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How much money *should* Tom Brady be paid? What are the appropriate cap figures for Tony Romo and Darrelle Revis? This series looks to derive the appropriate salary cap value for each player in the NFL.

Let’s start with the basics, which will include many generalities and rough estimates. I have chosen to ignore all players who are in the first three years of their rookie contracts; while we could try to determine the “fair market” cap values for Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and J.J. Watt, that would be nothing more than an academic exercise because their 2013 salary cap figures are set in stone. Instead, my goal is to determine the appropriate salary cap values for NFL Veterans (in this post, “Veterans” means all players with at least three prior years of NFL experience).

Note that ALL of the numbers in this post can be manipulated by each user thanks to the Salary Cap Calculator below. Your opinions regarding my assumptions should not interfere with your use of the salary cap calculator.

The salary cap in 2013 is $123.9M, but because players on injured reserve count against the cap, a buffer is needed to sign healthy players during the season. On average, each team will have placed on their roster 64 different players. Some of those players will be signed during the year and may only be on the team for a few weeks, so they won’t cost a significant percentage of the cap. On the other hand, a couple of players are usually on IR before the season even starts. Let’s assume that teams should spend 96% of their cap dollars on the healthy 53 players on their week 1 roster. The next step is figuring out how many of those salary cap dollars will go to non-Veterans.

Thanks to Overthecap.com, we can determine the percentage of the salary cap allotted to rookies, second-year, and third-year players on their first contracts with the teams that drafted them. For 2013, Jason Fitzgerald (the site’s owner) projects the 256 draft picks to cost the average team $5,617,710 in cap dollars. Based on last year’s draft numbers, the 2561 second-year players from the 2012 draft should count for $6,706,038 per team against the 2013 cap. For third-year players we will need to estimate because the data isn’t easily available. Players drafted in 2011 are projected to make about 2.5% more in 2013 than they did in 2012, so if we take a 2.5% haircut off of the amount Jason projects third-year players to make in 2014 (numbers that are easily-available), we can estimate that third-year players in 2013 will cost about $7,741,296 this year.

The problem with those cap figures is that they assume all 256 draft picks make week 1 rosters, which we know is not true. On the other hand, there are many undrafted rookies, second, and third-year players on extremely cheap deals ($416K is the minimum for 2013 rookies) who will wind up on rosters. So how can we get a more precise picture of how non-Veterans affect the salary cap?

I looked at all rosters from 2004 to 2012. On average, there are about 202 drafted rookies, 166 drafted second-year players, and 136 drafted third-year players on their initial contracts at any one time, a total that represents one-quarter of the players in the league. There are also about 413 undrafted players in their first three years in the league each season, and another 89 players in their first three years that were drafted but now are on new teams (like the other Robert Griffin from Baylor).

So how does that change the analysis from above? Instead of 256 rookies in the NFL costing each team $5.6M, we should project only 202 of the draft picks to make 53-man rosters. Most of the cuts will be limited to late round picks, so the effect won’t be proportional. I’m going to make a gut guess — which you can freely change yourself — and say 87% of the cap dollars will go to those 202 players, enabling us to peg 2013 rookies at $4,887,408 per team.

Again, using nothing more than my a crude estimate — which you can freely change in the calculator below — I’ll put the 166 second-year players at 77% of the salary cap value for all 256 picks, which means $5,163,649 per team. For third-year players, I’ll guesstimate that about two-thirds of the salary cap value is tied up in the 53% of the players that actually remain on their rookie contracts in year three, which would have those players occupying about $5,109,255 of cap space.

From 2004 to 2012, there were, on average, 16 players per team who were in their first three years and were not drafted by that team. The minimum for a second-year player will be $510K for 2013, so that seems like a fine enough estimate to use here. And while the majority of the 9 to 11 players added by a team to cover injuries will consist of these players, remember that those players added after week 1 are irrelevant to the point of this post (which is how much money should be spent on the opening day roster — hence the need for a buffer).

