Eric Schaffer spent 17 years with the Washington Football Team serving in multiple roles that most recently included the title of Senior Vice President of Football Operations and General Counsel. He has also worked with Athletes First and IMG, and currently is a Sports Business Consultant and member of the 33rd Team.
The National Football League is comprised of 32 organizations made up of many smart, hardworking, and competitive people working obsessively to achieve one common goal that is easy to articulate but incredibly difficult to achieve: Win football games.
Every organization puts together their 53-man roster (and practice squad) with that goal at the top of their mind. What I have always found fascinating and studied each year that I worked in the NFL since 2003 was how each team constructed their roster, and how they allocated their resources to give their team the best chance to win. While I am not sure that there is a universal “secret sauce” when it comes to roster construction, I believe there is a lot to learn through studying player acquisition and resource allocation, focusing on those teams that are winning on a consistent basis.
At the start of the 2021 regular season, I looked at each teams’ roster in a variety of categories. For purposes of this article, I have focused on the teams who have won the most on a consistent basis over the past five years. The teams who have won the most over that period of time are:
1)Kansas City Chiefs (60-20);
2)New England Patriots (57-23);
3)New Orleans Saints (56-24);
4)Pittsburgh Steelers (53-26-1);
5)Seattle Seahawks (52-27-1);
6)Baltimore Ravens (52-28);
7)Green Bay Packers (49-30-1).
Each of these teams have won more than 60 percent of their regular season games from 2016 though 2020. Looking back to the past ten years, the exact same teams were the only seven teams in the NFL to have won at least 60 percent of their regular season games from 2011-2020. While each season is a new season, and each team has to earn success every year, these seven teams have clearly shown over an extended period of time the ability to consistently win, despite dealing with the same type of pitfalls that impact every teams’ roster such as injuries, player and coach attrition, and player contract issues. It would be easy to answer the question of why these seven teams have succeeded where others fail by answering: Patrick Mahomes, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Russell Wilson, Lamar Jackson, and Aaron Rodgers — but I believe there is likely more to these teams winning formulas than just their quarterbacks. Below is an overview of each of these seven teams’ roster composition for 2021:
Kansas City Chiefs Overview:
The Chiefs resurgence began in 2013 when Andy Reid was hired as head coach and was placed in charge of football operations. Since that time, the Chiefs have the second-best regular season win percentage in the NFL behind only the Patriots. They had a winning record in each of those eight seasons, winning the AFC Championship twice, and the Super Bowl once.
In terms of their 2021 roster composition, the Chiefs are ranked 7th in the NFL with twenty players on their current roster acquired in the 4th through 7th round as a draft pick, or as a college free agent. In addition, the Chiefs were second-to-last in the NFL from 2017-2021 in terms of overall draft picks (30 total picks), and draft picks in the 4th-7th rounds (16 picks). These numbers are evidence of the Chiefs prioritizing player development within their organization. Those teams who truly prioritize player development can really separate themselves from the pack the in the NFL when their late round picks or college free agent signings can play a role on the team at a low cost financially while using little to nothing in draft capital. When teams like the Chiefs have college free agents and late round picks make their 53-man roster, it helps to balance out having some of the highest paid players at their positions on their roster including: QB Patrick Mahomes ($45 million average per year); DE Frank Clark ($20.8 million average per year); DT Chris Jones ($20 million average per year); WR Tyreek Hill ($18 million average per year); TE Travis Kelce ($14.3 million average per year); and Tyrann Mathieu ($14 million average per year).
What was a little surprising to me was the Chiefs cash spending since 2016. While they won more games than anyone else in the NFL over that period of time, they ranked #29 in cash spending with $1,058,845,234. This type of spending will almost certainly increase significantly over the next few seasons. A greater portion of the Chiefs resources will be allocated to QB Patrick Mahomes, one of the League’s best and most valuable players who was paid (or will be paid through 2021) a total of approximately $47 million the past five seasons. Over the next five seasons, Mahomes will be paid a total of approximately $192 million.
