to a pair of guys (Atlanta) and teams that worked the rookie salary cap to give them an edge (Oakland). However, the Bears do not have the same basic structure (QB, handful of stars, and role-players) that is typical of the teams that played this January.