2018 Free Agency Cost-Benefit Analysis

2018 Free Agency Cost-Benefit Analysis
2018 Free Agency Cost-Benefit Analysis
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Bryan Knowles

You can be forgiven for feeling that free agency was a bit ... underwhelming this year. There was plenty of cap space to go around, but not a ton of crème de la crème players to use it on. Following a nigh-unprecedented number of high-level trades and preceded by a draft season filled with interesting debates over the value of running backs and the stats-versus-"eye test" conflict, free agency didn't make as much as a splash as we normally expect.

That doesn't mean there's nothing to talk about, however. Kirk Cousins has boldly gone where no man has gone before, receiving the largest contract in NFL history and having it all guaranteed, to boot. The Jets added nearly $200 million to their books, signing 18 free agents including Trumaine Johnson. The Bears added more than $100 million in guaranteed money. All that extra cap space had to go somewhere, so it's time for our annual attempt to identify the best and worst values of the free-agent market.

Our methodology is mostly the same that we used last year. Using Pro Football Reference's Approximate Value statistic as our measure of player quality, we perform a regression analysis that looks at each player's previous three years of performance and their age. This allows us to create a rough approximation of their future performance, based on how similar players either developed or declined over the course of their careers. The word "approximation" is doing a lot of work here, but in terms of comparing players across years and positions, it's a very useful tool.

We then compare that projected value with the implied value of the new contracts -- that is, what AV a player would have to put up to justify their contract, based on how teams have divvied up their salary cap dollars in the past. That allows us to calculate each contract's Age-Adjusted Value, our estimate of the value that each contract creates or destroys.

You'll also note that there are more net-negative deals listed here than positive deals -- by about a 2:1 ratio, at that. We're not saying that free agency is a net-negative proposition, nor are we saying that a negative-value deal is necessarily bad. There are a couple reasons why the tables below have more negative players.

Firstly, the tables below include every free agent with a deal worth more than $3 million per year. That cut-off, however, eliminates more than 150 free agents who signed smaller, usually shorter deals. Teams can get a lot of value out of those cheap signings. Players like Case Keenum, LeGarrette Blount and Zach Brown provided significant value for their teams last year after signing shorter, smaller contracts.

Almost by definition, the more you pay, the less likely you are to find excess value. Rather than have massive tables filled with players making the veteran's minimum, we selected a somewhat arbitrary cut-off for "significant" signings for the main portion of the article, and we'll highlight some of the best cheaper deals in a supplemental table at the end.

Secondly, not all overpays are necessarily bad. Take the Kirk Cousins contract for example. At $28 million per year -- all of it guaranteed -- it's the largest contract in the NFL. It's a deal you'd expect someone like Russell Wilson or Matt Ryan to receive, and Cousins hasn't been on that level. But Russell Wilson and Matt Ryan were not available in free agency. Nor were there multiple Kirk Cousins-type players to bid on to drive the overall prices down. Minnesota had to overpay to get the best quarterback available. Essentially, they traded financial strength for positional strength -- they have less money to go after other players, but no longer have to worry about the quarterback position.

You can't build an entire roster like that -- you'll end up with no depth, having spent all your money on big-name free agents. But splurging on a few big-name players can be beneficial if you have found savings elsewhere. This is why teams like the Rams, Eagles, and Cowboys have a significant advantage in free agency -- they're essentially saving millions by having a high-quality quarterback on a rookie contract, allowing them to be a little less thrifty in the free-agent market during that window of opportunity. They can overpay for the likes of Ndamukong Suh and take the hit more than the Vikings, 49ers, or Lions could. That opportunity can be wasted if, say, you have $22.8 million in dead money, but the point is that a deal is only good or bad when considered in the context of the team's overall salary structure.

Each table will have a player's new deal details -- their total value, value per season, and amount of guaranteed money. We list both their projected AV -- the amount of value our regression indicates they'll produce going forward -- and their needed AV -- the amount of value their contract implies. Then, you'll have the Age-Adjusted Value, which is how the model grades each move. Finally, you'll have words which explain where the model might be overly optimistic or pessimistic on specific players.


Player Age Tm Yrs Dollars Average Guaranteed Proj AV Needed AV Age-Adj Val
Drew Brees 39 NO 2 $50,000,000 $25,000,000 $27,000,000 14.79 15.69 -0.90
Drew Stanton 33 CLE 2 $6,500,000 $3,250,000 $4,150,000 3.95 5.50 -1.54
Mike Glennon 28 ARI 2 $8,000,000 $4,000,000 $4,000,000 4.71 6.74 -2.03
Chad Henne 32 KC 2 $6,700,000 $3,350,000 $5,115,000 3.25 5.50 -2.25
Kirk Cousins 29 MIN 3 $84,000,000 $28,000,000 $84,000,000 13.38 16.39 -3.01
Teddy Bridgewater 26 NYJ 1 $6,000,000 $6,000,000 $500,000 5.09 8.84 -3.75
A.J. McCarron 27 BUF 2 $10,000,000 $5,000,000 $4,900,000 3.98 8.02 -4.04
Josh McCown 38 NYJ 1 $10,000,000 $10,000,000 $10,000,000 6.75 11.04 -4.29
Case Keenum 30 DEN 2 $36,000,000 $18,000,000 $25,000,000 9.18 13.85 -4.67
Sam Bradford 30 ARI 1 $20,000,000 $20,000,000 $15,000,000 9.69 14.41 -4.72
Chase Daniel 31 CHI 2 $10,000,000 $5,000,000 $5,000,000 3.26 8.02 -4.76

Quarterbacks are a little tricky to predict, because their value is exceptionally binary: you either are starting and producing value, or you're on the bench and not. There's no rotational quarterback who puts up a little bit of value and gradually works his way into a starting role. Projecting someone going from a backup job to a starting job is one of the hardest things a general manager has to do, and quarterbacks have some of the smallest sample sizes to work with.

