Examining the Marginal Value Implied in Player Contracts

There are a number of ways to look at roster construction in the NFL, and Nick recently did a great job with his roster texture charts(which you should read if you haven’t already), but today I wanted to look to see how teams really derive their value when they build a roster. Normally when we look at a roster we look at two basic numbers- salary cap charges and contract annual value- and then compare franchises across the board. But I got to thinking, wouldn’t it be a much more accurate portrayal if we put those numbers in perspective by seeing how much marginal value a team is really assigning to their highest paid players?  For example Peyton Manning makes more than Darrelle Revis, but Manning plays a position where the average salary for a starter is over $12 million. Tehnically the Jets are giving up more by having Revis as the highest paid player on the team, even if Manning has a higher stated salary. So we can best define value by determining the cost above average a team spends on their top players on the team.

I tinkered with a few ways to draw baseline values for a position but in the end I settled for using two numbers- the average of the top 32 salaries at a position and then the average of number 33-64 at a position. While some positions obviously have two starters, I felt after working through the numbers that this captured the essence best of assigning a true value that a team expects to get from a player. There are admittedly some other deficiencies that occur by lumping the 34 and 43 players together but this was easier to work with especially in light of defensive changes each year. The QB is the only positon where I manually adjusted for actual starter so that we wouldn’t count a team twice since they clearly made the decision for one of those two to be a backup.

Here is what we get for each position:

PositionAvg Cost (1-32)Avg. Cost (32-64)
Quarterback$12,161,520$1,754,986
Cornerback$8,340,554$2,927,383
Defensive End$8,164,041$2,600,339
Wide Receiver$7,881,692$3,174,373
Outside Linebacker$6,873,012$2,481,921
Left Tackle$5,986,354$633,298
Defensive Tackle$5,650,520$1,859,518
Safety$5,607,555$1,816,956
Inside Linebacker$5,018,785$1,149,337
Tight End$4,906,238$1,201,060
Guard$4,552,706$1,098,943
Running Back$4,424,405$1,003,484
Right Tackle$3,765,908$893,266
Center$3,565,600$586,299
Kicker$2,020,661NA
Punter$1,916,335NA
Fullback$1,071,142NA
Long Snapper$913,472NA

Obviously the QB is our highest paid position and that is followed by cornerback, defensive end, wide receiver, and outside linebacker. Not surprisingly our lowest paid positions are the specialists with center and right tackle being the lowest spend positional talents.   These are positions where some teams employ somewhat pricey veterans but the options seem to be either higher priced vet or rookie with no in between. Center really typifies this with 10 players earning between $6 and 9 million a year and everyone else under $3.6 million.

With these numbers in mind let’s break down each team’s roster by salary groupings: the top player spending, the 2nd through 5th player, and then every 5 players thereafter.

Top Player Spending

TeamMarginal ValueActual Salary% Value
Dolphins$7,088,480$19,250,00036.8%
Packers$9,838,480$22,000,00044.7%
Chiefs$4,838,480$17,000,00028.5%
Broncos$4,838,480$17,000,00028.5%
Cowboys$5,838,480$18,000,00032.4%
Seahawks$5,659,447$14,000,00040.4%
Saints$7,838,480$20,000,00039.2%
Bills$7,835,959$16,000,00049.0%
Bengals$3,838,480$16,000,00024.0%
Jets$5,683,659$14,024,21240.5%
Browns$5,159,447$13,500,00038.2%
Texans$8,502,626$16,666,66751.0%
Cardinals$4,338,480$16,500,00026.3%
Eagles$838,480$13,000,0006.4%
49ers$6,838,480$19,000,00036.0%
Vikings$9,955,595$14,380,00069.2%
Chargers$3,138,480$15,300,00020.5%
Bears$5,938,480$18,100,00032.8%
Redskins$4,013,646$10,000,00040.1%
Jaguars$4,293,762$9,200,00046.7%
Lions$5,505,147$17,666,66731.2%
Ravens$7,938,480$20,100,00039.5%
Rams$6,089,683$14,253,72442.7%
Titans$835,959$9,000,0009.3%
Steelers$9,688,480$21,850,00044.3%
Panthers$8,598,480$20,760,00041.4%
Falcons$8,588,480$20,750,00041.4%
Colts$659,447$9,000,0007.3%
Giants$4,088,480$16,250,00025.2%
Patriots$3,892,445$9,500,00041.0%
Raiders$5,334,400$8,900,00059.9%
Buccaneers$7,949,480$13,600,00058.5%
Average$5,796,402$15,642,22737.1%

The top player usually eats up a large portion of a team’s budget and any savings can potentially be used to field a better set of players elsewhere on the team. Needless to say every team spends a premium for this player, with the Colts, Titans, and Eagles being the only teams to spend under $1 million in marginal costs for their highest cost player.  The three biggest spenders are the Vikings (Adrian Peterson), Packers (Aaron Rodgers) and Pittsburgh Steelers (Ben Roethlisberger). In general this list is dominated by quarterbacks because the average value of the position is driven down by rookie starters.

