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Can Super-Teams Work in the NFL?

Alex Kilpatrick

by Alex Kilpatrick in NFL Football

Updated Jan 17, 2018 · 9:38 AM PST

Tulane Public Relations (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en)

Reports that Chris Paul had been traded to the Houston Rockets sent a shockwave through the NBA. How would Chris Paul and James Harden work together? How do you sign Chris Paul with no cap room? Are the Rockets really going after Paul George now, too?

NBA super-teams aren’t new; LeBron James invented them in 2010. You put three (or four) of the best players in the league on one squad, convince them all to take less than their market value so you can make the salary cap, and then go chasing rings. It’s become a fun offseason tradition, and it keeps eyes and ears on the NBA long after games have stopped, something that other major sports would love to be able to do.

Is the concept feasible in the NFL?

I’m digging through the 2018 free agency lists to try and build some super-teams, or even just super-units. I’ve taken some liberties with the salary cap, because if the Rockets can get Chris Paul, anything is possible. I’ve also assumed all the impending 2018 free agents will actually hit the open market, which they never do.

The more reasonable ideas come first, and in preparing this, I’ve come to learn why the super-team phenomenon has never really translated to the NFL: a full 53-man roster is a lot of mouths to feed, a lot of different specialists skills are needed, so money gets spread around. You can afford to pay LeBron James 30% of the salary cap because LeBron James can play more than 30% of the court by himself. Tom Brady’s not out here taking snaps on defense and punting.

Nonetheless, here’s how a few NFL teams could approximate the super-team concept in the 2018 offseason.

The bank is empty and the Houston Texans have all the money

The Houston Texans have roughly $41 million in cap room for 2018, and the only really big name they have coming into free agency is DeAndre Hopkins, who will likely cost ~$15 million to retain. With the rest of that money, they can go shopping, buying any of the great DB’s in the group, getting some help on the offensive line, or just saying screw it and buying the most expensive quarterback they can find, Deshaun Watson be damned. Matthew Stafford’s coming available, so is Drew Brees, and either could fit their massive salary expectations into this budget.

Pair Brees and Hopkins with a defense that features JJ Watt — arguably the greatest defensive player of all-time — and a burgeoning Jadeveon Clowney, and you have something resembling a big-four.

2018 Super Bowl odds for the Texans with Drew Brees: 15/2 (+750)

Not quite the favorite, because Tom Brady and the Patriots still exist. But the best of the rest. 

The Detroit Lions’ offense goes shopping

One of the only teams to have more 2018 cap room than the Texans is the Detroit Lions, who currently line up to be $68 million under the cap. That won’t last; Matthew Stafford will likely get a record-setting contract, and they’ll need to pay Greg Robinson a bit more if he even remotely lives up to his second-overall potential. (Not holding my breath on the latter.) But they will still have ample money to toss around after those guys get paid, and in my super-teams universe, Stafford’s going to have to accept less for the good of the team.

The Lions are thin at receiver, and unless 2017 third-rounder Kenny Golladay develops into a star, they’ll need to bring in elite pass-catchers for Stafford as a welcome-back gift. During the Calvin Johnson era, Stafford proved he can utilize big-bodied, go-get-it receivers, and he and Megatron did the bulk of their damage at a time when Detroit had a subpar backfield. If Detroit brings in UFAs Sammy Watkins and Jimmy Graham as targets for Stafford, we’re starting to see a super-offense form, especially with the young Ameer Abdullah set to lock down the run game.

O/U points-per-game for the 2018 Lions with Sammy Watkins and Jimmy Graham: 24.5

The Lions were only posting 21.6 last year, but adding two elite targets to help out Golden Tate and Eric Ebron will lead to a sizable jump. 

The New York Giants find their facilitator

The Giants currently have the best receiving corps in football, with Odell Beckham Jr, Brandon Marshall, Sterling Shepard, and rookie tight end Evan Engram. What they don’t have is a QB who can make the most of that arsenal. It’s time to move on from dead-armed Eli Manning. How scary would this offense look with Drew Brees slinging the rock, or even Matthew Stafford? With just $23 million in cap room for 2018 at the moment, the QBs will have to sign a team-friendly deal. But I sure would if it gave me the chance to throw to those four guys.

O/U points-per-game for the 2018 Giants with Drew Brees: 29.5

Brees led the Saints to 29.3 PPG with Michael Thomas as his best receiver. Part of that is Sean Payton’s offensive genius. A lot of it is Brees’ arm.

The New York Giants do not want you to catch anything

If the G-Men don’t opt to build a super-offense by upgrading at QB, they can make some (more plausible) moves to create the scariest defense in the league.

