BOSTON — On Day 1 of the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Steve Gregory was a victim of analytics.
As Gregory’s agent was announcing the New England Patriots’ decision to cut the starting strong safety, Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff were talking about how analytics tie into contract decisions in the panel “Inside the War Room: Building Alignment From Front Office to Field.” Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio was actually sitting in on the panel (Dimitroff told him not to take notes).
Dimitroff talked about the “disintegration of the middle class” of the league during the panel. Gregory, who was set to count for more than $3.6 million against the salary cap, fits into that “middle class” of the NFL. Top players — like Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and wide receiver Julio Jones — eat up a large portion of a team’s total salary, since they’re rare talents. Teams have to load up the rest of the roster with rookies and low-priced veterans to free up space for those top players.
The Patriots had to weigh the benefit and detriment of keeping Gregory while needing all the cap room they can get, or cutting him and inserting the much cheaper Duron Harmon into the starting role at strong safety. Harmon, a second-year player, will count just $633,900 against the cap in 2014.
Gregory was a solid starter, and New England might see a minor drop-off in starting Harmon next to free safety Devin McCourty. The Patriots, however, can use the money they saved in cutting Gregory to make the team better elsewhere — either through free agency or the draft.
There’s an obvious give and take when dealing with football salaries. Each player has to have a value placed on him. If he’s not meeting that value, and if it saves the team money against the cap to cut him, teams will.
The Patriots actually can improve their pass defense despite cutting a starting safety. If the $2.85 million they saved against the cap can go toward a defensive end or defensive tackle who can get after the quarterback, Harmon’s job at strong safety will become easier.
I recently talked to an NFL scout who highlighted this idea even before the Sloan conference. In the next few days, we’ll see more and more veterans cut because they’re not worth the high value of their contracts.
The Patriots have a difficult decision to make with defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, who’s 32 years old, coming off a torn Achilles and counts $11.6 million against the cap. The Patriots could start Sealver Siliga, who will make just $570,000 in 2014, or draft a rookie to replace Wilfork. Either option would cost far less. But the Patriots have to determine if the money they would save would be worth the hit the Patriots would take both on the field and in the locker room in cutting Wilfork.
That’s where Bill Belichick and Caserio will have to put analytics to the test.