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With the regular season in the books, it’s time to review said books and put together the performance and salary stats of all NFL players. Soon, we’ll have a much better idea of which general managers put forward the best contracts in football this season. So far I’m only through the “skill” position players. And today I wanted to say a few words about Detroit Lions’ wide receiver Calvin Johnson.

“Megatron” is arguably the best wide receiver/non-quarterback/player in the entire league, depending whom you talk to. He is definitively the best paid wide receiver/non-quarterback, and the seventh highest paid player overall.  Before this season, the 28-year-old Johnson signed a seven-year contract worth $113.45 million, averaging $16.207 million a year, including a $16 million signing bonus and $48.75 million guaranteed. (The Lions did not sit him down in a meaningless Week 17 game for no reason; they sat him down for 48.75 million reasons.) Only quarterbacks Joe Flacco ($20.1 million), Drew Brees ($20m), Peyton Manning ($19.2m), Matt Ryan ($18.958m), Aaron Rodgers ($18.679m) and Tony Romo ($17.071m) average more per year than Johnson, per Spotrac.com. Is he worth it?

No. NO. And it isn’t close. In terms of what he brings to the field, Johnson is not worth that much money. Is there a chance he still could be, perhaps in terms of whom he brings, to Ford Field, and how many of those fans purchase Calvin Johnson jerseys from NFL Shop or Detroit Lions’ stores? Certainly, there’s enormous value there, but probably not enough to offset how much Johnson is overpaid. Other popular wide receivers, such as Brandon Marshall, Anquan Boldin, Reggie Wayne, Andre Johnson, DeSean Jackson, etc, see their pay match their performance much more closely than Megatron’s. If one assumes that the NFL pays each player their complete worth (or close to it), that would imply that Calvin Johnson’s popularity (including other non-performance measures) is worth $13 million more than Brandon Marshall’s, who plays in a bigger market, and is the most exciting wide receiver his team has ever had in its 95 year history. Yeah right.

It isn’t that Megatron isn’t good. He really, really is. (Duh.) Pro Football Focus graded him out at +22.5 on the season, good for fourth best in the league, and he missed two games. It’s that he is paid so, so much, while other receivers who are nearly as good as Johnson make much, much less. Brandon Marshall, PFF’s top graded wide receiver this season (+37.8), averages “only” $8.956 million. Johnson makes nearly twice as much! PFF’s top ten wide receivers all make millions, and they all make millions less than Johnson. None of the others make more than $10 million a year.

One could make the case that Johnson has been held back by others, his teammates on the Lions, maybe quarterback Matthew Stafford, or recently fired head coach Jim Schwartz, etc. Perhaps, were Johnson on the Denver Broncos, his play would merit his pay. That’s quite possible. But the Lions (and specifically general manager Martin Mayhew) knew their situation when they gave Johnson that contract. After four years of evaluating Stafford and Johnson together, the Lions organization ought to know their ceiling, their likely performance, and how much it’s worth on the open market. Given the mega millions Megatron rakes in, it seems that they didn’t.

The bottom line: you give anyone, especially a non-quarterback, $16 million a year in this league, and he will likely have seasons that don’t deserve it. $16 million per season is A LOT, even in the NFL. Calvin Johnson is an incredible talent. But by overpaying him millions of dollars each year, the Lions have made it harder to find other incredible talents. And with only one winning season, and one playoff appearance since mighty Megatron joined the team, it’s clear: he can’t do it all by himself.

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Last week: a humbling 5-8-1. My entire life: also a humbling 5-8-1.

So I’ve got some work to do. By far the most devastating defeat was the Saints failing to cover -3.5 in their three point victory over my 49ers. I was so saddened that I crawled under my 49ers throw blanket and wept for nearly an hour, swearing off football for all time, before getting bored and watching Sunday Night Football. Even more devastating was this text I got from an old friend:

Colin, I have a few questions for you.

1. Is there a difference between Sunday and Monday night football other than the day of the week.

2. Does the quarterback do anything but call the plays.

3. Why does Texas live up to its stereotypes?

I ignored this text for three hours while I watched Monday Night Football, idly wondering why I watched football, and promptly being rewarded with an an hour’s worth of “WASN’T THAT PASS INTERFERENCE” tweets. My Pats-fan friend, however, seemed beyond grief. She didn’t even text me.

SO, with devastation done with for good (right?), I’m trying some Week 12 picks. Lines from Sportsbook.com; home team in CAPS.

Bucs (+8.5) over LIONS

Is Tampa Bay ever going to start using the best cornerback in the NFL, whom they paid millions and millions for in the off-season, to take away the other team’s best wide receiver? I’m guessing no at this point? He might still be sorta injured or something? Even so, the Bucs have lost some close games, have a good defense, and remember that time Mike Glennon tore the Seahawks best secondary in the league to shreds for half a game?

TEXANS (-10) over Jaguars

I think every time the Jaguars have a 3&out, the Texans should have to remove one defender from the field, but it can’t be J.J. Watt. I want to see the Jaguars offense play J.J. Watt. WHAT IS THE LINE FOR THAT, VEGAS? And wouldn’t you still take J.J. Watt? Or even just J.J. Watt’s elbow brace?

PACKERS (-5) over Vikings

The Vikings have a win in London over the Steelers (average expected winning percentage 42.6%) and at home over the Redskins (36.5%). Also I just looked at their schedule and at the very least will not be taking them on the road for the rest of the season.

Chargers (+5) over CHIEFS

Yyyyyyyeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

Panthers (-4.5) over DOLPHINS

All of the makings of a let down game for the Panthers… but how long it takes to read that statement is approximately how much time Ryan Tannehill has to throw when he drops back to pass.

BROWNS (-1) over Steelers

Am I missing something? I know the Steelers have played a little better, but unless Brandon Weeden gets involved… oh right. God hates Cleveland. Damn it.

Bears (+1) over RAMS

Josh McCown over Kellen Clemons. Brandon Marshall over Chris Givens. Devin Hester over Tavon Austin. Martellus Bennett over Jared Cook. And let’s forget about that whole “defense” thing.

RAVENS (-3.5) over Jets

The Jets have a point differential of a 3-7 team. They’re 5-5. When given the opportunity to bet on regression to the mean, bet on regression to the mean.

Titans (-1) over RAIDERS

Something about how 46.3% of the money the Raiders are spending this season goes to players who no longer play for the Raiders.

CARDINALS (-2.5) over Colts

The beauty of seeing the Colts beat the 49ers and Seahawks and lose to the Rams and Cardinals is just too wonderful to pass up.

GIANTS (-2.5) over Cowboys

I really wanted to take the Cowboys here, but I am starting Tony Romo in fantasy this week, so…

PATRIOTS (+2.5) over Broncos

Forecast for Foxborough, MA for the weekend.

49ers (-6.5) over Redskins

If they 49ers keep, or maybe regain at this point, their focus, they’re in good shape. Will they? EEEEEeeeeeehhhhhhhhhh I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

I suck at gambling! Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to find people to help me carry a cream soda keg up three floors. Freakin’ weekend ‘errbody.

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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