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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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I embarked on a pretty sweet mini-project today, if I do say so myself. It starts with a couple of… “problems” that had been nagging me, regarding the lack of use of football’s Pythagorean formula. Pythagorean wins (or winning percentage) have been showing up in NFL analysis for, I dunno, at least a few years now. I learned of them in a Bill Barnwell preseason piece before the 2012 NFL Season (on Grantland.com). A team’s Pythagorean winning percentage (PW%) is as follows:
PW% = (Points Scored ^ 2.37) / {(Points Scored ^ 2.37) + (Points Allowed ^ 2.37)}1
Say the Bengals and Browns are both 8-8. The Bengals blew out their opponents in their eight wins, and lost narrowly in their eight losses, while the Browns won narrowly in their wins and lost big in their losses. You probably agree that even with the same record, the Bengals are likely better than the Browns. PW% is a measure of how much.

What’s bothered me is that Pythagorean analysis usually stops there: with a team’s points scored and points allowed. But one could apply the same analysis to a group of teams, say the 49ers’ opponents in the 2013 season, and determine that group’s PW%. Then one would know how tough the 49ers’ competition had been this year, beyond simple wins and losses. And, instead of using this year’s record as a strength of schedule statistic for next year’s season, one could use it for this very season itself, adding context to those final standings. We don’t have to just assume that all ten-win teams are equally skilled (or that they aren’t); we can quantify other useful metrics and see if there’s any evidence for our assumptions. And that’s exactly what I’ve done. For all 32 teams, and all 13 of their opponents, through 15 games.2 Let’s take a look!

First off, we have our sin-context base, nothing but the ‘W’s:

Rank Team W W%
1 SEA 12 80.00%
1 DEN 12 80.00%
3 SF 11 78.57%
4 CAR 11 73.33%
4 KC 11 73.33%
4 NE 11 73.33%
7 CIN 10 66.67%
7 NO 10 66.67%
7 ARI 10 66.67%
7 IND 10 66.67%
11 PHI 9 60.00%
12 SD 8 53.33%
12 DAL 8 53.33%
12 MIA 8 53.33%
12 BAL 8 53.33%
12 CHI 8 53.33%
17 GB 7.5 50.00%
18 DET 7 46.67%
18 STL 7 46.67%
18 PIT 7 46.67%
18 NYJ 7 46.67%
22 TEN 6 40.00%
22 BUF 6 40.00%
22 NYG 6 40.00%
25 MIN 4.5 30.00%
26 ATL 4 28.57%
27 TB 4 26.67%
27 CLE 4 26.67%
27 OAK 4 26.67%
27 JAC 4 26.67%
31 WAS 3 20.00%
32 HOU 2 13.33%

Alright. Mostly, all that’s good for is figuring out who gets the first pick in the draft. Let’s add some context. Here are the same figures, for Pythagorean wins:

Rank Team Pythagorean Wins PW%
1 SEA 11.9 79.17%
2 CAR 11.1 74.18%
3 SF 10.9 72.95%
4 DEN 10.8 71.88%
5 KC 10.7 71.05%
6 CIN 10.2 68.02%
7 NO 9.7 64.90%
8 NE 9.7 64.62%
9 ARI 9.0 60.29%
10 PHI 8.8 58.76%
11 SD 8.6 57.65%
12 IND 8.4 56.01%
13 DET 8.0 53.18%
14 DAL 7.7 51.29%
15 STL 7.6 50.35%
16 PIT 7.4 49.34%
17 MIA 7.4 49.05%
18 GB 7.1 47.58%
19 BAL 7.1 47.14%
20 CHI 6.9 46.16%
21 TEN 6.9 45.88%
22 BUF 6.6 43.86%
23 MIN 5.6 37.58%
24 ATL 5.4 36.32%
25 TB 5.4 35.76%
26 CLE 5.4 35.68%
27 OAK 4.9 32.53%
28 NYG 4.8 31.94%
29 WAS 4.7 31.19%
30 NYJ 4.6 30.79%
31 HOU 3.9 26.17%
32 JAC 3.1 20.58%

Now Carolina and San Francisco appear a little bit better than Denver; Jacksonville still has a firm grip on last place, in the Pythagorean world. Curious how these little differences do add up and do affect rankings. You can get an idea of how teams landed where they did by checking out their point totals, presented here, in order of most net points through the 15 games so far:

