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Via Google spreadsheets, salary databases at Spotrac.com, and player performance grades at Pro Football Focus, the 2013 NFL All-Best-Contracts Team is here at last! Well, the offense is at least. There are All Pros, and Pro Bowlers (and Pro Bowl snubs), but this list reveals which pros have really earned their salary–and then some–this season.

Finally, an evaluation of players that might not rank Peyton Manning number one without a second thought! For while surely he was the most valuable player in the league this season, did he produce the most of any player per the value his team spent on him? (SPOILER: He did not.)

There are some important points to understand before looking at the list. This process is not perfect. Precisely how much a team values a player is difficult to quantify, and the reasons a team might value a player difficult to discern. Even the player performance measures calculated by PFF have their issues.

If a team pays a player a certain amount, they must value him at that amount or more. Easy right? Not exactly. Most NFL contracts are over a period of years, with varying amounts in each year. There are signing bonuses, roster bonuses, statistical incentives, award incentives, base salaries, etc. These things affect a player’s yearly hit on his team’s salary cap, and consequently general managers may manipulate them (particularly base salaries) year-by-year to maintain cap balance. (Or not. Rest in peace Al Davis.) Likely, or at least usually, general managers do not expect a player’s year-to-year contributions to fluctuate as wildly as his cap hits. A player’s average salary is not a perfect measure, but is the best gauge of how much a team values a player in a given year.

What do teams value in players? Talent, sure, but likely other traits as well. A fan-favorite who increases jersey and ticket sales, perhaps even the team’s profile in the media, adds much value to a team. Such players may not always be the best performers on the field. A player’s relationship with his coaches, teammates, and other members in the organization may also impact his value. Is it ridiculous to think that the Arizona Cardinals value Larry Fitzgerald’s professionalism, and that he has never complained about his truly abysmal quarterbacks since Kurt Warner left town? And remember how even when Terrell Owens was still one of the best wide receivers in the league, a lot of teams were not willing to pay him on account of his team chemistry problems?

As quantifying such traits is quite difficult, here contract quality relates a player’s pay only to his performance. If the difference between the two is vast, it may indicate errors by a general manager, or it may indicate that a player adds or subtracts value in other ways. Comparing players at the same position relatively controls for other factors (wide receivers are more popular than linemen), but it is not perfect.

Mapping a player’s performance to a numerical output consistently across the league is difficult, but the experts at Pro Football Focus do a very good job. They have multiple analysts grade every player on every snap of every game, from a variety of camera angles. They go beyond the uninteresting conventional statistics. Did a wide receiver make a difficult catch in double coverage and break a tackle before scoring, or merely benefit from a blown coverage? Did a linebacker fight through two blockers to make a play in the backfield, or have the way cleared for him by his defensive lineman? PFF knows the answers to such questions. Though their numbers do not take into account the strength of the competition, they measure quite precisely what each player actually accomplished on every snap. NFL fans, media analysts, and the teams themselves use PFF. See here for more about PFF’s player performance grades.

Yet another can of worms is players who do not play much, due to injury, being a substitute, or whatever. Also some players have performance opportunities in the postseason while others do not. To keep the analysis on level ground, players must have played at least 25 percent of their teams’ regular season snaps, and the playoffs (as well as the preseason) do not figure into the calculations.

Given all that (and a pinch of salt), one may determine a player’s contract quality by measuring the number of standard deviations his performance is above/below the average at his position (measured by PFF), and subtract the number of standard deviations his average annual salary is above/below the average at his position (obtained via Spotrac.com). That is:

CQ = (performance SDs +/- positional average) – (salary SDs +/- positional average)

And now, ESPM1 presents to you:

The 2013 NFL All-Best-Contracts Team: Offense

Position Name Team Contract Quality
QB Russell Wilson SEA 2.52
WR Alshon Jeffery CHI 2.25
WR Jordy Nelson GB 2.24
RB Eddie Lacy GB 2.25
RB Giovani Bernard CIN 2.02
TE Jimmy Graham NO 2.85
FB Anthony Sherman KC 3.02
C Jason Kelce PHI 2.66
G Larry Warford DET 2.33
G Travelle Wharton CAR 2.04
T Zach Strief NO 1.79
T Cordy Glenn BUF 1.79

