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Best Contracts in Football

Using the same method as my other posts about various good and bad NFL contracts, these are the best, best-paid, worst, worst-paid, and–most importantly–most over and underpaid punters based on their average annual salary and their play in the 2013 season.

A player’s contract quality is determined by the number of standard deviations their performance grade is above/below the average at their position, minus the number of standard deviations their average annual salary is above/below the average at their position. Player performance grades come from Pro Football Focus; salary details come from Spotrac.com.

Teams presumably pay players based not only on their on-field ability, but on their skill at attracting fans and sponsorships, their locker room mentality, and other intangibles. But then again, presumably not many fans watch an NFL game to see a punter.

These are the results. In particular, note where Johnny Hekker, an undrafted free agent signed by the Rams in 2012, pops up throughout the various measures.

The Best 5 Punters of the 2013 NFL Season (PFF Grade in Parentheses)

  • 1. Shane Lechler, HOU (40.9)
  • 2. Johnny Hekker, STL (36.1)
  • 3. Brad Nortman, CAR (23.5)
  • 4. Britton Colquitt, DEN (16.2)
  • 5. Chris Jones, DAL (15.2)

The Worst 5 Punters of the 2013 NFL Season

  • 21. Ryan Quigley, NYJ (1.6)
  • 22. Spencer Lanning, CLE (-1.8)
  • 23. Marquette King, OAK (-8.3)
  • 24. Jeff Locke, MIN (-10.6)
  • 25. Adam Podlesh, CHI (-10.8)

The 5 Highest Average Punter Salaries of the 2013 NFL Season (millions of $)

  • 1. Britton Colquitt, DEN ($3.892 million)
  • 2. Dustin Colquitt, KC ($3.75m)
  • 3. Mike Scifres, SD ($3.625m)
  • 4. Andy Lee, SF ($3.4m)
  • 5. Brandon Fields, MIA ($2.895m)

The 5 Lowest Average Salaries of the 2013 NFL Season

  • 21. Ryan Quigley, NYJ & Ryan Allen, NE ($0.495m)
  • 22. Johnny Hekker, STL ($0.483m)
  • 23. Marquette King, OAK ($0.48m)
  • 24. Chris Jones, DAL ($0.465m)
  • 25. Spencer Lanning, CLE ($0.45m)

The 5 Best Kicker Contracts of the 2013 NFL Season (CQ in parentheses)

  • 1. Johnny Hekker, STL (3.24)
  • 2. Shane Lechler, HOU (2.48)
  • 3. Brad Nortman, CAR (2.12)
  • 4. Chris Jones, DAL (1.48)
  • 5. Ryan Allen, NE (0.85)

The 5 Worst Kicker Contracts of the 2013 NFL Season

  • 21. Andy Lee, SF (-1.07)
  • 22. Mike Scifres, SD (-1.26)
  • 23. Britton Colquitt, DEN (-1.39)
  • 24. Dustin Colquitt, KC (-1.79)
  • 25. Adam Podlesh, CHI (-2.06)
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Finally, you can settle all those bar bets about which teams pay their kickers too much! Matt Prater was the best kicker this season, with a Pro Football Focus grade of 63.5, but was he the best bargain? Read more to find out!

There are a couple of things to note about kickers. Thirty-six kickers played in 12 or more of their teams’ games this season, meaning they attempted field goals, or kickoffs, or both. Five of them are actually punters, at least technically, as they punt and kickoff, leaving five kickers in the league who contribute to their teams by kicking field goals. The five hybrids, who kick and punt, are not considered in this evaluation.

These numbers come from PFF and Spotrac.com, and concern only the regular season. The PFF grades control for quite a bit, measuring kickoff success and touchbacks, adjusting for field goal distance differences, etc., but they do not control for the thin air in Denver. Take Prater’s high marks with a grain of salt; he is still a good kicker though. A player’s contract quality is determined by the number of standard deviations their performance grade is above/below the average at their position, minus the number of standard deviations their average annual salary is above/below the average at their position.

