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In the 1980s, Dallas Cowboys head coach Jimmy Johnson sought to determine a baseline expected value for every pick in the NFL draft. This was a very good idea. Rather than just winging it each year when considering draft pick trades, expected values would provide the Cowboys front office a framework to build upon. Should Dallas trade the 20th and 80th overall picks for the 5th overall pick? How about the 50th pick for a first round pick next season? These questions require a sound process for good answers. Draft picks are precious commodities; aside from players, they are the currency teams use in deals with each other.

Coach Johnson’s system was not perfect. His extensive knowledge of football through years working in the NFL made the chart a good starting place.1 It contributed to the famous Herschel Walker trade (which has its own Wikipedia page), and helped set up the Cowboys three Super Bowls championships in the 1990s. But Coach Johnson’s preliminary valuation lacked a scientific process. Entire decades have gone by. There are oodles of data on players taken in the NFL draft, the length of their careers, salaries earned, touchdowns scored, tackles, expected points and win probability added, etc.

In the fall of 2011, Kevin Meers, of the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective, revalued NFL draft picks using the Career Approximate Value statistic compiled by Pro Football Reference. (Do read Mr. Meers’ actual article, which details the process.) This system is also presumably not 100 percent perfect, but it is a vast improvement, examining the career output of every single pick from 1980-2005.

How do the two systems compare? These are their respective charts:

Jimmy Johnson’s Draft Pick Value Chart, 1980s

Jimmy Johnson Draft Pick Value Chart

Kevin Meer’s Draft Pick Value Chart, 2011

Kevin Meers Draft Pick Value Chart

Notice first that Johnson’s system is more extreme, valuing the first overall pick at 3,000 and the 224th pick at three.2 Meers’ system values the first pick at 494.6 and the 224th at 39.8. Theoretically, the first pick is probably not worth 1,000 (!) last picks. Even if one of those picks is Tom Brady only one in one hundred times, 1,000 last picks would still yield ten Tom Bradys (Tom Bradies?) while just one first overall pick could yield a maximum of one Tom Brady. Of course, that sentence illustrates that theory is sometimes ridiculous! What would a team do with 1,000 late round draft picks, even over a period of several years? Only 53 people can make the team. Nonetheless, Johnson’s system appears to overvalue the first overall pick by at least a factor of ten, if not a hundred.

The key problem with Johnson’s chart is that it overvalues earlier picks and undervalues later picks. Earlier picks are still better! (Duh.) Meers’ chart, a product of data, still indicates that with each additional pick, the likely career output of the drafted player declines. And Meers’ chart still finds that the rate of decline is decreasing: the drop in expected value from the first to the second pick is many, many times larger than the drop from the 223rd pick to the 224th. The theory and logic behind each chart is the same. Meers’ simply uses actual data, which reflects a different, more accurate picture.

As I wrote yesterday, the San Francsico 49ers are in excellent shape for the upcoming 2014 NFL Draft. Meers’ chart is a big reason why. The 49ers will likely have SIX picks among the first 100 in the draft this spring. That the 49ers first pick comes 30th overall is not a reason to get down in the slightest. The antiquated valuation undervalues such picks: the 100th pick is worth only one-three-hundredth of the first pick in Johnson’s system. But, actual data indicates the 100th pick is more likely worth one-fifth of the first. The 49ers should have six picks with fairly high expected values. And with an already talented roster, they may trade to move up and get a player even more likely to succeed, without giving up all their picks in later rounds.

Remember, draft picks are free money in the NFL; teams get them every year just by being in the league. With the most picks in this draft, the 49ers are rich. Big spending is not just a thing for free agency.


