As the NFL heads into the offseason, a key date on the league calendar is February 23rd and March 9th, the window in which teams can utilize either the franchise or transition tag. As we get closer to the date, I wanted to take a look at the historic usage of tags between 2011-2020:
Teams have used the franchise or transition tag 99 times
55 of the 99 (55%) players tagged did NOT reach a long-term extension with their incumbent team, prior to the deadline to sign tagged players to extensions
Le’Veon Bell, Kirk Cousins, and Dak Prescott are the only 3 of the 99 players tagged who have received the “exclusive” designation
Teams that have applied the tag the most are the Chiefs (7), Cowboys (6), and Steelers/Dolphins/Broncos/WFT (5)
Teams that have applied the tag the fewest are the Packers (0), Texans/Seahawks (1), and Eagles/Lions/Raiders/Titans/Falcons/49ers/Saints/Vikings/Bills/Buccaners (2)
Positional groups seeing the most tags are Linebackers (18), Defensive Ends (15) and Kickers (10)
Positional groups seeing the fewest tags are Cornerbacks (5), Tight Ends (5), and Punters (2)
The graph below illustrates the usage of tags by year, with last year seeing the most tags since 2012.
If the salary cap is set to the widely reported figure of $180.5M, the franchise tag numbers for 2021 would be as projected below.
The table below compares the 2021 projected franchise tag numbers with last year’s tag numbers.
A silver lining that teams may recognize from the expected salary cap decline is the discounted rate of franchise tags this season. For example, working off the 2021 projected tag numbers, it would only cost the Packers around $8M to tag Aaron Jones. While the Packers are currently $19M over the cap, if they can manage to create enough capspace through restructures and cuts to take on a $8M cap charge for Jones, it would be excellent value. Jones has the production to earn a deal valued in the top 5 of the RB market and the salary for that point in the market starts at $12.5M. With the 2021 tag numbers dropping at least 7%, year over year, across the board, it would not be shocking to see more teams using the tag, than typically in years past.
Looking at Recent Positional Market Growth in the NFL
Despite CoVid-19 posing ramifications to next year’s salary cap, several positional groups have experienced strong growth over the last few months. In April, Laremy Tunsil signed a 3-year, $66M extension, eclipsing the highest paid OT, Lane Johnson, by 22%. In early July, Patrick Mahomes signed a 10-year extension worth over $450M. The deal established Mahomes as the highest paid NFL player in NFL history, a title previously held by Russell Wilson. A week later, the Chiefs extended franchise designated player, Chris Jones to a 4 year, $80M deal making him the 3rd highest paid interior defensive lineman, behind Aaron Donald and DeForest Buckner. Thereafter, Myles Garett became the highest paid Non-QB for 13 days, after which the Chargers announced an extension with Joey Bosa averaging $27M/year. In addition, in the last week, the Tight End market has skyrocketed, highlighted by George Kittle’s 5-year, $75M extension. With all the recent market growth, I thought it would be important to look at positional groups experiencing the strongest growth over the last year.
Over the last year, no positional group in the NFL has seen stronger growth than the Tight End market. Prior to last week, the Tight End market had been stagnant for years. From 2015-2019, the top 5 of the Tight End market had grown merely 6.91%, the lowest growth rate of all positional groups in that timespan (excluding STs). The gold standard in the TE market was set by Jimmy Graham when he signed a 4-year extension with the Saints in 2015, valued at $10M Avg./Year and 7.5% of the cap. While Graham signed another deal in 2018 with an Avg./Year of $10M, the deal was valued at 5.6% of the cap due to cap growth. During 2020 free agency, the title of highest paid Tight End on a multi-year deal was finally passed onto Austin Hooper after he signed a 4-year contract with the Browns averaging $10.5M/Year. From a dollar perspective, Hooper’s deal was seen as a market reset. However, his deal was valued at 5.3% of the cap, which still fell under Graham’s 7.5% cap figure. Last week, the TE market finally experienced a true reset after George Kittle signed an extension worth $15M/Year, valued at 7.6% of the cap. This marked a 42.85% growth from Hooper’s deal and also eclipsed the gold standard in the TE market, set by Jimmy Graham’s 2015 deal with the Saints.