Rank Team Net Points PF PF Rank PA PA Rank
1 DEN 187 572 1 385 22
2 SEA 168 390 8 222 2
3 SF 131 383 10 252 3
4 KC 128 406 6 278 4
5 CAR 124 345 19 221 1
6 CIN 108 396 7 288 6
7 NE 92 410 5 318 9
8 NO 85 372 13 287 5
9 PHI 58 418 2 360 16
9 ARI 58 359 16 301 7
11 SD 45 369 14 324 11
12 IND 35 361 15 326 12
13 DET 20 382 11 362 17
14 DAL 9 417 3 408 25
15 STL 2 339 20 337 13
16 PIT -4 359 16 363 18
17 MIA -5 310 24 315 8
18 BAL -15 303 26 318 9
19 GB -16 384 9 400 24
20 TEN -25 346 18 371 19
21 CHI -28 417 3 445 30
22 BUF -35 319 23 354 15
23 TB -76 271 29 347 14
24 CLE -85 301 27 386 23
25 ATL -89 333 21 422 29
26 MIN -90 377 12 467 32
27 NYG -103 274 28 377 20
28 NYJ -110 270 30 380 21
29 OAK -111 308 25 419 27
30 WAS -130 328 22 458 31
31 HOU -146 266 31 412 26
32 JAC -182 237 32 419 27

Those are the inputs. And the outputs? Subtracting actual wins from Pythagorean wins, we reveal how many “lucky” wins (or losses) each team has:

Rank Team W – PW W PW
1 NYJ 2.4 7 4.6
2 IND 1.6 10 8.4
3 NE 1.3 11 9.7
4 DEN 1.2 12 10.8
5 NYG 1.2 6 4.8
6 CHI 1.1 8 6.9
7 ARI 1.0 10 9.0
8 BAL 0.9 8 7.1
9 JAC 0.9 4 3.1
10 MIA 0.6 8 7.4
11 GB 0.4 7.5 7.1
12 KC 0.3 11 10.7
13 DAL 0.3 8 7.7
14 NO 0.3 10 9.7
15 PHI 0.2 9 8.8
16 SEA 0.1 12 11.9
17 SF 0.1 11 10.9
18 CAR -0.1 11 11.1
19 CIN -0.2 10 10.2
20 PIT -0.4 7 7.4
21 STL -0.6 7 7.6
22 BUF -0.6 6 6.6
23 SD -0.6 8 8.6
24 OAK -0.9 4 4.9
24 TEN -0.9 6 6.9
26 DET -1.0 7 8.0
27 MIN -1.1 4.5 5.6
28 CLE -1.4 4 5.4
29 TB -1.4 4 5.4
30 ATL -1.4 4 5.4
31 WAS -1.7 3 4.7
32 HOU -1.9 2 3.9

The Jets have outperformed by more than two wins! And Rex Ryan still might get fired. Also, Jacksonville’s good luck has ruined formerly promising chances of getting the first pick in the draft, as likely they’ll instead see it go to Houston. It’s really Houston that has performed better, losing by significantly fewer points, albeit more often. Well, perhaps Houston’s competition was much easier? Or perhaps not? You don’t have to wonder, let’s see! Here are the teams ranked by the average net points of their opponents, adjusted by removing totals from games against the team in question.3

Tm Rk O Nt Pts /Gm O PF /Gm Rk O PA /Gm Rk
DET 1 -338 -1.64 5,043 24.48 23 5,381 26.12 3
GB 2 -304 -1.48 5,047 24.50 24 5,351 25.98 4
PHI 3 -282 -1.37 5,106 24.79 27 5,388 26.16 2
KC 4 -279 -1.35 5,118 24.84 28 5,397 26.20 1
CHI 5 -259 -1.26 4,964 24.10 19 5,223 25.35 10
BAL 6 -216 -1.05 5,105 24.78 26 5,321 25.83 6
PIT 7 -211 -1.02 4,859 23.59 11 5,070 24.61 14
BUF 8 -179 -0.87 4,539 22.03 1 4,718 22.90 23
DAL 10 -177 -0.86 5,140 24.95 29 5,317 25.81 7
CIN 9 -177 -0.86 4,934 23.95 16 5,111 24.81 12
OAK 11 -176 -0.85 4,979 24.17 22 5,155 25.02 11
CLE 12 -129 -0.63 4,883 23.70 13 5,012 24.33 15
NYJ 13 -89 -0.43 4,722 22.92 4 4,811 23.35 19
NE 14 -84 -0.41 4,679 22.71 2 4,763 23.12 20
SD 15 -56 -0.27 5,195 25.22 30 5,251 25.49 8
MIN 16 -28 -0.14 5,048 24.50 25 5,076 24.64 13
JAC 17 -1 0.00 4,912 23.84 15 4,913 23.85 16
DEN 18 15 0.07 4,833 23.46 9 4,818 23.39 17
TEN 19 29 0.14 4,846 23.52 10 4,817 23.38 18
WAS 20 78 0.38 5,417 26.30 31 5,339 25.92 5
SEA 21 81 0.39 4,783 23.22 5 4,702 22.83 24
SF 22 109 0.53 4,808 23.34 6 4,699 22.81 25
MIA 23 127 0.62 4,823 23.41 7 4,696 22.80 26
CAR 24 161 0.78 4,829 23.44 8 4,668 22.66 27
ATL 25 208 1.01 4,701 22.82 3 4,493 21.81 32
HOU 26 220 1.07 4,969 24.12 21 4,749 23.05 21
IND 27 222 1.08 4,967 24.11 20 4,745 23.03 22
STL 28 255 1.24 4,902 23.80 14 4,647 22.56 28
NYG 29 328 1.59 5,571 27.04 32 5,243 25.45 9
ARI 30 333 1.62 4,871 23.65 12 4,538 22.03 30
NO 31 361 1.75 4,954 24.05 17 4,593 22.30 29
TB 32 458 2.22 4,961 24.08 18 4,503 21.86 31

