A Look at Pricing Points for Richard Sherman and the Seahawks

I had a few comments today about CB Richard Sherman of the Seattle Seahawks and what he could be worth in the future to Seattle, so I thought why not take a look at Sherman and his potential value. Sherman is currently in the 3rd year of a rookie contract signed in 2011 and can be extended following the season, so this is clearly a big year for him.

The Performance

I think most people universally recognized Sherman as the best cornerback in the NFL last season.  I maintain a few different evaluation criteria by which I look at cornerbacks, usually using the raw data from Pro Football Focus. One such evaluation matrix looks at corners in four categories: percent passes caught, QBR against,  percent active breakups ((PD + Int)/Tgt), and YAC.

Last season, which was Sherman’s breakout year, he ranked 5th, 2nd, 1st, and 17th among corners with at least 50% playtime. The only other players with three top 10 rankings in the categories were Casey Heyward of the Green Bay Packers, who ranked 2nd, 1st, 2nd, and 62nd, and Antonio Cromartie of the Jets who ranked 3rd, 12th, 7th, and 8th.  Here are how the three stack up compared to last years’ league average.

corner performance

Comparing Sherman and Heyward is a bit difficult (besides defensive scheme differences) because they cover different types of receivers. Heyward plays primarily in the slot, which is a reason why his YAC is so poor. Often when you trail a guy in the slot the player is going to catch the ball running and keep going. Likewise that also can improve the QBR since the formula takes into account things like TD’s which more often than not hit outside targets.

In terms of veteran talent really nobody came close. Players like Champ Bailey and Brandon Flowers were nowhere near these levels and Cortland Finnegan was awful. Of course Darrelle Revis was injured. So in terms of outside play Sherman was the clear cut number 1 corner.

Now Revis’ 2009 season is considered the gold standard of cornerbacks while his work in 2010 and 2011 continued to be excellent once fully recovered from injury. Using Revis’ numbers from 2009 through 2011 we come up with some interesting takeaways comparing the two players.

sherman vs revis

With the exception of reception rates, Sherman’s 2012 season compares favorably with Revis over the 3 year prime period he had with the Jets. While none of this means Sherman is a better player I think it at least brings up the thought that it is worth looking deeper into the stats to see how they compare.

Another set of stats that I keep are stats that deal with expected versus actual performance. These numbers are based on expected WR performance, which is to be targeted 20.2% of the time on a pass play with an outside catch rater of 58.6% for 14.2 YPC. I also factor in slot play which is 64.9% for 12.6 YPC.  Using these numbers I calculate what is called the “Shutdown Stats” which identify how many receptions and yards a player prevents his target from getting in a game.

A second category Team Category which was I considered when Nnamdi Asomugha was playing dreadful in Philadelphia in 2011 when thrown on but he was still rarely being thrown at.  This assumes that the corner plays across from an average player and that “shutting down” his opponent doesn’t necessarily lead to an incompletion, just a throw to a different target. This should be a consideration  if paying one corner means bringing in below average talent at the other corner spots. Few teams are so dominant with one main WR that it can eliminate the effectiveness of the highly paid cornerback.

sherman vs revis 2

 

Under this set of criteria Sherman falls short of Revis at his peak, though these are still exceptional numbers. The reason for the disparity between Sherman and Revis in the team categories has to do more with the notion of what is typically called a shutdown corner.

Revis is extremely unique in that despite his reputation he got thrown on often, particularly in the 2009 season. In 2009 Revis was targeted nearly 20% of the time he was in coverage. In contrast Asomugha, who was always considered a “shutdown” player, was targeted less than 7% of the time in Oakland. Revis’ numbers were more in line with Sherman’s over the next two seasons. Sherman was targeted 14.6% of the time last season.

So even though he does not match with Revis in this criteria these are still excellent numbers and he has done it for two years in a row. The team yard discrepancy is just a byproduct of being targeted less than Revis and considering the system in Seattle is excellent the numbers are skewed because the secondary targets are all well covered, not all that different from the Revis/Cromartie tandem in NY.

Recent veteran players that have put up numbers like Sherman’s were those who earned big money contracts or were named Franchise Players.

The Marketplace

There may be no more difficult market to balance right now than the cornerback market. To say it crashed would be the understatement of the year. Players that many thought could be potentially franchised were signing $4 and $5 million dollar per year contracts. It stands to be seen whether or not this was people like myself simply overvaluing a group of players or if the new spread offenses are convincing teams that overspending on one player is not as important as balance in the secondary.  Sherman’s new contract will likely put that in perspective.

At the top of the market is Revis at $16 million a season.  Not only is Revis’ contract an outlier but for Revis to get that money, which he was desperate to get as it was extremely important to he and his agents to be the highest paid defensive player, he gave up all guaranteed money. Considering he is coming off an ACL injury that is a very risky move for a player.

If the high end market still exists Sherman will probably work from the contracts given to Brandon Carr, Brandon Flowers and Cortland Finnegan who would be the young player comparables. Also in that upper echelon pay group is Champ Bailey who is significantly older and has more of his money tied in incentives, but because of age I don’t consider Bailey to be a consideration.

