Fine-Tuning Wins Above Replacement To Better Capture an NFL Player’s $/Year Value

 

Whereas baseball is filled with advanced statistics, other sports, particularly football, have lagged behind. For analysis, the common fan too often turns to unstable, flawed statistics such as yards gained/allowed, turnovers, and touchdowns, and, as a result, NFL players tend to be more polarizing than MLB players- analysts are using different variables to compare players. Luckily for us, Pro Football Focus’ grades and new Wins Above Replacement (WAR) metric are two statistics that are far more predictive, as they focus on what the individual player can control- they aren’t subject to the noise of confounded variables.

However, even their WAR calculation appears to be in need of a slight tweak, as they use their overall grades, which don’t completely reflect a player’s value. That’s where our study from last week on the most predictive variables in winning games comes into play. With that information, we can come up with a revised overall grade based on their recent production, and from there, we can project a new WAR value for them; this will not only allow us to compare different players, but also estimate their contract worth on the open market. In this article, we’ll go by position by position, analyzing the overall grade and adjusted WAR equations, while also looking for market inefficiencies that teams should attempt to exploit.

Before we start, we need to calculate how much teams are paying for a win. Using data provided from Pro Football Focus, here is a rough estimate of the $/win amounts per position:

Quarterback- $13.40155160M

Runningback- $48.297525M

Wide Receiver- $25.751926M

Tight End- $25.45253940M

Offensive Tackle- $54.750674M

Interior Offensive Line- $39.935710M

Interior Defensive Line- $93.157746M

Edge Rusher- $67.794226M

Linebacker- $47.986966M

Cornerback- $27.559938M

Safeties- $20.919358M

As you can see, teams definitely pay the least for a win at quarterback, which makes sense considering how much value they provide than other positions. For that reason, we’ll exclude them from the equation, so with that in mind, teams are paying about $45.610661M for a win from the non-quarterback positions. When quarterbacks are included, that number drops to $42.27374177M. It’s clear that some teams are far more efficient “buying” wins from some positions than others, but rather than calculate a player’s worth on the open market simply based on a $/WAR mark, I believe we need to focus on meeting in the middle. As a general manager, you can’t reset the market of each position on your own, and if you only pay players based on the $/WAR scale, you’re team is going to lack impact talent at a lot of positions. Flexibility is key, so taking the mean from the $/WAR scale and the implied market value makes the most sense.

For the following WAR equations: the x-variable will be the calculated adjusted overall grade, note than this is the value for a slightly adjusted WAR, rather than Pro Football Focus’ actual WAR metric. Meanwhile, all the $/year calculations are in millions.

Quarterback

 

  • Overall grade calculation= overall grade
  • WAR equation: (0.093x-5.4)*(Max Dropbacks/582.69)

We’ll start of with one of the three calculations in which we don’t have to calculate a different grade, as Pro Football Focus effectively grades quarterbacks on a per/play basis- there isn’t any information from our study to suggest that certain aspects of quarterback play are being weighted incorrectly. Meanwhile, the average amount of dropbacks for a quarterback who played 13 games or more last season was 583; we’re focused on the maximum amount of drop-backs they’ve shown to be capable of in the past, as we’re worried about projecting future performance and more dropbacks would positively correlate with WAR.

Top Ten:

$_Year, Projected WAR, Actual Value and Technical Mean Value-2

On Monday, the Chiefs signed Patrick Mahomes to a ten-year, $450 million contract that can be worth up to $503 million. Although that may seem like an overpay based on this model, the quarterback market is constantly increasing, and if you value quarterback wins the same as every other position, his actual value is around $137 million a year. In other words, quarterback is such an important position, and if you can have a top-ten quarterback on a long-term contract, I’m certainly comfortable “over-paying” compared to what the market would indicate he should be paid. At the same time, though, quarterbacks who fail to elevate the players around them (mid-tier quarterbacks) tend to get overpaid, with Dak Prescott (implied value of $24.5M) standing out as a clear example.

Runningback

  • Overall grade calculation= (.515*REC Grade) + (.485*RUSH Grade)
  • WAR equation: (.0146x-0.9)*(Max Rush Attempts/266)

Even though running backs are generally the main source of rushing yards, we’ve found that a team’s passing offense is so much more valuable than their rushing, offense so a running back’s receiving grade is slightly more important than their rushing grade. This is a major discrepancy from public opinion, as running backs such as Ezekiel Elliott, Derrick Henry, Sony Michel, Marlon Mack, and Carlos Hyde are examples of players who simply don’t provide the receiving ability necessary to be as valuable as their rushing yards would indicate.