The good news is we’re almost done. Each team will roster 6.3 rookies, 5.2 second-year players, and 4.3 third-year players that they have drafted, which means they’ll have a total of 15.75 players on their rookie contracts. Let’s say each team will place 1.75 players on IR before the season, to give us a round number of 39 remaining spots. Of the 16 undrafted/second-contract players in their first, second, and third years, perhaps 9 of them will be on the healthy opening day roster. That means the other 30 players will be Veterans in their fourth year or later (and we can assume two more Veterans will be added during the season to total 64 players). The minimum amount for Veterans varies based on experience, but we can use $850K as a rough guess for the average salary cap minimum for the group of Veterans as a whole.

You can play with the Salary Cap Calculator below to see why, but all of the above leaves us with about about $74 million marginal dollars to spend on our 30 veterans. That’s about 2.45 million marginal dollars for each Veteran, or about $3.3M per player. Now, think back to the thought experiments from Friday and Saturday. If you decide that the replacement-level team boosted by young players from the thought experiments would win about 3 games per season, then the marginal value of a win is about $15M. That’s because the average team wins 8 games, so if a team full of players on veterans minimum contracts and young players will win three games, then the $74M marginal salary cap dollars you will actually spend on Veterans only nets you five wins. That’s about one win for every additional $15M you spend. If you think such a hypothetical team will go 1-15 on average, then a player that can get you one marginal win is only worth $10.5M in cap space. The more productive replacement-level players are, the higher the value attached to the league’s stars.

With so many estimates in this post, I think the most valuable part (aside from the thought experiment) is the Salary Cap Calculator below. You’re free to change the inputs as you like, and the Calculator will automatically update. I’ve included a field for dead money, although I’m not quite sure how — or if — that’s a variable that should factor into this analysis.

That is a lot to digest. Let me know your thoughts in the comments. This is only step one in the process, and reader feedback will have a big role in how the rest of this series turns out.

  1. To make it apples to apples, I added three extra players at $491,474 cap hits, since there were 253 draft picks in 2012 and 256 in 2013 []
  • Arif Hasan

    Just so I get this right… a Veteran who can add half a win over who he replaces should be paid $7.75 million? Or should he be paid $7.75 million plus the cost of the Veteran he’s replacing (because it’s zero-sum)?

    • Chase Stuart

      The Calculator tells you about marginal dollars, so yes, you should add 850K (or whatever number you like) to his salary.

      • carl

        if I read right, you show 504 drafted rookie contract
        players vs 413 undrafted players. five to four ration
        seems to indiicate draft rocedures still weak. any
        breakdown by team?

        • Chase Stuart

          Yeah, that ratio might seem odd, but the ratio of production would be much steeper. There are a lot of undrafted guys that are the 49th, 50th, and 51st players on team rosters.

  • Chase Stuart

    After reading this post by Jason, I realized I forgot to add room for the practice squad. Fortunately that is pretty easy to add in, so I have reduced the marginal dollars available by 816K (a number you can change).

  • Richie

    I guess the next question (maybe you are heading there): What does a +1 marginal win player look like? Brent Grimes? Tom Brady? Jake Long? Marshawn Lynch?

    • Chase Stuart

      Well a theoretical +1 marginal win player will cost 15.43M per year against the cap. So that should give you an idea, although I agree that valuing someone like Brady is challenging.

      Even if you drop the replacements team to 2 games, if you say Brady is worth 3 marginal wins by himself, then that boosts his salary cap value to over 37 million.

      • Chase Stuart

        Perhaps the better question: if you put Brady on the hypothetical replacements team, they jump from 2 or 3 or 4 wins to …. ?

        • Richie

          Off the top of my head, one of the closest similar examples would be Cam Newton on the 2011 Panthers. It’s difficult to quantify how “similar” the rest of the team was between 2010 and 2011. Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams had injury problems in 2010. David Gettis was replaced by Legedu Naanee. Jeff King replaced by Greg Olsen/Jeremy Shockey. The right side of the offensive line was replaced. On defense they had a handful of changes. But aside from Cam Newton, it looks like the most significant changes might have been a little more health from Stewart/Williams and the upgrade at TE. I have no idea how much of a change they got from Hangartner over Schwartz at RG. He was worth +4 AV.

