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First, here are the numbers on Bethea. Player performance grades come from Pro Football Focus; salary information from Spotrac.com; all averages and rankings are position specific; and a player’s contract quality is the number of standard deviations his performance is above/below the average minus the number of standard deviations his average annual salary is above/below the average.

Age: 29 (30 on July 27th)
Old Team: Indianapolis Colts
Old Contract: 4 years/$26 million, $6.5 million average (9th highest of 85 safeties)
2013 PFF Grade: -2.9 (52nd)
2013 Contract Quality: -2.08 (81st)
New Team: San Francisco 49ers
New Contract: 4 years/$23 million, $5.75 million average (projected 12th highest)

Last season, Bethea’s below-average on-field contributions were worth about two million. It is worth mentioning that his performance was not just below the league average, but below his personal career average. In 2007 (his second year in the NFL) he was PFF’s seventh highest graded safety (6.4 grade) of the 80 who played 25% or more of their teams’ snaps; in 2008 he was 17th (5.7) of 83; in 2009 25th (3.5) of 88; in 2010 16th (7.2) of 85; in 2011 21st (3.7) of 87; and in 2012 69th (-4.2) of 88. These numbers suggest his play has fallen off, but they do not say why.

Perhaps Bethea lost a step as he neared 30; perhaps he did not fit as well in Coach Pagano’s system. Regardless, his decline in play does not necessarily mean he has lost a lot of his value. Through his previous contract Bethea’s on-field worth averaged roughly $4 million. The Colts paid him $6.5 million, and the 49ers just decided to pay him $5.75 million on the other side of 30. Why would they do that?

A recent article by 49ers beat writer Matt Maiocco hints at the answer. Maiocco’s post, “Bethea provides ‘smart, steady’ leadership in 49ers secondary“, notes that in addition to eight years of NFL experience:

“Bethea is viewed as a ‘good locker room guy’ and great in the community.”

General manager Trent Baalke has demonstrated a reluctance to chase the high-priced free agent who may disrupt team chemistry. Baalke’s signing of Bethea not only underscores Baalke’s philosophy, but indicates just how much the 49ers value teamwork, isolated from talent. Bethea’s professional demeanor and strong character are seemingly worth $2-4 million or so, at least to some NFL front offices.

As always, it is likely other considerations play into his value. With two prior Pro Bowl appearances Bethea may emerge as a fan favorite, or at least a recognizable presence in the defensive backfield. And, though his talent may be slipping, Bethea has not had injury problems. Nor has he stooped to committing penalties; Maiocco reports that he was not called for a single infraction last season. That, at least, would be a welcome change from Whitner, who was whistled eight times.

The bottom line for Whitner ended up being the $7 million a year the Cleveland Browns were willing to give him. The 49ers, meanwhile, will be paying his replacement more than $1 million fewer each season. Perhaps best of all, 49ers games will finally be rid of out-of-date stories discussing a potential name change to Donte Hitner. Oh, and we have another million and change for a few years to maybe work out a deal with Colin Kaepernick. And if the intangibles of an NFL safety cost into the millions, surely a team needs every cent for a quarterback’s.

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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.

I love sports, and of course I love sports announcing. Though a San Francisco Giants fan1, I’ll definitely watch any west coast Dodger game just to enjoy the magnificence that is Vin Scully.2 And where would I be in the Olympics without Bob Costas guiding me along in the studio? I’ve never had quite as much love for any football game commentators, with the possible exception of Pat Summerall and John Madden. Generally, I feel they do a good job– it actually isn’t easy to sit down for three hours and talk during a football game while being appealing to millions of viewers– but they say many silly things. Or things that are just wrong. I find this most aggravating when it’s the “expert” color commentator, guaranteed to be a former player or coach, whom I feel people usually, often wrongly, trust. While they may offer some fascinating insights, they may also offer some terrible ones. It is rare that I watch a game and at no point think to myself “That’s wrong,” or “That doesn’t make any sense.” Yesterday as usual I started watching football at noon, and unusually finished at 11:30 pm thanks to an overtime thriller in Foxborough. While not a comprehensive list, I tried to make a note when a commentator said something silly.3 Here we go.

