Is the NFL the hardest sport in which to build a team?

Myles Stedman investigates whether the NFL makes it harder than other sports to build a winner.

For ease, only the four major North American sports will be assessed.

Some of the best debates sports fans have with their friends is talking about what their teams should do, how far they are away from a championship, and who they should draft, sign, or trade.

Let’s zoom out for a moment, and look at the bigger picture; in which sport is it hardest to build a team, specifically, a championship contender? On the surface, it would seem like NFL is the answer. 

At 53, the roster size is the largest, and strength is needed in each of the many position groups in order to be successful, not to mention the integral need for a top-tiered quarterback. 

This is not including the importance of the practice squad.

The next biggest is MLB, in which teams have a 25-man “active” roster of players who can play each night. That is made up of hitters and pitchers, and different classifications of each.

After that comes NHL, in which teams are allowed “at least 20 players, and not more than 23”, the bulk of which are skaters, and usually three goaltenders.

The smallest rosters are in the NBA, in which the minimum is 14 and the maximum 17, which includes at least 12 ready to play each night, and every player’s basic function is to get the ball in the basket.

Obviously, there are many different caveats and rules in each of these four leagues, but on a basic level, an NFL roster looks most complicated.

Salary cap issues

However, building a roster is one thing, but building a good one is another. In which sport is the difficulty curve the greatest? It may be the salary cap separating the four.

The NFL utilizes a “hard cap," which means no team can exceed the current number of $167 million of wages paid each year, lest they contract a penalty.

The New England Patriots, who are currently NFL champions, pay quarterback, Tom Brady, an average of $20.5 million per year, meaning he takes up around 12% of the team’s salary each year. For comparison, the Atlanta Falcons, last season’s runners-up, pay their quarterback Matt Ryan almost exactly as much as Brady. 

When you put into perspective how much one player on an NFL team can be paid, it becomes clear how hard it is to spread the rest of the money between 52 other players, given they all have very specific roles.

Clearly, cheap and below-market production is absolutely essential for any team wanting to contend for the Super Bowl, and the best way to get this is through the draft.

NFL rookie contracts are four years, which is how long teams have in which to get above-value production out of their draftees.

This is what makes the NFL unique: the draft is seriously important for teams at both ends of the success spectrum. 

Players on rookie contracts that featured in last year’s Super Bowl include Vic Beasley, Robert Alford, Tevin Coleman, Devonta Freeman, Malcolm Brown, Logan Ryan and Shaq Mason.

The above players all represented heavy contributions to their team’s success which led to their Super Bowl appearance. 

Freeman, perhaps the most impressive running back of last season, was paid $600,000 for his contributions, whereas the League’s highest-paid running back, LeSean McCoy (~$5 million), did not feature in the playoffs. Freeman was selected in the 4th round of the 2014 Draft, 103rd overall, and was the eighth running back selected. 

This echoes another pattern of how Super Bowl teams draft, generally taking defensive players higher and waiting until the later rounds for offensive players. 

This boils down to the quarterback having the largest bearing on the offense, whereas there is no direct equivalent importance-wise on the defense. Does this mean young, talented defensive players are the best assets on an NFL team?

Acquiring a Super Bowl-caliber quarterback is another can of worms, requiring equal parts scouting, luck, and so forth. Could it possibly get this hard in any other league? 

In MLB, where there is no salary cap employed, a higher emphasis is placed on building a strong farm system, which contending teams can use to trade for players, and poor teams can use to rebuild. However, farm teams can take on higher importance for contending teams with the possibility of players receiving injuries over the unusually long 162-game season. 

Oftentimes, players recently called up can be large contributors to a successful season. Last year’s World Series champions, the Chicago Cubs, received such production from Albert Almora, Wilson Contreras and Carl Edwards.

General Managers in the Major League are almost required to build multiple teams – one to compete each night, and one to trade, or to bolster the team in case of injuries.

This is not dissimilar from the case in the NHL, as bottom-line production becomes more important later in the season. For contenders, competent youngsters are a must.

The Pittsburgh Penguins epitomized this last season, as rookie center Jake Guentzel transformed into a Conn Smythe-worthy skater in his rookie year. 12 months prior, he had been playing in the AHL.

The hard cap employed in the NHL is easily the strictest of any of the four major sports. With only $75 million to work with annually, contending teams are forced to reshuffle every year in order to stay at the top.

Colloquially known as the “cap crunch”, the Chicago Blackhawks are haunted yearly by the large contracts they gave their “big three” of Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, and captain Jonathan Toews. Chicago’s Vice President Stan Bowman is known as one of the best at his job in the League, but with each passing year, it seems as his team is further crushed under the weight of that trio of deals. This offseason, they were forced to trade star players Niklas Hjalmarsson and Artemi Panarin in order to beat the cap crunch, and to continue to contend. 

The NHL’s hard cap is employed to encourage year-to-year parity, and most sports fanatics note the League’s ‘Stanley Cup Playoffs’ as the most exciting playoffs in professional sports. Clearly, hockey’s salary cap does the job it’s encouraged to do, and also makes it harder to build sustained success, but does it make it a holistically harder sport to build than NFL?

Unfortunately, for NBA fans hoping their sport stacks up in a similar vein to these other three, it does not. 

The NBA employs a soft cap, meaning teams may exceed the $99 million allotted, but past $113 million, are required to pay a “luxury tax”. 

With five players on a court, only two or three game-changers are typically required to do a lot of winning, and whilst the Draft is utilized best by elite teams, it is by far most important for those at the other end.

The NBA’s developmental League, the ‘NBA G-League’, branded for Gatorade, is taken about as seriously as the naming rights suggest. Very few, if any player in history, has made a contribution to a championship team after a G-League hazing.

This is not a bad thing; the NBA is simple to understand, its roster rules and norms are uncomplicated, and fan engagement is at an all-time high, whereas other sports take longer for new fans to adapt to.

For this discussion though, the NBA ranks as the easiest sport in which to build a team, and again, that’s not necessarily a blight on the League. Fortunes can change instantly, leaving every team, every fan, with a semblance of hope that lingers like a candle in a darkened room.

Perhaps next hardest in which to build is MLB. Whilst there is an almost unfathomable amount of players in a team’s pipeline from Majors to a-ball, 90% of the personnel’s development pertains to strong pathways, rather than savvy roster manipulation.

Harder still is the NHL. The unforgiving salary cap, which tightens like a noose with each player signed, is unparalleled in ferociousness. Oftentimes, one poor deal can bring down the entire house.

The hardest though, is unmistakably NFL. With so many moving parts, so many positional groups to perfect, and all but prayers left if injury strikes, it is a sport unmatched in terms of complications to building a winner.

Which league do you think is the hardest to contend for a championship in? Let us know in the comments below!

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