Over the last two weeks we looked at the best value teams in the NFL as well as the best value offenses and this week we will look at the best and worst values defenses. The metric’s we’ll use here to compare the team’s performance to spending will be Football Outsiders Weighted DVOA for defense and my defensive efficiency metric, which is basically the percentage a team scores above or below their specific opponent’s adjusted average points allowed. Punters will be included as part of the defensive spending. The following plot shows the teams spending on offense vs their performance with the size of the bubble indicating the ratio of money spent on offense vs defense. Though normally negative means a better defense I flipped the signs to make it easier to view, so in this case a higher % also means a better defense.
This is a pretty interesting list with two of the best performing defenses coming in the best values category and the Patriots basically spending nothing and getting a good showing. The Ravens and Vikings are arguably the 2nd and 4th best bang for the buck on the season.
Baltimore has a decent mix of young and old on their team and their decisions to have the veterans at safety I think have really paid off for the team. They are good at finding roles for their younger players, many of whom are not exactly household names. Minnesota is a team peaking at the perfect time. The veterans up front are all probably at the tail ends of their peak years or having peak seasons while the younger players are at the stage of just having been extended or about to be extended. They have also gotten great low cost play from veteran corners. I thought some of their free agent signings/extensions at times were overvalued, but their job of scouting and targeting players who clearly complement each other and tailoring the defense to focus on their strengths is excellent and I think you could argue best in the league. They will likely need to retool some areas next year but Id have confidence in the staff to do it. Both teams are doing this with no help from their offenses, among the worst values in the NFL.
The Patriots have basically spent little (they have the lowest offense to defense spending ratio in the NFL) and gotten pretty good showings from their team. They traded away their most impactful defensive player in Chandler Jones, moved Jamie Collins off the team, and had others miss time on suspension. Yet they are still above average. The coaching in New England has always been superb at playing situational football and using the offense as a strength to help the defense. Its worked perfectly.
The Cowboys and Steelers are both pretty close to the average marks. Both have primarily spent on offense this year and met the mark on that side of the ball. I tend to think that has helped both teams. Both are good in certain areas and weak in others but the overall results are certainly enough to compete in the playoffs.
Hitting the Mark
These are many of the biggest spenders in the NFL on defense and it’s paying off for them. The size of the bubbles for most of these teams is large which indicates that they really invested heavily in veteran salaries. The Broncos and Seahawks have gotten the best returns with Denver being the top value in the NFL even with the high spending and the Seahawks ranking third. Both teams are showing a yearly consistency that has been difficult for teams to match across seasons. The Eagles are also a big spender and trails just slightly. They will need to prove if they can do this for multiple seasons however.
The next tier consists of the Cardinals, Chiefs, and Rams, all of whom should be pleased with their showings. The Rams are doing it without any offense at all which is impressive and the Chiefs have been without one of the best players for much of the season. Looking at the Chiefs Id think their defense could help them advance in a playoff game when their offense misfires. Arizona could be dangerous for the same reason if they happen to sneak into a wildcard somehow as their offense is trending in the wrong direction. The Rams are simply a spoiler.
The Giants have spent big on defense and while they have not blown the league away by any means they are much improved from last season and doing enough to win in close games. They aren’t a great value but I don’t think there is disappointment by any means. The Texans and Dolphins, on the other hand, I think may move into the disappointed category even though they are in the right tier. Both are big spenders, especially the Dolphins who rank 2nd in spending. The Texans lost JJ Watt so they have more of an excuse, but both expected to be in the Eagles category and they are not close.
Get What you Pay For
Other than San Francisco and Detroit pretty much everyone in this tier went with an offense first approach to spending and not surprisingly landed in this tier. A few teams like the Bills, Panthers, Bears, and Chargers should be accepting of where they are, which is right near the average line. The Bills are basically the most average team in the NFL, just slightly below average in performance and spending.