The top of the OL market has grown 17.71% since last year, thanks to the 3- year, $66M extension that Laremy Tunsil signed with the Texans in April. The deal marked a 33.3% increase in the LT market and a 22% increase from the benchmarks Lane Johnson had set last year after signing an extension averaging $18M/year. In addition to resetting OL benchmarks by 22%, Tunsil’s extension length of 3 years is extremely favorable as he gets another opportunity to hit the open market after the 2023 season. Per the table below, Anthony Castonzo is the only other player with a shorter deal than Laremy Tunsil, when looking at the top of the market. However, Castonzo is also 32 years old, so a shorter-term deal at that age is expected.
The Edge Rusher market has exploded since 2015, with a growth rate of 60.79%. In 2015, Justin Houston set the benchmark at the position, with an Avg./Year of $16.833M. A year later, Von Miller signed an extension in 2016 worth $19.083M Avg./Year. Miller’s deal was then eclipsed in 2018 by Khalil Mack. Mack’s deal was the benchmark at the position until last month, after the Browns extended their former 2017 first overall pick to a 5 year, $125M extension with $100M in total guarantees. This marked a 6% growth at the top of the edge rush market. However, Garrett held the new title merely for two weeks, after the Chargers announced a 5-year, $135M extension with Joey Bosa. Bosa’s extension not only makes him the highest paid Non-QB in the NFL, but his deal is also the 2nd highest ever for pass rushers, in terms of cap adjusted inflation. Michael Strahan’s contract in 1999, which was valued at 17% of the cap, would equate to $33,789,858/Year while Bosa’s $27M extension is 13.62% of the cap. One of the most impressive parts of Bosa’s deal is that shortly after Garrett reset the market by 6%, Bosa was able to build off Garrett’s deal by 8%. Players like TJ Watt and Yannick Ngakoue will certainly reap the benefits of the strong deals and market growth from Garrett’s and Bosa’s deal.
In 2013, Aaron Rodgers was the highest paid QB, after he signed an extension worth $22M/year. Rodgers held the title from 2013-2016. However, since 2016, the top of the QB market has been a game of musical chairs, with a new highest paid QB every year. At the end of 2016, it was Andrew Luck who had an average of $24.594/Year. Luck leapfrogged Brees and Flacco, who had also signed extensions earlier that year valued at $24.250M and $22.133M, respectively. In 2017, Derek Carr became the first $25M+ player in NFL history. Two months later, the title for highest paid QB went to Matt Stafford after signing a deal worth $27M/year. In 2018 alone, a whopping 4 QBs held the title of highest paid QB which started with Jimmy Garroppolo and went through Kirk Cousins, Matt Ryan, and ended with Aaron Rodgers after he signed a deal worth $33.5M/year. In April 2019, Russell Wilson became the highest paid QB at $35M. Then last month, Patrick Mahomes eclipsed Wilson’s annual salary by 28.57%, the greatest salary jump at the top of the QB market since at least 2015. This will likely keep Mahomes $45M Avg./Year as the benchmark for at least the next year. While Deshaun Watson is eligible for a new deal, it would be difficult for him to eclipse Mahomes’ deal given he signed his extension off a Super Bowl victory and MVP. However, I would still expect Watson to contribute to the growth of the QB market and his deal should come in around $40M Avg./Year.
The one position that continues to remain stagnant is the cornerback market. Since 2015, the top of the 5 of the cornerback market has only grown 12.91%. The next lowest is interior DL at 24.05%. While Darius Slay became the new highest paid CB earlier this year at $16.683M Avg./Year, the gold standard in the CB market is the Patrick Peterson deal from 2014, when he signed an extension worth $14.01M and 10.53% of the cap. The next recent CB to come close to Peterson’s 10.53% of cap was Josh Norman’s 2016 free agent deal with Washington, when he signed at 9.7% of the cap. Candidates who I’d expect to significantly move the needle in the CB market include Jalen Ramsey, Tre’Davious White, Marlon Humphrey, and Marshon Lattimore. Assuming at least one player signs this season between 9.7%-10.53% of the cap, the new benchmark in the CB market should be between $19.225M-$20.870M. With the amount of draft capital the Rams traded away for Jalen Ramsey last season, he carries the most leverage and very likely will sign at $20M+/year.
