Special Report

The Most Overpaid (and Underpaid) Fantasy Football Players

On Wednesday at 8:30 p.m., the New York Giants and the Dallas Cowboys will kick off the NFL’s 2012 regular season. The game also marks the start of this year’s fantasy football season, in which more than 33 million Americans will participate. Over the last few weeks, these players have been joining their leagues, making their draft boards and reading expert draft rankings to make their roster selections.

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Despite the attention, one question that’s rarely asked is whether a player’s value among fantasy players, measured by ranking in the fantasy football community is the same as his value in real life. 24/7 Wall St. attempted to find out by reviewing each fantasy-eligible player’s average expert draft ranking across the four biggest league hosting sites to his actual NFL salary. These are the most overpaid (and underpaid) players in fantasy football.

For those who don’t know how fantasy football works, here is a short explanation: Competitors in a league select a certain number of actual NFL players to build their own “team.” Each week, when the actual teams play on the field, fantasy players earn points for yards football players on their team run, catch or throw for and for each touchdown they score.

Some football fans might be quick to point out that a player’s value on an actual NFL team is different than on a fantasy team. Running backs and wide receivers need to block and run routes effectively. In fantasy football, they only get points for yards ran and touchdowns. Of course, it is tough to argue that these are not the two most important things for players in these positions.

But could you argue that having a valuable fantasy player on your NFL team is an asset? Should a highly ranked fantasy football player even be paid more in real life for increasing interest among fans?

A review of player salaries from player contract website Sportrac shows that, for the most part, players’ salaries reflect their contribution to scoring. The majority of the top 100 ranked fantasy players are in the top 100 best paid players as well. Larry Fitzgerald is the ninth highest-paid fantasy player in the NFL, and the fifth highest-paid fantasy player. Antonio Gates is the 48th highest-paid fantasy player and the is ranked 51st on average among fantasy experts.

However, for a variety of reasons some football players are dramatically underpaid relative to their fantasy draft rank. LeSean McCoy, the Eagles’ leading rusher, averages as the third highest-ranked player across ESPN, Yahoo!, CBS and NFL.com leagues. Despite this, he is paid less than 138 other fantasy-eligible players, including 27 other running backs. Victor Cruz, the Giants’ receiver who was the third-most valuable fantasy wide receiver last year, will earn just $490,000 this year, less than 187 current wide receivers.

Things can go the other way, too. Relative to their fantasy performance, some players are paid eight or nine times what other players at their position make, and often perform worse. St. Louis’s third-year quarterback Sam Bradford missed several games due to injury last year, but in the 10 games he started, he threw just six touchdowns. He averages as the 20th-ranked quarterback — at best a backup in a fantasy league — and yet the $15.59 million in salary and bonuses he will cost the Rams in 2012 represents the second-highest among all NFL offensive players, after only Peyton Manning.

In order to identify the players paid the most and least relative to their fantasy league value, 24/7 Wall St. averaged each player’s overall fantasy rank based on the expert rankings from each of the four largest league-hosting sites, ESPN, Yahoo!, NFL.com and CBS. We then compared their rank in fantasy leagues to the rank their salary cap hit for 2012, which includes base salary as well as bonuses. This was out of the 825 tight ends, wide receivers, quarterbacks, running backs, and kickers. In many cases, bonuses are spread over a number of years for the salary cap, but the player is paid the entire sum when the contract is signed. We are measuring each player’s salary cap hit for 2012. All salary figures were provided by Sportrac. All fantasy rankings and player contracts were as of Wednesday, Aug. 29.
The most underpaid fantasy football players

10. Denarius Moore
> Average Fantasy Rank: 90
> Salary: $512,625 (510th highest)
> Position: wide receiver
> Team: Oakland Raiders

Moore, a fifth-round pick in the 2011 draft, is hoping to follow up his promising first year in the NFL, during which he showed a great deal of skill and made some spectacular catches. However, the Oakland wide receiver is not exactly a top-tier fantasy player. He is expected to compete with Darrius Heyward-Bey and Jacoby Ford for passes from quarterback Carson Palmer. Also, his 618 yards receiving was good enough for just 67th among receivers last year. He is currently the 32nd-ranked wide receiver in ESPN’s ranking, but his salary and bonus come to just $512,625, below that of more than 500 fantasy-eligible players, including 172 other receivers.

