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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? 

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. 

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. 

Moving right along with our continuing series, ESPM Presents: The Search for the Best (& Worst!) Contract in Football. So far I’ve covered quarterbacks, wide receivers, and running backs. Today I look at how pay and performance compare across tight ends in the National Football league. Before jumping in, I wanted to expand upon something I mentioned at the close of my evaluation of running back contracts. I remarked that teams are overpaying nearly 50% of their players (or at least their quarterbacks, wide receivers, and running backs). One of my readers inquired as to whether or not that was really a big deal. His point was that even if teams improved their methods dramatically, it’s unlikely they would pay their players exactly what their performance was worth. Some would be overpaid, some underpaid, and wouldn’t that tend towards a 50-50 split anyway? Yes. So allow me to be more clear.

The inefficiency in the league lies in how much players are overpaid and underpaid, not how many are overpaid and underpaid. The NFL salary cap for this season is $123 million per team.1 One percent of a team’s cap is $1.23 million. Using this analysis, 46% of quarterbacks, running backs, and wide receivers are technically overpaid, based on their performance through the first ten weeks of the season. So is that a big deal? In economic research (albeit in slightly different contexts) we tend to care about two things: statistical significance, and substantive significance. 46% is an awful lot; it suggests that at least one, probably many NFL players are overpaid. But by how much?

Returning to the one percent, 15 of 37 quarterbacks (40.5%), 39 of 109 wide receivers (35.8%), and 16 of 54 running backs (29.6%) are overpaid by $1.23 million or more. That’s 70 of the 200 players (35%) I’ve looked at so far who are overpaid by one percent of the total amount their teams can spend this season. But hey, what’s a million dollars? Pro Football Focusperformance grades suggest that among those players, 28 (14%) are overpaid by $5 million or more. $5,000,000. Again, I can’t say for sure, but I think an NFL general manager wouldn’t want to waste $1,000, let alone $5,000,000. But it seems that, in more than one case, in more than a few cases, that’s exactly what they are doing.2

It will be interesting to see how those numbers might change as I get to looking at all positions on both sides of the ball. Perhaps these positions, among the most prominent in the league, are more likely to be overpaid.3 Certainly a phenomenal playoff performance and Super Bowl victory from Joe Flacco helped him to his new contract, which based on his play this season has him overpaid by more than $21 million4, dwarfing all other comers.

But enough. On to tight ends! Well, one quick reminder that these grades include all facets of the game. Run blocking, pass blocking, route running, catching, elusiveness after the catch, penalties, etc. Here are the Top 10 performing tight ends in the NFL among those who’ve played 25% or more of their teams’ snaps, through Week 11 (PFF grade in parentheses):

  • 1. Ben Hartsock, CAR & Jimmy Graham, NO (12)
  • 3. Jordan Reed, WAS (10.3)
  • 4. Rob Gronkowski, NE (7.3)
  • 5. Ben Watson, NO (7)
  • 6. Delanie Walker, TEN (6.4)
  • 7. Vernon Davis, SF (5.7)
  • 8. Tony Gonzalez, ATL (5.3)
  • 9. Coby Fleener, IND (5)
  • 10. Julius Thomas, DEN (4.3)

Hey, who’s that guy who’s as good as Jimmy Graham that I’ve never heard of? Why, that is Ben Hartsock, second tight end of the Carolina Panthers. He is just as good at blocking as Jimmy Graham is at receiving passes. While most teams may prefer Graham, and that’s fine, blocking is also valuable, and should not be forgot. Here are the Bottom 10:

  • 50. Vance McDonald, SF (-7.2)
  • 51. Gary Barnidge, CLE (-7.8)
  • 52. Michael Hoomanawanui, NE & Rob Housler, ARI (-8.1)
  • 54. Jared Cook, STL (-8.2)
  • 55. Heath Miller, PIT (-8.3)
  • 56. Jim Dray, ARI (-9.4)
  • 57. James Hanna, DAL (-9.8)
  • 58. Ed Dickson, BAL (-9.9)
  • 59. Jermaine Gresham, CIN (-16.6)