Top Ten:

chart-6

In general, it’s very rare for a running back to make a drastic impact, which is why that the top of the market should generally be around $10 million per year, based on their WAR totals. Yet, Christian McCaffrey is currently an outlier, as he’s worth about twice as much as the next running back, and right now, he would appear to be worth his recent four-year, $64 million contract extension. However, running backs tend to decline at a younger age, and the fact that McCaffrey is barely worth his contract extension at his peak speaks to why running backs shouldn’t be given lofty contracts- McCaffrey had two years left on his rookie contract. There simply isn’t much value to be had with this market, considering running backs are still aiming for $14-$15 million per season, though the underrated Austin Ekeler somehow only received a four-year, $24 million extension from the Chargers this offseason. For the most part, teams appear to be learning, as the running back market has actually regressed in recent years- this position’s top production comes during their rookie contracts.

Wide Receiver

  • Overall grade calculation= receiving grade
  • WAR equation= (0.0318x-2.06)*(Target Value/91)

Similarly to their grading system of quarterbacks, Pro Football Focus already has a method in place to effectively grade wide receivers on every route they run, so there isn’t any reason to change it. Meanwhile, when projecting WAR, we need to know how much volume a receiver can handle, which is where our target value statistic comes into play. Essentially, target value takes a player’s maximum amount of targets, and adds that to (1 minus their slot target percentage)- 91 is considered average. In other words, the more outside targets a receiver has, the better; when judging a player’s worth, we need to take into account their efficiency and ability to remain efficient over a large proportion of targets, and target value helps up account for the latter variable.

Top Ten:

chart-8

Even when looking at the implied value based the market place, the top of the wide receiver market is almost guaranteed to provide you with adequate value. For perspective, Michael Thomas is projected to be worth double the annual value ($20 million) of his new contract, which speaks to the value he provides at such a key position- his ability to remain extremely efficient over a huge workload is impressive. It’s hard to find where the value ends at this position, but if I had to nitpick, once you get to low-end WR2 range (50th best receiver and beyond), you’d be better off taking a swing in the draft on a young player with both upside and a rookie contract. Nevertheless, given where the receiver market is currently, it’s hard to find instances where a team isn’t receiving at least adequate value.

Tight End

  • Overall grade calculation= (.807*REC Grade) + (.1928*RBLK Grade)
  • WAR equation (.0176x-1.16)*(Max Targets/81)

Unlike receivers, tight ends actually provide some value based on their run-blocking. For the most part, that impact is minimal, yet you still need to be adequate enough of a run-blocker; being poor in this area will not only prevent you from accumulating snaps, but teams also want to keep opposing defenses guessing as to what type of play they’re running. The average amount of peak targets for tight ends is much lower than wide receivers, meanwhile, but that just shows how important the high-end players are to their teams- they’re able to handle volume that tight ends generally can’t.

Top Ten:

chart-11

Currently, the average of top-ten salaries for a tight end is only $8.720040M, which is lower than any other position. For the most part, this is a reflection of the lack of talent at the position, and this can be seen by the major drop-off after the top-six players. George Kittle is in a class of his own, as he’s the premier receiving threat for a high-powered offense as a inline player, while Travis Kelce, Darren Waller, Mark Andrews, and Zach Ertz are all major components of their team’s passing attacks- they’re going to be underpaid based on where the tight end market is. If you can’t have an elite tight end, however, there isn’t much use investing at this position, as the gap between what the 15th-rated tight end (Kyle Rudolph) is worth compared to the 27th (Nick Boyle) is only around $3 million.

Offensive Tackle

  • Overall grade calculation= (.566*RBLK Grade) + (.434*PBLK Grade)
  • WAR equation= (.021x-1.36)*(Max Snaps/787)

This is the first major surprise when it comes to overall grade, as, despite the fact that a team’s passing offense is far more important than their rushing attack, an offensive linemen’s run-blocking ability was more correlated to offensive success than their pass-blocking. Although this may seem strange on the surface, it actually makes sense. A quarterback tends to control their pressure rate, and you can mitigate an offensive lineman’s pass-blocking deficiencies with a quick passing attack. On the other hand, offensive linemen are the driving factors of a team’s rushing offense, and that area of their game is more based on talent. There’s a reason that they tend to have a far higher pass-block grade than run-block grade- the latter area is simply more difficult.

