Free Agency: The Value of Suh

Looking at Suh's production compared to his peers, Mike Carter breaks down his value.

| 2 years ago

Free Agency: The Value of Suh

suh-valueThe date was Thursday, November 28th, 2013. As is tradition, the Detroit Lions were playing at home on Thanksgiving, this time against the Green Bay Packers. It was late in the third quarter with the Lions up 24-10, Matt Flynn and the Packers faced a 2nd-and-13 from their own 2-yard line.

Within three seconds of the ball being snapped, Ndamukong Suh had used his freakish combination of strength and speed to beat both Packers center T.J. Lang, and right guard Marshall Newhouse to sack Flynn in the end zone for a safety. Suh earned a top mark for this play and ended the game with a +7.7 overall grade. The Lions won the game 40-10.

Game-changing plays like this performed on a consistent basis, can make defenses elite, and make teams challengers. They also make some young men extremely rich. This is exactly the kind of play the Miami Dolphins will have taken into account when they made the decision to pay Ndamukong Suh whatever it took to make him a member of their team.

The deal is indeed immense. It’s the largest contract ever awarded to a defensive player in NFL history. It contains the most guaranteed money ever awarded to any player, either side of the ball, in NFL history. The average amount of money Suh will earn per year over the course of the contract ranks seventh among all players – including Quarterbacks.

This is 2015, we live in an era where “QB is king”, where you seemingly need an Aaron Rodgers, a Tom Brady or a Peyton Manning to win anything. Yet in this era, the Dolphins elected to pay out more per year on Suh than all but seven starting QB’s in the league. It’s a staggering amount of money to pay for a defensive player – and, moreover, an interior defensive lineman.

But exactly how much of this dominance Suh showed on Thanksgiving in 2013 can Miami expect to see benefit their own team?  To give some more insight here, we need to begin to compare this type of number to Suh’s peers to add context, so we’re going to take a look at a few sets of data. Firstly, we’ll dissect Suh’s usage as player. Then we’ll look at a detailed breakdown of how interior defensive linemen have been graded over the past two seasons. Finally we’ll take a brief look at frequency of play and how Suh stacks up against other interior linemen.

Season Snaps Run % Pass %
2014 875 300 34.3% 575 65.7%
2013 913 338 37.0% 575 63.0%
2012 910 377 41.4% 533 58.6%
2011 772 287 37.2% 485 62.8%
2010 998 413 41.4% 582 58.3%
Total 4468 1715 38.4% 2750 61.5%


The table above breaks down Suh’s usage since he entered the league – number of snaps as a run defender against snaps as a pass rusher. We can see the Lions have clearly assigned the heavy majority of Suh’s workload to get after the QB. Now we’ll expand the sample size to see how Suh compares to other interior linemen.

A selection of 10 players have been used here, and while the exact reason for these particular players will become clear later, for now what is obvious is the fact they are all heavily utilised, high profile defensive linemen. This tracks all of the players’ usage since 2010, Suh’s rookie season. The players are sorted by frequency that they rush the QB, and this is important in relation to Suh’s deal in free agency. Although I mentioned earlier how unusual it is for a non-edge rushing defender to take up such a large percentage of a team’s cap space, the data clearly shows that Suh is among the league’s most prevalent pass rushers for interior defensive linemen.

Player Team Snaps Run % Pass %
Smith, Justin SF 4116 1532 37.2% 2565 62.3%
Suh, Ndamukong DET 4468 1715 38.4% 2750 61.5%
Watt, J.J. HOU 3832 1475 38.5% 2335 60.9%
McCoy, Gerald TB 3560 1395 39.2% 2159 60.6%
Campbell, Calais ARI 4387 1792 40.8% 2594 59.1%
Ngata, Haloti BAL 3746 1666 44.5% 2191 58.5%
Dareus, Marcell BUF 3108 1328 42.7% 1760 56.6%
Williams, Kyle D. BUF 3677 1589 43.2% 2068 56.2%
Richardson, Sheldon NYJ 1741 694 39.9% 965 55.4%
Wilkerson, Muhammad NYJ 3344 1469 43.9% 1838 55.0%


Now we’ll take a closer look at how we’ve been grading Suh. The following table shows the percentage of individual positive grades awarded, as well as the ratio of positive grades in relation to all non-zero grades (anything positive or negative). The total number of snaps required to qualify for this study is 600 – it is important to distinguish between players who are more capable of playing every down, and situational players who leave the field more regularly. 600 is a rough benchmark that allows us to filter out the latter. As +1.5 and +2.0 grades are awarded less frequently, they have been grouped together.