And a single tear trickles down my cheek as Vance McDonald becomes the first 49er to appear at the bottom of performance. The average performance among tight ends who’ve played 25% or more of their teams’ snaps this season is actually negative, at -1.6. The standard deviation for grades is 5.8, quite a bit larger and indicating what we in the industry refer to as “lots” of variation. Here are the Top 10 paid tight ends (average annual salary, from Spotrac.com, in parentheses):

  • 1. Jason Witten, DAL ($7.219 million)
  • 2. Vernon Davis, SF ($7.118m)
  • 3. Jared Cook, STL ($7.02m)
  • 4. Tony Gonzalez, ATL & Jermichael Finley, GB ($7m)
  • 6. Rob Gronkowski, NE ($6.904m)
  • 7. Zach Miller, SEA & Marcedes Lewis, JAC ($6.8m)
  • 9. Antonio Gates, SD ($6.633m)
  • 10. Heath Miller, PIT ($5.883m)

Jared Cook and Heath Miller both have the dubious honor of being at the bottom of performance and at the top of salary.5 No tight end makes as much as the average quarterback ($7.818 million). Here are the Bottom 10 salaries among tight ends:

  • 50. Luke Wilson, SEA ($0.585m)
  • 51. Lee Smith, BUF ($0.575m)
  • 52. Mychal Rivera, OAK ($0.566m)
  • 53. James Hanna, DAL ($0.551m)
  • 54. Charles Clay, MIA ($0.538m)
  • 55. David Paulson, PIT ($0.536m)
  • 56. Allen Reisner, JAC ($0.51m)
  • 57. Jim Dray, ARI ($0.497m)
  • 58. Timothy Wright, TB ($0.495m)
  • 59. Sean McGrath, KC ($0.469 million)

The average annual tight end salary is $2.546 million, with a standard deviation of $2.379 million. As with other positions, there is much less variation among pay relative to performance. As even I haven’t heard of many of those guys, I’ll mention a few who almost made it. Jordan Cameron, Jimmy Graham, and Julius Thomas (Top 10 performers all) are 46th, 47th, and 48th in salary, respectively, with Cameron raking in the most at $0.629 million. So surprise surprise, ESPM awards the best contract among tight ends to Jimmy Graham. Congratulations to Saints’ General Manager Mickey Loomis, getting a contract quality of 3.17! (Contract quality is a player’s standard deviations above/below the average performance minus his number of standard deviations above/below the average salary.) Here are the Top 10 tight end contracts (so far) in 2013 (contract quality in parentheses):

  • 1. Jimmy Graham, NO (3.17)
  • 2. Ben Hartsock, CAR (3.05)
  • 3. Jordan Reed, WAS (2.85)
  • 4. Ben Watson, NO (1.87)
  • 5. Julius Thomas, DEN (1.84)
  • 6. Coby Fleener, IND (1.65)
  • 7. Jordan Cameron, CLE (1.47)
  • 8. Mychal Rivera, OAK (1.37)
  • 9. Zach Ertz, PHI (1.27)
  • 10. Kellen Winslow, NYJ (1.08)

The power of those still on their rookie deals continues. And here are the Worst 10 tight end contracts…

  • 50. Owen Daniels, HOU (-1)
  • 51. Marcedes Lewis, JAC (-1.28)
  • 52. Brandon Myers, NYG (-1.31)
  • 53. Jason Witten, DAL ( -1.51)
  • 54. Martellus Bennett, CHI (-1.63)
  • 55. Jermichael Finley, GB (-2.08)
  • 56. Antonio Gates, SD (-2.15)
  • 57. Heath Miller, PIT (-2.56)
  • 58. Jermaine Gresham, CIN (-2.86)
  • 59. Jared Cook, STL (-3.02)

… where the power of the egregiously overpaid veteran free agent continues! Returning to where we began, 21 of the 59 (35.5%) are overpaid by more than one percent ($1.23 million) of this season’s salary cap ($123 million). 4 of the 59 (6.8%) are overpaid by $5 million or more. And remember, there are multiple paths to the top. You don’t have to score touchdowns like Jimmy Graham to be valuable on the field. Even so, a number of players are paid well above what their performance merits. They earn it without earning it.