At an expected 16.4 AV per year over three years, Kirk Cousins would need to have 49 AV over the next three seasons to match his new record contract. Over the past three years, the quarterbacks with the most AV have been Tom Brady, Matt Ryan, and Russell Wilson -- all of whom have put up 49 AV. The best quarterback in the league should be the highest paid player in the league. Cousins is obviously a few steps behind those guys.


But those guys weren't available, and Cousins' 13.38 AV-per-year projection makes him the third-best quarterback free agent under the current CBA, stretching back to 2011. He's only topped by 2011 Peyton Manning and this year's Drew Brees, both of whom were always going to re-sign with their current teams. Cousins is simply the best quarterback to have been openly available in recent memory, so it's not surprising that teams backed the Brinks truck up to his front door.

The quarterback list also has a few examples showing why a team may have been willing to overpay the straight projection. First, some teams are expecting a recent improvement to be sustainable, and not a one-year fluke. If the Broncos have signed 2017 Case Keenum (AV 14), then they're paying a little under market value. His projection is hurt because he wasn't a particularly good quarterback with the Rams under Jeff Fisher, but if we learned anything last season, it's that quarterbacks improve when they're not being coached by Jeff Fisher.

Second, some teams believe that someone is going to recover from a serious injury. If Teddy Bridgewater returns to his pre-injury form, the Jets have the steal of the free-agency class. Obviously, that's a huge "if" there, and any injury that costs you a season and a half is extremely serious, but Healthy Teddy Bridgewater was worth somewhere in the $15 million to $20 million range.

Third, some players might outperform normal aging curves. Drew Brees' deal is only negative because he turned 39 in January; age catches even the best players eventually. There have only been two quarterbacks 39 or older who have put up 15 AV in a season -- 2009 Brett Favre and 2017 Tom Brady. That being said, Brees has passed 15 AV in each of the last two seasons, and the Saints have a better feel for Brees' specific situation than a projection does, so there's no reason to believe Brees' deal can't pay off.

On the other hand, Chase Daniel throws three passes in three years, and Chicago hands him $5 million guaranteed at signing? Man, how do I get that job? This is the second year in a row the Bears gave out the worst quarterback contract, after signing Mike Glennon last season. You can get perfectly serviceable backups for much less than Chicago will be paying Daniel.

In Arizona, Sam Bradford's deal would be at about a Kirk Cousins level of overpay if you could trust him to stay healthy. The model does not trust him to stay healthy.

Running Backs

Player Age Tm Yrs Dollars Average Guaranteed Proj AV Needed AV Age-Adj Val
Rex Burkhead 27 NE 3 $9,750,000 $3,250,000 $5,500,000 6.36 4.95 1.41
Dion Lewis 27 TEN 4 $19,800,000 $4,950,000 $5,750,000 9.19 8.26 0.93
Isaiah Crowell 25 NYJ 3 $12,000,000 $4,000,000 $4,000,000 7.16 6.68 0.48
Jonathan Stewart 31 NYG 2 $6,800,000 $3,400,000 $3,450,000 5.19 5.36 -0.17
Carlos Hyde 26 CLE 3 $15,250,000 $5,083,333 $5,000,000 8.20 8.45 -0.25
Jerick McKinnon 25 SF 4 $30,000,000 $7,500,000 $12,000,000 8.52 11.32 -2.80

A good year to sign Patriots running backs. The model doesn't know that Rex Burkhead will likely be getting a larger share of the snaps with Dion Lewis out of town, so if anything, it's undervaluing his potential going forward. I think I'd still prefer Lewis' deal over Burkhead's if given the choice -- Lewis is the better player, after all -- but neither the Patriots nor the Titans come out looking bad here.

Jonathan Stewart has finished with 5 AV in each of the past four seasons, but he turned 31 in March -- he's at the age when running backs turn back into pumpkins, hence the negative projection. When healthy, Carlos Hyde is worth what the Browns paid to get him, but he has only played 16 games in one of his four NFL seasons, so that's a worry as well.

But there's only one real questionable deal here. For the second year in a row, the 49ers have come out worst in our model -- last year for Kyle Juszczyk, and this year for Jerick McKinnon. McKinnon is now the fourth-highest paid running back in football, despite never gaining 1,000 yards from scrimmage in a season. He's a better fit for Kyle Shanahan's offense than Hyde was, but this seems like paying for a projection rather than what McKinnon has shown he can do on the field. McKinnon's contract is very front-loaded, so the 49ers can get out of it after one year if things go south, but it's a questionable year nonetheless. McKinnon did hit 9 AV last season, so it's not out of the question he can pass the 11 AV his contract implies. Still -- given a deep running back draft class available next weekend, did the 49ers have to splurge so much on McKinnon?

