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

Today I wrap up the offensive side of the ball as we continue our recurring series, ESPM Presents: The Search for the Best (& Worst!) Contract in Football.  It’s time for offensive line contracts. Lineman never get enough attention, which is sad, and will also be the case in this series. At the end of the season they’ll get their full due, but right now I want to move along to the defense before the end of the season gets here, and there are a great many offensive lineman (duh). I couldn’t bring myself to lump them all together, as the different positions on the line require different skill sets, but I did lump them all in the same post. I’ll be starting on the inside of the line and working my way out. As always, player performance grades come from the professional analysts at Pro Football Focus and salary information comes from the databases at Spotrac.com.

A quick note: in addition to the usual disclaimers about players providing worth beyond on-field performance (popularity, teamwork, what have you), there’s another thing this analysis misses: special teams play. This was also the case for a handful of backs and receivers who play special teams, but especially the lineman, who usually play every special teams snap (excluding kickoffs, in most cases). Keep that in mind. Now, here are the Top 3 performing centers who’ve played 25% or more of their teams’ snaps, through Week 12 (PFF grades in parentheses):

  • 1. Chris Myers, HOU (19.1)
  • 2. Manuel Ramirez, DEN (15.7)
  • 3. Alex Mack, CLE (11.9)

And the Bottom 3:

  • 32. Robert Turner, TEN (-13.1)
  • 33. Peter Konz, ATL & Gino Gradkowski, BAL (-15.1)

The average grade is 0.16, with a standard deviation of 8.5. So far it looks that, just like the other “skilled”1 positions, the variation in on-field performance is enormous. Also I’d like to mention that Nick Mangold of the New York Jets is currently 31st with a -10.6 grade. So, here are the Top 3 paid centers (average annual salary in millions of dollars in parentheses):

  • 1. Ryan Kalil, CAR ($8.186 million)
  • 2. Nick Mangold, NYJ ($7.153m)
  • 3. Max Unger, SEA ($6.459m)

Oh look, it’s Nick Mangold! It has never failed: at every position so far, one of the best paid is one of the worst on the field. And here are the Bottom 3 paid centers:

  • 32. Jim Cordle, NYG ($0.555m)
  • 33. Jason Kelce, PHI ($0.534m)
  • 34. Lemuel Jeanpierre, SEA ($0.465m)

The average salary of NFL centers who have played 25% or more of their teams’ snaps is $2.794 million, with a standard deviation of $2.163 million. That average is significantly more than fullbacks ($0.992m) and a touch more than tight ends ($2.546m), though still behind running backs ($3.043m), wide receivers ($3.258m), and quarterbacks ($7.818m). Which general managers have navigated contract negotiations to get the most for the least amount of cash? Here are the Top 3 contracts among centers (contract quality2 in parentheses):

  • 1. Manuel Ramirez, DEN (2.49)
  • 2. Stefen Wisniewski, OAK (1.92)
  • 3. Jason Kelce, PHI (1.75)

Congratulations to Bronco’s General Manager (and former Super Bowl winning quarterback) John Elway! As usual, those raking in high-priced free agent contracts are absent from the upper echelon. They do populate the Worst 3 contracts, though:

  • 32. Max Unger, SEA (-2.18)
  • 33. Scott Wells, STL (-2.27)
  • 34. Nick Mangold, NYJ (-3.28)

Unger is the third most paid, Wells the fourth, and Mangold the second. Some more on Mangold: in the past he has performed much, much better. Now 29 years old (not exactly “old” for a center), his play seems to have fallen off considerably this season. Since PFF began grading in 2008, he was the top ranked center in 2008 and 2009, second in 2010 and 2011, and sixth last year. I suspect he was worth (or nearly worth) the money all the years before now, but his contract goes through 2017, with $25m of the $50m+ guaranteed. If he keeps playing like this, that’ll end up a terrible investment.

On to guards. These are the Top 5 guards so far this season:

  • 1. Evan Mathis, PHI (33.7)
  • 2. Louis Vasquez, DEN (20.8)
  • 3. Josh Sitton, GB (17.9)
  • 4. Larry Warford, DET (16.4)
  • 5. Ben Grubbs, NO (13.5)

Evan Mathis!!! Goodness gracious. There are 74 guards who’ve played 25% or more of their teams’ snaps this season. So far Mathis is all alone at the top by a margin of 12. He’s outperformed the fifth best guard by a margin of 20! Of the positions I’ve examined, no one is dominating this season like Evan Mathis. The average grade among guards is a -2.65, with an Enormous standard deviation of 11.99. Still, that leaves Mathis one standard deviation ahead of second and nearly two in front of fifth; Kansas City fullback Anthony Sherman was pretty similarly isolated at the top, albeit among only 24 fullbacks. Mathis’ play stands out like no one else’s. Well, actually another guard’s play does as well, but for the wrong reasons. Here are the Bottom 5 performing guards:

  • 70. Mike McGlynn, IND (-20.8)
  • 71. David Diehl, NYG (-22.8)
  • 72. Will Rackley, JAC (-25.4)
  • 73. Davin Joseph, TB (-33.1)
  • 74. Lucas Nix, OAK (-40.1)