In addition I think an important contract to look at is the contract Revis had leading into 2013 with the New York Jets. That contract was specifically designed to be a somewhat “fair market” value contract when an outlier existed. In that case it was Asomugha earning over $16 million a year from the Raiders.

Corner cap chart

The Price

I think the fact that Sherman is on the Seahawks will work to his advantage in setting a price for a few reasons. One is that he is incredibly important to their defense and at its core the Seahawks are a defensive team. He will turn 26 in 2014 and will be entering the prime of career so there should be less concern than there would be with an older player.

But most important is that Sherman has a specific player to point to within the organization as a reason for holding the Seahawks feet to the fire. That player is WR Percy Harvin. With one season left on his contract the Seahawks turned around and gave Harvin, nowhere as accomplished of a player as Sherman,  a stunning contract worth nearly $13 million a year. In the past Seattle has also overextended a bit for TE Zach Miller, WR Sidney Rice, and RB Marshawn Lynch.

In general I would say that they are a team that clearly pays for what they believe is future performance rather than relying on past performance as an indicator of worth. So the data points are specifically there with this team to receive a top of the market contract.

Though Sherman is not Revis I think that he should make a strong push for a 3 year payout similar to what Revis received from the Jets. That would shatter the $33 million threshold for the other players. Because Sherman will have one low cost year remaining on his contract, meaning his three year payout can be spread among 4 years, the Seahawks can likely get the cap dollars to work out in his contract moreso than if they wait until after the 2014 season. I don’t know if he can reach the annual value of Revis’ old contract given the market conditions but $11 million a year I think would actually be acceptable to both sides.

Remember that both sides should have a reason to get a deal done this offseason. In the case of the Seahawks a $55 million dollar extension signed next year will really be a 6 year $56.4 million dollar deal for cap purposes, a bargain compared to the contracts that were earned in free agency. It’s the lone justification they had for Harvin’s contract. From Sherman’s perspective not only does he get money up front but he eliminates the Franchise tag from play, which impacts his ability to earn a third contract in his early 30s, and the uncertainty of free agency. Though teams will surely bid high for Sherman will they overbid or will they consider decent players earning $4 or $5 million as a baseline to work from?

The Changing Dynamic of the Seahawks

Seattle, which finally found success in 2012 after years of rebuilding, is now entering a phase where philosophically they may need to make some changes for salary cap purposes.   Seattle has been able to be active in free agency and trade market because of having so many quality players on relatively low cost rookie contracts.

The process has already started with extensions given to DE Red Bryant and  C Max Unger in 2012 and S Kam Chancellor in 2013. Those were players on 4th, 2nd, and 5th round contracts that are now either top 10 or close to it contracts.  Sherman has been paid as a 5th rounder and will now be paid as one of the top players at the position. Also up soon for contracts are S Earl Thomas (FA in 2015), who is going to want more than Chancellor,  T Russell Okung (FA in 2016), CB Brandon Browner (FA in 2014), and of course QB Russell Wilson (extension can occur in 2015).

Seattle already has a high payroll in 2014 which will likely be quickly solved by the releases of some combination of veterans such as Rice, Miller, Cliff Avril, and Chris Clemons, whose salary cap numbers will be replaced by the extended players. But once those salaries are replaced by younger home grown Seahawks the ability to jump into free agency and trades may be severely compromised.

As a fan of the Jets I have very closely watched a similar situation play out in New York. It was not long ago that the Jets went to back to back AFC Championship games with a roster that was built through a combination of quality relatively low cost draft picks, trading for rookie contract players and overextending somewhat in free agency. Eventually those low cost players- Revis, Nick Mangold, D’Brickashaw Ferguson,   David Harris, Antonio Cromartie, and Santonio Holmes- all became high priced veterans over the course of two offseasons and the whole dynamic changed.

Now the Jets have had other problems beyond those signings, but once you move into major extensions for young talent it leaves you no margin for error. They were unable to bring in other pieces due to long term cap considerations and had no choice but to draft well to replenish the roster with low cost studs. Unfortunately for the Jets their drafts from 2008 thru 2010 proved to be complete disasters. Of 13 players drafted only 1 is currently starting for the Jets (G Vlad Ducasse) and only 3 are on the Jets (Ducasse, CB Kyle Wilson, and QB Mark Sanchez). With the salary cap the way it is it is almost impossible to have success when you have no low cost contributors on the team. It only took two seasons for the Jets to go from Super Bowl contenders to being considered one of the worst teams in the NFL and in part it’s because the team could not fall back on what got them to the dance in terms of trades and free agency because the cap no longer allowed it. At best they could hit the bargain bin for 1 year contracts for “prove it” players like S Laron Landry.

With that in mind the 2012 to 2014 draft classes will be of the utmost importance to the Seahawks. Wilson will be extended early, but almost everyone else could be in a position where they have to play their deals out. You need a high hit rate to make up for all these new contracts that will be hitting the books next season.  Turning to free agency for anything more than a stopgap will be difficult. Trading away draft picks will be very difficult. It’s a good situation to have but it’s one that teams have to begin preparing for long before the new deals actually hit the books for the team.

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