The next tier of teams, the Falcons, Saints, and Lions, are all likely disappointed in their play despite the low salaries. They are among the worst in the NFL. In some cases the offense clearly makes up for it, such as with the Falcons, but for teams like the Saints the defense is why they won’t make the playoffs.
The third tier is the worst of the worst and even with the low spend arguably the worst value in the NFL. The Colts spending is at least moving closer to the average line and they have done nothing. Injuries have hurt them to some extent, but in general they are just a poorly constructed team. The 49ers have headed nowhere this season on either side of the ball and the Browns are just a class to themselves. They spent little but don’t even have enough of a blue chip contribution to be passable. For Cleveland this has to be their mulligan year and they have to do much better next season or this group in charge will be fired quickly.
These are the teams that are all providing less than expected returns on the year. I mentioned last week that the Bengals look like a team that may have a closed playoff window and I think this is a big reason why. The team is invested in the defense and has expected that defense to be a difference maker. They simply haven’t been and their offense isn’t good enough to make up for that.
The Raiders have spent in free agency the last few seasons to try to build a defense and they are still struggling to cross that midpoint mark. Their offense being such a good value masks the difficulties they have had on the other side of the ball. Tampa is just going nowhere and has a few mid level deals hat simply have not paid off.
I don’t think the Titans really expected a lot out of their defense but probably expected a little more than this. I was actually surprised when I put this down to see that they ranked just above average in spending on this side of the ball as they are not a team that makes big investments anywhere but I guess a number of deals in the mid value range for players like Casey, McCourty, Orakpo, etc…pushed them up. The Packers are in the middle of a bad season and some of those higher end deals are biting them this year due to age, injury, or poor performance. One thing with Green Bay’s refusal to enter free agency is that it gives their extension candidates more leverage to ask for, and usually receive, more than other teams would pay to extend their players.
Dragging the rear are the two teams that see to drag the rear in everything- the Jaguars and Jets. The Jaguars overspending in free agency puts them third in the NFL and not surprisingly it hasn’t paid off. While teams like the Vikings I think should be commended for finding complementary talent, the Jaguars have loaded up on a few guys who play the same spots and question mark guys hoping to catch lightning in a bottle. I think the team has one more free agent run in them, but they are on the track to nowhere right now and their cap could catch up to them in two years especially if they do sign Blake Bortles to a big contract.
The Jets are the worst performer of the above average spenders. That should come as no surprise to anyone who watches them as much as I do. They have too many guys for one position and no idea how to make it work. They continue to never invest in outside rushers and not surprisingly they have no pass rush. They are one of the worst values in the NFL and I would anticipate big changes next year that potentially push them below average in spending on defense.
The good offense and good defense teams really don’t exist which I think would make the playoffs pretty wide open. The only teams with above average defenses that also ranked with above average offenses are the Patriots, Steelers, Cowboys and Eagles. Of those teams it’s only the Pats that are showing significantly above average trends on both sides. The Steelers and Cowboys are just slightly above average on defense while the Eagles are just slightly above average on offense. If the dominant unit were to falter on any playoff team, even a big favorite, Id think that makes a good chance for an upset.
The hit rate on the defense is lower than the offense. 9 of the top defensive spenders rank in the top half of the league compared to 12 of the top offenses, though those numbers are likely to change by the end of the year and well see where they go at the end of the season. As I mentioned before I’ll likely tweak this after the season to put a more accurate “salary” figure by including draft capital in the spending as the expected return on a first and second round pick is generally larger than the salary by enough of a margin to make some difference in where the teams rank.
Have a Happy Thanksgiving.
Jason is the founder of OTC and has been studying NFL contracts and the salary cap for over 15 years. Jason has co-authored two books about the NFL, Crunching Numbers and the Drafting Stage, which are widely circulated in the industry and hosts the OTC Podcast. Jason’s work has been featured in various publications including the Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, NFL Network and more. OTC is widely considered the leading authority on contract matters in the NFL.