NFL
December 2, 2020

NFL Cost Per Stat: Who Are the Most Undervalued and Overvalued Players?

It’s no secret fame comes with a pretty penny. Being in the limelight means bringing home a salary to match the expectations from the public: hefty.

Professional sports are among the highest paying careers, with many arguing athletes make significantly too much money. While NBA players generally bring in the highest salaries each year worldwide — with an average annual salary of $8.32 million in 2019-20 — the NFL doesn’t fall far behind with an average yearly salary of $3.26 million. Compared to the mere $63,179 median household income for Americans, NFL players are doing pretty well.

Given the high salaries and expensive tickets to attend games, does the NFL have a good return on investment (ROI)? Experts investigated which NFL fans get the most for their money and found the Carolina Panthers offered the best ROI. But what about ROI for players?

With active roster rookies making nearly $500,000 and top players bringing in tens of millions, how do NFL salaries stack up to each athlete’s performance? We used detailed player salary data to compute the cost per pass, yard gained, various defensive statistics, scoring kicks and touchdowns to see which teams and players have the greatest ROI and offer the most value. Keep reading to see what we found.

Million-Dollar Pass

Quarterbacks have always been the NFL’s most prized possession, and their salaries reflect that.

Players in the lead position typically make significantly more than their teammates, like Patrick Mahomes racking in an average annual wage of $45 million and a guaranteed $141 million contract. Despite making the most money and coming out on top with a 2019 championship win, the Kansas City Chiefs were not the team with the lowest or highest cost per quarterback touchdown pass. Instead, the Dallas Cowboys paid the lowest per passing touchdown, spending just $40,000 for each in 2019. The Detroit Lions, Pittsburgh Steelers and Carolina Panthers also spent under $100,000 per passing touchdown.

In contrast, the Los Angeles Rams spent nearly 15 times more, coming in at $1.6 million per touchdown pass.

The discrepancy in cost per touchdown is also seen when looking at specific players. In 2019, Jaguars' Nick Foles had the highest price per touchdown, with his team spending $7.33 million for each of his three touchdown passes. On the other hand, the Cowboys’ Dak Prescott added the greatest value, with each of his 30 passing touchdowns costing only 20 grand.

However, these numbers changed drastically in 2020. The average price NFL teams paid per touchdown increased by a whopping $200,000. This year, the Jacksonville Jaguars have had the lowest cost per touchdown, with each costing $90,000, while the Indianapolis Colts have spent $2.2 million per touchdown.

In a similar shift, Dak Prescott became one of the top five quarterbacks with the highest price per passing touchdown, his nine touchdowns cost $1.31 million each. Replacing Prescott’s top spot from 2019, Gardner Minshew has been the most bang for his buck, costing just $20,000 per each of his 11 touchdowns.

Gains Come at a Cost

Entering the 2020 NFL season, Julio Jones of the Atlanta Falcons raked in the highest average annual salary of $22 million and had the third-highest receiving yards. But in 2019, the Atlanta Falcons landed precisely in the middle of cost per yard gained by wide receivers.

With an average price of $8,718.94 paid by NFL teams per yard gained, the Falcons totaled just above that figure, spending $8.89K per yard. The Steelers spent the least, with each yard gained by a wide receiver costing $2.66K, while the Philadelphia Eagles spent the most at nearly $19,000 per yard. 

Unlike cost per passing touchdown, the difference between the cost per yard gained in 2019 and 2020 barely changed.

In 2020, the average payment per yard gained is $8,690.14, with the Steelers still paying the least. While the Browns shifted from fourth to No. 1, the Eagles only dropped to the second spot, spending just around $2K less than the year prior.

The Longest Yard

Tight ends are a hybrid position, often having two jobs in one: act as an offensive lineman and as a wide receiver. Thus, they often gain significantly fewer yards than wide receivers and tend to make slightly less. However, the salary difference isn’t enough to offset the cost per yard gained, with the average totaling $11,824.71 in 2019 and roughly $12.6K in 2020.

On the cheaper side, the San Francisco 49ers spent just $4.3K per yard gained by tight ends in 2019, followed by the Miami Dolphins ($4.5K) and Atlanta Falcons ($4.7K). On the other hand, the Chicago Bears spent the most, with each yard gained costing a whopping $41K. The Washington Football Team came in a close second, spending nearly $36,000 per yard gained.

In 2020, the San Francisco 49ers saw a drastic increase in price per yard gained, spending $12.4K a yard, thanks to a contract extension for tight end George Kittle. The Chicago Bears cut their cost per yard by more than half, spending around $23K less than the year prior. Replacing the Bears at the top, the Minnesota Vikings and Buffalo Bills spent the most per yard gained, with a total of nearly $34.0K and $29.5K spent, respectively. 

Looking at players, value changed drastically. In 2019, George Kittle was the most valuable tight end in terms of cost per yard gained. Gaining 1,075 yards with a salary of $670,000, the 49ers spent just $630 per yard gained by Kittle. However, in 2020, Mo Alie-Cox became the tight end whose yard gains cost the least. With a total of 194 yards gained and a $200K salary, the Indianapolis Colts spent just over $1,000 per yard gained by Alie-Cox.