And, for some additional context, here are the league averages for performance grade and average annual salary, by position:

Position Average Grade Averge Salary
QB 2.05 $7,069,816
WR 4.01 $3,198,411
RB 4.54 $3,013,863
TE -1.25 $2,417,386
FB 2.03 $982,645
C 1.66 $2,763,763
G -1.66 $2,487,022
T 4.77 $3,477,375

And for the truly devoted, here are the performance grade and annual salary breakdowns for all twelve players:

Position Name Team Grade Rank (of) Average Salary Rank (of)
QB Russell Wilson SEA 24.1 4 (42) $749,176 36 (42)
WR Alshon Jeffery CHI 18.7 8 (110) $1,112,028 61 (110)
WR Jordy Nelson GB 24.7 2 (110) $3,497,250 35 (110)
RB Eddie Lacy GB 18.5 3 (55) $848,103 34 (55)
RB Giovani Bernard CIN 17.8 5 (55) $1,313,466 29 (55)
TE Jimmy Graham NO 13.4 1 (64) $613,785 50 (64)
FB Anthony Sherman KC 17.4 1 (25) $561,725 12 (25)
C Jason Kelce PHI 18.9 1 (35) $534,358 35 (35)
G Larry Warford DET 22.8 4 (80) $768,750 60 (80)
G Travelle Wharton CAR 20.5 5 (80) $1,100,000 47 (80)
T Zach Strief NO 26.5 7 (74) $1,916,667 39 (74)
T Cordy Glenn BUF 23 13 (74) $1,216,295 47 (74)

And that is the offense of the 2013 NFL All-Best-Contract Team. Check back (next week, most likely) for the defense!


  1. Economics and Sports Management, a recurring feature on Crossroads dealing with, well, the economic management of sports and sports teams. 
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Following up my evaluation of quarterback contracts yesterday, today I examine the performance and pay of NFL wide receivers. There are 110 wide receivers who have played 25% or more of their team’s snaps this season. 109 of them are still under contract; as Kyle Williams was released by the San Francisco 49ers earlier this week, I dropped him from the calculations.1 While hovering on the subject of releases, I wanted to mention Matt Flynn. Seahawks General Manager John Schneider is worthy of praise for finding Russell Wilson, but equally responsible for Flynn, to whom he gave $10 million in guaranteed money that same year before tiring of him after one season. He was able to maneuver out $6 million with a trade to the Raiders, but Seattle still has $4 million in dead money this season as a result of signing Flynn.2

Before looking at the numbers, here are a few more notes about contract quality. If players don’t play, Pro Football Focus has no performance to evaluate. That could mean a variety of things concerning the contract. A backups is like any other insurance; you hope you don’t have to use it, but you’re willing to pay for it. Speaking of injuries, if a player misses a season for one, does that mean his contract was wasteful? Are NFL front offices accountable for avoiding injuries? Perhaps to some extent, but it’s difficult to quantify. Even so, teams may pay players for other things besides on-field performance. Popularity to the fans, the ability to sell tickets and jerseys, intangibles like “he’s a good locker room guy”, having worked well previously with members of the team and/or coaching staff, etc. Such qualities, while beyond the scope of this analysis, should not be forgot.

With that, here are PFF’s Top 10 wide receivers who’ve played 25% or more of their teams’ snaps so far this season (grades in parentheses)3:

  • 1. Brandon Marshall, CHI (20)
  • 2. Andre Johnson, HOU & Calvin Johnson, DET (16.8)
  • 4. Jordy Nelson, GB (14.9)
  • 5. Antonio Brown, PIT (14.7)
  • 6. Pierre Garcon, WAS (14.4)
  • 7. Demaryius Thomas, DEN (13.4)
  • 8. Wes Welker, DEN (10.6)
  • 9. Doug Baldwin, SEA (10.5)
  • 10. Marvin Jones, CIN (10.4)

Wouldn’t it be great if Andre and Calvin were brothers? And it’s Marvin Jones, not A.J. Green, of the Cincinnati Bengals rounding out the Top 10, although a substantial chunk comes from a dominating four touchdown performance against the New York Jets in Week 8. (Green himself grades at a 6.3 at the moment, good for 23rd in the league.) Here are the Bottom 10:

  • 100. Aaron Dobson, NE (-4.4)
  • 101. Mike Williams, TB (-4.5)
  • 102. Ryan Broyles, DET (-4.8)
  • 103. Dexter McCluster, KC (-4.9)
  • 104. Donnie Avery, KC (-5)
  • 105. Mike Wallace, MIA (-5.8)
  • 106. Mohamed Sanu, CIN & Greg Little, CLE (-6.7)
  • 108. T.J. Graham, BUF (-6.9)
  • 109. Kenny Britt, TEN (-9.7)

The last undefeated team in the NFL at 9-0, the Kansas City Chiefs could apparently still use an upgrade in the wide receiver department. (Dwayne Bowe will appear in a bit.) Note the effective scale, at this point in the season, ranges from a -9.7 at the bottom to a firm 20 at the top. The average PFF wide receiver grade is a 2.2, and the standard deviation is a 5.6. Brandon Marshall up in first is a full standard deviation in performance ahead of 6th best Pierre Garcon. No wonder Bears fans love him. Marshall also finds himself among the most paid wide receivers, 11th in the league at $8.956 million a year. Here are the Top 10 average annual salaries under contract this season4 (millions of dollars in parentheses):

  • 1. Calvin Johnson, DET ($18.813 million)
  • 2. Larry Fitzgerald, AZ ($15.75m)
  • 3. Mike Wallace, MIA ($12m)
  • 4. Dwayne Bowe, KC ($11.2m)
  • 5. Vincent Jackson, TB ($11.111m)
  • 6. Andre Johnson, HOU ($9.686m)
  • 7. Steve Smith, CAR ($9.438m)
  • 8. DeSean Jackson, PHI ($9.4m)
  • 9. Santonio Holmes, NYJ & Greg Jennings, MIN ($9m)

The two Johnsons are the only wide receivers tops of the league in both performance (so far) and pay. And yes, Mike Wallace is the Joe Flacco of wide receivers, the 3rd highest paid with the 4th worst performance. (Actually, this is more impressive than Flacco, since there are more than three times as many wide receivers as quarterbacks.) Unsurprisingly we see no teams doubling up here. Even in the NFL, you can’t afford to. Only 7 teams spend more than $20 million on all their wide receivers5, with 24 spending less than the Lions spend on Johnson alone.  And here are the least paid wide receivers, who’ve played at least 25% of their teams’ snaps this season:

  • 100. Kenbrell Thompkins, NE (0.496m)
  • 101. Marlon Brown, BAL (0.495m)
  • 102. Riley Cooper, PHI (0.49m)
  • 103. Rod Streater, OAK (0.483m)
  • 104. Cole Beaseley, DAL (0.481m)
  • 105. Jarrett Boykin, GB & Jermaine Kearse, SEA (0.48m)
  • 107. Doug Baldwin, SEA (0.47m)
  • 108. Drew Davis, ATL (0.435m)
  • 109. Mike Brown, JAX (0.398m)

Doug Baldwin? Really? Yup, it’s looking like another top contract will belong to the Seahawks. (SPOILER ALERT: It does.) 106 wide receivers make more than Baldwin, but only 8 have done more on the field this season. Goodness. Not bad for a kid who went undrafted out of Stanford. Looking at the whole field, the average annual salary of all these wide receivers is $3.258 million, with a slightly larger standard deviation of $3.61 million. Calvin Johnson makes nearly a full SD more than #2 Larry Fitzgerald, who in turn makes more than a full SD more than #3 Mike Wallace. Obviously, it’s not nearly so spread out at the bottom.

