The Best (and Least Known) NFL Player Ranking System

Pro Football Focus' top player J. J. Watt
Pro Football Focus' top player J. J. Watt Patrick Schneider / AP

Going into contract negotiations in the spring of 2012, Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake was one of the NFL's feel-good stories. A former undrafted free agent, he had been exiled to the Canadian Football League before landing in Miami, where his 14 sacks in 2010 earned him a trip to the Pro Bowl. But his agent, Paul Sheehy, thought his sack numbers alone, however impressive, didn't capture the extent of Wake's contribution. "In negotiations, you try to find separation between players who otherwise look alike," Sheehy says. "You can't always do that with traditional stats."

So he sought a more refined analysis: Pro Football Focus (PFF) is a U.K. company that measures the individual contributions of every pro player, often with an emphasis on stats and situations that few have thought to assess. Receivers are graded on minutiae like average yards per type of passing route; running backs, on yards gained after breaking a tackle. To emphasize Wake's uniqueness, PFF devised a metric that combined his sacks, his pressures, and the number of offensive holding penalties he drew. "We called it Cameron's 'disruption,' " Sheehy says. "And PFF could break it down by snap, so we could look at Cameron's pressures on third or fourth down with more than three yards to go. It turned out he led the league in that category for three years. We called that 'money time.' " That off-season, Wake earned a four-year extension worth a reported $49 million.

The unlikely creator of PFF is Neil Hornsby, a former business consultant from Workington, England, who spent most of his career finding the hidden inefficiencies of large corporations. When British television started carrying NFL highlights in the 1980s, he became enthralled by American football. Hornsby, 50, compiled numbers obsessively, keeping a database of individual statistics in Microsoft Access for 13 years. In 2006 he and some friends began publishing stats online under the PFF banner. "We worked 80 hours a week to get the numbers up," Horns­by recalls. "We got 15 visitors a day."

Their traffic rose after they invented a composite grading system – the PFF 101 – that ranked every NFL player's individual value (the Houston Texans' J.J. Watt is currently first in the rankings). Then, in 2009, Hornsby got an email from the Giants' director of football information, Jon Berger, requesting customized data for upcoming opponents. Hornsby was still supplying New York with advanced analyses two years later, when the Giants made a miracle run to the Super Bowl and upset the New England Patriots. News of the Giants' secret leaked the weekend of the game. By the next fall, four more teams had contracted with PFF for specialized data. Today 12 teams are clients. "I think football is the most magical sport," Hornsby says. "And I actually think we add something to it."