Wide Receivers

Player Age Tm Yrs Dollars Average Guaranteed Proj AV Needed AV Age-Adj Val
Mike Wallace 31 PHI 1 $4,000,000 $4,000,000 $1,000,000 6.51 4.57 1.94
Allen Hurns 26 DAL 2 $12,000,000 $6,000,000 $2,500,000 5.99 6.06 -0.07
Terrelle Pryor 28 NYJ 1 $4,500,000 $4,500,000 $2,000,000 4.80 4.94 -0.14
Danny Amendola 32 MIA 2 $12,000,000 $6,000,000 $6,000,000 5.88 6.06 -0.18
John Brown 27 BAL 1 $5,000,000 $5,000,000 $4,000,000 5.07 5.31 -0.23
Jordy Nelson 32 OAK 2 $14,200,000 $7,100,000 $6,400,000 6.65 6.90 -0.26
Michael Crabtree 30 BAL 3 $21,000,000 $7,000,000 $8,000,000 6.40 6.83 -0.42
Taylor Gabriel 27 CHI 4 $26,000,000 $6,500,000 $14,000,000 5.81 6.44 -0.64
Ryan Grant 27 IND 1 $5,000,000 $5,000,000 $5,000,000 4.16 5.31 -1.15
Albert Wilson 25 MIA 3 $24,000,000 $8,000,000 $14,450,000 6.42 7.61 -1.19
Marqise Lee 26 JAX 4 $34,000,000 $8,500,000 $16,500,000 6.77 8.00 -1.23
Paul Richardson 26 WAS 5 $40,000,000 $8,000,000 $12,500,000 5.48 7.61 -2.13
Donte Moncrief 24 JAX 1 $9,600,000 $9,600,000 $9,600,000 5.90 8.88 -2.98
Sammy Watkins 24 KC 3 $48,000,000 $16,000,000 $30,000,000 7.68 14.47 -6.79
Allen Robinson 24 CHI 3 $42,000,000 $14,000,000 $18,000,000 5.45 12.63 -7.19

Yes, the model is panicking over Allen Robinson's deal because he essentially missed all of 2017 with a torn ACL. The model does account for injuries -- it doesn't assume a player is suddenly valueless just because they got hurt -- but it currently does not distinguish between an injury like Robinson's, which cost him a year but shouldn't impact him going forward, and the injuries suffered by Teddy Bridgewater or Zach Miller, which cost multiple years or could be career ending. That's something we'll look at improving in next year's iteration of the model. If you assume Robinson's 2017 season would have been as good as his 2015 breakout season, the model would project him between 9 and 10 AV -- a moderate overpay for the best receiver in the class.


We don't have an injury defense to explain the deal for Sammy Watkins, who is now the fourth-highest paid receiver in football. The Chiefs are paying him to be Julio Jones or Antonio Brown, and Watkins has never really come close. He battled injuries in Buffalo and wasn't a good fit in Sean McVay's scheme in Los Angeles, but is that enough to justify paying him as a top-five receiver? I'm just not sure.

One thing I am sure of, however, is that the Mike Wallace deal looks great for Philadelphia. They've basically managed to upgrade from Torrey Smith while paying less for the privilege. Yes, Wallace's age is a concern, but it's a one-year deal and the Eagles are in win-now mode. Wallace should be a nice fit as Philadelphia's deep threat.

Everyone from Allen Hurns through to Taylor Gabriel can look like a good deal if you judge a player by his highs rather than his lows -- every receiver in the group had at least one year in the last three where they surpassed their projection. My favorite of the group is Danny Amendola's deal in Miami -- a cheaper upgrade over Jarvis Landry, albeit one with significant injury concerns.

Oh, and though they're not on the table: the model would project Dez Bryant to be worth a little less than $8 million a season going forward, and thinks Jarvis Landry should have been worth about the same to Cleveland. (The Browns traded a fourth-round pick this year and a 2019 seventh-rounder to acquire Landry, then signed him to a five-year extension worth up to $75.5 million, $15.1 million per season, with $34 million guaranteed.)

Tight Ends

Player Age Tm Yrs Dollars Average Guaranteed Proj AV Needed AV Age-Adj Val
Eric Ebron 24 IND 2 $13,000,000 $6,500,000 $6,500,000 6.04 4.69 1.36
Austin Seferian-Jenkins 25 JAX 2 $10,000,000 $5,000,000 $4,000,000 4.00 3.56 0.45
Ed Dickson 30 SEA 3 $10,700,000 $3,566,667 $3,600,000 2.40 2.10 0.30
Lee Smith 30 OAK 3 $9,000,000 $3,000,000 $3,000,000 0.86 1.27 -0.41
Darren Fells 31 CLE 3 $12,000,000 $4,000,000 $4,650,000 1.67 2.61 -0.94
Tyler Eifert 27 CIN 1 $5,500,000 $5,500,000 $3,000,000 2.70 3.96 -1.27
Jimmy Graham 31 GB 3 $30,000,000 $10,000,000 $13,000,000 4.47 6.69 -2.22
Trey Burton 26 CHI 4 $32,000,000 $8,000,000 $18,000,000 2.74 5.62 -2.88

You'll note that the AV expected of tight ends is somewhat lower than that of the other skill position players. This is a problem with AV -- it tends to underrate those tight ends who block more than they catch. That lower rating gets baked into the regression, so tight ends come out with lower numbers than you'd expect to see elsewhere.

Eric Ebron drops too many passes and needs to find more consistency in all aspects of the game. That being said, he's only 25 and has shown he can be a solid underneath receiver who makes plays after the catch. He'll frustrate Colts fans like he did Lions fans in Detroit, but he has also proven he can be a valuable player, just not the first-round value the Lions thought they were getting when they drafted him in 2014.

When healthy, Tyler Eifert was a Pro Bowler. He hasn't really been healthy in two years, but if he can return to anything approaching form, than Cincinnati has a great deal here.

Jimmy Graham is an interesting case; he never seemed to really click in Seattle, and his yards per reception plummeted to 9.1 last season. If Graham returns to his New Orleans form with the Packers, then this is a solid deal. Green Bay is hoping that Graham's struggles were with the scheme rather than the player, in other words.

