Tag Archives: NFL

Yesterday I detailed how Colin Kaepernick’s extension seems to be a pretty great deal for both sides. Kaepernick will be among the top paid handful of players in the league so long as he or the team performs at a truly elite level. The 49ers will recoup several million dollars should that fail to happen. This contract ought to anchor the 49ers talented roster for years to come, possibly into the next decade. But will Kaepernick’s contract create a dynasty on par with that of Joe Montana’s four Super Bowl championships? Probably not.

Whether Kaepernick’s yearly cap hits end up being closer to $16, $18, or $20 million remains to be seen, but no matter what that money cannot go to anyone else on the team. Under Jim Harbaugh, who has coached in three NFC championship games in his three years with the team, the 49ers have yet to pay a premium for their quarterback services.

Season Starting QB Cap Hit % of Cap League Average % of Cap
2011 Alex Smith $4,900,000 4.08% $6,478,783 5.40%
2012 Alex Smith $9,250,000 7.67% $8,257,642 6.85%
2012 Colin Kaepernick $1,164,613 0.97% $8,257,642 6.85%
2013 Colin Kaepernick $1,397,535 1.14% $10,293,699 8.37%

Under Harbaugh the 49ers had one season when Alex Smith cost the same as a league-average starter1, and the other two years the 49ers’ starting quarterback cost them very little relative to the rest of the league. Getting quality quarterback play for such low cap hits gave the 49ers that much more money to add and retain talent elsewhere. And in 2014, Kaepernick’s cap hit remains a scant $3.767 million. But after that?

Year Cap Hit
2014 $3,767,444
2015 $17,265,753
2016 $18,765,753
2017 $21,365,753
2018 $21,865,753
2019 $21,200,000
2020 $23,400,000

Over the six-year extension (2015-2020), Kaepernick’s average cap hit is $20.644 million. Again, that could fall a few million in some seasons, depending on his and the team’s performance, but it will be at least $16-$18 million every year, if not more. It is not known what the salary cap will be in those years,2 but since 19993 the cap has, on average, increased each year by 7.15 percent. This is not, by any means, a perfect predictor of what the cap increases will look like going forward, but it may be close.4 If the cap increases roughly as it has in the past,5 what will Kaepernick’s contract amount to as a percentage of team spending?

Season Kaepernick’s Cap Hit (Overly Simplistic) Projected Salary Cap Percent of Salary Cap
2015 $17,265,753 $142,509,500 12.12%
2016 $18,765,753 $152,698,929 12.29%
2017 $21,365,753 $163,616,903 13.06%
2018 $21,865,753 $175,315,511 12.47%
2019 $21,200,000 $187,850,570 11.29%
2020 $23,400,000 $201,281,886 11.63%

Jim Harbaugh is a terrific football coach, but he has never had his team spend such a high share of its budget on the starting quarterback. General manager Trent Baalke and Paraag Marathe and Co. have never had less money to spend on the other 45 players who will suit up on game day. Quarterback is the most important position, but there are 10 other guys on offense, and 11 other guys on defense, and three unique guys on special teams, too, and some backups, and they all matter to some degree. Even if Kaepernick’s contract diminishes some, and the cap increases more than the 7.15 percent average annual rate of the past, the 49ers will still likely spend 10 percent of their available funds on Kaepernick every season.

Teams spending so much on their quarterbacks can win the Super Bowl. But it is not easy.