The Top Five Kickers of the 2013 NFL Season (PFF Grade in parentheses)

  • 1. Matt Prater, DEN (63.5)
  • 2. Stephen Gostkowski, NE (46)
  • 3. Graham Gano, CAR (45)
  • 4. Dan Bailey, DAL (41.3)
  • 5. Steven Hauschka, SEA (33.8)

The Worst Five Kickers of the 2013 NFL Season

  • 27. David Akers, DET (6.9)
  • 28. Matt Bryant, ATL (6.8)
  • 29. Rian Lindell, TB (6.6)
  • 30. Kai Forbath, WAS (3)
  • 31. Shaun Suisham, PIT (1.7)

Pittsburgh is possibly the worst place to kick footballs, but again, Prater is probably better by some degree, if not 40 times better. Who gets paid the most?

Highest Five Average Kicker Salaries of the 2013 NFL Season (millions of $)

  • 1. Sebastian Janikowski, OAK ($3.775 million)
  • 2. Josh Scobee, JAC ($3.45m)
  • 3. Rob Bironas, TEN ($3.338m)
  • 4. Matt Prater, DEN ($3.25m)
  • 5. Dan Bailey, DAL ($3.214m)

Lowest Five Average Kicker Salaries of the 2013 NFL Season

  • 27. Greg Zuerlein, STL ($0.569m)
  • 28. Blair Walsh, MIN ($0.554m)
  • 29. Randy Bullock, HOU ($0.551m)
  • 30. Justin Tucker, BAL & Kai Forbath, WAS ($0.48m)

Apart from being good, there is a reason why teams like good young players: they come cheap on their first contract. How do they compare to the veterans, when evaluating which teams got the most leg for their buck? Remember,

Contract Quality = # SDs performance above/below average – # SDs salary above/below average

Five Best Kicker Contracts of the 2013 NFL Season (CQ in parentheses)

  • 1. Graham Gano, CAR (2.58)
  • 2. Justin Tucker, BAL (1.91)
  • 3. Greg Zuerlein, STL (1.76)
  • 4. Steven Hauschka, SEA (1.65)
  • 5. Matt Prater, DEN (1.63)

Congratulations to Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman! With the third-best on-field performance, and the 24th-lowest average salary, Graham Gano has been a steal.

Five Worst Kicker Contracts of the 2013 NFL Season

  • 27. Rob Bironas, TEN (-1.74)
  • 28. Adam Vinatieri, IND (-1.96)
  • 29. Matt Bryant, ATL (-2.06)
  • 30. Sebastian Janikowski, OAK (-2.13)
  • 31. Mason Crosby, GB (-2.14)

And it’s Crosby by a nose! Really a shame, because there is often a nice poetry when the most expensive paid player at a position just happens to be the most overpaid. Next time, Janikowski.

A final question: do kickers have it easy, or hard? They are NFL athletes without the wear and tear on their bodies. They do not work as much as other players (in terms of game time). Though forever lacking the stardom of quarterbacks, they are the only other scoring players of whom there is only one at their position, and likely more popular than a good many “regular” position players. And as Vinatieri showed us in three different Pats Super Bowls, they can take a lot of credit and become very popular with just a few good kicks. However, they suffer from few opportunities. A run of bad luck and a few consecutive missed kicks, the random error in a sample, can end their careers, as Garrett Hartley experienced this season. Their opportunities to show improvement are limited, kicking only 30-40 field goals a year, with maybe 80-100 kickoffs. Most other players see that many opportunities to make a play every game. And kickers know they usually determine the outcome of close, memorable games. They face a pressure exclusive to them. Oh, and occasionally they have to tackle speedy hot shots twice their size, or worse, they are blocked by eager special teamers three times their size.

Now that all the bar bets on overpaid and underpaid kickers are settled, move on to this one! Do kickers have it easy, or hard?

