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Way back in early September, before the NFL season began, Robert Mays and Bill Barnwell, staff writers at Grantland, ran a podcast in which they made numerous preseason predictions for fun. At the suggestion of one of them during the podcast, I took down their predictions, but then never sent them in to Grantland, and the notes have just been sitting in my Gmail drafts folder for months. No more!

While Bill Barnwell posted an excellent feature about the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks, quarterback Russell Wilson, and the best contract in football (click here for my own analysis of the best contracts in football; Wilson is certainly up there), I thought it would be fun to analyze Barnwell, and Mays, to determine who made the better predictions this season. Is one more expert than the other? Check it out!

Player Props

Adrian Peterson: 5.1 Yards per Carry
Barnwell: Under
Mays: Over
Result: Under (4.5)

Say it with me now: regression to the mean. Not just to the league average (about four yards) but to Peterson’s own. Peterson has now had two seasons over 5.1 yards per carry and five seasons under it; among those five seasons, even the highest clip is only 4.8.

J.J. Watt: 15.5 Sacks
Mays: Under
Barnwell: Under
Result: Under (10.5)

Regression scores again! J.J. Watt still put up the best season of any defensive player (highest graded by Pro Football Focus on the season), but 16 sacks is a lot for anyone, especially a 3-4 defensive end whose primary job is not rushing the passer.

John Abraham: 8.5 Sacks
Barnwell: Under
Mays: Under
Result: Over (11.5)

A surprisingly impressive season from the 35-year-old.

Andrew Luck: 4,200 Passing Yards
Mays: Over
Barnwell: No bet, agrees with logic, no strong feelings.
Result: Under (3,822)

This result is even more impressive given that Trent Richardson was so completely ineffective (averaged 2.9 yards per carry) this season.

Andrew Luck: 15.5 Interceptions
Barnwell: Over
Mays: Agree? Recognizes similar logic.
Result: Under (9)

The kid is good. Although he did rank 20th among 27 quarterbacks in accuracy percentage (per PFF). Maybe something to consider next season.

Geno Atkins: 9.5 Sacks
Mays: Over
Barnwell: Under
Result: Under (6)

Atkins went down on Halloween against the Dolphins and that was it for his season. He only played in seven games. Injury risk is always something to consider.

Greg Olsen: 775.5 Receiving Yards
Barnwell: Under
Mays: Under
Result: Over (816)

Curious. Prior to 2012, Olsen’s most receiving yards in a season were his 612 with the Bears in 2009. But with Cam Newton he has now gone over 800 twice.

Matt Forte: 1,000.5 Rushing Yards
Mays: Over
Barnwell: Under, later SWITCHES to Over
Result: Over (1,339)

A wise move as Forte put together his first back-to-back 1,000-plus yard seasons. Staying healthy, and amassing the most rushing attempts since his rookie season, certainly helped.

Charles Tillman: 4.5 Forced Fumbles
Barnwell: Under
Mays: No bet (“HOW DARE YOU?”)
Result: Under (3)

Injury cashes Barnwell in again, as Tillman went down only halfway through the season. But this merely underscores that a lot of things have to go right for a corner, or really anyone, to force five fumbles in one season.

Doug Martin: 8.5 Touchdowns
Mays: Over
Barnwell: Pressed by Mays, only says “8 or 9”
Result: Under (1)
Poor Doug Martin’s fate was sealed the instant I drafted him in the first round of my fantasy draft, as he went out for the season in Week 6. Still, a low total nonetheless.
Aaron Rodgers: 38.5 Touchdown Passes
Barnwell: Under
Mays: Over
Result: Under (17)

More injuries, more problems for the over bets. Although in the eight games in which he played more than a few snaps, he only threw 17, not quite on pace for over. Presumably offensive rookie of the year running back Eddie Lacy had something to do with this.

Robert Griffin III: 575.5 Rushing Yards
Mays: Over
Barnwell: Over
Result: Under (489)
Washington never seemed to recover from their opening day track meet against the Eagles, and Griffin missing the final three games while “sort-of-injured-but-healthy-enough-to-play-but-what’s-the-point” was pretty hard to predict.
Jason Babin: 9.5 Sacks
Barnwell: Under (Barnwell’s lock)
Mays: Under
Result: Under (7.5)

Barnwell’s lock comes through, although this must have been a little exciting as Babin came on and posted 5.5 in December.

Brian Orakpo: 7.5 Sacks
Mays: Over (Mays’ lock)
Barnwell: Over
Result: Over (10)

Mays’ lock comes through, as Orakpo went over on December 1st against the New York Giants. He is pretty good when healthy, it would seem.

Alex Smith: 3,350 Passing Yards
Barnwell: Over
Mays: Over
Result: Under (3,313)

This was about Andy Reid being allergic to running backs in Philadelphia and Alex Smith having Dwayne Bowe to throw to, and, uh, hold that thought…

***BONUS BET***
Dwayne Bowe: 1,000.5 Receiving Yards
Mays: Over
Barnwell: Over
Result: Under (673)

Ouch.

Dez Bryant: 92.5 Catches
Mays: Over
Barnwell: Under
Result: Over (93)

Ladies and gentlemen, put your hands together for Grantland staff writer Robert Mays! Really must have sweat it too, with Bryant needing eight receptions in Week 17 against Philadelphia, without Kyle Orton at quarterback. But he eked it out!

Danny Amendola: 950.5 Receiving Yards
Barnwell: Over
Mays: Over
Result: Under (633)

Ouch. Injuries, injuries, injuries… Amendola missed four games.

