Wide Receiver Contract Tiers

The free agency period is long over and we now have a few games worth of results to assess how recent signees are performing compared to their compensation. The question I’m trying to answer with this research is: “Is Team A getting the proper value out of its contract with Player B?”


I’ll revisit this topic throughout the season as we have more and more data to work with.

Methodology

For now, I’m looking at wide receivers because to me, they’re a position where raw statistics can tell the bulk of the story. Outside of a handful of plays where a receiver’s blocking ability can add value, the primary reason a team is paying receivers is for receiving results: catches, yards, and touchdowns. To determine different tiers for receivers, I looked at players on non-rookie contracts sorted by APY and drew lines where the appeared to be a significant drop in either APY or production. I then prorated the players’ recent seasons on a 16 game pace to determine an expected season for a receiver in each tier.

APYCatches/16Targets/16Catch %Yards/16TDs/16
Tier 1$14M+10016064%1,45011
Tier 2$10M-$11.5M9013068%1,1008
Tier 3$6M-$8M7011560%1,0006
Tier 4$3M-$5M558065%6754

Tier 1

The $14M APY is a restrictively high minimum and that’s intentional. There is a small subset of upper-level receivers that are the primary focus of opposing defenses on a weekly basis. Including Alshon Jeffery on the franchise tag, there are currently five receivers at an APY of $14M or higher. In the next few years, that number should increase by at least three as Antonio Brown signs a new contract and Odell Beckham Jr and DeAndre Hopkins sign their first veteran contracts.

Tier 2

Tier 2 receivers are highly productive, but are a clear step down from the Tier 1 group. The primary difference between Tier 1 and Tiers 2 is the receivers in Tier 1 would consider the Tier 2 expectations of 90/1,100/8 to be a down year. Doug Baldwin, Keenan Allen, Jeremy Maclin, and Emmanuel Sanders are all on contracts in Tier 2. While almost all are the #1 receiving option on their team (Sanders and Cobb are noticeable exceptions), they are a clear step below the Tier 1 receivers in both production and ability.

Tier 3

Tier 3 receivers are the most difficult to profile. There are deep threats such as Torrey Smith, DeSean Jackson, and Travis Benjamin as well as receivers such as Michael Crabtree, Mohamed Sanu, and Marvin Jones that are currently or were previously widely seen as at most a #2 option in their team’s offense.

Tier 4

Tier 4 receivers are productive, reliable veterans, but don’t see the same volume or the same defensive attention that Tiers 1-3 receive. Think Jermaine Kearse, Cole Beasley, or Harry Douglas.

Results through 2016 Week 4

16 Game Pace

Tier 2 ContractsCurrent APYCatchesTargetsCatch %YardsTDsAPY Value
Doug Baldwin$11.5M9612477%1,3208High Tier 2/ Low Tier 1
Keenan Allen$11.25Mn/a – Injured Reserven/a
Emmanuel Sanders$11M10016859%1,17212High Tier 2/ Low Tier 1
Tavon Austin$10.56M6414046%6364Low Tier 3
Allen Hurns$10M6010856%9044Tier 3

Doug Baldwin: Baldwin is continuing his strong 2015 season into 2016. The high catch rate is actually below what he achieved in 2015 (76%) and the touchdown pace is below his 14 TD total in 2015. The main difference for Baldwin in 2016 is volume. He’s seeing 1-2 more targets per game compared to last year. Seattle is getting a good early return on its investment in Baldwin.

Emmanuel Sanders: Sanders is on pace for the production of a Tier 1 receiver with the exception of yards. He’s on pace for more targets than Odell Beckham Jr received as the #1 target in the Giants’ offense last year, which is surprising on a team that has Demaryius Thomas and is expected to be run heavy throughout the year. For now, the Broncos are getting a good return on their contract, but I would not be shocked if Sanders’ production dipped later in the season as his targets are reduced.

Tavon Austin: On face value, Los Angeles is not getting a good return. His production is more in line with a receiver that would indicate a contract with an APY closer to $6M than $11M. However, Austin is a case that needs special consideration given how he is used in the Rams’ offense. In 2015, Austin had 18.5% of the Rams’ combined rushing/receiving yards and 33% of the offensive touchdowns. In 2016, he has 16% of the team’s combined yards and 16% of the touchdowns. Austin’s scrimmage yards per game have decreased from 57 in 2015 to 46 in 2016. Even given the unique way Austin is used in the Rams’ system, they are not getting a good return on their contract.