The model hates the Trey Burton deal because he has only started five games in his career; the Bears will presumably be using him just a bit more if they're paying him $8 million a year. Based on his DVOA from last season (35.0%, third-best at the position), the deal is far more justifiable.

Offensive Linemen

Player Age Tm Yrs Dollars Average Guaranteed Proj AV Needed AV Age-Adj Val
Breno Giacomini 32 OAK 1 $3,015,000 $3,015,000 $1,000,000 7.67 4.36 3.32
Brandon Fusco 29 ATL 3 $12,750,000 $4,250,000 $4,500,000 8.32 6.08 2.24
Senio Kelemete 27 HOU 3 $12,000,000 $4,000,000 $5,000,000 7.34 5.75 1.58
Andre Smith 31 ARI 2 $8,000,000 $4,000,000 $3,500,000 6.94 5.75 1.19
Patrick Omameh 28 NYG 3 $15,000,000 $5,000,000 $10,050,000 7.59 7.00 0.60
John Sullivan 32 LAR 2 $10,750,000 $5,375,000 $5,250,000 7.60 7.43 0.17
Jonathan Cooper 28 SF 1 $4,950,000 $4,950,000 $4,000,000 6.86 6.94 -0.08
Seantrel Henderson 26 HOU 1 $4,000,000 $4,000,000 $1,000,000 5.02 5.75 -0.73
Josh Kline 28 TEN 4 $26,500,000 $6,625,000 $9,250,000 8.04 8.77 -0.74
Josh Sitton 31 MIA 2 $13,500,000 $6,750,000 $8,450,000 7.76 8.90 -1.14
Zach Fulton 26 HOU 4 $28,000,000 $7,000,000 $13,000,000 7.67 9.15 -1.48
Spencer Long 27 NYJ 4 $27,400,000 $6,850,000 $6,000,000 7.37 9.00 -1.64
Mike Pouncey 28 LAC 2 $15,000,000 $7,500,000 $10,000,000 7.18 9.64 -2.46
Chris Hubbard 26 CLE 5 $36,500,000 $7,300,000 $9,000,000 6.32 9.45 -3.12
Andrew Norwell 26 JAX 5 $66,500,000 $13,300,000 $30,000,000 10.49 14.38 -3.90
Justin Pugh 27 ARI 5 $45,025,000 $9,005,000 $13,000,000 6.93 11.01 -4.08
Ryan Jensen 26 TB 4 $42,000,000 $10,500,000 $22,000,000 7.50 12.26 -4.76
Weston Richburg 26 SF 5 $47,500,000 $9,500,000 $16,500,000 6.43 11.44 -5.00
Nate Solder 29 NYG 4 $62,000,000 $15,500,000 $34,800,000 9.71 15.90 -6.18

At this point, Breno Giacomini is a consistent presence you can slot in at right tackle for adequate performance. A one-year deal for $3 million for Giacomini isn't going to create major splashes, but it's a cheap move that's relatively unlikely to backfire. If I were rating these subjectively, I'd prefer Brandon Fusco's deal in Atlanta, but to each their own.

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Andrew Norwell was the best offensive lineman available, and the third-most valuable player, period, behind Cousins and Brees. The projection system is a little hesitant about him, because he jumped from a 6 AV player in both 2015 and 2016 to a 14 AV player last season. Norwell is now the highest-paid guard in the league, and the model is asking him to play like the best guard in the league to justify it. Norwell's 14 AV was the highest in the league last season, so if he can keep up that level of play, he'll be worth every penny.

Nate Solder is now the highest-paid tackle in football by nearly $2 million a season. That's a lot of money for any tackle to justify. I do, however, think the model is expecting too much out of a $15 million offensive lineman, simply because it hasn't had any examples close to compare in the past. It does take more money to jump from 10 AV to 11 AV than it does from 5 AV to 6 AV, but I think it might be accelerating too sharply here to try to model an unprecedentedly high lineman contract. I'd pick Weston Richburg as the worst deal, simply because he's coming off of a very serious concussion.

