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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? 
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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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