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Are Advanced Statistics the Future of the NFL?

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"Gronkowski is not only the highest paid TE in NFL history; he is also a symbol of NFL teams vastly overvaluing a single player's single season performance."
"Gronkowski is not only the highest paid TE in NFL history; he is also a symbol of NFL teams vastly overvaluing a single player's single season performance."

The NFL is the most valuable sports industry in today's economy, currently worth roughly more than the MLB and NBA combined. The Jacksonville Jaguars (one of smaller market teams in the NFL) is currently worth more than most NBA teams. So what does this mean for the NFL?

With the growing popularity and worth of the NFL, player contracts are growing at an astronomical rate as well. It seems as if every year we are seeing three or four guys signing record-breaking contracts, the most recent one being Rob Gronkowski's $54-million deal. With the growing price-tags on star players, as well as a limit on spending with a salary-cap, it is becoming more and more risky to spend a lot of money on a "star" player.

(More after "The Jump"...)

Just like any valuable growing enterprise, there will always be the need to discover new ways to get the biggest "bang for your buck". A "market inefficiency" so to speak. But in order to find market inefficiencies, you need to first determine what really makes a player worth your money, and what "inflates their stock".

At this point in time, however, it is nearly impossible to determine players' individual values. Almost every statistic in the NFL correlates directly with the performance of not only the player of whom the statistic belongs to, but to the performance of the player's teammates as well. In fact, I'm going to go on the record and state that the closest thing in the NFL to a truly independent position is the punter. And even then, you still have to account for the return man on the other team potentially affecting the punter's yard per punt, total punting yards, etc...

But that's not to say that there are not independent statistics. And that's where we get to the conundrum that is facing all owners and GMs in the game today; which statistics determine a player's worth?

Well let us go back to Rob Gronkowski, for example. Gronkowski is not only the highest paid TE in NFL history; he is also a symbol of NFL teams vastly overvaluing a single player's single season performance. But that's not to say that Rob Gronkwoski isn't an excellent TE. In fact he was the best TE in the NFL in just about every facet statistically. But the problem is that his stats don't directly represent his individual contribution to the team. They are a representation of how the New England offense performed as a whole.

Rob Gronkowski set the record for most receiving yards by a TE in a single season. But to say that the record is a representation of Gronkowski's ability alone is absolutely absurd. There were a myriad of factors that weighed into Gronkowski's performance. First, you have the outstanding performance by the offensive line, which provided the amount of time that Tom Brady had to sort through his options, allowing him to find Gronkowski. But that's just the beginning! Then you always have to look at the possibility of the inability of his teammates to create separation on certain plays, forcing Tom Brady to pass to Gronkowski more frequently. What about the fact that New England's offense is one of the pass-heavier attacks in the NFL?

But let's just start with the first example provided. What would happen if we were to replace the best the offensive lineman on the team, with a "replacement level offensive lineman" so to speak? One would assume this replacement level player would be more vulnerable to allowing more sacks and pressure on Tom Brady, affecting his time, and ability, to make quality decisions. This would almost certainly decrease Rob Gronkowski's statistics.

This is but a small-scale example of how NFL teams overpay for statistics that aren't definitively belonging to a player's individual contribution to his team. In fact, the only independent statistics that belong to TEs and WRs are YAC, Catch Percentage (the percentage of passes that are thrown at a player that are caught), and fumbles. At this point in time there are not any refined statistics that represent a player's individual worth to his team. I think the demand for these types of statistics will increase as the NFL continues to grow in the future.