Mack and Surplus Value
I spent most of the week in Detroit packing boxes and occasionally listening to meathead sports radio. I don’t listen to talk radio much but I like to shuffle through some variety when doing busy work, and every time I came back to a local sports talk station the host was talking about missing on Khalil Mack. Mack is a great pass rusher, and a very valuable player, but if any fanbase should understand the problem of overpaying a defensive player, and the idea of “surplus value,” it’s the Lions.
In his prime, Ndamukong Suh was an outstanding defensive tackle, and surely one of the most valuable defensive players in the league. If Aaron Donald, the best current defensive player in football, reminds me of anyone, it’s vintage Suh. The problem with Suh was never how he played (penalties notwithstanding), it’s that the Lions drafted Suh (and Calvin Johnson and Matthew Stafford) before the advent of the rookie wage scale, which means they paid close to market value and never got any surplus value. In his second year in the league, Suh took up the second most salary cap of any Lion at 10%, just trailing Johnson’s 11%. As they never received any surplus value, they also never won anything.
The Bears seems somewhat scary at the moment, and obviously it’s better to have Mack than to not have him, but it’s also important to keep in mind that as good as he is, he’s not better than Donald, and he will take up 7.5% of the Bears’ cap this season (highest on the team) and 11.42% next season (also highest on the team barring some big signing).
That’s a LOT of money to pay a non-quarterback, because no other position is even close to as valuable as a quarterback. A good quarterback will always provide surplus value just because the salary cap makes paying them properly impossible. That is not the case with defensive ends. The Bears were able to do this, because, as most pundits will say, “Mitchell Trubisky is on a rookie contract and therefore they have extra money to spend.” And rookie contracts can be a huge benefit to a franchise, if the rookie is any good. But…
Trubisky isn’t paid much, but that’s the most positive thing you can say about him. Over the past decade, for rookie QBs who have had over 300 attempts, no quarterback threw fewer touchdown passes than Trubisky’s 7. Trubisky averaged 5.05 Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt last season, which is strictly middle of the pack over the past decade, and puts him just barely ahead of Mike Glennon’s rookie year. Most star quarterbacks are better than Trubisky as rookies. Russell Wilson, Dak Prescott, Matt Ryan, Cam Newton, Marcus Mariota and Andrew Luck all had 5.5 ANY/A or better as rookies, and true stars like Wilson and Ryan were above 7.
Conversely, Trubisky is closer to the tier of Brandon Weeden, EJ Manuel, Geno Smith, and Mark Sanchez. It’s not impossible for quarterbacks to get better, and those looking for hope can point to Matthew Stafford, who is last on this list, and Carson Wentz, who is right next to Trubisky. However, Stafford was taking over the 0-16 Lions, one of the worst teams in NFL history, and Wentz plays for what appears to be an all-time great front office and coaching staff who beat Bill Belichick in a Super Bowl while starting Nick Foles.
Overpaying Unproven Receivers
The Bears did have a lack of offensive talent last season, but they went about fixing it with questionable players like Allen Robinson, who really only has one good season, is still recovering from a torn ACL, and is the second-highest-paid player on the team. The last time he played a full season was in 2016, and he ranked 74th in DVOA. The much maligned Kendall Wright, easily the best Bear receiver last season, ranked 58th.
Taylor Gabriel is a fine slot receiver, and a genuine improvement, but will Trey Burton, stolen from the genius world champions, improve the tight end spot? Maybe. Burton was 3rd in DVOA last season, but I’d be a bit cautious just because Burton is no spring chicken, and the Eagles are great at making players look better than they are. The Bears actually got relatively good production out of their tight ends last season. Zach Miller was a respectable 18th in DVOA and rookie Adam Shaheen, who did not qualify for ranking due to lack of targets, was almost a carbon copy of Burton on a per play basis. Shaheen is injured and will miss a chunk of the season, but even if Burton can maintain his level of play, he will only be a small upgrade.
The Bears have a good defense and should be better than they were last season, but the upgrade from a returning Aaron Rodgers towers over everything the Bears did. The coaching will likely be improved with Matt Nagy taking over for John Fox, but Trubisky looks more like a bust than a star at this point, and if he can’t be at least average it doesn’t matter how good the defense is.
The Bears took a lot of big risks. If they don’t pay off, they’ll continue to be the punching bag of the North.