You see, there’s really quite a difference. Buffalo’s opponents, in games not against Buffalo, scored an average of 22.03 a game; five points a game fewer than the unfortunate New York Giants, who went up against all four top offenses in the league, two of them (Philadelphia and Dallas) twice! Notice Washington is down there too; teams in the same division tend to clump together, as 75% of their opponents are in common. Kansas City played the worst defenses overall (through 15 games), while Atlanta faced the toughest. All in all, Detroit’s opponents, in games not against Detroit, lost by 1.64 points on average, while Tampa Bay’s opponents won by 2.22 points, nearly a four-point swing between extremes.

Putting it all together, these are the Pythagorean winning percentages of the opponents of all thirty-two teams, along with the PW% of the team itself. The difference, which I quite originally dub “Relative Performance” (actual PW% minus expected PW% given those opponents), indicates how well a team fared against its competition, relative to other teams against the same opponents.

Team Rank Relative Performance Opp. PW% Rank Expected PW% Actual PW%
SEA 1 30.19% 51.01% 21 48.99% 79.17%
CAR 2 26.19% 52.01% 24 47.99% 74.18%
SF 3 24.31% 51.36% 22 48.64% 72.95%
DEN 4 22.06% 50.18% 18 49.82% 71.88%
NO 5 19.37% 54.47% 31 45.53% 64.90%
KC 6 17.90% 46.86% 4 53.14% 71.05%
CIN 7 15.93% 47.91% 9 52.09% 68.02%
ARI 8 14.48% 54.19% 30 45.81% 60.29%
NE 9 13.56% 48.95% 14 51.05% 64.62%
IND 10 8.72% 52.71% 27 47.29% 56.01%
SD 11 7.01% 49.36% 15 50.64% 57.65%
PHI 12 5.58% 46.82% 3 53.18% 58.76%
STL 13 3.51% 53.16% 28 46.84% 50.35%
MIA 14 0.63% 51.58% 23 48.42% 49.05%
DET 15 -0.65% 46.16% 1 53.84% 53.18%
DAL 16 -0.71% 48.00% 11 52.00% 51.29%
PIT 17 -3.17% 47.48% 6 52.52% 49.34%
TEN 18 -3.77% 50.36% 19 49.64% 45.88%
BAL 19 -5.31% 47.55% 7 52.45% 47.14%
GB 20 -5.88% 46.54% 2 53.46% 47.58%
CHI 21 -6.85% 46.99% 5 53.01% 46.16%
BUF 22 -8.43% 47.71% 8 52.29% 43.86%
TB 23 -8.53% 55.71% 32 44.29% 35.76%
ATL 24 -11.00% 52.68% 25 47.32% 36.32%
MIN 25 -12.75% 49.67% 16 50.33% 37.58%
NYG 26 -14.47% 53.59% 29 46.41% 31.94%
CLE 27 -15.87% 48.46% 12 51.54% 35.68%
WAS 28 -17.95% 50.86% 20 49.14% 31.19%
OAK 29 -19.52% 47.94% 10 52.06% 32.53%
NYJ 30 -20.32% 48.89% 13 51.11% 30.79%
HOU 31 -21.15% 52.68% 26 47.32% 26.17%
JAC 32 -29.43% 49.99% 17 50.01% 20.58%

So take my 49ers. Their average opponent should expect to win 51.36% of their games not against the 49ers, but only 27.05% of their games against the 49ers.4 That difference, 24.31%, is the third largest in the league. GO NINERS! Only Carolina and Seattle have dominated more thoroughly, giving their opponents quite a whooping, much more so than their opponents receive from other teams. Kansas City, meanwhile, boasts a healthy 71.05 PW%; but against its crummy competition, other teams have been averaging a 53.14 PW% anyway, so it’s a little less impressive, knocking their relative performance to sixth in the league.