Defensive Linemen

Player Age Tm Yrs Dollars Average Guaranteed Proj AV Needed AV Age-Adj Val
Bennie Logan 28 TEN 1 $4,000,000 $4,000,000 $3,750,000 7.87 4.77 3.10
Chris Baker 30 CIN 1 $3,000,000 $3,000,000 $300,000 5.72 3.65 2.08
Alex Okafor 27 NO 2 $6,787,500 $3,393,750 $1,500,000 6.17 4.18 1.99
Muhammad Wilkerson 28 GB 1 $5,000,000 $5,000,000 $1,500,000 7.21 5.50 1.70
Sylvester Williams 29 DET 1 $3,500,000 $3,500,000 $3,400,000 5.93 4.29 1.64
Mitch Unrein 31 TB 3 $10,500,000 $3,500,000 $3,000,000 5.77 4.29 1.47
Derrick Shelby 29 ATL 1 $3,250,000 $3,250,000 $2,000,000 5.37 4.00 1.36
Mike Pennel 26 NYJ 3 $10,500,000 $3,500,000 $4,500,000 4.97 4.29 0.67
Sheldon Richardson 27 MIN 1 $8,000,000 $8,000,000 $7,800,000 7.65 7.05 0.60
DaQuan Jones 26 TEN 3 $21,000,000 $7,000,000 $14,000,000 7.18 6.60 0.58
Aaron Lynch 25 CHI 1 $4,000,000 $4,000,000 $1,250,000 4.91 4.77 0.14
Player Age Tm Yrs Dollars Average Guaranteed Proj AV Needed AV Age-Adj Val
Dontari Poe 27 CAR 3 $28,000,000 $9,333,333 $10,800,000 7.32 7.59 -0.27
Beau Allen 26 TB 3 $15,000,000 $5,000,000 $5,000,000 5.15 5.50 -0.36
Clinton McDonald 31 DEN 2 $7,000,000 $3,500,000 $4,000,000 3.70 4.29 -0.60
Haloti Ngata 34 PHI 1 $3,000,000 $3,000,000 $2,615,000 3.00 3.65 -0.65
Adrian Clayborn 29 NE 2 $10,000,000 $5,000,000 $5,500,000 4.69 5.50 -0.82
Denico Autry 27 IND 3 $17,800,000 $5,933,333 $6,500,000 5.07 6.06 -0.99
Kyle Williams 34 BUF 1 $5,500,000 $5,500,000 $4,500,000 4.63 5.81 -1.18
Vinny Curry 29 TB 3 $23,000,000 $7,666,667 $6,500,000 5.57 6.91 -1.34
Star Lotulelei 28 BUF 5 $50,000,000 $10,000,000 $18,500,000 6.39 7.84 -1.45
William Hayes 32 MIA 1 $4,050,000 $4,050,000 $4,000,000 3.25 4.81 -1.56
Chris Smith 30 CLE 3 $12,000,000 $4,000,000 $4,500,000 3.07 4.77 -1.69
Ndamukong Suh 31 LAR 1 $14,000,000 $14,000,000 $14,000,000 6.45 9.15 -2.70
Julius Peppers 38 CAR 1 $5,000,000 $5,000,000 $2,500,000 1.40 5.50 -4.10

We're mixing interior defenders, 3-4 defensive ends, and 4-3 edge rushers here, because that's how the data comes to us. One day, the NFL will make edge rushers a separate category for franchise tag purposes and the like, but until then, we shall muddle through somehow.

Edge rushers are generally paid more than interior defenders. They also generally earn more AV, so some of that ends up being a wash, but 4-3 ends should be a little higher on this table than they actually are.

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Julius Peppers is only the worst deal listed here because, statistically speaking, he is dead. He turned 38 in January, and there have only been about a dozen defensive linemen in NFL history who have been solid contributors at that age. Pat Williams, Ted Washington, and Bruce Smith are the only three examples this millennium. The model sees a 38-year-old defensive lineman and assumes he should be fitted for a walker and a hearing aid, not penciled in for double-digit sacks. Age will catch up to Peppers eventually, but the model has penciled him in way too low. There's no way he's the worst deal on this list.

Nor is Ndamukong Suh the worst deal -- I think that's an outright problem with AV. Suh only earned 7 AV in both 2015 and 2017, because there wasn't a lot of value to spread around on some poor Miami defenses. In both those years, no one on Miami's defense earned more than 9 AV, and Suh was in the top three each time -- what little value Miami was generating was going to Suh. I think it's fair to argue that Miami Suh hasn't been as good as Detroit Suh, and age is a concerning factor for the long run, but I strongly feel AV is underrating Suh's value. I suppose that leaves Chris Smith as the largest overpay, but it's not an egregious one.

Instead, there are a lot of good value deals here that the model really likes. Bennie Logan is somewhat inconsistent on a snap-to-snap basis, but his ball awareness, pursuit and tackling ability had him among the league leaders in tackles behind the line of scrimmage last season. Chris Baker appears near the top of the list for the second year in a row, and I'd highlight Muhammad Wilkerson, Sylvester Williams, and Sheldon Richardson as particularly good values, as well. I also think AV is underrating Haloti Ngata; at age 34, his best days are behind him, but a $3 million deal seems like good value for an experienced veteran.


Player Age Tm Yrs Dollars Average Guaranteed Proj AV Needed AV Age-Adj Val
Christian Jones 27 DET 2 $6,350,000 $3,175,000 $2,800,000 7.05 3.37 3.68
Preston Brown 25 CIN 1 $4,000,000 $4,000,000 $2,000,000 8.18 4.70 3.48
Barkevious Mingo 27 SEA 2 $6,800,000 $3,400,000 $3,200,000 5.46 3.77 1.69
Todd Davis 25 DEN 3 $15,000,000 $5,000,000 $6,000,000 7.43 5.98 1.44
Jeremiah Attaochu 25 SF 1 $3,000,000 $3,000,000 $2,500,000 4.22 3.05 1.17
Zach Brown 28 WAS 3 $21,000,000 $7,000,000 $5,500,000 8.71 7.92 0.78
Tahir Whitehead 28 OAK 3 $19,000,000 $6,333,333 $6,275,000 8.12 7.34 0.78
Nigel Bradham 28 PHI 5 $40,000,000 $8,000,000 $6,000,000 8.98 8.69 0.29
Demario Davis 29 NO 3 $24,000,000 $8,000,000 $16,000,000 8.82 8.69 0.13
Devon Kennard 26 DET 3 $17,250,000 $5,750,000 $7,500,000 6.79 6.79 0.00
Avery Williamson 26 NYJ 3 $22,500,000 $7,500,000 $16,000,000 8.09 8.32 -0.23
Kareem Martin 26 NYG 3 $15,000,000 $5,000,000 $5,750,000 5.69 5.98 -0.30
Anthony Hitchens 25 KC 5 $45,000,000 $9,000,000 $21,290,000 7.78 9.23 -1.46
Trent Murphy 27 BUF 3 $22,500,000 $7,500,000 $7,875,000 4.41 8.32 -3.90

Again, we're mixing 3-4 rush linebackers with inside linebackers here, so the same caveats apply.