  1. Similar to Dick Vermeil’s Two Point Conversion Chart, which I wrote about here. 
  2. The first overall pick is worth 3,000…what? Dollars? No, just units. The charts have been scaled to simple numerical values, as their purpose is for relatively ranking the picks within them. 
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Did you say Super Bowl odds? Like how did we get to Super Bowl odds all of a sudden? Well, we’re heading into Week 17, and 20 of the NFL’s 32 teams will see their seasons end this Sunday. (tear, sniffle) At the moment though, 18 may still cling to their dreams of winning the Super Bowl this February. As they were months ago, Seattle and Denver seem to be the heavyweights, but then, so did the 2007 Patriots six years ago. Seattle and Denver are in fact the favorites in Las Vegas, at +220 (2.2 to 1) and +300 (3 to 1)1 respectively to come out on top in the Big Apple,2 while the Steelers, who need to win and three other teams to lose just to get into the playoffs,3 are currently +20,000 to win it all on Sportsbook.com. Whoo! Football Outsiders has also posted their updated playoff odds report, which factors DVOA (weighted to favor more recent games) and likely home field advantage into a simulation run 50,000 times. They posit that Seattle has a 24.3% chance of winning the Super Bowl, and Denver a 20.3% chance. (Pittsburgh 0.1%.) What’s it all mean?

When gambling, I like to take the same approach I take to poker: I get a little drunk and after losing a while look for ways to steal my opponents’ chips, cheat, or childishly point out their other shortcomings which is to say for every hand (or money line, or spread), I examine the payout and determine how often I’ll have to win for a bet to be profitable in the long run. By doing this correctly, I’m not really gambling anymore, I’m just making money/playing a sound strategy/etc, because in the long run, there is no risk. If my odds of winning are better than the odds of how much money I have to risk relative to the reward, this is a good bet in the long run! (Whoo!)

There are differences between poker and, say, betting on a Super Bowl champion before Week 17. This season is only played once, these games are only played once. It’s not an infinite game, it’s more like a one-shot game. But, if you had complete faith that Football Outsiders’ playoff probabilities were 100% correct,4 and perfectly reflected the true odds, what would that mean?

So you want to bet on the Broncos. They’re +300, or 3 to 1. To break even, this bet needs to come through 25% of the time.5 But Football Outsiders has them winning Super Bowl [Inserting Roman Numeral…] XLVIII only 20.3% of the time. The expected payout of this gamble is negative (-4.7%, in fact). Bummer. Here’s that same breakdown for all 18 teams still currently in the race, sorted high to low by expected payout (aka best bets):

Team Odds To One Chance to Break Even FO Chance Expected Payout Rank
NE 10 9.09% 14.20% 5.11% 1
CAR 8.5 10.53% 15.20% 4.67% 2
PHI 30 3.23% 4.00% 0.77% 3
CIN 18 5.26% 5.90% 0.64% 4
NO 25 3.85% 4.00% 0.15% 5
KC 35 2.78% 2.90% 0.12% 6
PIT 200 0.50% 0.10% -0.40% 7
ARI 90 1.10% 0.60% -0.50% 8
DAL 100 0.99% 0.20% -0.79% 9
MIA 90 1.10% 0.30% -0.80% 10
BAL 100 0.99% 0.10% -0.89% 11
SD 100 0.99% 0.10% -0.89% 12
CHI 60 1.64% 0.70% -0.94% 13
IND 35 2.78% 1.10% -1.68% 14
GB 40 2.44% 0.20% -2.24% 15
DEN 3 25.00% 20.30% -4.70% 16
SF 7.5 11.76% 5.70% -6.06% 17
SEA 2.2 31.25% 24.30% -6.95% 18

Even the briefest of glances reveals that Football Outsiders’ odds are not perfect; they are not adjusted for injures. The Patriots’ projection is weighted towards the recent past, but still includes data from when Rob Gronkowski (and Wilfork, and Vollmer, and the 600 other players the Patriots had go on IR this season) were on the field. It’s possible their true odds are still better than Vegas thinks. I probably wouldn’t bet on them, even at 10 to 1. Green Bay, meanwhile, looks like a terrible bet, but almost half of the data is without Aaron Rodgers. Though his collarbone’s status is still unknown, I would at least consider throwing a little money on Green Bay right now. Or maybe I would, if Clay Matthews weren’t injured as well. But then, there’s the Carolina Panthers. Mm-mm! That’s a leap I find most intriguing. I might be similarly intrigued by Cincinnati if Geno Atkins hadn’t gone out for the year, and I also am of the purely speculative opinion that New Orleans is too low, although Brees would have to bail out his offensive line for that to happen. Back to the Panthers, though.