With the Ravens trailing the Jets 3-0 and 4:10 remaining in the first quarter, Ray Rice gained two yards on a 2nd&1 from the Jet 28.

CBS play-by-play man Greg Gumbel remarked:

Ray has a little bit of a chip on his shoulder.

And color commentator Dan Dierdorf, 13 year NFL veteran, five-time First-team All-Pro selection, replied in his infinite wisdom:

Well he did, an- and because the criticism was all on him, when in reality I saw a whole bunch of tape on these guys where there were no holes whatsoever. Ray Rice was being met at the line of scrimmage.

At the moment Ray Rice has the worst Pro Football Focus grade4 among all running backs in the NFL, and it’s not close. With a -0.2 in the passing game, a -11.6 in the run game, a -3.1 as a blocker, and a -0.5 in penalties, he totals a -15.4. The next worst running back, C.J. Spiller, checks in with a -11.2, and third worst, Darren McFadden, registers a -7.9. PFF’s “Elusive Rating” is a statistic designed to gauge how well a running back evades tacklers, controlling for the quality of his blocking. Ray Rice is dead last among the 50 running backs with enough snaps to qualify with a 7.0; tops is Marshawn Lynch with a 72.7. (The rating roughly scales from 1-100.) So I know Dan Dierdof “saw a whole bunch of tape” and I believe him. But a whole bunch of guys at PFF saw all of the tape, and firmly conclude that Ray Rice has played abysmally this season. So if you caught a few Ravens’ games and heard Dierdof’s remarks and thought “Oh, it isn’t on Ray Rice, it’s the people around him,” rest assured: it is on Ray Rice. He has truly earned the second worst running back contract in football. Which is to say, he has not earned his contract at all.

With the Steelers leading the Browns 10-3 on a 2nd&10 from the Brown 14 with 20 seconds remaining in the second quarter, Ben Roethlisberger’s pass for Antonio Brown in the end zone was broken up by Joe Haden.

Solomon Wilcots, six year NFL veteran and color commentator of CBS, broke down what happened:

This is a great play by Joe Haden. Watch him knife in underneath. He understands that down around the goal line, look at that play! You have to get between the quarterback and the receiver. He allowed himself to slip underneath, he had great position.

It’s great, except CBS is showing the replay as Wilcots is saying this, the replay in which Haden very clearly grabs Brown’s jersey with his left hand and holds on for a good moment. It wasn’t blatant pass interference, but it was pass interference. It’s one thing for the officials to miss it live; it’s another for Haden to miss it during the slow motion replay, as he remarks what a terrific play it was by Haden. And even though this is the type of penalty that may not be called most of the time, Wilcots doesn’t acknowledge that Haden grabbed Brown at all. Fans at home, Joe Haden is a very good corner in the National Football League, but that doesn’t always mean “slipping underneath”. Sometimes it may mean “gets overly physical without getting whistled”.

Down 10-3 at home after an incomplete Case Keenum pass on 3rd&goal from the Jaguar two yard line with 8:34 remaining in the third quarter, the Texans took their offense off the field to kick a field goal.

Said CBS color commentator Steve Tasker, 13 year veteran, seven-time All-Pro:

And that’s going to force the field goal, the fans aren’t happy about it but it’s the right move.

Of course if you’ve ever heard of Brian Burke, or know the difference between actual good strategy in the NFL and the still-prevailing conventional wisdom, you know that’s the wrong call. A quick rundown of the numbers: on average going for it in that situation produces a win probability of 0.38; kicking a field goal produces a win probability of 0.31.  From up in the press box Kubiak’s decision cost his team a 7% chance of winning the game.5 For going for it to be worthwhile in this situation, the Texans need to convert only 26% of the time. It’s two yards, and lest we forget, THEY’RE PLAYING THE JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS! For Tasker to dismiss this as “the right move” is just… how can he… it’s so obviously… RAGE!!! Furious George, L.O.L. I didn’t watch the end of the game, which the Texans went on to lose 13-6, but I bet at no point during the Texans’ final drive6 did Tasker point out “HEY, the would only need a field goal right now if they had gone for it on fourth down earlier and scored a touchdown, as was quite likely given that they only had two yards to go. And as it is, they STILL need to score a touchdown and are in a situation where they have to go for it on fourth down anyway, even if it’s way more than two yards to go. Jeez, I guess I was just saying what I always say and talking out of my @#$ earlier, huh Bill?” Of course if he did point that out, then, well, tip of the hat to him. But I kinda doubt it.

