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Player performance grades from Pro Football Focus; salary information from Spotrac.com; contract quality is the number of standard deviations a player’s performance is above/below the average, minus the number of standard deviations his average annual salary is above/below the average; all rankings are positional; Michael Johnson is a 4-3 defensive end.

Numbers

Age: 27 (28 on February 7th, 2015)
Old Team: Cincinnati Bengals
Old Contract: 1 year/$11.175 million, $11.175 million average (5th highest paid of 62)
2013 PFF Grade: 25.9 (4th)
2013 Contract Quality: -0.53 (39th)
New Team: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
New Contract: 5 years/$43.75 million, $8.75 million average (projected 7th highest paid)

* indicates a franchise tag contract

Notes

Yesterday I wrote how the Carolina Panthers will likely regret using the franchise tag on Greg Hardy (who is also a 4-3 defensive end) this season. Michael Johnson shows exactly why. Unable to lock Johnson down long-term, the Bengals seemingly overpaid him by $2 million last year to keep him for one season.1 Cincinnati could not workout a long-term deal again this year, and unable to franchise Johnson again he took his talent to Tampa Bay. Ta-da!

But hey, last season the salary cap was $123 million. What could an additional $2 million (or $11 million if they had let Johnson walk) have bought the Bengals anyway? In 2013, average NFL tight ends, fullbacks, and guards (who played 75% or more of their teams’ snaps) earned average annual salaries of less than $2.5 million. The average starting NFL offensive line last season cost a team $14.691 million. True, good, even average players are not necessarily available for the signing, in which case seemingly overspending to keep a player that is attainable is less harmful. Nonetheless, the Bengals likely could have put the money spent on Johnson last year to better use.

But that is all in the past. How do things look from the perspective of Johnson’s new team? Tampa Bay fans should like this signing. Last season Johnson’s approximate worth was $9.206 million; the Bucs will pay him a little less than that for five years, most of which will come before Johnson turns 30. There may be an adjustment period with a new team, but he seems well in his prime.

Though Johnson will no longer have Geno Atkins to assist him along the line, the equally freakish Gerald McCoy will be with him in Tampa through 2015. The Bucs defensive front looks set. If they get a deal or two of Johnson’s quality on the offensive side, just maybe they can challenge in the NFC South.


  1. Johnson did earn the fourth-highest PFF grade while making the fifth-most money at his position, which seems like a steal. But based on the performances and salaries of all 4-3 defensive ends last year, only Robert Quinn’s outlying expertise is worthy of $10 million-plus annually; Johnson was not the only player overpaid last season. And while there are factors to consider besides on-field performance, Johnson likely would not win an NFL fan popularity contest. 
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The NFL New Year draws nigh. Over the last few days pending free agents have been eligible to re-sign with their current team, but starting tomorrow they can sign with any club. Here are some figures to consider concerning the big names who already chose to stick with their team.

* denotes a team using its one-year franchise tag

Defensive Ends (4-3)

Michael Bennett

** all salary information from Spotrac.com

Age: 28 (29 on November 13th)
Old Contract**: 1 year/$4.8 million, $4.8 million average (18th-highest among position)
2013 PFF Grade: 24.2 (5th of 52 4-3 defensive ends with significant playing time)
2013 Contract Quality***: 1.09 (5th among position)
New Contract: 4 years/$28.5 million, $7.125 million average (projected 8th among position)

*** a player’s contract quality is the number of standard deviations his performance is above/below the average at his position (measured by PFF), minus the number of standard deviations his average annual salary is above/below the average at his position (obtained via Spotrac.com); CQ = (performance SDs +/- positional average) – (salary SDs +/- positional average)

Last year, Bennett’s play was worth about $8.8 million, given the salaries and performances of all NFL players at his position. This deal is nearly two million under that each year. May the football gods bless quarterbacks playing the Seahawks this coming season; Michael Bennett surely is not going to.