Again, for contract quality, we look at where the player ranks in pay and performance relative to the average among his peers, using standard deviations. CQ = #SDs above/below the average grade – #SDs above/below the average salary. Positive is good for the front office. Negative is bad. Zero suggests a player’s performance is worth exactly how well he’s played (theoretically). Without further adieu, here are the 10 best wide receiver contract so far this season (contract quality in parentheses):

  • 1. Doug Baldwin, SEA (2.26)
  • 2. Marvin Jones, CIN (2.21)
  • 3. Jordy Nelson, GB (2.2)
  • 4. Demaryius Thomas, DEN (2.12)
  • 5. Golden Tate, SEA (1.87)
  • 6. Keenan Allen, SD (1.85)
  • 7. Alshon Jeffery, CHI (1.74)
  • 8. Jerricho Cotchery, PIT (1.65)
  • 9. Brandon Marshall, CHI (1.59)
  • 10. Randall Cobb, GB (1.47)

Another obligatory ESPM congratulations to Seattle Seahawks General Manager John Schneider! Two in the top five for Seattle, to go with quarterback contract quality leader Russell Wilson, puts together a sound passing attack for a very good price. Interesting that while no team has two Top 10 most expensive contracts on its roster, and only Denver has two Top 10 performing wide receivers on their roster, Seattle, Chicago, and Green Bay each have two of the best wide receiver contracts in the NFL. (And Green Bay has a third wide receiver, Jarrett Boykin, at 15th in the league with a 1.10 contract quality. Wow.) Now, the Bottom 10:

  • 100. Calvin Johnson, DET (-1.7)
  • 101. Kenny Britt, TEN (-1.71)
  • 102. Greg Jennings, MIN (-1.92)
  • 103. Miles Austin, DAL (-1.94)
  • 104. Roddy White, ATL (-1.98)
  • 105. Mike Williams, TB (-2.14)
  • 106. Dwayne Bowe, KC (-2.35)
  • 107. Vincent Jackson, TB (-2.49)
  • 108. Larry Fitzgerald, ARZ (-2.81)
  • 109. Mike Wallace, MIA (-3.83)

Oh dear. Ohhhhh dear. Turns out, the five highest paid wide receivers in the league are some of the ten worst contracts. And Greg Jennings makes it a solid six of the ten highest paid to make the ugly contract list. Incidentally, this is Jennings first season with the Vikings, after seven with the… who was it? Oh right, the Green Bay Packers! The same Green Bay Packers with three of the best wide receiver contracts in the league. Hmmmm. Lots of times we hear about how a team just “can’t afford” to lose a player in free agency. But, maybe sometimes, someone ought to ask: “Can they afford not to?” The Packers said no to Jennings, and they’re certainly not regretting it.

That said, there is a lesson here. A pretty common one in life, and as in life, as in football: there is no simple “magic rule” that guarantees success. While many of the richest contracts are poor quality, some are worthwhile. Brandon Marshall is earning his 11th highest salary with the best play in the league. Antonio Brown, 15th in performance, 18th in pay, is good for the 14th best contract among all 109 wide receivers. Andre Johnson (3rd, 6th, and 22nd), Julio Jones (19th, 32nd, 23rd), Wes Welker (8th, 23rd, 29th), and Pierre Garcon (6th, 12th, 32nd) all enjoy lucrative contracts in the upper tier of the league, and have more than earned them with their play. And, while perhaps more difficult, teams can buy cheap and still not get their money’s worth. Ace Sanders (94th, 84th, 69th), Nick Toon (97th, 89th, 73rd), Brice Butler (93rd, 94th, 66th), Kenbrell Thompkins (89th, 100th, 60th), and Marlon Brown (99th, 101st, 71st) are all paid less than $0.7 million a year, yet have managed to under-perform their salaries. They haven’t “lost” their teams nearly as much money, but a loss is still a loss. The competitive nature of the NFL makes me think that if you asked a general manager “Would you care to save a few extra hundred thousand dollars this season?”, he would say “Yes.”


  1. His performance and pay were both below average, so his contract quality would probably have been middling to poor, but not terrible. 
  2. In a test of the “Greater Fool” theory, Flynn went to Oakland, was subsequently released, signed with the Bills, again released, and is currently back with the Green Bay Packers after injuries to Aaron Rodgers and Seneca Wallace, though presumably still behind other backup Scott Tolzien. 
  3. More than three times as many wide receivers than quarterbacks means longer lists. 
  4. With many thanks to Spotrac.com
  5. DET spends $27.262 million on WRs; CHI $25.987; MIA $22.998; AZ $21.725; WAS $21.313; SEA $21.236; and TB $20.809 
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