Oh, and check out the Jets! Further evidence that I was right when I declared that their 2013 campaign was quite impressive earlier this week. Other teams facing the Jets’ competition have a respectable 51.11 PW%; they outperform them over half the time. The Jets, meanwhile, only manage 30.79%, getting badly outperformed by mediocre teams. Ick. I should point out that by these measures, Tampa Bay had the toughest schedule, while Detroit had the easiest– and still missed the playoffs. Ouch.

Lastly, we’ll return to the “real” numbers, straight-up wins, side-by-side with their Pythagorean expectations. This post has been about context. Wins and losses mean different things in different contexts; a context of narrow defeats and blowout wins suggests a team is merely having some bad breaks, and inspires optimism; a context of blowout defeats and narrow wins indicates the opposite, and the tempering of future expectations. But context is only that: context. The real content, the wins and losses themselves, is what we care about. Here they are, side by side:

Team Rank W Expected PW Actual PW PW Over/Under Expected W Over/Under PW
SEA 1 12 7.3 11.9 4.5 0.1
DEN 1 12 7.5 10.8 3.3 1.2
CAR 3 11 7.2 11.1 3.9 -0.1
SF 3 11 7.3 10.9 3.6 0.1
KC 3 11 8.0 10.7 2.7 0.3
NE 3 11 7.7 9.7 2.0 1.3
NO 7 10 6.8 9.7 2.9 0.3
CIN 7 10 7.8 10.2 2.4 -0.2
ARI 7 10 6.9 9.0 2.2 1.0
IND 7 10 7.1 8.4 1.3 1.6
PHI 11 9 8.0 8.8 0.8 0.2
SD 12 8 7.6 8.6 1.1 -0.6
MIA 12 8 7.3 7.4 0.1 0.6
DAL 12 8 7.8 7.7 -0.1 0.3
BAL 12 8 7.9 7.1 -0.8 0.9
CHI 12 8 8.0 6.9 -1.0 1.1
GB 17 7.5 8.0 7.1 -0.9 0.4
STL 18 7 7.0 7.6 0.5 -0.6
DET 18 7 8.1 8.0 -0.1 -1.0
PIT 18 7 7.9 7.4 -0.5 -0.4
NYJ 18 7 7.7 4.6 -3.0 2.4
TEN 22 6 7.4 6.9 -0.6 -0.9
BUF 22 6 7.8 6.6 -1.3 -0.6
NYG 22 6 7.0 4.8 -2.2 1.2
MIN 25 4.5 7.5 5.6 -1.9 -1.1
TB 26 4 6.6 5.4 -1.3 -1.4
ATL 26 4 7.1 5.4 -1.6 -1.4
CLE 26 4 7.7 5.4 -2.4 -1.4
OAK 26 4 7.8 4.9 -2.9 -0.9
JAC 26 4 7.5 3.1 -4.4 0.9
WAS 31 3 7.4 4.7 -2.7 -1.7
HOU 32 2 7.1 3.9 -3.2 -1.9

  1. Multiply the % by the number of games played to obtain Pythagorean wins. You may then compare the number of Pythagorean wins to actual wins; if actual wins are greater, the team has been lucky, while if Pythagorean wins are greater, they’ve been unlucky. The two figures even out in the long run but may differ over short stretches. (Even a full sixteen game season. Sixteen games isn’t that many. You know they play 162 in baseball?) 
  2. Remember, teams play 16 games against 13 opponents because they play each team in their division twice; the last game of the season is always an intra-division match-up, so at the moment each team has played 15 games against 13 teams. 
  3. Sorry this chart’s headers are a little lacking; it was the only way I could get it to fit onto one page. It was either that or splitting it into three separate charts, which I thought worse. 
  4. 100% – San Francisco’s actual PW% of 72.95% = 27.05%. 

Lately I’ve been looking in to NFL penalties, and I’m hoping to have a larger project on them in the near-ish future. But for today, just one penalty: the false start. As football fans, we know what causes false starts: miscommunication and confusion between members of the offense, usually brought on by the home crowd cheering its defense to the tune of more than 100 decibels or so. It’s pretty common knowledge that in CenturyLink Field, the Seattle Seahawks enjoy probably the best home-field advantage in the NFL. That may well be true, and an oft-cited statistic is that the Seahawks have benefited from more opponent false starts at home than any other team in the league. We all know it’s true, everyone in Seattle, and all the visiting offenses that have played there, and of course I took that added difficulty for granted when my 49ers went up north to play there. The thing is, uh… it’s a myth.