Top Ten:

chart-12

The offensive tackle market is certainly one that is higher than it should be, as teams are paying $54.750674 million for a win at the position. Plus, if Laremy Tunsil’s new $22 million-per year contract is a way of resetting the market, then that will only become more an issue. For now, though, there is still some value in maintaining the services of a top-tier offensive tackle, and I expect Ryan Ramczyk and Ronnie Stanley to be justifiably rewarded with new extensions soon. There is a massive inefficiency when it comes to the less talented players, however. Offensive tackles only generated 0.1 WAR on average, so unless you’re in the process of acquiring a top-20/30 player at the position, they’re unlikely to be worth the contracts they’re given. Given how much teams tend to overpay for offensive tackles, securing the services of a starting-caliber player in the draft is critical when it comes to team-building.

Interior Offensive Line

  • Overall grade calculation= (.566*RBLK) + (.434*PBLK)
  • WAR equation= (.0164x-0.972)*(Max Snaps/974)

The overall grade calculation, based on our past study, accounts for all offensive lineman, so interior players are graded the same as offensive tackles; it’s notable that their average WAR is roughly the same as tackles as well. Still, though, since interior pressure is less valuable than edge-rush pressure, there tends to be more interior offensive linemen available at an affordable price.

Top Ten:

chart-13

The top-end of the interior offensive market isn’t as strong as the top of the offensive tackle market, as there are less elite players that play guard and center. Still, however, the depth at this position is much stronger, and unlike with offensive tackles, there is more surplus value to be had with these players- teams pay $39.935710M for a win from an interior offensive lineman. Considering that you need three interior offensive lineman to fill out your offensive line, it’s certainly helpful that they are relatively affordable.

Interior Defensive Line

  • Overall grade calculation= (.585*PRGrade) + (.415*RDGrade)
  • WAR equation= (.0122x-0.734)*(Snaps/699)

Whereas run-blocking is a greater reflection of talent when it comes to offensive line production, the inverse is true for front-four players. Not only is there a large collection of run-stopping interior defensive linemen available, but that’s an area where you just need to be average, whereas elite pass-rushers are hard to come by at the position and correlate with a team’s pass defense.

Top Ten:

chart-14

At $93.157746M/win, the interior defensive line market is easily where teams spend the least efficiently. For the most part, I’d avoid splurging at this position at all, unless a player is severely underrated by the market. Still, though, similarly to Christian McCaffrey and George Kittle at their positions, it’s astonishing of how much more valuable Aaron Donald is compared to his peers, so I don’t have any issue with the $22 million per season he’s making in his massive contract extension he signed with the Rams.

Edge Rusher

  • Overall Grade calculation= (.585*PRGrade)+ (.415*RDGrade)
  • WAR equation= (.0206x-1.42)*(Snaps/806)

The overall grade equation for edge rushers is the same as it is for interior defensive lineman, and overall, both generate the same average WAR (0.06). However, edge rush pressure is more valuable than interior pressure, which is why that top-ten edge rushers (.2783) moved the needle far more than top-ten interior defenders (.1868).

Top Ten:

chart-15

Since elite edge rushers tend to have a higher WAR than elite interior defenders, the market isn’t as egregious. Still, $67.794226M/win is a lofty amount, and once you get past the high-end players at this position, there is little reason to invest in this position. However, it appears that the edge-rush market is only increasing, and if that’s the case, even the Watt brothers won’t be worth the amount they’ll be making. Ironically, Jadeveon Clowney ranks very highly in projected WAR, yet remains on the open market due to his poor sack numbers- the evaluation of pass-rushers is generally questionable, at best.

Linebacker

  • Overall grade calculation= (.826*COVGrade) + (.174*RD Grade)
  • WAR equation= (.0142x-0.835)*(Snaps/891)

Although linebackers need to make an impact in run defense, as they’re the next line of defense, it’s their ability in pass coverage that truly moves the needle. At this point, being able to cover tight ends and running backs is a necessity at this position, which is why teams will continue to covet undersized, athletic players; sure, they may struggle to take on blocks in run defense, but how much does that truly matter?

Top Ten:

chart-16

After emphasizing the importance of pass coverage, it shouldn’t come to anyone’s surprise that a majority of this top-ten list is made up of undersized linebackers who specialize in pass coverage. Had Bobby Wagner’s coverage production not regressed so heavily in 2019, he’d be projected to be worth $20 million per season, but as things stand, Lavonte David is the new “king” at the position. Overall, the linebacker market lines up with adequate $/WAR spending- there isn’t much surplus value to be gained, but teams aren’t spending inefficiently at this position.

