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

The football was the most amazing football last Sunday. I’m still processing it, and probably won’t be ready to talk about it until at least Friday. But I must go on with my continuing Economics and Sports Management recurring feature, The Search for the Best (& Worst!) Contract in Football. The end is near!1 We’re finally in the defensive backfield, as I look at cornerback pay and performance. And we have a serious challenger for guard Davin Joseph’s former stranglehold on the worst contract in the league.

First, some usual disclaimers: other things go into a player’s market value besides on-field performance. Measuring those things, how popular a player is, if he makes his teammates better, if he’s a good guy to have around, works well with the coaches, etc, is really, really hard. Certainly performance is a huge component of pay though. Tim Tebow, even Brett Favre, hell even Mike Tyson would still probably sell some tickets, but you don’t see them getting NFL contracts. Also, while certain players may rake in the ticket and jersey sales, that is at least partially controlled for by doing the analysis by position. The backs and receivers, even the tight ends may bring a lot of money in without their play, but take Davin Joseph. Earlier this season I estimated he was overpaid by $10+ million dollars.2 You can’t make a case that he’s helping the Buccaneers recoup that in other ways, certainly not all $10 million. Similarly, with a few exceptions, I don’t think fans go to watch other offensive linemen, or really any defensive players.3

Secondly, the Pro Football Focus grades I use for this analysis are super awesome, but not 100% perfect. I think their main weakness is not controlling for the quality of the opposition, down to the individual level. If a cornerback blankets Calvin Johnson and holds him without a catch on 10 targets with three passes defensed and no penalties, it counts the same as another corner who does exactly the same thing to Greg Little.4 Still, over the course of a season, things should even out a good deal, if not completely. Doing the analysis after one game would be almost meaningless. But after thirteen games of players getting graded on every play, it’s much more compelling.

Cornerbacks! 111 have played 25% or more of their teams’ snaps through Week 14. The Buffalo Bills released Justin Rogers earlier this season, so I dropped him from the sample. (He lost an opportunity to perform, and they stopped paying him, so…) Here are the Top 10 performing cornerbacks on the field this season (PFF grade in parentheses):

  • 1. Darrelle Revis, TB (18.1)
  • 2. Tyrann Mathieu, ARI (15.5)
  • 3. Patrick Peterson, ARI (13.1)
  • 4. Brent Grimes, MIA (12.5)
  • 5. William Gay, PIT (11.1)
  • 6. Jason McCourty, TEN (10.9)
  • 7. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, DEN (10.8)
  • 8. Tramaine Brock, SF (10.7)
  • 9. Vontae Davis, IND (10.5)
  • 10. Leon Hall, CIN (8.7)

That Derrelle Revis guy, still pretty good it turns out, even after age and injuries have had their say. Poor rookie sensation Tyrann Mathieu tore his ACL and LCL this past Sunday, ending his season. It’s truly a shame, as Arizona had a good, and entertaining, duo going on with Mathieu and his former LSU teammate Patrick Peterson reunited. And while some of San Francisco’s Tramaine Brock’s grade was as the third corner usually covering the opponent’s third wide receiver, the last few weeks he’s been starting for an injured Tarell Brown, performing very well. On to the Bottom 10:

  • 101. Dee Milliner, NYJ (-9.1)
  • 102. Leonard Johnson, TB (-9.2)
  • 103. David Amerson, WAS (-9.3)
  • 104. Brandon Flowers, KC (-9.7)
  • 105. Antonio Cromartie, NYJ (-10.5)
  • 106. Ike Taylor, PIT (-11.2)
  • 107. Derek Cox, SD (-11.8)
  • 108. Shareece Wright, SD (-12.4)
  • 109. Brice McCain, HOU (-12.7)
  • 110. Cortland Finnegan, STL (-19.7)

Revis left the Jets for Tampa Bay, and his first round draft pick replacement Dee Milliner hasn’t quite fit the bill just yet. (Though note that another thing PFF grades don’t measure is potential.) Antonio Cromartie has played well in the past though, not sure what’s up with him. Down at the bottom, solidly entrenched by his terrible play, is Cortland Finnegan of the Rams. Again, the worst corner so far this season is Cortland Finnegan, by a sound margin. The average grade is a 0.18, with a standard deviation of 6.69. Eeesh, as usual, tremendous variation in player performance.

