The NFL’s Most Valuable Player is… Russell Wilson?

Apologies in advance for jumping the gun on naming a 2012 NFL MVP.  I realize that there are still two weeks left in the regular season, but I had time to write this post today, so to hell with the NFL’s 17 week schedule!

A few weeks ago I mentioned on Twitter that I thought that in order to name a player the MVP, you also had to believe that the player was the best at their position.  For instance, if you say that Andrew Luck is the most valuable player because of the win difference he’s had for the Colts, you’re essentially making the award one of circumstance.  It’s not actually about value then, it’s about relative value and in theory a player benefits from playing on a worse team.  During some back and forth, someone rightly suggested that the MVP should also take into account salary.  I can’t remember who said it, and I apologize to whoever it was for forgetting, but this made total sense to me.  In a salary cap league, each team has limited resources to work with and they should be primarily concerned with how much value they get out of every dollar they spend under the salary cap.  With that idea in mind, I figured I would look at some Advanced NFL Stats numbers and some salary info from Spotrac to name a MVP (or a 15 week MVP anyway).

First, here are the top 11 players in Win Probability Added per Advanced NFL Stats.  You can see that they’re all quarterbacks.  Calvin Johnson actually has slightly greater WPA than Russell Wilson, but we don’t need to look at him because once we adjust for salary, his name won’t be important.

Rank Player Team G WPA
1 2-M.Ryan ATL 14 4.71
2 12-A.Rodgers GB 14 4.32
3 12-T.Brady NE 14 4.28
4 12-A.Luck IND 14 4.01
5 9-T.Romo DAL 14 3.84
6 8-M.Schaub HST 14 3.45
7 7-B.Roethlisberger PIT 11 2.92
8 18-P.Manning DEN 14 2.85
9 10-R.Griffin WAS 13 2.76
10 1-C.Newton CAR 14 2.69
11 3-R.Wilson SEA 14 2.47


My understanding of WPA is that it essentially measures a team’s chance of winning before and after each play, and then gives the players involved credit for the change in probability that occurred during the play.  Because a team’s probability of winning will vary from 0 to 1, WPA can also be added cumulatively (I think) to come up with Wins Produced, which would be the same thing as the WPA shown in the table above.  Plays at the end of the game are what are known as high leverage plays – they swing the probabilities more than plays at the beginning of games – so you can see Andrew Luck’s comeback drives showing up in his WPA number.

In the table below I’ve added salary cap hits from Spotrac and then also added a column which I’m calling Wins Per Million.  When the quarterbacks are sorted by Wins Per Million, you can see that the ordering is very different.

Rank Player Team G WPA Cap Hit Wins Per Million
11 3-R.Wilson SEA 14 2.47 $544,850.00 4.5334
4 12-A.Luck IND 14 4.01 $4,015,000.00 0.9988
9 10-R.Griffin WAS 13 2.76 $3,839,836.00 0.7188
10 1-C.Newton CAR 14 2.69 $5,005,659.00 0.5374
3 12-T.Brady NE 14 4.28 $8,000,000.00 0.5350
2 12-A.Rodgers GB 14 4.32 $9,000,000.00 0.4800
5 9-T.Romo DAL 14 3.84 $8,469,000.00 0.4534
1 2-M.Ryan ATL 14 4.71 $12,990,000.00 0.3626
7 7-B.Roethlisberger PIT 11 2.92 $9,895,000.00 0.2951
6 8-M.Schaub HST 14 3.45 $11,700,000.00 0.2949
8 18-P.Manning DEN 14 2.85 $18,000,000.00 0.1583


This table shows in part the ridiculous value that can be found in the draft due to the new CBA.  The top four QBs in terms of Wins Per Million are all post-CBA drafted players.  Russell Wilson’s 2.47 wins have cost the Seahawks only about a half a million in salary, which means that he’s produced about 4 times as many Wins Per Million as the next closest player.  I think Wilson probably looks even more impressive given that if you broke all of the NFL’s receiving units into teams and then had a draft where units were picked together, the Seahawks unit would be in the bottom half.  It just seems like it would be pretty easy to name 15 better WR units in the league.  Russell Wilson probably won’t even win rookie of the year, let alone MVP, but I do think that the table above is illustrative of real value.  If you’re paying your QB about 1/20th of what most teams are paying their QB, then you have more money to go out and sign quality veterans at other positions.

There’s obviously a value strategy to be found in having a young QB under the new CBA.  But I also think it’s important to remember that producing wins is the threshold issue here.  Unless the QB is actually producing wins, teams are at risk of ending up in the dangerous place where you have management questioning whether a QB is “the guy”, or even worse, having ownership wondering if management is the right group (see Browns, Cleveland and Jaguars, Jacksonville).  Teams that find themselves in that place are at risk of going through pointless coaching changes, pointless swapping of QBs and really just lost years because they find it impossible to self-diagnose their own problems.

The one other issue that I think is worth discussing here is that while it might seem like the CBA lowers the stakes of the early draft picks to a level that allows teams to make mistakes (the salary penalties are lower), the reality is that it also creates a “relative strength” issue as well.  In poker it’s great to have a flush unless someone else has a full house.  So you always have to be concerned with how your hand compares to your competition.  The new CBA does the same thing.  It creates value for teams picking near the top of the draft, but they should all be worried about how much value other teams are extracting out of those draft picks.  Nothing that happens in the NFL takes place in a vacuum.  It’s all relative to what the other teams are doing.  So teams still have to be worried about getting excess value out of the early picks.

  • HawkBlocked

    Unique and new perspective! I never would have thought of his lower pay scale providing more cap room for other players, thus increasing quality of players. Ironically, his lower salary was caused by his draft position, which was caused by his height (or the undervaluation of skill set because of his height).

    If he plays well,his next contract will surely be in the top 7 of QBs. But there is no doubt the man plays for the love and not the dollars.

  • Some_guy_with_something_to_say

    Arguing semantics and not statistics here… but “value” and “valuable” do not imply the most bang for the buck, they simply imply the most bang.

    From a bang for the buck perspective, it might be more useful to calculate the difference of the dollar value of the player’s WPA minus the his actual salary, rather than the ratio. (I would set the $/win at ($120.6 * 32)/256 = $15.075 million.)