Tavon Austin: 7.5 Touchdowns (Rushing, Receiving, & Return)
Mays: Over
Barnwell: Over
Result: Under (6)

To be fair, Austin would likely have gone over if it had not taken the Rams coaching staff to realize that Austin was on their team (and/or the Rams special teams return unit had not felt the need to hold or block in the back on approximately 371% of their returns).

Richard Sherman: 4.5 Interceptions
Barnwell: Under
Mays: Under
Result: Over (8)

An incredible result. Among corners who played half or more of their teams’ snaps, Sherman was targeted only 58 times in the regular season, the sixth-fewest. He led the league with eight interceptions. Sherman grabbed a pick every 7.25 throws into his coverage, easily tops in the league. Goodness.

***Mays’ Prediction***
Jonathan Banks leads the league in interceptions.

Very, very difficult to predict; Banks finished tied for 15th with several players, having recorded three interceptions.

Chris Long: 10 sacks
Mays: Over
Barnwell: Over
Result: Under (8.5)

Maybe next year; PFF awarded him 10 sacks, as they do not punish players by awarding only a half-sack when another teammate also gets to the quarterback. Also Long’s 46 quarterback hurries were tied for fourth at his position this season. He generated pressure, but sometimes it takes a little luck (or a bad opponent quarterback) to get the sack numbers.

Josh Freeman: 16.5 Interceptions
Barnwell: Under
Mays: Under
Result: Under (4)

What a year for Freeman, in all the bad ways. Ugh. And he actually was right about on pace, throwing one in every game he played.

Clay Mathews: 11.5 Sacks
Mays: Over
Barnwell: Over
Result: Under (7.5)

Injuries, oh the injuries…

Russell Wilson: 3,400 Passing Yards
Barnwell: Over
Mays: No bet
Result: Under (3,357)

Yeeesh. Perhaps if Percy Harvin had played more than 40 snaps…

Division Winners & Playoffs

First Pick in 2014 Draft
Barnwell: OAK
Mays: OAK
Result: HOU
AFC East
Barnwell: NE
Mays: NE
Result: NE
AFC North
Barnwell: PIT
Mays: CIN (PIT last!)
Result: CIN (PIT actually 2nd, 8-8 and ahead of the 8-8 Ravens)
AFC South
Barnwell: HOU
Mays: HOU
Result: IND
AFC West
Barnwell: KC
Mays: DEN
Result: DEN
AFC Wildcards
Barnwell: DEN, CIN
Mays: KC, BAL
Result: KC, SD
NFC East
Barnwell: NYG
Mays: DAL
Result: PHI
NFC North
Barnwell: GB
Mays: GB
Result: GB
NFC South
Barnwell: TB
Mays: TB
Result: CAR
NFC West
Barnwell: SEA
Mays: SF
Result: SEA
NFC Wildcards
Barnwell: SF, DET
Mays: CHI, SEA
Result: SF, NO
AFC Champion
Barnwell: DEN
Mays: DEN
Result: DEN
NFC Champion
Barnwell: SEA
Mays: GB
Result: SEA
Super Bowl Champion
Barnwell: SEA
Mays: DEN
Result: SEA

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Grantland staff writer Bill Barnwell! Correctly predicting BOTH conference champions AND the Super Bowl champions! Barnwell would be the very first one to tell you that this result is due to his prodigious SKILL and not at all due to luck…oh right, he is Bill Barnwell. He is not foolish.

Player & Coach Statistical Leaders and Awards

Defensive Player of the Year
Barnwell: Clay Matthews
Mays: Geno Atkins (15 sacks!)
Result: Luke Kuechly

To be fair, Kuechly totally did not deserve this award at all. (Maybe more on that later.) But then with injuries, neither did their selections.

Passing Leader
Barnwell: Peyton Manning
Mays: Andrew Luck
Result: Peyton Manning
Rushing Leader
Barnwell: Trent Richardson
Mays: LeSean McCoy
Result: LeSean McCoy
Receiving Leader
Barnwell: Calvin Johnson
Mays: Dez Bryant
Result: Josh Gordon (in only 14 games!)
First Pick in 2014 Draft
Barnwell: Jadeveon Clowney
Mays: Teddy Bridgewater
Result: TBD
Offensive Rookie of the Year
Barnwell: Tavon Austin
Mays: Eddie Lacey
Result: Eddie Lacey
Defensive Rookie of the Year
Barnwell: Kenny Vaccaro
Mays: Alec Ogletree
Result: Sheldon Richardson
Coach of the Year
Barnwell: Andy Reid
Mays: Greg Schiano
Result: “Riverboat” Ron Rivera
Most Valuable Player
Barnwell: Russell Wilson
Mays: Aaron Rodgers
Result: Peyton Manning

Final Scorecards

Overall, Mr. Mays went a respectable 15/44, 34% on his picks. In pure props he was 6/20, while going 2/9 on individual awards and statistics and 7/15 on team predictions. Mr. Barnwell edged him slightly, going 17/46, 37%. Barnwell went 9/22 on player props, 1/9 on individual awards and statistics, and 7/15 on team predictions. When both Mays and Barnwell agreed, they went 8/21, 38%; 5/15 on props, 0/1 on awards, and 3/5 on teams.

The lesson? Predictions are not easy, and your gut feeling will not take you very far, even if you know a lot. Consider that among their player predictions, designed to have a 50-50 chance, both Mays and Barnwell did worse than a coin flip. This is not because they do not know about football (they know a great deal), but because this stuff is hard, and luck plays a bigger role than anything else. Nonetheless, one can see why a comprehensive examination of numbers might come in handy.

If you see a supposed pundit make a prediction, remember to think twice before buying in. Okay, that is not news. But remember to ALWAYS think twice (and a third time, a fourth, etc), even when the pundits are quite knowledgeable, even when the predictors tell a story that you find logically sound, and perhaps most importantly, even when you already agree with them (and especially when they are not being 100% serious, à la Mays and Barnwell). Or at the very least, think twice before you put any money down.

