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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 OvertheCap.com. 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 Spotrac.com 
  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. 
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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. 

Two things have been on my mind since yesterday’s NFL action. One, can any team replicate the Arizona Cardinals’ shocking success in Seattle, where they won 17-10 as nine-point underdogs? Two, how is it possible the New York Jets can still finish without a losing record? How did they get to seven wins heading into their final game? As these things aren’t really related at all, I made them related in this post, another feature of “What’s More Impressive?“.

A quick rundown of some numbers I’ll be using to answer:

  • DVOA stands for Defense-adjusted Value Over Average. Football Outsiders created it to determine relative team strength. The idea is that there are only 16 games a season, a small sample to rank teams on. But there are lots of plays in a season, usually more than a hundred every game, so Football Outsiders looks at how successful a team is on an average play, and then compares that to a league-wide average, using percentages. Feel free to read more.
  • PW% stands for Pythagorean Winning Percentage. This uses the idea that the margin of victory (or defeat) is a significant indicator of team strength, especially over the course of the season. The formula is (Points Scored ^ 2.37) / {(Points Scored ^ 2.37)+(Points Allowed ^ 2.37)}.
  • Point spreads have long been used by Las Vegas casinos. They’re designed to get even action on both sides. Most would bet that the Broncos would beat the Texans, so Vegas increases payouts for betting that the Broncos will win by, say, 10.5 points (the line for yesterday’s game). Casinos frequently adjust spreads to ensure that they see half the action on each side. The more a team is favored, the better their chances are of winning outright. (Duh.)
  • HFA stands for Home Field Advantage. In a recent column on Grantland, Bill Barnwell examined a team’s average margin of victory in its current stadium, and compared that margin to their average margin of victory (or defeat) on the road, going back through the 2002 season. The difference between the two average margins, divided by two, is historically the expected “extra” points for the home team, relative to a neutral site.

Let’s start with the Cardinals. They’ve been pretty good this year, sure. They were 9-5 heading into yesterday’s game, still alive for an NFC Wildcard berth. They have been cursed by their company; the league-leading 12-3 Seahawks, as well as the 10-4 49ers, are also in the NFC West division. They had lost to them each once already, heading into Week 16. They’d beaten the Lions (that meant something for most of the season), and the Panthers (who clinched a playoff spot yesterday), and the Colts (who clinched last week), but all at home. The Cardinals were 6-1 at home, and 3-4 on the road, and that home loss came to… the Seahawks. Second-year Seahawks’ quarterback Russell Wilson was a perfect 14-0 at home heading into yesterday. The Seahawks have looked dominant all year, and, well, unbeatable at home.

Cardinals vs. Seahawks

  • Record: 10-5 (66.57%, tied for 7th); Seahawks’ Record: 12-3 (80%, tied for 1st)
  • DVOA (through Week 15): 10.9% (10th); Seahawks’ DVOA: 40.4% (1st)
  • PW%: 60.29% (9th); Seahaw’s PW%: 79.17%% (1st)
  • Record of nine-point underdogs (since 2003): 28-88 (24.1%)
  • Seattle’s HFA (since 2002): 5.2 points/game (1st)
  • Interceptions Thrown By Carson Palmer: 4 (4!!!)

1 2 Here’s the thing: I was considering taking the points in this game, but ultimately decided the Seahawks were just too good. Worst case scenario, Arizona would hang around, but Seattle would eventually cover (see: Broncos-Texans). But if you had guaranteed to me that Carson Palmer would throw four interceptions, I would have put my life savings on Seattle (or, at least some real money). I can’t believe they won with him throwing four picks. I know they did it with a really, really good defensive performance, aided by an injured Seahawk offensive line, but, like, how did they do that?

As for the Jets, they’ve been, uhh, bad. They now have seven wins (!), five of which are against teams with 5-10 records or worse.3 They lost by 25 to the Titans. (Yes, the Titans.) They lost by 40 to the Bengals. (Yes, 40.) They beat the Bills by seven… and later lost to them by 23. But they’re now 6-2 at home, 1-6 on the road, and a remarkable 5-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less. That includes (home) victories over the Patriots by three points4 and the Saints by six points. The thing is that “games decided by a touchdown or less” suggest more luck rather than skill. We love fitting narratives to teams, players, and coaches about how they always pull it out, but a team’s record in close games converges to .500 the more close games they play. The Jets flipped a coin six times and got five victories back. What else suggests the Jets have been lucky?

