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NFL Census: Finding the league's biggest outliers


    Nearly 1,700 players come together to form the big picture of the NFL — a collection of 32 53-man rosters that fluidly change throughout the season. Each roster can be sliced in myriad ways to show the makeup of the league through a variety of lenses, providing a look at the smaller strokes that are unique to each club.

    Teams begin each offseason with a 90-man roster that gets trimmed to the final 53 active players before Week 1. Those opening week rosters were the ones we analyzed to determine a variety of findings, ranging from the vital metrics of each player, such as height and weight, to how much cash was paid to that player during the 2017 season.

    Each team’s media guide provides a large swath of info on each player, and that was used as the basis of this research, along with salary-cap info from overthecap.com. Utilizing these pieces of information helped us discover the players’ backgrounds: where they’re from, how long they’ve played in the NFL, when they were drafted, what college they went to and more.

    Before we fully turn the page to the 2018 season, here’s a look at what we learned from last year’s group.


    Mean vitals and outliers

    How a team builds its roster is often a defining characteristic of the club. Remember the famous Bill Parcells quote that highlighted the struggle with owner Robert Kraft before the coach departed the Patriots? “If they want you to cook the dinner, at least they ought to let you shop for some of the groceries,” Parcells said.

    Well, the groceries are all somewhat similar in the NFL, where players match cookie-cutter molds from a physical standpoint. Tall quarterbacks, slender receivers, beefy linemen and so on. Team evaluators often consider these metrics when setting a draft board and analyzing prospects. For example, the Seahawks placed an emphasis on tall cornerbacks, as all five of them on the roster last season stood 6-foot-1 or taller.

    Using our data set of nearly 1,700 players that made opening week rosters in 2017, here’s a look at how each position stacks up in terms of the averages:

    Quarterback

    Height: 6-foot-5 | Weight: 225
    Age: 28 | Experience: 6
    2017 cash salary: $6.40 million

    Running back

    Height: 5-foot-11 | Weight: 215
    Age: 25 | Experience: 4
    2017 cash salary: $1.96 million

    Fullback

    Height: 6-foot-1 | Weight: 242
    Age: 26 | Experience: 4
    2017 cash salary: $1.28 million

    Wide receiver

    Height: 6-foot-1 | Weight: 201
    Age: 25 | Experience: 4
    2017 cash salary: $2.99 million

    Tight end

    Height: 6-foot-4 | Weight: 254
    Age: 27 | Experience: 4
    2017 cash salary: $2.31 million

    Center

    Height: 6-foot-4 | Weight: 306
    Age: 27 | Experience: 5
    2017 cash salary: $2.69 million

    Guard

    Height: 6-foot-4 | Weight: 314
    Age: 26 | Experience: 4
    2017 cash salary: $3.12 million

    Tackle

    Height: 6-foot-6 | Weight: 316
    Age: 26 | Experience: 4
    2017 cash salary: $3.60 million

    Defensive end

    Height: 6-foot-4 | Weight: 273
    Age: 26 | Experience: 4
    2017 cash salary: $3.54 million

    Defensive tackle

    Height: 6-foot-3 | Weight: 309
    Age: 26 | Experience: 4
    2017 cash salary: $2.92 million

    Nose tackle (3-4)

    Height: 6-foot-3 | Weight: 327
    Age: 28 | Experience: 6
    2017 cash salary: $3.15 million

    Outside linebacker (3-4)

    Height: 6-foot-3 | Weight: 253
    Age: 26 | Experience: 5
    2017 cash salary: $4.36 million

    Linebacker

    Height: 6-foot-2 | Weight: 241
    Age: 26 | Experience: 4
    2017 cash salary: $2.23 million

    Cornerback

    Height: 6-foot-0 | Weight: 195
    Age: 26 | Experience: 4
    2017 cash salary: $3.16 million

    Safety

    Height: 6-foot-0 | Weight: 206
    Age: 26 | Experience: 4
    2017 cash salary: $2.64 million

    Kicker

    Height: 6-foot-0 | Weight: 198
    Age: 29 | Experience: 7
    2017 cash salary: $1.72 million

