The NFL is benevolent socialism in a vacuum. Most people understand this, but few fans encourage their teams to act on it. Perhaps the fact that our country fought a 50-year Cold War against socialism that many fans still remember makes it hard to embrace this reality. It’s a shame really, because exploiting the cheapest labor possible at every position under the salary cap is exactly how you weather a system that knocks everybody down to the middle eventually.
As the first wave of free agency transactions have come and gone, the Ravens find themselves poached of some of their (previously) most efficient talent. Fans are upset, naturally, at the loss of integral pieces to the puzzle such as Jarret Johnson and Cory Redding. But the way the NFL is structured, losing players to the free market can often help a team more than it hurts.
I appreciate Johnson, Redding, Ben Grubbs, Tom Zbikowski, and the other players lost and leaving for their contributions. As newly signed free agents, they are all likely overpaid. Good for them, and good for the Ravens for not entering bidding wars to maintain the status quo.
Good labor is cheaper than it’s ever been in the NFL. With a team-favored CBA and the scaling back of rookie wages, teams can get more value out of a players’ cap number than ever before. Trying to keep around a free agent, especially a role-player or spot starter, is pricey business. Economically, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Take Johnson, for example, who has been a steady performer for the Ravens defense since 2003. He’s a very good NFL player who will be 33 this season. Johnson’s got a proven track record of contributing to a good defense and has displayed versatility in where he can fit in a defensive scheme. He’s a well-liked guy. All of these factors drive up his price for Baltimore to keep him around. The Ravens got Johnson for his best seasons and paid less for him per-season than the Chargers will be paying for him from ages 33-36.
From an on-field perspective, Johnson is a tough guy to let go of, and I argued against letting him go in our “Keep or Dump” free agency breakdown. However people outside the negotiations aren’t usually privy to what a player’s asking price is on a new deal. Johnson is obviously a good player to have around, as long as he’s affordable. There are few few “at any cost” players on a team. You simply cannot afford to have more than a handful. Haloti Ngata is one of those players, and while it’s an expensive proposition to sign him or Ray Rice to an extension, there are times when the football outweighs the need to be shrewd. In addition to paying attention to cheap labor in the NFL, one also needs to be mindful of specialized labor. The list of people who can do what Ngata does is shorter than Rice’s center of gravity.
The question then remains, if the Ravens are being shrewd and letting free agents go to be overpaid by other teams, where does the more efficient labor to replace them come from? If Baltimore is even within the top third of NFL teams in terms of drafting and managing talent, there is at least one player, right now, who will move from a backup to a starting role and be successful. It’s not because Ozzie Newsome is a genius (although he might be). It’s because there are more good football players than there are job openings in the league. In the numbers game of roster makeup, scrubs can become stars overnight. Just ask Arian Foster.
Aside from promoting from within, the key to beating the tough economics of the NFL rests in measured spending in free agency and smart drafting. Let’s address free agency first. Early in the spring, it’s a seller’s market. With the rare exception of talent that everyone knows is premium, the longer a player sits on the market, the more his price tag (not value) drops. After all, nothing is happening between March and July to make a player more or less valuable. It’s all about perception. Timing has a lot to do with it as well. A player’s price tag is less indicative of his true value to a team but more in what else is on the market. If you’re thinking about a long-term plan for sustained success, then why would you pay for the top guard in a given free agent year when that same exact player could be the fifth-best guard in a different cycle?
Which brings us back to Grubbs. Offensive line play is maybe the hardest thing for fans to argue about because there is little raw data to go on. It’s all observation and subjectivity from an outsider’s lens. People generally agree that Grubbs was probably the best lineman the Ravens had, and I don’t have any reason to argue otherwise. However, the talent and price gap between a good starter, an All-Pro, and a backup in the NFL is so narrow that trying to pinpoint what you’re paying for and what you’re getting seems futile. It goes back to the labor abundance in the league. If an NFL-caliber player of any perceived talent can be put into a position and a system where he can thrive, why overpay based on perception?
And then of course, is the ugly business of the NFL draft. I say ugly business because economically, it’s the concept that people on the players side understand is a necessary but painful influx of new labor. It’s why the NFL works, and it’s also why it’s one of the most Darwinian corporate enterprises in the world. I say Darwinian not to imply the commonly misunderstood concept of “survival of the fittest.” People often mistake that phrase to intone the biggest, fastest and strongest sticking around. But “survival of the fittest” is what killed the T-Rex and the Megalodon. “The fittest” are the individuals best-suited to thrive in the environment they find themselves in.
NFL rookies are among the fittest in the league’s gene pool, especially with their reconfigured pay scale. They are low financial risk, high-reward employees that are expected to achieve their potential within three or four years on the job. When the rules make it so easy for a team to phase out a tenured player and scab in a rookie, who could be just as good, the Ravens need to take advantage of those rules. Known commodities like Redding and Grubbs have value, but only at the right price. Redding especially is an example of this system in practice. He’s a good player and a respected veteran. Can someone do his job cheaper? Absolutely.
So while teams panic, mortgage, and bid one another up on free agents, I’m fine with the Ravens not making moves for moves’ sake. There are positions to fill, absolutely. But there are also “at any cost” players to identify and lock up. If not panicking and keeping room open to find and sign those players while identifying efficient replacements is the Ravens strategy, then perhaps it could be perceived as “sitting on their hands.” So be it. Within the NFL’s socialist economic structure, sometimes the wisest move is no move at all.