A Look at Raiders' Defensive Salary Distribution

Ed Szczepanski-US PRESSWIRE

It's no secret that the Raiders previous offseason was problematic. Despite the fact that the Raiders had achieved a noteworthy plateau of 8-8 for two consecutive season (a relatively pathetic milestone indicative of the state of the Raiders over the past decade-plus), the 2012 offseason offered numerous challenges to rookie General Manager Reggie McKenzie.

There were three major goals in order to bring the Raiders back into true relevance : Change the culture of the team to a Team-First responsibly culture, elevate the talent level on the team to compete with the best in the league, and to bring the salary cap into a manageable form. The first two goals are dependent upon the proper execution of the latter goal. As long as the finances on the team were so convoluted, it would increase the difficulty of all other tasks set in front of McKenzie.

McKenzie referred to it as getting rid of "out of whack" contracts and while most Raiders' fans are well-aware that there are--and have been--several problem contracts, it may prove to be enlightening about exactly how that affects the team as a whole and how it compares to some other teams.

The full blog post is here :

For the purposes of this post, we'll look at and use per-year average contract as the primary metric. It's not perfect and we all know how NFL Contracts don't really mean what they seem to mean, but it is a reasonable tool to express both the full scale of a contract and the immediate yearly impact of it. While it doesn't give precise results, it does give a reasonable ballpark estimate for our comparison purposes.

We recall that McKenzie's first acts were to get eventually rid the team of four defensive starters : Kamerion Wimbley, Stanford Routt, Chris Johnson, and Aaron Curry. Those moves rid the team of the 3rd highest paid linebacker in the NFL (or 13th highest paid defensive end), the 3rd and 38th highest paid cornerbacks in the League, and the 62nd highest paid linebacker. That's a great start, but did you realize that the 2012 Raiders' defense still had the 5th and 11th highest paid of all NFL safeties, the 7th and 8th highest paid defensive tackles, and the 16th highest paid linebacker ?

7th highest paid DT : Richard Seymour @ $7.5M/yr

8th highest paid DT : Tommy Kelly @ $7.16M/yr

5th highest paid S : Michael Huff @ $8M/yr

11th highest paid S : Branch @ $6.65M/yr

16th highest paid LB : McClain @ $8M/yr

3rd highest paid CB : Stanford Routt @ $10.9M/yr

2nd highest paid LB (13th highest DE) : Kamerion Wimbley $9.95M /yr

38th highest paid CB : Chris Johnson @ $3.9M/yr

62nd highest paid LB : Aaron Curry @ $3M/yr

(again, this is on the per year amount of the contracts and so does not necessarily match the actual 2012 Cap Hit value of the player)

For a frame of reference of how expensive these players were :

McClain is between Patrick Willis $7.6M and Demeco Ryans $8M

Kelly and Seymour are between Casey Hampton $7.1M and Vince Wilfork $8M

Huff is between Antrel Rolle : $7.4M and Eric Weddle $8M

Branch is between Roman Harper $6.25M and Kerry Rhodes $6.7M

Routt was between Champ Bailey $10.8 and Revis $11.5M

Wimbley was between Robert Mathis $9M and Lamar Woodley $10.25M (or between Trent Cole : $9.8M and Glenn Dorsey $10.8M)

Aaron Curry was tied with Takeo Spikes and Parys Haralson

Chris Johnson was between Leodis McKelvin $3.88M and Tracy Porter $4M

So much money tied up in so few players. And the fact that the players are being paid as top-level of the positional players in the League.

Stanford Routt was being paid an extraordinary sum. He was not just well paid ("well-paid" would be in the $6M range), he was paid as an elite CB; he was paid at near-Revis levels and for the Raiders to benefit from this investment, they needed to get performance rivalling Revis and Champ Bailey. While the defense may be able to tolerate slightly lesser performance, if he were to severely underperform, it would be a major blow to the entire defense.

Similarly, Rolando McClain was paid above what Patrick Willis was earning. Patrick Willis clearly EARNED his paycheck, but Rolando McClain was nowhere near that level. Though in 2011, McClain did perform quite well before his ankle injury--and before the arrest that would prove to be a Milestone Moment for him--in 2012, he would so severely underperform and refuse to take ownership of his play that he would be suspended and eventually benched. That means the Raiders had effectively WASTED Patrick Willis money.

