The Most and Least Cost-Effective Quarterbacks of 2013
Americans enjoy team sports. There's a reason why the "big four" sports all involve teams, and one of the fastest growing sports in the nation (soccer) also involves a team on the field of play.
Only NASCAR can boast a decent-sized following in the United States and claim to be an individual sport, but even in NASCAR, the actions of the driver alone don't determine the final outcome of the race. But the driver often gets the most praise or the brunt of the blame when things go wrong for his team.
This isn't unlike the quarterback position in football, which may be the most "singled out" spot in any of the major American team sports. Pitchers, goalies and point guards don't get the same level of scrutiny that quarterbacks receive, and while NBA fans have high expectations for someone like LeBron James, there are 32 men in the NFL who are expected to completely transcend the team sport and make a sometimes unreasonable impact from under center.
It's this obsession with the quarterback, combined with the actual importance of the position, which leads to plenty of discussion about what these players should be paid. Several NFL teams are shelling out over 10 percent of their total payroll to their quarterbacks, but are they making the right decision?
Let's take a look at the quarterback position across the league and see how these players live up to their paychecks. The following charts show how much the respective teams spent on a per dollar basis for the Net Expected Points gained or lost by the quarterback. Total NEP was used, which takes into account all of the quarterback's contributions, including rushing. This list features every passer who dropped back to pass more than 300 times in 2013.
|Player||Cost Per NEP|
|Robert Griffin III||$185,458.38|
|Player||Cost Per Negative NEP|
The quarterbacks were split into two tables to represent the difference in the players who had a net positive impact on their team's offense, and the players who had a negative NEP and a negative impact on the expected outcome of their team. Essentially, the top chart shows the cost per point added, while the bottom displays the quarterbacks who were essentially paid to lose points for their team.
So what are some of the takeaways from this chart?
Rookie Contracts Provided Quite the Bargain: The Eagles are paying Nick Foles on his rookie contract, and by logging one of the best Total NEP seasons in recent history, he provided incredible value for the Eagles. Likewise, Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, and Andy Dalton blow away the competition due to their strong performances on super cheap contracts.
Kaepernick is leaving the value of his rookie deal, and entering the realm of the big boys at the quarterback position, but his numbers still compare favorably. Were he playing on his $19 million per year average contract last season, Kaepernick would have finished between Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger in the middle of the list above. The challenge for the 49ers will be to continue to keep a high level of talent around Kaepernick with less money to spend on the team as a whole.
Super Bowl Winners Dragging Down the Payroll: The Giants and Ravens paid up to keep their Super Bowl winning quarterbacks in house, and in doing so, they've saddled their teams with inefficiencies at quarterback. Joe Flacco failed to net a whole positive Net Expected Point over the course of the season (he finished with an NEP of 0.99), meaning he was playing to the expectation of the average quarterback in the eyes of our algorithm. That's fine if he was being paid a reasonable amount, but considering the big contract he signed after winning the Super Bowl, the Ravens had the least efficient positive producer under center in the league on a salary basis.
It was even worse for Eli Manning, who had the worst Total NEP of the quarterbacks listed, and the highest salary of the signal callers to finish in the negatives. So while Geno Smith and Terrelle Pryor had similarly bad performances as throwers in 2013, no team paid their quarterback more to lose points than the Giants did for Eli.
Don't Follow the Leader: The list above clearly shows that quarterbacks who can run and quarterbacks on rookie contracts tend to get the most bang for the buck using our metrics. But does that mean that every NFL franchise should just run out and grab the first mobile rookie they can get their hands on? Maybe not. Because the "negatives" list shows how that can go wrong.
Geno Smith was an athletic quarterback taken in the second round, and he played on a bargain contract. And even though he didn't rob his team of millions of dollars to be one of the worst players at his position in the league, he still contributed a strong negative level of efficiency at the most important position on offense. Similarly, E.J. Manuel's youth, reasonable contract, and mobility weren't enough to vault him into the upper echelon of value pick quarterbacks. So it's not as easy as just taking any mobile, young player and getting results.
What Can We Learn?
The more important trend is that elite quarterbacks who were paid as if they were elite (Manning, Rodgers, Big Ben) still wind up in the top half of the league in value-based-efficiency despite big-money contracts. But the players who were paid as if they were elite, but fail to live up to that standard on a regular basis, wind up at the bottom of the list, or below the threshold of positive impact players (Cutler, Ryan, Flacco, Eli, Schaub).
So it's entirely worth it for a team to pay big for a good player at quarterback. The Broncos, Saints and Patriots have no regrets about the eight-figure deals they signed with their franchise quarterbacks because they continue to deliver at a high level, and they produce with a consistency that helps elevate the receivers and backs around them. But since there's only a handful of players at this level in the NFL, what should other teams in search of a quarterback do?
Taking a shot with a second- or third-round pick seems to be a rewarding trend based on the data above, but the cases of Robert Griffin III, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Alex Smith also reveal that getting a quarterback who can throw and run with any level of competence for a relatively good contract can pay off in the short-term. This means that the Buccaneers' decision to sign Josh McCown, or the Texans' acquisition of the aforementioned Fitzpatrick might have been better decisions than blindly throwing a high draft pick at a player who could wind up no better than Manuel or Smith last season.
After all, two of the top three players on the dollar per NEP list were draft picks who got to sit and learn to begin their careers, something that having a capable vet like McCown or Fitzpatrick will allow the Bucs and Texans to do. None of this is a guarantee for success, but considering the alternatives (paying too much for a mediocre player like Flacco or struggling with a well-paid veteran who just isn't very good like Jason Campbell), it might have been the best choice for those quarterback-needy teams.
But the overall lesson to be learned is that teams need to enjoy their productive quarterbacks while they're on a rookie deal and raking in the value, because once that second deal comes around, the margin for error becomes slimmer and slimmer.
And they may need to be willing to let go of an average quarterback demanding big money in the prime of his career, as well. In the case of Flacco and Eli, it simply wasn't worth it for those teams to invest such a large amount of money into the quarterback position, only to see the players falter and the rosters decline due to a lack of resources to spend elsewhere.