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Strengths of this free agent class show how teams have grown smarter

There’s plenty of talent to be had at RB and off-ball linebacker. That surplus may be by design.

NFC Wild Card Playoffs - New York Giants v Minnesota Vikings Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

NFL teams have honed in on the importance of positional value over the last several years. The salary cap is created equal for all 32 franchises, but not all positions on the football field carry the same value—and the teams that manage their salary cap to accurately reflect the value of these positions have a major leg up on the others who don’t.

Obviously the most important individual on any football team is the quarterback, but receivers, pass rushers, and coverage players are comfortably in the next tier. The front offices that still believe in building a roster from the trenches out have been passed by. The modern NFL game rewards the teams that are the best at throwing the football, and by consequence any player that helps your passing game or keeps the other team from completing passes is inherently valuable.

There’s not an elite edge rusher, premier coverage corner, or big-time receiver hitting free agency at age 25—front offices have become too adept at locking these players up with multi-year extensions before it gets to that point. There’s a reason why teams let players hit the open market, and to a certain extent the true building blocks have either been franchise tagged or extended by now.

There are some positions where teams have grown extremely leery about investing in a major way, and this is the fallout from the renewed emphasis on value in the salary cap era:

Running Back

Running backs, while they can be a nice luxury piece after you’ve already assembled a competitive roster, are too reliant upon the offensive line in front of them to have any meaningful positional value themselves. Saquon Barkley is the biggest name ready to hit the free agent market while his (potentially former) teammate, Daniel Jones, will reportedly be franchised tagged by the New York Giants. Barkley is probably the best running back to hit unrestricted free agency in some time, though his up-and-down career with the Giants show how many factors have to go right for RB’s to be successful.

There is a major surplus of running backs ready to hit the open market on March 15th. It’s a reflection of teams understanding the overall value of the position and then sticking to their guns. It’s become somewhat in vogue to draft a RB on a rookie contract and give him a high volume of work for those four to five years without any plan to retain them beyond that point—that somewhat explains why this free agent class looks the way it does:

*On an expiring rookie contract

Off-ball Linebacker

There is also a surplus of free agent talent at off-ball linebacker this offseason.

Teams used to start building a defense by finding a linebacker to man the middle of the field, but of late the position has become somewhat of an afterthought. The days of drafting a Luke Kuechly in the top 10 or having Ray Lewis or Brian Urlacher on your team for a decade or longer have come and gone.

Front offices are looking for undersized linebackers that excel in pass coverage but can still hold up in the run game. Their job is more sideline-to-sideline now than playing downhill and getting into the backfield. Finding such a linebacker is very dependent on schematic fit, but it’s not a hole you think about filling until you have a premier edge rusher and reliable coverage players.

You can easily lose football games by not rushing the passer and forcing quarterbacks to make mistakes, or by giving up explosive passing plays due to a lack of coverage. Exploiting a weakness at middle linebacker requires patience and the ability to take five-yard runs and short passes over the middle—and most offensive coordinators and quarterbacks are not patient enough to stick to such a game plan.