Greg Hardy

Age: 25 (26 on July 28th)
Old Contract: 4 years/$2.776 million, $0.694 million average (42nd among position)
2013 PFF Grade: 27 (3rd of 52)
2013 Contract Quality: 2.38 (2nd among position)
New Contract: 1 year/$13.116 million*, $13.116 million average (projected 2nd among position)

Hardy will probably be overpaid, at least based solely on his on-field contributions. (It may have been worthwhile for the Panthers to keep him for other reasons, such as selling tickets and not devastating their fan base.) The franchise tag is designed to strongly compensate the player, who has had his free agency stripped of him and receives only a one-year contract in return. The Panthers will be back to square one next year, with Hardy’s stock likely not going anywhere but up with him in his mid-twenties. The Panthers (likely) should have either locked him up long-term or let him go; what does one heavily overpriced year do in the meantime?1

Wide Receivers

Jeremy Maclin

Age: 25 (26 on May 11th)
Old Contract: 5 years/$14.375 million, $2.875 million average (41st among position)
2013 PFF Grade: N/A
2013 Contract Quality: N/A
New Contract: 1 year/$5.25 million, $5.25 million average (projected 27th among position)

Maclin is coming of a season-ending injury. This deal does not look terrible, and will look good if he shows he belongs in Chip Kelly’s offense. It does come with three million guaranteed, though, even if he is injured again or fails to measure up. And in his last healthy season, 2012, Pro Football Focus graded Maclin 101st among 105 wide receivers. Hm.

Anquan Boldin

Age: 33 (34 on October 3rd)
Old Contract: 3 years/$25 million, $8.333 million average (13th among position)
2013 PFF Grade: 17.9 (9th of 111)
2013 Contract Quality: 0.63 (33rd among position)
New Contract: 2 years/$12 million, $6 million average (projected 23rd among position)

Eleven years ago Anquan Boldin was one of the slower wide receivers entering the NFL draft; the Arizona Cardinals still took him 54th overall, and never regretted it. The Ravens did trade him to free up some cap money, but presumably do not regret the eight million-plus they gave him a year, after his thirtieth birthday, as he strongly contributed to their playoff trips and Super Bowl victory. The 49ers are actually paying him pretty much what they did last year (due to some dead money going to Baltimore’s books instead of San Francisco’s). And though he is old, he should not exactly “lose a step” to younger competition; he has always been slow. His strength lies in just that: his strength.

 


  1. A possible theory is that this is back pay for the good work Hardy has already done; after all, he was making pennies the last few seasons as one of the best defensive ends in the game. But Hardy was going to get millions this spring from whatever team signed him. Why would the Panthers (a business, to an extent like any other) grant him millions just because they were able to underpay him for years? 

Long ago, before Twitch started playing Pokémon, before the Sochi Winter Olympic Games, before Richard Sherman reminded us why it is a good thing baseball pitchers can throw at players’ heads, the Indianapolis Colts traded their 2014 first-round draft pick to the Cleveland Browns for their 2012 first-round (and third overall) pick, running back Trent Richardson. It is quite curious that months later, the two teams involved in the spiciest mid-season trade of the last few years should find themselves on opposite ends of the 2014 draft potential spectrum.

As blogged about previously, the Jimmy-Johnson-arbitrarily-created draft chart of the 1980s is precisely that: the chart of the 1980s. The chart of the modern, savvy NFL general manager at least resembles that of Kevin Meers’, President of the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective. Meers’ utilized decades of data from Pro Football Reference‘s career approximate value statistic to estimate the expected value of each pick in the NFL draft. Meers’ chart is not perfect–it estimates the relative value of draft choices based on performance data of all the players chosen in every draft between 1980 and 2005. It is an excellent guideline to every pick’s worth. How do all 32 teams stack up? [SPOILER: The team that received the first-round draft pick is better off.]

Team Rank Meers’ Valuation Score
CLE 1 1343.3
STL 2 1279.7
JAC 3 1178.2
HOU 4 1072.7
SF 5 999.7
MIN 6 958.6
ATL 7 900.5
OAK 8 880.6
BUF 9 845.2
TB 10 829.8
DAL 11 794.4
CHI 12 786.2
NYG 13 770.7
NYJ 14 751.6
DET 15 751.4
MIA 16 745.5
PHI 17 722.1
GB 18 718.4
CIN 19 705.7
TEN 20 701.6
SD 21 695.6
ARI 22 691.1
CAR 23 672.2
PIT 24 657.9
DEN 25 653.1
NE 26 652.6
NO 27 641.3
SEA 28 620.4
KC 29 576.8
WAS 30 572.9
BAL 31 567.3
IND 32 383.3

Without the Trent Richardson trade, the Colts’ 2014 first-rounder–26th overall, valued by Meers at 218 units–would still be in their possession. And the Colts’ total estimated 2014 draft value would be 29th instead of dead last, and the Browns’ would be fourth overall, not first. Of course, the Colts received Richardson in the trade, and as a second-year player he went on to record a…-4.8 grade from Pro Football Focus through his 16 games with the Colts so far. Hmm.

As Brian Burke notes, overall draft value may not be worth much, if it comes from several low-round picks. To be sure, low-round picks are undervalued. However, a team may only have 11 players on the field at once; if all of them are average, while they may have been obtained at good value, they likely will not win a championship. Which teams have the highest average valuation across all their 2014 draft picks?

Team Rank Average Meers’ 2014 Draft Pick Valuation
HOU 1 153.24
STL 2 142.19
BAL 3 141.83
TB 4 138.30
CLE 5 134.33
ATL 6 128.64
NYG 7 128.45
OAK 8 125.80
DET 9 125.23
BUF 10 120.74
MIN 11 119.83
JAC 12 117.82
TEN 13 116.93
ARI 14 115.18
CHI 15 112.31
PIT 16 109.65
NYJ 17 107.37
NO 18 106.88
MIA 19 106.50
PHI 20 103.16
GB 21 102.63
CIN 22 100.81
SD 23 99.37
DAL 24 99.30
KC 25 96.13
CAR 26 96.03
WAS 27 95.48
DEN 28 93.30
NE 29 93.23
SF 30 90.88
SEA 31 88.63
IND 32 76.66

Indianapolis is still dead last; Houston, however, armed with the first overall pick, the most valuable by any analysis, is ready to strike. Oh, and most likely they were the unluckiest team last season, not the worst.

It is still too late to give the final judgement on the Trent Richardson trade. But unless he plays as one of the top five backs in the league starting in week one of next season, it is a dominating win for the Browns. Even if he does, it could still be a win for the Browns; the added benefit of a first-rounder is nothing to sneeze at. Yes, the Browns did spend the third overall pick on Richardson, which no mater what will seem somewhat wasted. But it is much better to cut your losses for as high a value as possible (the 26th overall pick two years later) than be left with scraps. Despite the chaos going on in Cleveland, they have at least one thing going for them: the most draft capital in the NFL. No matter what, Browns fans will likely not be consoled until mayor of Cleveland Frank Jackson bans Brandon Weeden from the city forever.

The 2014 NFL Draft is 78 days away, and the NFL “New Year” begins March 11th, at which point salary cap implications for teams’ current players will kick in for the coming season.

Last season, the Oakland Raiders had $56-plus million dollars worth of dead money. That is, more than $56,000,000 of their funds last season were tied up in players who were not even members of the Raiders. It was an impressive figure, more than one-third of their $123 million salary cap. Their incoming general manager, Reggie McKenzie, made a courageous decision to dump at once all of the terrible contracts he inherited, guaranteeing a tough season for Raiders fans. (In fact, going 4-12 was something of a pleasant surprise.)

But now McKenzie can reap the rewards, earn the salt, bring home the bacon, have his cake and eat it too1, all those good things. The Raiders have over $60 million in cap space heading into next season. With 2013 behind them, McKenzie and the Raiders can spend nearly half of the yet-to-be-finalized 2014 NFL salary cap (likely $123-126 million or so) however they like. And their terrible season last year has armed them with the fifth, fourth, and third picks of the first three rounds of the draft, respectively. Shake it out, Raiders fans! Remember, it’s always darkest before the dawn.

McKenzie’s management has moved the Raiders to the tenth-best standing in the NFL Dead Zone, brought to you by Richard Seymour. What is the NFL Dead Zone? The NFL Dead Zone is a psychic realm of Roger Goodell’s mind where upon shaking players’ hands he sees visions of their future on-field concussions and disillusioned, depressed lives after retirement, and through the Dead Zone’s apparitions Goodell can actually change the future!

Wait, that isn’t it. The NFL Dead Zone is the long-awaited series finale/made-for-TV movie, ditched by UPN, then USA, and coming to NFL Network this fall as part of the new NFL-CBS deal for Thursday Night Football!

Wait, that isn’t it either.

The NFL Dead Zone is a statistic relating a team’s dead money and salary cap space. Definitively, it is a team’s dead money divided by the sum of their dead money and their salary cap space. That is:

(Dead $$$) / (Dead $$$ + Salary Cap Space) = Dead Zone Rating

The NFL Dead Zone is a hybrid of those two related, interesting-but-not-absolute team management metrics. Neither having some dead money nor having little cap space is insurmountable. But when dead money–accounted to players no longer on a team’s roster–is the primary cause of a team’s tight cap situation (as opposed to, say, signing Peyton Manning), then…

Christopher Walken, is it really you? ARE YOU IN THERE SOMEWHERE?

