Free Agency: The Value of Suh
The 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.
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.
|Williams, Kyle D.||BUF||3677||1589||43.2%||2068||56.2%|
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|
|Williams, Kyle D.||BUF||970||0.5%||3.8%||10.3%||75.9%|
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|
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.
|Williams, Kyle D.||1714||14.5%||73.9%|
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.
|Kyle D. Williams||863|
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.
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.