One of the more popular ways to measure the success of a play in the NFL is Expected Points Added, abbreviated as EPA. Teams aim to have a high offensive EPA and a low defensive EPA, resulting in the maximum expected number of points scored while allowing the fewest. This metric can then be averaged throughout a season.
In order to see which teams have successfully constructed productive rosters, let’s take a look at which teams have gotten the best and worst returns on their player contracts. This will be a two-part series, starting with ROI on defensive investments:
The Bills have been one of the best teams in football in the 2021 season, sitting at 5-3 with all three of their losses coming in one-possession games. One of the key reasons for their early-season success has been their incredible defensive play. In fact, Buffalo has allowed the fewest points, yards, first downs, yards per play and scoring percentage through Week 9.
In terms of EPA allowed per play, Buffalo is conceding an average of -0.279 expected points added per play, the lowest figure in the league. This means that their defense is taking away over one point for every four defensive plays on average, a staggering statistic.
Led by one of the best defensive backfields in the league, Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde are each having incredible years. Of all safeties with at least 60 defensive snaps this season, both players from the Buffalo safety tandem rank in the top six in PFF defensive grades. Although the Bills do have the second-highest amount devoted to defensive players in the NFL, the argument that they are getting an incredible return on investment can and should be made.
The difference between their allowed EPA per play and the second-place team is over 0.1, the largest gap between any consecutively ranked teams in this metric.
Jerry Hughes has the highest salary cap number of the defensive players on the Bills, but he has been incredibly productive this year. Hughes has 25 total pressures which ranks 36th in the league, 20 hurries which is 20th in the NFL, and a pass rush win percentage of 19.6%, the 21st-best of players with at least 25 pass rush snaps.
The third-highest paid defensive player on the Bills, Matt Milano, has also been a stand-out performer. Although he plays a linebacker position where he doesn’t rush the passer on every down, he has been elite at this skill given his pass rush pressure percentage of 25.7%, the 6th-highest in the NFL. He has also added eight tackles for a loss or no gain, the 6th-most in the league.
Buffalo has put lots of their funds into coordinator Leslie Frazier’s defense, but given how elite they have played thus far, this has proven to be a worthwhile decision.
The Panthers started the season hot with three straight wins, in part because of their great defensive performance. Allowing fewer than 21 points per game, Carolina is currently sitting half of a game out of the playoffs in the NFC. They are allowing the second-fewest yards per play and the fourth-lowest scoring percentage thus far in the 2021 season.
Carolina ranks second in EPA allowed per play at -0.171 led by their stout front seven play. Of all linebackers with at least 25 snaps, Frankie Luvu and Shaq Thompson have two of the eight highest PFF defensive grades. This is just one example of their defensive prowess, and having the 7th-lowest amount of cap money devoted to defensive players makes this all the more impressive.
One player who has been elite for the Panthers this year has been Haason Reddick. The edge rusher has amassed 8.5 sacks this season, the 5th-most in the league, with 24 total pressures. Although he signed a $6 million deal for this season, his cap hit for the 2021 season is less than $2 million, making his production top-notch given the insignificant salary cap implications.
The most surprising contributor on Phil Snow’s defense, however, has been Luvu. The former New York Jet signed with Carolina this past offseason on a deal totaling just $1.1 million, but he is proving he will demand a pay raise when he hits the unrestricted free agency market in 2022.
Although he doesn’t rush the passer every down, Luvu is sitting behind just Myles Garrett in pass rushing win percentage at 27.5% among players with 25 pass rush snaps. He is also top fourteen in total pressure percentage with a figure of 20%, making a case for being one of the most under-appreciated linebackers in the NFL.
For the Panthers to have such a stringent defense despite spending less than $65 million on that side of the ball is remarkable, which is in large part credit to General Manager Scott Fitterer and his staff.
Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs have come out of the gates slowly this season with an uncharacteristic 4 losses at the midway point of the season. Although some of the cause may be tied to their offense, a lot of their lack of success can be seen in their poor defensive metrics.
Kansas City is allowing the second-most yards per play, the third-most total yards and the fifth-most points allowed in the NFL. Their EPA allowed per play has been abysmal, ranking second-lowest in the league at 0.097. To make matters worse, they have the most money put into their defense at over $96 million in 2021. Their collective PFF defensive grade is just 58.5, the 6th-worst in the league, and some players are falling well short of expectations.
One player who has not contributed as the Chiefs were expecting in 2021 is Frank Clark. The two-time Pro Bowler has the largest cap hit in the NFL among edge rushers at $25.8 million this season, yet he has a PFF defensive grade of 64.1. This puts him as the 13th-highest ranked player of the 27 graded defensive players on Kansas City, not the slot the Chiefs envisioned when inking him to a nine-figure deal. Although Clark has missed some time, he has just one sack in six games this season, which is on pace to be his lowest sack per game average of his career.
Another player falling into this category of being paid highly yet not matching his salary on the field is Anthony Hitchens. The linebacker is receiving a total of $10.6 million this season, the third-most among members of the Chiefs defense, but he has the lowest PFF defensive grade of his career at 40.6.
Other underperforming Chiefs are defensive linemen Jarran Reed and Derrick Nnadi, both of whom currently have the lowest PFF defensive grade in each of their respective careers. To add perspective, there are 595 NFL players with at least 100 defensive snaps with Nnadi and Reed ranking 497 and 572 in PFF defensive grades, respectively. Reed is 5th among the highest-paid defenders on the Chiefs and Nnadi checks in at 7th.
Kansas City has failed to get substantial value out of the premier defensive players they have invested in this season, one key explanation as to their lackluster play on the field.
Washington Football Team
The Washington Football Team came into the 2021 campaign with one of the most feared defensive units in the NFL. However, they have surrendered more than 28 points per game eight games into their season. They are allowing opposing offenses to score on 49.4% of their drives, the 3rd-worst rate in the league.
The Washington defense has an average EPA allowed per play of 0.072 which slots them at 4th-worst in the NFL, but they have the 6th-highest amount of money devoted to defensive players this year. This lack of production with an exorbitant financial amount being devoted to their defense bodes poorly, especially for some of their higher-paid players.
The defensive player on Washington making the most this year is Landon Collins, registering just shy of $17 million towards the cap between his salary and bonus. The safety is conceding the highest completion percentage, receiving yards per coverage snap and passer rating of his career thus far in the 2021 season. He is on pace to yield the most allowed receptions, passing yards and touchdowns of his entire career, not a statistic a team wants to see for their highest-paid defensive player.
William Jackson III is another player on the team who has not performed up to standards. Despite being the 6th-highest-paid defensive player on Washington’s roster, his current stats put him on pace to give up the most touchdowns and first downs of his career.
Similarly, Daron Payne is the 7th-highest compensated defender under contract with Washington, but the 2018 first round pick isn’t producing as well statistically in run defense as one may expect.
His PFF run defense grade is the lowest of his career, and he has just one tackle for no gain or a loss which is on pace to be more than 8 fewer than his 2020 total. For a defense with expectations to be a top-five group heading into the season, Jack Del Rio’s core has been disappointing, especially with the knowledge that over $89 million was poured into its players.
All information taken from Over the Cap, PFF and Pro-Football-Reference