Let’s start with that claim, “the most”. ESPN Stats & Information keeps tabs on opponent false starts in every stadium in the league. Then, for reasons I don’t fathom, they hide this information so no one can access it, even people who are willing to pay for it. I found an occasional reference to one or two stadiums in their various blog posts, but no go. The most comprehensive list I can find is only the top four, proudly displayed on the Seahawks’ own website. They proclaim that since 2005, visiting offenses have false started 121 times at CenturyLink Field, 115 at Mall of America Field (Vikings’ home field), 107 at Ford Field (Lions’), and 104 at University of Phoenix Stadium (Cardinals’). Well, that settles it I guess.

Wait, hold on! Since 2005… why? CenturyLink opened for the 2002 NFL Season. The selection of 2005 is what statisticians call “arbitrary endpoints”, or what I call “arbitrary endpoints used to make whoever is using the statistic sound cooler than they really are”.1 By perusing the “Home field advantage” section of CenturyLink’s Wikipedia page, I discovered that counting from 2002, the Vikings actually have the most opponent false starts. (The Seahawks are second.) Hm. The stadium hasn’t changed since then… maybe the fans have? Maybe, or maybe in an infamous 2005 game, the visiting New York Giants false started 11 times in Seattle. Hey, that’s exactly what happened! Without that one game2, the Vikings have the most since 2005 (as well as 2002).

Well still, offenses are false starting in Seattle a lot, right? Well… probably not. NFLPenalties.com has logged every NFL penalty since the 2009 season. Their false start data includes which teams have drawn the most false starts from opponents, although tragically without home/away splits. But in fact, that doesn’t really matter. Over the last five seasons (Week 1, 2009 through Week 15, 2013), 50.79% of all (3,103) false starts have actually come when the offense is at home. Seriously? The data must be wrong right? Well, NFLPenalties.com is just conveniently reformatting the information from NFL.com‘s play-by-play data, so the information should be as accurate as anything else NFL.com compiles, and is quite official.

Back to Seattle. Even without knowing in which stadium, I know how much all of each team’s opponents have false started against them the last five seasons. Even better, these aren’t just raw sums, but come with how many games each team has played. Leading the way is the Arizona Cardinals, with a whopping 1.75 opponent false starts per game; the Vikings are second with 1.46 per game. Seattle is tied for 18th (with Cleveland) at 1.15 opponent false starts per game. Could the Seahawks still be forcing a league-leading number of false starts (on a per game basis) at home, and just be unlucky by having played offenses that seldom false start when the Seahawks themselves go on the road? It’s possible, but quite unlikely, especially over five years’ worth of opponents.

Consider: the 49ers, Cardinals, Rams, and Seahawks make up the NFC West, and have eight common opponents each year.3 Any two of those teams, say the Cardinals and Seahawks, have 10 common opponents, the eight plus the 49ers and the Rams, whom they place twice each, once at home and once on the road. So the Seahawks and Cardinals (and 49ers and Rams) have mostly played the same teams over the last five seasons. If the Seahawks were playing a lot teams that just didn’t false start very much (either at home or on the road or both), the Cardinals would play many of them too, and have the same difficulties. But the Cardinals lead the league with 1.75 opponent false starts per game over the last five years, while the Seahawks are tied for 18th with 1.15 per game. This may be because no such Seahawks advantage truly exists, or because teams are preparing for them much better than they used to (while perhaps not taking the Cardinals as seriously). Regardless, the extra false starts in Seattle seem to be a myth of the past. I wonder how long the legend of CenturyLink Field will continue into the future.


  1. Rolls right of the tongue. 
  2. It’s also not clear how many games we’re talking about. Most teams play eight home games a year, with a couple each year playing a “home” game in London. Of course there are also playoff games at home. But we’re looking at 60+ games, at least. 
  3. It’s the brilliance of NFL scheduling. The divisions rotate. Last year, every team in the NFC West played every team in the NFC North & AFC East; this year, every team in the NFC South and AFC South. Next year, it’ll be the NFC East and the AFC West. And so on. 

Today I wrap up the offensive side of the ball as we continue our recurring series, ESPM Presents: The Search for the Best (& Worst!) Contract in Football.  It’s time for offensive line contracts. Lineman never get enough attention, which is sad, and will also be the case in this series. At the end of the season they’ll get their full due, but right now I want to move along to the defense before the end of the season gets here, and there are a great many offensive lineman (duh). I couldn’t bring myself to lump them all together, as the different positions on the line require different skill sets, but I did lump them all in the same post. I’ll be starting on the inside of the line and working my way out. As always, player performance grades come from the professional analysts at Pro Football Focus and salary information comes from the databases at Spotrac.com.

