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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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The football was the most amazing football last Sunday. I’m still processing it, and probably won’t be ready to talk about it until at least Friday. But I must go on with my continuing Economics and Sports Management recurring feature, The Search for the Best (& Worst!) Contract in Football. The end is near!1 We’re finally in the defensive backfield, as I look at cornerback pay and performance. And we have a serious challenger for guard Davin Joseph’s former stranglehold on the worst contract in the league.

First, some usual disclaimers: other things go into a player’s market value besides on-field performance. Measuring those things, how popular a player is, if he makes his teammates better, if he’s a good guy to have around, works well with the coaches, etc, is really, really hard. Certainly performance is a huge component of pay though. Tim Tebow, even Brett Favre, hell even Mike Tyson would still probably sell some tickets, but you don’t see them getting NFL contracts. Also, while certain players may rake in the ticket and jersey sales, that is at least partially controlled for by doing the analysis by position. The backs and receivers, even the tight ends may bring a lot of money in without their play, but take Davin Joseph. Earlier this season I estimated he was overpaid by $10+ million dollars.2 You can’t make a case that he’s helping the Buccaneers recoup that in other ways, certainly not all $10 million. Similarly, with a few exceptions, I don’t think fans go to watch other offensive linemen, or really any defensive players.3

Secondly, the Pro Football Focus grades I use for this analysis are super awesome, but not 100% perfect. I think their main weakness is not controlling for the quality of the opposition, down to the individual level. If a cornerback blankets Calvin Johnson and holds him without a catch on 10 targets with three passes defensed and no penalties, it counts the same as another corner who does exactly the same thing to Greg Little.4 Still, over the course of a season, things should even out a good deal, if not completely. Doing the analysis after one game would be almost meaningless. But after thirteen games of players getting graded on every play, it’s much more compelling.

Cornerbacks! 111 have played 25% or more of their teams’ snaps through Week 14. The Buffalo Bills released Justin Rogers earlier this season, so I dropped him from the sample. (He lost an opportunity to perform, and they stopped paying him, so…) Here are the Top 10 performing cornerbacks on the field this season (PFF grade in parentheses):

  • 1. Darrelle Revis, TB (18.1)
  • 2. Tyrann Mathieu, ARI (15.5)
  • 3. Patrick Peterson, ARI (13.1)
  • 4. Brent Grimes, MIA (12.5)
  • 5. William Gay, PIT (11.1)
  • 6. Jason McCourty, TEN (10.9)
  • 7. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, DEN (10.8)
  • 8. Tramaine Brock, SF (10.7)
  • 9. Vontae Davis, IND (10.5)
  • 10. Leon Hall, CIN (8.7)

That Derrelle Revis guy, still pretty good it turns out, even after age and injuries have had their say. Poor rookie sensation Tyrann Mathieu tore his ACL and LCL this past Sunday, ending his season. It’s truly a shame, as Arizona had a good, and entertaining, duo going on with Mathieu and his former LSU teammate Patrick Peterson reunited. And while some of San Francisco’s Tramaine Brock’s grade was as the third corner usually covering the opponent’s third wide receiver, the last few weeks he’s been starting for an injured Tarell Brown, performing very well. On to the Bottom 10:

  • 101. Dee Milliner, NYJ (-9.1)
  • 102. Leonard Johnson, TB (-9.2)
  • 103. David Amerson, WAS (-9.3)
  • 104. Brandon Flowers, KC (-9.7)
  • 105. Antonio Cromartie, NYJ (-10.5)
  • 106. Ike Taylor, PIT (-11.2)
  • 107. Derek Cox, SD (-11.8)
  • 108. Shareece Wright, SD (-12.4)
  • 109. Brice McCain, HOU (-12.7)
  • 110. Cortland Finnegan, STL (-19.7)

Revis left the Jets for Tampa Bay, and his first round draft pick replacement Dee Milliner hasn’t quite fit the bill just yet. (Though note that another thing PFF grades don’t measure is potential.) Antonio Cromartie has played well in the past though, not sure what’s up with him. Down at the bottom, solidly entrenched by his terrible play, is Cortland Finnegan of the Rams. Again, the worst corner so far this season is Cortland Finnegan, by a sound margin. The average grade is a 0.18, with a standard deviation of 6.69. Eeesh, as usual, tremendous variation in player performance.