Oh, Lucas Nix, oh no. Nearly two standard deviations worse than fifth worst Mike McGlynn. Yikes. Davin Joseph is way down there too. What’s that? Did I just mention Davin Joseph? Well… the Top 5 paid guards:

  • 1. Logan Mankins, NE ($8.5m)
  • 2. Jahri Evans, NO ($8.1m)
  • 3. Andy Levitre, TEN ($7.8m)
  • 4. Davin Joseph, TB ($7.5m)
  • 5. Ben Grubbs, NO ($7.2m)

Ah, Davin Joseph! Yet another best paid, worst performer. Sigh. Onto the Bottom 5 paid guards:

  • 70.Ronald Leary, DAL ($0.483m)
  • 71. Nate Chandler, CAR ($0.482m)
  • 72. A.Q. Shipley, BAL & Lucas Nix, OAK ($0.48m)
  • 74. T.J. Lang, GB ($0.441m)

The average salary among guards is $2.481 million, with a standard deviation of $2.241 million. And while Joseph and Nix are the bottom two players in the league, the Bucs are paying Joseph $7.5 million a year (on average) while at least the Raiders only pay Nix $0.48 million.3 So, who’s the best deal for their team? Here are the Top 5 contracts among guards (contract quality in parentheses):

  • 1. Larry Warford, DET (2.35)
  • 2. Brandon Fusco, MIN (2.09)
  • 3. Evan Mathis, PHI (1.91)
  • 4. Travelle Wharton, CAR (1.89)
  • 5. T.J. Lang, GB (1.7)

The rookie Warford is having an excellent year, and having watched the Packers-Lions game yesterday I’m sure by now his performance grade and contract quality are even higher. Congratulations to Detroit Lions General Manager Martin Mayhew. But look at Mathis! Mathis’ average annual salary is $5 million a year, good for the 13th highest among guards. Almost all the others who make so much have negative contract qualities, and a few have slightly positive ones, but Mathis’ is good for third best! The Eagles are spending $5 million a year on him, and not just getting their money’s worth, but getting an absolute steal! I assume he won’t be able to keep this up, but even if his play drops some his contract should remain a sound investment. A rare example of a successful, expensive free agent signing. Most of them belong on the list of the Worst 5 contracts:

  • 70. Jahri Evans, NO & Logan Mankins, NE (-1.95)
  • 71. Jeromey Clary, SD (-2.08)
  • 72. Lucas Nix, OAK (-2.23)
  • 73. David Diehl, NYG (-2.88)
  • 74. Davin Joseph, TB (-4.78)

Evans is the second most expensive guard in the league, and Mankins is the most. In fact, the third most expensive, Andy Levitre, is just above them at 69th with a contract quality of -1.47. Nix, while cheap, is playing so frighteningly bad that he finds his way on the list as well. Diehl is the 12th most paid guard. And then there’s the elephant on the list, Davin Joseph. A -4.78! Oh my. Just, wow. The worst we’ve seen so far is a -3.83 from Dolphins’ wide receiver Mike Wallace, followed by a -3.78 from Raiders’ running back Darren McFadden. A -4.78. Oh jeez. I couldn’t resist, I took the standard deviation of the contract qualities of all 469 contracts I’ve evaluated (including tackles, whom we’ll get to in a moment).4 It’s a 1.2. Joseph’s contract quality is four standard deviations below the average. It’s just another of a dozen ways of saying: the Bucs are paying him way, way too much money.5

Last of the offensive positions, here are the Top 5 performing tackles:

  • 1. Joe Staley, SF (24.7)
  • 2. Jordan Gross, CAR (23.1)
  • 3. Joe Thomas, CLE (23)
  • 4. Jake Long, STL (22.3)
  • 5. Demar Dotson, TB (20.6)

Alright Joe Staley! Gross, Thomas, and Long find themselves among the Top 10 tackles in compensation. We’ll have to see if they’re truly worth it6, but at least they are some of the best at their position. Here are the Bottom 5 tackles:

  • 74. Eric Fisher, KC (-19.9)
  • 75. Lamar Holmes, ATL (-22.6)
  • 76. Bradley Sowell, ARI (-23.1)
  • 77. Paul McQuistan, SEA (-23.2)
  • 78. Jordan Mills, CHI (-31.5)

Eric Fisher, first overall pick in last year’s draft, continues to struggle.7 And tackle may be the last offensive position we look at, but it’s the first without someone pulling a Flacco! Tackles on big contracts may not be worth all the money, but they’ve at least played somewhat respectably. The closest to Flacco levels of pay and performance is the Chicago Bears’ Jermon Bushrod, who is the tenth best paid and the 13th worst on the field. The average grade of a tackle is a 1.82 and the standard deviation is 12.1. So while the group at the top is somewhat tight, Jordan Mills, also of the Bears, is pretty alone at the bottom. Poor Jay Cutler and Josh McCown! Here are the Top 5 paid tackles:

  • 1. Jason Peters, PHI ($10.11m)
  • 2. Joe Thomas, CLE ($10.063m)
  • 3. Trent Williams, WAS ($10m)
  • 4. Branden Albert, KC ($9.828m)
  • 5. Jordan Gross, CAR ($9.4m)

And the Bottom 5 paid tackles:

  • 74. Don Barclay, GB ($0.481m)
  • 75. Byron Bell, CAR ($0.47m)
  • 76. Cameron Bradfield, JAC ($0.467m)
  • 77. Matt McCants, OAK ($0.45m)
  • 78. Austin Pasztor, JAC ($0.435m)

Top paid Jason Peters is currently PFF’s 23rd ranked tackle, while Matt McCants is currently their 27th ranked tackle (through Week 12). Hmm. The average salary of tackles who’ve played 25% or more of their teams’ snaps is $3.347 million, the standard deviation $2.946 million. So, the Top 5 tackle contracts are (contract quality in parentheses):

  • 1. Tyler Polumbus, WAS (2.22)
  • 2. Demar Dotson, TB (2.14)
  • 3. Zach Strief, NO (1.89)
  • 4. Cordy Glenn, BUF (1.61)
  • 5. Chris Clark, DEN (1.49)

ESPM presents the award for best offensive tackle contract in the 2013 NFL Season (so far) to Washington Redskins General Manager Bruce Allen. Congratulations Bruce! Polumbus went undrafted out of University of Colorado Boulder, signing with the Broncos in 2008, the Lions and Seahawks in 2010, and then the Redskins in 2011. Dotson, Strief, and Clark are also veterans of a few short-term deals, while Glenn is on the second year of his rookie tender. Like the avoidance of a Flacco, this too suggests there may be something different about how tackles are evaluated and paid, relative to the other positions we’ve examined. Here are the Worst 5 tackle contracts:

  • 74. Jordan Mills, CHI (-1.82)
  • 75. William Beatty, NYG (-1.96)
  • 76. Jermon Bushrod, CHI (-2.24)
  • 77. D’Brickashaw Ferguson, NYJ (-2.39)
  • 78. Eric Fisher, KC (-2.54)

Yup, and completing the trend is rookie Eric Fisher, first overall selection of last year’s class. Mills is also a rookie, while Beatty and Ferguson are on their second contract, and Bushrod is on his third. Also the Chicago Bears! When both of your tackles play badly and are a big waste of money, well, it’s harder to win the NFC North at least.

As for what’s different about tackles, I’m not sure. They are the second highest paid position with that $3.347 million average. But I can’t see why NFL offices would be better at evaluating tackles than other positions (especially offensive line positions). Perhaps they aren’t, and it’s an aberration. Or perhaps it’s simply harder for younger tackles to come in and have success early, relative to other positions. Given that tackles are usually without help to their outside, that may be reasonable, and would certainly lend hope to fans of Fisher and Mills. In any case, I’m excited to revisit pay and performance upon the season’s conclusion and see if something more can be gleaned then.


  1. As if blocking a bunch of super quick super heavy super strong dudes from getting to where they’re paid millions of dollars to get to doesn’t require skill. Skill positions… who decided we call them that? 
  2. Contract Quality = (# Standard Deviations above/below Average Performance) – (# Standard Deviations above/below Average Salary) 
  3. Both Joseph and Nix are the rare examples of players who, using this analysis, should be paid negative dollars. That’s how badly they have played. Unfortunately negative dollars don’t have a clear interpretation. Should they pay their teams to let them play? Or should their teams pay them not to play? I’ll see if I can tinker with the analysis to resolve the issue, but for now just rest assured that they are playing terribly. 
  4. Yes, the average contract quality is 0. More on that when my search is said and done, after the regular season. 
  5. If, as I was, you’re curious about Joseph, keep reading. The Bucs drafted Davin Joseph 23rd overall in 2006. In 2008, he was PFF’s 57th ranked guard of 74, and made the Pro Bowl as a substitute; 2009, 75th of 84; 2010, 82nd of 82, and after that season signed his current contract, averaging $7.5 million a year over seven years with $19 million guaranteed, the fourth most expensive guard contract in the league today; 2011, 46th of 78, with another Pro Bowl appearance; and 2012 he missed the entire season due to injury. His Wikipedia page currently states that “He is currently considered to be one of the best guards in the NFL.” (CITATION NEEDED!!!!!) Mark Dominick, hired in early 2009 as the Bucs general manager, gave Joseph that contract… and is still their general manager today. Ben Dogra is Joseph’s agent; he also represents Adrian Peterson, Robert Griffin III, and the 49ers’ own Patrick Willis, as well as more NFL first round draft picks than any other agent since 2004, well, according to Wikipedia. (CITATION NEEDED) In any case, well done Mr. Dogra. Well f$%*ing done. 
  6. All three of them have negative contract values, but they aren’t too bad. Jake Long’s is -0.06, for example. And the season’s not done yet. 
  7. Luke Joeckel, 2nd overall pick, also struggled to a -6 grade through 280 snaps with the Jaguars before an injury ended his season weeks ago. 
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