As the saying goes, imitation is the most sincere form of flattery.
The virtually league-wide infiltration of Bill Belichick’s frugal approach to his running back valuation process is a perfect illustration of the “copycat” nature of today’s NFL.
No one is paying running backs anymore. How many times have you heard that? Chances are you have uttered something similar yourself. The relationship today’s common fan has with his or her organization’s lead running back might resemble more closely the relationship he or she has with their State Congressman or Congresswoman. I’m keeping my eye on you. Don’t get cute; we can always bring someone in off the street to replace you.
The issue with this popular sentiment is that there is far more that goes into assembling a well-balanced (physically and economically) running back unit than just throwing a handful of undrafted players against a wall to see who sticks. The gap between the teams who are and are not successful in acquiring low-cost talent (at any position) lies in the ability and thoroughness of their scouting (college and professional) and front office personnel departments. Successful teams outperform their competition by not only better recognizing specific skills and traits that a once overlooked player may possess, but by acquiring and developing that player’s skills to fit their unique system.
The running back groups of Atlanta and New England perfectly exemplify each organization’s talented personnel departments. Although the two groups are similar in their high production-to-cap-friendliness ratios, the assembly of each unit and journey of the individual players within them couldn’t have been any different.
So which group can boast the title as the best bang-for-the-buck?
A case for the Falcons
When analyzing the Falcon’s roster and salary cap situation, it becomes clear that behind the slim-cut suits, fashion-forward frames, and meticulous haircuts of former Patriots Director of College Scouting and current Falcon’s General Manager Thomas Dimitroff lies a roster-building subconscious shaped and molded in the Belichickian style.
Dimitroff took over as Atlanta’s GM 2008, made a few attempts to forge his own roster building style, and has since comfortably found a balance embracing more of his scouting roots.
Nowhere else on Dimitroff’s roster are those roots more evident than at the running back position. In Atlanta’s post-Michael Turner era, Dimitroff’s diminished tolerance for high priced free agents, and a devotion to the proper utilization of scouting resources and draft picks, now has the Dirty Bird backfield balling on a budget.
Devonta Freeman - 2016 cap charge: $721,106*
The third-year former Florida State Seminole is already a two-time Pro Bowler. Although he cedes a large chunk of snaps to the man who will be mentioned next, Freeman’s burst and decisive running style spearheads Atlanta’s assault on the ground, as he typically leads the backfield in carries on a weekly basis. Still playing out his rookie deal, Freeman’s snap percentage totals have earned him the Proven Performance Escalator, giving him a bump in salary in 2017. Until then, he remains one of the best values in the game at any position.
Tevin Coleman - 2016 cap charge: $753,811*
The Falcon’s 2015 third-round selection has shined in his role as the zig to Freeman’s zag. The Chicago south side native has proved himself an invaluable chess piece in the Kyle Shanahan system, primary using his excellent hands and ball skills the average almost 14 yards per reception in the 2016 regular season.
Terron Ward - 2016 cap charge: $308,823*
Let’s not go crazy, it’s Terron Ward. The third string practice squad call-up pitched in here and there in garbage time this year.
* Falcons cap numbers sourced from spotrac.com
Collectively the unit amassed 2,644 scrimmage yards on 462 touches and 24 touchdowns in the regular season. That amounts to 39.7% of the yardage output for the league’s #1 offense.
The unit’s total cap charge? $1,783,740. That’s 2.8% of the Falcon’s cap spent on offensive players, and just 1.1% of the team’s total 2016 cap commitment.
A case for the Patriots
Bill Belichick always has us right where he wants us. It isn’t hard to imagine a scenario where he yanks the rug out from beneath each NFL team, media outlet, and fan he has lured onto the “cheap running back” bandwagon. Deciding to once again stay ahead of the curve, he would crack that faint Belichick smirk as he inked a deal with a high priced free agent tailback, or pulled off a draft-day blockbuster to vault up and select a Leonard Fournette or Dalvin Cook-type.
It would simply be “Bill doing Bill things”.
In reality, Belichick and the Patriots don’t have a secret large-scale psychological master plan that influences their transaction wire. There is no mystery to their moves. They have a system that they stick to, and they know football.
When constructing a running back group, what has made Belichick’s system unique is its division of labor within the group. Each player is brought on to provide a specific characteristic. Players aren’t brought onto the roster to compete for all of the touches, they compete for a role within the system.
Why pay $5 million per year for tailback who can do everything, when you can get each of those characteristics by signing three tailbacks with different measurables and skillsets?
The primary difference between the Patriot’s and Falcon’s running backs groups is that only one of New England’s players is a Belichick draft pick (James White). There is no team in football that utilizes every roster-building tool (trades, draft, free agency, practice squad promotion, etc.) available to them quite like the Patriots.
LeGarrette Blount - 2016 cap charge: $1,054,290
Blount represents the “steam engine” of New England’s running game. Originally acquired via a trade with Tampa Bay, “LG” was allowed to walk in free agency following the team’s 2013 season. After a falling out with the Steelers in 2014, Blount immediately found his way back to Foxborough and cemented the ground attack during the team’s Championship stretch. After finding pay dirt 18 times in the 2016 regular season, he was a Pro Bowl snub, costing him a $250,000 incentive bonus. His 2016 cap figure doesn’t reflect the cash incentives he earned for his yardage totals. This is because those totals exceeded his production from his previous season, thus categorizing those incentives as “not likely to be earned”. That money will be included as a “debit” in the formula used to determine each individual team’s 2017 salary cap number.
James White - 2016 cap charge: $705,512
White, a former Wisconsin Badger, was a 4th round selection in the 2014. Since being draft, the 5’ 10” 205 pound pass catching specialist has been groomed to fill the role left behind by Shane Vereen. White ranked second only to Julian Edelman on the team in receptions with 60 in the regular season.
Dion Lewis - 2016 cap charge: $1,093,740
After dominating as a Pitt panther, Philadelphia took Lewis in the 5th round of the 2011 draft. After catching the eye of then Browns GM Michael Lombardi, Lewis was traded to Cleveland in 2013. A broken leg led to his eventual 2014 release. The Patriots signed Lewis to a futures contract in 2015. After wowing coaches in training camp with his “jitter bug” shake and quickness, he made the clubs and immediately carved himself out a new unique roll as a do-it-all type back. His 2015 campaign ended prematurely with an ACL tear, and the subsequent “clean up” surgery extended his absence until week 11 of this year. The Patriots have never lost a game in which Dion Lewis is on the 46-man active game day roster.
New England’s group accumulated 2,293 scrimmage yards on 486 touches, and 23 touchdowns in 2016, accounting for 37.1% of the offense’s total yardage output.
The unit’s total 2016 cap charge? $2,853,542. That’s 3.8% of the cap dollar allocated to offensive players, and just 1.8% of the team’s total 2016 cap commitment.
Due to lack of offensive snaps, D.J. Foster was kept off of this list, along with one other player: Brandon Bolden. Relegated strictly to special teams, Bolden carries a higher 2016 cap charge than any player in this piece. His number? $1,278,740.