The Giants had the second-best secondary last year, per Pro Football Focus (PFF); but second-place is the first loser. That’s why they’re going to go sign 2018 free agent Xavier Rhodes to a $40 million contract. Rhodes recorded five picks in 2016, as held his receivers to a 41.8-percent catch rate. Quarterbacks throwing in Rhodes’ direction averaged a stout 39.2 passer rating. Maybe try the other side of the field? Or rather, don’t, because once Rhodes is on the Giants, he’ll have Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Janoris Jenkins locking down the opposite side and the slot. How’s the run game looking?

As mentioned, the Giants have about $23 million in cap space for 2018. Rhodes will likely be worth roughly $10 million per year in 2018. It’s doable!

O/U points-against-per-game for the 2018 Giants with Xavier Rhodes: 16.5

It’s a passing league. The addition of Rhodes basically makes the other team compete in a footrace from a wheelchair. 

The Seattle Seahawks are Terrifying

The Hawks have the top-rated front-seven in football, per PFF. Their lowest-rated player is nose tackle Jarran Reed, which in its own right is a story, because Jarran Reed is a very good tackle on a very cheap contract, but we’re going to swap him out for 26-year-old free agent Dontari Poe, because Dontari Poe is one of the top defensive tackles anywhere. His excellence is tough to measure, he doesn’t record a ton of sacks, but is visible in the way teams scheme against him. Poe spent 2016 with the Chiefs, swallowing double team after double team. His addition gives Seattle a defensive line Donald Trump will try to co-opt for his border wall. Even trying to scheme against this front has a where-do-we-start quality to it.

The Seahawks will have about $20 million in cap room in 2018, but will also be looking at the end of Kam Chancellor and Jimmy Graham’s respective contracts. Building a super-defense likely means retaining Chancellor, even at age 30. While they might have enough to cover Poe’s current salary, what they have left might not be enough to pay his market value in 2018. Poe best compares to guys who signed eight-figure contracts when they were his age, although his production isn’t quite at their level.

O/U rushing-yards-against-per-game for the 2018 Seahawks with Dontari Poe: 87.5

This number would be lower, but teams won’t want to throw that much against Seattle either. Not only will the Earl Thomas-led secondary still be ridiculously good, the Michael Bennet-led pass rush will feast when you take a seven-step drop. 

The Golden State Raiders

Here’s where we get silly.

The Golden State Warriors have built a dynasty, and maybe the best NBA team in history, with the following model:

  1. Severely underpaying their most important player
  2. Having one rangy, defensive savant who everyone kind of hates
  3. Emphasizing efficient, high-volume three-point shooting
  4. Convincing the second-best player in the league to sign with what was already the best team at less than market value

Here’s how the Oakland Raiders can imitate their Bay Area neighbours:

  1. They’re already paying Khalil Mack a $690k base salary (!!), so tear up Derek Carr’s new contract and re-sign him for the league minimum plus free parking
  2. Sign safety Kam Chancellor for $9 million (why not?)
  3. Sign Matt Byrant, Matt Prater, Adam Vinatieri, and Sebastian Janikowski, all in for about $12 million/year

These moves give you the four most efficient three-point shooters available, and some cap room, to boot. I’ve selected these four because of their range (they’re responsible for 4 of the 10 longest field goals in NFL history) and their availability. I also picked Vinatieri because he taught the world about the NFL’s tuck rule, and it’s important to have educators in the locker room.

Oakland’s going to be raining threes from all over the field. Wilson Dukes will blot out the sun. Teams won’t know which kicker to block, and they won’t be able too, anyway, because you can’t jump the line anymore.

You might doubt the strategy of scoring field goals as quickly as possible and handing the ball back to our opponents, but that’s only because you’re a dinosaur. Our analytics team built an algorithm that proves that this strategy can win the AFC West, and we pay those guys too much money not to listen to them.

O/U wins for the Golden State Raiders: 14.5

This is just a matter of converting a 73-9 record into a 16-game season. 

The Green Bay Rockets

The Houston Rockets are trying to build a super-team by bringing in Chris Paul from the LA Clippers, and in doing so, combining the powers of two of the best guards in the NBA. If this works, and of course it will, the Rockets will have almost reinvented basketball. Sure, Mike D’Antoni has always built his offenses around one featured player, and sure, now he has two of the most ball-dominant point guards in the league on the same team. But whatever. He’ll figure it out.

Just like Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy will figure it out when his team signs Drew Brees on a salary-cap defying $24 million/year contract, all while retaining Aaron Rodgers. Brees threw for 37 touchdowns last year, which when you add them to Aaron Rodgers’ 40, makes a lot of touchdowns. The two will also take defensive pressure off each other, so look for this dynamic duo to throw 90, maybe 100 touchdowns and win the Super Bowl.

O/U touchdowns for the Green Bay Rockets: 77.5

Just trust me on this one. 

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