If we consider the percentage of salary that is considered additonal output then Minnesota, Oakland, and Tampa see the most value from their players. These numbers are so large because the players are highly compensated at what are generally low valued positions in the NFL. For such players to actually be worth the marginal value a team assigns they clearly have to be exceptional.

On average teams spend about $15.6 million on their top player and about $5.8 million in marginal costs.

Top Spending: 2-5

TeamMarginal ValueActual Salary% Value
Dolphins$22,345,985$45,712,50048.9%
Seahawks$19,158,781$40,083,33347.8%
Chiefs$18,325,003$43,111,66642.5%
Lions$17,912,773$39,638,14345.2%
Cowboys$17,158,960$47,531,60036.1%
Rams$16,636,379$33,714,44749.3%
Packers$16,442,870$42,712,50038.5%
Cardinals$15,071,008$44,010,00034.2%
Broncos$14,918,389$44,000,00033.9%
Panthers$14,592,383$35,652,66740.9%
Jets$13,697,305$34,058,33340.2%
Browns$12,967,479$35,000,00037.0%
Bills$12,755,825$34,610,00036.9%
Saints$12,623,542$36,833,75034.3%
Vikings$11,782,429$36,300,00032.5%
Texans$11,079,904$34,850,00031.8%
Average$10,273,776$34,979,54429.4%
Bengals$9,910,432$38,051,90026.0%
Eagles$8,950,676$34,575,00025.9%
Steelers$8,121,845$32,928,47524.7%
Redskins$7,745,826$32,750,00023.7%
Chargers$7,619,066$34,750,00021.9%
Ravens$6,789,649$30,575,50022.2%
49ers$6,485,825$32,245,66720.1%
Titans$5,784,174$31,158,00018.6%
Bears$5,095,189$30,543,00016.7%
Raiders$3,957,232$24,000,00016.5%
Colts$3,428,868$27,600,00012.4%
Falcons$2,400,716$23,400,00010.3%
Jaguars$2,201,792$27,025,0008.1%
Patriots$1,873,779$30,833,3336.1%
Giants$1,539,284$28,766,6675.4%
Buccaneers-$612,540$32,323,930-1.9%

With Ndamukong Suh’s contract being so expensive ($19M salary/$13.4M marginal cost), it is no surprise the Dolphins rank first in this group, spending $22 million above average for their best players. Other big cost players on that team are Mike Pouncey ($8.95/$5.4M) and Branden Albert ($9.4/$3.4). There is no other team spending over $20 million in this tier and their $29 million marginal cost for the top 5 on their roster is $3 million more than the next closest team. Clearly this is a team that philosophically believes high priced talent at the top of an organization drives success.

The Seahawks come in second with about $19 million spent in this grouping and the Chiefs are not far behind with $18 million. The big number guys in Seattle are Marshawn Lynch ($12M/$7.5M), Jimmy Graham ($10M/5M), and Earl Thomas ($10M/$4.4M) and in Kansas City it is Justin Houston ($16.8M/$9.9M) and Jeremey Maclin ($11.5M/$3M).

The Buccaneers are the only team to spend under average on their roster, which is due to them abandoning their prior failed free agent strategy to focus on the draft. Vincent Jackson and Logan Mankins are the biggest cost players, both of whom could be gone by the end of the summer. Jameis Winston is their fifth highest compensated player to illustrate how much they have gutted the roster.

The Giants are the second lowest with $1.5 million in added commitments, but that doesn’t include Jason Pierre-Paul who is not yet signed to a contract. That should push them to about $6 million over. Still it’s not terribly surprising to see them this low since the team is usually tighter in their cap than others and has focused on second tier players.  The defending champion Patriots rank third from last driven in part by the bargain basement contract signed by Tom Brady (-$3M in marginal cost).