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With Texans-Jaguars, or “The Rabid Feces in a Deep Fryer Bowl” as dubbed by Cousin Sal on this week’s B.S. Report, beginning the final quarter of the NFL season tonight on Thursday Night Football, it is time to move on with my continuing series, Economics and Sports Management Presents: The Search for the Best (& Worst) Contract in Football. Today I will investigate linebackers, grouping them (per Pro Football Focus) into three groups: outside linebackers in a 3-4, outside linebackers in a 4-3, and inside linebackers.

These are the Top 5 performing 3-4 outside linebackers through Week 13, who’ve played 25% or more of their teams’ snaps (PFF grade in parentheses):

  • 1. Justin Houston, KC (31.8)
  • 2. Elvis Dumervil, BAL (23.1)
  • 3. Robert Mathis, IND (23)
  • 4. Brian Orakpo, WAS & Trent Cole, PHI (16.2)

Also of note, despite missing six games in the middle of the season when he voluntarily entered a drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility, Aldon Smith of the San Francisco 49ers is tenth with a 10.3 grade. And these are the Bottom 5:

  • 37. Andy Mulumba, GB & Barkevious Mingo, CLE (-7.2)
  • 39. Quinton Coples, NYJ (-7.3)
  • 40. Mike Neal, GB (-8.6)
  • 41. Brooks Reed, HOU (-17.6)

Houston is firmly alone at the top, Reed is firmly alone at the bottom, and the average grade is a 4.2, with a standard deviation of 10.35. Here are the Top 5 paid 3-4 outside linebackers (average annual salary from Spotrac.com, in millions of dollars, in parentheses):

  • 1. Mario Williams, BUF ($16 million)
  • 2. Clay Matthews, GB ($11.628m)
  • 3. Tamba Hali, KC ($11.5m)
  • 4. Terrell Suggs, BAL ($10.417)
  • 5. Lamarr Woodley, PIT ($10.25)

None of these guys show up as worst performers, but none of them made the Top 5 either. As for the Bottom 5:

  • 37. Justin Houston, KC ($0.697m)
  • 38. Corey Lemonier, SF ($0.676m)
  • 39. Thomas Keiser, SD ($0.555m)
  • 40. Pernell McPhee, BAL ($0.546m)
  • 41. Andy Mulumba, GB ($0.497)

Houston, a third round pick in the 2011 draft, is one of the least paid outside linebackers among the league’s 3-4 defenses, yet has actually played the best this season. A good investment by the Chiefs. The average salary is $4 million, with a standard deviation of $3.845 million. Note that the $4 million average is about the same as the 4-3 defensive ends covered on Tuesday, who averaged $4.084 million, while 3-4 defensive ends averaged (“only”) $2.583 million.

You should not be surprised to see that as quarterbacks are the most expensive players, the most expensive defenders are those whose job it is to get to the quarterback. 3-4 linebackers, though they start the play standing up, have more in common with 4-3 defensive ends than with 4-3 outside linebackers. And among 3-4 linebackers, these are the Top 5 contracts (contract quality in parentheses):

  • 1. Justin Houston, KC (3.53)
  • 2. Brian Orakpo, WAS (1.68)
  • 3. Elvis Dumervil, BAL (1.51)
  • 4. Jerry Hughes, BUF (1.35)
  • 5. Jabaal Sheard, CLE (1.07)

And Houston leads by a mile! A second congratulations to Chiefs General Manager John Dorsey, who also has gotten the best fullback value this season out of Anthony Sherman. Brian Orakpo, on the last year of his rookie contract, also makes an appearance. The following are the Worst 5 contracts (so far):

  • 37. Barkevious Mingo, CLE (-1.12)
  • 38. Brooks Reed, HOU (-1.37)
  • 39. Paul Kruger, CLE (-1.52)
  • 40. Clay Matthews, GB (-2.35)
  • 41. Mario Williams, BUF (-2.49)

Mingo is a rookie, so he may improve, but he also comes pretty cheap, so it is discouraging to see him so far down. Most likely Clay Matthews would not be there if he had not missed four games in the middle of the season, but then in the eight games he has played he has only earned a 0.4 grade. Perhaps the injury is lingering. Mario Williams makes an average of $16 million a year. He does have the ninth best grade (10.7). Rams’ 4-3 defensive end Robert Quinn, excelling at a similar role, is worth approximately $19.5 million, based on his play this season. That is what you get when you outperform your position’s average grade by an incredible 52.56 units, and Williams needs to (out)perform at a similar level. A good, even a great performance just is not worth that much.

Moving onto the other defenses in the league, here are the Top 5 performing 4-3 outside linebackers:

  • 1. Von Miller, DEN (30.9)
  • 2. Lavonte David, TB (16.6)
  • 3. Vontaze Burfict, CIN (15.8)
  • 4. Malcolm Smith, SEA (10.9)
  • 5. James Harrison, CIN (10.2)

Von Miller missed six games with a suspension. In half the games, he has put up twice the numbers of second-best Lavonte David. Offensive tackles beware! But for that suspension, he might have challenged J.J. Watt for Mr. Being-So-Much-Better-Than-Everyone-Else. As it is, still an impressive season, with games remaining. Here are the Bottom 5 performing 4-3 outside linebackers:

  • 29. Bruce Carter, DAL (-8.6)
  • 30. JoLonn Dunbar, STL (-9.1)
  • 31. Philip Wheeler, MIA (-9.5)
  • 32. James Anderson, CHI (-12.1)
  • 33. Chad Greenway, MIN (-18.3)