2013 Player Team Snaps +2 & +1.5 +1 +.5 Ratio
Watt, J.J. HST 998 1.4% 9.7% 10.1% 80.6%
Jordan, Cameron NO 911 0.4% 4.4% 8.0% 77.0%
Richardson, Sheldon NYJ 906 0.1% 3.9% 8.8% 76.8%
Dareus, Marcell BUF 841 0.4% 3.0% 12.0% 76.8%
Williams, Kyle D. BUF 970 0.5% 3.8% 10.3% 75.9%
McCoy, Gerald TB 985 1.2% 6.8% 7.5% 75.4%
Campbell, Calais ARZ 990 0.6% 5.1% 8.6% 73.8%
Knighton, Terrance DEN 604 0.7% 4.1% 8.9% 72.8%
Suh, Ndamukong DET 913 0.7% 5.7% 8.8% 72.6%
Hatcher, Jason DAL 773 1.0% 4.8% 6.2% 72.1%
Poe, Dontari KC 1004 0.3% 3.1% 9.6% 71.8%
Lotulelei, Star CAR 620 0.2% 3.4% 9.2% 71.2%
Williams, Kevin MIN 733 0.4% 2.6% 6.4% 71.1%
Starks, Randy MIA 742 0.4% 5.4% 7.7% 70.9%
Ngata, Haloti BLT 714 0.7% 2.5% 8.5% 70.6%


You will probably not be surprised to see JJ Watt’s name atop the list, though the massive gap between he and the rest of the field just adds further credence to his brilliance. We deem Watt to make a positive impact in more than one in every five plays regardless of what play is called – it’s essential to remember that the ball isn’t always going to go in the direction of the players in question here… Suh? His 72.63% ratio ranks ninth, still indicative of a very high level of play.

The next table shows the same data for the 2014 season. Although Watt is still clearly making more dominant plays than anybody else, the players above him managed to significantly improve their ratios of positive to non-zero graded plays to an elite level. Suh’s ratio also went up in this respect, and he only drops a place in the rankings only due to the league seeing more efficient play at interior defensive line positions as a whole.

2014 Player Team Snaps +2 & +1.5 +1 +.5 Ratio
Dareus, Marcell BUF 708 0.4% 3.8% 10.3% 82.4%
Wilkerson, Muhammad NYJ 739 0.4% 5.1% 9.3% 81.5%
Campbell, Calais ARZ 800 0.5% 4.6% 8.9% 80.6%
Watt, J.J. HST 1069 2.1% 9.4% 8.9% 80.4%
Richardson, Sheldon NYJ 835 0.5% 4.9% 10.7% 80.2%
Smith, Justin SF 715 0.3% 2.4% 11.2% 78.6%
Hankins, Johnathan NYG 700 0.3% 4.0% 9.1% 77.7%
Short, Kawann CAR 600 0.3% 4.3% 8.5% 77.5%
Cox, Fletcher PHI 962 0.2% 4.3% 10.2% 77.1%
Suh, Ndamukong DET 875 0.3% 4.6% 10.2% 76.7%
Kelly, Tommy ARZ 726 0.1% 1.9% 10.2% 76.1%
Heyward, Cameron PIT 876 0.6% 3.5% 10.5% 75.7%
Donald, Aaron SL 724 1.7% 4.3% 9.1% 75.7%
McDonald, Ray SF 713 0.1% 3.5% 9.8% 74.4%
Wilfork, Vince NE 818 0.1% 2.2% 10.5% 73.4%


This leads us to the combined data from both the 2013 and 2014 seasons. A collective 1200 snaps across both seasons is required to qualify here, and total positive grade percentages have been combined.

Player Snaps + Ratio
Watt, J.J. 2067 20.8% 80.5%
Dareus, Marcell 1549 15.0% 79.2%
Richardson, Sheldon 1741 14.4% 78.6%
Campbell, Calais 1790 14.1% 76.7%
Daniels, Mike 1213 15.2% 76.0%
Suh, Ndamukong 1788 15.1% 74.6%
Ngata, Haloti 1260 12.9% 74.0%
Williams, Kyle D. 1714 14.5% 73.9%
Hatcher, Jason 1291 13.2% 73.6%
Cox, Fletcher 1870 13.3% 73.6%
Wilkerson, Muhammad 1806 12.8% 73.4%
McCoy, Gerald 1673 15.7% 72.6%
Smith, Justin 1511 12.7% 72.2%
Heyward, Cameron 1721 13.0% 71.9%
Peters, Corey 1202 10.7% 71.7%


Watt’s unbeatable consistency sees him back on top as the ratios show just how difficult it is to maintain truly elite levels of performance over a long period of time. Suh narrowly misses out on a top five spot here.

At first glance it might seem like the Dolphins aren’t necessarily getting the value that Suh’s contract demands of him. While Suh is creating plays and making a difference on a consistent basis, it doesn’t appear to be at a level that really separates him from some of his peers. But there is something else to consider here. When we start looking at how often he has been on the field for the Lions since he entered the league, there is zero doubt Suh is a true every-down player.