Richard Seymour, Tommy Kelly, and Michael Huff were additional under-performers relative to their contracts and were major reasons that the Raiders' defense was in such a shambles for much of 2012. It was not just that (say) Richard Seymour was ineffective or that he was injured, but it was that the contract allocations demanded that he be an Elite-Level contributor to the defense; the Raiders' defense depended not just that Seymour would be solid, but he had to be make a major difference in each and every game. If he did not, then it meant that another defender--or multiple defenders--would need to make up for that. This then fell to players like Kelly or Bryant or Shaughnessy. And while Bryant did an admirable job filling in and certainly has the look to be developing into a very good starting 3-technique defender, he did not make the impact of a top-7 player at his position.

The majority of this post is to study the financial allocations to the starting defensive players. From this we can look for patterns and statistics of interest and try to connect elements to deduce or infer some conclusions. We can then look at how this may resolve going forward into 2013 and beyond and if there is some possible help coming (more in a holistic approach, rather than "Jarvis Jones will make teh difference!").

The main goal of this post is to look at the defense in a slightly different way and hopefully motivate us to see the strategies involved in building the team from a financial standpoint while also paying attention to the performance levels.

While it may not be an absolute, there are some interesting results and it certainly gives some weight to viewing the team from this vantage.

Starting Defense, Expected

Let's start by looking at the starting defense. We can look at each of the 11 players, take the salaries, and then organize them from lowest to highest (again we are using per year averages); doing this, we can then determine what Percentile that player's salary ranks on the starting unit. By doing this, we get an idea of how the money has been distributed along the defensive starters. This may give an insight into how the unit was built and perhaps an indication into what the problem areas are and what the Contract Cleanse will do for the future of this unit.

Here's a table of this data. This includes the Player, the Number of years on their current (as of 2012) contract, the total dollar amount of that contract, the per year average, and the Percentile rank on the Unit. Then two more columns : the players' contract's positional ranking and the players' position. The Positional ranking means where among all the position players does his Per Year contract amount rank (for instance, Michael Huff ranks #4 highest paid Safety in the League).

The Percentile Rank reflects the percentage of salaries that would fall below the given salary given a Normal distribution. This basically gives a number that places the players' salary as a 0-100 number that ranks it. So, a person with a 15% rank indicates that 15% of of players would be making less than he, while 85% would be earning more. And 85% indicates 85% of players are earning less. Therefore the larger the number, the higher paid the player is within the distribution of the teams' finances. This gives a more granular assessment of how much he is being paid since it takes into account the allocations of dollars to other players. It gives us more insight rather than saying simply, "Tommy Kelly is the 2nd highest paid player on the team." The value of this indicator will make more sense as we examine some examples.

Note that this is for the EXPECTED starting 11. As of Opening Day, Reggie McKenzie and Dennis Allen (And all of Raider Nation for that matter) expected Richard Seymour, Rolando McClain, Shawntae Spencer, and Ron Bartell to be starters on this team. This table reflects how those dollars were allocated with that in mind.

Name Yrs Total (M$) Per Yr ($M) Percentile Rank Pos
Burris 4 2.4 0.6 15% 179 LB
Shaughnessy 4 2.6 0.7 15% 102 DE
Wheeler 1 0.7 0.7 15% 142 LB
Spencer 1 0.8 0.8 16% 82 CB
Houston 4 4.3 1.1 18% 78 DE
Bartell 1 2.9 2.9 37% 44 CB
Branch 4 26.0 6.5 78% 11 S
Kelly 7 50.0 7.1 84% 8 DT
Seymour 5 37.5 7.5 86% 7 DT
McClain 5 40.0 8.0 89% 13 LB
Huff 4 32.0 8.0 89% 4 S

This is interesting. If we look simply at the Percentiles, look how it goes.

15%, 15%, 15%, 16%, 18%, 37%, 78%, 84%, 86%, 89%, 89%.

That means that nearly half (5 of them) have salaries that are below the 20% mark and that 4 players are above the 80% mark. And there is no one in the range between 38%-77%.

What it means is that the defense is built as two very distinct groups: the Highly Paid, the very Low Paid. And there is nearly no middle class at all! In actuality, the one person at 37% (Ron Bartell) was the "Middle Class" of the starting defense.