The last reason I like the Panthers on these odds is because, despite beating the 49ers and their last-second, home win against the Saints last week, I just kinda feel they still may be a little underappreciated. There’s been a lot of coverage on the Panthers’ inability to close out games, how Cam Newton often choked his first two years, etc. Surely people will doubt his ability to “win the big one”. We love to apply narratives to outcomes, to explain things (in fact, I’m doing that right now to supplant my justification of Carolina), but many times it may not depend on Newton’s mental psyche so much as, well, sh*t happens.

Consider elite quarterbacks John Elway and Tom Brady. Elway lost his first four (!) Super Bowls, before winning consecutive championships his final two seasons. Brady won hist first three (starting when he was 24!), before losing two to the Giants. Elway constantly heard about how he couldn’t win “the big one”, but no one said that about Brady after his losses, what with his three rings and all. It’s nonsense. Football, more so than any other professional sport, is a team effort.6 The quarterback is the most important position, not the only important position. There are 11 guys on offense, 11 guys on defense, and still others on sub-packages and special teams. Ironically, in close contests when a quarterback “chokes”, the quality of his teammates matters even more, as the margin between defeat and victory shrinks.

The numbers suggest the Panthers’ odds in Vegas are too long. The above is why I think that might be. Newton’s Panthers have never made the playoffs, and have known only losing seasons. Newton just isn’t a winner yet. Well, no quarterback is, until he wins. Forget the narratives. Elway was a great quarterback for many seasons; that he won championships in his final two might have a little to due with additional experience and wisdom, but more to do with having Terrell Davis, or more favorable match-ups, the technological advancements in scouting your opponents, etc. If a quarterback is good enough to get to the Super Bowl, he’s good enough to win it. Many factors beyond a quarterback’s control come into play, and that we may overlook them does not make such factors any less significant. And hey, sometimes… sh*t happens.


  1. For +###(##) American odds, just divide by 100 to get the fractional odds. The + means how much you win (profit, net, etc) on a $100 bet. 
  2. Well, New Jersey, technically… lame. 
  3. The Steelers need to beat Cleveland at home, have New York (Jets, duh) win in Miami, have Baltimore lose in Cincinnati, and have Kansas City win in San Diego. 
  4. I do not endorse such faith. But they are “probably” pretty close. (Heyyy-eyyyy!) 
  5. 1/(1+3); Every time you win you triple your money, so you can lose three times for every time you win (betting the same amount), so that’s 0.25 = 25%. 
  6. I haven’t looked at this scientifically, but you’ve got around 25-30 guys who see significant time on a football team (47-man active roster). Hockey’s at 19-20 (20), baseball 18-22 or so (but pitchers make it weird, anyway 25 guys on the active roster), soccer 11-13 (18), and basketball’s down about 7-10 (13). 

I love sports, and of course I love sports announcing. Though a San Francisco Giants fan1, I’ll definitely watch any west coast Dodger game just to enjoy the magnificence that is Vin Scully.2 And where would I be in the Olympics without Bob Costas guiding me along in the studio? I’ve never had quite as much love for any football game commentators, with the possible exception of Pat Summerall and John Madden. Generally, I feel they do a good job– it actually isn’t easy to sit down for three hours and talk during a football game while being appealing to millions of viewers– but they say many silly things. Or things that are just wrong. I find this most aggravating when it’s the “expert” color commentator, guaranteed to be a former player or coach, whom I feel people usually, often wrongly, trust. While they may offer some fascinating insights, they may also offer some terrible ones. It is rare that I watch a game and at no point think to myself “That’s wrong,” or “That doesn’t make any sense.” Yesterday as usual I started watching football at noon, and unusually finished at 11:30 pm thanks to an overtime thriller in Foxborough. While not a comprehensive list, I tried to make a note when a commentator said something silly.3 Here we go.

With the Ravens trailing the Jets 3-0 and 4:10 remaining in the first quarter, Ray Rice gained two yards on a 2nd&1 from the Jet 28.

CBS play-by-play man Greg Gumbel remarked:

Ray has a little bit of a chip on his shoulder.