Cornerback

  • Overall grade= coverage grade
  • WAR equation= (.0234x-1.36)*(Max Coverage Snap Value/468)

Cornerbacks are essentially the same as receivers with this process; we can use Pro Football Focus’ coverage grade to evaluate their efficiency. Also, similarly to with receivers, we want to reward players who have proven to play a large number of coverage snaps, especially on the outside, so we’ll calculate their maximum coverage snap value; their maximum coverage snaps are added to (1-their slot snaps) and then the sum of that is divided by two to find the mean. While slot cornerbacks provide value, they’ve been proven to be slightly less valuable than outside cornerbacks, although that gap  is generally overblown- they are vastly underpaid.

Top Ten:

chart-17

Byron Jones signed the largest cornerback contract (five-years, $82.5 million) this offseason, which is right on line with his implied value- teams only pay $27.559938 million for a win from the cornerback position. However, that certainly isn’t reflective of the value of a position that ranks third in average WAR, though I do believe that teams aren’t properly evaluating cornerbacks properly. Jalen Ramsey, Marshon Lattimore, and Tre’Davious White, for instance, all projected to earn massive contracts in the future, yet each of them don’t rank in the top-20 in projected WAR. Meanwhile, Steven Nelson, Price Amukamara, and Jason McCourty have recently signed contracts worth $8 million or less annually, yet each of them rank in the top-11. Getting back to the discussion about slot cornerbacks, they may be the most undervalued group of players in the entire NFL; Tramon Williams (0.37 projected WAR) hasn’t signed with a team yet, while Nickell Robey-Coleman, Brian Poole, and Chris Harris Jr. were all underpaid on the open market this offseason compared to the value they’ll bring to their respective teams.

Safety

  • Overall grade calculation= (.8694*COVGrade) + (.1306*RDGrade)
  • WAR equation= (.367x-2.45)*(Max Snaps/970)

As the last line of defense, one can argue that a safety’s run defense should be valued more. However, the same can be said about their coverage ability, and similarly to linebackers, their efforts in an area that’s more predictive of defensive success should be weighted significantly. Also, if you look at top-ten WAR totals from last season, safeties actually rank third, so the idea that they aren’t important for a defense is utterly blasphemous.

Top Ten:

chart-18

Safeties are only paid $20.919358M/win, which is the lowest of any non-quarterback position. As a result, they are vastly undervalued on the open market, as Eddie Jackson’s $14.6 million annual value is the largest in the NFL. If all goes well, Jamal Adams will reset that market, and considering the flexibility he brings, it will be interesting to see if hybrid players like him and Derwin James are outliers in terms of what they earn on the open market. Simply put, though, you have to get into backup-caliber player territory to find a safety that isn’t likely to provide surplus value. As a result, this is a position that I’d highly recommend teams investing in with free-agent contracts, rather than with a cheaper option in the draft.

Conclusion

After going through each position, it’s clear where there are the most opportunities for finding value on the open market- on the perimeter. Based on what certain position groups are being paid, it’s clear that the entire NFL hasn’t caught up to the idea that games are no longer won in the trenches, and until that happens, teams can build a championship roster very efficiently. It all starts at the quarterback position, however, and as long as you’re confident in your signal-caller being able to elevate the talent around him, paying them is a no-brainer decision. If you’re looking for specific examples of teams who are exploiting some NFL team’s shortcomings, I’d look towards the Ravens and Patriots, who’ve built their defenses with a strong secondary and have understood positional value on the open market, which is why they’ve consistently been competing for Super Bowls recently. Moving forward, using this adjusted version of WAR, and the $ value estimates that come from it, we can build an effective draft model to get a read on how truly valuable a prospect will be at the next level; it’s also a great tool for evaluating free-agent contracts. Obviously, these calculations have some margin for error, but that goes both ways, so staying in the range of the recommended contract values for players would allow teams to build their rosters properly. When it’s all said and done, though, this all goes hand-and-hand with understanding what wins NFL games, so as long as teams are investing in the right areas, they are likely to be satisfied. Hopefully, this model can give the common fan a new perspective of the value that a player provides; as they say, money talks!

3 thoughts on “Fine-Tuning Wins Above Replacement To Better Capture an NFL Player’s $/Year Value

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