Value Pricing the NFL Running Back
Since the QB Pricing model was well received as a new way to judge the annual salary a player should receive and if the current deal he is under was a good or bad one, I've decided to extend it to the running back position. This time around I moved to a weighted average system with the current season being given the most weight. Again please note that the contract numbers used are based on various reports of the contracts annual value and should be close to the actual numbers.
The primary criteria was that a player had to be active in 2011 and the player needed at least 200 yards (combined rushing and receiving) in two of the prior three seasons. 63 players qualified under these criteria.
The running back position has completely changed in the last few years to the point that a player's ability as a receiver is nearly as important as his ability to run between the tackles. Due to this Yards from Scrimmage (YFS) is going to be used to measure each players worth. I believe the highest ever total was 2,509 yards by the Titans Chris Johnson in 2009. This stat does not take into account any quality of opposition and it clearly penalizes players for injury (such as the Chiefs' Jamaal Charles in 2011) or lack of use by a head coach.
Defense Adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) is one of Football Outsiders metrics that measure the value of a number of players. DVOA places a value on a RB based on situational play. Their baseline is the league average in a situation (down and distance) and then they adjust the success criteria based on the opponent they are playing. Essentially they award a point for a play that picks up a minimum amount of yardage based on down and distance with bonus points awarded for amount of yards thrown beyond the necessary yardage as well as red zone play. They also award negative points for negative plays, such as interceptions. The DVOA then compares the players score to the average expectation. In many ways we can look at DVOA in this situation as a measure of how good a runner is behind a specific offensive line and in a specific offensive system. It gives a good indication of how valuable the player is to that particular NFL team. Marshall Faulks 35% in 2000 is the highest DVOA recorded for a single season.
Pro Football Focus has their own grading system, though they have yet to name anything so I will just refer to it as PFF. PFF grades a player on 4 criteria- pass, run, blocking and penalties- and adds them up for an overall grade for a player. Like DVOA it is more of a situational based grading scale with points being awarded between -2 and 2 for a play. They normalize the stats based on an average expectation which they set when they began their site. Jamaal Charles' 25.7 score in 2009 was the highest received by a running back during their brief history.
For each category I used the stats for the 2011, 2010, and 2009 NFL seasons and assigned a weighted score of 50%, 35%, and 15% respectively for each year. For YFS, every year counted in the calculation unless the player was a rookie in 2010 in which case the points assigned were 58.8% for 2011 and 41.2% for 2010, essentially just keeping the ratio the same between the years.
Because Football Outsiders calculates both rushing and receiving DVOA I had to average the two categories to come up with a total DVOA number. The number weighed the rushing number to count for 75.2% of the score while receiving counted for 24.8%. The numbers were based on the average yardage split between run and receiving from scrimmage the prior three seasons. If a player did not have enough carries in a season to qualify for a ranking I did not include it in the weighted average calculation. If a player did not have enough catches to qualify, I used a 0% for the year since there were a good amount of players who were not used in the receiving game but were playing significant snaps.
PFF already factors receiving in to their score total so no adjustments were needed. I did, however, use the same weighted average ratios as I did for Football Outsiders. For example since I did not have a DVOA score for Jamaal Charles in 2011 I did not use his PFF score from 2011 when calculating his average, instead assigning a 70/30 split for his 2010 and 2009 seasons.
To normalize each category the first step was to take the negative numbers out of the DVOA and PFF scores. To do this I took the lowest rated score and added it to every player's total, bringing the lowest rated player to a score of 0. For PFF the player was Thomas Jones at a -5.27 while for DVOA the low player was Tashard Choice at -23.02%. YFS from adjusted downward to 0 by subtracting 268.6, the YFS total of Kahlil Bell. Each of the three metrics was then given equal weight by summing the total point value in each category and adjusting it to 1000. Each players 3 individual scores were then summed for a Total Point Value.
Let's first look at total production of running backs. Maurice Jones Drew ranked first followed by Arian Foster, Ray Rice, Jamaal Charles and Adrian Peterson. Charles surprised me since he was injured this season, but his yardage totals the two prior years were so impressive that it kept him near the top. Had I simply given him a score of 0 for DVOA and PFF this year he clearly would have fallen. Foster and Rice are both due for new contracts and are certainly right at the top of the league and could be due for a big payday.
Here is a graph of performance against annual salary to get an idea of where most players rank by how much a team spends on them. I marked a few of the bigger name players under contract to illustrate just how much the money is not panning out for most teams.
Running back is such a tough position to play in the league and players don't last long. It's a subject I have touched on in the past when looking at Matt Forteand Chris Johnson, where the falls from superstardom come hard and come fast. Players bargain for deals based on big numbers, but those numbers will never occur again. Most of the time they won't be within 40% of the big number total they use to negotiate the contract.
