Top Contracts and the NFL Pro Bowl

Last night the NFL announced the 2016 Pro Bowl selections and Pro Football Focus also announced their picks for the best of the best in 2015. I thought it would be interesting to look to at what the Pro Bowl would look like if salary was the deciding factor and then compare that with the actual players selected. While the Pro Bowl is often a popularity contest I thought that using PFF alongside that would be a reasonable check on some of the voting and maybe show us where teams have perhaps gone wrong in over-allocating salaries. So let’s see what players make and miss the cut. 

To calculate the salaries for each position I simply selected the top players, ranked by annual value, at each position based on how many players were selected to the Pro Bowl. For example if there were 6 QB’s, the salary is the average of the top 6 paid quarterbacks. In most cases I used the same positions as the Pro Bowl with the exception, I believe, of two players- Clay Matthews who really should be considered an outside linebacker for salary calculations and Jerry Hughes, who was signed off a LB season. Here were how the results came out:

PositionAvg. APY ValueAvg. Pro Bowl APYAvg.PFF APYDifference from Avg. % Change

So what does this chart tell us?  In looking over the numbers the NFL in general has done a good job at investing money in the top of the strong safety, quarterback, inside linebacker, and offensive tackle positions. It has done a decent job in putting money into the tight end, receiver, and outside linebacker positions. Things start to get worse when we look at running backs, defensive tackles and centers while the money invested in guard, defensive end, cornerback, and free safety has been a bust.

When we look at some of those big differences in those bottom 7 positions those are the spots where teams considering the “purchase” of a star in free agency or extending a player at top tier money probably should take an extra long look at both draft possibilities and the incremental benefits that are really receiving for the added dollars. The money being sunk into some of those positions likely could go elsewhere to help a team.

Money Well Spent

There are only 18 out of 78 positional players who made both the Pro Bowl and PFF Pro Bowl teams and also ranked in the top of their salary tiers. Congratulations to the following big time players who justified their salaries (and team GMs/cap managers for striking the deal) for the year:

Aaron Rodgers
Russell Wilson
Ben Roethlisberger
Cam Newton
Rob Gronkowski
AJ Green
Julio Jones
Tyron Smith
Joe Thomas
Marshal Yanda
Josh Sitton
Adrian Peterson
JJ Watt
Luke Kuechly
Geno Atkins
Patrick Peterson
Justin Houston
Eric Berry

The Jury is Out

17 high salary players made one of the two Pro Bowl rosters, most in the actual Pro Bowl (the only exceptions were Reshad Jones and Ndamukong Suh who made the PFF one only). For many of these players I think we would consider them living off past success and name recognition when voted into the Pro Bowl, though there are some who certainly had fine seasons. For those who have enough cache to be voted in, the teams will generally avoid criticism for the player contracts. Here is the list:

Calvin Johnson
Trent Williams
Mike Iupati
LeSean McCoy
Marcel Reece
Mike Tolbert
Mike Pouncey
Bobby Wagner
NaVorro Bowman
Gerald McCoy
Ndamukong Suh
Darrelle Revis
Richard Sherman
Clay Matthews
DeMarcus Ware
Earl Thomas
Reshad Jones

Not Living Up to the Contract

A whopping 43 players were among the highest paid at the position but failed to gain recognition by either the Pro Bowl voters or the PFF grading system. Some players had decent years but were buried at a position of players having outstanding years, some were injured, and some just did not perform. For GMs and cap managers these are the players that will likely get them the most criticism, especially if the team did not do well in 2015. If the cap allows it these are the players likely in danger of not being back on the same contract next year. I would estimate about 1/3 of this group will be released or fail to receive a similar contract in free agency or a renegotiation. Here are the players, grouped by position:

Quarterback (2)
Eli Manning
Philip Rivers

Running Back (3)
Marshawn Lynch
Arian Foster
DeMarco Murray

Wide Receiver (5)
Dez Bryant
Demaryius Thomas
TY Hilton
Mike Wallace
Vincent Jackson

Tight End (3)

Jimmy Graham
Julius Thomas
Charles Clay

Anthony Castonzo
Ryan Clady
Nate Solder

Logan Mankins
Orlando Franklin
Rodger Saffold

Rodney Hudson
Maurkice Pouncey
John Sullivan

Defensive End(5)
Mario Williams
Robert Quinn
Charles Johnson
Chris Long
Greg Hardy

Defensive Tackle(3)
Marcell Dareus
Haloti Ngata
Kyle Williams

Outside Linebacker (3)
Ryan Kerrigan
Lavonte David
Jerry Hughes

Inside Linebacker(1)
Lawrence Timmons

Cornerback (5)
Joe Haden
Byron Maxwell
Jimmy Smith
Brandon Carr
Leon Hall

Safety (3)
Devin McCourty
Jairus Byrd
Dashon Goldson

Team Expectations

Every team in the NFL, except the Titans who spend nothing, should be expected to have at least one player in the Pro Bowl based on where his salary falls relative to his position. Teams that usually exceed their number will have fans generally happy about the direction of the team which in turn brings stability for front offices and coaching staffs. That’s that fall below expectations will be those that have rumored changes because the money spent on top talent is often not translating on the field.

By far the best team this season has been the Panthers. They received 10 Pro Bowl selections and 9 PFF selections despite only having 4 players rank in the top salary tier of their position. That increase over the average of 5.5 selections is a big reason why the team is 14-0 and their head coach and GM should be named coach of the year and executive of the year for the team they built.

Second place is the Cardinals with an average gain of 3. Arizona is, not surprisingly, considered one of the top teams in the NFC with a chance for the Super Bowl. Other teams that had big increases were the Bengals and Chiefs at 2.5.

On the flipside were the Bills who had 6 players rank in the top but only received one Pro Bowl selection and two PFF selections, an average loss of 4.5.  The Bills are already talking about major changes just one year removed from hiring Rex Ryan and making a bunch of flashy signings and extensions last offseason.

I was a little surprised at the Buccaneers coming in 31st with a loss of 2.5, but they are victims of an older receiver at the end of his contract, an odd trade for Logan Mankins, and sticking a massive price tag on an outside linebacker who will always have a hard time making the  Pro Bowl because of the type of defense they run.

Less surprising were the Redskins, Chargers, Dolphins and Colts all between 1.5 and 2 less than expected. Each has struggled, though Indy and Washington both have chances at the playoffs. The latter three teams should all have new coaches next season and it is possible the Colts could also have a new GM.

Here is the team by team breakdown

TeamExpected PBActual PBPFF PBAvg. Difference