This next table shows the Top 10 interior DL in the league in terms of the average number of snaps they have played per season since 2010. It takes into account season-ending injuries, such as the ones both McCoy and Williams suffered in 2011. Part of the reason Suh is able to command such a big deal isn’t only his production (in particular rushing the QB), it’s his athleticism and durability. There are only 13 such linemen who have managed more than 800 snaps per season on average since 2010.

Player Avg. Snaps
 J.J. Watt 958
 Darnell Dockett 917
 Dontari Poe 909
 Ndamukong Suh 894
 Sheldon Richardson 871
 Vince Wilfork 870
 Calais Campbell 867
 Kyle D. Williams 863
 Muhammad Wilkerson 836
 Gerald McCoy 833


But the question once again comes back to value. Yes, Suh is the rare kind of defensive linemen who can be plugged in on seemingly every play available. Yes, he is productive, with just under 75% of his non-zero grades being positive. But does all that warrant a contract with almost $60m in guarantees? It’s tough to make many comparisons with such an other-worldly contract, but there are two obvious players who fit the bill in this respect. Both signed new contracts in 2014, and both are directly comparable to Suh as they appear on the Top 15 list for production and Top 10 for usage. JJ Watt and Gerald McCoy.

The following table shows the players in question – the snaps played and ratio of positive to plays to non-zero graded plays over the last two seasons, as well as their average salary per year and the amount of guaranteed money in their deals. Although similar, the Dolphins have clearly raised the bar as far as valuing interior defensive linemen is concerned.

Player Team Snaps Ratio APY Guar Signed
Watt, J.J. HOU 2067 80.5% $16,666,667 $51,876,000 2014
Suh, Ndamukong DET 1839 74.6% $19,062,500 $59,955,000 2015
McCoy, Gerald TB 1673 72.6% $13,600,000 $51,500,000 2014


Perhaps what the data here suggests most pertinently is that while JJ Watt received his mega-deal early in 2014, and at the time set the bar himself, it still wasn’t anywhere near indicative of just how high he could have set it. It’s a genuinely scary prospect to imagine what kind of offers Watt could have entertained had he hit the open market. As for Suh, it’s probably fair to say that while the Dolphins can be confident they’ll continue to get consistently positive performances from him, they may need to see him step up his game to a level he hasn’t yet shown in order to fully maximise the value from their huge investment.


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  • Sam

    What is the ‘Ratio’? There needs to be an explanation of that metric here.

    • Mike Carter

      The ratio is the percentage of positively graded plays compared to the total number of non-zero graded plays.

  • Dave

    How about an analysis of how the players on the line with him perform? comparing when he is in or out of the lineup. Maybe for Watt and McCoy too?

    • Jason

      Yeah, that is what I was hoping to get from this article. Miami has some significant talent on that line and it will be interesting to see the boost Suh will provide. Compaing his contract to others who never saw free agency is pointless. I wish Watt would hit FA though, that would be fun.

  • Dildo Baggins

    Fantastic stuff! Its really interesting to get a deeper look into the play by play grading. Wish we could se more of this.

  • Sven

    When was TJ Lang a center…and Newhouse at Guard??

    • Chad Lundberg

      Injuries happened, had to mix things around a bit.

      • spacebo

        In two years, mention that Clay Matthews played interior LB and most fans will look at you as if you’re mad.

  • RBro

    He’s obviously a great player, but if he’s only positively impacting 15% of all plays, and negatively impacting 5%, how can you really pay him that much money? All of these huge DT contracts seem unwise to me.

    • spacebo

      In the last two seasons, Suh pretty much on his own, made the Lions corners look respectable. When he collapses those pockets, those QBs have to turn off their countdowns and do something which they don’t wish to do. Meanwhile, Suh won’t quit on the play. Ever. (In five years, I’ve only once seen him blow air like a locomotive pulling a freight train through a switchback climb. For maybe two plays. His recovery from oxygen debt is ludicrous for a man that size, exerting himself to that extent. Lactic acid? He thinks it’s something that lesser human beings put on their cold cereal.)

  • Packerfan12

    I believe Suh’s value is worth a McDonald’s one dollar menu he is overrated

  • corners

    The diffrence is most of the top 10 of that list wont ever hit free agency.

  • brendasdf

    Why aren’t double teams part of the analysis? Suh gets double-teamed constantly.

    • spacebo

      What’s especially remarkable about that is the extent to which he single-handedly collapses the pocket, all the while racking up impact plays and making RBs regret even thinking about stutter-stepping when they get to the line, or, worse yet, trying to move parallel to it. Given how crowded things get around him, I can only recall a single instance, in five seasons, in which he put a foot wrong. (Which likely has something to do with his enviable injury profile.)

    • Derrick

      I agree Suh is going to be a huge problem for the afc east.