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Salary vs Performance--Do Teams Get What They Pay For?

Yesterday Football Outsiders writer Bill Barnwell wrote a piece for ESPN comparing positions and salaries to determine if teams got what they paid for. I can't quote the whole article because it's an ESPN Insider article but I'll highlight the numbers and do some of my own analysis. I got the salaries from USA Today's Salary Database (They also have one for basketball, baseball and hockey).

I thought the results were interesting and a bit of a mixed bag.


Highest Spenders: San Diego Chargers ($28,604,890)
Lowest Spenders: Buffalo Bills ($3,460,790)

The Chargers have most of that money tied up in Phillip Rivers brand new contract that included $19 million in guaranteed money, plus his regular salary of $6 million. Billy Volek made $2.5 million and Charlie Whitehurst a measley $500k.

It worked out for the Chargers too as they led the league in passing DVOA. On the flip side the Bills ranked near dead last with Trent Edwards coming in at 36th amongst all starting QBs and Ryan Fitzpatrick coming in at 38th (Fitzpatrick made $3 million, Edwards made $460,000)

Join me after the jump as we go through some of the rest of the findings.

Running Back
Highest Spenders: Jacksonville Jaguars ($18,188,450)
Lowest Spenders: Baltimore Ravens ($2,214,280)

The Jaguars had their money split up between 4 running backs. The bulk of it went to MJD at $13 million, but Greg Jones got $3 million, Montell Owens $1.6 and Rashad Jennings $348,000.

This seemed to have worked for the Jaguars--they were ranked 10th in rushing this year. However the Ravens spent the least of all teams on their RBs (McGahee got $620,000; Ray Rice $350,000; LeRon McClain $460,000 and Jalen Parmelee $460,000). The Ravens would end up being ranked 5th.

Conclusion: Don't overpay for running backs. Offensive line is much more important.

Wide Receiver
Highest Spenders: Green Bay Packers ($25,887,380)
Lowest Spenders: St. Louis Rams ($3,270,931)

The Packers had 7 WRs on their roster at some point in the 2009 season. The bulk of the cash went to went to Greg Jennings (a wopping $16 million), but Donald Driver got a sizable chunk ($6 million), and Jordi Nelson got just over $1 million.

How did that work out? Well Jennings tied for 14th with just over 1100 yards receiving. Driver ended up tied for 17th with 1061 yards. That extra $10 million that Green Bay paid to Jennings instead of Driver got them an extra 100 yards receiving.

The Rams also had 7 WRs on their roster but the biggest earner was Tim Carter with $620,000. The rest of their receivers earned around $500k each, give or take a bit. Donnie Avery was their most productive WR (he finished with 589 yards), and he made a grand total of $463,000.

Conclusion: You get what you pay for. I'd go a step further and say that the QB is just as important. Jennings was a productive WR, but there were several WRs who were just as productive who made far, far less (Marques Colston, Chad Ochocinco, Larry Fitzgerald).

Tight End
Highest Spenders: Pittsburgh Steelers ($9,041,920)
Lowest Spenders: Philadelphia Eagles ($961,162)

These numbers are a bit tricky. The Steelers had extended Miller prior to 2009 and the Eagles extended Celek during the season, so they'll likely be atop the leader board next season. Both TEs were among the best in the league last year.

Conclusion: Mixed. Salaries don't tell the tale here.

Offensive Line
Highest Spenders: Miami Dolphins ($41,649,735)
Lowest Spenders: Tampa Bay Buccaneers ($9,688,240)

Last year the Dolphins spent $126,855,921 on player salaries. (Jake Long--$8 million, Jake Grover--$14 million, Vernon Carey--$15 million) That means almost 1/3 of their total salary was spent on their offensive line. That's impressive. Equally impressive is this--Football Outsiders ranks them at #1 in run blocking. Tampa Bay ranks 31st (sadly we ranked 32nd).

Conclusion: You really get what you pay for when it comes to offensive line and production.

Defensive Line
Highest Spenders: New York Giants ($33,973,330)
Lowest Spenders: Philadelphia Eagles ($9,530,900)

The Giants paid $13 million in 2009 to Chris Canty who only played in 8 games (and only started 4). Their second highest paid D-lineman was Rocky Bernard who didn't start any games for the Giants and only made 22 tackles. Between the two of them they had $23 million in salary money tied up and and produced 35 tackles and 1.5 sacks.

The Eagles woefully underpay their linemen (Darren Howard was the highest paid player at just over $3 million), but the performance was just as good as the Giants.

Conclusion: Scheme and defensive coordinator matter more than do individual linemen.

Highest Spenders: New York Jets ($30,502,480)
Lowest Spenders: Washington Redskins ($3,764,805)

Calvin Pace earned $10 million last year, Bart Scott another $11.5 million. Pace played in 12 games and notched 55 tackles and 8 sacks. Scott played in all 16 and got 97. Pace's 8 sacks gets him into the top 10 LBs in sacks, but just barely. Scott is ranked 37th.

Conclusion: mixed. Don't overpay OLBs (Manny Lawson pay attention here!), and find the best ILB you can.

Defensive Backs
Highest Spenders: Denver Broncos ($32,494,375)
Lowest Spenders: Cincinnati Bengals ($7,863,150)

Broncos really loaded up their roster in 2009. Champ Bailey was still the highest paid DB at $9 million, but they also brought in paid Andre Goodman $7.8 million, Brian Dawkins $7.1 million, Daniel Graham $3.4 million and Renaldo Hill $3 million. It worked too--they were ranked 6th in Pass DVOA.

The Bengals spent less on their total roster of DBs than the Broncos did on Champ Bailey, yet they only finished a few spots behind Denver in DVOA (the Bengals were ranked 10th in Pass DVOA). However the Bengals have several young players on their defense that are still playing on their rookie contracts.

Conclusion: Defensive scheme is more important than high-paid players.