The Browns are due to let Joe Schobert test Free Agency this offseason. We have seen reports that the cost could be as high as $15 million per year. This will be the first big decision faced by the new Front Office led by Andrew Berry. Let us look at the different aspects of the decision.
Throughout this piece it is important to remember when I say LB, I mean a traditional LB. A 3-4 LB is an Edge Defender. Khalil Mack and Joe Schobert aren’t similar players at all.
How Good Is He?
This is the first and most important question we need to look at. It is one that has always divided #BrownsTwitter. His fans point to his coverage skills and his detractors focus on his tackling.
If we use PFF to compare his play to other LBs who played over 50% of snaps. Last year his defensive grade was 34th out of 58. The only area he arrived in the top 25 was in coverage where he ranked 16th.
Over his first three seasons, he showed solid progress, making big steps forward each and every year. Unfortunately year four saw him regress to a level between years one and two. In 2018 when he had his best season, he was PFF’s 10th best LB in the NFL. His coverage was elite (2nd) but his tackling was the worst in the league.
For me, Joe Schobert is a very good player, but he certainly isn’t in that elite category. We always see fans and pundits overvalue their own players, I can admit, I’ve done it to. It is natural as you likely watch them closer than any other players in the NFL. If you want to be a team that is winning Super Bowls then you can’t afford to pay great players like elite players.
We are seeing a league-wide trend of playing more and more nickel and dime defense. Teams are sacrificing LBs to get more DBs onto the field to protect against the pass. The NFL is becoming a more and more passing league, meaning you have to prioritise your defence to that. While the NFL focuses on the debate between pass rush and coverage, LBs are stuck in the middle and getting squeezed for snaps. An Edge Rusher is better at pass rush and a DB is better at coverage. We saw the Chargers shut down the Ravens run game in the 2019 Playoffs by loading up on quicker DBs. This gave them flexibility on defense, so it can work against the run too.
If we want to go deeper into the data we can look at PFF WAR (Wins Above Replacement). Effectively how does player x perform against a replacement player for that position? The data for an LB is very similar to that of an RB. The difference is that if you can have a Wagner or Kuechly level player then you pay them. There are no ‘must pay’ players at RB.
We have seen several people look into the career projections for when play drops off based on different positions. RB is well known as the worst, some coming as early as the end of their rookie deal. We are regularly seeing LB positioning itself as second on that list. While more work is certainly needed in this area, it is certainly something to keep in mind when extending LBs.
Knowing all of this about positional value, you have to wonder if investing heavily in a linebacker that is not elite is a good idea? For me, you have such a limited amount of resources when putting together a 53 that would don’t prioritize the LB position.
Last offseason we saw the LB market explode. If we use the contract history information for linebackers on Over The Cap then we can compare deals over the years. Using their average per year as a percentage of the salary cap at the time of signing, we can reduce contracts down to a percentage.
Tier 1 of the LB market was Luke Kuechly (8.6%), FA saw C.J. Mosley (9.0%) jump into that mix and later in the offseason Bobby Wagner (9.6%) signed an extension taking him to the top of the pile.
The last calendar year saw six new deals signed to create a large Tier 2 alongside Lavonte David (7.0%). We had deals for Deion Jones (7.6%), Myles Jack (7.6%), Anthony Barr (7.2%), Kwon Alexander (7.2%), Shaq Thompson (7.2%) & Jaylon Smith (6.8%).
Tier 3 was left well behind this group, all on older deals: Christian Kirksey (5.7%) in 2017, Eric Kendricks (5.6%) in 2018, Benardrick McKinney (5.6%) in 2018 & Donta Hightower (5.3%) in 2017.
If we work on the basis of Joe Schobert getting a $15 million a year deal, it will sit somewhere in the range of 7.5% and in Tier 2 for LBs. If we look at what else that could get you comparable to other positions:
Tier 3 WR – Allen Robinson/Alshon Jeffery/Keenan Allen/Emmanuel Sanders
Tier 1 TE plus 1.5% cap space
Tier 1 G – Andrew Norwell/Zack Martin/Brandon Brooks/Kevin Zeitler
Tier 1 C plus 1.5% cap space
Tier 4 iDL – Linval Joseph/Cameron Heyward/Akiem Hicks/Stephon Tuitt
Tier 4 Edge – Danielle Hunter/Ryan Kerrigan/Carlos Dunlap
Tier 3 CB – Xavien Howard/Kyle Fuller/Stephon Gilmore/Darius Slay
Tier 1 S – Kevin Byard/Tyrann Mathieu/Landon Collins/Earl Thomas/Eddie Jackson/Reshad Jones
(For reference there are usually between 2-5 players in a contract tier)
With where the LB market is, I feel they would be much better taking that money and investing it into another position room where the return on investment will be much higher. If it was a deal in Tier 3 where you are looking at $10m a year then you can see it making some sense if you really love the player. But Joe Schobert shouldn’t be paid $15m, like a top 10 player at the LB position.
Why Not Tag Him?
The projected Franchise Tag for LBs in 2020 is $16.3m and the Transition Tag is $14m. Unfortunately these two values are falsely inflated by an out of date NFL. The league utilizes position terminology of DT, DE & LB, this means a player like Khalil Mack is treated the same as Joe Schobert. Hopefully the new CBA will address this error and make for a much lower figure moving forward.
Ideally the Browns would have been able to Transition Tag Joe Schobert. Allowing him to exercise Free Agency while holding the rights to match any deal he agrees to.
A Year Late?
I was banging the table for an extension to Joe Schobert after last season. If you have a player that you want to keep long term and are happy with their level of play then you should get the deal done after year three. Players will usually take a slightly smaller number to get the deal done early. They then have guaranteed money rather than risk an injury in the year ahead. This would have happened before the explosion in the LB market.
Throughout last season I warned that a point would be reached where extending Joe wouldn’t be sensible due to his rising price. While it is always easy to blame the last regime, their decision not to extend Schobert last offseason has made the issue harder for the current Front Office. Where the move is now at the end of the season, there is no incentive for Joe to deal early. Testing FA in an inflated LB market should be enticing to any player of his standard. Someone will overpay, the question is who?
Joe Schobert is a great player and one I have thoroughly enjoyed watching over the last four years. Unfortunately, due to the position, he plays a new deal isn’t the best move forward for the Browns. If he repeated his 2018 season in 2019, then it certainly would have been a discussion. He could have staked a claim as an elite LBs just behind the likes of Wagner & Kuechly.
I genuinely believe that this Front Office would have worked to get a deal done last year. Joe could have been a player they kept here for the long term at a reasonable number. They cannot wind the clock back and must work based on the situation that presents itself now.
The Browns need to focus on key positions and making sure the money is spent in the areas that will maximize the returns in the only currency that matters, WINS!
While some media members are talking about the salary cap from Vernon & Schobert going into a massive investment on the OL, I can’t see it from this Front Office. They have seen the data and know that large OT investments in FA are usually the worst ways to spend cap space. I feel like the massive investment is likely a day 1 & day 2 pick, rather than the salary cap. In the NFL Draft picks are often a bigger investment than what you spend the salary cap on.
I wish Joe all the best moving forward and hope he gets a massive payday in FA. Due to the Browns likely being players in the FA market, a comp pick is unlikely to ever come back. I get why some fans will be upset but we have to look at it in a wide picture. I feel in four years’ time there won’t be the same level of disappointment around this move that many feel now.