And color commentator Dan Dierdorf, 13 year NFL veteran, five-time First-team All-Pro selection, replied in his infinite wisdom:

Well he did, an- and because the criticism was all on him, when in reality I saw a whole bunch of tape on these guys where there were no holes whatsoever. Ray Rice was being met at the line of scrimmage.

At the moment Ray Rice has the worst Pro Football Focus grade4 among all running backs in the NFL, and it’s not close. With a -0.2 in the passing game, a -11.6 in the run game, a -3.1 as a blocker, and a -0.5 in penalties, he totals a -15.4. The next worst running back, C.J. Spiller, checks in with a -11.2, and third worst, Darren McFadden, registers a -7.9. PFF’s “Elusive Rating” is a statistic designed to gauge how well a running back evades tacklers, controlling for the quality of his blocking. Ray Rice is dead last among the 50 running backs with enough snaps to qualify with a 7.0; tops is Marshawn Lynch with a 72.7. (The rating roughly scales from 1-100.) So I know Dan Dierdof “saw a whole bunch of tape” and I believe him. But a whole bunch of guys at PFF saw all of the tape, and firmly conclude that Ray Rice has played abysmally this season. So if you caught a few Ravens’ games and heard Dierdof’s remarks and thought “Oh, it isn’t on Ray Rice, it’s the people around him,” rest assured: it is on Ray Rice. He has truly earned the second worst running back contract in football. Which is to say, he has not earned his contract at all.

With the Steelers leading the Browns 10-3 on a 2nd&10 from the Brown 14 with 20 seconds remaining in the second quarter, Ben Roethlisberger’s pass for Antonio Brown in the end zone was broken up by Joe Haden.

Solomon Wilcots, six year NFL veteran and color commentator of CBS, broke down what happened:

This is a great play by Joe Haden. Watch him knife in underneath. He understands that down around the goal line, look at that play! You have to get between the quarterback and the receiver. He allowed himself to slip underneath, he had great position.

It’s great, except CBS is showing the replay as Wilcots is saying this, the replay in which Haden very clearly grabs Brown’s jersey with his left hand and holds on for a good moment. It wasn’t blatant pass interference, but it was pass interference. It’s one thing for the officials to miss it live; it’s another for Haden to miss it during the slow motion replay, as he remarks what a terrific play it was by Haden. And even though this is the type of penalty that may not be called most of the time, Wilcots doesn’t acknowledge that Haden grabbed Brown at all. Fans at home, Joe Haden is a very good corner in the National Football League, but that doesn’t always mean “slipping underneath”. Sometimes it may mean “gets overly physical without getting whistled”.

Down 10-3 at home after an incomplete Case Keenum pass on 3rd&goal from the Jaguar two yard line with 8:34 remaining in the third quarter, the Texans took their offense off the field to kick a field goal.

Said CBS color commentator Steve Tasker, 13 year veteran, seven-time All-Pro:

And that’s going to force the field goal, the fans aren’t happy about it but it’s the right move.

Of course if you’ve ever heard of Brian Burke, or know the difference between actual good strategy in the NFL and the still-prevailing conventional wisdom, you know that’s the wrong call. A quick rundown of the numbers: on average going for it in that situation produces a win probability of 0.38; kicking a field goal produces a win probability of 0.31.  From up in the press box Kubiak’s decision cost his team a 7% chance of winning the game.5 For going for it to be worthwhile in this situation, the Texans need to convert only 26% of the time. It’s two yards, and lest we forget, THEY’RE PLAYING THE JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS! For Tasker to dismiss this as “the right move” is just… how can he… it’s so obviously… RAGE!!! Furious George, L.O.L. I didn’t watch the end of the game, which the Texans went on to lose 13-6, but I bet at no point during the Texans’ final drive6 did Tasker point out “HEY, the would only need a field goal right now if they had gone for it on fourth down earlier and scored a touchdown, as was quite likely given that they only had two yards to go. And as it is, they STILL need to score a touchdown and are in a situation where they have to go for it on fourth down anyway, even if it’s way more than two yards to go. Jeez, I guess I was just saying what I always say and talking out of my @#$ earlier, huh Bill?” Of course if he did point that out, then, well, tip of the hat to him. But I kinda doubt it.