With the exception of MJD, almost all of the big name players are producing at a level no better than players on low cost rookie contracts, RFA tenders, and mid-tier free agent contracts. A team like the Panthers investing so much money in DeAngelo Williams could get similar production from Cedric Benson or Marshawn Lynch at a fraction of the cost. These are reasons why the 49'ers have played hard ball with Frank Gore and why the Ravens will likely franchise Rice and the Texans go no further than a tender offer on Foster. It is the one position the NFLPA should have fought hard for in the CBA to allow for either added performance based pay early in the career or options for renegotiation after the 2nd year in the league. To hold RBs to the same standard as other positions is simply not fair.
But under the current rules the best options for the teams is to draft a player, run him into the ground and let someone else pay him. The graph is dominated by low cost players and moderate cost free agents and I would consider the max threshold to be in the ballpark of no more than $4 million a year on a long term deal. I almost wonder for a player like Rice if it is better to take a 4 year contract averaging around what Jones-Drew receives or less to lock up some guaranteed salary rather than playing on the franchise tag and hoping something bigger can get done in 2013. Forte I think already made that mistake when he turned down whatever offer the Bears had on the table for him last season and proceeded to get injured.
When you graph the actual cost of each point of production of the players it really drives home what NFL team should be doing. Here are the top 25 players according to point value and how expensive each point is for the team.
This paints an entirely different picture about spending on the RB position. Why should the Vikings have signed Peterson to a deal worth more than $14 million a year when most low cost draft choices, like Foster, Rice, and McCoy give near equivalent production at such a lower cost? Peterson is the 4th highest paid player per point at the position. He costs nearly 16 times as much as McCoy for only a 5% increase in production. Perhaps a fairer comparison is the mid tier free agent. Compared to a player such as Ahmad Bradshaw, no longer on a rookie contract, Peterson costs 2.8 times as much per point for only an increase of 11% in value. It not money well spent.
Who are the worst values in the NFL? Chester Taylor is the worst and closely followed by Chris Johnson, something I predicted would happen when they were still negotiating a deal with him. DeAngelo Williams is third and is one of the worst contracts in recent times. To sign a RB off injury to such a big deal is just horrible decision making. Peterson rounds out the top 4. Big money; not enough production. It's a clear pattern. Two former Jets, Leon Washington and Thomas Jones, both made the worst 10 making the Jets much criticized decisions to release those players look much better.
Foster was the best value in the NFL at under $6,000 per point of production. Peyton Hillis, LeGarrette Blount, Rice, and Isaac Redman were the other best options. That does not mean that those players are guys who should be elevated to starters, but they are good situational players that can do a job for a team at low cost. Hillis and Blount would be the two players who potentially could be worth in the $3-$3.5 million range. The other starting quality backs in the top 10 were Forte, McCoy, and Shonn Greene.
Breaking this down into segments we come up with the following average point totals:
The rookies skew these numbers though, so lets look at the groups separately. If I pull out all the rookie deals, including the ERFA and RFA players, the list falls to 35 names. Now here is the veteran production:
The 28 rookies are as follows:
So what exactly is the NFL team paying for? At the top end it's nearly 5 times the salary for about 4% of benefits. For the top 10 it's double the cost for 7.2% more production. At the low end its actually better production for lower costs.
It paints a very bleak picture for a team that invests in a running back beyond their rookie years and an even bleaker picture for the RBs who have been neglected by the Players Association in their negotiations with the league.
If you absolutely think you have a player on your team capable of being a top 5 back and can sign him for about $5 million or less year it might be worth the investment since there is a great deal of uncertainty in the draft and you intend to replace with a 1st round draft pick. This number balances out the risk, which is that a rookie player bottoms out around a 30 point value at close to $2 million in annual costs. If I am the Houston Texans and I intend to sign Foster long term in 2013, when I no longer control his rights, it is in their best interests to pay him now before he begins to tail off like a Jackson or Gore. To wait a year just hurts the team in the long run.
If you just think you have a good player that is not top tier, but you believe you are getting a bargain on him at $4.5 million, such as a Joseph Addai, you can't do it. There is almost no chance of getting a good return on that investment. The cost of a rookie is so much less and the production more or less equivalent that it does not make financial sense. It goes back to your own internal evaluation. If you are going to spend over $3.5 million you better be 100% certain the guy can be a borderline top 5 player. If not it is throwing money away.
At the low end the only role the veterans have is leadership. Those bottom rung players will likely cost you $2 million a season with zero upside. You have to go young and hope for the best. At worst they will probably get you equivalent production. I don't think you can even consider those players unless it's under $1.2 million a season.
When it comes to drafting the best plan should be to draft low rather than high. The top draft picks really are not giving the anticipated production. The costs may be more balanced out with the rookie wage scale, as a McFadden type will never average over $7 million again, but it's those second rounders and lower really doing the job. Low risks high rewards. That is the way to draft.
Going back to the current league there are only a handful of veteran players who the teams got good deals with- Bradshaw, Sproles, Thomas, and Jackson. Charles and Jones-Drew are probably right there as well when you take into account the bloated deals given to other players. Just about everyone else is money that was thrown away. Rice, McCoy, and Foster should all be extended now while they are young if their teams want to keep them. Forte I think missed that age cut and it should be one and done for him in Chicago if they even decide they want him back. It is a shrinking market and I would expect less and less teams to invest big money in running backs in the future.