For a breakdown of how this works, check out last week’s 2013 NFL All-Best-Contracts Team: Offense. In brief, contract quality measures how much a player’s performance outperforms (or under performs) other players at his position, relative to how much more (or less) he is paid compared to other players at his position. Data is for the 2013 NFL regular season, for players who played 25% or more of their teams’ snaps. Player grades are from Pro Football Focus; salaries from Spotrac.com. Enjoy!

The 2013 NFL All-Best-Contracts Team: Defense

Position Name Team Contract Quality
4-3 DE Robert Quinn STL 4.94
4-3 DE Greg Hardy CAR 2.38
3-4 OLB Justin Houston KC 3.04
3-4 OLB Jerry Hughes BUF 1.74
DT/NT Jurrell Casey TEN 2.66
DT/NT Damon Harrison NYJ 2.65
3-4 DE J.J. Watt HOU 5.12
3-4 DE Cameron Jordan NO 1.61
4-3 OLB Lavonte David TB 2.8
4-3 OLB Von Miller DEN 1.43
ILB Brandon Spikes NE 2.2
ILB Sean Lee DAL 2.07
CB Tyrann Mathieu ARI 2.7
CB Richard Sherman SEA 2.35
S Will Hill NYG 2.94
S Devin McCourty NE 2.65

Position Averages

Position Average Grade Average Salary
4-3 DE 2.12 $3,951,495
3-4 OLB 4.56 $3,951,155
DT/NT 6.33 $2,659,400
3-4 DE 9.71 $2,942,473
4-3 OLB 1.61 $2,220,254
ILB -4.43 $3,157,462
CB 0.16 $2,683,442
S -1.37 $2,381,485

Player Breakdowns

Position Name Team Grade Rank (of) Average Salary Rank (of)
4-3 DE Robert Quinn STL 77.2 1 (52) $2,359,013 27 (52)
4-3 DE Greg Hardy CAR 27 3 (52) $693,946 42 (52)
3-4 OLB Justin Houston KC 31.8 1 (42) $696,562 38 (42)
3-4 OLB Jerry Hughes BUF 19.7 8 (42) $1,950,000 26 (42)
DT/NT Jurrell Casey TEN 36.1 4 (69) $683,109 52 (69)
DT/NT Damon Harrison NYJ 34.8 5 (69) $482,333 68 (69)
3-4 DE J.J. Watt HOU 111.6 1 (45) $2,809,375 17 (45)
3-4 DE Cameron Jordan NO 34.9 4 (45) $1,932,850 23 (45)
4-3 OLB Lavonte David TB 26.4 2 (35) $867,933 24 (35)
4-3 OLB Von Miller DEN 40.3 1 (35) $5,250,095 5 (35)
ILB Brandon Spikes NE 9.8 5 (55) $800,000 37 (55)
ILB Sean Lee DAL 8.7 7 (55) $872,500 35 (55)
CB Tyrann Mathieu ARI 15.5 3 (109) $717,230 77 (109)
CB Richard Sherman SEA 12.4 6 (109) $555,606 96 (109)
S Will Hill NYG 15.7 2 (85) $480,000 81 (85)
S Devin McCourty NE 18.7 1 (85) $2,000,000 32 (85)

There were some technical difficulties today, presumably all around the world and definitely in my own laptop. Specifically, said difficulties concerned my ASUS “SmartGesture_Win8_64_VER225” touchpad driver, or whatever. This was not the first time. I was Not in the mood. Technology ultimately prevailed, but has left me exhausted and weak, physically and emotionally, much like yesterday’s NFC Championship game.

So this is not a post, but a repost, indeed a reposting. The following have been the most popular articles on Crossroads:

  1. Confessions of an Economic Sportsfan: I Just Spent 8 Hours, 1/4 of a Bottle of Whiskey, & 5,000 Words On the Greatest Sports Plays of All Time (Part 1 of 2)

    Around midnight of December 18th, I sat back with a fairly comprehensive Bleacher Report article (as they go), my laptop, a bottle of whiskey, a recliner chair, a big screen TV, and a YouTube to investigate what makes the “All Time Classic Plays” just so. Eight hours later, I had many thoughts, maybe even answers.

