The names of the NFL’s superstars are well known, and generally these elite players are well compensated for their play. However, with smart drafting and shrewd free agent signings, teams are often able to find bargains and benefit greatly from players who outplay their salaries. Make no mistake about it though- for every truly exceptional signing, there are three or four poor signings where teams take a chance on a player who has not consistently demonstrated excellence. If a team has a player on Down and Distance’s NFL All Value Team, their fans should be happy their general manager was able to land such a player.
For the purpose of this list, the player’s 2012 Pro Football Focus-graded (PFF) performance is measured against his 2013 salary cap hit. For example, Seahawks’ quarterback Russell Wilson was the fifth highest rated quarterback by PFF, and he is the 53rd highest paid quarterback in terms of 2013 salary cap hit.
The quarterback and running back All-Value positions are occupied by rookies, and it is a nod to their team’s shrewd drafting that they were able to grab players that immediately impacted their team’s 2012 season. No rookie quarterback had more impact on their team than Wilson, who led his team through the Washington Redskins in the playoffs, only to narrowly lose to the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC’s Divisional Round. While Wilson’s passing stats are not eye-popping (3,118 yards for 26 touchdowns and ten interceptions), he still finished 4th in overall passer rating, a testament to smart decision making and playing within the system he is in. Add in almost 500 yards rushing and four rushing touchdowns, it’s easy to see how Wilson earned a Pro Bowl selection in his rookie campaign.
There will be few names that come up with Morris’ when talking about the steals of the 2012 draft, and the fact he was selected in the 6th round versus the 1st (like Doug Martin) exponentially increases his value. Morris blew up the NFL in rushing, setting the Redskins’ franchise record with 1,613 yards (on 335 carries, 3rd in the league), finishing 2nd behind Minnesota Viking Adrian Peterson. Morris averaged over 100 yards a game and scored 13 touchdowns, with a 4.8 yards per attempt average. Although Morris is not considered a threat in the passing game, his potency on the ground makes up for it and keeps defenses honest.
The addition of quarterback Peyton Manning certainly did not hurt Thomas’ performance, as he shot from 57th in 2011 to second in 2012 in PFF’s wide receiver rankings. Although he finished 2011 with a game-winning highlight catch against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Wild Card round, he really woke up in 2012 to put on a receiving clinic. Catching 94 balls for 1,434 and 10 touchdowns, he finished fourth in receiving yards and tied for seventh in touchdowns. Add in PFF’s #1 rated quarterback in Manning, and Thomas should easily eclipse his 2012 totals this season. Expect the Broncos to sign Thomas to a long-term contract in 2014 before he becomes a free agent in 2015.
If a tight end’s blocking ability was the only thing considered, Chicago Bears’ Matt Spaeth and Indianapolis Colts’ Dwayne Allen would lead the All-Value team for tight ends. However, when including the passing game, no tight end tops the value Graham brings to the Saints. Not only does he possess underrated blocking ability, Graham is one of the top receiving threats at his position, constantly forcing defenses to account for him. In 2012, despite missing a game, he finished second among tight ends in total yards (982) and touchdowns (9), third in total receptions (85), and seventh in yards after the catch (310). Barring injuries, expect Graham to surpass his 2012 totals with the return of head coach Sean Payton to the sidelines.
Given the vitriol some Jets fans spew, especially when he was first drafted 4th overall by the Jets in 2006, a few might be surprised to see Ferguson’s name here. Make no mistake, however, Ferguson immediately showed the NFL his talent, and since 2008, PFF has graded him out at as a top 10 tackle every year except one, when he fell to 16th. Entering the fourth year of an 8-year, $73.6M ($34.8M guaranteed) contract, Ferguson will be a bargain basement $5.6M cap hit for 2013 due to the contract he restructured this past February. Despite protecting the blind side of one of the worst quarterbacks in the league, Mark Sanchez, he allowed only two sacks, five hits, and 19 hurries to go with only one accepted penalty in 2012.
One of two undrafted free agents to make the offensive list, Boone was relatively unseen until 2012, when he was a driving force behind San Francisco’s fourth-ranked rushing attack. Originally signed to the practice squad in 2009, he made the active roster in 2010, but did not break out until 2012. An integral part of the 49ers’ Super Bowl run, Boone excelled in run blocking, key to their style of offense that features a quarterback in the read-option, Colin Kaepernick. Was Boone a one-hit wonder? He took advantage of the one season he was given the opportunity to prove himself; if he matches or exceeds his 2012 performance, he will be in a position to ask for a raise from his $1.9M cap hit.
If the unheralded heroes of an offense are the guards, the centers are their cousins. How many non-Patriots fans even know Wendell’s name? Wendell went undrafted in 2008 and was signed to the Patriots practice squad. Promoted to the active roster in December 2009, he played 15 games in 2010, and in the 2012 preseason, he beat out all competitors for the starting job. He led all NFL players with 1,379 snaps on a $930K salary and in 2013, he is a bargain at $1.9M. Like Boone, Wendell will have the opportunity to build on his exceptional 2012 season and perhaps command a raise in 2014, despite two years left on his contract.
Check back with Down and Distance for the NFL’s All Value Team – Defense!
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