The Chiefs rank 8th in the NFL for future guaranteed cap obligations beyond 2021 with $195,949,916 with only 27 players signed through 2022, last in the NFL. The good news for the Chiefs is that while Mahomes is the NFL’s highest paid player by average per year, he signed a 10-year extension that expires after the 2031 season. One of the most challenging aspects of managing a roster in the NFL is projecting the clubs’ future salary cap and cash spending three or four years down the road. With Mahomes’ 10-year extension, the Chiefs now have some certainty with cap and cash numbers for their most important, and most expensive asset to build around.
New England Patriots Overview:
Six Super Bowl championships, nine AFC championships, and 17 division championships over the past 20 years. Not much more needs to be written about the dominance of the New England Patriots over the past 20 years under the leadership of Bill Belichick. I can’t imagine that there is a head coach in the NFL who understands the entire picture of building a team and resource allocation beyond coaching the X’s and O’s better than Coach Belichick. Since 2001, the Patriots have a regular season record of 239-81, an incredible .747 win percentage. Over that time, they have won 31 more regular season games than the team who is ranked second in wins. Their playoff record since 2001 is equally impressive at 30-11 (.732 win percentage), 15 more wins than the team ranked second in playoff wins.
In terms of their roster composition, the Patriots under Coach Belichick have done things a bit different than many of the other top teams. They have seemed to focus on mid-level free agent signings, more often than not signing free agent players who were released from other teams. In a league that seems to have less and less of what might be called “middle-class contracts,” the Patriots seem to have historically loaded up on those type of deals. It’s clear to see that Coach Belichick has very specific criteria for what he wants out of each position on the field. It’s also easy to see over the years that Coach Belichick has a specific plan for each player he signs in order to maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses.
From a cash spending standpoint, the Patriots spent less money than every other team in the NFL from 2016-2020 ($830,009,938). In 2021, they changed course and at of the start of the regular season are spending the 3rd most in the NFL behind only Dallas and Tampa Bay. The largest player investments were unrestricted free agents: Edge Matt Judon (4 years/$54.5 million); TE Jonnu Smith (4 years/$50 million); TE Hunter Henry (3 years/$37.5 million); and Nelson Agholor (2 years/$22 million). It will be interesting to see over the next few years how this free agent spending spree will play out. Despite the fact that the Pats have spent near the bottom of the League on players the past five seasons, they still have only 24 players operating under their rookie contract on the roster, ranking No. 30 in the NFL in that category. This is due to heavy amount of middle-class veteran/free agent contracts relative to the rest of the NFL.
In addition to their spending habits over the years (traditionally low relative to the rest of the NFL), and in 2021 (ranked 3rd most in NFL), the Patriots are in the top half of the league in position players 30 years of age or older (8 players/ ranked No. 12 in NFL), and ranked 2nd in the NFL for college free agents on their roster (10 players acquired through college free agency). Having a number of 30-plus year-old veterans intermingled with so many undrafted players is typical for the Patriots. They have had many 30-plus year-old players perform at a high level over the years, many of them who had been cut by another team and found new life with the Patriots. In addition, there have been many players drafted late or acquired as college free agents who have developed in the Patriots system. Including late round picks (4th-7th) and college free agents, the Patriots rank 6th overall in the League with 21 of those players on the 2021 roster. This mix of veterans, many of whom were underrated by other teams, combined with young developing late round/college free agent types, has been a winning combination for the Patriots.
Over the past five seasons, the Patriots are ranked No. 1 in the NFL for compensatory picks. Compensatory picks are awarded based on a formula starting with the number of unrestricted free agents lost in a particular year against the number of unrestricted free agents signed in that same year and the value of those contracts. This is an example of the Patriots consistently taking advantage of an opportunity available in the League by weighing the benefits (and cost) of re-signing certain veteran unrestricted free agents versus letting those players go somewhere else while picking up additional draft picks.
New Orleans Saints Overview:
Since Sean Payton was hired as head coach in 2006, the Saints have won six division titles and one Super Bowl title (2009 season). According to Luke Johnson of the New Orleans Times-Picayune article from September 25, 2021, Coach Payton studied some of the NFL’s most successful organizations when he was first hired.
“He wanted to know everything about the way this franchise operated, from the way it built its roster to the systems the team deployed. Payton wanted to figure out the best way to build a sustained winner, so he looked to the benchmark,” the story reads.