Here are the Top 10 paid cornerbacks who’ve played 25% or more of their teams’ snaps (average annual salaries in millions of dollars, reported by Spotrac.com, in parentheses):

  • 1. Darrelle Revis, TB ($16 million)
  • 2. Brandon Carr, DAL ($10.02m)
  • 3. Cortland Finnegan, STL ($10m)
  • 4. Johnathan Joseph, HOU ($9.75m)
  • 5. Joe Haden, CLE ($8.547m)
  • 6. Leon Hall, CIN ($8.475m)
  • 7. Lardarius Webb, BAL ($8.333m)
  • 8. Brandon Flowers, KC ($8.225m)
  • 9. Antonio Cromartie, NYJ ($8m)
  • 10. Tramon Williams, GB ($7.615m)

Hey, it’s Cortland Finnegan! He is the third most expensive corner in the league and on average makes $10 million a year. Alright! Also Darrelle Revis’ contract is more than two standard deviations above the next most paid player. Remember, while his play was tops as well, it was less than one standard deviation above the next best player. Not looking like a good contract for the Buccaneers. These are the Bottom 10 paid cornerbacks:

  • 101. Alfonzo Dennard, NE ($0.539m)
  • 102. Byron Maxwell, SEA ($0.538m)
  • 103. Jimmy Wilson, MIA ($0.521m)
  • 104. Robert McClain, ATL ($0.51m)
  • 105. Nolan Carroll, MIA ($0.497m)
  • 106. Nickell Robey, BUF & Melvin White, CAR ($0.495m)
  • 108. Leonard Johnson, TB ($0.483m)
  • 109. Chris Harris Jr, DEN ($0.466m)
  • 110. Isaiah Frey, CHI ($0.45m)

The average annual salary is $2.722 million, with a standard deviation of $2.873 million. As with a couple other positions that unusually had a standard deviation greater than the average, this indicates a few players (or in this case, a Derrelle Revis) who are just paid boatloads of money more than their peers. Are they worth it? What do you think?

The Top 10 cornerback contracts so far this season (contract quality5 in parentheses):

  • 1. Tyrann Mathieu, ARI (2.99)
  • 2. Tramaine Brock, SF & William Gay, PIT (2.06)
  • 4. Chris Harris Jr, DEN & Richard Sherman, SEA (1.85)
  • 6. Will Blackmon, JAC (1.84)
  • 7. Alterraun Verner, TEN (1.81)
  • 8. Vontae Davis, IND (1.78)
  • 9. Alan Ball, JAC (1.77)
  • 10. Corey White, NO (1.75)

And it’s Honey Badger in front! Congratulations to Arizona Cardinals General Manager Steve Keim! And apologies to the Cardinals for their bad luck that Mathieu went out for the season two days ago. That just sucks. But hey, at least he’s really good and you’re not paying him very much money and he’s only a rookie! It could be worse…

… and the Worst 10 contracts (so far):

  • 101. Cary Williams, PHI (-1.93)
  • 102. Darrelle Revis, TB (-1.94)
  • 103. Chris Houston, DET (-2.03)
  • 104. Charles Tillman, CHI (-2.11)
  • 105. Derek Cox, SD (-2.58)
  • 106. Brandon Carr, DAL (-2.81)
  • 107. Ike Taylor, PIT (-3.19)
  • 108. Brandon Flowers, KC (-3.39)
  • 109. Antonio Cromartie, NYJ (-3.43)
  • 110. Cortland Finnegan, STL (-5.5)

Ladies and gentlemen, Cortland Finnegan! A -5.5! AAAUUUGGGHHH!!! That is so, so, so bad. A few players had -3 or so (they may have since improved, or worsened ). Guard Davin Joseph had a -4.78. A -5.5 through thirteen games… There are a couple more things I want to point out (like Darrelle Revis!), but I just… I’m done. There are no words. -5.5.


  1. Well, not really. I’ll be doing this all again, bigger and better, with even MOAR analysis, at the end of the season. 
  2. He only makes $7.5 million a year. He’s so bad is just doesn’t even make sense. He broke the analysis. I’m still working on it. 
  3. Yeah, there are some exceptions. I said that! But when you look at all the starting defensive players in the league, that’s 11 * 32 = 352. How many can you name off the top of your head? How many of those don’t play for your team? 20? 30? The vast majority of them lack “star power”. I may not be able to measure it, but I know it when I see it. Most guys don’t have it. If most guys did have it, we’d have to call it something else, or move to Lake Wobegon. 
  4. Currently PFF’s worst graded receiver with a -13.9 through Week 14. 
  5. Reminder: contract quality is determined by how a player’s on-field performance, relative to the average using standard deviations, relates to his salary, relative to the average using standard deviations. CQ = performance SDs above/below the average – salary SDs above/below the average 

It’s Tuesday, Week 11 is in the books, I lost fantasy football 107.22-105.52 (within the margin of a 17 yard Rob Gronkowski catch, or a Matt Prater field goal, or the Seahawks not getting a return touchdown, etc.), and my 49ers lost two games in a row for the second time under Jim Harbaugh, and the second time this season, and I’m still not sure I’m ready to talk about it. But a couple things Harbaugh did are bothering challenging me quite a bit. A couple challenges, as it were.