On a 1st&10 with 8:22 remaining in the 3rd quarter, the Packers, down 20-7 to the Vikings, replaced Scott Tolzien with Matt Flynn, who promptly completed his first pass for nine yards.

Fox play-by-play announcer Kevin Burkhardt stated:

A completion. And it’s got this crowd back in the game.

Color commentator and 15 year NFL veteran, four-time All-Pro safety John Lynch chimed in:

He goes to Matt Flynn and they get a little momentum right away.

Whether or not you “believe” in momentum in sports or not, you probably know there is no factual evidence for it if you feel strongly about it one way or the other. Bill Barnwell, of the great Grantland.com, has sort of made “Nomentum” a thing this year, bringing facts a bit further into the mainstream. I’ll only say this: what do you mean when you refer to “momentum”, exactly? Lynch said they got “a little momentum right away.” Scott Tolzien, just benched, had pulled off two nifty moves on a six yard touchdown run earlier in the game. Did that play accrue momentum? And if so, it must have disappeared, since Tolzien was benched? So was the momentum from this pass from Flynn more noteworthy than any momentum Tolzien had gained, an indication that the Packers’ fortunes would be reversed and cause for the fans to rejoice? I, uhh, kinda doubt it. On the next play James Starks ran for 34 yards, setting up 1st&10 from the Viking 37. The momentum must really be going now, right!?! Then Starks ran for two yards, Flynn threw an incomplete pass, and Flynn threw a pass for a loss of five yards, leaving the Packers with 4th&13 from the Vikings 40. They punted. Tragically neither Burkhardt nor Lynch explained where that momentum had gone, and what impact, if any, it had on the game.

Up 24-3 facing 3rd&1 from the Colt 45 with 4:13 remaining in the 2nd quarter, the Cardinals’ Andre Ellington was stuffed for a loss of two.

After the play, CBS color commentator Dan Fouts, 15 year NFL veteran and two-time First-team All-Pro, praised the Colts for the stop, saying:

It looked like the Colts- er, the Cardinals had momentum.

What a curious statement! It LOOKED like the Cardinals had the momentum. But in fact, the Colts now have the momentum? The Cardinals had the momentum because they were up by three touchdowns at home and driving in their opponent’s territory? But then, in one fell swoop, the Colts got a stop and now they have the momentum? Or some momentum? The Cardinals have less momentum now? WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN, DAN??? You know, I think I know. I was never the quarterback for any football team, let alone the San Diego Chargers, and I’m not in the NFL Hall of Fame, but hear me out: “momentum” is when a team improves their situation, relative to the previous situation. And it gets thrown around for a variety of situation types: momentum accrued from a winning streak (sometimes dating back to last season!), unanswered points, a string of good plays, or just one good play, or penalty, whatever. So far as I’m aware, there is A LOT of anecdotal, personal claims that such “momentum” helps a team or player perform, but actually zero (scientific) evidence that it does. Certainly, that’s the case in other sports7, and given the fickle nature of momentum’s tangible effects on performance, I sure don’t see a case otherwise.

On 4th&4 down 27-3 with 11:14 left in the third quarter, Andrew Luck’s pass from the Cardinal 36 was batted into the air and nearly intercepted on the Cardinal 20 before hitting the turf.

Fouts pointed out:

Well they’re better off not catching that ball.

And good for him, it’s a good point and he is totally right. On 4th down, unless there’s a good run back opportunity, the defense improves field position by batting the ball down instead of catching it. And then play-by-play man Ian Eagle chimed in:

It doesn’t matter other than the yardage. So you can pad your stats as a defensive player, but you actually are going to benefit if it’s incomplete.

Eagle sort hits on the right point (after Fouts brought it up), but uhhh… “It doesn’t matter other than the yardage”? Yeah, that’s what the teams are doing in football, trying to gain yards and get to the end zone. The yardage matters! According to Advanced NFL Stats‘ Win Probability Calculator, in this situation the yardage matters to the tune of a single percent chance of winning. Starting on their 36, the Cardinals had a win probability of 95%; starting on their 20, it would have been 94%. That’s not a lot, but disregarding yards in a football game, especially 16 of them (nearly a fifth of the field), is pretty silly.

