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Understanding Positional Value in the NFL

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NFL: New York Jets at New England Patriots David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Understanding The Cap

Since the introduction of the NFL salary cap in 1994, the league has trended toward a more even competition. With certain owners spending wantonly to win and other teams content to spend minimally and lose, the league was dominated by a small handful of teams. In the last two decades, however, the only teams that have consistently been in the playoff contention are the ones with the type of elite quarterbacks that nearly guarantee nine or more wins. Without a quarterback who can put the team on his back, the front office has to find a way to assemble an elite team through quality selections in the draft and well placed spending in free agency. Over the last three years, the only teams to perennially make the playoffs were the Patriots, Seahawks, and Chiefs. All three of these teams have a plethora of talent surrounding elite quarterback play (yes, I’m counting Alex Smith for ‘16 and ‘17.) Now that the Jets fans are crossing their fingers for Sam Darnold, I wanted to look at how you can build around these players.

To do this effectively, you have to understand the value and cost attributed to each position by the NFL at large. The first thing I did was look at the top five paid players at each position and took the mean of their average annual salary. In doing so, I found that the positions were valued in the following order:

Quarterback ($32.1M), Outside Linebacker ($18.62M), Defensive End ($18.59M), Defensive Tackle ($17.44M), Wide Receiver ($16.4M), Left Tackle ($14.67M), Cornerback ($13.72M), Inside Linebacker ($12.86), Free Safety ($12.5M), Guard ($12.45M), Right Tackle ($11.63M), Running Back ($11.35M), Center ($10.53M), Tight End ($9.16M), Strong Safety ($8.03M.)

Just a quick glance at this hierarchy should tell you one thing. The NFL is truly a passing league now. The top eight positions in pay are all instrumental to the passing game and are paid far more when compared to players who contribute most in the run game. In fact, it seems as though the NFL values offensive players almost entirely based on their production in the passing game. The top five receivers average about 80% more yearly than the top five tight ends. They also average 77% more receptions and 72% more yardage, though to be fair, there is a bit more drop-off outside the top five players. It would seem as though players are paid on the basis of their production in the passing game, ignoring their contribution to the run game.

This sticks out when you consider the actual production by players on offense. Four of the top five leaders in yards from scrimmage were running backs, three of whom are still on rookie contracts (Saquon Barkley, Ezekiel Elliott, and Christian McCaffrey.) In fact, of the top 15 players, only four were amongst the top five in their respective position (Todd Gurley, Julio Jones, DeAndre Hopkins, and Mike Evans.) All of the top four players were running backs and all of them averaged more yards on the ground than in the air. Fewer than half of the top 25 players were wide receivers. While NFL teams like to break the bank for wideouts, paying them about 80% more than tight ends and 44% more than running backs, they actually tend to contribute less to the offense overall.

In a similar vein, I found that the heavy criticism involving first round running backs may be becoming somewhat unfounded. A few years ago, I claimed that the value of a running back in the first round was hindered by limited durability, short shelf lives and the availability of quality players in later rounds, but due to the direction the NFL is trending in regard to the front office, running backs are providing immense value for their position. The top three players in yards from scrimmage were running backs on their rookie contract drafted in the first round. The fourth just received his second contract. It seems to me that the NFL is overvaluing receivers, now making running backs and dual threat tight ends more valuable in the draft and especially in free agency.

Last year, all of the top eight players in yards per scrimmage were running backs, including new Jets addition Le’Veon Bell, who ranked second despite missing a game. While his off the field risks are numerous and glaring, it’s important to remember that the Jets are getting a player who ranks among the top five in yards per game each year. They’re paying him $13.125M (about 51% guaranteed) per year as a running back in comparison to a player like Odell Beckham, who has similar off the field concerns and star power, and earns $18M (about 72% guaranteed) per year as a wide receiver. While I’m personally concerned about all the risks, you have to appreciate the fact that they’re paying about 73% as much money for a player who has averaged over 100 yards per game every year since his rookie season. Beckham has been the exact opposite, averaging under 100 yards per game in every season since his rookie year.

Additional Takeaways

Now there were plenty of other takeaways from this deep dive. The first thing I noticed was that they Patriots do not currently have a single player in the top five in average salary at any position. Tom Brady has regularly taken below half his value in salary so that the team could remain dominant, and the team has done a good job spreading it evenly around the team to minimize holes. As a result, the team has a competitive advantage that helps them win, and Brady can both win and earn more through endorsements than he ever will in his NFL career. The combination of this financial advantage, a desireable location that is regularly in the Super Bowl, and arguably the best QB/coach combinations of all time, makes them guaranteed competitors every year. With all of these advantages, they really just need to spread the money around to minimize holes that could be exploited in the postseason. Sorry, that’s the end of my brief rant on that until my next article, in which I will almost indubitably rant about it again.

