The old cliche in the NFL is that “defense wins championships.” It’s an adage that gets older every year, as defenses continually see their scopes of influence diminish in deference to the league’s desire for higher-scoring, higher-flying contests. Still, nine of the NFL’s top-10 defenses (based on yardage) are squarely in the playoff hunt with three games left to play. It’s likely that these defenses will affect what happens in the postseason up to and including the Super Bowl. But these nine defenses were not created equal.
Schemes, players, coaching—each team has their own style. And each team got to this point in different ways, as far as spending is concerned. Some teams are paying more than others to assemble their defenses.
Leading the playoff pack is the Cincinnati Bengals, with the fourth-most cash devoted to defense in 2015 at $72,423,980. Most of that cash is going to the defensive line and linebackers. The former is costing just over $26 million this year, and the latter, over $21 million. $13.9 million of the money spent on the defensive line is going to two players—Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap, who have $9 million and $4.9 million salary cap hits this season. And with the two combining for 18.5 sacks this season, it was money well spent.
Defensive tackle Domata Peko has four sacks this year and a cap hit of $3.7 million, and defensive production isn’t all the Bengals get from him. He also appears sparingly on offense in goal-line situations as a fullback. At linebacker, Rey Maualuga, Vontaze Burfict and Vincent Rey are the big-money players, with over $15 million in salary cap space this year. As a result, the Bengals have the league’s 10th-best defense in terms of yards allowed and are tied for ninth in sacks, with 34, while allowing only 17.6 points per game to their opponents.
Heavy spending on defense isn’t something that is necessary for a team to have a good one. Take the New England Patriots, who have the league’s sixth-best defense, allow 19.5 points per game and are second in sacks, with 42. The Patriots are 28th in defensive spending this year, at $48,767,802 and none of their defensive players are making double-digit millions.
Of their top-10 cap hits for the season, only four belong to defensive players, with inside linebacker Jerod Mayo having the greatest cap charge, at $6.1 million for 2015. Safety Devin McCourty, meanwhile, has a $6 million cap hit, defensive end Rob Ninkovich is costing $4.75 million and defensive end Jabaal Sheard, $4 million. There’s no question that the Patriots, more than any other playoff contender, are getting the most out of their defense for the least amount of money.
High spending on any side of the ball or position group does not guarantee on-field production. Four of the playoff caliber defenses are also top-10 in spending this year (which means six top spenders are not getting adequate returns on their investments), while five are spending anywhere from the 12th to the 28th-most on that side of the ball.
The Seattle Seahawks ($70,773,393), New York Jets ($71,869,930), Houston Texans ($69,857,702) and the Bengals are on the high side, while the Patriots, Carolina Panthers ($58,879,652), Arizona Cardinals ($65,663,055), Kansas City Chiefs ($58,169,648) and Denver Broncos ($59,069,146) are on the relatively cheaper side.
In fact, the Broncos are right in the middle of the league, at 15th, and have the top defense this year. The Panthers are 16th in spending, and have the third best defense.
Denver’s biggest cash layout this year is at linebacker—which is not surprising given that Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware have a combined $18.41 million cap charge. For the Panthers, it’s defensive line, thanks to Charles Johnson’s $20.02 million cap charge. And, it should come as no surprise that the Jets’ biggest outlay of cash is at cornerback, where they spend more than any other team in the league thanks to the offseason signings of Darrelle Revis, Antonio Cromartie and Buster Skrine; Revis alone has cost the Jets $16 million this year. The Jets are paying as much for the cornerback position this year as the Seahawks are paying for both their safeties and cornerbacks combined.
There are unifying threads between all these defenses, though, that help explain why they have been so successful this year. Of these nine playoff contenders, six are in the top half of the league in linebacker and cornerback spending, with Houston, Cincinnati and Denver in the top half of 2015 spending at both positions. In a pass-heavy league, investing in the resources that defend it, whether by rushing the passer or working against top receivers, is the best way to field a playoff-level defensive side of the ball.
And that’s really the key. It’s not particularly how much a team spends on defense but on what positions. Granted, the likes of Revis or Miller are going to be more expensive players, given their level of talent, but it’s the money invested in stopping opponents’ passing offense that has led these teams to have nine of the league’s top-10 defenses and be playoff contenders at the same time.
Defense—and investing in it—may not directly lead to championships, but structuring the defensive side of the ball so that it’s heavy on the pass defense certainly has helped these nine teams get as far as they have this year.