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

Moving right along with our continuing series, ESPM Presents: The Search for the Best (& Worst!) Contract in Football. So far I’ve covered quarterbacks, wide receivers, and running backs. Today I look at how pay and performance compare across tight ends in the National Football league. Before jumping in, I wanted to expand upon something I mentioned at the close of my evaluation of running back contracts. I remarked that teams are overpaying nearly 50% of their players (or at least their quarterbacks, wide receivers, and running backs). One of my readers inquired as to whether or not that was really a big deal. His point was that even if teams improved their methods dramatically, it’s unlikely they would pay their players exactly what their performance was worth. Some would be overpaid, some underpaid, and wouldn’t that tend towards a 50-50 split anyway? Yes. So allow me to be more clear.

The inefficiency in the league lies in how much players are overpaid and underpaid, not how many are overpaid and underpaid. The NFL salary cap for this season is $123 million per team.1 One percent of a team’s cap is $1.23 million. Using this analysis, 46% of quarterbacks, running backs, and wide receivers are technically overpaid, based on their performance through the first ten weeks of the season. So is that a big deal? In economic research (albeit in slightly different contexts) we tend to care about two things: statistical significance, and substantive significance. 46% is an awful lot; it suggests that at least one, probably many NFL players are overpaid. But by how much?

Returning to the one percent, 15 of 37 quarterbacks (40.5%), 39 of 109 wide receivers (35.8%), and 16 of 54 running backs (29.6%) are overpaid by $1.23 million or more. That’s 70 of the 200 players (35%) I’ve looked at so far who are overpaid by one percent of the total amount their teams can spend this season. But hey, what’s a million dollars? Pro Football Focusperformance grades suggest that among those players, 28 (14%) are overpaid by $5 million or more. $5,000,000. Again, I can’t say for sure, but I think an NFL general manager wouldn’t want to waste $1,000, let alone $5,000,000. But it seems that, in more than one case, in more than a few cases, that’s exactly what they are doing.2

It will be interesting to see how those numbers might change as I get to looking at all positions on both sides of the ball. Perhaps these positions, among the most prominent in the league, are more likely to be overpaid.3 Certainly a phenomenal playoff performance and Super Bowl victory from Joe Flacco helped him to his new contract, which based on his play this season has him overpaid by more than $21 million4, dwarfing all other comers.

But enough. On to tight ends! Well, one quick reminder that these grades include all facets of the game. Run blocking, pass blocking, route running, catching, elusiveness after the catch, penalties, etc. Here are the Top 10 performing tight ends in the NFL among those who’ve played 25% or more of their teams’ snaps, through Week 11 (PFF grade in parentheses):

  • 1. Ben Hartsock, CAR & Jimmy Graham, NO (12)
  • 3. Jordan Reed, WAS (10.3)
  • 4. Rob Gronkowski, NE (7.3)
  • 5. Ben Watson, NO (7)
  • 6. Delanie Walker, TEN (6.4)
  • 7. Vernon Davis, SF (5.7)
  • 8. Tony Gonzalez, ATL (5.3)
  • 9. Coby Fleener, IND (5)
  • 10. Julius Thomas, DEN (4.3)

Hey, who’s that guy who’s as good as Jimmy Graham that I’ve never heard of? Why, that is Ben Hartsock, second tight end of the Carolina Panthers. He is just as good at blocking as Jimmy Graham is at receiving passes. While most teams may prefer Graham, and that’s fine, blocking is also valuable, and should not be forgot. Here are the Bottom 10:

  • 50. Vance McDonald, SF (-7.2)
  • 51. Gary Barnidge, CLE (-7.8)
  • 52. Michael Hoomanawanui, NE & Rob Housler, ARI (-8.1)
  • 54. Jared Cook, STL (-8.2)
  • 55. Heath Miller, PIT (-8.3)
  • 56. Jim Dray, ARI (-9.4)
  • 57. James Hanna, DAL (-9.8)
  • 58. Ed Dickson, BAL (-9.9)
  • 59. Jermaine Gresham, CIN (-16.6)

And a single tear trickles down my cheek as Vance McDonald becomes the first 49er to appear at the bottom of performance. The average performance among tight ends who’ve played 25% or more of their teams’ snaps this season is actually negative, at -1.6. The standard deviation for grades is 5.8, quite a bit larger and indicating what we in the industry refer to as “lots” of variation. Here are the Top 10 paid tight ends (average annual salary, from, in parentheses):