It’s also clear that the NFL chooses pass rush over pass coverage. The top three positions in average pay after QB are all defensive line or outside linebackers who get after the passer. This seems to be money well spent, as three of the top five players in sacks were among the top five in average pay, while one was on a rookie contract. The fifth player was Danielle Hunter, who definitely took a pay cut to remain with the Vikings and is still in the top 10 for his position. Meanwhile, the guys blocking said pass rushers were very difficult to project. There are 20 players in my research for the positions of LT, RT, G, and C, while there are 16 Pro Bowl spots for offensive linemen. Only five of those 20 players made the Pro Bowl, and a couple of them were due to injuries around the league. Consistent offensive line play is rare and finding the guys like Zack Martin who will consistently knock it out of the park are worth the investment.

I also found that arguably the best example of the heavy focus on passing rather than rushing was the difference between FS and SS. While it’s not a one to one comparison, free safeties are typically the last line of defense while strong safeties are more aggressive in the run support. As a result, strong safeties only earn about two-thirds of what free safeties earn (and only because Reshad Jones’ huge contract singlehandedly increases the SS position’s average by $1M.) In fact, every one of the top five free safeties earned over $10M per season, while only Reshad Jones earns that much as a strong safety, with the next closest player coming in below $9M (Tony Jefferson.) Jamal Adams is a legitimate star and team leader, but there’s a reason he was available at #6 overall in today’s NFL.

There were a lot of other takeaways, but for the sake of being brief not horrendously long, the last thing I will say is that the NFL really values youth. Ignoring the QB position, which ages much more gracefully than most, the top paid players at every position were dominated by young players. In fact, the only two positions in which the top paid player were 30+ years old were TE and SS (Jimmy Graham and Reshad Jones), which are also the only positions in which the average was below $10M and are the two lowest valued positions in the NFL. The NFL pays big money for youth as each team is hoping to set up a dynasty with franchise players who will keep the team competitive for years (and sell a lot of merch.)

Conclusion

The best way to win when you don’t have elite quarterback play or homegrown talent is to begin investing in players that are undervalued. Running backs and tight ends earn far less than wide receivers, but are no less crucial to an offense. Apart from the obvious yardage data I provided earlier, they both also provide much more in the blocking portion of the game than wideouts. Running backs are often the last line of protection in the pass blocking game, while tight ends are expected to be able to hold their own when asked to block as offensive linemen. Wideouts rarely have much impact as blockers.

You also never want to be the team that resets the market. By some kind of insane happenstance, the highest paid RT earns more than the highest paid LT. Additionally, the top paid LT is Taylor Lewan, a three time Pro Bowler with his native Titans at just 27 years old. The top paid RT is Trent Brown, a 26 year old with 44 starts in his career, now joining his third team and no accolades to speak of outside of a Super Bowl ring. Trent Brown reset the market, earning about 50% more than the highest paid RT at the time of his contract. In a similar move, the Jets paid C.J. Mosley about 50% more than the highest paid ILB (who just so happens to be All-Pro monster Bobby Wagner) when he received his contract. Technically Kwon Alexander factors in with his $13.5M contract, but he and Mosley signed so close together, it is unlikely their contracts impacted each other. Alexander is also a lower tier player than Mosley, who has 4 Pro Bowl and Second Team All-Pros on his resume. While Mosley is no Trent Brown with that kind of performance history, his contract is still an albatross compared to his peers, and a poor investment from a team building standpoint. This may have been due to the situation with Mike Maccagnan and Anthony Barr, but I will admit that I’m really excited to see what Mosley brings to the team despite how maddeningly large his contract may be.

In summation, it’s a wise decision to target stars at positions such as running back, tight end, and strong safety when the market has already been set. Running backs consistently lead the NFL in yardage, while tight ends are probably the biggest mismatch options on offense. The potential impact of a player like Jamal Adams makes strong safeties incredible bargains that can help to alleviate weaknesses in the front seven. If your front seven has trouble in the run game, your star SS can help plug the holes. If you’re having trouble dropping into coverage, he can shadow tight ends or running backs. If your pass rush is missing some variety, he can give you the occasional pressure to keep opponents on their toes.

At the end of the day, you certainly need to hit on players in the draft like George Kittle (who set the NFL single season record for TE receiving yardage while earning just under $675K per year), but there’s more to it than that. If you can add a guy like Travis Kelce for under $10M per year, is it really wise to pay any right tackle over $16M per year with a higher percentage of guarantees? It’s often said that you draft the best players available and fill your holes in free agency. I think there’s some truth in that, but a team is better off targeting value than filling holes. Even if you have a massive hole at right tackle, I think anyone would rather add a Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz, or George Kittle for two-thirds the cost of a Trent Brown, Ja’Wuan James, or Lane Johnson. Hopefully the next Jets GM will be an expert talent evaluator, but I hope that he or she will also be able to team build with the salary cap in mind.