On a 1st&10 with 8:22 remaining in the 3rd quarter, the Packers, down 20-7 to the Vikings, replaced Scott Tolzien with Matt Flynn, who promptly completed his first pass for nine yards.

Fox play-by-play announcer Kevin Burkhardt stated:

A completion. And it’s got this crowd back in the game.

Color commentator and 15 year NFL veteran, four-time All-Pro safety John Lynch chimed in:

He goes to Matt Flynn and they get a little momentum right away.

Whether or not you “believe” in momentum in sports or not, you probably know there is no factual evidence for it if you feel strongly about it one way or the other. Bill Barnwell, of the great Grantland.com, has sort of made “Nomentum” a thing this year, bringing facts a bit further into the mainstream. I’ll only say this: what do you mean when you refer to “momentum”, exactly? Lynch said they got “a little momentum right away.” Scott Tolzien, just benched, had pulled off two nifty moves on a six yard touchdown run earlier in the game. Did that play accrue momentum? And if so, it must have disappeared, since Tolzien was benched? So was the momentum from this pass from Flynn more noteworthy than any momentum Tolzien had gained, an indication that the Packers’ fortunes would be reversed and cause for the fans to rejoice? I, uhh, kinda doubt it. On the next play James Starks ran for 34 yards, setting up 1st&10 from the Viking 37. The momentum must really be going now, right!?! Then Starks ran for two yards, Flynn threw an incomplete pass, and Flynn threw a pass for a loss of five yards, leaving the Packers with 4th&13 from the Vikings 40. They punted. Tragically neither Burkhardt nor Lynch explained where that momentum had gone, and what impact, if any, it had on the game.

Up 24-3 facing 3rd&1 from the Colt 45 with 4:13 remaining in the 2nd quarter, the Cardinals’ Andre Ellington was stuffed for a loss of two.

After the play, CBS color commentator Dan Fouts, 15 year NFL veteran and two-time First-team All-Pro, praised the Colts for the stop, saying:

It looked like the Colts- er, the Cardinals had momentum.

What a curious statement! It LOOKED like the Cardinals had the momentum. But in fact, the Colts now have the momentum? The Cardinals had the momentum because they were up by three touchdowns at home and driving in their opponent’s territory? But then, in one fell swoop, the Colts got a stop and now they have the momentum? Or some momentum? The Cardinals have less momentum now? WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN, DAN??? You know, I think I know. I was never the quarterback for any football team, let alone the San Diego Chargers, and I’m not in the NFL Hall of Fame, but hear me out: “momentum” is when a team improves their situation, relative to the previous situation. And it gets thrown around for a variety of situation types: momentum accrued from a winning streak (sometimes dating back to last season!), unanswered points, a string of good plays, or just one good play, or penalty, whatever. So far as I’m aware, there is A LOT of anecdotal, personal claims that such “momentum” helps a team or player perform, but actually zero (scientific) evidence that it does. Certainly, that’s the case in other sports7, and given the fickle nature of momentum’s tangible effects on performance, I sure don’t see a case otherwise.

On 4th&4 down 27-3 with 11:14 left in the third quarter, Andrew Luck’s pass from the Cardinal 36 was batted into the air and nearly intercepted on the Cardinal 20 before hitting the turf.

Fouts pointed out:

Well they’re better off not catching that ball.

And good for him, it’s a good point and he is totally right. On 4th down, unless there’s a good run back opportunity, the defense improves field position by batting the ball down instead of catching it. And then play-by-play man Ian Eagle chimed in:

It doesn’t matter other than the yardage. So you can pad your stats as a defensive player, but you actually are going to benefit if it’s incomplete.

Eagle sort hits on the right point (after Fouts brought it up), but uhhh… “It doesn’t matter other than the yardage”? Yeah, that’s what the teams are doing in football, trying to gain yards and get to the end zone. The yardage matters! According to Advanced NFL Stats‘ Win Probability Calculator, in this situation the yardage matters to the tune of a single percent chance of winning. Starting on their 36, the Cardinals had a win probability of 95%; starting on their 20, it would have been 94%. That’s not a lot, but disregarding yards in a football game, especially 16 of them (nearly a fifth of the field), is pretty silly.