Allen Hurns: Hurns appears to be having an off year. However, his annual pace for catches and yards is not too far below his breakout year last year: 64/1,031 in 2015, 60/904 pace in 2016. The main difference is the lack of touchdowns: 10 in 2015 vs 1 so far in 2016. As Hurns scores a few times over the coming weeks, his contract will look much better. Currently, his performance is more in line with an APY of $6M that his current $10M.

16 Game Pace

Tier 3 ContractsCurrent APYCatchesTargetsCatch %YardsTDsAPY Value
Marvin Jones$8M9214464%1,9288Tier 1
Mohamed Sanu$6.5M528065%6084Tier 4
Travis Benjamin$6M8411275%1,1088Tier 2
Mike Wallace$5.75M5611250%84012Low Tier 3/High 4

Marvin Jones: Jones is currently second in the NFL in receiving yardage. His catch, target, and touchdown rates are almost identical to the Tier 2 expectation while his current yardage pace is barely short of Calvin Johnson’s league record in 2012. Even if (when?) his current pace regresses towards his career averages, the Lions will be getting a great return.

Mohamed Sanu: Sanu’s 2016 pace is noticeably lower than should be expected given his current APY. The Falcons are currently getting $5M APY production on a $6.5M contract.

Travis Benjamin: Benjamin has definitely taken advantage of the extra offensive attention in San Diego after the season ending injuries to Stevie Johnson, Keenan Allen, and Danny Woodhead. He is currently on pace for career highs across the board. One major indicator that this may not be sustainable is his catch percentage: Benjamin has caught 75% of his targets in 2016. At this point, the Chargers are getting around $11M APY production on a $6M contract.

Mike Wallace: Outside of what is most likely an unsustainable touchdown pace of one per game, Wallace is producing on the Tier 3/Tier 4 cutoff. When his touchdowns are considered, his current APY of $5.75M seems about right. The Ravens are getting the expected amount of production on Wallace’s contract.

16 Game Pace

Tier 4 ContractsCurrent APYCatchesTargetsCatch %YardsTDsAPY Value
Rishard Matthews$5M488060%7200Tier 4
Jermaine Kearse$4.5M487267%4080Low Tier 4
Chris Hogan$4M326053%4884Tier 4

Tier 4 contracts are the hardest to critique too hard because the team is essentially paying for competent – but not outstanding –  veteran receiver play. Matthews is pretty close to expectation with the exception of his lack of touchdowns, Kearse is currently producing towards the lower end of his expectation, and Chris Hogan has so far produced almost in line with the expectation of his APY of $4M. The one area that both Matthews and Kearse should work to improve is their catch rate, as both are below the expectation of 65%.

2015 Contracts

There were several high profile receiver contracts signed in 2015: Julio Jones, Demaryius Thomas, Dez Bryant, and AJ Green among them. I would like to look at two specific players whose contracts raised a few eyebrows upon signing: TY Hilton and Jeremy Maclin.

All statistics shown below are the 2015 and 2016 seasons prorated over 16 games.

16 Game Pace

2015 SigningsCurrent APYCatchesTargetsCatch %YardsTDsAPY Value
TY Hilton$13M7514253%1,1686Low Tier 2
Jeremy Maclin$11M9013666%1,1228Tier 2

TY Hilton: Hilton’s APY of $13M seemed high upon signing and still looks high today. At that level, a team should expect 90-100 catches, 1,100+ yards, and 8-11 touchdowns. Hilton has never had a season with 90 catches, 8 touchdowns, or a catch rate over 63%. He has one year over 1,124 yards. Every metric points to a player that should be in the $10-11M APY range. As long as Hilton maintains his career averages, his APY will look $2M to $3M too high.

Jeremy Maclin: Maclin’s contract also seemed high upon signing given that he had just one 1,000 yard season to his name at that point. However, since signing, he has given Kansas City production that is almost identical to expectation give his $11M APY. This is a contract that looks like the proper value for both the team and player.