If you'd asked fans before the season to pick which teams would be squaring off this weekend, Seattle/San Francisco/Denver/New England would likely have been the most popular combination chosen. That speaks to the obvious strengths of each squad's roster, and while they've each been built a bit differently they've all gotten most of the big stuff mostly right.
We've taken a thorough look at how each one of these contenders was constructed, and we'll give you an in-depth look at what it took to assemble the NFL's most dominant squads. Some common components stood out, so we'll take a look at how each contender compared on these five key aspects of roster construction:
Dominate the Draft - You're just not going to find a consistent contender who isn't at least in the top third of franchises on Draft Day. The draft can be the only shot at replacing some truly elite players who'll be allowed to hit free agency, and it remains by far the best way to acquire talent that fits with the system you're trying to deploy on each side of the ball. Another element of the draft is playing up even more in the current slow-growth salary cap era - it's a phenomenal source of cheap labor. The league salary structure dictates that half of your team will be making less than $1 million a season - ensuring that those guys are productive youngsters rather than another team's bargain-bin castoffs means drafting well on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
Shop Smart - Free agency isn't a perfectly efficient market, but bidding against 31 other teams on established guys is a much tougher environment in which to wring out excess value. Rare is the team that rides a massive free-agent splurge to sustained success - smart outfits use free agency to fill holes and wrangle bargains on under-appreciated talent while only dropping big money on truly exceptional players who fit the system.
Win Your Extensions - A key component of smart salary cap management is knowing when and how to extend your own players before they hit the open market. Smart teams reach out early and lock up their true difference-makers with deals that properly deploy guaranteed dollars. Their stars get financial security in a game where your career can be over in an instant, and the club saves money compared to the market rate while managing annual spend and insuring that they're paying for a player's most productive years. GMs that blow it on extensions (*cough Jerry Jones cough*) end up paying future dollars for past glories and putting their teams on the express elevator to Salary Cap Hell.
Dodge Dead Money - What's worse than paying a player more than he's worth? Paying a player who isn't around at all. An offshoot of shopping smart and winning at extensions means that you limit the portion of your cap dedicated to guys who will never see the field for you again.
Catfish - No, this isn't a plan to lure Manti T'eo to your squad by putting the team video guy in a wig and having him engage in some dubious SnapChatting. Even the draft isn't a sufficient resource to fully stock your team with the number of rookie- and veteran-minimum salaries you'll need to stay fiscally sound. The ability to bottom feed successfully by snapping up contributing undrafted free agents and veteran-minimum guys isn't as glamorous as nailing a Top Ten draft choice, but it's a skill that every successful GM needs in his toolbox.
Seattle has a fresh and purpose-built roster made up almost entirely of guys acquired once Pete Carroll and GM John Schneider arrived on the scene in 2010. But where did they source the pieces of their punishing offense and force-of-nature defense? How did they use the draft and free agency to develop their vision, and how well have they allocated the scare resources of draft picks and cap dollars to win now and prepare for the future?
To start answering those questions, let's take a look at the Seahawks on both offense and defense. Their current starting eleven on both sides of the ball are depicted in the chart below (click to embiggen), along with a few key reserves and some guys that are currently out or have had their contributions curtailed by injury or suspension. Some illustrative color-coding has been employed:
- The 'Acquired' box adjacent to each player's name details how they arrived in Seattle - draft choices or UDFAs are in purple with the year and round of their selection (lighter purple for draft choices who have received a contract extension since being drafted), free agent signings are in blue with the year that they joined the team, and guys who came in via trade are noted in bronze.
- The '2013 Cap Figure' box shows how much each player counts towards the 2013 salary cap (figures courtesy of the wizards at OverTheCap.com), and are color-coded to represent the 'bang for the buck' that each player is delivering relative to his cap hit. Green is a relative bargain (a few guys earn a bright green for delivering a ton of excess value), yellow is about league-average, and red indicates a guy who's costing more than he's delivering on the field.