Here are the Top 10 paid cornerbacks who’ve played 25% or more of their teams’ snaps (average annual salaries in millions of dollars, reported by Spotrac.com, in parentheses):

  • 1. Darrelle Revis, TB ($16 million)
  • 2. Brandon Carr, DAL ($10.02m)
  • 3. Cortland Finnegan, STL ($10m)
  • 4. Johnathan Joseph, HOU ($9.75m)
  • 5. Joe Haden, CLE ($8.547m)
  • 6. Leon Hall, CIN ($8.475m)
  • 7. Lardarius Webb, BAL ($8.333m)
  • 8. Brandon Flowers, KC ($8.225m)
  • 9. Antonio Cromartie, NYJ ($8m)
  • 10. Tramon Williams, GB ($7.615m)

Hey, it’s Cortland Finnegan! He is the third most expensive corner in the league and on average makes $10 million a year. Alright! Also Darrelle Revis’ contract is more than two standard deviations above the next most paid player. Remember, while his play was tops as well, it was less than one standard deviation above the next best player. Not looking like a good contract for the Buccaneers. These are the Bottom 10 paid cornerbacks:

  • 101. Alfonzo Dennard, NE ($0.539m)
  • 102. Byron Maxwell, SEA ($0.538m)
  • 103. Jimmy Wilson, MIA ($0.521m)
  • 104. Robert McClain, ATL ($0.51m)
  • 105. Nolan Carroll, MIA ($0.497m)
  • 106. Nickell Robey, BUF & Melvin White, CAR ($0.495m)
  • 108. Leonard Johnson, TB ($0.483m)
  • 109. Chris Harris Jr, DEN ($0.466m)
  • 110. Isaiah Frey, CHI ($0.45m)

The average annual salary is $2.722 million, with a standard deviation of $2.873 million. As with a couple other positions that unusually had a standard deviation greater than the average, this indicates a few players (or in this case, a Derrelle Revis) who are just paid boatloads of money more than their peers. Are they worth it? What do you think?

The Top 10 cornerback contracts so far this season (contract quality5 in parentheses):

  • 1. Tyrann Mathieu, ARI (2.99)
  • 2. Tramaine Brock, SF & William Gay, PIT (2.06)
  • 4. Chris Harris Jr, DEN & Richard Sherman, SEA (1.85)
  • 6. Will Blackmon, JAC (1.84)
  • 7. Alterraun Verner, TEN (1.81)
  • 8. Vontae Davis, IND (1.78)
  • 9. Alan Ball, JAC (1.77)
  • 10. Corey White, NO (1.75)

And it’s Honey Badger in front! Congratulations to Arizona Cardinals General Manager Steve Keim! And apologies to the Cardinals for their bad luck that Mathieu went out for the season two days ago. That just sucks. But hey, at least he’s really good and you’re not paying him very much money and he’s only a rookie! It could be worse…

… and the Worst 10 contracts (so far):

  • 101. Cary Williams, PHI (-1.93)
  • 102. Darrelle Revis, TB (-1.94)
  • 103. Chris Houston, DET (-2.03)
  • 104. Charles Tillman, CHI (-2.11)
  • 105. Derek Cox, SD (-2.58)
  • 106. Brandon Carr, DAL (-2.81)
  • 107. Ike Taylor, PIT (-3.19)
  • 108. Brandon Flowers, KC (-3.39)
  • 109. Antonio Cromartie, NYJ (-3.43)
  • 110. Cortland Finnegan, STL (-5.5)

Ladies and gentlemen, Cortland Finnegan! A -5.5! AAAUUUGGGHHH!!! That is so, so, so bad. A few players had -3 or so (they may have since improved, or worsened ). Guard Davin Joseph had a -4.78. A -5.5 through thirteen games… There are a couple more things I want to point out (like Darrelle Revis!), but I just… I’m done. There are no words. -5.5.


  1. Well, not really. I’ll be doing this all again, bigger and better, with even MOAR analysis, at the end of the season. 
  2. He only makes $7.5 million a year. He’s so bad is just doesn’t even make sense. He broke the analysis. I’m still working on it. 
  3. Yeah, there are some exceptions. I said that! But when you look at all the starting defensive players in the league, that’s 11 * 32 = 352. How many can you name off the top of your head? How many of those don’t play for your team? 20? 30? The vast majority of them lack “star power”. I may not be able to measure it, but I know it when I see it. Most guys don’t have it. If most guys did have it, we’d have to call it something else, or move to Lake Wobegon. 
  4. Currently PFF’s worst graded receiver with a -13.9 through Week 14. 
  5. Reminder: contract quality is determined by how a player’s on-field performance, relative to the average using standard deviations, relates to his salary, relative to the average using standard deviations. CQ = performance SDs above/below the average – salary SDs above/below the average 
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