If we stratify it into 3 distinct ranges Low (0-29), Mid (30-69), and High (70+), we get the following :

Low : 15, 15, 15, 16, 18

Mid : 37

High : 78, 84, 86, 89, 89

5 low paid, 5 highly paid, and one mid paid.

If we build a chart out of the 2012 salary amounts, the results are striking :


You can now very easily see that the Raiders' defense is built basically using very expensive and very cheap parts with the lone intermediate one. FOUR starters making less than $1M per year and Lamar Houston at $1.1M. Meanwhile, 5 players making more than $6M/year. That means that Tyvon Branch (who makes the least of the "Upper Class") almost the same as the 6 lowest paid STARTERS on the defense, $6.5M (Tyvon) v $6.7M (the other 6).

By paying the top-5 defenders such a tremendous salary, we would naturally expect high performance and production from these players. That means that we would expect the core of the defense to be lead by Huff, McClain, Seymour, Kelly, and Branch. We would further demand that these players, who are being paid at elite-levels, should be impact players and to perform consistently at near-dominant levels. This forces opponents to gameplan and focus on them, freeing the second tier players to then make plays. But should any of these core players falter (injury or just bad games), it then falls to the other core members to pick up the slack or for one of the second tier players to raise his play to a high level.

Since so much of the team's finances have been allocated to the core members, should there be multiple failures in that core group, there is not an inherent, expected talent pool to draw from to ensure that the defense plays at a high level.

Note that there are some teams that have been consistently shrewd and effective at combining core players with less expensive players and quality backups so that they can actually overcome multiple core failures. However, the 2012 Raiders with their salary concerns and their rather empty pipeline of defensive talent ensured that they could not effectively overcome the underperformance of their core defenders.

Starting Defense, Actual

It gets worse.

Now, before we start on this section, let me say that this isn't intended as a "woe is me"-type discourse; this isn't to complain and bemoan the fate of the Raiders because of injuries; ALL teams deal with injuries and many good teams (Ravens for example) overcome injuries even to key contributors. This is to show and explain how the injuries and other "lost" starters (McClain) have affected the distribution of dollars.

The Raiders were not able to field their intended starting 11 for much of the year, particularly towards the end of the year. Bartell, Spencer, and Seymour were lost early due to injury and made little contribution to the defense. Rolando McClain worked his way out of the lineup. They were replaced by lower-paid alternatives. Bartell by Philip Adams, Spencer by Giordano (since Huff moved to the CB position, Gio moved into the starting lineup), Des Bryant for Seymour, and Omar Gaither for McClain.

When we chart the salaries for these as the starters, we get the following table:

Name Yr Total (M$) Per Yr (M$) Percentile Orig Percentile Rank Pos
Adams 1 0.5 0.5 24% 14% 159 CB
Burris 4 2.4 0.6 24% 15% 179 LB
Shaughnessy 4 2.6 0.7 25% 15% 102 DE
Wheeler 1 0.7 0.7 25% 15% 142 LB
Gaither 1 0.7 0.7 25% 15% 142 LB
Giordano 1 0..8 0.8 26% 16% 70 S
Houston 4 4.3 1.1 30% 18% 78 DE
Bryant 1 1.9 1.9 40% 26% 51 DT
Branch 4 26.0 6.5 91% 78% 11 S
Kelly 7 50.0 7.1 94% 84% 8 DT
Huff 4 32.0 8.0 97% 89% 4 S

I've listed two different percentiles, first the natural percentile among this group of 11 starters. The second percentile column (labeled "Orig Percentile") indicates what percentile they would have been in the original, intended starting 11.

Note the percentiles :

Low : 24, 24, 25, 25, 25, 25, 26

Mid : 30, 40

High : 91, 94, 97

The split is more dramatic as now there is nothing between 41% and 90%. The entire middle area is wiped out, which is understandable since Gio is paid nearly at Vet minimum, Adams and Gaither were brought in on the cheap, and Bryant was at a restricted tender.

Then when we graph it out :


It's very easy to see now. The salary distribution is shifted far to the right. From this, we see that the 3 highest paid players (all over the 90th percentile) are Branch, Kelly, and Huff. After the 3rd player, there's a huge dropoff to Des Bryant and Lamar Houston with the rest of the team being "minimum wage"-players.