Year Super Bowl Winning QB % of Team’s Salary Cap Super Bowl Losing QB % of Team’s Salary Cap
1999 Kurt Warner 1.31% Steve McNair 10.60%
2000 Trent Dilfer N/A Kerry Collins N/A
2001 Tom Brady 0.46% Kurt Warner 3.46%
2002 Brad Johnson 9.56% Rich Gannon 5.22%
2003 Tom Brady 4.42% Jake Delhomme 2.37%
2004 Tom Brady 6.28% Donovan McNabb 9.69%
2005 Ben Roethlisberger 4.94% Matt Hasselbeck 7.72%
2006 Peyton Manning 8.38% Rex Grossman 1.50%
2007 Eli Manning 10.75% Tom Brady 6.73%
2008 Ben Roethlisberger 7.11% Kurt Warner 5.17%
2009 Drew Brees 8.42% Peyton Manning 18.88%
2010 Aaron Rodgers N/A Ben Roethlisberger N/A
2011 Eli Manning 11.75% Tom Brady 10.79%
2012 Joe Flacco 6.63% Colin Kaepernick 0.97%
2013 Russell Wilson 0.55% Peyton Manning 14.23%

Reliable data for the salaries of Dilfer and Collins back in 2000 was not available, and in 2010 there was no salary cap.6 But in the other 13 seasons since 1999, 26 unique teams made the super bowl. Only six of those 26 teams paid their quarterback more than 10 percent of the salary cap: the 1999 Titans (McNair), the 2007 Giants (E. Manning), the 2009 Colts (P. Manning), the 2011 Giants (E. Manning), the 2011 Patriots (Brady), and the 2013 Broncos (P. Manning). (Whole lotta’ Mannings comin’ at ya.) Only a small minority of recent Super Bowl teams had crossed the 10 percent threshold with their starting quarterbacks. What does it all mean? Are the 49ers’ Super Bowl dreams dashed?

Perhaps not, at least not completely. Five of those six teams come from 2007 or later, with four coming from the last eight teams to play in the Super Bowl. Fans keep hearing it, and not without reason: the game really has changed significantly, even since I started watching football 15 years ago. More than ever, it is a passing league. Quarterback salaries are, literally and figuratively, on the rise, not only in absolute terms but relative to other positions. That the 49ers will spend more than 10 percent of their budget on their starting quarterback every year may not be ideal, but it makes a lot more sense now than it would have 15 or even 10 years ago. And this is not just any starting quarterback we have been talking about; it’s Colin Kaepernick.

Nonetheless, with two more years on his contract, Russell Wilson remains the envy of every general manager in the league. Not to overreact, but at what point do we start discussing rather Wilson is the greatest draft pick of all time?7 If the Seahawks win the Super Bowl again next year? Peyton Manning is still probably better than Wilson, but his share of the Broncos’ cap when they met in the Super Bowl last season was nearly 30 times larger than Wilson’s. The Seahawks had a lot more money to spend elsewhere. We all saw what happened.

The 49ers, meanwhile, have a powerful opportunity this year, with Kaepernick only taking up 2.8 percent of their funds. After that, the road gets tougher, with every draft pick, every low-budget signing becoming that much more important. Hopefully the 49ers can pull out a Super Bowl win in the next seven years, maybe two with a bit of luck. But do not expect an NFC championship game appearance every year, Harbaugh or no. It’s just too darned expensive to keep getting there.

  1. The average cap hits of the top 25 paid quarterbacks in each year, according to I use the top 25 because though there are 32 teams and therefore, technically, at least 32 starters, the dregs of the league tend to see high turnover rates and are not really “true” starters, due to poor play, repeated injuries, or what have you. 
  2. Kaepernick’s cap hits escalate every season, as the salary cap is expected to, so Kaepernick’s percent of the whole cap will hopefully change little year to year, even as the 49ers pay him millions more. 
  3. 1999 is something of an arbitrary end point; the modern salary cap really began in 1994. For some other findings in this piece I didn’t find much data before 1999, but most of the data after 1999 is available, so I am keeping it consistent. Something of a nice coincidence, as the Titans-Rams Super Bowl following the 1999 season (played in 2000) is the first one I remember watching in its entirety. 
  4. Most increases were five to six percent, with a couple outliers wherein the league drastically increased the amount of money teams can spend. Since the new collective bargaining agreement, the 2012 salary cap was 0.5 percent more than 2011’s, 2013 was 2 percent more than 2012’s, and now 2014’s is 8.13 percent more than 2013’s, so who really knows what the hell the league will do. 
  5. Again, this is not guaranteed to happen. It is a very, very, very simplified estimate, not a concrete prediction. 
  6. Salary data from 
  7. Yes, Tom Brady went in the 6th round. But Brady was not drafted to be who he is today; he was clearly a backup coming out of camp and fell into the Patriots’ lap as a great player when Bledsoe was injured. The Seahawks took Wilson in the third round with the intention of him competing to start from day one, and that is exactly what happened. Goodness, how they have reaped the rewards. 