A quick note: in addition to the usual disclaimers about players providing worth beyond on-field performance (popularity, teamwork, what have you), there’s another thing this analysis misses: special teams play. This was also the case for a handful of backs and receivers who play special teams, but especially the lineman, who usually play every special teams snap (excluding kickoffs, in most cases). Keep that in mind. Now, here are the Top 3 performing centers who’ve played 25% or more of their teams’ snaps, through Week 12 (PFF grades in parentheses):

  • 1. Chris Myers, HOU (19.1)
  • 2. Manuel Ramirez, DEN (15.7)
  • 3. Alex Mack, CLE (11.9)

And the Bottom 3:

  • 32. Robert Turner, TEN (-13.1)
  • 33. Peter Konz, ATL & Gino Gradkowski, BAL (-15.1)

The average grade is 0.16, with a standard deviation of 8.5. So far it looks that, just like the other “skilled”1 positions, the variation in on-field performance is enormous. Also I’d like to mention that Nick Mangold of the New York Jets is currently 31st with a -10.6 grade. So, here are the Top 3 paid centers (average annual salary in millions of dollars in parentheses):

  • 1. Ryan Kalil, CAR ($8.186 million)
  • 2. Nick Mangold, NYJ ($7.153m)
  • 3. Max Unger, SEA ($6.459m)

Oh look, it’s Nick Mangold! It has never failed: at every position so far, one of the best paid is one of the worst on the field. And here are the Bottom 3 paid centers:

  • 32. Jim Cordle, NYG ($0.555m)
  • 33. Jason Kelce, PHI ($0.534m)
  • 34. Lemuel Jeanpierre, SEA ($0.465m)

The average salary of NFL centers who have played 25% or more of their teams’ snaps is $2.794 million, with a standard deviation of $2.163 million. That average is significantly more than fullbacks ($0.992m) and a touch more than tight ends ($2.546m), though still behind running backs ($3.043m), wide receivers ($3.258m), and quarterbacks ($7.818m). Which general managers have navigated contract negotiations to get the most for the least amount of cash? Here are the Top 3 contracts among centers (contract quality2 in parentheses):

  • 1. Manuel Ramirez, DEN (2.49)
  • 2. Stefen Wisniewski, OAK (1.92)
  • 3. Jason Kelce, PHI (1.75)

Congratulations to Bronco’s General Manager (and former Super Bowl winning quarterback) John Elway! As usual, those raking in high-priced free agent contracts are absent from the upper echelon. They do populate the Worst 3 contracts, though:

  • 32. Max Unger, SEA (-2.18)
  • 33. Scott Wells, STL (-2.27)
  • 34. Nick Mangold, NYJ (-3.28)

Unger is the third most paid, Wells the fourth, and Mangold the second. Some more on Mangold: in the past he has performed much, much better. Now 29 years old (not exactly “old” for a center), his play seems to have fallen off considerably this season. Since PFF began grading in 2008, he was the top ranked center in 2008 and 2009, second in 2010 and 2011, and sixth last year. I suspect he was worth (or nearly worth) the money all the years before now, but his contract goes through 2017, with $25m of the $50m+ guaranteed. If he keeps playing like this, that’ll end up a terrible investment.

On to guards. These are the Top 5 guards so far this season:

  • 1. Evan Mathis, PHI (33.7)
  • 2. Louis Vasquez, DEN (20.8)
  • 3. Josh Sitton, GB (17.9)
  • 4. Larry Warford, DET (16.4)
  • 5. Ben Grubbs, NO (13.5)

Evan Mathis!!! Goodness gracious. There are 74 guards who’ve played 25% or more of their teams’ snaps this season. So far Mathis is all alone at the top by a margin of 12. He’s outperformed the fifth best guard by a margin of 20! Of the positions I’ve examined, no one is dominating this season like Evan Mathis. The average grade among guards is a -2.65, with an Enormous standard deviation of 11.99. Still, that leaves Mathis one standard deviation ahead of second and nearly two in front of fifth; Kansas City fullback Anthony Sherman was pretty similarly isolated at the top, albeit among only 24 fullbacks. Mathis’ play stands out like no one else’s. Well, actually another guard’s play does as well, but for the wrong reasons. Here are the Bottom 5 performing guards:

  • 70. Mike McGlynn, IND (-20.8)
  • 71. David Diehl, NYG (-22.8)
  • 72. Will Rackley, JAC (-25.4)
  • 73. Davin Joseph, TB (-33.1)
  • 74. Lucas Nix, OAK (-40.1)

Oh, Lucas Nix, oh no. Nearly two standard deviations worse than fifth worst Mike McGlynn. Yikes. Davin Joseph is way down there too. What’s that? Did I just mention Davin Joseph? Well… the Top 5 paid guards:

  • 1. Logan Mankins, NE ($8.5m)
  • 2. Jahri Evans, NO ($8.1m)
  • 3. Andy Levitre, TEN ($7.8m)
  • 4. Davin Joseph, TB ($7.5m)
  • 5. Ben Grubbs, NO ($7.2m)