The average cost for a team is $10.2M on $35 million in salary for the four players. Only two teams that are in the bottom 13 of marginal spending for the top 5 players this year made the playoffs in 2014- the Colts and Patriots. Indy has spent just $36M on their top 5 with the marginal cost of $4M(note this was written before the release of Gosder Cherilus, so this will fall further). New England has spent $40M with $5.8M in marginal costs. The lowest overall payroll is Oakland with just $32.9M committed to their top 5.

Top Spending 6-10

TeamMarginal ValueActual Salary% Value
Packers$16,047,134$33,554,16747.8%
Broncos$11,506,155$30,250,09438.0%
Eagles$10,060,331$27,254,94336.9%
Jets$9,660,865$30,941,66731.2%
Titans$8,730,298$26,000,00033.6%
Cowboys$7,720,429$27,266,12628.3%
Bengals$7,069,447$27,343,33325.9%
Seahawks$6,055,068$34,000,50217.8%
Vikings$5,336,823$27,892,65019.1%
49ers$4,749,204$29,083,33316.3%
Cardinals$4,082,774$25,987,25015.7%
Patriots$4,001,600$21,737,50018.4%
Dolphins$3,568,377$31,896,07511.2%
Chargers$3,566,676$28,810,00012.4%
Chiefs$2,072,306$28,452,6257.3%
Texans$1,741,839$29,951,5835.8%
Buccaneers$1,081,425$18,470,2635.9%
Saints$571,332$25,176,6672.3%
Bears-$62,434$26,840,762-0.2%
Panthers-$437,198$18,244,651-2.4%
Bills-$1,872,098$29,203,786-6.4%
Ravens-$2,491,126$22,691,667-11.0%
Steelers-$2,529,624$20,643,750-12.3%
Rams-$3,189,531$23,137,650-13.8%
Giants-$4,042,446$18,747,958-21.6%
Redskins-$4,442,821$27,158,685-16.4%
Browns-$5,186,753$30,966,667-16.7%
Colts-$5,245,277$25,508,373-20.6%
Falcons-$5,752,920$20,777,120-27.7%
Raiders-$7,015,728$23,910,031-29.3%
Jaguars-$7,684,025$25,964,664-29.6%
Lions-$8,385,893$19,765,293-42.4%
Average$1,540,132$26,175,9325.9%

Though most would expect the top 10 players on a roster to all be above average, for 14 teams their marginal spending is below the average here. That indicates lower than average veteran starters (by market pricing) and rookies making up the top portions of team rosters.

The lowest spender is Detroit. They have just $19.7M in annual salary committed to this section of their roster, at a marginal cost of -$8.4M.  Their mishandling of the salary cap is pretty well known so they are packed with first round rookie picks and below average guys like Brandon Pettigrew. The Panthers make for a different type of construct. Also a disaster with the cap they have the lowest 6 through 10 payroll at $18.2 million, but they are nearly average in their spending. Rather than settling they went out and signed higher quality guys at low cost positions and average veteran performers at other low cost ones to try to drive the most value out of their limited spending capabilities.

The Jaguars and Raiders are the other teams in the -$7M marginal cost category, which is to be expected with such bare bones rosters. The Jaguars spending is actual scary since two of their players wont play this year (Fowler and Blackmon) and Luke Joeckel hasn’t been good. If Blake Bortles flops their 6 through 10 contracts are essentially worthless in 2015.

The Packers spend a ridiculous $16M in marginal costs which is why that team arguably has the best roster in the NFL. Nearly 50% of their spending on these five players is theoretically added value.  The next closest team is Denver at $11.5 million. Every top 10 player in Green Bay, from a contractual perspective, is considered above average. It is a very interesting roster in Green Bay. They have $98 million committed in salary to their top 10 players, which is most in the NFL, but only by $1.5 million. Their marginal costs are $42 million, almost $10 million more than the Dolphins, who rank number 2. There is a clear move in Green Bay to just aim high across the board but to not go so crazy such that you are tying all that money up in one or two big name guys.

On average teams spend just $1.5M over these five players.