Previewing a New Feature On Roster Trends
One of the many important responsibilities of an NFL agent includes identifying a list of potential teams for their free agent and undrafted clients. For high end free agents, suitors can be identified through a combination of teams making calls and the agent fielding offers. However, for lower end free agents and undrafted free agents, identifying landing spots can be more challenging and agents must take a more strategic approach in determining which teams would be a good fit for their client. One way is by studying what teams like in terms of body type and a team’s preference towards depth across different positions. A new feature for Overthecap that I have built will serve as a valuable tool in this area.
The first part of this new feature will calculate the average height and weight of players by each position on each team and can be benchmarked against league averages. The chart below is a preview of the new feature.
Red cells indicate teams that have the top 20% of heaviest players, on average, at a position. Green cells indicate teams that have the bottom 20% of lightest players at a position. One observation that can be made is that the Packers like heavier WRs. This is consistent with what Head Coach, Matt LeFleur, has said in the past about having big physical WRs who can block. Another conclusion that can be drawn is the Seahawks preference for tall cornerbacks. Although the team’s cornerbacks are not the top 20% tallest in the league, they are still taller than league averages. From an agent’s perspective, if a client is a big-body WR who excelled as a blocker in college or an undrafted cornerback that is over 6 feet, a team like the Packers and Seahawks would be worth calling respectively to gauge their interest. As a supplement to the height & weight chart, I also ran standard deviations on the height and weight of players from each positional group to illustrate the greatest variability in both categories.
Looking at weight variability, DL is the position with the highest standard deviation. This can be attributed to the size difference between 43 DL and 34 DL. WRs have the greatest variability for height.
The second part of the new OTC feature is a roster count table with a preview shown below.
The chart illustrates the number of players on a team by position, average age, and 2021 FAs. One takeaway from the chart is seeing teams that prefer to have more players at certain positions. For example, the Browns currently have 6 TEs on their roster. While these figures are inflated due to off-season rosters, it is still a good indicator for where teams prefer more depth. New Browns’ Head Coach, Kevin Stefanski, had called the most tightend sets when he was Vikings’ Offensive Coordinator last year. Early indications show he will continue that theme in Cleveland and another example of how agents can leverage this information when identifying potential fits for their UDFA or low-tier SFA clients. The chart also illustrates average age by position and number of 2021 FAs which is especially useful when determining where a team may have a need in the future. While this new tool is certainly not a be all end all, it is a good starting point when determining which teams to reach out to on behalf of UDFA and low tier SFA clients.
Trends with 5th Year Options With 2017 Rookie Decisions Looming
The deadline for teams to exercise 5th year options on 1st round selections in the 2017 draft is quickly approaching. As part of the new rookie wage scale introduced in the 2011 CBA, 5th year options are included in all first-round rookie contracts. A team’s window to exercise a player’s 5th year option opens after the player’s last regular season game in his 3rd season and closes in the first week of May. If a team declines to pick up the players’ option, his contract will expire the following year. If the team picks up the option, his 5th year salary becomes guaranteed for injury and becomes fully guaranteed on the first day of the league year the following year. Salaries for 5th year options are calculated in two separate buckets: Picks 1-10 and 11-32. Players selected in the top 10 have salaries equaling the transition tag amount the year the option was exercised. Option year salaries for picks 11-32 are calculated using the average of the 3rd-25th highest salaries for the respective position. The table below illustrates option salaries for the 2017 draft class. Salaries for picks 11-32 will be updated once released by the league.
