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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. 

The initial Pro Bowl selections were announced last night in one of just many weird things about the “new and improved” Pro Bowl. The selection process now consists of votes from fans, players, and coaches, and without any conference affiliation considerations. The NFL announced the selections at 9 PM on a Friday night, for some reason. Later two appointed captains will pick two teams from the selections, schoolyard style, but live on NFL Network, with like, celebrities and stuff, maybe. Eventually they will play what presumably we technically have to call a football game, in that there will be players on the field, and also a football, and in those ways the event will resemble a football game.

The selections triggered the usual outrage in media about players who were “snubbed”. Like this. Or this. Or this. You get the idea. It is a little weird. If you want the best players, why let so many people, especially fans, vote? And if you want the fan favorites, then why get upset when the best players do not get in? A common counterpoint is that various Pro Bowl bonuses and incentives are in many contracts across the league, and the money at stake makes a difference to players under such contracts (either by getting more money, or not). That is short-sighted.

If teams want to incentivize performance, they can use other metrics: tackles, touchdowns, passes defensed, whether the team makes the playoffs, etc. In fact, teams already do this! But as pointed out many times in my mid-season Search for the Best (& Worst!) Contract in Football, players may provide off-field benefits: ticket and jersey sales, television viewers, radio listeners, and other boons of popularity. However one does it, making the Pro Bowl (and bringing more publicity to one’s team by doing so) is most likely worth a bonus. It makes sense theoretically, and, even better, teams keep rewarding it! The annual fuss over this is getting old.

One thing is clear: some of the very best players in the league miss out. As many, hell, most people wrongly regard Pro Bowlers as the best players in the league, it hurts (me, at least) to see lesser known, elite players fail to receive the recognition they deserve. But maybe that is not a problem with the Pro Bowl, but with the way some perceive it. Making the Pro Bowl is an honor, but doing so does not necessarily honor your play, but perhaps instead your personality, your popularity. Either way, missing out is “a snub”, apparently.

Most irksome is when announcers and other “experts” (or really just anybody) invoke Pro Bowls as proof of a player’s on-field excellence. That this is bound to happen about 47 trillion times throughout tomorrow’s games compels this special feature, on a Saturday (!), against the grain of the normal Crossroads schedule. The rest of this post will be setting the record straight (or at least, straighter).

Do dominating players really miss out? You bet they do. Following are the Pro Bowl selections, along with performance-based snubs, grouped by position. The experts at Pro Football Focus measure on-field performance, as they grade every player on every snap of every game. For consideration a player must have played 25% or more of his team’s snaps.

Without further adieu… (PFF position rank, and grade, in parentheses; Pro Bowlers in alphabetical order by last name; snubs ordered by PFF grade)

Offense

QB (6)

  • Tom Brady, NE (7th, 17.7)
  • Drew Brees, NO (3rd, 21)
  • Peyton Manning, DEN (1st, 39.5)
  • Cam Newton, CAR (15th, 8.4)
  • Philip Rivers, SD (2nd, 23.3)
  • Russell Wilson, SEA (3rd, 21)
QB Snubs (2)
  • Matthew Stafford, DET (5th, 18.4)
  • Aaron Rodgers, GB (6th, 18.)

Rodgers missed seven games. Rodgers still has the sixth-highest grade. If you think a player should have to be healthy/play more to earn a spot, but still want on-field performance to be the primary goal, just replace Newton with Stafford.

WR (8)

  • Antonio Brown, PIT (3rd, 21.2)
  • Dez Bryant, DAL (23rd, 10.5)
  • Josh Gordon, CLE (14th, 13.9)
  • A.J. Green, CIN (18th, 12.4)
  • Andre Johnson, HOU (5th, 20)
  • Calvin Johnson, DET (2nd, 22.5)
  • Brandon Marshall, CHI (1st, 36.2)
  • Demaryius Thomas, DEN (8th, 18.4)
WR Snubs (3)
  • Alshon Jeffery, CHI (4th, 20.1)
  • DeSean Jackson, PHI (6th, 19.3)
  • Jordy Nelson, GB (7th, 18.6)

All bow to the big names of Bryant and Green! Nelson is seemingly punished for Rodgers’ absence, Jeffery seemingly for being in just his second season, and Jackson because… he is an #$#hole?

