ESPM Presents: The Search for the Best (& Worst!) Contract in Football, QBs

Debating the best quarterbacks is a ceaseless venture for nearly all followers of football. Excluding special teams positions, quarterback is the only responsibility shouldered by one player (ideally), and one player alone. They’re the most talked about, most paid, and have won most of the NFL MVP Awards1, honestly with pretty good reason. When Aaron Rodgers was ruled out for the Green Bay Packers game against the Philadelphia Eagles last week, the betting line in Las Vegas swung 10 points in Philly’s favor. For comparison, when elite Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson was ruled out for a game against those same Packers earlier this year, the line swung 2.5 points to Green Bay. Quarterbacks are, and I don’t know how to put this, but kind of a big deal.

So who’s the best? I dunno. And really, neither does anyone else, not for sure. Even if it was clear what “best” meant (in the 4th quarter? this week? on the road? this season? his career? his potential?), there is no clear winner. For this season, most would say Peyton Manning (he is on pace to set single season records for passing touchdowns and yards), which is fine. The good people at Pro Football Focus, who grade every NFL player on every play throughout the season, concur. Here are PFF’s Top 5 quarterbacks so far this season, among those who have played 25% or more of their team’s snaps (grade in parentheses):

  • 1. Peyton Manning, DEN (24.2)
  • 2. Philip Rivers, SD (19.1)
  • 3. Matthew Stafford, DET (18.1)
  • 4. Aaron Rodgers, GB (18)
  • 5. Drew Brees, NO (15.8)

And here are PFF’s Bottom 5:

  • 34. Chad Henne, JAC (-12.4)
  • 35. Joe Flacco, BAL (-12.7)
  • 36. E.J. Manuel, BUF (-14.2)
  • 37. Terrelle Pryor, OAK (-14.5)
  • 38. Geno Smith, NYJ (-15.1)

PFF grades aren’t perfect. Their biggest flaw is that they don’t adjust for the competition. Pump-faking New England Patriots’ safety Devin McCourty (PFF grade 17.9) to the wrong side before completing a pass counts the same as pump-faking Chicago Bears’ Major Wright (PFF grade -17.1). Nonetheless, they’re an objective analysis independent of a single expert or opinion, grounded in repeated scrutiny and facts. So sure, Peyton Manning is the best quarterback so far this season, well on the way to a record 5th most valuable player award.2 But exactly how much do the Denver Broncos value him?

Under his five year contract with the Broncos, Manning’s average annual salary of $19.2 million ranks third in the league among quarterbacks. (Also all players. Those quarterbacks get paid a lot.) The Broncos are paying the most valuable player (so far) the third most value. Neat. But is that the best? Forget what team is getting the most out of their quarterback, what team is getting the most out of their quarterback for their money? 

For starters, among quarterbacks who have played 25% or more of their team’s snaps, here are the Top 5 Most Paid (millions of dollars in parentheses), using their average annual salary under their current contracts as reported by the online professional athlete salary database Spotrac.com:

  • 1. Joe Flacco, BAL ($20.1 million)
  • 2. Drew Brees, NO ($20m)
  • 3. Peyton Manning, DEN ($19.2m)
  • 4. Matt Ryan, ATL ($18.958m)
  • 5. Aaron Rodgers, GB ($18.679m)

And here are the 5 Lowest Paid:

  • 34. Russell Wilson, SEA ($0.749m)
  • 35. Nick Foles, PHI ($0.677m)
  • 36. Terrelle Pryor, OAK ($0.59m)
  • 37. Thaddeus Lewis, BUF ($0.51m)
  • 38. Case Keenum, HOU (0.45m)

Yes, Joe Flacco is the 4th worst performing quarterback (so far) and the best paid. (Enjoy that Super Bowl championship, Ravens fans.) Among the lowest paid quarterbacks, Wilson is alone in starting all his team’s games this season, with Foles, Lewis, and Keenum starting for injured first-stringers and Pryor emerging (somewhat, again second worst grade) while missing time for injuries himself. 12 of the 32 teams have started more than one quarterback this season. All told, which have gotten the most for the least?