  • 1. Jason Witten, DAL ($7.219 million)
  • 2. Vernon Davis, SF ($7.118m)
  • 3. Jared Cook, STL ($7.02m)
  • 4. Tony Gonzalez, ATL & Jermichael Finley, GB ($7m)
  • 6. Rob Gronkowski, NE ($6.904m)
  • 7. Zach Miller, SEA & Marcedes Lewis, JAC ($6.8m)
  • 9. Antonio Gates, SD ($6.633m)
  • 10. Heath Miller, PIT ($5.883m)

Jared Cook and Heath Miller both have the dubious honor of being at the bottom of performance and at the top of salary.5 No tight end makes as much as the average quarterback ($7.818 million). Here are the Bottom 10 salaries among tight ends:

  • 50. Luke Wilson, SEA ($0.585m)
  • 51. Lee Smith, BUF ($0.575m)
  • 52. Mychal Rivera, OAK ($0.566m)
  • 53. James Hanna, DAL ($0.551m)
  • 54. Charles Clay, MIA ($0.538m)
  • 55. David Paulson, PIT ($0.536m)
  • 56. Allen Reisner, JAC ($0.51m)
  • 57. Jim Dray, ARI ($0.497m)
  • 58. Timothy Wright, TB ($0.495m)
  • 59. Sean McGrath, KC ($0.469 million)

The average annual tight end salary is $2.546 million, with a standard deviation of $2.379 million. As with other positions, there is much less variation among pay relative to performance. As even I haven’t heard of many of those guys, I’ll mention a few who almost made it. Jordan Cameron, Jimmy Graham, and Julius Thomas (Top 10 performers all) are 46th, 47th, and 48th in salary, respectively, with Cameron raking in the most at $0.629 million. So surprise surprise, ESPM awards the best contract among tight ends to Jimmy Graham. Congratulations to Saints’ General Manager Mickey Loomis, getting a contract quality of 3.17! (Contract quality is a player’s standard deviations above/below the average performance minus his number of standard deviations above/below the average salary.) Here are the Top 10 tight end contracts (so far) in 2013 (contract quality in parentheses):

  • 1. Jimmy Graham, NO (3.17)
  • 2. Ben Hartsock, CAR (3.05)
  • 3. Jordan Reed, WAS (2.85)
  • 4. Ben Watson, NO (1.87)
  • 5. Julius Thomas, DEN (1.84)
  • 6. Coby Fleener, IND (1.65)
  • 7. Jordan Cameron, CLE (1.47)
  • 8. Mychal Rivera, OAK (1.37)
  • 9. Zach Ertz, PHI (1.27)
  • 10. Kellen Winslow, NYJ (1.08)

The power of those still on their rookie deals continues. And here are the Worst 10 tight end contracts…

  • 50. Owen Daniels, HOU (-1)
  • 51. Marcedes Lewis, JAC (-1.28)
  • 52. Brandon Myers, NYG (-1.31)
  • 53. Jason Witten, DAL ( -1.51)
  • 54. Martellus Bennett, CHI (-1.63)
  • 55. Jermichael Finley, GB (-2.08)
  • 56. Antonio Gates, SD (-2.15)
  • 57. Heath Miller, PIT (-2.56)
  • 58. Jermaine Gresham, CIN (-2.86)
  • 59. Jared Cook, STL (-3.02)

… where the power of the egregiously overpaid veteran free agent continues! Returning to where we began, 21 of the 59 (35.5%) are overpaid by more than one percent ($1.23 million) of this season’s salary cap ($123 million). 4 of the 59 (6.8%) are overpaid by $5 million or more. And remember, there are multiple paths to the top. You don’t have to score touchdowns like Jimmy Graham to be valuable on the field. Even so, a number of players are paid well above what their performance merits. They earn it without earning it.

  1. In reality, teams may have a little more or a little less due to rollovers from prior years, penalties from prior years, and other such adjustments. 
  2. Again, the usual caveat about players being paid for things apart from on-field performance, such as selling tickets and jerseys by being popular, being a good guy to have in the locker room, having a history with the organizations coaches and/or players, etc. Still, are those things worth $5 million for each of those 28 guys? Or even one? 
  3. Or have added value outside their on-field play. 
  4. Actually, I’m troubled that using this methodology, the numbers suggest that Flacco, and a few other players as well, should actually receive negative payments. This is troubling because it has no sound interpretation, other than that he has really been stinking up the joint. Hopefully when I do this again at the end of the season I’ll have a solution. 
  5. For those keeping score at home, yes, at least one player at every position I’ve looked at has pulled off being tops in pay and bottoms in performance. I’m tentatively calling it “a Flacco”. 
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