Spending vs Performance: QB, WR, & RB

The other day I posted something on Twitter comparing the performance of the top 5 running backs vs numbers 30 to 35 and a few people were curious about how QBs stacked up in the same category. Since the secondary selection for running backs was pretty random I thought I’d just do a post looking at every grouping for running backs, quarterbacks, and receivers to see if there are any patterns at all for this year.

Running Backs

For the running backs I decided to look at the top 65 players. To calculate performance I used essentially a net yardage calculation where a running back was awarded a point for every rushing and receiving yard and 20 points for a touchdown. You can argue the worth of a rushing TD as well as if there should also be anything added for first downs, but for a quick calculation I think this is fair. Each point on the chart represents the average salary and performance of five players. The highest would be players 1 to 5, then 2 to 6, 3 to 7, etc… with the last being the average of 61 to 65.

spending on running backs

The numbers are a bit all over the place for the running backs. Generally speaking the high cost runner is not really providing a major benefit and in general teams should probably avoid any player for more than $5 million or so a year with $3 million likely being the better range. The spikes in the cheaper zones look to fall into the late first round/early second round area of the draft, proving some good bang for the buck.  But overall I think it’s fair to say that currently spending/drafting high doesn’t equate much with performance.

Wide Receiver

For receiver we have the top 100 players and like with running backs a net yardage based on receiving yards and touchdowns. Again first downs are important as is use in an offense but for a basic, quick look I felt this was sufficient. Again each chart represents the average annual salary of five players along with the average net yards for each grouping (1 to 5, 2 to 6, etc…)

Wide receiver spending

I found this one very interesting. Clearly there is far more correlation (at least in the 2019 season) between spending on wide receivers and the performance of the group.  For the most part highly paid receivers are giving you a premium to justify the investment. I see two clear takeaways here. One is that if you notice you will see a dip starting around point 7. Partly that is due to an injury to AJ Green but it also includes a group of players in that range (Brandin Cooks, Sammy Watkins, Jarvis Landry, etc…) who were all overpaid relative to their performance. Essentially these were players who should be paid as number 2’s that landed as 1’s as free agency approached.

The second is the giant dip you see in the $10 million range. This is really the “reach” zone of the NFL where teams go overboard signing the Albert Wilson’s and Quincy Enunwa’s of the world to expensive contracts because they are the best of a bad bunch that is either going to be a free agent or available in  free agency. This is also the range of the “prove it” contract guys who more often than not don’t prove it and either fail to perform or continue to get injured. If it’s a one year gamble I guess its ok, but there is more value being found on number 3s with upside or simply turning to the draft. Maybe if there is some interest I can further break this part up into rookies vs veterans to see if there is more of a trend among rookies vs the lower level vets.

Quarterback

For QB’s I looked at the top 40 players and used adjusted net passing yardage as the performance metric. I did not include rushing stats for QBs in that calculation.

Quarterback spending

There is certainly more correlation between the spending on a QB than on a RB though like with receiver this probably merits more of a rookie vs veteran breakdown. The numbers in the lower part of the chart typically encompasses first round draft picks but unlike with receivers also includes some QBs that were never expected to play (Chase Daniel, Tyrod Taylor)  and simply signed as insurance policies. That said rookies are high risk and for every Mahomes there is a Trubisky to balance things out as well.

The one thing I do feel confident in saying is that the idea of signing a “cheap but expensive” QB (those guys who get $20M or so a year just because that is what a starting QB gets) is probably a bad one. It makes more sense for teams to move to a low cost starter like a Ryan Fitzpatrick and pair him with a mid level draft pick than waste cap room on Eli Manning or Joe Flacco.

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