Before looking at 5th year options for the 2017 draft class, there are some interesting trends related to its usage in recent years. In looking at the 2011-2016 draft class, fifth year options were exercised 66% of the time (40/60) on players selected in the top 10. For picks 11-32, 61% (80/131) of players saw their options exercised. However, a team exercising a 5th year option does not always lead to the player getting a second contract with the team. Of the 120 players that had their options exercised, 40% (48/120) of players did not get a second deal with their original team. Part of this is due to teams being hesitant in signing players to top of the market deals. We’ve seen this scenario with Khalil Mack, Jalen Ramsey, and most recently DeForest Buckner. There are other situations where teams become overly bullish on a player. For example, the Bears opted to pick up Leonard Floyd’s 5th year option last year, when he only had 15.5 sacks in his first 3 seasons. In 2019, Floyd didn’t have the breakout season the Bears had hoped. Since Floyd was healthy, the Bears were able to release him before the start of the 2020 league year and avoided paying any of his 5th year option. There are also scenarios where a team is bearish on the player’s future performance and decide against exercising the 5th year option, but the player ends up breaking out, with Jack Conklin and Shaw Lawson being two recent examples. After the Titans and Bills declined to pick up their 5th year options last season, both players played in contract years and reaped the benefits of having their best seasons by signing big deals in free agency.
In looking at how 5th year options have been handled from a league wide perspective, the graph above illustrates the number of 1st round picks each team had between 2011-2016 and how many fifth year options were exercised. Note that the Texans, Chargers, Falcons were the only teams that exercised options on all their selections in the noted time frame while the Seahawks were the only team that did not. The Seahawks also had the fewest 1st round selections between 2011-2016 with 3.
Without further delay, below are my thoughts on 5th year options for the 2017 draft class.
Myles Garrett- After Garrett’s reinstatement in February, he and the Browns should move past the helmet swinging incident and work towards an extension. Garrett has 30 sacks in his first three season and was averaging a sack/game in 2019.
Mitch Trubisky- Trading for Nick Foles makes it more unlikely that the Bears will pick up Trubisky’s option. If the Bears do exercise Trubiski’s option and he struggles early into the season, the Bears should deactivate him for the remaining games to prevent injury risk and owing $24.837M in injury guarantees.
Solomon Thomas- With the emergence of Nick Bosa and investment in Dee Ford and Arik Armstead, the 49ers will not pay the DE option value of $15M for a player who only played 41% of snaps last year.
Leonard Fournette– Considering the team’s roster teardown and devaluation of RBs, I don’t see the Jaguars picking up Fournette’s 5th year option.
Corey Davis- The emergence of AJ Brown and the deep WR class this year adds to the uncertainty of a 5th year option for Davis.
Jamal Adams- Speculation of Adams wanting out of New York started in 2018. However, in recent months Adams cleared the air and is expecting an extension this off-season. There’s no question the Jets will pick up his option, but will he be in New York long term or will a situation similar to Mack and Ramsey play out?
Mike Williams- The Chargers have formed a solid duo at the WR position with Mike Williams and Keenan Allen. General Manager Tom Telesco publicly praised Williams at the combine and while there hasn’t been an official decision, I would expect Williams to remain with the Chargers at least through the 2021 season.
Christian McCaffrey– McCaffrey became the fourth RB to have his option exercised since 2011 and the third to get an extension thereafter.
John Ross– While 2019 was his best season, Ross has missed close to 40% of games in his first three seasons due to injury. It would be risky for the Bengals to exercise their option on Ross and I don’t expect it to happen.
Patrick Mahomes– The easiest decision in the history of decisions on fifth year options.
Marshon Lattimore- The Saints picked up Lattimore’s option last month. The next step will be to negotiate an extension for the 2-time pro bowler and 2017 AP Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Deshaun Watson– The Texans have their first true franchise QB and he shouldn’t be going anywhere anytime soon.
Haason Reddick- The Cardinals have tried Reddick at multiple positions and the production probably won’t be enough to warrant the salary of a 5th year option.
Derek Barnett- Philly is currently 5th in league spending for defensive linemen and currently project to have the most invested towards the positional group next year. The team may prefer to have Barnett play 2020 under a contract year before making any commitments.
Malik Hooker- While Hooker hasn’t forced the number of turnovers the Colts may have hoped for when drafting him, he’s been a solid player for their secondary and should remain in Indy at least until 2021.
Marlon Humphrey- The Ravens will be picking up Humphrey’s fifth-year optionas he’s coming off his first Pro Bowl appearance. Locking him up long-term should be the next step.
Jonathan Allen- Despite the Redskins having one of the worst defenses in the league last year, Allen’s likely done enough for the Redskins to pick up his option.