9. Ryan Mathews
> Average Fantasy Rank: 19
> Salary: $2,729,937 (132nd highest)
> Position: running back
> Team: San Diego Chargers

If it were not for a broken collarbone he sustained on his first carry in his first preseason game this year, Ryan Mathews would rank even higher on this list of players overperforming their salary in the fantasy arena. Last year, in Yahoo! standard leagues, San Diego’s lead rusher earned the ninth-most fantasy points among running backs and looks set to follow up on his 1,000+ yard season this year. Whether he will play in the Chargers’ first regular-season game against Oakland on September 10 is still up in the air, but it is clear that when he does return, this running back will be poised to potentially have another top-10 fantasy season. This year, he will be just the sixth-highest paid fantasy-eligible player on the team, behind ESPN’s 57th-ranked receiver Eddie Royal.

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8. Hakeem Nicks
> Average Fantasy Rank: 28
> Salary: $1,780,000 (198th highest)
> Position: wide receiver
> Team: New York Giants

Although the Giants’ 2009 first-round pick was upstaged by undrafted second-year wide receiver Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks still had an incredible season. Nicks caught for 1,192 yards and seven touchdowns, good for the 11th-most points among fantasy wide receivers. Nicks has spent the entire summer recovering from a broken right foot, missing most of training camp, and all but one preseason game. If he steps out on the field in the NFL season opener between the Giants and the Cowboys, Nicks salary cap hit of $1.78 million will make him the 198th highest-paid fantasy player in the NFL, and the 63rd highest-paid wide receiver.

7. Tom Brady
> Average Fantasy Rank: 5
> Salary: $7,775,000 (37th highest)
> Position: quarterback
> Team: New England Patriots

Regardless of your team affiliation, it is hard to argue that Tom Brady is one of the best quarterbacks in the game. Tom Terrific has led the Patriots to three Super Bowl wins and one undefeated regular season. He is still going strong, scoring 39 touchdowns last season and throwing for 5,235 yards, the second most in the NFL. It might therefore surprise some to learn that, this year, Brady will earn less than 17 other current NFL quarterbacks, including such questionables as Josh Freeman and oft-maligned Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez.

6. Rob Gronkowski
> Average Fantasy Rank: 13
> Salary: $2,610,000 (142nd highest)
> Position: tight end
> Team: New England Patriots

One of the reasons Tom Brady had such a successful season in 2011 was this man. Gronkowski showed unbelievable skill throughout the season, catching for 1,327 yards and an unbelievable 17 touchdowns — both NFL tight end single-season records. Gronkowski’s 17 touchdowns doubled every other tight end in the league, save for Jimmy Graham. Gronkowski’s 240.9 fantasy points in Yahoo! standard leagues in 2011 was second only to Calvin Johnson among wide receivers and tight ends. Gronkowski is currently ranked 13th on average among the four major fantasy hosting sites, the highest among tight ends. He will be paid just $2.61 million in salary and bonuses, 142nd overall among fantasy eligible players, and 21st among tight ends.

5. Victor Cruz
> Average Fantasy Rank: 31
> Salary: $490,000 (532nd highest)
> Position: wide receiver
> Team: New York Giants

The NFL draft often determines starting salaries. First-round picks (especially number one picks) are going to get paid substantially more money right off the bat than fourth-round picks. Those players who go undrafted usually can be picked up for next to nothing (well, relative to the rest of the NFL). Cruz was invited to the Giants training camp two years ago as an undrafted free agent. Winning a contract in 2010, Cruz showed promise in the preseason, but a hamstring injury at the beginning of the season kept him out until 2011. With more receiving yards than all but two wide receivers, Cruz was one of the biggest reasons the Giants made — and won — the Super Bowl last year. In the final year of his contract, Cruz will earn just $490,000 this year, a lower salary than more than 500 players, including 29 kickers.

4. DeMarco Murray
> Average Fantasy Rank: 17
> Salary: $675,781 (330th highest)
> Position: running back
> Team: Dallas Cowboys

In the 13 games he played last season, Cowboys starting running back DeMarco Murray rushed for 897 yards, averaging an impressive 5.5 yards per carry. In his second year, fantasy experts expect he will do even greater things. Across the four major league hosting sites, Murray ranks an average of 17th among fantasy players, including a 10th overall rank by CBS. In the second year of his career, Murray is set to be paid just $675,781, less than 329 fantasy eligible players. His contract — set to increase each year but never to exceed $1 million — does not expire until the end of 2014.

