Brees, Rice, and Forte...and Moneyball

Drew Brees signed a record-setting contract extension for $20M per year over five years. That's about what the numbers suggested for a QB averaging 150 EPA per season. The analysis said $18M should be the going rate for Brees at his peak, which is what $20M per year translates to after discounting over five years. That assumes Brees won't decline over that time, which is a risky assumption for a 33 year old QB. In reality, the final year or two of the contract may not be honored, so overall I have to endorse the deal. The Saints absolutely needed Brees on board as the weather a tough 2012 season in the shadow of the bounty scandal.


Ray Rice signed for five years and $40M, $24M of which is guaranteed. I still believe that RBs are paid about double what they should be relative to their impact on game outcomes, but this deal was right at the going rate for RBs. RBs who reliably average 2,000 total yards per season command about $9M per season in 2011 cap dollars. Rice is only 25 and will be in his prime for at least a couple more seasons. In terms of absolute value I can't endorse any top RB contract, but in terms of the market this is a fair deal for both Rice and Baltimore.

Matt Forte also inked a deal for $8M per year, but only over four years instead of five. He has nearly the same total career numbers as Rice, with over 4,000 rushing yards and nearly 2,000 receiving yards, but total yards can be a very misleading statistic. Total yards are primarily a function of carries. This becomes clear when we compare Forte with Rice. Although they have about the same yardage totals over their four years in the league, their actual game impacts are starkly different. Rice has a +0.05 EPA/play average while Forte has a -0.01 EPA/play average. WPA averages for the two players are tell about the same story, with Rice averaging +0.04 WPA/game and Forte averaging +0.01 WPA/game. Rice has a 40.9% Success Rate (SR) while Forte has a 38.5% SR, a difference which is bigger than it sounds. Rice's YPC is 4.6 while Forte's is 4.2, which is large but admittedly misleading because Rice is not often used in short yardage and goal line situations. In total, the Bears overpaid.

To summarize,

Brees: Endorsed
Rice: Endorsed with caveat
Forte: Not endorsed.

Now, here's a radical thought. If the Bears or Ravens wanted to be really shrewd, they'd sign and trade Forte or Rice. Their value may never be higher. The concept behind Moneyball is trading something away that's overvalued for lots of things that are undervalued. At the end of the process you have a lot more total value. In this case, the overvalued thing is the RB, and the undervalued thing is the draft pick.

What if Baltimore trades Rice to, say, Dallas, and in return gets a handful of top draft picks over the next couple years? The Ravens would be set back this season, but would have a lot more cap room to make up for the loss of Rice. I'm not suggesting using all the cap savings to rush out and get some other overpriced RB. Instead, I'd suggest plugging in the next best option already on the roster or available on the street, and use the money at other critical positions. Over the next several years, the Ravens would come out way ahead. They'd have a bunch of top picks they could use for offensive linemen, cornerbacks, a replacement for Ed Reed, or whatever. And draft picks return a ton of surplus value in terms of cap hit, especially now with the new rookie salary rules. The Hershel Walker and Ricky Williams trades come to mind.

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21 Responses to “Brees, Rice, and Forte...and Moneyball”

  1. J.R. says:

    Giving Ozzie Newsome a few first-round picks is a recipe for a ring... but they won't trade away Rice. He's near the top of the league right now and has value as a potential Super Bowl difference-maker, and Harbs is too loyal. Look for the Ravens to unload old war-horses to teams that want to get a deal (like we did with Heap and Mason) before we start selling off this year's crop.

  2. Dale says:

    Another trade that comes to mind is the Clinton Portis for Champ Bailey trade.

  3. hlo says:

    I believe sign and trade only works if there is no signing bonus as the bonus does not get transferred to new team. In Rice's case Baltimore would have to absorb 24MM immediately which they cannot do.

  4. Brian Burke says:

    True. I'm sure there are many factors preventing something like I suggested. But, maybe in the future, a team could structure a contract with a trade in mind.

  5. Dan says:

    I think if the Ravens had tagged Rice it would've opened up a lot of trade possibilities, similar to what the Patriots did with Cassel a few years ago. It probably would have cost the Ravens some negotiating leverage and exposed them to more risk, but I'd guess that the market for an RB like Rice would be so strong that the risk would be minimal.

  6. jditoro says:

    RBs, assuming they read pages like this, must really resent stat heads :)

  7. jditoro says:

    RBs, assuming they read pages like this, must really resent stat heads :)

  8. Jordan Dietrich says:

    As much as I like Matt Forte on the Bears' roster, and as big of a year as I expect him to have this season, I really like the idea of trading him in his prime to gather future power and picks, particularly if they use the leverage to get a couple of good o-linemen. I still think their season is doomed if this o-line doesn't improve, and they haven't exactly been stellar in previous chances to prove themselves.

