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  • Writer's pictureAlex Cates

Money for Talent or Is Kirk Cousins the Master of Maximizing Earnings in the NFL?

With NFL Free Agency underway this week, attention shifts to a key concern for players: how to maximize their earnings. Playing in the NFL is ultimately a career, and typically, players hitting free agency aim to boost their income as much as possible.


Kirk Cousins is often cited as a prime example of this mindset. His approach to contracts, with multiple franchise tags and significant guarantees, has made him a case study in financial optimization, even as an average or slightly above average quarterback. He did it again this week, with a four-year $180 million contract. This raises a question: Is Cousins really the best at maximizing earnings relative to his performance, or is there someone else who has done it better over time?


Today, we will try to answer this question. Which NFL player has maximized their earnings?


The Data

To keep things simple, we are going to focus only on the Quarterback position. For earnings, we will use Spotrac's career earnings data and compare it to the total seasonal EPA provided by the nfl-data-py package. nfl-data-py's data goes back to 2006 so our sample only includes data from then on. These two metrics allow for a simple comparison between a player's income vs their on-field value. Note: quantifying on field value is always a little dicey so this will be a rough estimate, but it should be directionally correct and give us a sense of who has maximized their earnings



Earnings vs Performance

Lets start with a simple linear regression analysis, correlating earnings to points added. The regression establishes a baseline to control for the simple fact that better players get paid more.

Regression plot of earnings vs expectation with a clear positive correlation

Regression plot of Points Added vs Career earnings. Scatter points represent individual players while the line and shading represent the regression and 95% confidence interval.


The initial results reveal several outliers—individuals significantly deviating from the predicted trendline. Those positioned above the line have secured earnings surpassing what their on-field performance would typically warrant, while those below have garnered less income than their on-field contributions might suggest.


To compare these deviations, we will calculate how much each player deviated from the expected regression line, as demonstrated with Matthew Stafford below.

regression plot of earnings vs expectation with residual highlighted

Regression plot with residual highlighted


Surprisingly, Matthew Stafford has earned over $150 Million more than his performance would suggest. This is likely a combination of being part of the last set of rookies before the rookie wage scale kicked in (he made $72 million on his rookie deal compared to the $37 million Bryce Young will make) and toiling away on those bad Lions teams for years (likely lowering his total points added).


If we do this for everyone, we can look to see which players have earned the most compared to their performance.


bar plot of earnings over expectation. matthew stafford leads the pack with $155 million

Bar plot of the career earnings over expectation.


While Matthew Stafford again jumps out (earning an extra $50M more than second place), Kirk cousins does come in second. Considering that Kirk was drafted after the rookie wage scale was in place and he was drafted as a backup QB, to have made as much money as he has is truly impressive.


Going beyond those two, there are 2 clear trends. On the one hand, you have the franchise QBs from before the rookie wage scale was put in place in 2011 (Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning, Benn Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan). On the other hand, you have Average-ish starting QBs who jumped around to different teams (Russell Wilson, Derek Carr, Ryan Tannehill, and Alex Smith). Matthew Stafford and Kirk Cousins are probably the poster children for these 2 groups.



What about the flip side? Who were the ultimate bargains?

bar plot of career earnings under expectation with Tony Romo earning $86 million under

Bar plot of career earnings under expectation. Values are negative to keep representing value under expectation.


In dissecting the outliers, we encounter two distinct categories. First, there are the undeniable superstars, older players who have retired like Drew Brees and Peyton Manning, as well as the current vanguard of young talents such as Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, and Lamar Jackson. These players have contributed so significantly on the field that their contracts struggle to reflect their true value. The value of veterans like Brees and Manning is likely even more understated, as the analysis doesn't capture their contributions prior to 2006 due to data limitations, making them even more of a bargain. On the flip side, the younger stars see their earnings suppressed by the rookie wage scale despite hitting superstar status almost immediately. These players may see their earnings even out though with subsequent contracts.


The second category includes those with shorter careers, like Andrew Luck and Cam Newton. Despite their high effectiveness on the field, their limited playtime curtailed their earning potential, since most players earn more money relative to their performance as they age. Surprisingly, a couple of players often labeled as overpaid by the media, such as Jay Cutler and Daniel Jones, emerge from this analysis as potentially undervalued, suggesting they could have warranted higher earnings based on their performance (though Daniel Jones may suffer from the same rookie wage scale issue). Then there's Tony Romo, whose lengthy and fairly successful career was likely undervalued financially due to the perceived risks associated with his injuries.



Limitations

As always, there are a few limitations in our analysis to acknowledge. First, our performance data only extends back to 2006, which might skew the perceived value of older quarterbacks. Specifically, we are not capturing the full extent of their contributions, potentially undervaluing their on-field impact compared to their earnings. Second, while we've chosen points added as our metric for on-field value, it's conceivable that other metrics, such as QBR, might offer a more nuanced understanding of a player's performance. Lastly, evaluating the career earnings of players who haven't yet retired presents its own set of challenges. Such assessments might seem premature, as these players' financial trajectories are still unfolding. However, this approach does afford us a snapshot of how effectively these athletes have leveraged their performance into financial gain thus far in their careers.


Conclusions

While Matthew Stafford emerges as the standout in terms of maximizing earnings, Kirk Cousins's ability to secure over $100 million more than expected, especially under the constraints of the rookie wage scale, is particularly noteworthy. Earnings in the NFL are ultimately market-driven, and Cousins has demonstrated exceptional skill in leveraging the market to his advantage. His recent contract with the Falcons further exemplifies this trend. Now the only question that remains is, does he have another move in him?


Questions? Comments? Let me know at ac@alexcates.com. Want to read more breakdowns like this? sign up for my newsletter. Finally, like what I do? Consider supporting me on buy me a coffee.

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