Christian Jones has a high projected AV because someone on the Bears had to. A defensive player's rating will be largely based on how many games he played, how many games he started, and how good his team was defensively. Over time, the theory goes, better players will play more games on better defenses, and thus get a higher rating. That seems fairly intuitive when looking at a large enough sample. When looking at single-year stats, however, sometimes a player gets snaps not because he is particularly good, but because there's just no one better to take those snaps.

Enter Christian Jones. Jones is a backup who was forced into a starting role in both 2015 and 2017 thanks to issues in the Bears' linebacker corps, like pectoral injuries to Jerrell Freeman and Nick Kwiatkoski in 2017. AV sees Jones as a starter, who should get starter value. You should probably view him as a backup and downgrade him accordingly. That would bump Preston Brown up to the top slot -- $4 million for a consistent, technically sound, jack-of-all-trades inside linebacker is a good deal.

At the bottom of the table, Trent Murphy missed all of 2017 with a torn ACL and MCL. Even giving him the most credit possible and assuming he'll come back in full form with no lingering effects, it's hard to see $7.5 million of value here. He lacks the explosive pass-rush traits you'd look for out of your top pass-rusher, though he did pick up nine sacks in 2016.


Player Age Tm Yrs Dollars Average Guaranteed Proj AV Needed AV Age-Adj Val
Ross Cockrell 26 CAR 2 $6,600,000 $3,300,000 $2,400,000 5.58 3.52 2.06
Orlando Scandrick 31 WAS 2 $6,850,000 $3,425,000 $1,000,000 4.71 3.66 1.05
Tramaine Brock 29 DEN 1 $3,000,000 $3,000,000 $3,000,000 4.00 3.09 0.91
Terrance Mitchell 25 CLE 3 $10,000,000 $3,333,333 $3,500,000 4.20 3.56 0.64
Nevin Lawson 26 DET 2 $9,200,000 $4,600,000 $4,550,000 5.18 4.62 0.56
E.J. Gaines 26 CLE 1 $4,000,000 $4,000,000 $1,400,000 4.72 4.19 0.53
Johnson Bademosi 27 HOU 2 $6,250,000 $3,125,000 $2,250,000 3.52 3.29 0.22
Richard Sherman 30 SF 3 $27,150,000 $9,050,000 $3,000,000 6.81 6.65 0.16
Johnathan Joseph 33 HOU 2 $10,000,000 $5,000,000 $3,900,000 4.92 4.87 0.05
Malcolm Butler 28 TEN 5 $61,250,000 $12,250,000 $24,000,000 7.45 7.67 -0.22
Morris Claiborne 28 NYJ 1 $7,000,000 $7,000,000 $6,850,000 5.60 5.86 -0.27
Patrick Robinson 30 NO 4 $20,000,000 $5,000,000 $6,000,000 4.50 4.87 -0.36
Rashaan Melvin 28 OAK 1 $5,500,000 $5,500,000 $4,850,000 4.37 5.15 -0.78
Nickell Robey-Coleman 26 LAR 3 $15,675,000 $5,225,000 $6,625,000 4.19 5.00 -0.81
Tramon Williams 35 GB 2 $10,000,000 $5,000,000 $4,750,000 3.79 4.87 -1.08
Prince Amukamara 28 CHI 3 $27,000,000 $9,000,000 $18,000,000 5.40 6.64 -1.24
Travis Carrie 27 CLE 4 $31,000,000 $7,750,000 $8,000,000 4.89 6.17 -1.28
Trumaine Johnson 28 NYJ 5 $72,500,000 $14,500,000 $34,000,000 6.17 8.28 -2.10
D.J. Hayden 27 JAX 3 $19,000,000 $6,333,333 $9,450,000 3.41 5.56 -2.15
Aaron Colvin 26 HOU 4 $34,000,000 $8,500,000 $18,000,000 4.21 6.46 -2.25

The highest projected AV belongs to Malcolm Butler, and he received an appropriately large contract to match. The deal for the Titans will look even better if Butler performs at the same levels he did in 2015 and 2016. It's rare that the top player at a position doesn't get overpaid, but the Titans have managed that with Butler. Butler received $11.25 million less overall and $10 million less guaranteed than the other big name free-agent corner, Trumaine Johnson. While I think Johnson's projection is being somewhat lowered by the Jeff Fisher effect, there's certainly not a $2 million a year difference between the two players.

The argument in defense of the Aaron Colvin signing is that it's only $18 million in guarantees, but even that feels too high. Colvin benefited from being surrounded by excellent athletes in Jacksonville. He's not good in man coverage and is not good at playing the ball. He's a zone defender and a good run stopper, but it feels like he got over-paid for his association with a top defense last season.

Both Ross Cockrell and Orlando Scandrick have out-performed their projected AV in each of the last three seasons, making their new, sub-$3.5 million deals feel like real bargains. Cockrell led all qualified cornerbacks with a 77 percent success rate last season. Neither player will be confused for a top shutdown corner, but as complementary pieces, they offer great value at a very reasonable price.