With 4:52 left in the fourth quarter of Sunday Night Football, down 31-24, Wes Welker dropped a pass over the middle on a 1st&10 from the Patriot 36.

Cris Collinsworth, eight year NFL veteran and three-time Second-team All-Pro selection, wondered of Welker’s drop:

How many times do you see that?

Fortunately, NBC play-by-play caller Al Michaels jumped right in:

Once too many for some New England fans.

Fans who don’t obsess over the numbers but just enjoy watching football (God bless ’em) may well think Wes Welker has terrific hands, because nearly without fail, every time he drops a pass, whoever is announcing the game remarks “Oh, a rare drop from Wes Welker!” Except Welker’s drops are hardly rare, so over the course of a season it is a pretty regular occurrence to hear a rare Wes Welker drop proclaimed on television. Going as far back as PFF data goes, through the 2008 season, Welker’s drop rate is the following (league-wide rank among players with 25% of their team’s targets or more in parentheses):

  • 2008: 6.03% (19th of 81)
  • 2009: 4.65% (24th of 101)
  • 2010: 13.13% (70th of 89)
  • 2011: 9.63% (48th of 95)
  • 2012: 11.28% (58th of 82)
  • 2013: 9.72% (54th of 97)

Welker certainly doesn’t have the worst hands in the NFL, but he’s hardly elite. Larry Fitzgerald, for example, finished 13th or higher all of those seasons except 2012, when he finished 24th. To answer Collinsworth’s question, counting 2013, the last four seasons Welker has dropped 9% or more of his catchable passes. Counting last night, so far in 2013 he’s dropped seven passes; only seven players have dropped more than him this season. Kudos to Michaels for hinting to Collinsworth that, in fact, a Wes Welker drop is not all that unusual.

Lastly, I just thought I’d remind everyone who the Top 10 quarterbacks have been in fantasy football this week, pending MNF (standard points in parentheses):

  • 1. Philip Rivers (27.78)
  • 2. Tom Brady (24.76)
  • 3. Ryan Fitzpatrick (24.4)
  • 4. Alex Smith (21.46)
  • 5. Carson Palmer (20.56)
  • 6. Cam Newton (20.06)
  • 7. Drew Brees (18.52)
  • 8. Josh McCown (18.48)
  • 9. Ryan Tannehill (18)
  • 10. Matthew Stafford (16.48)

Ryan Fitzpatrick, Alex Smith, Carson Palmer, and Josh McCown all cracked the Top 10. What is the world coming to? Although to be fair, yesterday at mid-afternoon Mike Glennon, Christian Ponder, Kellen Clemens, and bad quarterback superstar Brandon Weeden were also in the running. Mike Glennon actually scored more points (16.18) than Peyton Manning (13). I give up. Go 49ers!


  1. And also a Seattle Mariners fan. That Pacific Northwest life, being close to the homeland in Alaska. Incidentally my mother’s two favorite baseball teams are the Washington Nationals, where she grew up, and the Mariners, closest to where she lives now. They are the only two active Major League Baseball franchises that do not have a single appearance in the World Series. (Yes, even before when the Nationals were the Montreal Expos.) It’s a hard life. 
  2. Also, Vin Scully had the call for “The Catch”, so it’s even more okay. 
  3. How did I catch calls from so many different games? DirecTV’s NFL Red Zone Channel. God bless DirecTV’s NFL Red Zone Channel. 
  4. Among running backs who’ve played 25% or more of their team’s snaps. PFF has multiple analysts grade every player on every snap of every game. Click here to learn more about PFF’s grading system. 
  5. Poor Kubiak. His recent health scare is keeping him from the sidelines, and after losing to the Jaguars, at home, you’ve got to wonder if he’ll be coaching the Texans next season, or even at the end of this one. I only take issue with his chosen strategy in this case; I’m sure he’s a wonderful human being and I wish him and his family the best. 
  6. Which ended on a Case Keenum interception from the Jaguar 41. If the Texans had only needed a field goal to tie then, they might have squeaked it out. 
  7. See all scientific findings regarding “the hot hand”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hot-hand_fallacy 

