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What is a Hall of Fame Player Worth?

Posted by Jason Lisk on August 9, 2010

I was watching the Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony for Dick LeBeau, John Randle, Russ Grimm, Rickey Jackson, Jerry Rice, Floyd Little and Emmitt Smith on Saturday and among all the accolades from the pre-ceremony commentators to the introductions to the speeches, it got me wondering, "what is a Hall of Fame player worth?"

I suppose one answer is "priceless", if you are a twelve year old boy who grew up watching one of your favorite stars. Players also may have value beyond what they bring to the field in productivity, in terms of goodwill, fanbase support, and franchise recognition. I want to try to focus, though, on how valuable they were compared to an average player during their careers. Of course, there is no prototypical Hall of Famer, as this year's class showed. We had a class that ranged from two of the all-time greats at their position, to others that were not as clear cut for choices in Canton. Positions may have different value in different time periods, and some may just be more valuable than others as well. Recognizing that the answer I may be seeking is only true in aggregrate and needs to be adjusted up or down based on position, era, and the quality of the player, I still tried to come up with an answer.

Before I get to what I did, what do you think a Hall of Famer is worth in terms of points per game, versus having an average NFL starter at the same position? Try to think of this in terms of the Hall of Famer's entire career, from rookie, to star in his prime, to maybe holding on for a few more years. Now, let's see if it is similar to what I came up with.

I looked at every team from 1970-1989, separately on the offensive and defensive side of the ball, and recorded how many Hall of Famers with a season approximate value of 5 or higher were on that unit. I chose 1970 because bringing in the 1960's would have brought in two competing leagues and rapid expansion, and I settled on 1989 at the other end to make sure we had teams that had no active players and most of the stars are in the Hall of Fame already.

I then recorded each team's simple rating system (SRS) rating for those seasons, so I could compare the number of Hall of Famers on a team with the points per game above or below the league average. Here are the results for all offensive teams:

HOF'ers SRS avg Team Total Difference
0 -1.69 242
1 0.65 182 2.34
2 1.47 76 0.82
3 3.36 27 1.89
4 4.29 10 0.93
5 4.08 11 -0.21

And here is the same table for defensive units:

HOF'ers SRS avg Team Total Difference
0 -1.09 313
1 0.77 155 1.86
2 2.28 50 1.51
3 3.40 18 1.12
4 4.03 12 0.63

That difference column shows the difference between the average SRS for a team with N number of Hall of Famers versus one with N-1 Hall of Famers. When we weight those differences (since there are far more teams with exactly one Hall of Famer than three), we get an average difference of +1.79 points per game on offense, and +1.67 points per game on defense, per Hall of Famer.
I think that number is a good low end estimate. The method I used only looked at season totals, so while I set a low end limit of an approximate value of 5, we could have Hall of Famers who miss a few games with injury but still play most of the year, and since the value is based on the complete season SRS, it might undervalue them because the SRS was likely higher in games they actually played and did not miss with injury. If you wanted to round up to a nice integer, when considering that factor, I think we can say that the average Hall of Famer is worth about 2 more points per game than an average non-Hall of Fame starter over the course of his career.

Keep in mind, though, that number is the average for the entire career. Careers come in all sorts of shapes. I would estimate that the prime years are closer to a 2.5 to 3 points per game improvement versus an average starter, while seasons at the end or beginning may be much closer to average-some even below average.