  2. Confessions of an Economic Sportsfan: I Just Spent 8 Hours, 1/4 of a Bottle of Whiskey, & 5,000 Words On the Greatest Sports Plays of All Time (Part 2 of 2)

    The results of this positively unscientific and whimsical process couldn’t be clearer: it’s a play’s impact on a game’s outcome, and how unusually the players pull it off, that are most likely to set a play apart.

  3. Confessions of an Economic Sportsfan: I Am Going There! NFC Wildcard EXCLUSIVE Preview-49ers at Packers-with Pictures! (Part 1 of 2)

    “Arctic blast”? What kind of s#$% is that? Most times there’s a winter storm, or even a blizzard. This time there’s going to be an “arctic blast”? Hell no. WARNING: EXPLICIT LANGUAGE

  4. Early Betting Super Bowl XLVIII: Who Will Win “The Big One”?

    As they were months ago, Seattle and Denver seem to be the heavyweights, but then, so did the 2007 Patriots six years ago.

  5. Home Economics: The Sportsfan’s Cost-Benefit Analysis of Snowshoeing This Chicago Winter

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  6. Weighting the Coin: A Theoretical Case for Nomentum

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  7. The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly: Winners & Losers of the 2014 FIFA World Cup Draw

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  8. Mike Tomlin, Player Fines, and What the NFL Really Cares About

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  9. ESPM Presents: The Search for the Best (& Worst) Contract in Football, LBs

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  10. NEWS FLASH: Many of the Best NFL Players Are Pro Bowl Snubs

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Via Google spreadsheets, salary databases at Spotrac.com, and player performance grades at Pro Football Focus, the 2013 NFL All-Best-Contracts Team is here at last! Well, the offense is at least. There are All Pros, and Pro Bowlers (and Pro Bowl snubs), but this list reveals which pros have really earned their salary–and then some–this season.

Finally, an evaluation of players that might not rank Peyton Manning number one without a second thought! For while surely he was the most valuable player in the league this season, did he produce the most of any player per the value his team spent on him? (SPOILER: He did not.)

There are some important points to understand before looking at the list. This process is not perfect. Precisely how much a team values a player is difficult to quantify, and the reasons a team might value a player difficult to discern. Even the player performance measures calculated by PFF have their issues.

If a team pays a player a certain amount, they must value him at that amount or more. Easy right? Not exactly. Most NFL contracts are over a period of years, with varying amounts in each year. There are signing bonuses, roster bonuses, statistical incentives, award incentives, base salaries, etc. These things affect a player’s yearly hit on his team’s salary cap, and consequently general managers may manipulate them (particularly base salaries) year-by-year to maintain cap balance. (Or not. Rest in peace Al Davis.) Likely, or at least usually, general managers do not expect a player’s year-to-year contributions to fluctuate as wildly as his cap hits. A player’s average salary is not a perfect measure, but is the best gauge of how much a team values a player in a given year.

What do teams value in players? Talent, sure, but likely other traits as well. A fan-favorite who increases jersey and ticket sales, perhaps even the team’s profile in the media, adds much value to a team. Such players may not always be the best performers on the field. A player’s relationship with his coaches, teammates, and other members in the organization may also impact his value. Is it ridiculous to think that the Arizona Cardinals value Larry Fitzgerald’s professionalism, and that he has never complained about his truly abysmal quarterbacks since Kurt Warner left town? And remember how even when Terrell Owens was still one of the best wide receivers in the league, a lot of teams were not willing to pay him on account of his team chemistry problems?