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3. Ray Rice
> Average Fantasy Rank: 2
> Salary: $5,000,000 (61st highest)
> Position: running back
> Team: Baltimore Ravens

Ray Rice is coming into his fifth season with Baltimore, and the fourth in which he is expected to be their starter for the full season. In his three past seasons as a starter, Rice has scored 29 touchdowns and rushed for nearly 4,000 yards. In his last season, his totals were enough to earn him more fantasy points in Yahoo! standard leagues than any non-quarterback player. Rice is the seventh highest-paid player on the Ravens, and the third highest-paid offensive player, after quarterback Joe Flacco and wide receiver Anquan Boldin.

2. Arian Foster
> Average Fantasy Rank: 1
> Salary: $8,000,000 (32nd highest)
> Position: running back
> Team: Houston Texans

With quarterback Aaron Rodgers as a possible exception, Arian Foster has been the near-unanimous number one pick across experts’ draft boards. The Texans’ running back has a very versatile game and is capable of both catching and running the ball well. Though he was once undrafted, Foster’s talent has resulted in multiple successful seasons, including accumulating more than 4,000 combined rushing and receiving yards over the past two years. Half of that total would be considered successful for many players at the position. While he is still one of the higher-paid players in the game, Foster is still just the 32nd highest-paid fantasy-eligible player in the NFL.

1. LeSean McCoy
> Average Fantasy Rank: 3
> Salary: $2,657,530 (139th highest)
> Position: running back
> Team: Philadelphia Eagles

By our measure, no quarterback, running back, tight end, wide receiver or kicker has more fantasy bang for his buck than LeSean McCoy. The Eagles lead rusher has been great since he began starting for the Eagles in 2009. Last season, however, he reached another level, running for 17 touchdowns and catching three more. His 20-touchdown total was five more than any other running back. McCoy was responsible for nearly half of his team’s offensive touchdowns, yet, coming into his fourth year as a starting back, he is set to be paid just $2.66 million in salary and bonuses this year. This is less than Bears wide receiver Earl Bennett, who has averaged two touchdowns per season in his three years in the NFL and is currently ranked 89th at his position by ESPN.

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The most overpaid fantasy football players

10. Ben Roethlisberger
> Average Fantasy Rank: 81
> Salary: $9,895,000 (14th highest)
> Position: quarterback
> Team: Pittsburgh Steelers

Ben Roethlisberger is the first of many quarterbacks to earn far more than their fantasy projections suggest. A two-time Super Bowl champion, Roethlisberger’s pay may be justified. However, in terms of recent fantasy production, the quarterback’s output has been less than desirable, suggesting his nearly $10 million salary hit is paying for intangibles like leadership. Roethlisberger is currently the ninth highest-paid quarterback in football, but by 2013, his salary is expected to jump substantially, making his entire cap hit more than $20 million, higher than any player is currently paid.

9. Joe Flacco
> Average Fantasy Rank: not in top 100
> Salary: $8,000,000 (32nd highest)
> Position: quarterback
> Team: Baltimore Ravens

Oftentimes a player’s lack of production at his position has as much to do with his team’s style as his abilities. Joe Flacco is entering his fifth season as a quarterback for a Raven’s team that relies heavily on its defense and its running game. Flacco has had solid numbers, but last season he was just 12th in passing yards and 13th in passing touchdowns among quarterbacks. Picked 18th overall in the first round of the 2008 draft, Flacco is in the final year of his contract, and is currently the 32nd highest-paid fantasy-eligible player. Flacco, however, is the 111th-ranked player on NFL.com and the 122nd-ranked player on ESPN.

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8. Darrius Heyward-Bey
> Average Fantasy Rank: 94
> Salary: $8,159,000 (29th highest)
> Position: wide receiver
> Team: Oakland Raiders

While his Oakland receiver counterpart, Denarius Moore, makes our list of players with the highest fantasy value relative to their salary, Heyward-Bey has the opposite honor. The Raiders’ receiver has been mediocre since being drafted in the first round, seventh overall, in 2009. Last season, his yardage total was a respectable 20th among receivers, but his four touchdowns were less than well more than 50 receivers, including Denarius Moore, who played three fewer games. With his nearly $8.2 million cap hit in salary and bonuses, Heyward-Bey also is set to make 15 times more than Moore.

7. Jay Cutler
> Average Fantasy Rank: 87
> Salary: $9,600,000 (15th highest)
> Position: Quarterback
> Team: Chicago Bears

Entering his seventh professional year, his fourth with the Chicago Bears, Jay Cutler will earn just under $10 million in salary and bonuses, making him the 10th highest-paid quarterback in the NFL. Last season, Cutler finished 26th among quarterbacks in points in Yahoo! standard leagues, partially due to a thumb injury that caused him to miss six games. Still, experts currently have him ranked 14th among quarterbacks and 87th among all fantasy-eligible players.