Adoree’ Jackson- One of two decisions that the Titans will have to make this year on 5th year options. Unlike Corey Davis, I believe the Titans will pick up the option on Jackson.
O.J. Howard- General Manager Jason Licht stated the team will likely pick up the option on Howard.
Garett Bolles- John Elway has been non-committal on Bolles’ option and stated the team will decide on whether to pick up the option after the draft. Furthermore, Elway isn’t afraid to admit draft mistakes as they’ve declined 5th year options 3 out of 5 times. It seems as if Bolles will make it 4 out of 6.
Jarrad Davis- Davis played in 57% of snaps last season and was graded 94th out of 99 on PFF. The Lions will probably let Davis head into 2020 as his contract year.
Charles Harris- Harris has only had 3.5 sacks in his first three seasons and was a healthy scratch twice last year. The Dolphins won’t be exercising his option.
Evan Engram- Giants General Manager David Gettleman has yet to exercise 5th year options on the first rounders he inherited after joining the Giants in late 2017. However, things could change this year. Gettleman recently included Engram as part of the roster’s “good young players.”
Gareon Conley– The Texans traded a 3rd round pick for Conley last season and while Bill O’Brien has praised Conley’s play, his production probably won’t align with the value of the 5th year option.
Jabrill Peppers- Giants General Manager David Gettleman also included Jabrill Peppers as one of the roster’s “good young players.” Furthermore, Peppers was acquired in a trade by Gettleman which can only help the case for his option to be exercised.
Takkarist McKinley- The Falcons announced they will not be picking up McKinley’s fifth-year option. This marks the first time they’ve decided to not pick up a player’s fifth-year option.
Tre’Davious White- White is number one on general manger Brandon Beane’s list of extensions to get done.
Taco Charlton– It’s likely Taco will not see his option picked up by the Dolphins given his limited playtime last season and the team’s signing of Shaq Lawson and Emanuel Ogbah.
David Njoku- New general manager Andrew Berry hinted at the Browns picking up Njoku’s option. New HC Kevin Stefanski is know for his two tight end sets and Njoku is expected to have a prominent role on the Browns offense.
T.J. Watt– A no-brainer and will eventually become the highest or one of the highest paid edge rushers.
Reuben Foster– The 49ers waived Foster in 2018 and the Redskins claimed him so his rookie contract never expired and is eligible for a fifth year option. However, coming off a major knee injury makes it unlikely that the team would exercise an option that is guaranteed for injury.
Ryan Ramcyk- Last month, Ramcyk became the first player ever selected last in the first round to get his option picked up.
Week 1 Free Agency Thoughts
It has only been a week since the start of the NFL’s version
of the free market and already many teams have reached their pinnacle in
spending for the season. Through the first week of free agency, league wide
spending is approx. $2.610B. Of the $2.610B in spending, approx. $1.481B counts
towards total guarantees. As a disclaimer, these are fluid numbers based on
contract data retrieved by Overthecap and excludes extensions, extensions via trades,
and franchise/transition tags. The graph below breaks down league spending from
all 32 teams by total contract value and total guarantees.
The top 5 teams that have currently spent the most in total
contract value are the Dolphins, Saints, Cowboys, Titans, and Lions. The Dolphins
key decision maker, Chris Grier, has not shied away from leaving his print on
the roster. After trading away several foundational pieces last season, Grier
has acquired 9 new players through free agency and will have 14 draft picks in
the upcoming draft. Much of his talent evaluation skills and decision-making ability
will be judged over the next two years.
Looking at the Saints free agency spending, the drivers here
are the Brees and Peat deals that total $107M. While both players were on the
roster last year, Overthecap is categorizing these as free agent deals versus
extensions as their previous deals expired. Regarding Peat’s new deal, he’s now
the 3rd highest paid Left Guard by APY and has the highest in total
guarantees in the LG market. The deal also includes a favorable structure for Peat
as his 3rd year salary vests into full guarantees in the 2nd
year of his deal. Essentially, Peat gets $23M of the $57.5M guaranteed at
signing. In 2021, if Peat is on the Saints roster on March 20th, he
will be guaranteed an additional $10.850M for 2022. That being said, Peat is
pretty much a lock to be with the Saints until at least 2022.
