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Understanding how the Replacement Level Concept affects NFL Free Agency

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Value over replacement is a concept that has long been a staple of baseball sabermetrics, even as the effectiveness of it’s measures have vastly improved in recent seasons.  In football, however, measures of value against replacement are far more confusing and open to interpretation: subjective, if you will.  One thing we all can agree on is that the concept is no less real or important to football analysis than it is to baseball analysis.  The only differences are in the effectiveness of common representations and calculations of a replacement level figure.  Football people have to be able to apply concrete evidence of performance to an abstract interpretation of what is replacement level.  If mistakes are made, there will be arbitrage opportunities for shrewd teams.

The main problem in football is that replacement level varies by position, by year.  In baseball, it can be stated that a replacement level offensive player is one who produces at 80% of the league average.  This is probably the most common representation and will never be a downright improper assumption.  There’s no such shorthand method in football.  With no minor league system in football (yet), a freely available talent is no different from one who is out of work.  From a practical standpoint, it’s really difficult to be out of football one week, and starting for an NFL team the next week, contributing at a level that is anywhere near replacement.

A better operational definition of a replacement level player is a backup at any position who offers no additional value to a team past the fact that he has some experience being that team’s backup.  Teams who are successful in the NFL year after year often employ a “next man up” type of attitude to injuries.  These teams can take replacement level players, apply them to a defensive or offensive system, and get performance out of them that is inconsistent with conventional (even sabermetric) methods of replacement estimates.  It’s my opinion that we have to accept this as a necessary evil: replacement level players aren’t always going to perform at replacement.  This is true of baseball as well.

NFL free agency is really our one opportunity during the football calendar year to get a good wide-view picture of how teams value replacement level talent.  In particular, what I’ve been concerned with is looking at which positions get most drained by teams who need to stack their roster with players who have experience at the position.

What I’ve found by studying these trends has been pretty eye opening.  My findings support the previous assertion that the league-wide idea of replacement level is much, much lower compared to the average for some positions than others.  Take cornerback, for example.  Corner is a position that I would describe as being “highly skilled”.  It takes corners longer to develop as players than defensive lineman or linebackers.  But when we apply the concept of replacement to the position, we find that, despite the refined skill needed to excel, players who are very close to the league average (but on the wrong side of it) can bounce around the league just like a replacement level player would.  Look no further than Titans/Browns/Bears/Cardinals (just in 2009) corner Rod Hood, formerly a very successful 2nd or 3rd corner for the Eagles, couldn’t hold a job for more than two weeks.  It’s not just guys who peaked as no. 2 types.  Look at Carlos Rogers, or Bryant McFadden, or Dre Bly, or Shawn Springs, or Brian Williams.  At some point, all of these guys were bona fide no. 1 corners on their teams.  But in 2009, every one of them posted a replacement level type season.  It’s really just the nature of the position: players are quick to rise, and quick to fall.  And once a player drops to consistently below average at the position, he’s easily replaceable.  The freely available talent that can provide teams with a close to average level of play is everywhere.

On the other end of the spectrum, I have found, lie wide receivers and linebackers (yes, linebackers).  Wide receivers with any history of recent success get sucked up off of the open market onto teams within the first few days of free agency every year, and despite this, you still see incredibly high variances in the quality of backup receivers around the league.  After Terrell Owens, Antonio Bryant, and Josh Reed sign (probably later this week) for good money, any team in need of a receiver will have their choice between 37 year old Mushin Muhammad, Mike Furrey, or Marty Booker.  The quality of receiver that comes at a minimum priced contract is so far beneath the level of an acceptable NFL starter that teams almost have to look to the draft to add players who can play special teams and catch passes.

At linebacker, there’s a reason that Jeremiah Trotter gets dragged out of football purgatory every other season.  Replacement level linebackers are plentiful, but those ‘backers who can both lead and go make tackles never are allowed to hit the open market (and when they do, they get Bart Scott/Karlos Dansby type contracts).  The OLBs have, admittedly, been a lot slower to sign than in recent years, but Keith Bulluck and Joey Porter aren’t exactly going to have to sign for one year “prove it” contracts.  Scott Fujita, Tully Banta-Cain, and Mike Vrabel have been well taken care of.  Vrabel, in particular, isn’t anywhere near an average player.  If he played corner, he would have had to retire three years ago.  Heck, Ty Law has been bouncing around unable to hold a job with a single team since 2006, and he was once a much better player at his position than Vrabel was at his.