First, here are the numbers on Bethea. Player performance grades come from Pro Football Focus; salary information from; all averages and rankings are position specific; and a player’s contract quality is the number of standard deviations his performance is above/below the average minus the number of standard deviations his average annual salary is above/below the average.

Age: 29 (30 on July 27th)
Old Team: Indianapolis Colts
Old Contract: 4 years/$26 million, $6.5 million average (9th highest of 85 safeties)
2013 PFF Grade: -2.9 (52nd)
2013 Contract Quality: -2.08 (81st)
New Team: San Francisco 49ers
New Contract: 4 years/$23 million, $5.75 million average (projected 12th highest)

Last season, Bethea’s below-average on-field contributions were worth about two million. It is worth mentioning that his performance was not just below the league average, but below his personal career average. In 2007 (his second year in the NFL) he was PFF’s seventh highest graded safety (6.4 grade) of the 80 who played 25% or more of their teams’ snaps; in 2008 he was 17th (5.7) of 83; in 2009 25th (3.5) of 88; in 2010 16th (7.2) of 85; in 2011 21st (3.7) of 87; and in 2012 69th (-4.2) of 88. These numbers suggest his play has fallen off, but they do not say why.

Perhaps Bethea lost a step as he neared 30; perhaps he did not fit as well in Coach Pagano’s system. Regardless, his decline in play does not necessarily mean he has lost a lot of his value. Through his previous contract Bethea’s on-field worth averaged roughly $4 million. The Colts paid him $6.5 million, and the 49ers just decided to pay him $5.75 million on the other side of 30. Why would they do that?

A recent article by 49ers beat writer Matt Maiocco hints at the answer. Maiocco’s post, “Bethea provides ‘smart, steady’ leadership in 49ers secondary“, notes that in addition to eight years of NFL experience:

“Bethea is viewed as a ‘good locker room guy’ and great in the community.”

General manager Trent Baalke has demonstrated a reluctance to chase the high-priced free agent who may disrupt team chemistry. Baalke’s signing of Bethea not only underscores Baalke’s philosophy, but indicates just how much the 49ers value teamwork, isolated from talent. Bethea’s professional demeanor and strong character are seemingly worth $2-4 million or so, at least to some NFL front offices.

As always, it is likely other considerations play into his value. With two prior Pro Bowl appearances Bethea may emerge as a fan favorite, or at least a recognizable presence in the defensive backfield. And, though his talent may be slipping, Bethea has not had injury problems. Nor has he stooped to committing penalties; Maiocco reports that he was not called for a single infraction last season. That, at least, would be a welcome change from Whitner, who was whistled eight times.

The bottom line for Whitner ended up being the $7 million a year the Cleveland Browns were willing to give him. The 49ers, meanwhile, will be paying his replacement more than $1 million fewer each season. Perhaps best of all, 49ers games will finally be rid of out-of-date stories discussing a potential name change to Donte Hitner. Oh, and we have another million and change for a few years to maybe work out a deal with Colin Kaepernick. And if the intangibles of an NFL safety cost into the millions, surely a team needs every cent for a quarterback’s.

On April 28th, 2011, the Jacksonville Jaguars traded two draft picks–the 16th and 49th overall–to the Washington D.C. Football Team and moved up six spots in the first round to select quarterback Blaine Gabbert tenth overall. Using Kevin Meers’ (president of the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective) draft pick approximate value, did this look like a good trade at the time? No.