Thoughts on Amari Cooper
Heading into free agency, there was much anticipation on how
the Dallas Cowboys would approach negotiations with their key free agents. Shortly
after applying the exclusive franchise tag on Dak Prescott, the Cowboys were
able to reach an agreement with Amari Cooper on a 5 year, $100M deal, making
him the second highest paid WR behind Julio Jones. However, the team can easily
move on from Cooper after two years. The deal is structured in a way where
Cooper gets $40M fully guaranteed at signing, paid over the first two years,
with an additional $20M serving as injury protection. In the third year of the
deal, 2022, if Cooper is on the roster on the 5th day of the league
year, the $20M injury protection vests to a full guarantee. While this is a nice
deal for Cooper, a player with his leverage typically sees a more favorable
structure. At minimum, Cooper should have gotten a portion of his 3rd
year salary guaranteed at signing. Instead, it’s essentially a 2 year, $40M
deal and then a “we’ll see” situation. An explanation for why Cooper might have
decided to accept the deal is that he weighed other factors. He’s playing in a
state with no income tax and in an offense that has stability at the QB
position. There were reports that the Washington Redskins had shown interest in
Cooper and even if they were ready to offer a better structure, perhaps Cooper
valued stability more than making a couple extra million. Every player is going
to have a list of priorities when entering the open market and it’s plausible
to think Cooper’s football earnings of $36M to date enabled him to consider
Thoughts on DeForest Buckner
One move that seems to have fallen under the radar in the
last week is the DeForest Buckner trade. Heading into free agency, the 49ers had
a decision to make on Arik Armstead. Armstead, who came into the league a year
prior to Buckner, played out his 5th year team option and was scheduled
to be a free agent. On the first day of the NFL’s legal tampering window, the
team rewarded Armstead with a 5 year $85M contract. With already so much
invested in Dee Ford and the future spending on Nick Bosa, the 49ers likely
knew it would be difficult to keep Buckner. However, the team could have gotten
one more year out of Buckner under the 5th year option, similar to
what they did with Armstead. Instead, Buckner was able to leverage a position
strong enough to be traded for a first-round pick and get an extension that
makes him the second highest paid interior defensive lineman and tied for 3rd
highest defensive player, per the APY metric. It was a true win-win for both
player and team. The 49ers got a first-round pick for a player they wouldn’t have
been able to afford after this year while Buckner doesn’t have to incur an
additional year of injury risk to get a top of the market deal. The Colts also
get the dominant interior disrupter that is coveted in the league.
Thoughts on Kenyan Drake
Another interesting story over the last week relates to
Kenyan Drake’s signing of the transition tag. On March 16th the
Arizona Cardinals applied the transition tag on running back, Kenyan Drake,
with the ability to rescind at any time before he signed the tag. The
transition tag works similar to the franchise tag in that it ties a player to
the team for an additional year. The transition tag value, however, is less
than the exclusive and non-exclusive tags. Furthermore, another team can make
an offer-sheet to the player and the incumbent team would have the option to
match. If the incumbent team doesn’t match, the player can sign with the new
team and the incumbent team doesn’t receive draft compensation. So long story
short, the Cardinals were indirectly allowing Drake to test the market on a
long-term deal. What’s interesting, and a point that Mike Florio of PFT raised
in his podcast, is that days after the transition tag was applied on Drake, the
running back market saw Todd Gurley agree to a $6M deal with the Falcons and
Melvin Gordon sign a 2 year deal, averaging $8M per year. The transition tag
for Drake is $8.483M. With Gurley and Gordon being more accomplished RBs than
Drake, the Cardinals could have rescinded the tag, pointing to the value being
too high for him. Drake was smart enough to realize the deal he had was solid
and signed his tag the day after the Gurley and Gordon deals were
Thoughts on Workout Bonuses
Teams often negotiate workout bonuses
in player contracts to entice players to workout at team facilities during the
off-season. Small market teams like the Packers, Bengals, Panthers, and Jaguars
will use this structure and will payout if a player participates in 90%
(negotiable) of the off-season program. Given the current conditions in society, the
question arises on whether players will be able to recoup their workout bonuses
if the impact of COVID-19 crisis continues and team facilities remain closed
through the off-season. Assuming facilities remain closed, there’s a chance
that workout bonuses wouldn’t be paid out as many payouts are contingent on
there being a workout program (some players do have workout bonuses protected
by guaranteed language). Assuming facilities open, but cuts into the days or
weeks of the offseason program, the question will be whether teams would have
good-faith and allow players to earn the full bonus if they meet the
participation % for the days the off-season programs were held. Another
proposition that players and agents may want to consider is to request teams to
allow the player to recoup their lost workout bonuses through per-game roster
bonuses throughout the season. To put some perspective on how much a player
might lose if things don’t get better, Za’Darius Smith’s off-season workout
bonus is $750K. It’ll be very interesting to monitor how the league will handle
this situation and whether the union will need to get involved.