First of all, this evaluation uses player performance through Week 10, and doesn’t include what happened over the weekend. With at least 15 more positions to get through (depending on what I decide to do with blocking and coverage units on special teams), I wanted to move along. But Monday Night Football happens tonight. As I’ll be going back at the end of the season to hand out the official awards for best and worst contract anyway, there’s no point to rush ahead and leave behind the Patriots’ and Panthers’ running backs playing tonight.1

Another note, regarding position: a player’s position may not match what he’s perceived as, or even what’s on his team’s official depth chart. In addition to providing grades on every player on every snap, Pro Football Focus details where each player lines up in relation to each other, and records them in the corresponding position for that snap. So if San Francisco 49ers running back Frank Gore lines up wide left, for that play PFF lists his position as Left Wide Receiver. Gore’s PFF grade includes such plays; he is listed as a running back because he has played 25% or more of his team’s snaps at “Halfback”, as defined by PFF.2

So, running backs! There have been 55 running backs (using PFF’s classification) seeing significant time this season. Da’Rel Scott, formerly of the New York Giants, was released earlier this year, leaving 54. Here are the Top 10 performers (PFF Grade in parentheses):

  • 1. LeSean McCoy, PHI (17.2)
  • 2. Marshawn Lynch, SEA (14.9)
  • 3. Adrian Peterson, MIN (13.1)
  • 4. Giovani Bernard, CIN (13)
  • 5. Danny Woodhead, SD (11.2)
  • 6. Darren Sproles, NO (11)
  • 7. Frank Gore, SF (10.3)
  • 8. Eddie Lacy, GB (9.3)
  • 9. Pierre Thomas, NO (8.9)
  • 10. Joique Bell, DET (7.9)

A pretty sound group, with rookies Bernard and Lacy getting in alongside superstars like Peterson and some solid play from less famous veterans like Danny Woodhead. Here are the Bottom 10 (grades in parentheses):

  • 45. Chris Ogbonnaya, CLE (-4.8)
  • 46. Chris Ivory, NYJ & Rashard Mendenhall, AZ (-5.3)
  • 48. Chris Johnson, TEN (-5.4)
  • 49. Trent Richardson, IND (-5.7)
  • 50. Bilal Powell, NYJ (-5.9)
  • 51. Doug Martin, TB (-7.8)
  • 52. Darren McFadden, OAK (-7.9)
  • 53. C.J. Spiller, BUF (-9.1)
  • 54. Ray Rice, BAL (-12.8)

Oh dear. The bottom of that list shouldn’t surprise anyone who has played fantasy football this season, especially if you drafted one of them.3 Also, and I hope to write more about this soon, the rest of the NFL must be excited if the Colts would truly trade for Trent Richardson again. The Saints had two players in the Top 10, while the Jets have two players in the Bottom (and the Browns were close, with Ogbonnaya’s teammate Willis McGahee just beating him out with a -4.6). The average running back grade is a 2.23, with a standard deviation of 6.52, reflecting a rather substantial amount of variation in player performance, though not as much as among quarterbacks. As for their compensation, here are the Top 10 best paid running backs, using data from Spotrac.com (average annual salary in parentheses, in millions of dollars):

  • 1. Adrian Peterson, MIN ($13.714 million)
  • 2. Darren McFadden, OAK ($10.002m)
  • 3. Chris Johnson, TEN ($8.996m)
  • 4. Arian Foster, HOU ($8.7m)
  • 5. DeAngelo Williams, CAR ($8.6m)
  • 6. LeSean McCoy, PHI ($7.603m)
  • 7. Matt Forte, CHI ($7.6m)
  • 8. Marshawn Lynch, SEA ($7.5m)
  • 9. Ray Rice, BAL ($7m)
  • 10. Frank Gore, SF ($6.475m)

Once again, players worst in performance make the best paid list! It hasn’t failed yet, with Rice, Johnson, and McFadden joining in. Here are the Bottom 10 paid running backs:

  • 45. Rashad Jennings, OAK ($0.63m)
  • 46. Roy Helu, WAS ($0.628m)
  • 47. Bilal Powell, NYJ ($0.61m)
  • 48. Zac Stacy, STL ($0.584m)
  • 49. Andre Ellington, AZ ($0.565966m)
  • 50. Mike James, TB ($0.565788m)
  • 51. Jacquizz Rodgers, ATL ($0.558m)
  • 52. Alfred Morris, WAS ($0.556m)
  • 53. Daryl Richardson, STL ($0.536m)
  • 54. Brandon Bolden, NE ($0.485m)

Alfred Morris is certainly the most noteworthy, with Stacy and Ellington putting together promising rookie campaigns as well. The average NFL running back makes $3.043 million a year, with a standard deviation of $3.134 actually being lower, if only slightly. Relative to how well they play, there is much less variation among how well running backs are paid. Which teams got the best deals?

The ESPM award for best running back contract (so far) goes to… Giovani Bernard of the Cincinnati Bengals. Congratulations Bengals General Manager Mike Brown! To calculate a player’s contract quality, we determine the number of standard deviations his performance grade is above/below the average, and subtract the number of standard deviations his average annual salary is above/below the average. Here are the Best 10 contracts among NFL running backs (contract quality in parentheses):

  • 1. Giovani Bernard, CIN (2.2)
  • 2. Danny Woodhead,SD (1.79)
  • 3. Eddie Lacy, GB (1.78)
  • 4. Joique Bell, DET (1.64)
  • 5. Andre Elleington, AZ (1.63)
  • 6. Mike James, TB (1.52)
  • 7. DeMarco Murray, DAL (1.5)
  • 8. Jacquizz Rodgers, ATL (1.4)
  • 9. Roy Helu, WAS (1.21)
  • 10. Darren Sproles, NO (1.2)

It’s an interesting list. Bernard is a rookie, but he didn’t come as cheap, being more than twice as expensive as most others at $1.313 million a year. Eddie Lacy, chosen 24 picks later in the second round of last year’s draft, makes $0.848 million, while the others are closer to a half million than a full. Danny Woodhead and Darren Sproles represent the rare free agent signing success. Still, only three of the top ten most paid running backs have quality contracts (McCoy, Lynch, & Gore). With Alfred Morris at #11 (1.14), Washington seems to have been the best at getting the most out of their money, at this position at least. Here are the 10 Worst contracts:

  • 45. Doug Martin, TB (-1.11)
  • 46. Arian Foster, HOU (-1.29)
  • 47. Matt Forte, CHI (-1.41)
  • 48. Adrian Peterson, MIN (-1.74)
  • 49. Trent Richardson, IND (-1.88)
  • 50. C.J. Spiller, BUF (-1.91)
  • 51. DeAngelo Williams, CAR (-1.92)
  • 52. Chris Johnson, TEN (-3.07)
  • 53. Ray Rice, BAL (-3.57)
  • 54. Darren McFadden, OAK (-3.78)

So while generally using draft picks is better than signing free agents, as players on their first contract generally provide more for the money, there are exceptions. Doug Martin and Trent Richardson were drafted in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft and are still on their rookie deals. But usually, the worst results come from enormous free agent signings, though that is not to say that all enormous free agent signings are the worst. Chris Johnson, Ray Rice, and Darren McFadden are in a world of their own at the bottom, each with, well, an enormous gap between where they stand among their peers in performance (low) and pay (high).

In all, 30 of 54 (55.6%) have “good” contracts, in that their teams are getting as much or more than they pay for. Those numbers for wide receivers were 59 of 109 (54.1%); quarterbacks, 19 of 37 (51.4%). Those numbers are my first glimpse of how efficient (or inefficient) the NFL may be. Even with good players and bad players, rich ones and poor ones, greedy owners and greedy agents, all contracts could (ought to) still be better priced. One should’t expect teams to get the performance they paid for (or better) from every one of their players. But only just over half? Among quarterbacks, wide receivers, and running backs, NFL teams are overpaying nearly 50% of their players. Clearly there is a lot of work to be done.