With 4:52 left in the fourth quarter of Sunday Night Football, down 31-24, Wes Welker dropped a pass over the middle on a 1st&10 from the Patriot 36.

Cris Collinsworth, eight year NFL veteran and three-time Second-team All-Pro selection, wondered of Welker’s drop:

How many times do you see that?

Fortunately, NBC play-by-play caller Al Michaels jumped right in:

Once too many for some New England fans.

Fans who don’t obsess over the numbers but just enjoy watching football (God bless ’em) may well think Wes Welker has terrific hands, because nearly without fail, every time he drops a pass, whoever is announcing the game remarks “Oh, a rare drop from Wes Welker!” Except Welker’s drops are hardly rare, so over the course of a season it is a pretty regular occurrence to hear a rare Wes Welker drop proclaimed on television. Going as far back as PFF data goes, through the 2008 season, Welker’s drop rate is the following (league-wide rank among players with 25% of their team’s targets or more in parentheses):

  • 2008: 6.03% (19th of 81)
  • 2009: 4.65% (24th of 101)
  • 2010: 13.13% (70th of 89)
  • 2011: 9.63% (48th of 95)
  • 2012: 11.28% (58th of 82)
  • 2013: 9.72% (54th of 97)

Welker certainly doesn’t have the worst hands in the NFL, but he’s hardly elite. Larry Fitzgerald, for example, finished 13th or higher all of those seasons except 2012, when he finished 24th. To answer Collinsworth’s question, counting 2013, the last four seasons Welker has dropped 9% or more of his catchable passes. Counting last night, so far in 2013 he’s dropped seven passes; only seven players have dropped more than him this season. Kudos to Michaels for hinting to Collinsworth that, in fact, a Wes Welker drop is not all that unusual.

Lastly, I just thought I’d remind everyone who the Top 10 quarterbacks have been in fantasy football this week, pending MNF (standard points in parentheses):

  • 1. Philip Rivers (27.78)
  • 2. Tom Brady (24.76)
  • 3. Ryan Fitzpatrick (24.4)
  • 4. Alex Smith (21.46)
  • 5. Carson Palmer (20.56)
  • 6. Cam Newton (20.06)
  • 7. Drew Brees (18.52)
  • 8. Josh McCown (18.48)
  • 9. Ryan Tannehill (18)
  • 10. Matthew Stafford (16.48)

Ryan Fitzpatrick, Alex Smith, Carson Palmer, and Josh McCown all cracked the Top 10. What is the world coming to? Although to be fair, yesterday at mid-afternoon Mike Glennon, Christian Ponder, Kellen Clemens, and bad quarterback superstar Brandon Weeden were also in the running. Mike Glennon actually scored more points (16.18) than Peyton Manning (13). I give up. Go 49ers!


  1. And also a Seattle Mariners fan. That Pacific Northwest life, being close to the homeland in Alaska. Incidentally my mother’s two favorite baseball teams are the Washington Nationals, where she grew up, and the Mariners, closest to where she lives now. They are the only two active Major League Baseball franchises that do not have a single appearance in the World Series. (Yes, even before when the Nationals were the Montreal Expos.) It’s a hard life. 
  2. Also, Vin Scully had the call for “The Catch”, so it’s even more okay. 
  3. How did I catch calls from so many different games? DirecTV’s NFL Red Zone Channel. God bless DirecTV’s NFL Red Zone Channel. 
  4. Among running backs who’ve played 25% or more of their team’s snaps. PFF has multiple analysts grade every player on every snap of every game. Click here to learn more about PFF’s grading system. 
  5. Poor Kubiak. His recent health scare is keeping him from the sidelines, and after losing to the Jaguars, at home, you’ve got to wonder if he’ll be coaching the Texans next season, or even at the end of this one. I only take issue with his chosen strategy in this case; I’m sure he’s a wonderful human being and I wish him and his family the best. 
  6. Which ended on a Case Keenum interception from the Jaguar 41. If the Texans had only needed a field goal to tie then, they might have squeaked it out. 
  7. See all scientific findings regarding “the hot hand”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hot-hand_fallacy 

Debating the best quarterbacks is a ceaseless venture for nearly all followers of football. Excluding special teams positions, quarterback is the only responsibility shouldered by one player (ideally), and one player alone. They’re the most talked about, most paid, and have won most of the NFL MVP Awards1, honestly with pretty good reason. When Aaron Rodgers was ruled out for the Green Bay Packers game against the Philadelphia Eagles last week, the betting line in Las Vegas swung 10 points in Philly’s favor. For comparison, when elite Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson was ruled out for a game against those same Packers earlier this year, the line swung 2.5 points to Green Bay. Quarterbacks are, and I don’t know how to put this, but kind of a big deal.