Here's the picture for Seattle:
Dominate the Draft
Few talent acquisition outfits can equal Carroll and Schneider's draft performance since 2010. They've hit on some headliners (2010 first-rounder Earl Thomas, 2012 first rounder Bruce Irvin and second rounder Bobby Wagner) and landed a third-round gem in Russell Wilson in 2012, but their signature successes have come on Day Three. Fourth rounders Walter Thurmond (2010) and K.J. Wright (2011), fifth-round secondary stallions Kam Chancellor (2010) and Richard Sherman (2011), late-round contributors Byron Maxwell (2011), Malcolm Smith (2011), J.R. Sweezy (2012) and Michael Bowie (2013) have provided a bounty of cheap talent that's admirably suited to what Seattle wants to do on both sides of the ball.
No team bats 1.000 in the draft - Russell Okung's injury problems have cut into his value, Golden Tate doesn't deliver much more than you'd expect for a second-round wideout, and guard James Carpenter may have been a flat-out miss as a first-rounder in 2011. But Seattle's evaluative skill and clear picture of the kinds of players they want have made them a dynamite franchise on draft day.
The relative paucity of blue on the chart above speaks to Seattle's commitment to building through the draft, but they've gotten a ton of bang for their free agency buck on the defensive side of the ball. Moderately priced DL acquisitions like Michael Bennett, Tony McDaniel and Cliff Avril have enabled a ferociously deep defensive front that comes after the QB in waves. The results on the offensive side have been more mixed - Marshawn Lynch was worth every penny and subsequent team extension, but Breno Giacomini is a little expensive for an average right tackle. Zach Miller is tremendously expensive for a good-not great TE. Injuries have kept the jury out on big-ticket guys like Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin (a trade acquisition who signed a new high-dollar deal), but even some offensive misfires haven't derailed the Seahawks thanks to the phenomenal value they've accrued on defense.
Win Your Exensions
Seattle hasn't created any eye-popping bargains through its contract extension strategy, but it has done a good job of keeping vital talent in-house at rates that won't break the bank. Marshawn Lynch is one of the rare backs worth paying big money to, as his singularly physical style and underrated vision has helped enable a punishing run game with a so-so offensive front. Chris Clemons is one of the league's better edge rushers when healthy, Brandon Mebane is a handful in the middle, and while Red Bryant is a tad pricey for a run-first DE he plays a key role in setting the rest of Seattle's speedy defenders up for success by soaking up blocks and forcing second- and third-and-longs. It's clear that Carroll and Snyder are simpatico in what they want the Seattle defense to do, and they aren't shy about spending money to keep the unit's key components in town.
Dodge Dead Money
Aside from injuries to Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin, Seattle is getting most of its salary cap dollars on the field thanks to a relatively modest $8.4 million dead money total. Nearly half of that is accounted for by $4 million for the departed Matt Flynn, but even if you add that figure to Russell Wilson's $681K the Seahawks are making out like bandits at the QB position. Aside from a $1 million figure from the abortive Antoine Winfield signing this summer, no other big prior mistakes are looming over the Seahawks' current efforts.
Seattle has had some success trawling the bottom - most notably, they scooped up Brandon Browner as a free agent after his stint in the CFL and captured some major value for minor dollars until he ran afoul of the Commissioner's office while keeping the PED-hawks name alive. Key passing game cogs Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse also showed up via the undrafted free agent route.
Like the rival Seahawks, the 49ers are built around defense, toughness ... and a dynamic QB with a miniscule cap charge. They also share Seattle's penchant for smart drafting and canny contract extensions, and they counter the Seahawks' strength in the secondary with the league's most comprehensive two-way trench warfare outfit and more high-end weapons in the passing game.
How did it all come together for the Niners? Let's take a look:
Dominate the Draft
Like the Seahawks' Carroll and Schneider, San Francisco's head coach/GM combo of Jim Harbaugh and Trent Baalke came into power together. 2011 marked the start of their joint rule, though Baalke had been a presence in the 49ers front office since 2005, first as a scout and then as the Director and later VP of Player Personnel. And from 2006 onward, there may not be another team in the league that boasts a better slugging percentage in the first round of the draft.