A good way to answer involves standard deviations. A standard deviation (henceforth SD) is a measure of variability for a group of numbers, in relation to the average. The SD of NFL quarterback salaries (who’ve played 25% of snaps or more) is $6.4 million. That means 68.2% of all quarterbacks have a salary within $6.41 million of the mean salary, $7.818 million. The SD is almost as large as the mean itself, indicating a lot of variability. The SD of quarterbacks’ PFF grades is 10.2, many times the average grade of 1.4; again, A Lot of variability. What do these numbers tell us about how much the Broncos pay Manning?

Manning’s salary ($19.2m) is 1.65 SDs above the mean. Manning’s grade (24.2) is 2.18 SDs above the mean. Relative to his peers, Manning makes an extreme amount of money. His relative performance, however, is even more extreme. That is good for the Broncos, and suggests that they are not overpaying him. Subtracting Manning’s salary SD from his PFF grade SD equals 0.53. What is 0.53? It’s a measure of Manning’s performance (“extremeness”) relative to his salary (“extremeness”). If it were 0, the Broncos would be paying him exactly how much he was worth. (Well, conceptually. The truth is more complicated.) 0.53 represents Manning’s “contract quality”. That the units are standard deviations, which themselves are in different units (the US Dollar and the PFF Grade) is not important, in terms of general understanding. The higher a player’s contract quality, the better deal it is for his organization. The lower the contract quality, the worse the deal.

The highest contract quality among all NFL quarterbacks is Russell Wilson, of the Seattle Seahawks. With a salary SD of -1.02 and a PFF grade SD of 1.33, Wilson’s contract quality of 2.35 is tops by a sound margin. This should not be surprising to football fans, as Wilson has played well (6th best this year, 15.3 grade) ever since starting as a rookie, all after being drafted in the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft, which enabled the Seahawks to pay him so little (5th lowest this year, $0.749m). With that, this Economics and Sports Management (or ESPM) recurring segment presents the mid-season award for best quarterback contract to Seattle’s General Manager John Schneider. Congratulations!

Here are the Top 5 NFL Quarterback Contracts (contract quality in parentheses)

  • 1. Russell Wilson, SEA (2.35)
  • 2. Ryan Tannehill, MIA (1.87)
  • 3. Andrew Luck, IND (1.32)
  • 4. Nick Foles, PHI (1.21)
  • 5. Case Keenum, HOU (1.19)

Notice anything? All of them entered the NFL in 2012, with Keenum the only one going undrafted. None of the best performing five quarterbacks makes the list, with Rivers coming the closest, 8th best with a 0.79 contract quality, and Brees being the only one seemingly overpaid, finishing 23rd with a -0.39 contract quality. There is a reason teams like collecting draft picks. Free agents are more expensive. Speaking of which, what are the worst quarterback contracts in the NFL this season?

  • 34. Tom Brady, NE (-0.93)
  • 35. Matt Ryan, ATL (-1.05)
  • 36. Eli Manning, NYG (-1.45)
  • 37. Matt Schaub, HOU (-1.62)
  • 38. Joe Flacco, BAL (-3.13) (Seriously, Ravens fans, enjoy that championship.)

Turns out, all of the worst contracts are free agent signings, with Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco tanking the way. Yikes.

Aside from learning the ole’ don’t-resign-players-who-play-well-even-really-well-in-a-few-games–even-if-those-few-games-are-the-playoffs-and-super-bowl-when-the-rest-of-their-careers-say-otherwise trick, there is a larger lesson to be learned here. Football analysts and commentators often speak of a “championship window”, which seemingly means a variety of things. But maybe there’s something to it. Those young guys leading the league in contract value now will be able to renegotiate after the 2014-2015 season, and become free agents in 2016 if they don’t. That will result in significantly less money for their teams to spend elsewhere. Russell Wilson accounts for 0.5% of the Seahawks’ salary cap this year. Peyton Manning accounts for 12.5% of the Broncos’. (His brother Eli Manning accounts for 17.1% of the Giants’. Yeesh.) So enjoy, Seattle. Nothing lasts forever.


  1. Quarterbacks have won 37 of the 58 NFL MVP Awards (63.8%). Running backs have won 18 (31%), and one defensive tackle, kicker, and linebacker have won one each (1.7% each). 
  2. He already has the current record with four. Brett Favre, Johnny Unitas, and Jim Brown are tied for second with three each. 
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