    Punter

    Height: 6-foot-2 | Weight: 212
    Age: 29 | Experience: 6
    2017 cash salary: $1.68 million

    Long-snapper

    Height: 6-foot-3 | Weight: 244
    Age: 29 | Experience: 6
    2017 cash salary: $870,000

    Outliers

    In terms of sheer mass, we present Zach Banner, a 6-foot-9, 358-pound tackle for the Browns in 2017. He was the heaviest player in the NFL and tied for the tallest. Tackles Alejandro Villanueva, Demar Dotson and Brian Mihalik were the others at that height.

    The next heaviest behind Banner was David Sharpe, the Raiders’ 357-pound tackle. That’s more than twice the weight of kicker Cairo Santos and wide receivers Kalif Raymond and J.J. Nelson, all of whom weighed in at 170 pounds.

    As for the shortest players in the league? Running backs Tarik Cohen and Darren Sproles took that honor, both standing 5-foot-6.

    Quarterback bargain bin

    Solid quarterback play is the backbone of the perennial Super Bowl contenders. Anybody think the Patriots win five Super Bowls without Tom Brady? Probably not.

    Still, teams often break the bank trying to find their bona fide leader. The Lions coughed up $51 million in one year for Matt Stafford as part of his mega-deal, and the Vikings just gave Kirk Cousins $84 million fully guaranteed for the next three years of service.

    But there are bargains too, most of which stem from young draft picks on their rookie contracts who’ve rewarded their team with good performances before they make it to their second, highly lucrative one.

    That’s what the Cowboys have in Dak Prescott, who made $540,000 in 2017, and threw 21 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. But he’s not the only one:

    To determine who was eligible for this list, quarterbacks who attempted a minimum of 200 passes were considered. Roster changes during the season meant some teams used different starters, but each quarterback on this list was part of the opening day 53-man roster.

    Better with age?

    Most skill-position players deteriorate with age. The shelf life is often short for running backs, considering the stress put on their knees and the rest of their bodies.

    But there’s still a good bit of gray hair in the NFL, and look no further than the kickers and punters to find it. There are four kickers and six punters 35 or older from the 2017 season, just nudging out the nine quarterbacks.

    It’s impressive that a player such as Brady is still producing at a high level at age 40, but let’s hear it for Adam Vinatieri. It’s pretty wild that the Patriots Super Bowl hero has now played two more seasons for the Colts than he did with New England. The 45-year-old, who is the NFL’s oldest player, made 85.3 percent of his field goals and 91.7 percent of his extra points in 2017.

    Long road to riches

    There’s a small percentage of players fortunate enough to get drafted in the spotlight of the first round. There are far more that end up selected in the later rounds or who go undrafted. But not getting picked early on draft day doesn’t automatically derail a career.

    The draft is certainly an important aspect of team building for the long haul, but not all 53 players on a roster are going to be star-studded draft picks. There’s not an exact science for making picks, and often the true value of a drafted player is not revealed until three or four years down the road. It’s hard to project how a player will fit into a specific system and locker room culture, though a lot of resources are poured into making sure each team has an educated idea.

    Jason Peters is one of the best examples of a diamond in the rough, whose development was unforeseen by those paid to scout talent. He was undrafted in 2004 but just finished his 14th season and will go down as one of the best tackles of his generation.

    Here are the highest-paid players in 2017 who were originally undrafted:

    For a variety of reasons, some teams have more undrafted players on their roster than others. The Jacksonville Jaguars led the league with 23 such players at the start of 2017, followed by the Saints and Chargers with 20 apiece.

    Draft and develop

    The mark of a good front office is the ability to draft and develop players within the system. That means drafting well and holding on to those players. Consider that the Carolina Panthers led the league with 12 first-round draft picks on their 2017 roster. Only two of them came from other teams.

    As previously mentioned, it’s not easy to peg successful draft picks, but some teams have really homed in on developing their talent inside their own system.

    The Steelers, Raiders and Cardinals all tied for second with 11 first-round draft picks on their 2017 roster.



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