Jet’s Victories (TB, BUF, @ATL, NE, NO, OAK, CLE)

  • Record: 7-8 (46.67%, tied for 18th); Record of Defeated Opponents: 41-64 (39.05%)
  • DVOA (through Week 15): -13.8% (26th); Average DVOA of Defeated Opponents: -5.27% (Average DVOA Rank of Defeated Opponents: 19.4)
  • PW%: 30.79% (30th); Average PW% of Defeated Opponents: 44.88% (Average PW% Rank of Defeated Opponents: 19.9)
  • Record of teams with Jets’ spread (since 2003) in Jets’ victories: 485-687-1 (41.4%)

That last number is the sum record of teams in match-ups similar to the Jets in their victories, in Vegas’ eyes. The Jets were four-point underdogs in their Week 1 victory over Tampa Bay, and historically four point underdogs have gone 45-91 (straight up, not against the spread). In their Week 3 win over Buffalo, the Jets were 2.5-point favorites, who’ve gone 66-63, etc. Most of the teams the Jets have beaten were bad. But they’re still surprising wins, given that the Jets have seemed even worse (except for, you know, the whole “winning” technicality). What’s more impressive?

Cardinals’ One Win @SEA vs. Jets’ Seven Wins (TB, BUF, @ATL, NE, NO, OAK, CLE)

  • Winning % Gap Between Competition: Cardinals -14.3%; Jets +7.62%
  • DVOA Gap: Cardinals -29.5% (9 ranks); Jets -8.53% (6.6 ranks)
  • PW% Gap: Cardinals -18.88% (8 ranks); Jets -14.09% (10.1 ranks)
  • Historical Winning % Given the Same Spread: Cardinals 24.1%; Jets 41.4%

I feel compelled to declare the New York Jets’ 7-8 record at this point (much) more impressive than the Cardinals’ road victory over the Seahawks, primarily for two reasons. One, ironically this gives the Cardinals more credit. I think they’re a good team, and while I don’t think they’d win in Seattle every time (more like two or three out of ten), this wasn’t a fluke. Two, the Jets have pulled off a bunch of unlikely wins. While the probability of a Jets win in any single one of those games maybe wasn’t as low as the Cardinals’ in Seattle, winning all of them is remarkable.5 Using Vegas spreads, for instance, there was a 24.1% chance the Cardinals won, and on average a 41.4% chance the Jets did. But the Jets won seven times. With an expected winning percentage of 41.4%, the odds you go 7-0 are 0.2%!6 And I think that’s damn impressive.


  1.  http://www.footballoutsiders.com/dvoa-ratings/2013/week-15-dvoa-ratings 
  2.  http://www.teamrankings.com/nfl/odds-history/results/ 
  3. Actually, the Falcons are 5-9. If they beat the 49ers tonight, they would be 6-9. But still. 
  4. Perhaps you recall, this was a bizarre game where the Jets game-winning field goal in overtime actually missed, but then there was some phantom penalty no one had ever heard of on the Patriots, and the Jets got to kick again, from much closer. 
  5. The games are statistically independent, that is, the Jets are a football team with strengths and weaknesses in their match-ups with opponents, and that the outcome of a particular game does not affect the probability (strengths and weaknesses) of an outcome of any other game. 
  6. (414/1000)^7 

Last night the 49ers beat the Washington D.C. Football Team1 27-6, and this morning Thanksgiving is in two days. Things are looking up! With that I am back with my recurring feature, Economics & Sports Management Presents: The Search for the Best (& Worst!) Contract in Football. The last couple weeks I’ve looked at quarterbacks, wide receivers, running backs, and tight ends. Today, we’ve got the last of the “skill position”2 players, which some teams don’t even bother with anymore. Today, I look at fullbacks.

With performance data through ten weeks on quarterbacks, wide receivers, and running backs, and eleven weeks for tight ends, the best contracts so far have been quarterback Russell Wilson, SEA (contract quality 2.35); wide receiver Doug Baldwin, SEA (2.26); running back Giovani Bernard, CIN (2.2); and tight end Jimmy Graham, NO (3.17). The worst have been quarterback Joe Flacco, BAL (-3.13); wide receiver Mike Wallace, MIA (-3.83); running back Darren McFadden, OAK (-3.78); and tight end Jared Cook, STL (-3.02). To review, contract quality measures the number of standard deviations a player’s on-field performance (as determined by Pro Football Focus) is above/below the average for his position, minus the number of standard deviations a player’s average annual salary (as reported by Spotrac.com) is above/below the average for his position. CQ = #SDs +/- in performance – #SDs +/- in salary. Of the 32 teams in the NFL, 23 have had the same fullback in on at least 25% of their offensive snaps through Week 12.3 Here are the Top 5 performing fullbacks (PFF grade in parentheses):

  • 1. Anthony Sherman, KC (14.3)
  • 2. Collin Mooney, TEN (9)
  • 3. Mike Tolbert, CAR (8.9)
  • 4. John Kuhn, GB (7.4)
  • 5. John Conner, NYG (6.3)

Alright! Fullbacks! … Yeah. Tragically the 49ers’ Bruce Miller just missed the list, at 6th with a 5.9 grade. Mike Tolbert and John Kuhn probably get the most attention, but it’s Anthony Sherman, in his first season with the Chiefs4, traded after his first two years with the Cardinals, comfortably leading the way. And that’s on a fair foundation, as by now all teams have played exactly 11 games. (There are no more bye weeks.) Here are the Bottom 5 performing fullbacks:

  • 20. Derrick Coleman, SEA (-3.1)
  • 21. James Develin, NE (-3.2)
  • 22. Erik Lorig, TB (-5.7)
  • 23. Vonta Leach, BAL (-7.5)
  • 24. Tommy Bohanon, NYJ (-9.9)

Vonta Leach I’ve definitely heard of, and I’m not sure why he’s playing so badly this season. (Last year, he was the best fullback in the league.) The average grade among fullbacks is a 0.89, and the standard deviation is 5.66. As with other positions, there is enormous variation in the quality of play among different players. How about how much they make? Here are the Top 5 paid fullbacks (average annual salary, in millions of dollars, in parentheses):

  • 1. Marcel Reece, OAK ($3.113 million)
  • 2. Mike Tolbert, CAR ($2.725m)
  • 3. John Kuhn, GB ($2.533m)
  • 4. Jerome Felton, MIN ($2.5m)
  • 5. Vonta Leach, BAL ($1.875m)

This is the fifth position I’ve looked at, and it never fails: there is always someone on the bottom of the performance list who makes the top of the salary list. Way to go, Vonta Leach! You have successfully pulled a Flacco. (I know he was just the Super Bowl MVP but actually it’s not a good thing.) And here are the Bottom 5 paid fullbacks:

  • 20. Erik Lorig, TB ($0.456m)
  • 21. Jamize Olawale, OAK & Will Ta’ufo’ou, JAC ($0.435m)
  • 23. Collin Mooney, TEN & Jed Collins, NO ($0.43m)

Olawale and Ta’uf’ou!5 Alright! The average salary among fullbacks is $0.992 million. The standard deviation is $0.86 million. There is much less variation among how much fullbacks are paid relative to how well they play. Generally this has been the case with other positions as well. So, which general managers have gotten the most out of their investment? The ESPM Award for Best Fullback Contract (so far) goes to… John Dorsey, General Manager of the Kansas City Chiefs! Chiefs’ fullback Anthony Sherman has a contract value of 2.87, comfortably in the lead through Week 12. Here are the Top 5 fullback contracts (contract quality in parentheses):

  • 1. Anthony Sherman, KC (2.87)
  • 2. Collin Mooney, TEN (2.09)
  • 3. Bruce Miller, SF (1.43)
  • 4. John Conner, NYG (1.38)
  • 5. Jamize Olawale, OAK (0.91)

And it’s “All the Way” Olawale by a nose! Also whooo Bruce Miller! With Bruce, four of the top six performers are tops in contract quality as well. This has not been the case in other positions; a number of receivers and backs, while being among the best in the league, were still overpaid. I suspect this is because fullbacks aren’t usually stars the way other offensive players are. A franchise may feel compelled to keep a star (or farmer star) quarterback or wide receiver for whatever cost, due to their relationship with the team or the fans, their popularity, etc. Yet those aspects fall outside this analysis. And in any case, those qualities may not be a significant factor (especially) among fullbacks. Here are the Worst 5 fullback contracts, based on play through Week 12:

  • 20. John Kuhn, GB (-0.64)
  • 21. Tommy Bohanon, NYJ (-1.4)
  • 22. Jerome Felton, MIN (-1.68)
  • 23. Marcel Reece, OAK (-2.34)
  • 24. Vonta Leach, BAL (-2.51)

I know Ravens General Manager Ozzie Newsome got them a championship, but future prospects may not be so bright, being firmly in the running for two of the worst contracts among the five positions I’ve examined. Although I guess Leach isn’t quite as spectacular as Joe Flacco himself, who was the best paid and the worst quarterback. Four of the five most expensive fullbacks find themselves on the list. Again and again, we see that high-priced free agent signings usually aren’t worth it.

That’s it for fullbacks. Later this week I’ll tackle the offensive line positions and try not to get flagged for defensive holding. Stay tuned.


  1. Yeah, it’s pretty obvious I’m waffling on this whole Redskins name issue. Hopefully I’ll have reached a decision soon. I definitely want to go back and listen to what Mike Tirico said on Monday Night Football, also maybe actually see what Native Americans themselves have to say on the subject. 
  2. I hate that term. Blocking J.J. Watt, and even most other defensive players, takes skill. Weighing 300 pounds helps, but there’s A Lot more to it. 
  3. OAK has actually had two different fullbacks each play 25% or more of their snaps. The teams without a qualifying fullback are ARI, ATL, CIN, DAL, DEN, DET, MIA, PHI, and SD. 
  4. Apparently this is the more racist name? Like I said I need to look into it more thoroughly. 
  5. Patenting the nicknames Jamize “All the Way” Olawale and Will “Tougher Than You” Ta’ufo’ou. 

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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