The average grade is 0.8, with a standard deviation of 9.66. All positions have varied more in performance than pay, but that is some serious variation. Also, note Chad Greenway, who is comfortably the worst in the league. Just hang on to that for a moment, as we see the Top 5 paid 4-3 outside linebackers:

  • 1. Chad Greenway, MIN ($8.12m)
  • 2. Thomas Davis, CAR ($7.3m)
  • 3. Jerod Mayo, NE ($7.121m)
  • 4. Lance Briggs, CHI ($5.833m)
  • 5. Von Miller, DEN ($5.25m)

Yup, Greenway is right at the top, by a cushy $1 million (almost). Oh dear. Greenway is pretty interesting. His third year in the league, 2008, he was PFF’s fourth-ranked out of 55 4-3 outside linebackers. In 2009, he was ninth of 54; in 2010, fifth of 41; in 2011, 32nd of 45 and went to the Pro Bowl (I am not making this up); and before last season signed his current contract, the most expensive among all 4-3 outside linebackers, before ranking 21st of 43 and going to the Pro Bowl again AND making the All-Pro second team. (Seriously, not making this up. Look it up.) The Vikings surely got a great deal on his rookie contract before making him the top paid man at his position and seeing his play slip. There could be a lot of reasons for this, including the possibility that the Vikings are not overpaying him but are rather reaping other benefits (he must be popular after making a name for himself, still going to the Pro Bowl and all) from having him on their roster. But for now, only pay and performance matter.1 Here are the Bottom 5 paid 4-3 outside linebackers:

  • 29. Jacquian Williams, NYG ($0.53m)
  • 30. Malcolm Smith, SEA ($0.521m)
  • 31. Joplo Bartu, ATL & Paul Worrilow, ATL ($0.495m)
  • 33. Vontaze Burfict, CIN ($0.48m)

The average salary is $2.242 million, with a standard deviation of $2.201 million. That is about half their 3-4 counterparts, as 4-3 guys are usually not responsible for generating a pass rush. And here are the Top 5 contracts:

  • 1. Vontaze Burfict, CIN (2.35)
  • 2. Lavonte David, TB (2.26)
  • 3. Malcolm Smith, SEA (1.83)
  • 4. Von Miller, DEN (1.75)
  • 5. K.J. Wright, SEA (1.3)

Congratulations to Bengals General Manager Mike Brown! He, too, has two players in the running for best value at their position, second-year man Burfict being alongside rookie running back Giovani Bernard. Note that despite his fifth highest salary, and despite missing six games, Miller’s contract is still a steal for the Broncos. Here are the Bottom 5 contracts:

  • 29. Lance Briggs, CHI (-1.46)
  • 30. Thomas Davis, CAR (-1.61)
  • 31. Philip Wheeler, MIA (-2.41)
  • 32. Jerod Mayo, NE (-2.89)
  • 33. Chad Greenway, MIN (-4.65)

Obviously, after pulling a Flacco, Greenway was destined for the bottom. In fact, Greenway is only the second player to pull a “Full Flacco” by being the absolute most paid and the absolute worst player on the field, among his position. Enough of that, onto inside linebackers!

Top 5 performing inside linebackers:

  • 1. Patrick Willis, SF (14.6)
  • 2. Stephen Tulloch, DET (13.3)
  • 3. Derrick Johnson, KC (12.5)
  • 4. Brandon Spikes, NE (11.1)
  • 5. NaVorro Bowman, SF (8.3)

As a 49er fan, I know Willis is our most expensive player, and Bowman is not far behind after signing an extension last season. I definitely recall a pundit or too wondering why the 49ers were spending so much at inside linebacker when, with the passing game still becoming more and more featured, rushing the quarterback from the edge seemed the way to adapt. Still, with the 49ers getting good value from their outside guys, if they are going to spend a lot on their inside guys, at least Willis and Bowman are the best in the league. Here are the Bottom 5:

  • 48. DeMeco Ryans, PHI (-15)
  • 49. Mychal Kendricks, PHI (-15.7)
  • 50. Moise Fokou, TEN (-15.8)
  • 51. Craig Robertson, CLE (-16.2)
  • 52. London Fletcher, WAS (-21.4)

The average grade is a -3.31, with a standard deviation of 8.03. That is the lowest average grade of any position so far. Apparently it has been a rough year for inside linebackers. Well, at least on the field. As for the negotiating room, here are the Top 5 paid inside linebackers:

  • 1. David Harris, NYJ ($9m)
  • 2. Jon Beason, NYG ($8.822m)
  • 3. D’Qwell Jackson, CLE ($8.5m)
  • 4. Lawrence Timmons, PIT ($8.333m)
  • 5. James Laurinaitis, STL ($8.3m)

So while the 49ers pay Willis and Bowman a lot (about $7 and $6 million, respectively), they somehow escaped making them the most paid, I suspect by resigning them in the middle of the season, well before their current contracts were up.2 Here are the Bottom 5 paid inside linebackers:

  • 48. Vince Williams, PIT ($0.56m)
  • 49. Jerrell Freeman, IND ($0.493m)
  • 50. Josh Bynes, BAL ($0.48m)
  • 51. Spencer Paysinger, NYG ($0.466m)
  • 52. Craig Robertson, CLE ($0.435m)

The average salary is $3.218 million, with a standard deviation $2.996 million. How strange, that is right in between the two types of outside linebackers. And who is getting the most value?