Player Age Tm Yrs Dollars Average Guaranteed Proj AV Needed AV Age-Adj Val
Marcus Gilchrist 29 OAK 1 $4,000,000 $4,000,000 $3,850,000 5.72 5.06 0.65
Tavon Wilson 28 DET 2 $7,000,000 $3,500,000 $3,250,000 4.53 4.45 0.08
Deshawn Shead 29 DET 1 $3,350,000 $3,350,000 $1,500,000 4.16 4.26 -0.10
Kurt Coleman 29 NO 3 $16,350,000 $5,450,000 $6,200,000 6.25 6.81 -0.56
Morgan Burnett 29 PIT 3 $14,350,000 $4,783,333 $4,250,000 5.10 6.01 -0.92
Tyrann Mathieu 25 HOU 1 $7,000,000 $7,000,000 $6,500,000 7.49 8.62 -1.13

There aren't any substantially notable deals among the safeties this year. Tyrann Mathieu may grade out as the worst deal, but it's not a significant overpay for the top safety in the free agent pool.

Special Teams

Player Age Tm Yrs Dollars Average Guaranteed Proj AV Needed AV Age-Adj Val
Chandler Catanzaro 27 TB 3 $9,750,000 $3,250,000 $3,750,000 3.74 5.11 -1.37
Cody Parkey 25 CHI 4 $15,000,000 $3,750,000 $9,000,000 3.26 5.78 -2.51

It's worth giving up a significant portion of your salary cap space to lock up, say, Justin Tucker. Matt Bryant, Greg Zuerlein, Adam Vinatieri -- these kickers have shown significant value above average over multiple seasons. Chandler Catanzaro and Cody Parkey do not fall in that group.

Smaller Deals

As promised, here are some of the best values found for less than $3 million. Specifically, these are the most valuable signings at each position group for players making more than the veteran's minimum:

Pos Player Age Tm Yrs Dollars Average Guaranteed Proj AV Needed AV Age-Adj Val
QB Tom Savage 28 NO 1 $1,500,000 $1,500,000 $100,000 5.65 5.50 0.16
RB Mike Davis 26 SEA 1 $1,350,000 $1,350,000 $350,000 6.04 3.99 2.05
WR Deonte Thompson 30 DAL 1 $1,800,000 $1,800,000 $1,000,000 4.31 2.99 1.33
TE Benjamin Watson 38 NO 1 $2,000,000 $2,000,000 $645,000 3.50 -0.81 4.31
OL Kevin Pamphile 28 TEN 1 $1,400,000 $1,400,000 $400,000 8.06 1.38 6.69
DL Kony Ealy 27 DAL 1 $1,250,000 $1,250,000 $200,000 5.14 2.51 2.63
LB Will Compton 29 TEN 1 $1,250,000 $1,250,000 $250,000 6.46 2.20 4.27
CB David Amerson 27 KC 1 $2,250,000 $2,250,000 $500,000 5.19 2.58 2.61
S Keith Tandy 30 TB 2 $2,740,000 $1,370,000 $600,000 3.52 1.76 1.76
ST Marquette King 30 DEN 3 $6,000,000 $2,000,000 $2,000,000 4.50 3.33 1.17

Tom Savage has not looked good on the field, but $1.5 million for a quarterback with starting experience? In a world where Chase Daniel makes $5 million? That's a bargain. Deonte Thompson has speed, and caught 27 passes for 430 yards and a score for Buffalo in just 11 games. Kony Ealy has been inconsistent in his career, but had 23.5 pass pressures last season; he can be a useful part of a rotation. David Amerson wasn't worth the big deal he received from Oakland in 2016, but a one-year "prove it" deal as a starting corner in Kansas City to see if he can regain any of his exceptional 2015 form is more than worth it. If anyone can come up with a logical explanation as to why Marquette King was cut by the Raiders, I'd love to hear it.

All AV figures courtesy of Pro Football Reference. All salary information courtesy of Spotrac.


23 comments, Last at 25 Apr 2018, 5:35pm

#1 by Charzander // Apr 19, 2018 - 4:26pm

It seems like this form gives added benefit to shorter contracts. The only positive value from a 4+ year contract is Nigel Bradham's 0.22... Shouldn't the back part of those contracts be weighted less, if that's possible? If they're not producing value, they're not going to get that money since it's usually not guaranteed.

Points: 0

#2 by billprudden // Apr 19, 2018 - 4:42pm

"If anyone can come up with a logical explanation as to why Marquette King was cut by the Raiders, I'd love to hear it."

Resetting the locker room, for whatever that's worth...

Planning to go for it on 4th-and-midfield a lot?

Saving $ by paying the next guy the rookie minimum?

Points: 0

#3 by JoeyHarringtonsPiano // Apr 19, 2018 - 5:01pm

We could come up with a whole list of explanations, but almost none of them would meet the definition of "logical".

Points: 0

#6 by MilkmanDanimal // Apr 19, 2018 - 7:16pm

Having dealt with Jon Gruden's coaching for a number of years, I would guess based on history being a veteran who doesn't kiss Jon Gruden's backside leads to getting cut. Gruden in Tampa was very much a "My guys" kind of coach in Tampa, which is kind of ironic considering he was most successful with somebody else's guys.

Points: 0

#4 by jtr // Apr 19, 2018 - 5:14pm

This is interesting analysis, but it'll only carry you as far as you can trust AV. I think AV makes a lot of sense for skill players, and a good bit for front seven players, since conventional statistics cover most or all of their on field production. But it's pretty silly to talk about an offensive lineman's AV production. For instance, AV can't distinguish between two teammates who start the same number of games and don't make the All Pro/Pro Bowl, even if one is a good player and one is a lousy one. Even if he has a great season, Nate Soldier is unlikely to hit his AV projection, simply because he'll be on a significantly worse offense than he was last few years.

Points: 0

#5 by Hoodie_Sleeves // Apr 19, 2018 - 5:27pm

If Butler is the guy he looked like in 2016, Tenn got a pretty good deal.

If Butler is the guy he looked like in 2017, Tenn got a pretty raw deal.