  9. David Snedeker says:

    What a ridiculous article. Recommending trading Matt Forte now that he's signed has to be one of the most absurd things I've heard. If the author thinks that Forte is paid "about double what (he) should be relative to (his) impact on game outcomes", then I would recommend he re-watch some Bears games from this season. Maybe the Tampa game. Or maybe just watch the Oakland game, with Caleb Hanie and a healthy Forte, and then watch the KC, DEN, SEA games with Hanie and no Forte. Listen, I appreciate stats as much as anyone (I am an actuary), but they don't tell nearly the whole story about the multitude of ways in which Forte helps the Bears (personnel mismatches, defensive attention, etc). The bottom line is that not only should this signing be "endorsed", it should be applauded for the Bears' ability to retain a difference maker for less than they should've been able to.

  10. Anonymous says:

    David, if you're going to say that Forte wasn't overpaid, you're pretty much going against every premise that Brian builds his work upon. Many people that just watch the games without doing any deeper analysis would (and do) say that Rice is just as important to the Ravens' offense as Forte is to the Bears', but Brian's numbers clearly show that Rice was actually much more valuable and efficient. I don't really get the point of reading an advanced-stat-oriented blog if you're just going to (somewhat insultingly) disagree with the author without any numbers-based evidence.

  11. Anonymous says:

    The offensive lines in BAL & CHI are vastly different, likely accounting for much of the difference between the two RBs. Rice is probably better, but put him in CHI and he'd look just as terrible in the red zone and would probably avg close to 4.2 YPG like Forte now.

  12. Anonymous says:

    So maybe Chicago should invest that money in improving its o-line instead?

  13. Brian Burke says:

    ^ Bingo.

  14. Mort G. says:

    The question I want to ask Brian is: would a team be willing to give away anything more than a late-round pick for a player such as Rice or Forte?

    Especially Dallas, which was listed as an example. They have a promising young RB in DeMarco Murray who I am sure they are very high on going into this season, and they also still have the proven RB in Felix Jones. I don't see why Dallas would even bother trading valuable draft resources for a RB.

  15. footballissexbaby says:

    Great article, really appreciate your unconventional thinking!

  16. Anonymous says:

    NFL teams rarely trade players for picks. I've always wondered if it's a competitive thing, or if there's a wink-nod to not offer trades.

  17. Anonymous says:

    Dallas traded 1st, 3rd, and 6th round picks for Roy Williams in 2008. The market value of Rice and Forte is probably similar to or better than Roy Williams in '08.

  18. Anonymous says:

    the comment incorrectly assumes that a draft pick has the same value as an actual nfl player.

    there's about a 50 50 chance that draft pick (or picks) will bust, leaving a very bad impression for the ravens and their fans. A trade for a known commodity at a position of need for the ravens would be far wiser.

  19. docwhoomph says:

    "A trade for a known commodity at a position of need for the ravens would be far wiser."

    It all depends on the value of the trade itself along with the overall strength of the lineup before and after the trade.

  20. Anonymous says:

    I couldn't disagree with the author more about the Brees deal. Brees is making more money than the rest of his offense combined! Regardless of any ressentiment which this may or may not create within the team, the fact is that the Brees contract takes crucial money away from the team which should be spent elsewhere! I know I don't need to remind Mr. Burke of Carl Nicks' recent departure for Tampa Bay. I am of the opinion that - along with Sean Payton's offensive acumen - the driving force behing the Saints offensive success has been their offensive line, which by the way, has not looked particularly good in pre-season thus far.

  21. Joseph says:

    Reply to Anonymous directly above me:
    Since I have been a Saints fan since the 82 season, I have to respond to this. NO, NO, and NO!!! The Saints had 3 options after franchising him: hope he'd report on time and play happily under the franchise tender; sign him long term; or watch him hold out and ruin a (small) chance to play the SB at home. The only acceptable scenario to Brees, the Saints, and esp. the fans was to sign him long term. Now, I am not part of the fan base who said to sign him to whatever contract he wanted without regard to the cap. However, it is obvious that there was a way to give Brees the $$ he wanted while still making the deal cap-friendly for this year at least.
    With regard to Nicks, it appears from his recent comments to the media that he wanted Jahri Evans money, or he was walking. The Saints did not have the cap room to do that kind of a deal--so, he left. He has been replaced by a player who is still very good, so the drop-off will not be steep. Since I live in Mexico, I haven't been able to see the preseason games, so I can't comment on that. However, the preseason is to get players on the same page, and I am sure there is some adjustment for Grubbs, and the other players on the O-line adjusting to him also. Considering he is the biggest change on O, we'll see if this makes a difference or not. I don't think it will, although a small drop-off in the Saints' overall offensive numbers is inevitable. (They won't set offensive records like they did last year.)
    If Brees' contract creates resentment within the team, I'd be shocked. Every player who spoke out about it said that Brees needed to get paid.

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