The Top 5 inside linebacker contracts (so far):

  • 1. Brandon Spikes, NE (2.6)
  • 2. Sean Lee, DAL (2.14)
  • 3. Josh Bynes, BAL (1.91)
  • 4. Daryl Smith, BAL (1.77)
  • 5. Kiko Alonso, BUF (1.76)

Congratulations to Bill Belichick, General Manager (and coach) of the New England Patriots. Spikes, Lee, and the rookie Alonso are all still on their rookie deals, while Bynes and Smith are veterans. And here are the Bottom 5 contracts:

  • 48. Jon Beason, NYG (-1.97)
  • 49. Paul Posluszny, JAC (-2.14)
  • 50. A.J. Hawk, GB (-2.59)
  • 51. London Fletcher, WAS (-2.97)
  • 52. DeMeco Ryans, PHI (-3.05)

And that is it for linebackers! The remaining defensive positions (cornerbacks and safeties) will be up next week.


  1. Measuring things like “popularity” and being “a good guy in the locker room” is really difficult. Not all players have a Twitter account for people to follow; mentions in the newspaper can be bad or good; players are paid separately for any commercials they appear in. I have tried to acquire jersey sales and pro bowl vote tallies for every player in the league before (not just the Top 5 or Top 10 you see in the news), and while surely somewhere they exist, it may be impossible. If anyone knows how to obtain those figures, I would LOVE to have them. 
  2. SPOILER, while not making the top five, Willis and Bowman do in fact both have positive contract qualities, with a 0.75 and 0.31, respectively. 

The Seahawks trounced the Saints, clinching the first playoff spot in the NFL, leaving 18 others with a somewhat reasonable chance or better of getting the remaining 11 spots (in my opinion). Meanwhile, I move onward with my continuing series, Economics and Sports Management Presents: The Search for the Best (& Worst!) Contract in Football. And today, looking at defensive linemen, we may have found it.

As usual, a few notes before beginning. The defensive side is a little bit trickier. Most of the time, most teams have two corner backs and two safeties on the field, and either four linebackers and three defensive lineman, or three linebackers and four defensive linemen. In the former, a 3-4 (linemen-linebackers) defense, an outside linebacker usually takes on the primary pass rushing responsibility, while in a 4-3, it’s one of the outside linemen, a defensive end. But defensive ends in a 3-4 (generally) excel at stopping the run game and occupying offensive linemen, rather than getting to the quarterback. Pro Football Focus categorizes 3-4 and 4-3 defensive ends and outside linebackers all differently, believing their differences warrant it. They’re the player performance experts, so I’ll follow their lead. PFF lumps interior defenders from both formations together into two groups (linemen and linebackers), as their responsibilities are more similar.

Another thing: Corey Wootton has played 25% or more of the Bears’ snaps as a defensive tackle and 25% or more as a 4-3 defensive end. I’ve added his respective grades together to determine his contract quality, but other players move around on the defensive line too, even if they don’t register 25% or more of their snaps in multiple positions. While minor (most of the starters tend to play most of their snaps from the same spot), this analysis doesn’t account for that.

Lastly, there is a distinct possibility that in the beginning, father of football Walter Camp created J.J. Watt, and saw that he was good. Like, really good. Seriously J.J. Watt is pretty good at this whole playing football thing. Anyone who doesn’t think Watt deserves to be the defensive player of the year (an award he certainly won’t win given that the Texans are 2-10) best keep an open mind or stop reading right now. You have been warned.

And here are the Top 5 performing 3-4 defensive ends who’ve played 25% or more of their teams’ snaps through 12 games this season (PFF grade in parentheses):

  • 1. J.J. Watt, HOU (89.7)
  • 2. Calais Campbell, ARI (27.2)
  • 3. Cameron Jordan, NO (26.6)
  • 4. Kyle Williams, BUF (25.4)
  • 5. Sheldon Richardson, NYJ (25)

89.7! Excuse me, but like, OMFG! 89.7! Holy moly hot tamale am I right? PFF’s grading system might not be 100% perfect, but it is the same for every player. 89.7. That is 3.3 times more than the second best player at his position. We had a few outliers both at the top and the bottom among the offensive positions, but nothing like this. Nothing even close. Among the 45 3-4 defensive ends with enough snaps to qualify, the average grade counting Watt is a 7.05; without him, it’s a 5.17. The standard deviation with Watt is a 16.62; without him, it’s a 10.96. Fortunately, even a (super tremendous) outlier like Watt doesn’t affect his peers’ contract quality much. CQ = # performance SDs above/below the average – # of salary SDs above/below the average. As both the average and standard deviation are proportionally affected, the contract qualities of 3-4 defensive ends are still comparable among one another and across positions. So just one more time, J.J. Watt with an 89.7 grade through 12 games. Wow.1

Here are the Bottom 5 performing 3-4 defensive ends:

  • 41. Demarcus Dobbs, SF (-7)
  • 42. Datone Jones, GB (-7.8)
  • 43. Ziggy Hood, PIT (-9.2)
  • 44. B.J. Raji, GB (-10.8)
  • 45. Kendall Reyes, SD (-17.8)

B.J. Raji showing yet again that you don’t have to be good to be popular. Raji gets State Farm commercials and so far as I know all Watt does are the fantasy football and NFL Play60 ones.2 Speaking of raking it in, here are the Top 5 paid 3-4 defensive ends (average annual salaries from Spotrac.com, in millions of dollars, in parentheses):

  • 1. Calais Campbell, ARI ($11 million)
  • 2. Tyson Jackson, KC ($10.985m)
  • 3. Darnell Dockett, ARI ($9.333m)
  • 4. Antonio Smith, HOU ($7.1m)
  • 5. Desmond Bryant, CLE ($6.8m)

Campbell is tops of both lists, and goodness, are the Cardinals spending a lot at this position. Here are the Bottom 5 paid 3-4 defensive ends:

  • 41. Cedric Thornton, PHI & Tom Johnson, NO & Demarcus Dobbs, SF ($0.465m)
  • 44. Corbin Bryant, BUF ($0.45m)
  • 45. Tony Jerod-Eddie, SF ($0.43m)

Note that while Dobbs is the fifth worst player so far, he’s the third least paid! With multiple injuries on their line this season, the 49ers have at least not overspent on backup talent. The average salary for 3-4 defensive ends is $2.983 million, with a standard deviation of $2.83 million. Want to guess which team has gotten the most for their money?

