The Most and Least Cost-Effective Secondaries in 2013

The Chiefs cut Brandon Flowers, saving them $7.5 million, but is the secondary a good place to try to save money?

With the NFL becoming more pass-happy, it's no surprise that NFL quarterbacks make the big bucks. Colin Kaepernick just signed huge contract, which is worth it for the San Francisco 49ers if their quarterback can live up to his contract.

Meanwhile, the Kansas City Chiefs cut cornerback (who played more like a nickel back this year) Brandon Flowers. Flowers was to make over $7 million this season.

Are big budget cuts safe for secondaries, or do teams need to spend to counteract the league's best quarterbacks?

Let's take a look and see.

Defining the Approach

Here at numberFire, we rely on a metric called Net Expected Points (NEP), which measures how many points above or below average a team scores over the duration of a season. In the context of pass defense, we focus on Defensive Passing NEP and then adjust it for strength of schedule (Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP). This tells us how many points a team allows or denies through the air in a season compared to what's expected of them during certain situations in every game.

In 2013, the Seattle Seahawks led the league in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP, posting a -93.84. This means they denied nearly 100 points more than they should have through the air over the course of the season. On the other end of the spectrum, four teams (the Oakland Raiders, Jacksonville Jaguars, Minnesota Vikings, and Atlanta Falcons) posted Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP scores over 100.

But, per, the Vikings and Jaguars were two of only three teams to spend fewer than a combined $10 million on their cornerbacks and safeties last year. While they were unsuccessful on defense, they were some of the least expensive players in the league.

It's fair to see just how (literally) costly their mistakes were for their teams by examining how much each team paid for their secondaries this year.

Examining the League

Only eight teams in the league posted negative Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP marks. Surprisingly, three of them (the Seahawks, Carolina Panthers, and Arizona Cardinals) were teams in the bottom fourth of the league in total secondary payroll. Almost half of the league's eight-best passing defenses per our metrics were inexpensive units.

But that still means the other five were more costly. The good news for a team like the Chiefs is that they posted the third-best Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP. The less good news is that they paid for it, spending more money on their secondary than all but two teams in the league.

This, along with knowing that the Jaguars and Vikings were generous to opposing passers but not to their secondary's collective wallet, begs the question of whether or not secondaries should be spending points for teams.

In the table below, you'll find each team in the league, sorted by their final Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP rank, their combined salary for cornerbacks and safeties in 2013, and their salary rank (first being the most expensive).

Adj D PNEP RankTeamSecondary SalarySecondary Salary Rank
1Seattle Seahawks$12,144,04627
2Cincinnati Bengals$21,952,3639
3Kansas City Chiefs$26,348,3033
4Carolina Panthers$9,884,30931
5Buffalo Bills$17,573,17116
6New York Giants$23,907,1006
7Arizona Cardinals$13,217,51825
8New Orleans Saints$21,608,95110
9New England Patriots$15,958,56521
10Miami Dolphins$18,316,59315
11San Francisco 49ers$23,582,6967
12Chicago Bears$19,177,25413
13Baltimore Ravens$14,762,70422
14Pittsburgh Steelers$27,550,2842
15Tampa Bay Bucs$32,453,5001
16Cleveland Browns$13,327,24924
17New York Jets$15,993,53220
18Dallas Cowboys$16,250,37219
19Washington Redskins$11,722,15028
20Indianapolis Colts$22,364,6428
21Tennessee Titans$20,379,54312
22Denver Broncos$23,972,5714
23St. Louis Rams$21,503,35511
24Philadelphia Eagles$12,952,89626
25Detroit Lions$10,892,14129
26San Diego Chargers$16,330,02318
27Green Bay Packers$19,040,94514
28Houston Texans$23,917,3235
29Oakland Raiders$14,097,12423
30Jacksonville Jaguars$7,141,19832
31Minnesota Vikings$9,997,11130
32Atlanta Falcons$16,526,07117

What It All Means

It's a lot to take in at once, but I'll break it down for you. Basically, everything is scattered, and narratives can be made in nearly any direction depending on which team you examine. While the costs per point are telling, the most important takeaways from the tables are the correlations between salary rank and Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP rank.

Here are some highlights from the two tables.

You Can Go Bargain Shopping...: The Seahawks posted the best metrics by far and did so with just the 27th-most expensive secondary in the league, thanks to, in large part, starting cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell making just $555,000 each in 2013. The Carolina Panthers spent even less money on their secondary and were able to finish fourth in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP. The only other two teams to post a top-10 season in the metric but remain outside the top-20 in salary were the New England Patriots and the Arizona Cardinals.

...But, Sometimes, You Get What You Pay For: The Jaguars had the cheapest secondary unit on the year and were unsurprisingly near the bottom of the league in effectiveness, ranking 30th in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP. Similarly, the Vikings kept their secondary spending to a minimum but were consistently torched by opposing passing offenses. Per raw metrics, they're as bad as they get, but it was just a small investment for the Vikes.

Getting your money's worth isn't always a bad thing, though. Some teams that were willing to spend had plenty to show for it. The Chiefs, Cincinnati Bengals, New York Giants, and New Orleans Saints were top-10 in both salary and Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP. These big investments paid off for these teams, but not every team who poured money into the secondary had good fortune this year.

Sometimes, Though, You Don't Get What You Pay For: Conversely, teams did spend on secondary units that failed to deliver. The Denver Broncos, Indianapolis Colts, and Houston Texans all had a secondary unit that was inside the top 10 in salary, but outside the top 20 in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP. Champ Bailey cost the Broncos $9.5 million, and the quartet of Antoine Bethea, Vontae Davis, Greg Toler and LaRon Landry made a combined $14.4 million for the Colts. Bethea, Toler, and Landry were the team's three highest-paid players.

And the two most expensive secondaries in the league (the Buccaneers, $32.5 million, and the Pittsburgh Steelers, $27.6 million) were just mediocre, ranking 14th and 15th, respectively, in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP. They didn't get their money's worth, but they weren't terrible. They overspent for decent secondary play.

Takeaways: No clear trends emerge. Some teams are able to take advantage of rookie contracts and inexpensive secondary players, but sometimes being unwilling to spend on these positions can place a team near the bottom of the league in efficiency (like the Jaguars). Spending big, though, doesn't always pan out, either. Cutting a player like Flowers was as much about fit as it was about money. If the Chiefs and other teams can cut spending in their secondary but play at an elite level, this study shows promise.

After all, the three teams to post a negative Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP and have a secondary payroll in the bottom fourth of the league (the Seahawks, Panthers, and Cardinals) combined for a 35-13 record and a Super Bowl victory.