RB (6)

  • Jamaal Charles, KC (2nd, 22.4)
  • Matt Forte, CHI (22nd, 6.2)
  • Frank Gore, SF (12th, 12.5)
  • Marshawn Lynch, SEA (6th, 16.1)
  • LeSean McCoy, PHI (1st, 29.)
  • Adrian Peterson, MIN (11th, 13.3)
RB Snubs (3)
  • Eddie Lacy, GB (3rd, 17.9)
  • Giovani Bernard, CIN (4th, 16.9)
  • DeMarco Murray, DAL (5th, 16.3)

This time it is the veterans Forte, Gore, and Peterson, at the expense of rookies Lacy and Bernard, and the still underrated Murray.

FB (2)

  • Marcel Reece, OAK (7th, 5.8)
  • Mike Tolbert, CAR (2nd, 11.1)
FB Snub (1)
  • Anthony Sherman, KC (1st, 16.1)

Reece and Tolbert run and catch passes more than other fullbacks. Sherman is by far the best blocker. All these things determine their final grade, but blocking seems unsurprisingly un-sexy and un-cared-about.

TE (4)

  • Jordan Cameron, CLE (47th, -5.6)
  • Vernon Davis, SF (11th, 6.3)
  • Jimmy Graham, NO (1st, 13.5)
  • Julius Thomas, DEN (22nd, 1.3)
TE Snubs (3)
  • Rob Gronkowski, NE (2nd, 12.4)
  • Ben Hartsock, CAR (3rd, 11.5)
  • Jordan Reed, WAS (4th, 10.3)

Jordan Cameron, everybody, with the first truly bad season to make this year’s Pro Bowl! Thomas presumably benefits from Manning’s 6,000 touchdowns, and with another solid season Davis’ reputation gets him in, over a Gronkowski who earned the second highest grade in only six-and-a-half games, a tremendous blocker in Hartsock, and the rookie Reed aboard that train wreck that is Washington’s football season.

C (3)

  • Ryan Kalil, CAR (8th, 10.8)
  • Alex Mack, CLE (1st, 16.6)
  • Max Unger, SEA (20th, -1.8)
C Snubs (2)
  • Manuel Ramirez, DEN (2nd, 15)
  • Travis Frederick, DAL (3rd, 14.9)

Max Unger joins the ranks of players with bad seasons to make the cut. The former backup Ramirez and the rookie Frederick fail to do so despite their excellent play.

G (6)

  • Jahri Evans, NO (15th, 9.8)
  • Ben Grubbs, NO (8th, 15.7)
  • Mike Iupati, SF (33rd, 0.7)
  • Logan Mankins, NE (21st, 8.5)
  • Louis Vasquez, DEN (2nd, 28.9)
  • Marshal Yanda, BAL (20th, 9.2)
G Snubs (5)
  • Evan Mathis, PHI (1st, 42.9)
  • Josh Sitton, GB (2nd, 28.9)
  • Larry Warford, DET (4th, 20.9)
  • Matt Slauson, CHI (5th, 17.9)
  • Travelle Wharton, CAR / Andy Levitre, TEN (16.7)

Iupati has been injured and was not playing too well before that, although he sure did last season! Mankins and Yanda also get in on their reputation. The true disgrace here is Evan Mathis, nine-year veteran, long-time dominant blocker, whose grade is 14 units above the second best guard in the league, missing out. Even among linemen, popularity, or something, reigns over actual performance.

T (6)

  • Branden Albert, KC (28th, 10)
  • Jason Peters, PHI (5th, 26.2)
  • Tyron Smith, DAL (8th, 23.3)
  • Joe Staley, SF (4th, 28.1)
  • Joe Thomas, CLE (1st, 34.9)
  • Trent Williams, WAS (2nd, 33.1)
T Snubs (2)
  • Jordan Gross, CAR (3rd, 32.6)
  • Jake Long, STL (6th, 25.8)

Curious that, by and large, the new voting system actually selected the best tackles.

Defense

Some notes before getting into the defensive side: defensive positions are much harder to classify, as defenders can pretty much line up wherever and however they want, and often exercise that right to confuse offenses. Also the position responsibilities for edge players in the front seven of a 3-4 defense are different from those of a 4-3 defense. For example, 3-4 outside linebackers generally rush the passer, while in a 4-3 usually defensive ends do. To account for these differences, PFF classifies 3-4 and 4-3 outside defenders separately. The NFL Pro Bowl appears to embrace these problems by making them much bigger. The Pro Bowl selections lump all defensive ends together (disregarding different scheme responsibilities), all outside linebackers together, and also improperly classified some players. Oh, and even though free safety and strong safety responsibilities are quite similar, such that PFF does not bother distinguishing between them, they are listed separately for the Pro Bowl.