Here are the Top 5 contracts among 3-4 defensive ends (contract quality in parentheses):

  • 1. J.J. Watt, HOU (5.04)
  • 2. Cameron Jordan, NO (1.55)
  • 3. Mike Daniels, GB (1.39)
  • 4. Muhammad Wilkerson, NYJ (1.29)
  • 5. John Hughes, CLE (1.28)

Correct, the answer is J.J. Watt, with a 5.04. What a guy. The previous best was a 3.17 from Jimmy Graham. There are still four games left on the season, but… J.J. Watt. That is all. Congratulations to Texans General Manager Rick Smith!

Here are the Worst 5 contracts among 3-4 defensive ends:

  • 41. Stephen Bowen, WAS (-1.64)
  • 42. Desmond Bryant, CLE (-1.83)
  • 43. B.J. Raji, GB (-1.92)
  • 44. Tyson Jackson, KC (-2.63)
  • 45. Darnell Dockett, ARI (-2.79)

So all that money the Cardinals are spending may not be such a good idea. In fact Calais Campbell, also of the Cardinals, is 40th with a -1.62, despite having the second highest grade. Campbell and Dockett just aren’t worth what they’re paid. And I can only assume State Farm Insurance probably knows not to waste money like the Packers and got what they wanted from Raji in those commercials.

Onto 4-3 defensive ends! Here are the Top 5 (so far):

  • 1. Robert Quinn, STL (54.4)
  • 2. Michael Johnson, CIN (24.2)
  • 3. Rob Ninkovich, NE (19.9)
  • 4. Cameron Wake, MIA (17.8)
  • 5. Michael Bennett, SEA (15.8)

Robert Quinn! He’s no J.J. Watt, but that’s still some serious dominance, a grade more than twice as good as second place. Quinn gets pressure (a hurry, a hit, or a sack) on the quarterback 15.5% of the time he rushes the passer, tops in the league at his position by 1.7% over Michael Bennett. (Even Watt only registers a 13.5% in this stat, although it’s also not his primary job as he’s in a 3-4.) And here are the Bottom 5 performing 4-3 defensive ends:

  • 46. Derek Wolfe, DEN (-14.1)
  • 47. Jason Hunter, OAK (-14.8)
  • 48. Shea McClellin, CHI (-18.8)
  • 49. Mathias Kiwanuka, NYG (-22.4)
  • 50. Daniel Te’o-Nesheim, TB (-25.4)

The average grade among these fifty players is a 1.84, with a standard deviation of 12.68. That’s enormous. In the industry, we say there is “a #$*&ton” of variation in the quality of play from 4-3 defensive ends. As for their pay?

Here are the Top 5 paid 4-3 defensive ends:

  • 1. Julius Peppers, CHI ($14m)
  • 2. Charles Johnson, CAR ($12.667m)
  • 3. Jared Allen, MIN ($12.212m)
  • 4. Chris Long, STL ($12.05m)
  • 5. Michael Johnson, CIN ($11.175m)

Lots of big names. And here are the Bottom 5:

  • 46. Everson Griffen, MIN ($0.583m)
  • 47. Jonathan Massaquoi, ATL ($0.567m)
  • 48. David Bass, CHI ($0.552m)
  • 49. Derrick Shelby, MIA ($0.483m)
  • 50. Eugene Sims, STL ($0.473)

The average salary is $4.084 million, with a standard deviation of $3.732 million. Note how much less variation there is among their pay, where the standard deviation is less than the average. This suggests some are greatly overpaid, and some greatly underpaid. Who, specifically?  Here are the Best 5 contracts among 4-3 defensive ends (so far):

  • 1. Robert Quinn, STL (4.61)
  • 2. Rob Ninkovich, NE (1.79)
  • 3. Greg Hardy, CAR (1.75)
  • 4. Shaun Phillips, DEN (1.42)
  • 5. Lamarr Houston, OAK (1.39)

When you so thoroughly dominate your position like Watt and Quinn (but NOT Adrian Peterson, or Calvin Johnson, or a host of other players who are the best but not by a great margin), you are well worth the investment. Congratulations to Rams General Manager Les Snead! Of course, the celebration may be short-lived. Here are the Worst 5 contracts among 4-3 defensive ends:

  • 46. Charles Johnson, CAR (-1.86)
  • 47. Chris Long, STL (-2.06)
  • 48. Mathias Kiwanuka, NYG (-2.27)
  • 49. Jared Allen, MIN (-2.44)
  • 50. Julius Peppers, CHI (-2.74)

Sure enough, Chris Long on the other end of the line has played okay, but for the fourth most expensive contract at $12m+ a year, he needs to do more to earn it. Similarly Jared Allen and Julius Peppers may be the classic, old-school veteran stars, but they haven’t met the bill on the field this season.