So who’s the best? I dunno. And really, neither does anyone else, not for sure. Even if it was clear what “best” meant (in the 4th quarter? this week? on the road? this season? his career? his potential?), there is no clear winner. For this season, most would say Peyton Manning (he is on pace to set single season records for passing touchdowns and yards), which is fine. The good people at Pro Football Focus, who grade every NFL player on every play throughout the season, concur. Here are PFF’s Top 5 quarterbacks so far this season, among those who have played 25% or more of their team’s snaps (grade in parentheses):

  • 1. Peyton Manning, DEN (24.2)
  • 2. Philip Rivers, SD (19.1)
  • 3. Matthew Stafford, DET (18.1)
  • 4. Aaron Rodgers, GB (18)
  • 5. Drew Brees, NO (15.8)

And here are PFF’s Bottom 5:

  • 34. Chad Henne, JAC (-12.4)
  • 35. Joe Flacco, BAL (-12.7)
  • 36. E.J. Manuel, BUF (-14.2)
  • 37. Terrelle Pryor, OAK (-14.5)
  • 38. Geno Smith, NYJ (-15.1)

PFF grades aren’t perfect. Their biggest flaw is that they don’t adjust for the competition. Pump-faking New England Patriots’ safety Devin McCourty (PFF grade 17.9) to the wrong side before completing a pass counts the same as pump-faking Chicago Bears’ Major Wright (PFF grade -17.1). Nonetheless, they’re an objective analysis independent of a single expert or opinion, grounded in repeated scrutiny and facts. So sure, Peyton Manning is the best quarterback so far this season, well on the way to a record 5th most valuable player award.2 But exactly how much do the Denver Broncos value him?

Under his five year contract with the Broncos, Manning’s average annual salary of $19.2 million ranks third in the league among quarterbacks. (Also all players. Those quarterbacks get paid a lot.) The Broncos are paying the most valuable player (so far) the third most value. Neat. But is that the best? Forget what team is getting the most out of their quarterback, what team is getting the most out of their quarterback for their money? 

For starters, among quarterbacks who have played 25% or more of their team’s snaps, here are the Top 5 Most Paid (millions of dollars in parentheses), using their average annual salary under their current contracts as reported by the online professional athlete salary database Spotrac.com:

  • 1. Joe Flacco, BAL ($20.1 million)
  • 2. Drew Brees, NO ($20m)
  • 3. Peyton Manning, DEN ($19.2m)
  • 4. Matt Ryan, ATL ($18.958m)
  • 5. Aaron Rodgers, GB ($18.679m)

And here are the 5 Lowest Paid:

  • 34. Russell Wilson, SEA ($0.749m)
  • 35. Nick Foles, PHI ($0.677m)
  • 36. Terrelle Pryor, OAK ($0.59m)
  • 37. Thaddeus Lewis, BUF ($0.51m)
  • 38. Case Keenum, HOU (0.45m)

Yes, Joe Flacco is the 4th worst performing quarterback (so far) and the best paid. (Enjoy that Super Bowl championship, Ravens fans.) Among the lowest paid quarterbacks, Wilson is alone in starting all his team’s games this season, with Foles, Lewis, and Keenum starting for injured first-stringers and Pryor emerging (somewhat, again second worst grade) while missing time for injuries himself. 12 of the 32 teams have started more than one quarterback this season. All told, which have gotten the most for the least?