For defensive ends and outside linebackers, per the NFL they are all together, respectively, with a note of which scheme the player’s team uses (in parentheses.)

The selections list Mario Williams as a defensive end, though he mostly plays 3-4 outside linebacker; Kyle Williams as a nose/defensive tackle though he mostly plays 3-4 defensive end; Justin Smith as a nose/defensive tackle, though he mostly plays 3-4 defensive end; and Vontaze Burfict as an inside linebacker, though he mostly plays 4-3 outside linebacker. These players are included among their official Pro Bowl position peers before determining their position ranking.1 As PFF does not classify strong versus free safeties, both positions’ players are ranked among all other safeties.

Okay, defense!

DE (6)

  • Greg Hardy, CAR (9th, 20.8, 4-3)
  • Cameron Jordan, NO (4th, 33, 3-4)
  • Robert Quinn, STL (2nd, 71.1, 4-3)
  • Cameron Wake, MIA (7th, 24.5, 4-3)
  • J.J. Watt, HOU (1st, 103, 3-4) (!!!!!!!!!)
  • Mario Williams, BUF (29th, 10.2, 3-4 outside linebacker)
DE Snubs (3)
  • Calais Campbell, ARI (3rd, 37.7) 3-4
  • Sheldon Richardson, NYJ (5th, 30.5) 3-4
  • Michael Johnson, CIN (6th, 25.1) 4-3

J.J. Watt is so freakin’ good. Mario Williams is so famous (apparently). Calais Campbell is so unappreciated. Oh and Sheldon Richardson is a rookie.

NT/DT (6)

  • Gerald McCoy, TB (1st, 56.2)
  • Haloti Ngata, BAL (16th, 13.7)
  • Dontari Poe, KC (9th, 23.5)
  • Justin Smith, SF (19th, 12.5, 3-4 DE)
  • Ndamukong Suh, DET (2nd, 42.5)
  • Kyle Williams, BUF (3rd, 36.1, 3-4 DE)
NT/DT Snubs (4)
  • Jurrell Casey, TEN (3rd, 36.1)
  • Damon Harrison, NYJ (4th, 32.6)
  • Randy Starks, MIA (5th, 30.3)
  • Brandon Mebane, SEA (6th, 29.8)

The star factor potentially helps Ngata and Smith, aided by appearances in last year’s Super Bowl possibly?

OLB (6)

  • John Abraham, ARI (17th, 6.3) 3-4
  • Ahmad Brooks, SF (57th, -4.4) 3-4
  • Tamba Hali, KC (8th, 22.7) 3-4
  • Justin Houston, KC (2nd, 31.8) 3-4
  • Robert Mathis, IND (5th, 25.7) 3-4
  • Terrell Suggs, BAL (13th, 12.8) 3-4
OLB Snubs (4)
  • Von Miller, DEN (1st, 40.3) 4-3
  • Elvis Dumervil, BAL (3rd, 31.8) 3-4
  • Lavonte David, TB (4th, 27.7) 4-3
  • Brian Orakpo, WAS (6th, 24.9) 3-4

49ers players are officially the “He plays on a good team/offensive line/defense/whatever, so he should go to the Pro Bowl!” guys of the year.2  In eight games, after returning from his suspension and before tearing his ACL, Von Miller recorded the best grade by far. Lavonte David has been getting the most press of these snubs, perhaps justifiably as the top 4-3 outside linebacker after Miller. If the Pro Bowl is not going to classify 3-4 and 4-3 guys differently, it looks like the 4-3 guys do not have much of a chance. Seldom rushing the passer, they are much less valuable and much less fetching than their 3-4 counterparts.

