The NFL's Most Valuable Person
Bill Barnwell [ARCHIVE]
December 7, 2012
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The most valuable asset in the NFL is having a franchise quarterback signed for a relative pittance. It's no accident that the Trade Value list I put together in August was littered with quarterbacks within the top 10. If Andrew Luck hit the free market this past offseason without being drafted, a quarterback-desperate team like the Browns or Jaguars would have given him $50 million in guaranteed money in a heartbeat, but the league's CBA restricts him to $22.1 million over four years. That savings (just under $28 million) is for the Colts to spend however they like — a reward for having an awful season at exactly the right time. Isn't football fun?

After I put together the midseason update to the Trade Value rankings I started to get the feeling like I was missing something. There is one other asset a team can hold that's actually remarkably similar to the cheap, talented young quarterback: a head coach. And when I thought about great head coaches, naturally, my mind turned to Jim Harbaugh.

The 49ers signed Jim Harbaugh away from Stanford for a pittance. His buyout figure hasn't been publicly reported, but if there was one, it likely wasn't more than a couple million bucks. San Francisco gave Harbaugh a five-year, $25 million deal to replace Mike Singletary and take over a franchise that had gone 46-82 since Steve Mariucci left town. Since then, with virtually the same roster Harbaugh inherited, the 49ers have gone 21-6-1. and made it within a premature whistle of making the Super Bowl. It's the best decision a franchise has made of their own volition (e.g., without having an obvious choice fall into their laps) in recent memory. By acquiring Harbaugh, the 49ers created value for themselves in a way that is virtually impossible to match. They might, in fact, have the single most valuable asset in all of football.

Let's put that contract into perspective for a minute. Jim Harbaugh is making $5 million per season to be, arguably, the best person in the league at his exceedingly important position. You know Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson? Maybe the 10th-best 4-3 end in the league? He received $34 million in compensation in 2011 alone. That's more than Harbaugh will receive over the life of his entire deal, with $9 million left over for Johnson to write thank-you notes to Marty Hurney. A top-five head coach is being paid what an average cornerback would make in a given year. Doesn't that seem wrong?

The weird thing is that we know, inherently, that teams value coaches much higher than that. When Bill Belichick "quit" his job as head coach of the Jets and announced that he was joining the Patriots instead, New England ended up giving the Jets a first-round pick for Belichick's services. And remember, that was Belichick when he was popularly known as Bill Parcells's top assistant who had put together a disappointing run in Cleveland, not the Bill Belichick we know today. A top coach is worth even more. When the Buccaneers decided that they wanted to take Jon Gruden away from the Raiders, the cost was astronomical. Tampa Bay gave Oakland two first-round picks, two second-round picks, and an $8 million transfer fee to get their man. Of course, the Buccaneers didn't regret it: They went to the Super Bowl the following season, where they beat those very same Raiders, 48-21.

If a team really wanted to acquire Harbaugh today, the price would probably be roughly similar to the figure the Raiders quoted for Gruden, who had taken over a 4-12 team and gone 38-26 in four seasons without advancing past the AFC Championship Game. How many players in the league would extract a similar bounty in trade talks? When the Redskins acquired the second overall pick in this year's draft from the Rams to grab Robert Griffin III, they gave up a somewhat similar package: the sixth overall pick and a second-rounder in the 2012 draft, plus first-round picks in 2013 and 2014. The Bears grabbed Jay Cutler from the Broncos for two first-round picks, a third-rounder, and Kyle Orton. The sort of trade value a top coach would appear to have is roughly similar to that of a young franchise quarterback, which leads me to believe that the league values Harbaugh as an asset somewhere in the range between RG3 and Cutler. I lumped them both together in the draft value piece, but Griffin's no lower than the fifth-most valuable player in the league right now, and Cutler's no lower than 20th.

Let's consider what players in that range are paid. While Griffin is being paid a pittance ($21 million over four years) because the league doesn't allow him to negotiate on the free market, there are plenty of veterans in that range who have signed contracts that pay them something close to market value. The quarterback in that area who signed a deal most recently is Drew Brees, and when the Saints locked him this offseason, they gave Brees a deal that pays him $20 million per year and $40 million in the first year of the contract. Before that, Michael Vick signed a six-year, $100 million deal with the Eagles that guaranteed him $32.5 million while paying him around $45 million or so over its first three years.

Harbaugh's deal is entirely guaranteed, but even if we compare it to the first three years of deals being signed by players in his trade value range, Harbaugh is underpaid by somewhere between $10 million and $15 million per season. Outside of Luck and Griffin (and maybe Cam Newton and Russell Wilson), that makes him the most underpaid asset in the league. If Harbaugh stays this good over the course of his five-year deal and doesn't rip up the contract at any point, the Niners are recouping something to the effect of $50 million to $75 million in value over the course of Harbaugh's deal. When you're building a $1.2 billion stadium, saving $75 million sure comes in handy.

Of course, there are some assumptions being made here. Notably, while the 49ers undoubtedly hoped that they were getting the best coach in football when they signed Harbaugh away from Stanford, there was no guarantee that they were getting a truly great coach; the league is littered with brilliant college coaches who were sent packing back to the amateur ranks. When Harbaugh signs his next deal, it will undoubtedly be for more money, but the truth is that the deal really won't be for all that much more. Although Belichick's exact level of compensation remains a state secret, Forbes estimates it at $7.5 million, which would narrowly make Belichick the highest-paid coach in the league over Mike Shanahan ($7 million). When Harbaugh signs his next deal, how much more than those coaches will he really get? $8 million per year? $9 million? That's a bargain when you consider that the next contract Andrew Luck will sign could take his $5.5 million salary and triple it to $16.5 million while throwing in a signing bonus around $50 million. The salary ceiling for head...
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