Ah, Davin Joseph! Yet another best paid, worst performer. Sigh. Onto the Bottom 5 paid guards:

  • 70.Ronald Leary, DAL ($0.483m)
  • 71. Nate Chandler, CAR ($0.482m)
  • 72. A.Q. Shipley, BAL & Lucas Nix, OAK ($0.48m)
  • 74. T.J. Lang, GB ($0.441m)

The average salary among guards is $2.481 million, with a standard deviation of $2.241 million. And while Joseph and Nix are the bottom two players in the league, the Bucs are paying Joseph $7.5 million a year (on average) while at least the Raiders only pay Nix $0.48 million.3 So, who’s the best deal for their team? Here are the Top 5 contracts among guards (contract quality in parentheses):

  • 1. Larry Warford, DET (2.35)
  • 2. Brandon Fusco, MIN (2.09)
  • 3. Evan Mathis, PHI (1.91)
  • 4. Travelle Wharton, CAR (1.89)
  • 5. T.J. Lang, GB (1.7)

The rookie Warford is having an excellent year, and having watched the Packers-Lions game yesterday I’m sure by now his performance grade and contract quality are even higher. Congratulations to Detroit Lions General Manager Martin Mayhew. But look at Mathis! Mathis’ average annual salary is $5 million a year, good for the 13th highest among guards. Almost all the others who make so much have negative contract qualities, and a few have slightly positive ones, but Mathis’ is good for third best! The Eagles are spending $5 million a year on him, and not just getting their money’s worth, but getting an absolute steal! I assume he won’t be able to keep this up, but even if his play drops some his contract should remain a sound investment. A rare example of a successful, expensive free agent signing. Most of them belong on the list of the Worst 5 contracts:

  • 70. Jahri Evans, NO & Logan Mankins, NE (-1.95)
  • 71. Jeromey Clary, SD (-2.08)
  • 72. Lucas Nix, OAK (-2.23)
  • 73. David Diehl, NYG (-2.88)
  • 74. Davin Joseph, TB (-4.78)

Evans is the second most expensive guard in the league, and Mankins is the most. In fact, the third most expensive, Andy Levitre, is just above them at 69th with a contract quality of -1.47. Nix, while cheap, is playing so frighteningly bad that he finds his way on the list as well. Diehl is the 12th most paid guard. And then there’s the elephant on the list, Davin Joseph. A -4.78! Oh my. Just, wow. The worst we’ve seen so far is a -3.83 from Dolphins’ wide receiver Mike Wallace, followed by a -3.78 from Raiders’ running back Darren McFadden. A -4.78. Oh jeez. I couldn’t resist, I took the standard deviation of the contract qualities of all 469 contracts I’ve evaluated (including tackles, whom we’ll get to in a moment).4 It’s a 1.2. Joseph’s contract quality is four standard deviations below the average. It’s just another of a dozen ways of saying: the Bucs are paying him way, way too much money.5

Last of the offensive positions, here are the Top 5 performing tackles:

  • 1. Joe Staley, SF (24.7)
  • 2. Jordan Gross, CAR (23.1)
  • 3. Joe Thomas, CLE (23)
  • 4. Jake Long, STL (22.3)
  • 5. Demar Dotson, TB (20.6)

Alright Joe Staley! Gross, Thomas, and Long find themselves among the Top 10 tackles in compensation. We’ll have to see if they’re truly worth it6, but at least they are some of the best at their position. Here are the Bottom 5 tackles:

  • 74. Eric Fisher, KC (-19.9)
  • 75. Lamar Holmes, ATL (-22.6)
  • 76. Bradley Sowell, ARI (-23.1)
  • 77. Paul McQuistan, SEA (-23.2)
  • 78. Jordan Mills, CHI (-31.5)

Eric Fisher, first overall pick in last year’s draft, continues to struggle.7 And tackle may be the last offensive position we look at, but it’s the first without someone pulling a Flacco! Tackles on big contracts may not be worth all the money, but they’ve at least played somewhat respectably. The closest to Flacco levels of pay and performance is the Chicago Bears’ Jermon Bushrod, who is the tenth best paid and the 13th worst on the field. The average grade of a tackle is a 1.82 and the standard deviation is 12.1. So while the group at the top is somewhat tight, Jordan Mills, also of the Bears, is pretty alone at the bottom. Poor Jay Cutler and Josh McCown! Here are the Top 5 paid tackles:

  • 1. Jason Peters, PHI ($10.11m)
  • 2. Joe Thomas, CLE ($10.063m)
  • 3. Trent Williams, WAS ($10m)
  • 4. Branden Albert, KC ($9.828m)
  • 5. Jordan Gross, CAR ($9.4m)

And the Bottom 5 paid tackles:

  • 74. Don Barclay, GB ($0.481m)
  • 75. Byron Bell, CAR ($0.47m)
  • 76. Cameron Bradfield, JAC ($0.467m)
  • 77. Matt McCants, OAK ($0.45m)
  • 78. Austin Pasztor, JAC ($0.435m)

Top paid Jason Peters is currently PFF’s 23rd ranked tackle, while Matt McCants is currently their 27th ranked tackle (through Week 12). Hmm. The average salary of tackles who’ve played 25% or more of their teams’ snaps is $3.347 million, the standard deviation $2.946 million. So, the Top 5 tackle contracts are (contract quality in parentheses):

  • 1. Tyler Polumbus, WAS (2.22)
  • 2. Demar Dotson, TB (2.14)
  • 3. Zach Strief, NO (1.89)
  • 4. Cordy Glenn, BUF (1.61)
  • 5. Chris Clark, DEN (1.49)

ESPM presents the award for best offensive tackle contract in the 2013 NFL Season (so far) to Washington Redskins General Manager Bruce Allen. Congratulations Bruce! Polumbus went undrafted out of University of Colorado Boulder, signing with the Broncos in 2008, the Lions and Seahawks in 2010, and then the Redskins in 2011. Dotson, Strief, and Clark are also veterans of a few short-term deals, while Glenn is on the second year of his rookie tender. Like the avoidance of a Flacco, this too suggests there may be something different about how tackles are evaluated and paid, relative to the other positions we’ve examined. Here are the Worst 5 tackle contracts:

  • 74. Jordan Mills, CHI (-1.82)
  • 75. William Beatty, NYG (-1.96)
  • 76. Jermon Bushrod, CHI (-2.24)
  • 77. D’Brickashaw Ferguson, NYJ (-2.39)
  • 78. Eric Fisher, KC (-2.54)

Yup, and completing the trend is rookie Eric Fisher, first overall selection of last year’s class. Mills is also a rookie, while Beatty and Ferguson are on their second contract, and Bushrod is on his third. Also the Chicago Bears! When both of your tackles play badly and are a big waste of money, well, it’s harder to win the NFC North at least.

As for what’s different about tackles, I’m not sure. They are the second highest paid position with that $3.347 million average. But I can’t see why NFL offices would be better at evaluating tackles than other positions (especially offensive line positions). Perhaps they aren’t, and it’s an aberration. Or perhaps it’s simply harder for younger tackles to come in and have success early, relative to other positions. Given that tackles are usually without help to their outside, that may be reasonable, and would certainly lend hope to fans of Fisher and Mills. In any case, I’m excited to revisit pay and performance upon the season’s conclusion and see if something more can be gleaned then.


  1. As if blocking a bunch of super quick super heavy super strong dudes from getting to where they’re paid millions of dollars to get to doesn’t require skill. Skill positions… who decided we call them that? 
  2. Contract Quality = (# Standard Deviations above/below Average Performance) – (# Standard Deviations above/below Average Salary) 
  3. Both Joseph and Nix are the rare examples of players who, using this analysis, should be paid negative dollars. That’s how badly they have played. Unfortunately negative dollars don’t have a clear interpretation. Should they pay their teams to let them play? Or should their teams pay them not to play? I’ll see if I can tinker with the analysis to resolve the issue, but for now just rest assured that they are playing terribly. 
  4. Yes, the average contract quality is 0. More on that when my search is said and done, after the regular season. 
  5. If, as I was, you’re curious about Joseph, keep reading. The Bucs drafted Davin Joseph 23rd overall in 2006. In 2008, he was PFF’s 57th ranked guard of 74, and made the Pro Bowl as a substitute; 2009, 75th of 84; 2010, 82nd of 82, and after that season signed his current contract, averaging $7.5 million a year over seven years with $19 million guaranteed, the fourth most expensive guard contract in the league today; 2011, 46th of 78, with another Pro Bowl appearance; and 2012 he missed the entire season due to injury. His Wikipedia page currently states that “He is currently considered to be one of the best guards in the NFL.” (CITATION NEEDED!!!!!) Mark Dominick, hired in early 2009 as the Bucs general manager, gave Joseph that contract… and is still their general manager today. Ben Dogra is Joseph’s agent; he also represents Adrian Peterson, Robert Griffin III, and the 49ers’ own Patrick Willis, as well as more NFL first round draft picks than any other agent since 2004, well, according to Wikipedia. (CITATION NEEDED) In any case, well done Mr. Dogra. Well f$%*ing done. 
  6. All three of them have negative contract values, but they aren’t too bad. Jake Long’s is -0.06, for example. And the season’s not done yet. 
  7. Luke Joeckel, 2nd overall pick, also struggled to a -6 grade through 280 snaps with the Jaguars before an injury ended his season weeks ago. 

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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