Here we are with our last position of the day, or rather, two positions, as nose tackles (of the 3-4 defense) and defensive tackles (of the 4-3 defense) have nearly identical responsibilities. The Top 5 performing interior defensive linemen are:

  • 1. Gerald McCoy, TB (44.9)
  • 2. Ndamukong Suh, DET (32.7)
  • 3. Jurrell Casey, TEN (31.9)
  • 4. Damon Harrison, NYJ (28.7)
  • 5. Jason Hatcher, DAL (27.1)

Gerald McCoy sits firmly atop the field, joining Watt and Quinn in the “Players Offensive Linemen and Quarterbacks Around the League Have Nightmares About” category. Here are the Bottom 5:

  • 65. Akeem Spence, TB & Roy Miller, JAC (-12.4)
  • 67. Domata Peko, CIN (-13.3)
  • 68. Nick Hayden, DAL (-20.8)
  • 69. Chris Jones, NE (-21.6)

Hayden and Jones… blegh. Among interior defensive linemen the average grade is a 5.52, with a standard deviation of 12.53. That’s high, but there’s much less variation among interior defensive linemen than there is on the outside. As for compensation, these are the Top 5 paid interior defensive linemen:

  • 1. Ndamukong Suh, DET ($13.079m)
  • 2. Gerald McCoy, TB ($12.687m)
  • 3. Haloti Ngata, BAL ($9.705m)
  • 4. Geno Atkins, CIN ($9.125m)
  • 5. Randy Starks, MIA ($8.45m)

Suh and McCoy are tops of both lists, while Geno Atkins probably would be up there on performance were it not for his season ending injury some weeks ago. Among the three defensive positions I’ve analyzed, no one has been among the worst players while getting paid the most, which was a regular occurrence on the offensive side. Curious. Here are the Bottom 5 paid interior defensive linemen:

  • 65. Drake Nevis, DAL ($0.555m)
  • 66. Cam Thomas, SD ($0.4953m)
  • 67. Joe Vellarno, NE ($0.495m)
  • 68. Damon Harrison, NYJ ($0.482m)
  • 69. Brandon Deaderick, JAC ($0.458m)

The average salary is $2.652 million, with a standard deviation $2.807 million. Curious that while player performance varies less among interior defensive linemen compared to other positions, their salaries vary more, with the rare salary standard deviation greater than the average. But who got the best deal? These are the Top 5 contracts:

  • 1. Jurrell Casey, TEN (2.81)
  • 2. Damon Harrison, NYJ (2.62)
  • 3. Jason Hatcher, DAL (1.95)
  • 4. Malik Jackson, DEN (1.53)
  • 5. Karl Klug, TEN (1.49)

Congratulations to Titans General Manager Ruston Webster! An inspiration to children named Ruston everywhere. And here are the Worst 5 contracts among interior defensive linemen:

  • 65. Ndamukong Suh, DET (-1.55)
  • 66. Ryan Pickett, GB (-1.61)
  • 67. Kendall Langford, STL (-1.69)
  • 68. Domata Peko, CIN (-2.1)
  • 69. Haloti Ngata, BAL (-2.3)

Ndamukong Suh, divisive, popular, and well paid, is in fact too well paid. Meanwhile Ngata makes the third Raven to perform the worst for his money this season, though a quarter still remains. I’ve been calling it a Flacco, but maybe I should just call it a Raven? We’ll see.

And that’s it for the defensive line! Check back later in the week for linebackers.


  1. I now feel even better about naming one of my fantasy teams “Watt You Talkin’ ‘Bout Willis”. Also in 2012 Watt earned a 101.6 grade, while second place (Muhammad Wilkerson, NYJ) was a 49.1. In 2011, as a rookie, he was fifth with a 25.5, while first place was a 46.5 (Justin Smith, SF). J.J. Watt is currently 24 years old. Coming off his senior season in high school as a tight end/ defensive end seven years ago, Rivals.com rated him a two start recruit, not at the top of his class in either position, and only the number seven prospect coming out of Wisconsin. Way to show ’em, J.J. I mean, damn. 
  2. But really how long until Watt’s elbow brace secures a million dollar endorsement deal? Months? 

Last night the 49ers beat the Washington D.C. Football Team1 27-6, and this morning Thanksgiving is in two days. Things are looking up! With that I am back with my recurring feature, Economics & Sports Management Presents: The Search for the Best (& Worst!) Contract in Football. The last couple weeks I’ve looked at quarterbacks, wide receivers, running backs, and tight ends. Today, we’ve got the last of the “skill position”2 players, which some teams don’t even bother with anymore. Today, I look at fullbacks.

With performance data through ten weeks on quarterbacks, wide receivers, and running backs, and eleven weeks for tight ends, the best contracts so far have been quarterback Russell Wilson, SEA (contract quality 2.35); wide receiver Doug Baldwin, SEA (2.26); running back Giovani Bernard, CIN (2.2); and tight end Jimmy Graham, NO (3.17). The worst have been quarterback Joe Flacco, BAL (-3.13); wide receiver Mike Wallace, MIA (-3.83); running back Darren McFadden, OAK (-3.78); and tight end Jared Cook, STL (-3.02). To review, contract quality measures the number of standard deviations a player’s on-field performance (as determined by Pro Football Focus) is above/below the average for his position, minus the number of standard deviations a player’s average annual salary (as reported by Spotrac.com) is above/below the average for his position. CQ = #SDs +/- in performance – #SDs +/- in salary. Of the 32 teams in the NFL, 23 have had the same fullback in on at least 25% of their offensive snaps through Week 12.3 Here are the Top 5 performing fullbacks (PFF grade in parentheses):

  • 1. Anthony Sherman, KC (14.3)
  • 2. Collin Mooney, TEN (9)
  • 3. Mike Tolbert, CAR (8.9)
  • 4. John Kuhn, GB (7.4)
  • 5. John Conner, NYG (6.3)