Top Spending: 11-15

TeamMarginal ValueActual Salary% Value
Jaguars$7,918,268$21,037,50037.6%
Colts$5,929,087$17,400,00034.1%
Broncos$5,700,892$17,305,38932.9%
Eagles$3,254,238$19,916,66716.3%
Raiders$3,156,035$16,606,66619.0%
Cowboys$2,061,323$14,107,73614.6%
Browns$1,194,594$17,345,1276.9%
Falcons$1,177,427$15,600,0007.5%
Redskins$761,153$20,000,0003.8%
Chiefs$610,497$19,913,3353.1%
Bears$101,783$16,700,0000.6%
Chargers-$191,918$15,350,625-1.3%
Bengals-$668,995$19,078,025-3.5%
Giants-$774,751$12,684,884-6.1%
Ravens-$831,718$14,022,666-5.9%
Dolphins-$1,390,166$16,369,135-8.5%
Seahawks-$1,613,575$17,658,333-9.1%
Bills-$2,304,960$19,617,439-11.7%
Titans-$2,356,167$16,791,662-14.0%
Rams-$3,165,246$15,823,218-20.0%
Cardinals-$3,491,891$13,454,236-26.0%
Lions-$3,853,176$13,954,849-27.6%
Steelers-$4,912,688$11,275,416-43.6%
Packers-$5,634,509$13,834,625-40.7%
Saints-$6,124,856$18,172,500-33.7%
Patriots-$6,306,951$13,700,000-46.0%
Texans-$7,050,991$18,750,000-37.6%
49ers-$7,837,323$15,654,500-50.1%
Buccaneers-$10,300,047$10,255,215-100.4%
Jets-$10,745,233$19,447,992-55.3%
Panthers-$11,727,775$11,094,973-105.7%
Vikings-$15,362,400$17,421,990-88.2%
Average-$2,336,876$16,260,772-14.4%

Surprisingly the Jaguars lead the way here with $21 million in salary and $7.9 million in marginal costs. I look at this as a concession on their end that they couldn’t spend on the top part of their roster so they would fill it out with better than average backup veterans. I would think this is a strategy that can work but is highly dependent on rookie contract performance. If the rookie players do well that can give the Jaguars one of the deepest rosters in the NFL. If they don’t, however, it probably gives them one of the worst rosters in the NFL. The Colts and Broncos both spend over $5 million here to maintain some above average talent.

Only 11 teams actually spend above average so most of the league begins the process of phasing down the quality of their veterans here. Four teams spend -$10 million or less in marginal costs- the Jets, Bucs, Panthers, and Vikings. None of these came as a surprise. Though the Jets clearly spent big to rebuild their roster, the team was so devoid of talent that you can only add so many players. Tampa is gutting completely and Carolina simply doesn’t have the space to attract many better than average players. I don’t view the Vikings as a very talent filled team either.

As we examine a running total the average salary committed to the top 15 is $93 million and $15.3 million in marginal costs. Only Tampa runs in the negatives in marginal value. Denver and Green Bay are neck and neck with most marginal cost with both just under $37 million in spending over average to field a strong roster. Dallas and Miami are the other two teams over $30 million.  On paper we would likely consider these the strongest rosters based on spending.

Top Spending: 16-20

TeamMarginal ValueActual Salary% Value
Jaguars$4,598,549$16,600,00027.7%
Bills$4,276,632$12,608,82533.9%
Chiefs$3,332,279$11,396,04029.2%
Browns$3,136,734$13,839,18522.7%
Rams$2,683,742$10,570,13125.4%
Saints$2,467,489$11,983,34320.6%
Titans-$385,512$12,950,864-3.0%
Colts-$793,737$12,439,334-6.4%
Dolphins-$1,161,264$10,663,100-10.9%
Vikings-$2,388,904$10,359,271-23.1%
49ers-$2,931,749$11,430,846-25.6%
Bengals-$3,057,978$10,751,170-28.4%
Falcons-$3,476,974$12,499,857-27.8%
Texans-$3,829,873$9,890,261-38.7%
Bears-$4,156,304$9,937,838-41.8%
Cowboys-$4,974,076$9,374,742-53.1%
Giants-$5,459,935$9,540,033-57.2%
Cardinals-$5,945,772$9,142,300-65.0%
Patriots-$6,089,698$10,012,807-60.8%
Redskins-$6,537,694$11,722,074-55.8%
Eagles-$6,657,877$13,135,643-50.7%
Jets-$7,181,253$12,445,200-57.7%
Packers-$7,302,929$9,157,895-79.7%
Steelers-$8,317,128$9,113,065-91.3%
Chargers-$8,489,779$10,892,003-77.9%
Buccaneers-$8,811,155$7,667,548-114.9%
Ravens-$9,351,959$10,498,334-89.1%
Lions-$11,440,932$8,648,425-132.3%
Panthers-$13,749,442$8,785,730-156.5%
Seahawks-$14,140,515$8,886,426-159.1%
Broncos-$17,802,528$9,758,938-182.4%
Raiders-$19,164,266$11,536,925-166.1%
Average-$5,096,994$10,882,442-46.8%

Things change dramatically here with teams spending an average of $10 million for these 5 players, at a marginal number of -$5 million. Only 6 teams are spending above the average on their talent, so most teams are using lower quality backup quality players and rookies to fill in the gaps.