Vernon Davis (2006), Patrick Willis and Joe Staley (2007), Michael Crabtree (2009), Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati (2010), and Aldon Smith (2011) are all between high-quality and All Pro-caliber studs that form the backbone of the current roster. Whiffs like Kentwan Balmer (2008) and A.J. Jenkins (2012) are easily forgiven when you're hauling in that kind of difference-making talent. Early returns are pretty good on 2013 first rounder Eric Reid to boot.
Kaepernick was a franchise-changing find in the second round, and the middle rounds have borne a bountiful harvest in Ray McDonald (R3, 2007), DaShon Goldson (R4, 2007 - left in free agency after an All-Pro 2012), Tarell Brown (R5, 2007), Navorro Bowman (R3, 2010) and Kendall Hunter (R4, 2011). San Francisco hasn't mined quite the volume of latter-round defensive value that the Seahawks have of late, but they've been able to complement their first-round studs.
The draft is where the 49ers do most of their business, but they've been able to fill holes on the open market when needed. One free agent acquisiton adept at ripping holes in opposing offenses has been Justin Smith - the former fair-to-middling Bengals edge rusher turned into a pure monster as a 3-4 end for the Niners. Following a similar track, Donte Whitner turned into one of the league's most intimidating safeties after a so-so stay in Buffalo. Anquan Boldin proved that he still had plenty of gas in the tank this season while playing on a one year deal, and guys like Glenn Dorsey and Dan Skuta have turned in valuable snaps at reasonable rates.
Not even the savviest GM can fly in the face of the "No Defensive Free Agents Over 30" mantra, and corner Carlos Rogers appears to be hitting the down slope while sporting a still-hefty price tag. Parting ways with Rogers in 2014 would only yield $3 million in dead money, though, so even if his coverage skills continue to erode the burn wouldn't be too bad.
Win Your Exensions
Any team that has assembled the top-end talent that the Niners have faces plenty of tricky decisions on extensions, but the 49ers have excelled at this aspect of the salary cap game. Justin Smith, Ray McDonald, Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman beat up on opposing offenses on extended deals for a combined cap charge of $11.8 million this season. DeMarcus Ware and Jay Ratliff cost the Cowboys $11.5 million in cap dollars this season, and Ratliff got cut before foot touched leather in the regular season.
The 49ers' guys all get more expensive in 2014, but savvily contstructed deals should allow the Niners to still extract excess value on most of those deals without being on the hook for much dead money when the players can no longer perform. Factor in the reasonable average annual value (AAV) deals for offensive cornerstones like Joe Staley ($4.8 million), Vernon Davis ($7.0 million), Anthony Davis ($5.6 million) and Alex Boone ($1.5 million) and it's clear that Baalke's eye for talent and negotiating skills are both top-drawer.
Dodge Dead Money
In another exciting example of cause and effect, San Francisco's quality drafting and savvy free agent shopping/extension work has left them with a very tidy dead money situation - a scant $5.6 million counted against the Niners' dearly departed in 2013. The dice roll on Nnamdi Asomugha came up snake eyes to the tune of $1.3 million and parting ways with first-round flop A.J. Jenkins cost close to a mil, but those were the only real blemishes on a sparkling dead money record.
San Francisco hasn't gotten a ton of goodies off the river bottom, but they have enjoyed some success stories. The Niners scooped Alex Boone as an UDFA in 2009 following some off-field concerns, and Boone repayed their faith ten times over as he blossomed into a top-tier guard while operating on a very team-friendly extension. Their signing of UDFA Tramaine Brock in 2010 paid similar dividends - Asomugha's washout and an injury to free agent corner Eric Wright didn't slow the 49ers roll this season in large part because Brock was on hand. The Niners rewarded Brock with yet another savvy extension, locking up the up-and-coming corner through 2017 at a cost-effective AAV of $3.4 million.
The Bottom Line
The Seahawks and 49ers have followed similar paths to the top of their division and conference, both parlaying quality scouting and whip-smart cap management (along with outstanding bargains at QB) into tough-built contenders that could also prove to be built for the long haul. Next up is the AFC's penultimate pair, who are doing things the old-fashioned way - by paying big money to top-tier quarterbacks.