Alright! Fullbacks! … Yeah. Tragically the 49ers’ Bruce Miller just missed the list, at 6th with a 5.9 grade. Mike Tolbert and John Kuhn probably get the most attention, but it’s Anthony Sherman, in his first season with the Chiefs4, traded after his first two years with the Cardinals, comfortably leading the way. And that’s on a fair foundation, as by now all teams have played exactly 11 games. (There are no more bye weeks.) Here are the Bottom 5 performing fullbacks:

  • 20. Derrick Coleman, SEA (-3.1)
  • 21. James Develin, NE (-3.2)
  • 22. Erik Lorig, TB (-5.7)
  • 23. Vonta Leach, BAL (-7.5)
  • 24. Tommy Bohanon, NYJ (-9.9)

Vonta Leach I’ve definitely heard of, and I’m not sure why he’s playing so badly this season. (Last year, he was the best fullback in the league.) The average grade among fullbacks is a 0.89, and the standard deviation is 5.66. As with other positions, there is enormous variation in the quality of play among different players. How about how much they make? Here are the Top 5 paid fullbacks (average annual salary, in millions of dollars, in parentheses):

  • 1. Marcel Reece, OAK ($3.113 million)
  • 2. Mike Tolbert, CAR ($2.725m)
  • 3. John Kuhn, GB ($2.533m)
  • 4. Jerome Felton, MIN ($2.5m)
  • 5. Vonta Leach, BAL ($1.875m)

This is the fifth position I’ve looked at, and it never fails: there is always someone on the bottom of the performance list who makes the top of the salary list. Way to go, Vonta Leach! You have successfully pulled a Flacco. (I know he was just the Super Bowl MVP but actually it’s not a good thing.) And here are the Bottom 5 paid fullbacks:

  • 20. Erik Lorig, TB ($0.456m)
  • 21. Jamize Olawale, OAK & Will Ta’ufo’ou, JAC ($0.435m)
  • 23. Collin Mooney, TEN & Jed Collins, NO ($0.43m)

Olawale and Ta’uf’ou!5 Alright! The average salary among fullbacks is $0.992 million. The standard deviation is $0.86 million. There is much less variation among how much fullbacks are paid relative to how well they play. Generally this has been the case with other positions as well. So, which general managers have gotten the most out of their investment? The ESPM Award for Best Fullback Contract (so far) goes to… John Dorsey, General Manager of the Kansas City Chiefs! Chiefs’ fullback Anthony Sherman has a contract value of 2.87, comfortably in the lead through Week 12. Here are the Top 5 fullback contracts (contract quality in parentheses):

  • 1. Anthony Sherman, KC (2.87)
  • 2. Collin Mooney, TEN (2.09)
  • 3. Bruce Miller, SF (1.43)
  • 4. John Conner, NYG (1.38)
  • 5. Jamize Olawale, OAK (0.91)

And it’s “All the Way” Olawale by a nose! Also whooo Bruce Miller! With Bruce, four of the top six performers are tops in contract quality as well. This has not been the case in other positions; a number of receivers and backs, while being among the best in the league, were still overpaid. I suspect this is because fullbacks aren’t usually stars the way other offensive players are. A franchise may feel compelled to keep a star (or farmer star) quarterback or wide receiver for whatever cost, due to their relationship with the team or the fans, their popularity, etc. Yet those aspects fall outside this analysis. And in any case, those qualities may not be a significant factor (especially) among fullbacks. Here are the Worst 5 fullback contracts, based on play through Week 12:

  • 20. John Kuhn, GB (-0.64)
  • 21. Tommy Bohanon, NYJ (-1.4)
  • 22. Jerome Felton, MIN (-1.68)
  • 23. Marcel Reece, OAK (-2.34)
  • 24. Vonta Leach, BAL (-2.51)

I know Ravens General Manager Ozzie Newsome got them a championship, but future prospects may not be so bright, being firmly in the running for two of the worst contracts among the five positions I’ve examined. Although I guess Leach isn’t quite as spectacular as Joe Flacco himself, who was the best paid and the worst quarterback. Four of the five most expensive fullbacks find themselves on the list. Again and again, we see that high-priced free agent signings usually aren’t worth it.

That’s it for fullbacks. Later this week I’ll tackle the offensive line positions and try not to get flagged for defensive holding. Stay tuned.


  1. Yeah, it’s pretty obvious I’m waffling on this whole Redskins name issue. Hopefully I’ll have reached a decision soon. I definitely want to go back and listen to what Mike Tirico said on Monday Night Football, also maybe actually see what Native Americans themselves have to say on the subject. 
  2. I hate that term. Blocking J.J. Watt, and even most other defensive players, takes skill. Weighing 300 pounds helps, but there’s A Lot more to it. 
  3. OAK has actually had two different fullbacks each play 25% or more of their snaps. The teams without a qualifying fullback are ARI, ATL, CIN, DAL, DEN, DET, MIA, PHI, and SD. 
  4. Apparently this is the more racist name? Like I said I need to look into it more thoroughly. 
  5. Patenting the nicknames Jamize “All the Way” Olawale and Will “Tougher Than You” Ta’ufo’ou. 

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

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

Colin, I have a few questions for you.

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

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

3. Why does Texas live up to its stereotypes?

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

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

Bucs (+8.5) over LIONS

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

TEXANS (-10) over Jaguars

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

PACKERS (-5) over Vikings

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

Chargers (+5) over CHIEFS

Yyyyyyyeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

Panthers (-4.5) over DOLPHINS

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

BROWNS (-1) over Steelers

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

Bears (+1) over RAMS

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

RAVENS (-3.5) over Jets

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

Titans (-1) over RAIDERS

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

CARDINALS (-2.5) over Colts

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

GIANTS (-2.5) over Cowboys

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

PATRIOTS (+2.5) over Broncos

Forecast for Foxborough, MA for the weekend.

49ers (-6.5) over Redskins

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

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

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