Jacksonville continues with their strategy of trying to fill out a roster with backend value with a marginal cost of $4.6 million, tops in the NFL. The Bills are second at $4.3 million and the Chiefs are at $3.3 million.

The Seahawks and Broncos fall to $-14 and -$17 million respectively. For Denver this was about low cost veterans to plug in while Seattle has their highest priced QB in this portion of their salary construct to drive their value so far down. Oakland leads the way at $19 million below average with rookies and no names filling things out.10 playoff teams from last year rank in the bottom half of the marginal value rankings.

Through 20 players the least value is in Oakland with -$13 million total, which seems to match their table scraps roster building. Tampa is next at $-10 million. Both teams spend under $85 million on their top 20 players and are nearly $20 million under the average spent. Miami spends the most with nearly $124 million in payroll and $30.5 million in marginal value.

Overall Ranks: Top 20

TeamMarginal ValueActual Salary% Value
Dolphins$30,451,413$123,890,81024.6%
Packers$29,391,046$121,259,18724.2%
Chiefs$29,178,565$119,873,66624.3%
Cowboys$27,805,116$116,280,20423.9%
Bills$20,691,357$112,040,05018.5%
Broncos$19,161,388$118,314,42116.2%
Rams$19,055,028$97,499,17019.5%
Saints$17,375,987$112,166,26015.5%
Browns$17,271,501$110,650,97915.6%
Bengals$17,091,385$111,224,42815.4%
Eagles$16,445,847$107,882,25315.2%
Seahawks$15,119,207$114,628,59413.2%
Cardinals$14,054,600$109,093,78612.9%
Titans$12,608,753$95,900,52613.1%
Jaguars$11,328,347$99,827,16411.3%
Jets$11,115,341$110,917,40410.0%
Texans$10,443,504$110,108,5119.5%
Vikings$9,323,544$106,353,9118.8%
49ers$7,304,438$107,414,3466.8%
Bears$6,916,714$102,121,6006.8%
Chargers$5,642,525$105,102,6285.4%
Colts$3,978,388$91,947,7074.3%
Falcons$2,936,729$93,026,9773.2%
Ravens$2,053,328$97,888,1672.1%
Steelers$2,050,885$95,810,7062.1%
Redskins$1,540,111$101,630,7591.5%
Lions-$262,080$99,673,377-0.3%
Patriots-$2,628,825$85,783,640-3.1%
Panthers-$2,723,551$94,538,021-2.9%
Giants-$4,649,368$85,989,542-5.4%
Buccaneers-$10,692,838$82,316,956-13.0%
Raiders-$13,732,326$84,953,622-16.2%
Average$10,176,439$103,940,9189.8%

As we sum up everyone’s commitments on the top of their roster the team that assigns the most marginal value to their roster is the Dolphins. They have the big spending on top and don’t fall off as dramatically as some others beyond the top 10 of their roster. The Packers, Chiefs, Cowboys, and Bills fill out the rest of the top five.

I found the Rams at number 6 to be interesting. They don’t have nearly as many massive contracts as other teams but they have targeted higher quality of players with those dollars. In terms of percentage of dollars committed they rank 5th in the NFL. Philadelphia is another interesting team, ranking 11th in the NFL. They have no value invested in their top player, but have filled out the rest of the roster nicely.

Only six teams have negative costs and of those only two, Oakland and Tampa, are well below average. Those are arguably the least talented teams in the NFL and it is refelected in their spending habits.

Of course none of this means that the marginal value being placed on the players will actually meet the actual performance. At the end of the season we’ll try to go back and see how teams fared by record in comparison to the value they assigned to the players on their team.

Because this post is so long I’ll be back in a few days to look at the amount of players a team may view as above average and which players have to play far above the average to justify the large investments teams have made in them.

Questions about this article? Reach Jason Fitzgerald on Twitter at @jason_otc