ILB (4)

  • NaVorro Bowman, SF (1st, 15.8)
  • Vontaze Burfict, CIN (6th, 13.3, 4-3 OLB)
  • Luke Kuechly, CAR (8th, 8.3)
  • Patrick Willis, SF (3rd, 14.6)
ILB Snubs (2)
  • Derrick Johnson, KC (2nd, 15.4)
  • Stephen Tulloch, DET (4th, 14.1)

Okay, THIS is where the 49ers earn it. Damn, but Bowman and Willis are the best. Now we get a 4-3 outside linebacker, classified wrongly… oh well, good for Burfict. Kuechly’s rewarded for his reputation after he earned Defensive Rookie of the Year last season, as Johnson and Tulloch (and five other guys) have actually been better this season.3

CB (8)

  • Brandon Flowers, KC (85th, -5.9)
  • Brent Grimes, MIA (4th, 14.9)
  • Joe Haden, CLE (16th, 8.4)
  • Patrick Peterson, ARI (12th, 9.8)
  • Darrelle Revis, TB (1st, 18.2)
  • Richard Sherman, SEA (6th, 12.1)
  • Aqib Talib, NE (66th, -2)
  • Alterraun Verner, TEN (11th, 9.9)
CB Snubs (5)
  • Tyrann Mathieu, ARI (2nd, 15.5)
  • Vontae Davis, IND (3rd, 15.4)
  • Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, DEN (5th, 12.4)
  • Captain Munnerlyn, CAR (7th, 11.3)
  • Tramaine Brock, SF (8th, 11.1)

Flowers and Talib, 85th and 66th respectively among all cornerbacks, both make the cut with impressive negative grades. Anyone want to bet how many times announcers mention their Pro Bowl inclusion tomorrow in a context affirming their, uh, “quality” play this season? Poor Honey Badger.

FS (3)

  • Jairus Byrd, BUF (9th, 8.7)
  • Earl Thomas, SEA (12th, 6.6)
  • Eric Weddle, SD (8th, 9.2)

SS (3)

  • Eric Berry, KC (3rd, 14.5)
  • Kam Chancellor, SEA (11th, 6.7)
  • Troy Polamalu, PIT (6th, 10.5)
S Snubs (4)
  • Devin McCourty, NE (1st, 18.7)
  • T.J. Ward, CLE (2nd, 15.1)
  • Will Hill, NYG (4th, 14.4)
  • Donte Whitner, SF (5th, 12.9)

In defense of Byrd, he earned his ninth-best grade in only 10 games. Of course, Will Hill earned his fourth-best in just 11 games, playing even fewer snaps than Byrd. Also Whitner made the Pro Bowl last season as the 53rd ranked safety. Now that he has stepped up his play (contract year coincidence?), he is snubbed? Or maybe less popular for that considered name change? Gosh the Pro Bowl is silly.

Special Teams

P (2)

  • Brandon Fields, MIA (11th, 11.7)
  • Johnny Hekker, STL (2nd, 32.8)
P Snub (1)

Shane Lechler, HOU (1st, 39.2)

Not much to add here, except Shane Lechler is Really Good, and while most good players on bad teams fall out of the spotlight, you would think the punter would be an exception, right?

K (2)

  • Matt Prater, DEN (1st, 58.2)
  • Justin Tucker, BAL (5th, 32.5)
K Snub (1)
  • Stephen Gostkowski, NE / Graham Gano, CAR (2nd, 42.4)

How could Tucker possibly not be the very best kicker EVER, especially this season???? Well, there are these things called “kickoffs” and this other thing called “opponent field position”, and even these other things called “touchbacks”, and the difference in field position after touchbacks compared to field position after non-touchbacks is worth about one point fewer for a team’s opponent for every touchback, so they are kind of awesome that way. Check it out. (And a more recent bit!)

PR (2)

  • Antonio Brown, PIT (4th, 6.1)
  • Dexter McCluster, KC (2nd, 6.8)
PR Snub (1)
  • Golden Tate, SEA (1st, 12.1)

Kind of sad Cordarrelle Patterson does not get anything, because he only does kickoff returns and now the Pro Bowl has no kickoff returns, and no kickoffs.

ST (2)

  • Justin Bethel, ARI (1st, 18)
  • Matthew Slater, NE (54th, 2.5)
ST Snub (1)
  • Robert Golden, PIT (2nd, 10)

And this is where the confusion really deepens. It seems it is unlikely you would get a consensus on Bethel unless people recognized his dominance– hard to make a case for a lot of popularity among special teamers whom even ardent fans have not heard of. But then how does Slater get in there, with 52 others between him and the top? #confused

Across the board, not a single position slot was filled by the top players in that position. If you replaced the current Pro Bowl roster with the actual best players, allocating the same number of slots for all positions, only 45% of the current Pro Bowlers would remain. 55% would see their status stripped in favor of those whom were snubbed on this basis. 19% of this year’s selections have not even performed in the top 25% of the players in their respective positions. See the chart below for additional breakdowns:

