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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 Spotrac.com
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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 year the Kansas City Chiefs finished 2-14, tied with Jacksonville for worst in the league. The league office officially declared them the worst when granting them the first pick of the 2013 NFL Draft, using the strength of schedule tiebreaker. Back in Week 2 of this season, plenty of “The Chiefs have already matched their win total” talk was going around. While a great many people expected the Chiefs to play a great deal better, before the season I don’t think many had the Chiefs losing their first game in Week 11, on the road, against Peyton Manning, to fall to 9-1. And like Jim Harbaugh’s takeover of the San Francisco 49ers in 2011, most of the players remained on the team. Despite losing all those games, and despite that the Pro Bowl is a so-so indicator of talent, the 2012 Chiefs still fielded 6 Pro Bowlers, as many or more than 27 of the league’s 32 teams.1 The story was they were an okay team, hindered by terrible coaching and quarterbacking, with bad luck and tragedy thrown in. And like the 2011 49ers, the solution was a competent coach guiding Alex Smith’s check-downs, a solid running back, and a terrific defense to one of the best records in football. So what’s more impressive? The 2012 Chiefs going 2-14, or the 2013 Chiefs starting 9-1?

Before discussing the Chiefs, an anecdote. While looking for numbers relating to this piece, I came across a hilarious, embarrassing, presumably unnoticed error on Bleacher Report. In his article, Andrew Garda indicated the Chiefs’ strength of schedule this season was a .473 based on the record of their opponents last season, who combined to go 121-135. This was good for 5th easiest schedule in the league. The problem is those numbers of wins and losses. 121 + 135 = 256 games the Chiefs’ opponents played last season. As they each played 16 games (the playoffs are excluded), 256 / 16 = 16 teams the Chiefs play each season. Peachy, right? Wrong. Very very wrong. The Chiefs have 13 opponents every season. They play 16 games, but they play the Broncos, Chargers, and Raiders twice each in intra-division match-ups. The Broncos, Chargers, and Raiders were double counted to reach that 256 game total. In 2012 the Broncos finished 13-3, the Chargers 7-9, and the Raiders 4-12. Removing those numbers from the total, you get 97-111.2 You are still left with the Broncos, Chargers, and Raiders records in this figure, just only counted once. The actual strength of schedule the Chiefs face this season is a .466. Only a .006 difference? Well, the same article had the Raiders with the 4th easiest schedule with a .469, only .004 ahead of the Chiefs. Of course, this double counted their division opponents as well. What a mess. I’m not going to go back and calculate each teams strength of schedule properly, but the message is clear: Beware the Internet!

When outlining each of the Chiefs’ seasons, I used football’s Pythagorean numbers a lot. It’s a way of gauging how many games a team “should” have won using their total points scored and allowed over the course of a season. Bill Barnwell of Grantland explains it, and some other good NFL stats, in this article. I also used this Pythagorean metric to determine strength of schedule. That number represents the percentage of games the Chiefs’ opponents “should” have won, against all competition. On to the Chiefs!

The 2012 Kansas City Chiefs

  • Record: 2-14, .125 (tied for worst in league)
  • Pythagorean Wins: 2.6 (under-performed by 0.6, 12th unluckiest in league)
  • Pythagorean Expected Winning Percentage: 16% (worst in league)
  • Pythagorean Strength of Schedule: .513
  • Record in Games Decided by 7 Points or Fewer: 2-3
  • Turnover Margin: -24 (tied for worst in league)
  • Sum PFF Quarterback Grade: -17.7 (Matt Cassel -4.9, Brady Quinn -12.8)
  • Previous Record of Head Coach: 26-41, .388 (Romeo Crennel)
  • Dead Money: $2,462,176

The 2013 Kansas City Chiefs

  • Record: 9-1, .9 (tied for 2nd best in league)
  • Pythagorean Wins: 7.7 (over-performed by 1.3, 4th luckiest in league)
  • Pythagorean Expected Winning Percentage: 77.4% (3rd in league)
  • Pythagorean Strength of Schedule: .421
  • Record in Games Decided by 7 Points or Fewer: 3-0
  • Turnover Margin: +15 (1st in league)
  • Sum PFF Quarterback Grade: -4.5 (Alex Smith -4.5, Chase Daniel 0.0 on 3 snaps)
  • Previous Record of Head Coach: 130-93-1, .583 (Andy Reid)
  • Dead Money: $16,667,470

The Improvement

  • Record: +7 games/ +.775 and counting
  • Pythagorean Wins: +5.1 wins and counting
  • Pythagorean Expected Winning Percentage: +61.4%
  • Pythagorean Strength of Schedule: -.092
  • Record in Games Decided by 7 Points or Fewer: +2
  • Turnover Margin: +39
  • Sum PFF Quarterback Grade: +13.2
  • Previous Record of Head Coach: +78.5/ +.195
  • Dead Money: +$14,205,294

Yeesh. When the only thing that gets worse from one season to the next is the opposition, a team wins a lot more games. Oh, actually the Chiefs are spending $14 million more on players who don’t play for them than they were last year? Well, ignoring that it’s a close call, but I’m going to go ahead and declare the 2013 Chiefs more impressive at being good than the 2012 Chiefs were impressive at being bad. Congratulations to the 2013 Kansas City Chiefs! Proof of what can happen when you significantly upgrade your quarterback3 and coaching situation.

A few other teams have enjoyed similarly large improvements in the past. The 1999 Rams (13-3), 2004 Steelers (15-1), and 2012 Colts (11-5) all improved by nine wins over the previous season. The 1999 Colts (13-3) and the 2008 Dolphins (11-5) improved by 10, tying for the NFL record. With six games remaining, the Chiefs have already improved by seven wins. The six remaining are home for the Chargers, Broncos, and Colts and at the Redskins, Raiders, and Chargers. I think they’ll at least get to 12-4, tying the record. Hell, I’ll say that they are So Impressive this season that they’ll get to 13-3, and set an NFL record by improving 11 wins from the previous season. Of course, a part of me hopes they lose the rest of their games; the 49ers get their 2nd round pick in the daft.4


  1. And all other teams with 6+ Pro Bowlers made the playoffs, let alone got to .500. 
  2. If you still don’t believe me that this is bad, 97 + 111 = 208. 208 / 16 = 13, the actual number of teams the Chiefs play every season. They play 10 games against opponents they only play once, and 6 against 3 opponents they play twice. When determining their strength of schedule, one team gets one record. You can’t count the Broncos twice because they play them twice. Yes, it does make a difference. 
  3. You may notice, that quarterback improvement is more than a full standard deviation. When I looked at QBs last week, the standard deviation of performance was a 10.4. 
  4. That Alex Smith guy? He got us TWO second rounders, one last year, one this year. And he beat the Saints in a home playoff game. And he still has yet to start two straight seasons with the same offensive coordinator. What a guy. 

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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