Meers’ chart, pictured below, uses the career approximate value statistic from Pro Football Reference going back through the last 20-plus drafts to estimate relative pick worth, and answer the question: what is a fair deal when trading draft picks for draft picks?


Using Meer’s valuation, you can see this never looked like a good deal for the Jaguars. On average the tenth overall pick is 39.9 (units1) more than the 16th pick, or 15 percent better. In giving up their second round, 49th overall pick worth 148.4, the Jaguars seemingly overpaid substantially. The difference between how much moving up was worth and what Jacksonville actually gave up–110 units–is worth the 82nd overall pick, in the middle of the third round. The trade would have been reasonable for a top-three pick; but, even just seven spots later down at tenth, the numbers indicate it was a bad idea.

The numbers do not tell everything. Meers’ valuation does not reveal that Gabbert was rushed into starting prematurely after presumed starting quarterback David Gerrard bizarrely left football, or that he played behind a below-average offensive line in each of his three seasons, including the third-worst league-wide his second year (per Pro Football Focus). These factors cannot be forgot. But after three years of awful play from Gabbert, yesterday the Jaguars traded him to the San Francisco 49ers, for the current fourth-to-last pick of the sixth round, worth about 45 points in Meers’ system.2 Ironic how that is the sort of pick the Jaguars should have traded to move up in the first place.

The good news for Jaguars fans is that it is over. Well, almost, as Gabbert will still count $1.807 million against Jacksonville’s salary cap this season in dead money. The good news for 49ers fans is that we have obtained a 24-year-old backup quarterback, whom our organization once thought highly of (and still somewhat does, apparently), for a very late draft pick unlikely to contribute to our current roster, and the well-documented quarterback whisperer Jim Harbaugh is still our head coach. (Yup, gotta’ save the best for last.)

  1. These particular numbers do not mean anything outside the chart; they are used to rank picks in a simple way. They are derived from real numbers, the career approximate value figures of Pro Football Reference. 
  2. The 49ers gave up the current fourth-to-last pick of the sixth round for Gabbert. That pick will not be 189th overall, as the league has a handful of compensatory selections to award between some of the rounds, but it should be close. 

Player performance grades from Pro Football Focus; salary information from; contract quality is the number of standard deviations a player’s performance is above/below the average, minus the number of standard deviations his average annual salary is above/below the average; all rankings are positional; Michael Johnson is a 4-3 defensive end.


Age: 27 (28 on February 7th, 2015)
Old Team: Cincinnati Bengals
Old Contract: 1 year/$11.175 million, $11.175 million average (5th highest paid of 62)
2013 PFF Grade: 25.9 (4th)
2013 Contract Quality: -0.53 (39th)
New Team: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
New Contract: 5 years/$43.75 million, $8.75 million average (projected 7th highest paid)

* indicates a franchise tag contract


Yesterday I wrote how the Carolina Panthers will likely regret using the franchise tag on Greg Hardy (who is also a 4-3 defensive end) this season. Michael Johnson shows exactly why. Unable to lock Johnson down long-term, the Bengals seemingly overpaid him by $2 million last year to keep him for one season.1 Cincinnati could not workout a long-term deal again this year, and unable to franchise Johnson again he took his talent to Tampa Bay. Ta-da!

But hey, last season the salary cap was $123 million. What could an additional $2 million (or $11 million if they had let Johnson walk) have bought the Bengals anyway? In 2013, average NFL tight ends, fullbacks, and guards (who played 75% or more of their teams’ snaps) earned average annual salaries of less than $2.5 million. The average starting NFL offensive line last season cost a team $14.691 million. True, good, even average players are not necessarily available for the signing, in which case seemingly overspending to keep a player that is attainable is less harmful. Nonetheless, the Bengals likely could have put the money spent on Johnson last year to better use.