Position Slots Snubs % Snubs Pro Bowlers Below 75th Percentile % Pro Bowlers Below 75th Percentile
All 85 47 55% 16 19%
Offense 41 21 51% 10 24%
QB 6 2 33% 1 17%
WR 8 3 38% 0 0%
RB 6 3 50% 1 17%
FB 2 1 50% 1 50%
TE 4 3 75% 2 50%
C 3 2 67% 1 33%
G 6 5 83% 3 50%
T 6 2 33% 1 17%
Defense 36 22 61% 5 14%
DE 6 3 50% 1 17%
NT/DT 6 4 67% 1 17%
OLB 6 4 67% 1 17%
ILB 4 2 50% 0 0%
CB 8 5 63% 2 25%
S 6 4 67% 0 0%
Special Teams 8 4 50% 1 13%
P 2 1 50% 1 50%
K 2 1 50% 0 0%
PR 2 1 50% 0 0%
ST 2 1 50% 0 0%

Making the Pro Bowl is simply not an indication of elite talent, pure and simple. Most, but not all elite players do make it. Many Pro Bowlers are merely above average, not the best. And some Pro Bowlers reach Honolulu despite downright poor performances on the field throughout the season. Again, this is not necessarily a problem in itself, so much as how people perceive it. Pro Bowl appearances are a measure of NFL success, defined more broadly than mere quality of play, including popularity among fans and individuals (players and coaches) of the NFL. This is the way the league wants it (at least for the moment), not an accident. Blaming the voters for the results of any election is inferior to blaming the system. And we all know the line, so come on. Hate the game, not the player.


  1. This is kind of stupid, because they are not exactly graded on the same things, or the same situations, but there are not any better solutions. The Pro Bowl is dumb, basically. 
  2. Brooks is actually the worst-graded outside linebacker on the 49ers. Aldon Smith has a 21.2, good for 9th (but also DUIs and missed games), Dan Skuta (Smith’s rehab replacement) has a 7.1 for 25th, and bit rookie pass rusher Corey Lemonier has a 1.8 for 39th, among the 76 outside linebackers (both 3-4 and 4-3) who have played 25% or more of their teams’ snaps. 
  3. In fact, when tweeting at PFF Analyst Pete Damilatis, he mentioned that he was already preparing for the outrage on their site for when Kuechly does not make their annual Top 101 Players List, which is a definite possibility this season. 

Following up my evaluation of quarterback contracts yesterday, today I examine the performance and pay of NFL wide receivers. There are 110 wide receivers who have played 25% or more of their team’s snaps this season. 109 of them are still under contract; as Kyle Williams was released by the San Francisco 49ers earlier this week, I dropped him from the calculations.1 While hovering on the subject of releases, I wanted to mention Matt Flynn. Seahawks General Manager John Schneider is worthy of praise for finding Russell Wilson, but equally responsible for Flynn, to whom he gave $10 million in guaranteed money that same year before tiring of him after one season. He was able to maneuver out $6 million with a trade to the Raiders, but Seattle still has $4 million in dead money this season as a result of signing Flynn.2

Before looking at the numbers, here are a few more notes about contract quality. If players don’t play, Pro Football Focus has no performance to evaluate. That could mean a variety of things concerning the contract. A backups is like any other insurance; you hope you don’t have to use it, but you’re willing to pay for it. Speaking of injuries, if a player misses a season for one, does that mean his contract was wasteful? Are NFL front offices accountable for avoiding injuries? Perhaps to some extent, but it’s difficult to quantify. Even so, teams may pay players for other things besides on-field performance. Popularity to the fans, the ability to sell tickets and jerseys, intangibles like “he’s a good locker room guy”, having worked well previously with members of the team and/or coaching staff, etc. Such qualities, while beyond the scope of this analysis, should not be forgot.

