Managing an NFL football team: draft picks, salary cap, etc. is at its foundation a question of managing value. Has the front office done a good job of getting a reasonable (or exemplary) level of play from the players on the team in relation to what it is paying for them, or are we overpaying for underperformance? Any exercise along these lines is necessarily going to leave a lot to be desired. Most notably, there is bound to be widespread disagreement about any tools used to capture “performance” in a quantitative, relatively objective way. Going in, eyes wide open, I’m using one of the better tools I’m aware of in that regard, Pro Football Reference’s “approximate value (AV).”
A description from the PFR site is below:
“Essentially, AV is a substitute for --- and a significant improvement upon, in my opinion --- metrics like ‘number of seasons as a starter’ or ‘number of times making the pro bowl’ or the like. You should think of it as being essentially like those two metrics, but with interpolation in between. That is, ‘number of seasons as a starter’ is a reasonable starting point if you’re trying to measure, say, how good a particular draft class is, or what kind of player you can expect to get with the #13 pick in the draft. But obviously some starters are better than others. Starters on good teams are, as a group, better than starters on bad teams. Starting WRs who had lots of receiving yards are, as a group, better than starting WRs who did not have many receiving yards. Starters who made the pro bowl are, as a group, better than starters who didn’t, and so on. And non-starters aren’t worthless, so they get some points too.”
For 2018 (and where applicable, 2019) salaries, I am using information from Spotrac.com. For the purposes of this article, I am using “cap hit” versus “full salary.” In most cases, they are the same thing, with notable exceptions like Adrian Peterson, whose salary was $1,015,000, but whose cap hit was only $630,000. Why that can happen is explained here, but essentially it’s an incentive used to normalize the cost to a team of a veteran on a minimum value contract with a player on a rookie deal. Throughout the rest of this article, “value” will be calculated as “cap hit($)/AV.” Players with an AV below 4 were generally eliminated from this exercise unless there was some specific reason to include them.
High Production, Low Costs, Great Value
These were the players who were the best values on the team in 2018. Generally speaking, they were on vet minimum or rookie contracts, and they produced impressively. The top player on the list should surprise no one: Adrian Peterson (AV 7), who at a value of $90,000/AV was a steal. Chase Roullier (AV 6), at $98,000/AV was the only other player on the team to get below the $100,000/AV mark.
Not too far behind the top 2 was Matt Ioannidis (AV 5), at $126,000/AV, and Ion was rewarded accordingly with a second contract signed this offseason.
The next three players may be something of a surprise: Mason Foster (AV 9), had the second highest AV on the entire team, and came in at a value of $194,444/AV; Fabian Moreau (AV 4), didn’t perform incredibly well, but he didn’t cost much either, delivering a value of $198,587/AV; Preston Smith (AV 8) performed well and delivered a value of $229,861/AV.
Assuming a similar level of production at his inflated salary in 2019 with the Packers estimates a value of $750,000/AV, putting him squarely in the mid-range value group, just between Josh Doctson and Ty Nseke. His 2020 extended valuation would be $1.688M/AV, getting him near the “overpriced, middling performers” category below.
Expensive Rookies, Cheap Vets, and Good Production
The next group still provides strong value, and is comprised of high draft picks and fairly inexpensive vets performing well. Daron Payne (AV 8) produced a value of $327,690/AV, with Jon Allen (AV 8) just behind him at $329,443/AV. Landon Collins (AV 5), still on his rookie deal, produced a value of $389,490/AV with the Giants (similar production in 2019 would result in a value of $800,00/AV; similar production in 2020 would balloon to a disastrous $2.84M/AV).
Zach Brown (AV 6) and DJ Swearinger (AV 7) exemplify this category with values of $492,188/AV and $593,897/AV, respectively. This assessment rings true, as both players did seem to be good value in 2018. Unfortunately, both were ejected from the team in an untimely fashion for attitude-related issues. Morgan Moses (AV 8) falls into this category as well, with a value of $675,000/AV, delivering solid results for a lower end veteran contract.