“We spent a great deal of time looking at New England,” Payton said. Coach Payton and GM Mickey Loomis have been one of the most successful partnerships in the NFL over the past fifteen years, achieving the League’s 4th highest regular season win total during that time with a 150-90 record. Their offensive consistency has been particularly remarkable, ranking in the top 5 in the League in offense in 10 of Payton’s 15 seasons, and ranking in the top 10 in 13 of 15 seasons.
In analyzing the Saints roster at the start of 2021, there are definitely some similarities in the way the Saints have set up their roster compared to the Patriots. The Saints are tied with the Patriots with 21 players on their roster (ranked tied for No. 6 in NFL) who were acquired as a later round draft pick (rounds 4-7) or as a college free agent. They are ranked No. 1 in the league for the amount of players on their team acquired through college free agency, while the Patriots are ranked No. 2. The Saints have had the least amount of overall draft picks in the NFL from 2017-2021 with 29 picks total and and rank last in the NFL over that time for 4th-7th round picks with 14. They have made this formula work by developing the late round picks they did have and leading the league in players acquired through college free agency (12 on Saints 2021 roster). In addition, the Saints are not afraid to plug in older players (30-plus years old), to balance out their young players, with eight such players on their 2021 roster (ranked No. 12). It is clear that the Saints, like the Patriots, have clear requirements for players at certain positions and the strong relationship between personnel and coaching has helped to minimize personnel mistakes. For example, my impression over the past 15 years is that the Saints prefer to play with big, stout guards such as Andrus Peat, Jahri Evans, Ben Grubbs, and Carl Nicks, who averaged approximately 6-foot-5 and 330 pounds.
The Saints have been very successful over the past 15 years with a number of very good players. Different from the Patriots, the Saints have spent the 3rd most amount of money from 2016-2021 with $1,190,599,502. They are tied for 1st in the NFL with nine players who earn at least $10 million on an average per year basis. Those players are: CB Marshawn Lattimore ($19.5 million average per year); WR Michael Thomas ($19.25 million average per year); T Ryan Ramczyk ($19.2 million average per year); DE Cam Jordan ($17.5 million average per year); Alvin Kamara ($15 million average per year); T Terron Armstead ($13 million average per year); G Andrus Peat ($11.5 million average per year); Marcus Williams ($10.62 million average per year), and QB/WR/RB Taysom Hill ($10.5 million average per year). Each of these players, other than Taysom Hill, were originally drafted by the Saints.
Due to their high spending and decisions to hold on to so many of their own players, the Saints have had to continuously push cap dollars forward by prorating bonuses over a number of years, and restructuring contracts more than most teams. In 2021, the Saints restructured the most contracts in the NFL (11), and pushed out $60,640,225 cap dollars from 2021 into the future. At this point, the Saints are the most heavily leveraged team in the League with $270,820,436 future guaranteed cap obligations beyond 2021 (includes: prorated bonus amounts; future guaranteed money; 2022 dead money).
Having one of the greatest QB’s of all-time, Drew Brees, on free agent contracts his entire 15 years in New Orleans, made things more challenging for the Saints from a salary cap perspective. The Saints are eating $22.6 million in dead money for Brees between 2021 and 2022 while he works for NBC. While the Saints appear less flexible than other teams with their future guaranteed obligations, this is nothing new for the team. They have talented people in the salary cap space managing their roster and budgets in GM Mickey Loomis and VP Khai Harley, so there should be no reason for panic. The goal of course in the NFL is to win, not to have the most salary cap room available, and the Saints have won more consistently than most teams in the league for a long time.
Pittsburgh Steelers Overview:
Mike Tomlin was hired in 2007 by the Steelers after one season as defensive coordinator with the Minnesota Vikings. Since that time, the Steelers have never had a losing season and they are tied for the 2nd most regular season wins in the NFL. Pittsburgh is one of the most successful organizations in the history of the NFL and they conduct their business in a way that is distinctly the Pittsburgh Steelers way. It is a way that is by no means flashy under the direction of the Rooney family, run like a true family business maybe more so than any other organization in the League, and they’ve been one of the most successful NFL team’s over a long period of time. Since 1969, the Steelers have had three head coaches, Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher, and Mike Tomlin. Two are in the Hall of Fame, and Tomlin is well on his way. The Steelers are tied with the Patriots for the most Super Bowl wins with six, and they have participated in more conference championship games (16) than any other team.
The Steelers have never been a team that is going to jump in to unrestricted free agency at the start of the league year. They are patient, and wait for lesser priced free agents that fit into what they do and, of course, focus on developing their own through the draft. From 2016-2021, the Steelers rank No. 22 in the NFL in terms of cash spending while winning the 4th most regular season games. The team is tied for 20th in the NFL with the most players who have a contract average per year of at least $10 million (five players): OLB T.J. Watt ($28 million average per year); DL Cam Heyward ($16.4 million average per year); QB Ben Roethlisberger ($14 million average per year); DL Stephon Tuitt ($12 million average per year); and CB Joe Haden ($11.2 million average per year). The Steelers are very basic and straightforward with their contract structures compared to the rest of the league. They typically have not guaranteed salaries for skill, injury, and cap beyond the first year of the deal, until T.J. Watt’s recent contract made him the highest paid defensive player in the League with $44 million fully guaranteed beyond year one. Previously the Steelers had typically compensated their star players with front loaded deals with larger signing bonuses and roster bonuses that trigger at the beginning of the League year.
The Steelers rank 11th in the NFL with 32 “homegrown” players on their roster. To balance out their highest priced players, the Steelers rank 8th in the NFL with 33 players operating under their rookie contract (or players with three credited seasons or less on minimum salary deals). The Steelers rank tied for No. 18 in the NFL from 2017-2021 in terms of draft capital. Their long-time GM Kevin Colbert is highly regarded among scouts in the League for his ability to identify talent. An area where the Steelers have tried to make more of an impact of late is through trades. They rank tied for 6th in the NFL with four players acquired through trades, two of whom start in the middle of their defense in safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and linebacker Joe Schobert. The Steelers have always placed a premium on linebackers who have been a big part of the team’s identity for decades. Players such as Jack Lambert and Jack Ham from the 70s and 80s; Kevin Greene, Levon Kirkland, and Greg Lloyd from the 90’s; and in the 2000’s Joey Porter, James Harrison, and T.J. Watt. The Steelers have found these players as 1st round picks, late round picks, free agents, and even college free agents.
In terms of future cap obligations, the Steelers rank 14th in the League with $171,483,910. This number increased significantly with the different structure of T.J. Watt’s deal, and the restructuring of five player contracts pushing approximately $22.7 million from 2021 in to the future. While the Steelers are off to a rough start for 2021 on the field, they have proven over time their ability to not panic, to stay the course and get back on track when they hit a rough patch. They may not be able to do that this time with Roethlisberger seemingly nearing the end of his career, but history has shown that we shouldn’t ever count out the Steelers.
In 2010, Pete Carroll was hired as head coach and to oversee the football operations for the Seahawks. Soon after John Schneider was hired as GM, and since that time the two of them have put together one of the most successful team over that period of time in the NFL. Over that time period, their regular season record through 2020 was 112-63-1. The Seahawks have been active in virtually every possible way to acquire players. They have been active in free agency, trades (including moving around the draft both forward and back and trading for veterans), and also have been very good at drafting and developing their own players. Over the past decade, the Seahawks have been aggressive in their approach to player acquisition. For example, they gave up two first round picks and other consideration to the Jets for safety Jamal Adams this past year. They traded a first and third round pick in 2013 for Percy Harvin. They drafted Russell Wilson, who some in the league graded as a late round pick, in the 3rd round, a month after guaranteeing a career backup Matt Flynn $10 million as an unrestricted free agent. The Seahawks keep taking calculated risks to improve their roster, and have certainly won much more than they have lost. Carroll and Schneider appear to operate as a true partnership, and are both respected as much as any GM and head coach in the NFL.