With two timeouts and 3:33 remaining in the first quarter of a 0-0 game, Harbaugh challenged that Drew Brees had crossed the line of scrimmage before completing an 8 yard pass to Darren Sproles on a 1st&10 from the 49er 25. Many people, including 49ers beat writer Matt Maiocco, have pointed out that the challenge was terrible, as replays clearly indicated Drew Brees wasn’t close to crossing the line of scrimmage. After the game, Harbaugh confessed “We didn’t have a video review [on that challenge].” Challenging a ruling that was obviously correct is, uh, obviously bad, and revealing that you challenged it without any evidence to the contrary, um, also obviously bad, but I wondered: why challenge this play in the first place? 2nd&10 is harder than 2nd&2, sure, but worth one of your two (or three) challenges and the risk of losing a time out? This isn’t the Jacksonville Jaguars of Week 8, it’s Drew Brees and the Saints of Week 11. Over the course of the game the Saints averaged 5.8 yards per offensive play. Even if Harbaugh had challenged on firmer ground, and the call was reversed… so what? The Saints were already looking at a 42 yard field goal (in a dome), and there were still a few yards between them and the end zone. To save the touchdown, the defense would need a stop either way, and it could come on a new set of downs. To shut them out, the defense would need to create a turnover. Both of these situations are quite possible whether the Saints have 2nd&10 or 2nd&2, so why risk it?

Surprise! The numbers from Brian Burke’s Advanced NFL StatsWin Probability Calculator suggest there is good value in challenging.1 In the Saints’ resulting situation, 2nd&2 from the opponent’s 17 in a 0-0 game with 3:22 left in the first quarter, their probability of ultimately winning was 0.65.2 If Harbaugh had won the challenge, making it 2nd&10 from the 25, the Saints’ win probability would have been 0.61.3 Increasing your chances of winning by 4% isn’t a lot, only actually it kind of is. (You may remember, this game came down to the final play, when the Saints’ Garrett Hartley kicked a game-winning 31 yard field goal.) In an article last month on AdvancedNFLStats.com, Kevin Meers, Co-President of the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective, laid out some neat work he’s done on coaches’ challenges. Using the difference in win probability resulting from winning the challenge minus that resulting from losing the challenge, which he dubs “leverage”, Meers charts all challenges in the 2012 season.

2012 Challenges by Leverage

Neat huh? That first challenge’s leverage was 0.04, and probably worth going after, again forgetting, as Harbaugh did, the replay which guaranteed the original call would stand. But you know, if what Harbaugh thought had happened had actually happened, it would have been an okay move. And that’s actually more than many NFL coaches can say. 15% of all challenges last season had zero leverage– whether they were successful or not had no discernible impact on the outcome of the game. In that article Meers also attempts to value timeouts, gauging them to be worth around 0.03 in win probability. I won’t get into his methodology (though I may try to build on his foundation in the coming weeks), and you can read it for yourself, but just take that 0.03 number for a moment. In terms of the lost timeout, it’s worth challenging when you yield 0.04 in win probability if you win the challenge 42.9% of the time. While I wouldn’t take that 0.03 number as a universal truth, and it’s worth mentioning again that these win probabilities are averages not personally tailored to a team’s own defense or offense, it’s still interesting. Mostly, it’s suggestive of the cool things we can learn once these types of models are further refined and improved.

Harbaugh’s second challenge was a similar story. Down 7-0 with 10:21 left in the second quarter, Harbaugh challenged that Kaepernick’s pass to Jon Baldwin in the end zone on 1st and 10 from the Saints’ 11, ruled incomplete, was in fact a touchdown. This was the ole’ Calvin Johnson rule about securing the ball for 547 minutes after you make a catch and go out of bounds, and while stupid, is a rule that coaches and players (and fans) know about. Under the rule, it was clearly an incomplete pass, leaving the 49ers with 2nd and 10. This was a little more troubling than the first failed challenge. Harbaugh said of the decision to challenge the play “I was talking to Eric [Mangini, our challenge consultant up in the booth]”. Cleveland Browns fans surely won’t be surprised by Mangini’s involvement, as he, uh, never really panned out as their head coach. Unfortunately he seems to have brought some similar failings to his new post. But failings aside, how often would the 49ers need to win this challenge for it to be worthwhile? 30% of the time.4 Given the replay (and the fact the game was in New Orleans), I’d say the chances of an overturn were zero, maybe 10% being generous. Nonetheless, that wasn’t Harbaugh’s area. Hearing the false possibility from Mangini, and not knowing the 49ers would score on the next play, this Harbaugh challenge was much more defensible.