But that is all in the past. How do things look from the perspective of Johnson’s new team? Tampa Bay fans should like this signing. Last season Johnson’s approximate worth was $9.206 million; the Bucs will pay him a little less than that for five years, most of which will come before Johnson turns 30. There may be an adjustment period with a new team, but he seems well in his prime.

Though Johnson will no longer have Geno Atkins to assist him along the line, the equally freakish Gerald McCoy will be with him in Tampa through 2015. The Bucs defensive front looks set. If they get a deal or two of Johnson’s quality on the offensive side, just maybe they can challenge in the NFC South.

  1. Johnson did earn the fourth-highest PFF grade while making the fifth-most money at his position, which seems like a steal. But based on the performances and salaries of all 4-3 defensive ends last year, only Robert Quinn’s outlying expertise is worthy of $10 million-plus annually; Johnson was not the only player overpaid last season. And while there are factors to consider besides on-field performance, Johnson likely would not win an NFL fan popularity contest. 

The 2014 NFL Draft is 78 days away, and the NFL “New Year” begins March 11th, at which point salary cap implications for teams’ current players will kick in for the coming season.

Last season, the Oakland Raiders had $56-plus million dollars worth of dead money. That is, more than $56,000,000 of their funds last season were tied up in players who were not even members of the Raiders. It was an impressive figure, more than one-third of their $123 million salary cap. Their incoming general manager, Reggie McKenzie, made a courageous decision to dump at once all of the terrible contracts he inherited, guaranteeing a tough season for Raiders fans. (In fact, going 4-12 was something of a pleasant surprise.)

But now McKenzie can reap the rewards, earn the salt, bring home the bacon, have his cake and eat it too1, all those good things. The Raiders have over $60 million in cap space heading into next season. With 2013 behind them, McKenzie and the Raiders can spend nearly half of the yet-to-be-finalized 2014 NFL salary cap (likely $123-126 million or so) however they like. And their terrible season last year has armed them with the fifth, fourth, and third picks of the first three rounds of the draft, respectively. Shake it out, Raiders fans! Remember, it’s always darkest before the dawn.

McKenzie’s management has moved the Raiders to the tenth-best standing in the NFL Dead Zone, brought to you by Richard Seymour. What is the NFL Dead Zone? The NFL Dead Zone is a psychic realm of Roger Goodell’s mind where upon shaking players’ hands he sees visions of their future on-field concussions and disillusioned, depressed lives after retirement, and through the Dead Zone’s apparitions Goodell can actually change the future!

Wait, that isn’t it. The NFL Dead Zone is the long-awaited series finale/made-for-TV movie, ditched by UPN, then USA, and coming to NFL Network this fall as part of the new NFL-CBS deal for Thursday Night Football!

Wait, that isn’t it either.

The NFL Dead Zone is a statistic relating a team’s dead money and salary cap space. Definitively, it is a team’s dead money divided by the sum of their dead money and their salary cap space. That is:

(Dead $$$) / (Dead $$$ + Salary Cap Space) = Dead Zone Rating

The NFL Dead Zone is a hybrid of those two related, interesting-but-not-absolute team management metrics. Neither having some dead money nor having little cap space is insurmountable. But when dead money–accounted to players no longer on a team’s roster–is the primary cause of a team’s tight cap situation (as opposed to, say, signing Peyton Manning), then…

Christopher Walken, is it really you? ARE YOU IN THERE SOMEWHERE?

Christopher Walken, is it really you? ARE YOU IN THERE SOMEWHERE?

…well, it gets ugly.

The NFL Dead Zone is a percentage, and ideally you want as little to do with the Dead Zone as possible, for it is a most terrifying place indeed. It is a place where Christopher Walken looks like that. It is a place where your daughter is screaming and the world is burning. It is a place brought to you by defensive tackle Richard Seymour, whose contract cost the Raiders $13.714 million last season, despite being voided seven months before the season even began. The Dead Zone, both in Stephen King’s writing and in the NFL, is a place ripe with fear and apprehension about the future.