In terms of their 2021 roster, the Seahawks are ranked tied for 11th in the NFL in terms of homegrown talent with 32 out of 53 players on their roster acquired through the draft or college free agency. The team is ranked tied for 10th both in terms of overall draft picks (39) from 2017-2021 and compensatory draft picks from 2017-2021 (six). The Seahawks well-regarded scouting department acquired 18 players on their 2021 roster who they drafted in either the 4th round or later, or were acquired as a college free agent. Over the years, the Seahawks have done a great job of hitting on late rounders who became key players on their Super Bowl teams such as CB Richard Sherman (5th round), S Kam Chancellor (5th round), LB K.J. Wright (4th round), and Malcolm Smith (7th round). More recently, RB Chris Carson (7th round), CB Tre Flowers (5th round), and P Michael Dickson (5th round) have been significant contributors. The Seahawks lead the NFL in 2021 for players acquired through trades with seven, highlighted by starters: LT Duane Brown, RG Gabe Jackson, and safeties Quandre Diggs and Jamal Adams.
The Seahawks spending from 2016-2021 is ranked 14th most in the NFL at $1,120,895,100. They’ve balanced their budget with 33 of their 53 active roster players operating under their rookie contracts. They are ranked 24th in terms of future cap obligations at $141,060,447. Surprising to me based on their success is that they rank tied for 20th in the NFL with five players who earn at least $10 million on an average per year basis: QB Russell Wilson ($35 million average per year); LB Bobby Wagner ($18 million average per year); S Jamal Adams ($17.5 million average per year); WR Tyler Lockett ($17.25 million average per year); and LT Duane Brown ($11.5 million average per year). The Seahawks are playing with the 8th oldest team in the league with an average age of 26.51 and the 12th most position players 30 years or older. With a budget that is balanced financially with a handful of veteran high-priced players and approximately 62 percent of their roster playing on rookie contracts, the Seahawks were in better shape than many teams in the league and have only had to restructure one contract in 2021, pushing out $2.46 million from 2021 into the future.
Baltimore Ravens Overview:
John Harbaugh was hired in 2008. In his 13 full seasons as head coach, the Ravens are ranked 5th in regular season wins (129-79, 62 percent wins), and 2nd in postseason wins (11-8 record). During that time, the team has had only one losing season. The Ravens have been one of the most stable organizations in terms of their front office as well. Ozzie Newsome was not only a Hall of Fame player, but a Hall of Fame GM as well, a rare feat. Newsome established a scouting department and front office administration that has had continuity and stability over time, making a seamless transition to Eric DeCosta as GM. The organization seems to take pride in not only developing their players, but their employees as well, and created a culture under team owner Steve Biscotti where it appears that nobody wants to leave. The stability among their personnel has helped to establish the Ravens as one of the most respected and successful organizations in the NFL.
Player development is a term that every coach and GM will tell you is critically important, but teams like the Ravens have shown an ability over time to do this as well as anyone in the League. In 2021, they rank 1st in the NFL for homegrown players overall. They also rank 1st in the NFL for players drafted in the 4th-7th rounds plus college free agents on their roster finding contributors without having to use their top draft picks or big money in unrestricted free agency. The Ravens have drafted as well as any team in the NFL over the past 20 years. They’ve also done a great job of acquiring additional picks. They rank 7th most in total draft picks the past five seasons and rank 10th in compensatory picks. Since the 2011 season, the Ravens actually rank 1st in the NFL for compensatory picks, taking advantage of the NFL rules to acquire more draft capital based on unrestricted free agents signed and lost in a given year.
In terms of money spent from 2016-2021, the Ravens rank 31st, spending $1,044,476,406. That is the best value in the NFL, winning 65 percent of their regular season games over the past five seasons. The Ravens rank 13th in the NFL with 31 players in their 2021 roster operating under their rookie contract. This includes QB Lamar Jackson, who is in line for a significant payday that will surely change the financial dynamics of the Ravens roster in the near future. It is interesting to note given their ranking in spending over the past five seasons that the Ravens still have the 4th highest amount of future guaranteed cap obligations at 218,315,264 and rank 9th most in the NFL with 39 players signed through at least 2022. Their highest paid players over $10 million on an average per year basis (rank tied for 14th most) are: LT Ronnie Stanley (19.75 million average per year); CB Marlon Humphrey ($19.5 million average per year); TE Mark Andrews ($14 million average per year); DL Calais Campbell ($12.5 million average per year); and DL Brandon Williams ($10.5 million average per year).