6. Sidney Rice
> Average Fantasy Rank: not in top 100
> Salary: $8,200,000 (28th highest)
> Position: wide receiver
> Team: Seattle Seahawks

Going into his sixth year in the NFL, the veteran wide receiver has had some very good years, including an eight-touchdown, 1,312-yard season in 2009. However, last season, he caught just four touchdowns and gained 764 yards. Only eight wide receivers will have a higher salary cap hit than Seattle’s Rice. Yet, the veteran is currently the 40th-ranked wide receiver on ESPN. His $8.2 million in salary and bonuses will continue to increase through 2015, the final year of his contract, when he will earn more than $10 million.

5. Santonio Holmes
> Average Fantasy Rank: not in top 100
> Salary: $9,250,000 (21st highest)
> Position: wide receiver
> Team: New York Jets

In 2009, Santonio Holmes had his best season, catching for more than 1,200 yards and helping the Steelers win Super Bowl XLIII as MVP. One year later, after his production fell, he was traded to the New York Jets, and things began to decline for the sixth highest-paid wide receiver in the NFL. Last season, the six-year veteran caught a respectable eight touchdowns, but his total receiving yards was roughly half of his 2009 numbers. The New York Jets starting offense, which includes Holmes, has famously struggled through the preseason, failing to record a touchdown through three preseason games. The dubious quarterback duo of Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow may cause Holmes’s value — both real and fantasy — to continue to fall.

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4. Matt Schaub
> Average Fantasy Rank: 91
> Salary: $10,950,000 (11th highest)
> Position: quarterback
> Team: Houston Texans

Matt Schaub, a third-round draft pick by the Atlanta Falcons in 2004, is in the final year of his six-year contract. This year, he will earn nearly $11 million, more than all but six quarterbacks. While he has been successful in previous years, last season, the veteran scored the 23rd-most fantasy points in Yahoo! standard leagues after missing his team’s final six games because of an injured foot. This season, fantasy experts have him ranked an average of 91st overall and 15th among quarterbacks. Fully healthy, he may return to his 2010 form, when he was fourth among quarterbacks in passing yards.

3. Alex Smith
> Average Fantasy Rank: not in top 100
> Salary: $9,500,000 (19th highest)
> Position: quarterback
> Team: San Francisco 49ers

From the perspective of his team, Alex Smith has proved a long-term investment that may only just be paying off. He battled shoulder issues for several years, missing numerous games, as well as the entire 2008 season as a result. Because of injuries and ineffective performance, last year was the second time in his seven-year career he played a full 16 games, throwing for 3,144 yards, by far his highest single-season total. That was, however, still only good enough for 19th among NFL quarterbacks last season. Smith is currently projected as the 17th-ranked fantasy quarterback by ESPN and the 107th-ranked fantasy-eligible player.

2. Marcedes Lewis
> Average Fantasy Rank: not in top 100
> Salary: $9,550,000 (16th highest)
> Position: tight end
> Team: Jacksonville Jaguars

Jacksonville tight end Marcedes Lewis has played all six of his NFL seasons as a Jaguar. In 2010, he recorded 10 receiving touchdowns, tied for first in the league among tight ends. Other than 2010, Lewis’s fantasy production has been extremely limited, scoring just seven touchdowns over five full seasons, including none last year. This year, Lewis’ $9.55 million in salary and bonuses make him the 16th highest-paid fantasy-eligible player, and the highest-paid tight end. Meanwhile, ESPN has him ranked as the 22nd-best tight end, and the 217th-best choice for fantasy rosters.

1. Sam Bradford
> Average Fantasy Rank: not in top 100
> Salary: $15,595,000 million (2nd highest)
> Position: quarterback
> Team: St. Louis Rams

Even without the $6 million signing bonus he is due, St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford would still be one among the 15 highest-paid fantasy players this year. With the bonus, he is earning more than every fantasy player in the league, with the exception of Peyton Manning. Coming into his third year as a quarterback, 2010’s number one overall pick has been middling at best in his first two seasons. In 2010, he threw for just 18 touchdowns, the 18th best total among quarterbacks. Last year, he missed six games due to an ankle injury, but over the 10 games he played, he completed just 53.5% of his passes, good for 31st among quarterbacks who attempted at least 14 passes per game. Bradford is currently the 21st-ranked quarterback on NFL.com and the 132nd-ranked player across all fantasy-eligible positions.

-Michael B. Sauter

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