ESPM Presents: The Search for the Best (& Worst!) Contract in the NFL: Ss

At last it has arrived! The final position (excluding special teams) of my mid-season search for the best contract in football, a recurring Economics and Sports Management feature. It’s the last post (until the season is over), and it focuses on the last men to beat in the defensive backfield: safeties. As always, players’ on-field performance grades come from the experts at Pro Football Focus and players’ average annual contract salaries come from the databases at Spotrac.com.

These are the Top 10 safeties this season, through Week 14 (PFF grades in parentheses):

  • 1. Devin McCourty, NE (17.3)
  • 2. Donte Whitner, SF (13.5)
  • 3. T.J. Ward, CLV (13.1)
  • 4. Will Hill, NYG (12.3)
  • 5. James Ihedigbo, BAL (11.8)
  • 6. Eric Berry, KC (10.7)
  • 7. Jairus Byrd, BUF (9.2)
  • 8. Earl Thomas, SEA (5.7)
  • 9. Kam Chancellor, SEA (5.5)
  • 10. Rashad Johnson, ARI (5.4)

I was a little surprised to see Whitner, but it looks like he’s put in the work this year after getting torched in the Super Bowl. I would guess Troy Polamalu is the most famous safety, but despite being big for Head and Shoulders he hasn’t been among the very best on the field, earning a 4.4 grade, good for 17th in the league.1 Here are the Bottom 10:

  • 74. Reshad Jones, MIA (-9.8)
  • 75. Dashon Goldson, SF (-10.9)
  • 76. Bacarri Rambo, WAS (-11)
  • 77. Thomas DeCoud, ATL (-11.2)
  • 78. Josh Evans, JAC (-11.5)
  • 79. Chris Conte, CHI (-12.2)
  • 80. Brandon Meriweather, WAS (-13.1)
  • 81. John Cyprien, JAC (-18.1)
  • 82. Brandian Ross, OAK (-21.8)
  • 83. Major Wright, CHI (-24.3)

Rough times in Chicago and Jacksonville. There are actually 85 safeties who’ve played 25% or more of their potential snaps. Will Allen was released earlier this year by the Dallas Cowboys, and Ed Reed was released by the Texans only to be signed by the Jets. I dropped them both from the analysis, although Reed’s substantial drop in pay will be worth mentioning in a bit. Among the other 83 safeties, the average grade was a -1.25, with a standard deviation of 7.32. And here are the Top 10 safety salaries (average annual salary in millions of dollars in parentheses):

  • 1. Troy Polamalu, PIT ($9.125 million)
  • 2. Eric Berry, KC ($8.341m)
  • 3. Dashon Goldson, TB ($8.25m)
  • 4. Eric Weddle, SD ($8m)
  • 5. Antrel Rolle, NYG ($7.4m)
  • 6. Reshad Jones, MIA ($7.34m)
  • 7. Michael Griffin, TEN ($7m)
  • 8. Jairus Byrd, BUF ($6.916m)
  • 9. Antoine Bethea, IND ($6.75m)
  • 10. LaRon Landry, IND ($6m)

Goldson, 9th worst safety on the year, is the third highest paid, with Jones joining him in the worst-play-best-pay clubhouse. And both Colt safeties also have performance grades below the -1.25 average. Not what you want for top dollar. Here are the Bottom 10 paid safeties:

  • 74. Antonio Allen, NYJ ($0.537m)
  • 75. Jaiquawn Jarrett, NYJ ($0.525m)
  • 76. Robert Lester, CAR & Jeff Heath, DAL ($0.495m)
  • 78. Rodney McLeod, STL ($0.481m)
  • 79. Will Hill, NYG, Tashaun Gipson, CLE, Duke Ihenacho, DEN, & Brandian Ross, OAK ($0.48m)
  • 83. M.D. Jennings, GB ($0.466m)

The average safety’s salary is $2.422 million, with a standard deviation of $2.334 million. As with many positions, salaries vary much less than performance. Now, before awarding another general manager with another award for one of the best contracts in football, I give you Ed Reed.