Christopher Walken, is it really you? ARE YOU IN THERE SOMEWHERE?

…well, it gets ugly.

The NFL Dead Zone is a percentage, and ideally you want as little to do with the Dead Zone as possible, for it is a most terrifying place indeed. It is a place where Christopher Walken looks like that. It is a place where your daughter is screaming and the world is burning. It is a place brought to you by defensive tackle Richard Seymour, whose contract cost the Raiders $13.714 million last season, despite being voided seven months before the season even began. The Dead Zone, both in Stephen King’s writing and in the NFL, is a place ripe with fear and apprehension about the future.

Blessed with McKenzie’s bravery, the Oakland Raiders have mostly emerged from the dark of the Dead Zone, sitting pretty with the 10th-lowest Dead Zone Rating as the dawn of the 2014 season approaches. The Raiders still have $9 million in dead money this coming year, fifth-most in the league; but with nearly $61 million in unallocated salary cap money, that amounts to an NFL Dead Zone rating of 13.25 percent, tenth-lowest in the league. Well done, Mr. McKenzie, well done.

Pictured: Reggie McKenzie, General Manager, Oakland Raiders

Pictured: Reggie McKenzie, General Manager, Oakland Raiders

The team least troubled by the Dead Zone? The New York Jets. This is NOT to say that the Jets are the best team, or will be the best team next season, or that they have objectively gotten the most out of their salary cap (or that they are the team most capable of changing the future). But it does mean that at the moment, the share of the Jets’ potential cap space lost to players not even on their team anymore is the smallest in the league at 0.24 percent. Their mere $0.049 million in dead money is the lowest in the league, while their $20-plus million in cap space ranks eleventh.

At the other end of the spectrum are the New Orleans Saints. The third-most dead money–over $10 million–and the fourth-least cap space–less than $2 million–make for an 87.57 percent dead zone rating. By awarding millions in signing bonuses and guaranteed money to players they would later cut or trade away (Roman Harper, Jabari Greer, Will Smith), the Saints road through the dead zone will be formidable. If I were Saints general manager Mickey Loomis, I would call up Christopher Walken right now for advice. Or at least Stephen King.

Now, here at last is the complete enumeration of where every team2 stands in the NFL Dead Zone.3 It’s over. You’re finished.

Team Rank Dead Zone Rank Dead Money Rank Cap Space
NYJ 1 0.24% 28 48,958 11 20,044,583
TB 2 1.10% 26 139,119 15 12,541,710
IND 3 2.30% 25 800,733 4 33,972,029
CIN 4 3.99% 24 984,281 9 23,662,960
MIN 5 5.92% 21 1,783,163 7 28,331,238
PHI 6 6.30% 23 1,348,343 10 20,059,815
GB 7 8.59% 18 2,677,484 6 28,498,261
JAC 8 10.18% 10 5,600,511 2 49,428,124
MIA 9 13.21% 11 4,942,895 5 32,481,214
OAK 10 13.25% 5 9,286,520 1 60,817,593
CLE 11 13.67% 8 7,194,153 3 45,452,022
STL 12 17.82% 27 133,805 28 617,229
NYG 13 18.08% 17 2,778,141 14 12,588,186
BAL 14 21.16% 12 4,422,216 13 16,479,137
CHI 15 22.61% 22 1,476,669 22 5,054,728
WAS 16 24.89% 7 7,941,733 8 23,969,653
SF 17 26.00% 20 1,934,691 21 5,506,346
DEN 18 26.26% 14 3,992,329 17 11,212,168
TEN 19 27.98% 19 2,449,725 20 6,306,953
ATL 20 32.25% 9 5,922,507 16 12,442,188
BUF 21 38.89% 2 12,070,113 12 18,967,410
DET 22 50.40% 13 4,069,438 23 4,005,130
ARI 23 51.25% 4 10,087,467 18 9,595,088
KC 24 53.13% 15 3,505,823 25 3,092,443
HOU 25 56.29% 16 3,247,174 26 2,521,766
CAR 26 68.35% 1 17,840,240 19 8,260,965
NE 27 70.08% 6 8,533,721 24 3,644,255
NO 28 87.57% 3 10,450,051 27 1,482,990

  1. Because what good is having cake if you can’t eat it? Seriously… 
  2. Okay, almost; four teams–Dallas, Pittsburgh, San Diego, and Seattle–actually have negative projected 2014 salary cap space at the moment, a situation so bad it goes beyond the parameters of the Dead Zone and into something more of an “After-Death Zone”. Perhaps more on this later. 
  3.  Team dead money and salary cap figures determined by Spotrac.com

Last night the men’s curling teams of Scotland Great Britain and Norway battled in what was a positively enthralling one-game playoff for the medal round, after finding themselves tied for the fourth and final spot by going an identical 5-4 through the preliminary round robin. Seriously, enthralling. (Yes, it is curling, but get over it because curling is actually awesome.)