As quantifying such traits is quite difficult, here contract quality relates a player’s pay only to his performance. If the difference between the two is vast, it may indicate errors by a general manager, or it may indicate that a player adds or subtracts value in other ways. Comparing players at the same position relatively controls for other factors (wide receivers are more popular than linemen), but it is not perfect.

Mapping a player’s performance to a numerical output consistently across the league is difficult, but the experts at Pro Football Focus do a very good job. They have multiple analysts grade every player on every snap of every game, from a variety of camera angles. They go beyond the uninteresting conventional statistics. Did a wide receiver make a difficult catch in double coverage and break a tackle before scoring, or merely benefit from a blown coverage? Did a linebacker fight through two blockers to make a play in the backfield, or have the way cleared for him by his defensive lineman? PFF knows the answers to such questions. Though their numbers do not take into account the strength of the competition, they measure quite precisely what each player actually accomplished on every snap. NFL fans, media analysts, and the teams themselves use PFF. See here for more about PFF’s player performance grades.

Yet another can of worms is players who do not play much, due to injury, being a substitute, or whatever. Also some players have performance opportunities in the postseason while others do not. To keep the analysis on level ground, players must have played at least 25 percent of their teams’ regular season snaps, and the playoffs (as well as the preseason) do not figure into the calculations.

Given all that (and a pinch of salt), one may determine a player’s contract quality by measuring the number of standard deviations his performance is above/below the average at his position (measured by PFF), and subtract the number of standard deviations his average annual salary is above/below the average at his position (obtained via Spotrac.com). That is:

CQ = (performance SDs +/- positional average) – (salary SDs +/- positional average)

And now, ESPM1 presents to you:

The 2013 NFL All-Best-Contracts Team: Offense

Position Name Team Contract Quality
QB Russell Wilson SEA 2.52
WR Alshon Jeffery CHI 2.25
WR Jordy Nelson GB 2.24
RB Eddie Lacy GB 2.25
RB Giovani Bernard CIN 2.02
TE Jimmy Graham NO 2.85
FB Anthony Sherman KC 3.02
C Jason Kelce PHI 2.66
G Larry Warford DET 2.33
G Travelle Wharton CAR 2.04
T Zach Strief NO 1.79
T Cordy Glenn BUF 1.79

And, for some additional context, here are the league averages for performance grade and average annual salary, by position:

Position Average Grade Averge Salary
QB 2.05 $7,069,816
WR 4.01 $3,198,411
RB 4.54 $3,013,863
TE -1.25 $2,417,386
FB 2.03 $982,645
C 1.66 $2,763,763
G -1.66 $2,487,022
T 4.77 $3,477,375

And for the truly devoted, here are the performance grade and annual salary breakdowns for all twelve players:

Position Name Team Grade Rank (of) Average Salary Rank (of)
QB Russell Wilson SEA 24.1 4 (42) $749,176 36 (42)
WR Alshon Jeffery CHI 18.7 8 (110) $1,112,028 61 (110)
WR Jordy Nelson GB 24.7 2 (110) $3,497,250 35 (110)
RB Eddie Lacy GB 18.5 3 (55) $848,103 34 (55)
RB Giovani Bernard CIN 17.8 5 (55) $1,313,466 29 (55)
TE Jimmy Graham NO 13.4 1 (64) $613,785 50 (64)
FB Anthony Sherman KC 17.4 1 (25) $561,725 12 (25)
C Jason Kelce PHI 18.9 1 (35) $534,358 35 (35)
G Larry Warford DET 22.8 4 (80) $768,750 60 (80)
G Travelle Wharton CAR 20.5 5 (80) $1,100,000 47 (80)
T Zach Strief NO 26.5 7 (74) $1,916,667 39 (74)
T Cordy Glenn BUF 23 13 (74) $1,216,295 47 (74)

And that is the offense of the 2013 NFL All-Best-Contract Team. Check back (next week, most likely) for the defense!


  1. Economics and Sports Management, a recurring feature on Crossroads dealing with, well, the economic management of sports and sports teams. 
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