For this defense to function, those top-three players had to absolutely dominate and play like top-players at their positions; beyond that, the Raiders also needed to have the lower paid players generally overachieving.

Gaither, Wheeler, Burris, Adams, Houston, and Bryant did play admirably--impressing and making big plays at times--but were not consistently excelling as needed. Additionally, Branch, Kelly, and Huff all severely UNDER-performed.

From just this financial viewpoint, it's very difficult to see how this defense could have been very good at all. You would expect it to be among the worst in the league.

Starting Defense v Intended

But this was not the intended design of the defense. The defense was not built in such a bipartite way, but rather this is the result of McKenzie's first year drastic contract cleanse. McKenzie took steps to try to get the Salary Cap into a manageable situation; those steps were drastic and the effect was that it totally fragmented the defensive roster. Most fans probably wondered what would the immediate short-term effects be of taking those up-front hits (Wimbley, Routt most notably). Because of the Cap impact made by those player cuts, McKenzie was unable to take on any major contracts and as a result he went "Bargain Hunting."

Replacing four relatively highly paid players with cheap replacements would naturally result in a skewed salary distribution. So now, let's compare what the intended starting lineup was before McKenzie started cleaning house and the starting lineup he ended up with. Here's the graph :


Looking at this chart, it starts to make more sense.

At least in terms of allocating funds (setting aside the actual dollars paid and the performance of the players), we can see that the actual way in which the defensive unit was constructed was more uniform.

Here are the percentile ranks :

Low : 5, 6, 18, 25

Middle : 55, 63, 67

High : 72, 72, 88, 93

Four highly paid, with two of those at elite or near-elite levels (Routt and Wimbley). Then four low-paid with two of them at the lowest level. Then three in the middle-to-upper-middle range. If this were a chart of defensive performance instead of salary, we would think of it as a top-tier defense. Unfortunately for Raider fans, salary and performance in this case did not go hand-in-hand.

now, if we put it side by side with the 2012 lineup, we can see the dramatic effects that McKenzie's steps took :


This puts into perspective (a) how much the Raiders were paying the defensive starters in 2011 compared to 2012 and (b) how that money was distributed. In fact, about 35% of the salary was cut when comparing the defensive starters from 2011 v 2012!

Because of the cap situation (notably dead money), the 2012 defense's starting total salaries summed to $43.8M while the 2011 total was $66.6M. So not only was the distribution changed, but the total amounts was reduced by nearly $23M per year. For a frame of reference, $23M/yr would buy Novarro Bowman ($6.6M), Elvis Dumervil ($10.2M), and Justin Tuck ($6M).

The Next Step

So what happens next?

Both starting corners were failed gambles; Ron Bartell is gone and Shawntae Spencer won't be back. We already know that Richard Seymour's contract has voided and if McClain is with the team in 2013, Dennis Allen's head will probably explode. Apparently Wheeler is returning, though his new contract details are not available yet, and Matt Shaughnessy's contract has expired and he may or may not be returning.

Presuming that Spencer, Bartell, Seymour, and McClain are gone and that neither Kelly nor Huff are restructuring, this is what the tentative salary distribution looks like for 2013 :


We can rough-guess that Shaughnessy gets $2M/yr and Wheeler will get ~$3M/yr deals and the #3 draft pick will get slightly more than the 4 yr/$20.5M that Trent Richardson got last year as the #3 pick.

But there are still four starting position that need to be filled either by draft, free agency, or with a player currently on the roster (eg., Des Bryant for Richard Seymour and Omar Gaither for McClain). If the players are brought in on the cheap again, then it will be another situation similar to this year in that the lower paid players must over perform and the higher paid players must play as they are paid. This now includes the rookie, meaning that there is quite a bit riding on that pick to not only be a contributor, but a Star player; this player can't be merely adequate or a situational player, but has to be an impact player. If the Raiders have to manage the cap and bring bargain players in like last year and lose perhaps Shaughnessy and Bryant, then this draft pick becomes a crucial player.

Still, we don't quite know exactly how much money McKenzie has to work with in free agency and how he will allocate those funds. If he is able to spend some money and puts it into the defense, then there is less pressure directly placed on the incoming rookie(s).