Observe:

What the hell is that? A snake?

What the hell is that? A snake?

Britain prepares to curl...

Britain prepares to curl. Suave. But they could use better pants.

UK Curling

And they add a fourth freeze shot just outside the house!

Norway's skip lines up the potential triple takeout.

Norway’s skip lines up the potential triple takeout.

Wait is this a billiards break or WHAT IS GOING ON?

There was a lot to love about that match, the first curling match I have watched live and in its entirety, though I had seen large swaths of some of the United States’ matches over the last week. Ed Lukowich, two-time Brier champion, former director of athlete development at the United States Curling Association, and current Olympic commentator is the Vin Scully of curling, making the game a thoroughly enjoyable experience for newcomers and old-timers alike. And of course curling is “chess on ice”, a remarkable blend of finely tuned skill and the ever-present strategy of an alternating move game. Yet like all good sports, curling is quite capable of coming down to a few key plays, perhaps even to the final shot. Such was the case last night (/ morning in Sochi).

Appreciating the finer skills of a good curl are still quite beyond me, but this article from The Independent provides a good sense of what went down. Real generally, down 5-4 on the final shot of the game, Scotland Great Britain had two options: tie it up, but give Norway the advantage of shooting last going into overtime1, or end the game right there by going for the win, either immediately advancing out of the tie-breaking game to the medal round or seeing their Olympic dreams end in the span of 105 feet of ice. The advantage of going last is a non-trivial, serious deal (again, just get over that it is curling we are talking about), and rather than face Norway with such an advantage, Scotland’s Great Britain’s captain (or rather, “skip”) David Murdoch opted to go for it.

Sound familiar? Throughout an NFL season, teams punt and kick field goals on fourth and short rather than increase their chances of winning by going for the first down or touchdown conversion. The conservative strategy of losing more slowly is the convention, and can occasionally still produce a win, but on net loses far more often than an aggressive strategy built on maximizing a team’s chances of winning. For whatever reason (see: “inertia“), the NFL’s conservative mentality continues, by and large. Riverboat Ron was a welcome addition this past season, but just glance at the “Thank You For Not Coaching” features in Bill Barnwell’s weekly regular season Grantland columns to see a laundry list of poor decisions.

Murdoch, with his fellow Scotsmen on Great Britain’s curling team, went for the win, knowing it would not work every time, but equally confident that it would work often enough to justify it. Well, maybe. Per that Independent article by Ronnie Esplin, Scotland’s Great Britain’s vice-skip Greg Drummond remarked afterwards:

You’re going to make that shot once in 50, maybe two in 50. … We called time out and weighed up our chances to steal the extra end. Against Norway I would rate the chances at 35 per cent on a good day so it was probably worth going for a win.

Said in the intensity of a post-match interview, the remarks are still perplexing: one in 50 amounts to two percent, two in 50 amounts to four percent, and both are far less than the 35 percent chances Drummond gave them in overtime. But unlike Brian Burke, Drummond does not have hard data to back up his claims; those are just his opinions on their chances.

It is hard to say what the true probabilities were. Data of the nature of the NBA’s recent foray with STATS LLC would make it possible, but unfortunately it does not yet exist for curling. Assuming going for the win was the right decision just because it worked is just as wrong as applying outcome bias in football.

Regardless, what the NFL can learn here is the philosophy of risk-taking in general. Do not let the worst-case possible outcome dictate all strategic decisions. The fact that calculated risks are inherently risky does not mean they are worthless. Just ask Scotland’s Great Britain’s curling team.


  1. Curling overtime works like baseball, in that there are “ends”, or innings, rounds, whatever you want to call them, and as soon as there is a score difference after a completed extra end the game is over. In each end there is a huge advantage to going last, sort of like batting last in a baseball inning, but in this context really more akin in magnitude to getting the ball first in overtime in the NFL. By tying the game and extending it to an extra end, Scotland Great Britain would give that advantage of shooting last to Norway. Just FYI, this advantage is known as “the hammer”. Scotland Great Britain did not like their chances against a Norway armed with the hammer. The vernacular may be the best thing about curling. 
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