Blessed with McKenzie’s bravery, the Oakland Raiders have mostly emerged from the dark of the Dead Zone, sitting pretty with the 10th-lowest Dead Zone Rating as the dawn of the 2014 season approaches. The Raiders still have $9 million in dead money this coming year, fifth-most in the league; but with nearly $61 million in unallocated salary cap money, that amounts to an NFL Dead Zone rating of 13.25 percent, tenth-lowest in the league. Well done, Mr. McKenzie, well done.

Pictured: Reggie McKenzie, General Manager, Oakland Raiders

Pictured: Reggie McKenzie, General Manager, Oakland Raiders

The team least troubled by the Dead Zone? The New York Jets. This is NOT to say that the Jets are the best team, or will be the best team next season, or that they have objectively gotten the most out of their salary cap (or that they are the team most capable of changing the future). But it does mean that at the moment, the share of the Jets’ potential cap space lost to players not even on their team anymore is the smallest in the league at 0.24 percent. Their mere $0.049 million in dead money is the lowest in the league, while their $20-plus million in cap space ranks eleventh.

At the other end of the spectrum are the New Orleans Saints. The third-most dead money–over $10 million–and the fourth-least cap space–less than $2 million–make for an 87.57 percent dead zone rating. By awarding millions in signing bonuses and guaranteed money to players they would later cut or trade away (Roman Harper, Jabari Greer, Will Smith), the Saints road through the dead zone will be formidable. If I were Saints general manager Mickey Loomis, I would call up Christopher Walken right now for advice. Or at least Stephen King.

Now, here at last is the complete enumeration of where every team2 stands in the NFL Dead Zone.3 It’s over. You’re finished.

Team Rank Dead Zone Rank Dead Money Rank Cap Space
NYJ 1 0.24% 28 48,958 11 20,044,583
TB 2 1.10% 26 139,119 15 12,541,710
IND 3 2.30% 25 800,733 4 33,972,029
CIN 4 3.99% 24 984,281 9 23,662,960
MIN 5 5.92% 21 1,783,163 7 28,331,238
PHI 6 6.30% 23 1,348,343 10 20,059,815
GB 7 8.59% 18 2,677,484 6 28,498,261
JAC 8 10.18% 10 5,600,511 2 49,428,124
MIA 9 13.21% 11 4,942,895 5 32,481,214
OAK 10 13.25% 5 9,286,520 1 60,817,593
CLE 11 13.67% 8 7,194,153 3 45,452,022
STL 12 17.82% 27 133,805 28 617,229
NYG 13 18.08% 17 2,778,141 14 12,588,186
BAL 14 21.16% 12 4,422,216 13 16,479,137
CHI 15 22.61% 22 1,476,669 22 5,054,728
WAS 16 24.89% 7 7,941,733 8 23,969,653
SF 17 26.00% 20 1,934,691 21 5,506,346
DEN 18 26.26% 14 3,992,329 17 11,212,168
TEN 19 27.98% 19 2,449,725 20 6,306,953
ATL 20 32.25% 9 5,922,507 16 12,442,188
BUF 21 38.89% 2 12,070,113 12 18,967,410
DET 22 50.40% 13 4,069,438 23 4,005,130
ARI 23 51.25% 4 10,087,467 18 9,595,088
KC 24 53.13% 15 3,505,823 25 3,092,443
HOU 25 56.29% 16 3,247,174 26 2,521,766
CAR 26 68.35% 1 17,840,240 19 8,260,965
NE 27 70.08% 6 8,533,721 24 3,644,255
NO 28 87.57% 3 10,450,051 27 1,482,990

  1. Because what good is having cake if you can’t eat it? Seriously… 
  2. Okay, almost; four teams–Dallas, Pittsburgh, San Diego, and Seattle–actually have negative projected 2014 salary cap space at the moment, a situation so bad it goes beyond the parameters of the Dead Zone and into something more of an “After-Death Zone”. Perhaps more on this later. 
  3.  Team dead money and salary cap figures determined by
%d bloggers like this: