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

Last night the 49ers beat the Washington D.C. Football Team1 27-6, and this morning Thanksgiving is in two days. Things are looking up! With that I am back with my recurring feature, Economics & Sports Management Presents: The Search for the Best (& Worst!) Contract in Football. The last couple weeks I’ve looked at quarterbacks, wide receivers, running backs, and tight ends. Today, we’ve got the last of the “skill position”2 players, which some teams don’t even bother with anymore. Today, I look at fullbacks.

With performance data through ten weeks on quarterbacks, wide receivers, and running backs, and eleven weeks for tight ends, the best contracts so far have been quarterback Russell Wilson, SEA (contract quality 2.35); wide receiver Doug Baldwin, SEA (2.26); running back Giovani Bernard, CIN (2.2); and tight end Jimmy Graham, NO (3.17). The worst have been quarterback Joe Flacco, BAL (-3.13); wide receiver Mike Wallace, MIA (-3.83); running back Darren McFadden, OAK (-3.78); and tight end Jared Cook, STL (-3.02). To review, contract quality measures the number of standard deviations a player’s on-field performance (as determined by Pro Football Focus) is above/below the average for his position, minus the number of standard deviations a player’s average annual salary (as reported by Spotrac.com) is above/below the average for his position. CQ = #SDs +/- in performance – #SDs +/- in salary. Of the 32 teams in the NFL, 23 have had the same fullback in on at least 25% of their offensive snaps through Week 12.3 Here are the Top 5 performing fullbacks (PFF grade in parentheses):

  • 1. Anthony Sherman, KC (14.3)
  • 2. Collin Mooney, TEN (9)
  • 3. Mike Tolbert, CAR (8.9)
  • 4. John Kuhn, GB (7.4)
  • 5. John Conner, NYG (6.3)

Alright! Fullbacks! … Yeah. Tragically the 49ers’ Bruce Miller just missed the list, at 6th with a 5.9 grade. Mike Tolbert and John Kuhn probably get the most attention, but it’s Anthony Sherman, in his first season with the Chiefs4, traded after his first two years with the Cardinals, comfortably leading the way. And that’s on a fair foundation, as by now all teams have played exactly 11 games. (There are no more bye weeks.) Here are the Bottom 5 performing fullbacks:

  • 20. Derrick Coleman, SEA (-3.1)
  • 21. James Develin, NE (-3.2)
  • 22. Erik Lorig, TB (-5.7)
  • 23. Vonta Leach, BAL (-7.5)
  • 24. Tommy Bohanon, NYJ (-9.9)

Vonta Leach I’ve definitely heard of, and I’m not sure why he’s playing so badly this season. (Last year, he was the best fullback in the league.) The average grade among fullbacks is a 0.89, and the standard deviation is 5.66. As with other positions, there is enormous variation in the quality of play among different players. How about how much they make? Here are the Top 5 paid fullbacks (average annual salary, in millions of dollars, in parentheses):

  • 1. Marcel Reece, OAK ($3.113 million)
  • 2. Mike Tolbert, CAR ($2.725m)
  • 3. John Kuhn, GB ($2.533m)
  • 4. Jerome Felton, MIN ($2.5m)
  • 5. Vonta Leach, BAL ($1.875m)

This is the fifth position I’ve looked at, and it never fails: there is always someone on the bottom of the performance list who makes the top of the salary list. Way to go, Vonta Leach! You have successfully pulled a Flacco. (I know he was just the Super Bowl MVP but actually it’s not a good thing.) And here are the Bottom 5 paid fullbacks:

  • 20. Erik Lorig, TB ($0.456m)
  • 21. Jamize Olawale, OAK & Will Ta’ufo’ou, JAC ($0.435m)
  • 23. Collin Mooney, TEN & Jed Collins, NO ($0.43m)

Olawale and Ta’uf’ou!5 Alright! The average salary among fullbacks is $0.992 million. The standard deviation is $0.86 million. There is much less variation among how much fullbacks are paid relative to how well they play. Generally this has been the case with other positions as well. So, which general managers have gotten the most out of their investment? The ESPM Award for Best Fullback Contract (so far) goes to… John Dorsey, General Manager of the Kansas City Chiefs! Chiefs’ fullback Anthony Sherman has a contract value of 2.87, comfortably in the lead through Week 12. Here are the Top 5 fullback contracts (contract quality in parentheses):

  • 1. Anthony Sherman, KC (2.87)
  • 2. Collin Mooney, TEN (2.09)
  • 3. Bruce Miller, SF (1.43)
  • 4. John Conner, NYG (1.38)
  • 5. Jamize Olawale, OAK (0.91)

And it’s “All the Way” Olawale by a nose! Also whooo Bruce Miller! With Bruce, four of the top six performers are tops in contract quality as well. This has not been the case in other positions; a number of receivers and backs, while being among the best in the league, were still overpaid. I suspect this is because fullbacks aren’t usually stars the way other offensive players are. A franchise may feel compelled to keep a star (or farmer star) quarterback or wide receiver for whatever cost, due to their relationship with the team or the fans, their popularity, etc. Yet those aspects fall outside this analysis. And in any case, those qualities may not be a significant factor (especially) among fullbacks. Here are the Worst 5 fullback contracts, based on play through Week 12:

  • 20. John Kuhn, GB (-0.64)
  • 21. Tommy Bohanon, NYJ (-1.4)
  • 22. Jerome Felton, MIN (-1.68)
  • 23. Marcel Reece, OAK (-2.34)
  • 24. Vonta Leach, BAL (-2.51)

I know Ravens General Manager Ozzie Newsome got them a championship, but future prospects may not be so bright, being firmly in the running for two of the worst contracts among the five positions I’ve examined. Although I guess Leach isn’t quite as spectacular as Joe Flacco himself, who was the best paid and the worst quarterback. Four of the five most expensive fullbacks find themselves on the list. Again and again, we see that high-priced free agent signings usually aren’t worth it.

That’s it for fullbacks. Later this week I’ll tackle the offensive line positions and try not to get flagged for defensive holding. Stay tuned.


  1. Yeah, it’s pretty obvious I’m waffling on this whole Redskins name issue. Hopefully I’ll have reached a decision soon. I definitely want to go back and listen to what Mike Tirico said on Monday Night Football, also maybe actually see what Native Americans themselves have to say on the subject. 
  2. I hate that term. Blocking J.J. Watt, and even most other defensive players, takes skill. Weighing 300 pounds helps, but there’s A Lot more to it. 
  3. OAK has actually had two different fullbacks each play 25% or more of their snaps. The teams without a qualifying fullback are ARI, ATL, CIN, DAL, DEN, DET, MIA, PHI, and SD. 
  4. Apparently this is the more racist name? Like I said I need to look into it more thoroughly. 
  5. Patenting the nicknames Jamize “All the Way” Olawale and Will “Tougher Than You” Ta’ufo’ou. 
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