  1. Assuming the challenges themselves aren’t completely hopeless. That’s still on Harbaugh. Well, actually the truth may be more complicated. More on that later. 
  2. Also, their probability of gaining a first down was 0.75; a field goal 0.41; and a touchdown also 0.41. 
  3. First down probability 0.52, field goal 0.37, touchdown 0.34. 
  4. The 49ers had a 0.48 probability of winning if they won the challenge, and a 0.41 probability if they lost, for a challenge leverage of 0.07. 

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 

Debating the best quarterbacks is a ceaseless venture for nearly all followers of football. Excluding special teams positions, quarterback is the only responsibility shouldered by one player (ideally), and one player alone. They’re the most talked about, most paid, and have won most of the NFL MVP Awards1, honestly with pretty good reason. When Aaron Rodgers was ruled out for the Green Bay Packers game against the Philadelphia Eagles last week, the betting line in Las Vegas swung 10 points in Philly’s favor. For comparison, when elite Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson was ruled out for a game against those same Packers earlier this year, the line swung 2.5 points to Green Bay. Quarterbacks are, and I don’t know how to put this, but kind of a big deal.

So who’s the best? I dunno. And really, neither does anyone else, not for sure. Even if it was clear what “best” meant (in the 4th quarter? this week? on the road? this season? his career? his potential?), there is no clear winner. For this season, most would say Peyton Manning (he is on pace to set single season records for passing touchdowns and yards), which is fine. The good people at Pro Football Focus, who grade every NFL player on every play throughout the season, concur. Here are PFF’s Top 5 quarterbacks so far this season, among those who have played 25% or more of their team’s snaps (grade in parentheses):

  • 1. Peyton Manning, DEN (24.2)
  • 2. Philip Rivers, SD (19.1)
  • 3. Matthew Stafford, DET (18.1)
  • 4. Aaron Rodgers, GB (18)
  • 5. Drew Brees, NO (15.8)

And here are PFF’s Bottom 5:

  • 34. Chad Henne, JAC (-12.4)
  • 35. Joe Flacco, BAL (-12.7)
  • 36. E.J. Manuel, BUF (-14.2)
  • 37. Terrelle Pryor, OAK (-14.5)
  • 38. Geno Smith, NYJ (-15.1)

PFF grades aren’t perfect. Their biggest flaw is that they don’t adjust for the competition. Pump-faking New England Patriots’ safety Devin McCourty (PFF grade 17.9) to the wrong side before completing a pass counts the same as pump-faking Chicago Bears’ Major Wright (PFF grade -17.1). Nonetheless, they’re an objective analysis independent of a single expert or opinion, grounded in repeated scrutiny and facts. So sure, Peyton Manning is the best quarterback so far this season, well on the way to a record 5th most valuable player award.2 But exactly how much do the Denver Broncos value him?

Under his five year contract with the Broncos, Manning’s average annual salary of $19.2 million ranks third in the league among quarterbacks. (Also all players. Those quarterbacks get paid a lot.) The Broncos are paying the most valuable player (so far) the third most value. Neat. But is that the best? Forget what team is getting the most out of their quarterback, what team is getting the most out of their quarterback for their money? 

For starters, among quarterbacks who have played 25% or more of their team’s snaps, here are the Top 5 Most Paid (millions of dollars in parentheses), using their average annual salary under their current contracts as reported by the online professional athlete salary database Spotrac.com:

  • 1. Joe Flacco, BAL ($20.1 million)
  • 2. Drew Brees, NO ($20m)
  • 3. Peyton Manning, DEN ($19.2m)
  • 4. Matt Ryan, ATL ($18.958m)
  • 5. Aaron Rodgers, GB ($18.679m)

And here are the 5 Lowest Paid:

  • 34. Russell Wilson, SEA ($0.749m)
  • 35. Nick Foles, PHI ($0.677m)
  • 36. Terrelle Pryor, OAK ($0.59m)
  • 37. Thaddeus Lewis, BUF ($0.51m)
  • 38. Case Keenum, HOU (0.45m)

Yes, Joe Flacco is the 4th worst performing quarterback (so far) and the best paid. (Enjoy that Super Bowl championship, Ravens fans.) Among the lowest paid quarterbacks, Wilson is alone in starting all his team’s games this season, with Foles, Lewis, and Keenum starting for injured first-stringers and Pryor emerging (somewhat, again second worst grade) while missing time for injuries himself. 12 of the 32 teams have started more than one quarterback this season. All told, which have gotten the most for the least?