  1. In reality, teams may have a little more or a little less due to rollovers from prior years, penalties from prior years, and other such adjustments. 
  2. Again, the usual caveat about players being paid for things apart from on-field performance, such as selling tickets and jerseys by being popular, being a good guy to have in the locker room, having a history with the organizations coaches and/or players, etc. Still, are those things worth $5 million for each of those 28 guys? Or even one? 
  3. Or have added value outside their on-field play. 
  4. Actually, I’m troubled that using this methodology, the numbers suggest that Flacco, and a few other players as well, should actually receive negative payments. This is troubling because it has no sound interpretation, other than that he has really been stinking up the joint. Hopefully when I do this again at the end of the season I’ll have a solution. 
  5. For those keeping score at home, yes, at least one player at every position I’ve looked at has pulled off being tops in pay and bottoms in performance. I’m tentatively calling it “a Flacco”. 

Lines from Sportsbook.com; home team in CAPS

BUCS (0) over Falcons

First time I’m keeping track of my picks, and there’s no spread. When in doubt, go with the good defense right? Or the home team?

Jets (-1) over BILLS

Maybe the defense more than the home team.

Lions (-2.5) over STEELERS

If they can beat the Bears in Chicago, surely they can beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh… right? Right??

The Washington D.C. Football Team (+4) over EAGLES

I’m still undecided on the whole racist names in sports things. I mean I recognize that the names are racist. But there was some article that talked about how some Native Americans don’t care about the Redskins, since the term originates from natives themselves, but rather want to see the end of the Kansas City Chiefs and stuff. He also talks about high schools in predominantly native communities with the same nickname, who love it. But I don’t think a lot of Native Americans are in the Washington D.C. Football Team organization. Anyway, I’m starting Nick Foles in fantasy football this week. Last time I started him the Eagles offense scored zero points. Plus Washington is going to play better after losing to the Vikings. Regression to the mean. You don’t just play at a level of losing to the Vikings week after week. You just don’t.

BEARS (-3) over Ravens

Chicago is down, but not out. Also, right now, in a vacuum, would you rather have Josh McCown or Joe Flacco as your quarterback?

Browns (+6.5) over BENGALS

Cincy is weird. Cleveland is weird. Geno Atkins is out for the season. Plus, wouldn’t it be great if neither of Cleveland’s two first round picks were among the first 16?

Raiders (+9) over TEXANS

So close to buying shares of Case Keenum stock. But not yet.

JAGUARS (+9) over Cardinals

Come on Jags, at home, you can lose by one possession or fewer. You can do it!

Chargers (-2.5) over DOLPHINS

It is entirely possible that Philip Rivers is better at playing quarterback (this season) than the Miami Dolphins are at generating headlines (this season).

Vikings (+12.5) over SEAHAWKS

Something about not thinking double digit favorites come in often against teams that are not the Jacksonville Jaguars.

SAINTS (-3.5) over 49ers

A concussion on each side of the ball. Michael Crabtree still not back. The Saints are coming off a blowout win, but still, I don’t think Drew Brees is going to throw two pick-sixes like he did last year. (Gosh that was nice.)

GIANTS (-5) over Packers

Is Eli Manning done throwing 3+ interceptions a game? Maybe? Thing is, Giants actually have an excellent run defense.

BRONCOS (-7.5) over the Kansas City Football Team

Alex Smith did beat Drew Brees once, in a playoff game. At home.

PANTHERS (-1.5) over Patriots

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p>Turns out that Carolina defense is pretty good, especially against the run, and the Patriots can’t throw, or rather, the Patriots can only throw to Gronkowski in double coverage.

I suck at gambling!

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