This past off-season Reed signed a three-year contract with the Houston Texans, averaging $5 million a year, a little less than his previous seven-year contract with the Baltimore Ravens, which averaged $5.726 million. In 2008 (as far back as PFF data goes), Reed was the 4th highest graded safety of 83 who had significant playing time; in 2009, 2nd of 88; in 2010, 9th of 85; in 2011, 12th of 87; and last season, 59th of 88. A 12-year veteran, the Ravens let him go, but the Texans paid him well above average. Through Week 10, in seven games with the Texans Reed graded at -6.3, a -0.9 per game. The current league average among safeties is roughly a -0.09; Reed was playing much worse. Houston released him (still owing him about two million dollars), and the Jets signed him to a one-year contract worth only $0.94 million. With the Jets he’s still played poorly, a -1.5 grade through four games, but his current contract is much more favorable to the Jets than his old one was to the Texans. I estimate that his current contract quality is actually 0.59, a good move for the Jets (as it was a good move for the Texans to cut him). While Reed may be one of the better known safeties, in the period of a season and a half, as his play declined sharply, teams’ willingness to pay him declined sharply as well. On-field performance matters a great deal (duh).

On to the Top 10 safety contracts this season, so far (contract quality2 in parentheses):

  • 1. Devin McCourty, NE (2.72)
  • 2. Will Hill, NYG (2.68)
  • 3. James Ihedigbo, BAL (2.49)
  • 4. T.J. Ward, CLE (2.45)
  • 5. Robert Lester, CAR (1.72)
  • 6. George Iloka, CIN (1.58)
  • 7. Donte Whitner, SF (1.37)
  • 8. Ryan Mundy, NYG & Glover Quin, DET (1.34)
  • 10. Andrew Sandejo, MIN (1.28)

Another ESPM congratulations to New England Patriots General Manager (and head coach) Bill Belichick. Those top six contracts are all top 16 performers (the first four are top five performers) who make less than the average safety. Note that Baltimore, having moved on from Reed, is getting excellent value from Ihedigbo. In a similar play from the losers of last year’s Super Bowl, the 49ers let Dashon Goldson go in free agency, keeping Whitner3 and drafting rookie Eric Reid in the first round, currently the 25th best contract with a +3.3 grade on $2.12 million. As for Goldson, well… here are the Worst 10 contracts this season:

  • 74. Morgan Burnett, GB (-1.71)
  • 75. Thomas DeCoud, ATL (-1.82)
  • 76. John Cyprien, JAC (-1.85)
  • 77. Brandon Meriweather, WAS (-1.87)
  • 78. Brandian Ross, OAK (-1.98)
  • 79. Troy Polamalu, PIT (-2.1)
  • 80. Antoine Bethea, IND (-2.33)
  • 81. Major Wright, CHI (-2.39)
  • 82. Reshad Jones, MIA (-3.28)
  • 83. Dashon Goldson, TB (-3.82)

Yup, the Bucs rewarded Goldson with the third most money among all safeties, and he’s been, in a word, bad. It is worth pointing out that while building through the draft and getting some cheap contracts and all are usually good ideas, they aren’t foolproof. Cyprien went 33rd overall to the Jaguars, the first pick of the second round. Brandian Ross and Major Wright both make well below a million dollars, but they have just been really, really bad out there.

Once again, the data suggest that there is no ironclad, golden rule to attain success in the NFL. If there was, it would be easy. And boring.


  1. Of course, his popularity may benefit the Steelers in other ways, but for now I won’t be getting into it. It’s not a simple task. 
  2. CQ = # SDs a player’s performance grade is above/below the mean – # SDs a player’s average annual salary is above/below the mean 
  3. Soon to be HITner! Oh never mind. Thank goodness, I sure thought that was dumb. 
Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: