Football is a game of inches. But because inches are too tedious, we measure it in yards.
The best teams don’t always have the most yards from scrimmage, but they pay less for those yards. (Though the best teams of each season do also typically have 15% more scrimmage yards than the losing teams).
The top five NFL teams from each of the last three years (2017-2019) paid an average of $5,539 per yard, while the bottom five teams in the same timeframe paid an average of $6,239 per yard (11% more per yard). Remove 2 outliers (which I’ll do in this analysis), and that becomes 18% more per yard. (This only includes regular season for comparison purposes.)
Maybe your GM believes defense wins championships and invests in keeping the opponents from scoring more yards. Maybe your GM believes a superman QB or a strong o-line can create scoring opportunities without necessarily having the greatest offensive weapons. Maybe your GM believes in a high-powered offense that dominate shootouts.
Takes like “rushing yards win games” don’t work because teams that get up early or keep the score close run the ball more. And passing yards alone don’t work because of desperation throwing or garbage time. But scrimmage yards tell the stories of winners and losers, regardless of field position or defense or other factors.
No matter the approach, looking at how much a GM pays skill positions (excluding QB) - WR, RB, TE - on a per-yard basis reveals if they’re earning their keep. Highly paid skill positions with high production (in which case, the heavy investment in this area pays off) will have a similar per-yard cost as lower paid skill players with more moderate yardage (in which case, the GM has more money to pump into the defense or other areas).
There are two outliers:
2018 Chicago Bears who somehow spent $8,423 per yard, made the top five, then double doinked their way out of the first round of the playoffs against Wild Card Eagles.
2017 Cleveland Browns who spent only $12.6 million total across WR, RB and TE, buying yards at the remarkably frugal rate of $2,647/yard. Instead, they spent over 20% on their O-line to protect… Keizer? Hogan? Kessler? Oof, guess it didn’t help what’s been called “the worst quarterback play of the decade.”
If you remove these two from the analysis of the past 3 years (28 teams evaluated - the best and worst of each year), the worst teams in the NFL spent 7% more on skill positions yet yielded 13% fewer yards. The worst teams effectively spent 18% more per yard than the best teams.
Half-way through the 2020 NFL season, analyzing how much Howie Roseman pays our skill positions per yard reveals we are grossly overpaying for the level of production we’re getting. The results should worry Eagles fans.
Spending & Production of WR, TE, RB Grouping
When 2020 is said and done, assuming we don’t have to bring in more talent, we’ll have spent almost $49 million on WR, RB and TE. How did we think that was a great idea?
Obviously, the injuries ailing us factor into this. Especially when DeSean Jackson, Alshon Jeffery, and Zach Ertz will take home $36.5 million combined (prorated $18.2 mil) and have a combined 345 yards on the season, as they’ve each missed several or, in Alshon’s case, all of the games so far. But when you offer DJax and Alshon a contract, as GM you have to take into consideration their ages (30 and 34) and health (both have an injury history). That’s on Howie for still inking those deals.
If Alshon Jeffery and DeSean Jackson weren’t on those contracts, the team would only be paying $5,134 per yard, and we’re currently on pace for 5,200 scrimmage yards without those two (and that’s despite many other key players like Sanders, Ertz and Goedert hobbled).
You remove Ertz too, and we’re only spending $2,750 per yard.
Top 5 teams typically need around 5,700 scrimmage yards or more from their WR, TE, and RB. Doesn’t matter which position excels as long as that group brings it combined. There are exceptions, but the exceptions seemed to typically pay pretty low per-yard to these positions, investing instead in a highly mobile quarterback like Lamar Jackson or stout defense. That’s why pay-per-yard evaluation works; you don’t necessarily need the most scrimmage yards from your WR, TE and RB, but you need to keep that investment low enough to fund other elements of your team.
Perhaps, as AATB writer Chip Keagy suggests, loyalty is preventing progress. We’ve taken on some bad contracts in recent years, and it’s time we become more efficient and less nostalgic.
I also don’t want to sour anyone further on him since his draft selection already ruffles enough feathers, but JJ Arcega-Whiteside is currently making an insane $12,503 per yard in 2020. But that’s not nearly as nuts as the $25,370 per yard Nelson Agholor made in 2019.
Let’s end on a positive note and thank these efficient stars:
2020 Travis Fulgham ($776 per yard)
2019 Miles Sanders ($733 per yard)
2019 Boston Scott ($896 per yard)
2019 Greg Ward ($675 per yard)
2018 Josh Adams ($744/yard)
2017 Jay Ajayi ($652 per yard)
To see team-by-team (2017-2019), green highlights top 5 teams of that season, while red marks the bottom 5.