The NFL's True Franchise Players

Tom Van Riper
Yahoo! Sports

Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Tank Johnson may have behavior problems off the field – he was issued a long suspension in 2007 related to a highly publicized gun charge – but his bosses in Dallas can take comfort in two facts: he wins and he comes cheap.

Turns out, Johnson is the guy to hire when a team needs to win big without breaking the bank.

In his four-year career, Johnson has played for two teams, the Cowboys and the Chicago Bears. During his tenure, both teams averaged just under 10 wins per season, two more per year than they've averaged overall in the past decade. At the same time, Johnson's services came with a reasonable price tag: under $500,000 a season.

A review of NFL standings from the past 10 years reveals plenty of lower salaried, under-the-radar players, like Tank Johsnon, that seem to have a knack for winning.

To find other players that fit the mold, we compared team win-loss records to rosters, omitting the current 2008 season (which is still in its early stages), going back to the 1998. Players producing the biggest disparities – where their teams chalked up significantly more wins per season with them than without them – scored highest. Contributing to a Super Bowl title earned bonus points.

Performance numbers were then compared to each player's average salary during the 1998 to 2007 period, to determine which have contributed the most wins for the least money.

Falling in just behind Johnson is New England Patriots offensive lineman Russ Hochstein, whose tenure with the team has seen two Super Bowl titles and an average of 13 wins a year since he became a full-time starter in 2003. That's almost five more wins per season than the Patriots averaged before his arrival. Hochstein has cost the team just $540,000 a year on average.

Others landing in the top 10 include San Diego Chargers safety Clinton Hart, with an average of more than 11 wins a year in San Diego and Philadelphia, compared to the seven wins a year those teams averaged without him; and Arizona Cardinals receiver/special teams player Sean Morey, who has averaged more than 10 wins per year with four teams.

And while it's true that plenty of factors contribute to a win, a game-breaking receiver or running back, ferocious sack monster or rifle-armed quarterback will do more to help a team than any single player. New England's Hochstein, for instance, probably wouldn't have made our list if the quarterback lining up behind him for five years hadn't have been Tom Brady.

But football in particular is a team sport of complex plans and specialized roles for each player on the 45-man roster. Under the league salary cap, finding the right players at the right prices to supplement the sport's big stars can make all the difference between going 7-9 or 11-5.

The numbers show that no team has done that better than the Indianapolis Colts. The team's success – nearly 13 wins per season and a Super Bowl title under its belt since 2004 – is generally attributed to future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning, but certainly the club couldn't have amassed such an impressive record without the backing of strong, complementary help. Prior to 2004, when the club acquired offensive linemen Ryan Lilja and Jake Scott and defenders Josh Thomas and Gilbert Gardner (Scott and Gardner have since signed elsewhere), the Colts averaged just nine wins per year and no championships.

Best of all, the Colts paid out a combined $2.5 million a year for the quartet, less than one-fifth Manning's salary.

Signing the star is easy. It's finding the supporting cast – and paying less than a king's ransom for it – that's hard.

The top five:

1. Tank Johnson (DT): Slideshow
2. Ross Hochstein (G): Slideshow
3. Clinton Hart (S): Slideshow
4. Gilbert Gardner (LB): Slideshow
5. Dante Wesley (DB): Slideshow
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In Pictures: The NFL's True Franchise Players

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