With that, here are PFF’s Top 10 wide receivers who’ve played 25% or more of their teams’ snaps so far this season (grades in parentheses)3:

  • 1. Brandon Marshall, CHI (20)
  • 2. Andre Johnson, HOU & Calvin Johnson, DET (16.8)
  • 4. Jordy Nelson, GB (14.9)
  • 5. Antonio Brown, PIT (14.7)
  • 6. Pierre Garcon, WAS (14.4)
  • 7. Demaryius Thomas, DEN (13.4)
  • 8. Wes Welker, DEN (10.6)
  • 9. Doug Baldwin, SEA (10.5)
  • 10. Marvin Jones, CIN (10.4)

Wouldn’t it be great if Andre and Calvin were brothers? And it’s Marvin Jones, not A.J. Green, of the Cincinnati Bengals rounding out the Top 10, although a substantial chunk comes from a dominating four touchdown performance against the New York Jets in Week 8. (Green himself grades at a 6.3 at the moment, good for 23rd in the league.) Here are the Bottom 10:

  • 100. Aaron Dobson, NE (-4.4)
  • 101. Mike Williams, TB (-4.5)
  • 102. Ryan Broyles, DET (-4.8)
  • 103. Dexter McCluster, KC (-4.9)
  • 104. Donnie Avery, KC (-5)
  • 105. Mike Wallace, MIA (-5.8)
  • 106. Mohamed Sanu, CIN & Greg Little, CLE (-6.7)
  • 108. T.J. Graham, BUF (-6.9)
  • 109. Kenny Britt, TEN (-9.7)

The last undefeated team in the NFL at 9-0, the Kansas City Chiefs could apparently still use an upgrade in the wide receiver department. (Dwayne Bowe will appear in a bit.) Note the effective scale, at this point in the season, ranges from a -9.7 at the bottom to a firm 20 at the top. The average PFF wide receiver grade is a 2.2, and the standard deviation is a 5.6. Brandon Marshall up in first is a full standard deviation in performance ahead of 6th best Pierre Garcon. No wonder Bears fans love him. Marshall also finds himself among the most paid wide receivers, 11th in the league at $8.956 million a year. Here are the Top 10 average annual salaries under contract this season4 (millions of dollars in parentheses):

  • 1. Calvin Johnson, DET ($18.813 million)
  • 2. Larry Fitzgerald, AZ ($15.75m)
  • 3. Mike Wallace, MIA ($12m)
  • 4. Dwayne Bowe, KC ($11.2m)
  • 5. Vincent Jackson, TB ($11.111m)
  • 6. Andre Johnson, HOU ($9.686m)
  • 7. Steve Smith, CAR ($9.438m)
  • 8. DeSean Jackson, PHI ($9.4m)
  • 9. Santonio Holmes, NYJ & Greg Jennings, MIN ($9m)

The two Johnsons are the only wide receivers tops of the league in both performance (so far) and pay. And yes, Mike Wallace is the Joe Flacco of wide receivers, the 3rd highest paid with the 4th worst performance. (Actually, this is more impressive than Flacco, since there are more than three times as many wide receivers as quarterbacks.) Unsurprisingly we see no teams doubling up here. Even in the NFL, you can’t afford to. Only 7 teams spend more than $20 million on all their wide receivers5, with 24 spending less than the Lions spend on Johnson alone.  And here are the least paid wide receivers, who’ve played at least 25% of their teams’ snaps this season:

  • 100. Kenbrell Thompkins, NE (0.496m)
  • 101. Marlon Brown, BAL (0.495m)
  • 102. Riley Cooper, PHI (0.49m)
  • 103. Rod Streater, OAK (0.483m)
  • 104. Cole Beaseley, DAL (0.481m)
  • 105. Jarrett Boykin, GB & Jermaine Kearse, SEA (0.48m)
  • 107. Doug Baldwin, SEA (0.47m)
  • 108. Drew Davis, ATL (0.435m)
  • 109. Mike Brown, JAX (0.398m)

Doug Baldwin? Really? Yup, it’s looking like another top contract will belong to the Seahawks. (SPOILER ALERT: It does.) 106 wide receivers make more than Baldwin, but only 8 have done more on the field this season. Goodness. Not bad for a kid who went undrafted out of Stanford. Looking at the whole field, the average annual salary of all these wide receivers is $3.258 million, with a slightly larger standard deviation of $3.61 million. Calvin Johnson makes nearly a full SD more than #2 Larry Fitzgerald, who in turn makes more than a full SD more than #3 Mike Wallace. Obviously, it’s not nearly so spread out at the bottom.