Moderately Priced, Middling Performers
These players are generally decent players on rookie deals, with Jamison Crowder (AV 3) and Josh Doctson (AV 4) filling out this group. In 2018, Crowder’s value was $681,135/AV, but that number skyrockets to 2019, under his new contract with the Jets ($2.29M/AV). It’s going to be extremely difficult for him to return value to his new team at that price. Doctson, with a value of $685,202/AV is probably a fair-priced, bit player, but the Redskins were wise to turn down his 5th year option for 2019 which would have translated to an astronomical $2.347M/AV value given a 2018 level of performance.
Pricey, But Worth It
This category is exemplified by Ryan Kerrigan (AV 10), the top performer on the team in 2018. His value of $1.245M/AV was relatively expensive, but his production matched it. Had Trent Willams (AV 7) played the full season, his performance probably would have fallen into this range as well. As it was, however, his value of $1.94M/AV put him dangerously close to the Very Poor Value category.
Not Pricey, But Not Worth It
The category is solely occupied by Vernon Davis (AV 3), though one could probably reasonably add him to the “Very Poor Value” category below, if push came to shove. His value of $1.767M/AV, despite playing in most of the games, puts him in pretty dubious company. He’s not being paid an exorbitant amount, but he’s not living up to even the modest amount he is taking home.
Very Poor Value
This group consists of two players: Josh Norman (AV 7) and Jordan Reed (AV 4), whose values are $2.4M/AV and $2.563M/AV respectively. This should really come as no surprise. Anyone who has been watching this team for the past couple of years and is familiar with these players’ contracts know they aren’t coming close to living up to them. Part of the issue is that, at some point, regardless of production, it becomes almost impossible for players at this end of the pay scale to provide good value to their team. Certainly, almost anything short of consistent Pro Bowl level performances ends up rendering players in this range of questionable value.
The Walking Wounded
The most notable member of this category is Alex Smith (AV 6), whose value through 10 games was just over $3M/AV. Paul Richardson (AV 2), who only played in 7 games in 2018, had a value ($1.859M/AV) somewhat salvaged by a low year 1 salary. His salary nearly doubles in 2019, and he’s going to need his production to likely triple (or more) to avoid the poor value category this year.
Brandon Scherff (AV 3), who played in 9 games didn’t provide a great value ($2.25M/AV), but would have fallen into the “pricey, but worth it” category had continued his level of performance through the full 16 games. Unfortunately, at his 2019 salary number, anything under a top level performance threatens to push him into the “poor value” range occupied by Reed and Norman in 2018.
I’m not sure there will be anything in this analysis that will surprise anyone, though sometimes it’s reassuring when the data supports one’s intuitions. The lessons, to the extent they can be garnered from this limited analysis appear to be:
- Taking a one-year, vet min deal chance on a high upside player can pay tremendous dividends, and has relatively little risk. On the other hand, the 2018 Adrian Peterson season feels a bit like lightning in a bottle, and perhaps we can’t generalize from it.
- Hitting - getting reliable starters, not necessarily superstars - with mid to late round draft picks is the mother’s milk of building great team value. On rookie contracts, these are likely to be the best value players, and even if they are quality enough to get second contracts, they still have the capacity to remain in the second value category: “Cheap vets and Good Production.” They also free up lots of cap space for the “Pricey, but Worth It” guys.
- First and second round talents, if they are reasonable producers, are still very good value, as can be role playing vets on reasonably low “prove it” deals. Beware potential attitude problems with this second group of guys, however.
- It is possible to pay a player massive money and have them be worth it (ala Kerrigan), but they literally have to produce at a Pro Bowl caliber, year in and year out, in order to return value. As we’ve seen with Josh Norman and Jordan Reed, that’s simply not something that can regularly be counted on. Beware big contracts.
- Every year injuries will claim their victims. Having salary dollars more evenly divided across the team insulates against that.