A good way to answer involves standard deviations. A standard deviation (henceforth SD) is a measure of variability for a group of numbers, in relation to the average. The SD of NFL quarterback salaries (who’ve played 25% of snaps or more) is $6.4 million. That means 68.2% of all quarterbacks have a salary within $6.41 million of the mean salary, $7.818 million. The SD is almost as large as the mean itself, indicating a lot of variability. The SD of quarterbacks’ PFF grades is 10.2, many times the average grade of 1.4; again, A Lot of variability. What do these numbers tell us about how much the Broncos pay Manning?

Manning’s salary ($19.2m) is 1.65 SDs above the mean. Manning’s grade (24.2) is 2.18 SDs above the mean. Relative to his peers, Manning makes an extreme amount of money. His relative performance, however, is even more extreme. That is good for the Broncos, and suggests that they are not overpaying him. Subtracting Manning’s salary SD from his PFF grade SD equals 0.53. What is 0.53? It’s a measure of Manning’s performance (“extremeness”) relative to his salary (“extremeness”). If it were 0, the Broncos would be paying him exactly how much he was worth. (Well, conceptually. The truth is more complicated.) 0.53 represents Manning’s “contract quality”. That the units are standard deviations, which themselves are in different units (the US Dollar and the PFF Grade) is not important, in terms of general understanding. The higher a player’s contract quality, the better deal it is for his organization. The lower the contract quality, the worse the deal.

The highest contract quality among all NFL quarterbacks is Russell Wilson, of the Seattle Seahawks. With a salary SD of -1.02 and a PFF grade SD of 1.33, Wilson’s contract quality of 2.35 is tops by a sound margin. This should not be surprising to football fans, as Wilson has played well (6th best this year, 15.3 grade) ever since starting as a rookie, all after being drafted in the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft, which enabled the Seahawks to pay him so little (5th lowest this year, $0.749m). With that, this Economics and Sports Management (or ESPM) recurring segment presents the mid-season award for best quarterback contract to Seattle’s General Manager John Schneider. Congratulations!

Here are the Top 5 NFL Quarterback Contracts (contract quality in parentheses)

  • 1. Russell Wilson, SEA (2.35)
  • 2. Ryan Tannehill, MIA (1.87)
  • 3. Andrew Luck, IND (1.32)
  • 4. Nick Foles, PHI (1.21)
  • 5. Case Keenum, HOU (1.19)

Notice anything? All of them entered the NFL in 2012, with Keenum the only one going undrafted. None of the best performing five quarterbacks makes the list, with Rivers coming the closest, 8th best with a 0.79 contract quality, and Brees being the only one seemingly overpaid, finishing 23rd with a -0.39 contract quality. There is a reason teams like collecting draft picks. Free agents are more expensive. Speaking of which, what are the worst quarterback contracts in the NFL this season?

  • 34. Tom Brady, NE (-0.93)
  • 35. Matt Ryan, ATL (-1.05)
  • 36. Eli Manning, NYG (-1.45)
  • 37. Matt Schaub, HOU (-1.62)
  • 38. Joe Flacco, BAL (-3.13) (Seriously, Ravens fans, enjoy that championship.)

Turns out, all of the worst contracts are free agent signings, with Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco tanking the way. Yikes.

Aside from learning the ole’ don’t-resign-players-who-play-well-even-really-well-in-a-few-games–even-if-those-few-games-are-the-playoffs-and-super-bowl-when-the-rest-of-their-careers-say-otherwise trick, there is a larger lesson to be learned here. Football analysts and commentators often speak of a “championship window”, which seemingly means a variety of things. But maybe there’s something to it. Those young guys leading the league in contract value now will be able to renegotiate after the 2014-2015 season, and become free agents in 2016 if they don’t. That will result in significantly less money for their teams to spend elsewhere. Russell Wilson accounts for 0.5% of the Seahawks’ salary cap this year. Peyton Manning accounts for 12.5% of the Broncos’. (His brother Eli Manning accounts for 17.1% of the Giants’. Yeesh.) So enjoy, Seattle. Nothing lasts forever.


  1. Quarterbacks have won 37 of the 58 NFL MVP Awards (63.8%). Running backs have won 18 (31%), and one defensive tackle, kicker, and linebacker have won one each (1.7% each). 
  2. He already has the current record with four. Brett Favre, Johnny Unitas, and Jim Brown are tied for second with three each. 
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