Running Back ROI

Across all statistics thus far, yards gained by running backs were by far the least expensive. On average, the cost per yard gained by running backs in 2019 was $3,758, rising only slightly to about $4.5K in 2020.

While the Los Angeles Rams spent the most, totaling $11.2K per yard, the Green Bay Packers spent a fraction of that: just $1.2K per yard. Aaron Jones of the Green Bay Packers represented his team on the top five running backs with the lowest cost per yard gained, with each of his 1,558 yards costing just over $400. Despite Jones’ relatively low salary of $650K, Packers players who earned the most earned their keep in 2019.

The following year saw slight changes. the Green Bay Packers gave up their spot as the team spending the least on yards gained by running backs, but only by 10 bucks. To make up for the slight loss, Aaron Jones became the running back with the lowest cost per yard gained in 2020, with 550 yards costing just $370 each.

On the Defense

Defensive statistics (specifically interceptions and sacks) show a higher cost than any offensive statistic.

On average, defensive stats cost NFL teams nearly $1.79M in 2019, jumping to slightly over $2.28M in 2020. On one hand, the teams spending the most and the least have been the same across both years. Defensive stats for the Detroit Lions cost $3.09M in 2019, while the same defensive stats cost the team $7.25M in 2020, leading the league in cost both years.

Defensive stats for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers cost $1.19M in 2019, while the same defensive stats cost the team $0.79M in 2020. However, we do see a lot of relative movement across both years. For example, the defensive stats cost the Philadelphia Eagles a whopping $2.02M in 2019, but only $1.41M in 2020.

Kicking Down Costs

Despite much of the focus resting on the quarterback and player scoring a touchdown, kickers play a crucial role in winning – accounting for nearly a third of scoring in the NFL. However, scoring kicks cost a substantial amount in 2019.

On average, a scoring kick cost $42,732, with kicks from the Tennessee Titans costing the most. Compared to an $8.57K price tag for the Arizona Cardinals, a scoring kick cost the Tennessee Titans more than $114K.

That year, Stephen Gostkowski’s kicks cost the New England Patriots the most by far. Coming in at nearly $185K per kick, Gostkowski’s kicks cost over $50K more than the next top player, Ryan Succop.

The following year saw a stark decrease in cost per kick – both on average and for the top kickers with the highest cost.

In 2020, scoring kicks cost an average of $34,698. This time, the Jacksonville Jaguars spent the most per scoring kick ($93.28K), while the Las Vegas Raiders spent the least (around $7K). Similarly, Josh Lambo was the kicker with the highest cost per scoring kick, but compared to Gostkowski’s $185K kicks in 2019, Lambo’s kicks cost just over $145K each.

The Ultimate Moneymaker

Offensive yards gained lead to touchdowns, and touchdowns lead to wins. While one would expect offensive yards gained and touchdowns to cost similar amounts, touchdowns cost significantly more than offensive yards in 2019 and 2020.

In 2019, the average price NFL teams paid per offensive yard gained was a paltry $14,206.80. Meanwhile, NFL teams paid an average of $2.01 million per offensive touchdown. In 2020, offensive yards cost an average of around $8K, while touchdowns still exceeded $1.05 million each. 

Interestingly, the Detroit Lions spent the least on each stat in 2019, while the Baltimore Ravens spent the least on each in 2020. Offensive yards gained in 2019 cost the Detroit Lions $6.6K each, while touchdowns cost the team just over $1 million each. The following year, the Baltimore Ravens spent just $4.1K on offensive yards gained (tied with the Dallas Cowboys) and half a million dollars on each touchdown. 

Players Earn Their Keep

Fans of football likely don’t consider how much each move costs the team while watching a game, but the team’s finances are largely linked to winning. The more yards gained, kicks scored, defensive plays, and touchdowns made means more wins and less money spent on each. The most value was found with the same combination across all statistics: low salary and high stat. Players with the lowest salaries were largely the players with the most impressive stats and those bringing the team the greatest return on investment. 

While there was no clear team that came out on top for the greatest return on investment across all statistics, one thing is for sure: Touchdowns cost the NFL the most money. But investing in touchdowns isn’t just about investing in wins; it’s about investing in the team’s fan base, too. As a team rakes in touchdowns, fan bases become more engaged. At Lines, our goal is to keep fans engaged with their team of choice and the NFL as a whole, from anywhere. To stay up to date with power rankings, trades, and predictions for the season, visit us online at Lines.com

Methodology and Limitations

NFL player statistic data was mined from Pro Football Reference. NFL player and team salary data were mined from Spotrac. Twelve separate spreadsheets were created based on mined data from these sites for each position of analysis and each year. Data was manipulated in R, where “cost per” statistics were calculated and team salary allocation was validated. The particular salary data that was used was the average annual contract value. 

The limitations of this study include the following: limited statistics for the 2020 season (at the time of this data collection) and the inability to isolate starting players (which would require manual separation).

Fair Use Statement

No matter the cost, teams value players for earning their keep, and we value your right to share this study with your audience for noncommercial use. All we ask is that you include a link back to this page so the study’s contributors earn credit for their work.