Again, for contract quality, we look at where the player ranks in pay and performance relative to the average among his peers, using standard deviations. CQ = #SDs above/below the average grade – #SDs above/below the average salary. Positive is good for the front office. Negative is bad. Zero suggests a player’s performance is worth exactly how well he’s played (theoretically). Without further adieu, here are the 10 best wide receiver contract so far this season (contract quality in parentheses):

  • 1. Doug Baldwin, SEA (2.26)
  • 2. Marvin Jones, CIN (2.21)
  • 3. Jordy Nelson, GB (2.2)
  • 4. Demaryius Thomas, DEN (2.12)
  • 5. Golden Tate, SEA (1.87)
  • 6. Keenan Allen, SD (1.85)
  • 7. Alshon Jeffery, CHI (1.74)
  • 8. Jerricho Cotchery, PIT (1.65)
  • 9. Brandon Marshall, CHI (1.59)
  • 10. Randall Cobb, GB (1.47)

Another obligatory ESPM congratulations to Seattle Seahawks General Manager John Schneider! Two in the top five for Seattle, to go with quarterback contract quality leader Russell Wilson, puts together a sound passing attack for a very good price. Interesting that while no team has two Top 10 most expensive contracts on its roster, and only Denver has two Top 10 performing wide receivers on their roster, Seattle, Chicago, and Green Bay each have two of the best wide receiver contracts in the NFL. (And Green Bay has a third wide receiver, Jarrett Boykin, at 15th in the league with a 1.10 contract quality. Wow.) Now, the Bottom 10:

  • 100. Calvin Johnson, DET (-1.7)
  • 101. Kenny Britt, TEN (-1.71)
  • 102. Greg Jennings, MIN (-1.92)
  • 103. Miles Austin, DAL (-1.94)
  • 104. Roddy White, ATL (-1.98)
  • 105. Mike Williams, TB (-2.14)
  • 106. Dwayne Bowe, KC (-2.35)
  • 107. Vincent Jackson, TB (-2.49)
  • 108. Larry Fitzgerald, ARZ (-2.81)
  • 109. Mike Wallace, MIA (-3.83)

Oh dear. Ohhhhh dear. Turns out, the five highest paid wide receivers in the league are some of the ten worst contracts. And Greg Jennings makes it a solid six of the ten highest paid to make the ugly contract list. Incidentally, this is Jennings first season with the Vikings, after seven with the… who was it? Oh right, the Green Bay Packers! The same Green Bay Packers with three of the best wide receiver contracts in the league. Hmmmm. Lots of times we hear about how a team just “can’t afford” to lose a player in free agency. But, maybe sometimes, someone ought to ask: “Can they afford not to?” The Packers said no to Jennings, and they’re certainly not regretting it.

That said, there is a lesson here. A pretty common one in life, and as in life, as in football: there is no simple “magic rule” that guarantees success. While many of the richest contracts are poor quality, some are worthwhile. Brandon Marshall is earning his 11th highest salary with the best play in the league. Antonio Brown, 15th in performance, 18th in pay, is good for the 14th best contract among all 109 wide receivers. Andre Johnson (3rd, 6th, and 22nd), Julio Jones (19th, 32nd, 23rd), Wes Welker (8th, 23rd, 29th), and Pierre Garcon (6th, 12th, 32nd) all enjoy lucrative contracts in the upper tier of the league, and have more than earned them with their play. And, while perhaps more difficult, teams can buy cheap and still not get their money’s worth. Ace Sanders (94th, 84th, 69th), Nick Toon (97th, 89th, 73rd), Brice Butler (93rd, 94th, 66th), Kenbrell Thompkins (89th, 100th, 60th), and Marlon Brown (99th, 101st, 71st) are all paid less than $0.7 million a year, yet have managed to under-perform their salaries. They haven’t “lost” their teams nearly as much money, but a loss is still a loss. The competitive nature of the NFL makes me think that if you asked a general manager “Would you care to save a few extra hundred thousand dollars this season?”, he would say “Yes.”


  1. His performance and pay were both below average, so his contract quality would probably have been middling to poor, but not terrible. 
  2. In a test of the “Greater Fool” theory, Flynn went to Oakland, was subsequently released, signed with the Bills, again released, and is currently back with the Green Bay Packers after injuries to Aaron Rodgers and Seneca Wallace, though presumably still behind other backup Scott Tolzien. 
  3. More than three times as many wide receivers than quarterbacks means longer lists. 
  4. With many thanks to Spotrac.com
  5. DET spends $27.262 million on WRs; CHI $25.987; MIA $22.998; AZ $21.725; WAS $21.313; SEA $21.236; and TB $20.809 
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