  1. Though also, not all players have played the same number of games anyway, as some teams are still waiting for their bye week. But as the Patriots and Panthers did have theirs, they would be two games short of some teams. ANYway, this is not the ultimate assessment, just an intermediate one. 
  2. PFF records a player as a Halfback if they are the only back (besides the quarterback) in the backfield OR if there are multiple backs in the backfield and they are as far back (or farther) from the line of scrimmage than all other backs. 
  3. Chris Johnson did have a sound night on Thursday Night Football, with a +1.8. I think Rice played well yesterday too, but his PFF grade isn’t up yet. (They’re still busy having a few different people watch and grade every snap of that game.) 

Earlier today while cleaning up my Favorited Tweets on Twitter, I came across one I’ve been meaning to look into for a while. It was a “TwitPic” of a simple chart, conceived at UCLA in the early 1970s. This is it:

Vermeil 2 Pt Chart

Credited to Dick Vermeil, an assistant coach at the time, versions of the chart have been around longer, but for whatever reason, this is “The One” that still hangs around college and NFL sidelines, albeit perhaps with a few minor changes unique to each coach. It’s fairly evident that, while getting on the right track, there are some serious problems with the chart, which Vermeil himself has long acknowledged (Battista).

Generally, the chart says to go for two when you can make the lead (either yours or your opponent’s) a small multiple of three (FG) or a multiple of seven, also valuing the 17 point lead and the 10 point deficit. Interestingly, the chart suggests going for two when down by one and by nine, something I certainly can’t recall a lot of coaches doing these days. Since 2006, only three times have offenses attempted a two point conversion when down by one, and only once when down by nine. NFL coaches don’t treat the chart like an ironclad law. Have they changed it for the maximum strategic advantage? Not quite.

Coaches still seem a little hazy about how the game clock affects two point attempts. The chart has nothing to say about the amount of time left in the game, but certainly it’s a factor. If it’s the first quarter, even if you can tie the game, why risk it? There are many possessions left for each team. But with under a minute in the 4th quarter, every coach would go for two to tie the game. When does it become necessary? Depends who you ask. In a 2002 Miami-FSU game with 11:44 left in the fourth quarter, FSU kicked the extra point to take a 13 point lead. Miami subsequently scored two touchdowns, holding FSU scoreless to win the game. FSU coach Bobby Bowden said afterward:

I don’t go for two early. If we missed it, a touchdown and two field goals would beat you. (Hutton)

Apparently, 48+ minutes into a game can still be “early”, and Bowden, head coach of a major NCAA Division I football program, was concerned about Miami scoring on three possessions, even though it would only take two to beat FSU. Herman Edwards, former head coach of the New York Jets and Kansas City Chiefs, liked to wait until 12 minutes remained in the game before considering a two point try (Battista). In 2011, then NFL.com analyst Michael Lombardi (now general manager of the Cleveland Browns) expressed his own thoughts:

Continue to add points. Do it until the amount of possessions remaining is dwindling. The discussion to go for two should never occur until the fourth quarter, when possessions are limited. (Lombardi)

It turns out that even before the 4th quarter, going for two can still be the strategic play. Harold Sackrowitz, a statistics professor at Rutgers University, is as expert as anyone on two point conversions, having spent years studying them and tinkering with probability models. He accounts for potential future possessions, the time left, the score, and even the probability of converting given the strengths and weaknesses of the offense and defense. And with all of that in mind, he knows teams should start considering to go for it in the middle of the third quarter (Battista).

How have two pointers fared recently? Using Pro Football Reference’s Play Finder, one can see that of the last 500 two point conversions attempted in the regular season (as many as they’ll show at once, going back to November 2004), 49.2% (246) succeeded while 50.8% (254) failed. Of the 31 attempts so far in 2013, 45.2% (14) have succeeded while 54.8% have failed. Actually I was a little discouraged by those numbers. 500 is a pretty fair sample, and with a 49.2% success rate, I suspect it yields the same number of expected points as an extra point (due to its much higher, still not 100% success rate). Are teams just going for two in the wrong situation or the wrong time, or are they going for two in the wrong situation, or the wrong time, and still not going for it enough? Mr. Sackrowitz thinks yes, and that teams should go for it more. Vermeil, now retired after a renowned coaching career, agrees:

I don’t think it’s a situation you can perfect. I do say this: I believe it’s probably you don’t go for two points often enough. Now that I sit and watch on TV and don’t have that pressure, I can say, “You guys are chicken.” (Battista)

As time goes on, it will be interesting to see if they are proven right.

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