A good way to answer involves standard deviations. A standard deviation (henceforth SD) is a measure of variability for a group of numbers, in relation to the average. The SD of NFL quarterback salaries (who’ve played 25% of snaps or more) is $6.4 million. That means 68.2% of all quarterbacks have a salary within $6.41 million of the mean salary, $7.818 million. The SD is almost as large as the mean itself, indicating a lot of variability. The SD of quarterbacks’ PFF grades is 10.2, many times the average grade of 1.4; again, A Lot of variability. What do these numbers tell us about how much the Broncos pay Manning?

Manning’s salary ($19.2m) is 1.65 SDs above the mean. Manning’s grade (24.2) is 2.18 SDs above the mean. Relative to his peers, Manning makes an extreme amount of money. His relative performance, however, is even more extreme. That is good for the Broncos, and suggests that they are not overpaying him. Subtracting Manning’s salary SD from his PFF grade SD equals 0.53. What is 0.53? It’s a measure of Manning’s performance (“extremeness”) relative to his salary (“extremeness”). If it were 0, the Broncos would be paying him exactly how much he was worth. (Well, conceptually. The truth is more complicated.) 0.53 represents Manning’s “contract quality”. That the units are standard deviations, which themselves are in different units (the US Dollar and the PFF Grade) is not important, in terms of general understanding. The higher a player’s contract quality, the better deal it is for his organization. The lower the contract quality, the worse the deal.

The highest contract quality among all NFL quarterbacks is Russell Wilson, of the Seattle Seahawks. With a salary SD of -1.02 and a PFF grade SD of 1.33, Wilson’s contract quality of 2.35 is tops by a sound margin. This should not be surprising to football fans, as Wilson has played well (6th best this year, 15.3 grade) ever since starting as a rookie, all after being drafted in the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft, which enabled the Seahawks to pay him so little (5th lowest this year, $0.749m). With that, this Economics and Sports Management (or ESPM) recurring segment presents the mid-season award for best quarterback contract to Seattle’s General Manager John Schneider. Congratulations!

Here are the Top 5 NFL Quarterback Contracts (contract quality in parentheses)

  • 1. Russell Wilson, SEA (2.35)
  • 2. Ryan Tannehill, MIA (1.87)
  • 3. Andrew Luck, IND (1.32)
  • 4. Nick Foles, PHI (1.21)
  • 5. Case Keenum, HOU (1.19)

Notice anything? All of them entered the NFL in 2012, with Keenum the only one going undrafted. None of the best performing five quarterbacks makes the list, with Rivers coming the closest, 8th best with a 0.79 contract quality, and Brees being the only one seemingly overpaid, finishing 23rd with a -0.39 contract quality. There is a reason teams like collecting draft picks. Free agents are more expensive. Speaking of which, what are the worst quarterback contracts in the NFL this season?

  • 34. Tom Brady, NE (-0.93)
  • 35. Matt Ryan, ATL (-1.05)
  • 36. Eli Manning, NYG (-1.45)
  • 37. Matt Schaub, HOU (-1.62)
  • 38. Joe Flacco, BAL (-3.13) (Seriously, Ravens fans, enjoy that championship.)

Turns out, all of the worst contracts are free agent signings, with Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco tanking the way. Yikes.

Aside from learning the ole’ don’t-resign-players-who-play-well-even-really-well-in-a-few-games–even-if-those-few-games-are-the-playoffs-and-super-bowl-when-the-rest-of-their-careers-say-otherwise trick, there is a larger lesson to be learned here. Football analysts and commentators often speak of a “championship window”, which seemingly means a variety of things. But maybe there’s something to it. Those young guys leading the league in contract value now will be able to renegotiate after the 2014-2015 season, and become free agents in 2016 if they don’t. That will result in significantly less money for their teams to spend elsewhere. Russell Wilson accounts for 0.5% of the Seahawks’ salary cap this year. Peyton Manning accounts for 12.5% of the Broncos’. (His brother Eli Manning accounts for 17.1% of the Giants’. Yeesh.) So enjoy, Seattle. Nothing lasts forever.


  1. Quarterbacks have won 37 of the 58 NFL MVP Awards (63.8%). Running backs have won 18 (31%), and one defensive tackle, kicker, and linebacker have won one each (1.7% each). 
  2. He already has the current record with four. Brett Favre, Johnny Unitas, and Jim Brown are tied for second with three each. 
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