Green Bay Packers Overview:
Aaron Rodgers did not become the Packers regular starter until his 4th season, 2008. Since that time the Packers have the 4th most regular season wins in the NFL behind New England, Pittsburgh, and New Orleans. The Packers, of course, run things in a different manner than the rest of the league given that they do not have a principal owner. That has not stopped the Packers from being one of the most stable franchises in the NFL. The Packers have typically stayed away from high-priced unrestricted free agents, instead focusing most of their personnel resources on the draft and re-signing their own players. The great Packer GM’s of the past 30 years, Ron Wolf and the late Ted Thompson rarely got involved with high priced free agents. The late Reggie White and Charles Woodson were notable exceptions. More recently, the Packers under GM Brian Gutenkust have spent on select high priced unrestricted free agents such as Adrian Amos, Preston Smith, and Za’darius Smith, but have generally stuck to the “Packer Way” of drafting and retaining their top talent. After eight straight winning seasons under Mike McCarthy, including a Super Bowl championship after the 2010 season, the Packers hit a temporary lull with two losing seasons in 2017 and 2018. Under Matt Lafleur, the winning has been restored — in fact Lafleur’s teams won more games over his first two seasons than any other head coach in the rich history of the Green Bay Packers.
As expected, the Packers are at the top of the League in 2021 with homegrown talent, ranking 2nd in the NFL behind only Baltimore with 40 players acquired either through the draft or signed as college free agents. The Packers have done exceptionally well with the more developmental picks, ranking 1st in the NFL for 4th-7th round picks plus college free agents on their roster. In terms of draft capital, the Packers ranked No. 3 in the league for most draft picks from 2017-2021 with 47. Their preference to not sign many free agent players is reflected in their 5th overall rank in compensatory picks over the past five years with eight. It also makes sense that the Packers are ranked 30th in the NFL with only 10 free agent signings on their roster.
From a cash spending standpoint, starting with the 2016 season through 2021, the Packers rank 8th highest in the NFL with $1,145,576,636. They rank 8th in the league with seven players earning a contract average per year of $10 million or more. These players are: QB Aaron Rodgers ($33.5 million apy); LT David Bakhtiari ($23 million apy); DL Kenny Clark ($17.5 million apy); OLB Za’Darius Smith ($16.5 million apy); WR Davante Adams ($14.5 million apy); OLB Preston Smith ($13 million apy); and RB Aaron Jones ($12 million apy). The Packers have consistently ranked in the top 25 percent in the NFL in spending the past decade. From 2010-2015, the Packers also ranked 8th in the NFL in cash spending. However, unlike some other teams, most of the Packers money is spent on their homegrown players. The Packers rank 12th in the league for future guaranteed cap obligations beyond 2021 with $173,250,092 and rank 14th with thirty-seven players signed through at least 2022. They are tied with the Steelers and Seahawks (ranked 8th) with 33 players playing under their rookie contracts.
At first glance, it’s easy to see why these seven teams stand out and have been the most successful in the NFL over at least the past five seasons and the past ten seasons. Five out of seven of the teams have had the benefit of quarterbacks for most of the past 10 years who have stayed relatively healthy and are either certain Hall of Famers or players who will receive strong consideration (Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Russell Wilson, and Aaron Rodgers). The two other teams, Baltimore and Kansas City won consistently with Joe Flacco and Alex Smith respectively before turning the position over to League MVPs Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes, who helped elevate their teams to new levels. Six of the seven teams are coached by either certain future Hall of Famers or head coaches who will definitely garner consideration when their time comes to be considered (Andy Reid, Bill Belichick, Mike Tomlin, Sean Payton, John Harbaugh, and Pete Carroll), and the 7th is Matt Lafleur, who as previously mentioned has won more games than any other Packers head coach over his first two seasons. Prior to Lafleur, Green Bay was coached by Mike McCarthy who had a regular season record of 125-77-2 during his successful tenure with the Packers. So it’s the head coach, and it’s the quarterback that lead to sustained success — not exactly earth shattering news. What I’ve also found in looking at these teams and their roster composition over the years is that they all seem to have a clear plan and guidelines for how they operate. When adversity strikes — a certainty in the National Football League — these teams don’t seem to panic. They generally don’t overpay or overextend to try and fix their problems. They simply stay the course, follow their plan, and inevitably return to their winning ways.