Say McKenzie brings back both Bryant and Shaughnessy at reasonable prices and that he also is able to bring in 1-2 more $5M-per-year players and 1-2 $2M-per-year players, then (theoretically) it eases the burden put on the rookie and it may even allow the player to develop at a more natural rate.

If McKenzie does spend money and brings in some relatively expensive defensive starters, then we would also see a "smoothing" of the salary distribution chart. And while that is certainly not the End-Goal, it does get the unit closer to being something that is intended and built with players McKenzie and Allen WANT instead of merely what they have to settles for.

Here's what the starting salary distribution COULD look like if McKenzie were able to spend on free agents on defense :


If something like this occurs, then notice that the distribution of money is more natural now with a relatively stable group in the middle. Outliers on both sides still exist but are not the major component of the graph.

The percentile rankings :

Low : 28

Mid : 32, 40, 50, 60, 64, 69

High : 70,77, 81, 85, 89

We still see that there two very highly paid players have to be impact players; However, with the pay allocations being more natural, it means that (theoretically) there are more talented mid-level players to take up the slack. Still, with this payscale, we might expect Michael Huff and Tommy Kelly to be focal points and playmakers, akin to (say) Ed Reed and Haloti Ngata. With the amount of money that they are being paid (again, recall that Huff is the 5th highest paid safety in the league and Kelly is the 8th highest paid DT), we could naturally expect these two to be dominant talents. If it shows that they are not elite players, then we should expect that either those salaries are reduced are redistributed or for those players to cut and new players brought in; in this way, we can achieve a closer match of performance and salary.

Assume for the moment that both Kelly and Huff are performing adequately but not at a superior level. It would then be desirable to reduce the financial impact of these players down to their performance level and then either lock up a high performing player to a long-term, higher paying deal or to bring in a higher-functioning free agent.

In this hypothetical situation, we would reduce Huff to $3.5M, which is equivalent to what Thomas DeCoud, Ryan Clark, LaRon Landry, and Dwight Lowery are earning. We would also reduce Kelly to $4M, which is about what Isaac Sopoaga and Randy Starks are making and slightly above what Alan Branch and Antonio Garay earn.

With that, we might then extend Lamar Houston and then be able to look into bringing in a desirable Pass Rushing Defensive End. This might give us a salary distribution of :


Here we have Houston and Bryant both under a $4.5M/yr contract and about $7M/yr for a Rush End. $7M/yr range is where players like Cameron Wake, Chris Kelsay, Antonio Smith, Chris Clemons are and just above players like John Abraham, Jason Babin, Osi Umenyiora, and Justin Tuck.

There are 4 positions to fill with 5 (primary) slotted salaries to get them : 4 free agent slots and the #3 draft pick slot. Note that the distribution is now very smooth and while it then puts some urgency for the rush end and Tyvon Branch to be productive, since there isn't a disproportionate amount of money allocated to them, there should be (theoretically) enough performance inherent in the next-level (salary-wise) players to make up for it. In other words, the defense has a more even distribution of talent across the field instead of being concentrated at certain positions (in a salary allocation sense).

The percentiles rankings are as follows :

Low : 17

Mid : 36, 40, 45, 45, 50, 50, 55, 56, 64, 68

High : 73

Note that while the rookie draft pick is 4th in salary, the players behind him are not dramatically far behind and so are within a tolerance range. That means that the rookie would ideally be performing around 4th, but is easily in the 4-10 range, which means that the defense's success is not primarily dependent upon the rookie to make big plays. Ironically, this fact will likely enable the rookie to be more productive and thus he is more likely to be successful and to make more big plays (theoretically at least).

Obviously a key to this is to match performance with pay for proven players (ie., do not overpay for a player) and to then get some bargain players that outperform their contracts (eg., nearly the entire Seahawks defense!), which will often come in the form of lower draft picks or street free agents and the occasional "Left for Dead"-older veteran (with which the Raiders have traditionally had success).

The next step for McKenzie and the Raiders is to rebuild this defense. There are already some natural holes to fill and there will be different opportunities to fill them. Depending on how much money there is to spend, what kind of talent is available (both in draft and free agency), and how McKenzie spends that money, the Raiders can expect some kind of influx of defensive talent. If things work out nicely, 2013 may show a far improved defense. But it may be until 2014 when the shape of the entire defense is near where McKenzie wants it, both in financial and talent terms.

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