Having failed to make the postseason after signing with the Atlanta Falcons for one year in search of a Super Bowl ring, the maybe-retired Tony Gonzalez has been using star tight end Jimmy Graham's contract situation as a platform on which to try breaking into the sports media scene. Gonzalez is a future Hall of Fame candidate who signed two contracts considered the most lucrative deals ever awarded a tight end at the time. As such, his opinions on the contract situation faced by the star New Orleans Saints TE are expected to draw attention. But whether his hyperbole is more self-serving as someone who may want to play again as a tight end or as someone looking to garner views in his new job, there seems to be a mirror or two in the smoke. In an article titled "NFL's backwards salary system hurts elite players like Jimmy Graham," Gonzalez claims:
let's do some quick math. I anticipate he will sign somewhere in the neighborhood of $10 million per year over five years, which is great money. But an elite wide receiver will make $14 million-$16 million per season.
The CBS analyst is mostly right when he says an elite wide receiver will make $14 million to $16 million per season. At least he would be if he were using it in the sense of "there is an elite wide receiver who will make that much," and not in the sense of, "any elite receiver will make this much." There are actually two wide receivers in the NFL who have contracts providing an average annual salary over $13 million: Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald. And, including those two, only six wide receivers in the league -- meaning the top 1.5% out of nearly 400 NFL wide receiver contracts -- average over $10 million per year. How many of those wide receivers would have been offered those same contracts if they had torn their plantar fascia the year prior?
How do you define elite, anyway?
In his article, Gonzalez uses the nebulous and oft-overused term "elite." What defines a given individual as being an elite example at his position? Using the former Falcon's own yardstick: Gonzalez himself said earlier this year that Matt Ryan is not elite, but almost elite. So does being better than Matt Ryan make a quarterback elite? You can't have close to ten elite quarterbacks in a 32-team league. By definition, an elite individual is a member of a small and disproportionate group. So we need to narrow it down a bit.
Most football fans would agree that Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers are elite. Strong arguments could be made for a couple of others to be included in that list, and often are by fans of their respective teams. So out of 32 teams, many NFL fans would agree that at least five starting quarterbacks are elite. Top Five makes sense, and mirrors the criteria for the franchise tag nicely. But is being elite really a matter of pure integers, or is it more a matter of percentages? Are the top five percent -- the best one out of every twenty -- from any group considered elite?
Of the 132 quarterbacks on NFL rosters, the top five percent equates to 6.6 quarterbacks. Conversely, the top five quarterbacks in the league -- the NFL's elite -- represent the best 3.8% of their position group. If we want to get even more restrictive with our definition of elite: the top five tight ends in the league represent only the top 2.7% of the 182 players currently designated at that position.
There are few who would argue that the top 2.7% of any statistically significant group would not be considered elite. So how many elite wide receivers are there? The top 11 wide receivers represent roughly the same elite percentage of the approximately 400 players in their position group. And where did the star tight end for the New Orleans Saints land in comparison? His new contract would be considered the seventh-highest deal among all receivers, based on yearly average. Furthermore, Jimmy Graham's guaranteed salary places him above all but the top five contracts for all wide receivers.
Even so, Tony Gonzalez is keeping his name in the headlines by claiming:
If you look at the numbers and production and what he means to that team, I think he’s underpaid still.
But in truth, only one player on the team is paid more than Jimmy Graham's $10 million per year: Drew Brees. Even though it has been pointed out time and again that elite quarterbacks like Brees can make even average players look like star receivers, the Saints have still made Drew's favorite target -- a somewhat emotionally fragile tight end with a torn plantar fascia -- the second-highest paid guy on the team. So, other than the intelligent tactic of keeping his name in people's minds, or possibly trying to bag on a team to which he consistently lost for five years, what exactly is Gonzalez hoping for with a statement like this?
Did being labeled a tight end cause discrimination against Jimmy Graham, and prevent him from getting paid like an elite wide receiver? Considering that his contract stands among the top 1.5% of all wide receivers, and approximately the top 1% of all receivers and tight ends combined... no, it did not.