You may think of quarterback as a highly skilled position where all the best talent gets bought up as soon as it hits the market, but this is simply not the case.  Jake Delhomme and Derek Anderson were starters as recently as last season, but the odds on either of them catching on somewhere as a backup next year are pretty much even.  Other replacement type talent like Patrick Ramsey and Jeff Garcia could start the year on teams, even though they did not finish last year on teams.  The backup QB market is pretty interchangeable with the former starters market, performance seemingly has less to do with it than coach’s preference for one type of player over another.  Such is the life of the former pro-bowler who can only play at -15% of the league average.  At that level of performance, your career needs an “in” to continue.

But one position trumps all the others in the market’s recent interpretation of replacement.  And when I say “trumps,” I mean it’s so glaring that its’ clear that this position functions differently than all the other positions in NFL free agency.  Chad Clifton of the Green Bay Packers just got a 3-year $20 million dollar extension to remain the Green Bay Packers’ left tackle for at least one more season (he’ll receive more than 40% of the total contract value just for this season).  Clifton is 34, a one time probowler in 10 NFL seasons.  Upon becoming a free agent, Clifton visited the Redskins, who had just watched their offensive tackle of Clifton’s draft class (Chris Samuels) retire after 6 pro bowls.

The difference in skill between Samuels and Clifton is roughly equivalent to the difference in skill between Eli Manning and Kerry Collins.  But the Redskins, desperate for a tackle, wanted to seriously consider letting Clifton be the franchise’s left tackle for the next two years in the twilight of his career, that is until they couldn’t beat the best offer of the more desperate Packers.  Why was Clifton, a below average player, worth so much to these teams?  The answer is that, despite being decidedly below average, Clifton was the only left tackle who hadn’t been locked up by their team ahead of time who hadn’t fallen into the dark depths of the replacement.  After him: Levi Jones, Damion McIntosh, and Barry Sims sit on the market, unwanted.

Across the line, the right tackle market has gotten absolutely preposterous.  The prized lamb in the free agent class was San Francisco’s Tony Pashos, who also visited Washington, couldn’t agree to terms, and ended up signing a 3-year contract with the Browns.  Just one year ago, Pashos was an incumbent right tackle on a Jacksonville team that felt it prudent to spend it’s first and second round draft choices on offensive tackles, as well as to sign a veteran LT.  Pashos has never played a position on any line besides right tackle.  But seemingly by virtue of being a free agent when every other team has jumped through hoops to seal their top two tackles if they ever had it, Pashos had the NFL world at his feet, just one year after being completely unwanted.

Pashos and Clifton will both be among the vast landscape of the replacement level lineman before these contracts expire, but desperate times call for desperate measures.  There is a clear shortage of capable starters at the offensive tackle position in the NFL.  While Albert Haynesworth and Julius Peppers have hit the market in consecutive years to sign elsewhere for mega-bucks, teams can hardly find anyone capable of protecting the quarterback.  And so they are hiring players who might be able to help by the dozen.  Cornell Green, a former Raiders lineman best known for his inability to stop anyone, signed with Buffalo for 3 years and 8 figures.  Green is the very definition of replacement level tackle, although apparently the Bills feel otherwise.  The Raiders felt the need to send 2009 FA signing Khalif Barnes to the bench after a foot injury and underperformance derailed his 2009 season.  This year, he’ll be back under a one year contract, and if the Raiders can’t address the need in the draft, he’s in the starting lineup.  Khalif Barnes has very nearly underachieved his way into a promotion.

Players at the offensive tackle position in the NFL don’t have to be anywhere near league-average to command a multi-year contract on the open market.  In fact, those who are league-average or close to it do not get anywhere near unrestricted free agent status.  It seems like it’s only a matter of time until NFL teams start kicking underutilized backup interior lineman out to the tackle position and letting them compete for playing time as starters.

Rod Hood (age 28), who in the most conservative estimates, offers play at -10% of the league average cornerback, has been on four teams since playing in Super Bowl 43 with Arizona.  Chad Clifton (age 34), who in the most optimistic of estimates, offers play at -10% of the league average LT, is offered a 3-year contract by two different teams and gets $8 million to play this season.  When you consider that corners take longer to develop than offensive tackles, we’re left with only two reasonable explanations: either NFL decision makers act completely irrationally, or a league average offensive tackle offers ten to twenty times more value over replacement than a league average cornerback.

And that’s what’s astounding in the NFL labor markets today.

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