          Anyway, the point was that the team’s biggest upgrade was clearly Cam Newton and they won 4 additional games. Hard to say how much of the +4 is due to bad luck in year N-1 or good luck in year N.

          Another example I was thinking about was Ricky Williams to New Orleans, since he was their only draft pick that year. But the team won 3 fewer games with him than without him.

          So based on the Newton example, I would think that the best QBs might be worth 4 or 5 marginal wins. But if you actually paid him $50-$55M, doesn’t that change the ability to fill your roster with other productive veterans? Is there a point of diminishing returns per player?

          • Chase Stuart

            In this world, every team *should* go 8-8. I mean if each team is spending $120M, and the salary cap values are “appropriate”, and the players in years 1-3 are randomly distributed, then the projection for each team should be 8-8.

            In that sense, yeah, paying Newton 50M would severely hamper your ability to fill your roster with productive veterans, but if he’s already got you to 7 wins, what’s left?

            In reality star quarterbacks make much less than that, so either some group of people gets really overpaid or star QBs aren’t worth even 3 marginal wins. Of course, in the real world, you have things like David Harris being worth 0.1 marginal wins and having a salary cap value of $13M, so I don’t know what it all means.

            • Richie

              What do you think the chances are that some NFL teams are making these sorts of marginal win calculations when putting their rosters together? Or, do they just look at the needs on their current roster, and look at the available talent, and spend what it takes to fill those holes?

              And I assume that there is at least a tiny portion of “marketing” factor in the contracts. Teams might spend a little extra to keep a fan favorite, or spend a ton on Mike Wallace so the fans show up in 2013.

              • Chase Stuart

                Pretty high. My guess is these calculations take place by the salary cap guys and then when the GM/HC decide they want to pay X for a player, that’s when they run things by the cap guys. But each team has to have a value set for each player where they think the guy is good value or not.

                Now do they translate salary cap values into wins? Probably not. But I think they probably assign an appropriate cap value for every player they have or would like to get.

        • glor

          he boosts them I would say maybe, 1 game. The dude sucks in the face of pressure (see jets game 2011), and he would be on his ass or on IR on a team like we are discussing.

          • glor

            Look at the Arizona Cardinals of 2012, Kevin Kolb had them 4-0, then got hurt and they lost pretty much the rest of their games.. so is Kevin Kolb a +4 win guy?

            Look at the 49r’s from 2012, Alex Smith got benched, did Kap win them more games that Alex? I personally don’t think so, but would Kap be a +1 or +2 guy on a team like the Cards? yes..

            I think this is an exercise in futility, but fun to think about. Aaron Rodgers played the seahawks and didn’t do anything the 1st half of the game because he was on his ass (so is he a +1 guy on a team with a bunch of random guys on the oline?). They also lost to the 9r’s because their coach choose not to study the read option and stop it.. does that make the coach also worth X number of wins even with the same personnel? (I would vote yes, look at what Harbaugh did with essentially the same roster as Singletary had.)

            • glor

              I would also add this, what team has won the super bowl with a QB taking up more than 15% of the cap space? Tom Brady in 2005 had a cap number of 6mil (7%), that coupled with some good spy work, allowed the patriots to win a SB, what have they done since they had to pay him? they have been competitive, but that is it. Does anyone think the Ravens are going anywhere this year? Or the Cowboys, or the Saints, etc. There is no I in team, and without a surrounding cast any player “worth” 15+ mil a year doesn’t amount to much. They are great players, don’t get my wrong, but I don’t think any player is worth more than 10% of the cap (if you want a chance to win the SB). Ravens are a prime example, did they have any player making more than 10% of the cap last year?

  • Alex

    Don’t only the top 51 salaries on the roster count against the salary cap, or is that a rule I invented?

    • Chase Stuart

      That’s just the rule before the season starts.