Hopefully the new contract, and a full camp, and 'respect' will get him back where he should be.

Points: 0

#8 by sbond101 // Apr 20, 2018 - 3:24pm

... "Hopefully the new contract, and a full camp, and 'respect' will get him back where he should be."... In my estimation the chances of this are <10%. Getting paid up front for future performance is always counter-motivational, especially since there's a good chance it will be his last significant contract.

I hope Butler does get motivated to play well (a prime candidate for motivating him might be proving BB wrong) because watching a guy compete as hard as he did in 2016 is great - but paying a guy significant money up front after a year like that is just plain crazy. This is very much a smaller-time version of the Jets paying Revis upfront the second time, or Washington paying Hanseworth; In the case of these players it is very clear that maximizing there career earnings is their primary goal (in significant part because they have said so), and playing hard after signing the contract does not substantially contribute toward that goal. Maybe Butler finds that something besides fighting his way into the NFL with a view toward a future big-money contract is worth putting forth the extremely high level of competitiveness that broke him into the NFL for - but I don't see what would lead anyone to believe that he will.

Points: 0

#18 by sbond101 // Apr 23, 2018 - 10:48am

Recall ECON101, the incentive to labour is only ever contingent FUTURE payment (or future contingent pain), it's why you don't tip your waitress before the meal. How counter-motivational frontloading a contract is depends on a variety of factors including, but not limited to, the likelihood of a future contract, and a players desire to play good football regardless of the contractual situation, and non-NFL earning potential (e.g. endorsements). For some players the counter-motivational effect of front-loading a contract is irrelevant when compared to whatever other factors might exists, and is something you might choose to give away in a contract negotiation in exchange for something else because you think the player might be in that category; but in no case does writing a frontloaded incentivize a service provider to provide the best possible effort.

Points: 0

#19 by Hoodie_Sleeves // Apr 23, 2018 - 11:46am

"Recall ECON101, the incentive to labour is only ever contingent FUTURE payment"

Again - this is simplistic nonsense.

"For some players the counter-motivational effect of front-loading a contract is irrelevant when compared to whatever other factors might exists"

See, you even admit its nonsense.

Points: 0

#23 by Mountain Time … // Apr 25, 2018 - 5:35pm

So according to your logic, tipping your waitress 50% before your meal wouldn't result in great service? That's completely stupid. There's no way you actually believe that. You're seriously misunderstanding your econ text here.

In fact, giving someone a raise will almost certainly INCREASE their performance over their baseline, for a short time, before it falls back to average.

Points: 0

#9 by commissionerleaf // Apr 20, 2018 - 4:30pm

Peyton Manning did not resign with his current team after 2011, nor was he "always going to". We knew what you meant, but for posterity, he is clearly the most valuable FA QB in probably the history of football, given that he continued to be the best QB in football for three (well, two and two thirds) years after joining the Broncos.


Anyway, unlikely that Cousins 2018-2020 is as good as Manning 2012-2014.

Points: 0

#16 by Aaron Schatz // Apr 22, 2018 - 4:58pm

This is a reference to an extension that I believe Manning signed prior to the 2011 season that he missed with the neck injury, not a reference to Manning signing with the Broncos in 2012. I think Bryan did not consider 2012 Manning because 2012 Manning had not come to the end of a contract, but was rather cut by the Colts. Yes, 2012 Manning was a better free agent than Cousins.

Points: 0

#10 by MJK // Apr 20, 2018 - 5:11pm

Out of curiosity, how much does the model project that Eric Reid is worth?

Points: 0

#11 by jtr // Apr 20, 2018 - 6:02pm

Reid got credit for 4 AV each of the last two years, so call him a 4 AV player for this coming season. Looking through the table for comperable values, that puts him somewhere between $3M and $3.5M per season.

Points: 0

#14 by Mountain Time … // Apr 21, 2018 - 3:14pm

The cornerbacks have a Tramaine, Tramon, and Trumaine.

Points: 0

#15 by gomer_rs // Apr 21, 2018 - 8:08pm

Looking at this all I can think is...


Because I'm still waiting for Seattle's line to upgrade from 2 serviceable linemen and 3 turnstyles to 2 turnstyles and 3 serviceable linemen. And a perfectlly marginally bad lineman was available for 1 year and 3 million!!!

Every year my opion of Pete Carrol and John Schneider drops a notch or two!

I remember when they were the Sea-chickens.

Points: 0

#20 by TecmoBoso // Apr 24, 2018 - 12:36pm

I'd be interested to see where the Kyle Fuller deal falls here. Seems to me to be a pretty bad over pay by the Bears considering his history and how the contract is structured.

Points: 0

#21 by Steve in WI // Apr 24, 2018 - 2:16pm

Regarding the Bears: comparing the Chase Daniel signing to the Mike Glennon signing is, if not apples to oranges, at least apples to rotten apples. Pace signed Glennon to a contract that was for borderline starter money when no one else offered Glennon anything close to that. Even if Glennon had been decent, he still would have outbid himself on that deal. Daniel was signed to truly be a backup (albeit an expensive one), and I don't think it's absurd to think that the Bears had to guarantee $5 million to get him.

I think given the large amount of salary cap space the Bears had, and the fact that they have a cheap QB for another 3 years, it's virtually impossible for the Daniel deal to be as bad as the Glennon deal. Plus they may think Daniel is a useful guy to have in the QB room as Trubisky develops.

Hell, Glennon is still going to cost the Bears more cap space ($4.5M) in 2018 than Daniel ($3.0M), according to Spotrac.

Points: 0

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