NFL News & Analysis

10 best values in the NFL this season

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - OCTOBER 9: A.J. Bouye #21 of the Houston Texans tackles Jerick McKinnon #21 of the Minnesota Vikings during the game on October 9, 2016 at US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Vikings defeated the Texans 31-13. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

Economics. Supply and demand. Since the 2011 NFL collective bargaining agreement changed player-wage dynamics, NFL general managers have worked harder than ever to find a high-demand commodity that has traditionally been in short supply—great players signed to very inexpensive contracts.

Earlier this week, we saw Bill Belichick and the Patriots decide that a future draft pick provided more value (benefit-to-cost ratio) than a highly productive player, in part because of his upcoming free-agent status. The Seahawks were the beneficiary of possibly the most valuable contract of the new CBA era when they picked Russell Wilson in the third round of the 2012 draft. Now that they have to pay Wilson franchise QB money, other areas, in particularly the offensive line (which was already an area of concern), could suffer from a financial-investment and performance perspective.

This is today’s NFL, where a great player on a rookie contract has become the highest-valued commodity, especially at premium positions.

This list examines the best-value players in the NFL this season based on the above premises, looking at the most productive players playing on the smallest contracts. These players were drafted in the fourth round or later (many undrafted) and have yet to reach unrestricted free agency.

[Financials referenced from based on 2016 salary (total cash).]

1. A.J. Bouye, CB, Houston Texans

Entered league: 2013 undrafted free agent

2016 overall grade: 91.3 (No. 1 cornerback)

2016 position salary ranking: 65th-highest-paid cornerback

After struggling early in his career (60.1, 69.1, and 67.3 overall grades in his first seasons, respectively), Bouye re-signed a one-year deal as a restricted free agent for $1.67 million, and has taken a massive leap forward in 2016. He is currently allowing only a 52.5 completion rate into his coverage for an NFL passer rating of 66.0 when targeted, to go along with seven pass deflections and only one missed tackle. Bouye was highlighted earlier in the week as one of Senior Analyst Sam Monson’s top 10 2016 breakout players.

2. Tony Jefferson, S, Arizona Cardinals

Entered league: 2013 undrafted free agent

2016 overall grade: 89.8 (No. 2 safety)

2016 position salary ranking: 46th-highest-paid safety

Since signing as an undrafted free agent, Jefferson has played over 2,400 snaps for the Cardinals the past three and a half seasons. And like Bouye, Jefferson re-signed the one-year tender for $1.67 million and has seen 2016 be by far his best season to date. He is currently allowing only a 44 percent completion rate into his coverage, as well as an NFL passer rating of 51.9—the lowest among safeties with more than seven targets into their coverage. Jefferson is also dominating in the run game, as he has yet to miss a tackle, and is the top safety in the league in run-stop percentage (9.2). Both he and Bouye will look to cash in as unrestricted free agents this offseason.

3. Matt Paradis, C, Denver Broncos

Entered league: Sixth round of 2014 draft

2016 overall grade: 88.2 (No. 1 center)

2016 position salary ranking: 50th-highest-paid center

Another 2016 breakout player highlighted in Monson's article, Paradis spent his rookie season on the practice squad before taking over the Broncos’ starting center job during last season’s Super Bowl run. An average player (78.2 grade) in 2015, Paradis has shot to the top of center rankings based on excellent run blocking, as well as only surrendering four total QB pressures in 303 pass-blocking snaps.

4. Malcolm Butler, CB, New England Patriots

Entered league: 2014 undrafted free agent

2016 overall grade: 86.7 (No. 4 cornerback)

2016 position salary ranking: 127th-highest-paid cornerback

The Super Bowl two years ago was just the beginning. In 2015, Butler became a full-time starter who never left the field (played 98.9 percent of possible snaps), finishing the year with an 83.6 grade and a 94.4 QB rating into his coverage. The soon-to-be restricted free agent has taken another leap this season, as he is only allowing a 48.3 percent completion rate and a 69.4 QB rating into his coverage, leading all CBs in passes defenses, with 10, while being the second-most targeted CB (58 throws into his coverage this season).

5. Andrew Norwell, G, Carolina Panthers

Entered league: 2014 undrafted free agent

2016 overall grade: 85.2 (No. 6 guard)

2016 position salary ranking: 78th-highest-paid guard

After going undrafted out of Ohio State, Norwell has been a consistently above-average starter for the Panthers, with grades of 81.4 and 84.9 in his first two seasons. This season, he has improved his pass blocking while maintaining his strength in the running game. After surrendering 30 total QB pressures in 2015, Norwell has only given up nine QB pressures this season, and is yet to allow a sack.

6. J.C. Tretter, C, Packers

Entered league: Fourth-round pick in 2013 draft

2016 overall grade: 84.1 (No. 5 center)

2016 position salary ranking: 35th-highest-paid center

After being injured for most of 2014, and then only starting four games in 2015 (513 snaps total in the two years), Tretter has solidified his role this season, starting all seven games up to this point. He has only given up eight total QB pressures, and is the highest-graded center in terms of screen blocking. Unfortunately, Tretter suffered a knee injury late in the game against the Falcons that appears will keep him out a couple of weeks.

7. Stefon Diggs, WR, Minnesota Vikings

Entered league: Fifth round of 2015 draft

2016 overall grade: 83.5 (No. 8 wide receiver)

2016 position salary ranking: 159th-highest-paid wide receiver

Considering that Diggs is just in his second season and still only 22 years old, this could be tops in terms of future value. After bursting onto the scene last season and posting an 81.8 grade, Diggs continues to be the Vikings’ No. 1 playmaker. He is 10th in passer rating when targeted (114.8), catching five of eight deep targets (20+ yards in the air) for 148 yards and two TDs, only dropping two passes on 49 targets thus far.

8. Maurice Alexander, S, Los Angeles Rams

Entered league: Fourth round of 2014 draft

2016 overall grade: 83.5 (No. 10 safety)

2016 position salary ranking: 101st-highest-paid safety

Alexander only saw the field on special teams as a rookie, and then struggled in 2015 while playing 434 snaps and starting five games, finishing with a 44.6 grade. Alexander has taken advantage of his time this season, though. Playing almost every snap for the Rams this season (483), he has surrendered only five catches for 59 yards in his coverage, and missed just one tackle thus far.

9. Telvin Smith, LB, Jacksonville Jaguars

Entered league: Fifth round of 2014 draft

2016 overall grade: 83.5 grade (No. 14 linebacker)

2016 position salary ranking: 185th-highest-paid linebacker

A consistent and average contributor in his first two seasons (74.6 and 76.6), the third-year Florida State product is another that has taken a leap forward. Smith leads all 4-3 outside linebackers in stops, with 32, and if not for struggling in last week’s Thursday night game against the Titans, he might be even higher on this list.

10. Jay Ajayi, RB, Miami Dolphins

Entered league: Fifth round of 2015 draft

2016 overall grade: 80.3 (No. 4 running back)

2016 position salary ranking: 103rd-highest-paid running back

After a rookie campaign that saw him carry the ball no more than nine times in a single game and 49 times total (74.1 grade), Ajayi has shot up the RB rankings in recent weeks with back-to-back 200 yard games and given the Dolphins offense a huge spark, as he now has 85 carries for 514 yards. His power is the most impressive part of his game; his average of 4.12 yards after contact per attempt is the NFL's best mark this season. That number alone would be in the top 25 in the league in overall yards per attempt. He is also first in PFF’s elusive rating metric among RBs with over 75 carries.

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