Thoughts on Market Growth
Per Jason Fitzgerald’s recent article, the amount of massive money deals seem down this year. Last year, there were 30 non-QBs who signed contracts that averaged at least $10M/year and 17 non-QBs who signed for at least $13M/year. This year the numbers are 27 and 11. One reason for this could be the increased use of franchise/transition tags by teams. Ten teams have applied the franchise tag this year, tied for most since 2016. In 2017, 7 players were tagged and in 2018 and 2019 6 players were given the tag. Furthermore, last year, the top of the safety and linebacker market exploded when Landon Collins and CJ Mosley reset their markets respectively. This year, a small correction has taken place in the stagnant cornerback and tight end market after Darius Slay and Austin Hooper reset their respective markets. In regard to total spending, the below table builds off the first graph and illustrates free agent spending this year vs years in the past. Please note that these figures are based on FA spending from February-April. 2020 is asterisked as it will obviously continue to grow until April.
Thoughts on Byron Jones Contract
After a roster teardown last
season, the Miami Dolphins have started the process of reconstructing their
roster through free agency. In the first day of the NFL legal tampering window,
the team kept busy, reaching agreements with Clayton Fejedelum, Shaq Lawson,
Ereck Flowers, Kyle Van Noy, and most notably, Byron Jones. Jones’s deal is
reported to be a 5-year pact worth $82.5M, with $46M guaranteed at signing. While
the deal sets new benchmarks by APY, total guarantees, and fully guarantees, the
cornerback market, which I
wrote about in September, remains stagnant. To further elaborate, the table
below illustrates several notable deals in the CB market by APY, APY as % of
cap, and length.
looking at Jones’s deal from a dollar figure, he leads the CB market by APY,
leapfrogging the incumbent and new teammate, Xavien Howard, by 9.6%. This is a
solid number for Jones but if we want to understand how his deal fits in
discussion with market growth for CBs, it’s important to value the deal by
looking at the APY as a % of cap. This method prevents older deals from being
negated because of salary cap growth. For example, while Patrick Peterson’s APY
is $2.5M less than Jones’s, the extension that Peterson signed in 2014, when
adjusting salaries for cap inflation, would lead the CB market with an annual
value of $20.878 in 2020. So, while Jones’s deal might be perceived to be a
breakthrough for the CB market, the reality is the market will remain stagnant
until we see a player sign a deal with an APY valued higher than 10.5%. Again, this isn’t to say that Jones signed a
bad deal. His APY as % of cap of 8.32% sits between Josh Norman’s 9.7% figure
and Trumaine Johnson’s 8.2% figure. I wouldn’t have expected Jones to get a
deal near Norman’s percentage of cap as Norman was coming off an all-pro season
and was arguably the best cover corner leading up to him hitting the open
market. For the CB market to see significant growth, it will require a player
like Jalen Ramsey or Marlon Humphrey to maximize their leverage. For Ramsey,
the LA Rams gave up tons of draft capital and it would be shame for them to do
so for a two-year rental. I could see Humphrey as another player getting a new
deal in the future with an APY around 10.5%. He’s a player who really
established himself last year and has the same representation as Patrick
onto cashflows of Jones’s deal, the below table illustrate running cashflows
for a few of Jones’s peers.
In his first
year, Jones’s contract pays out more than any cornerback with exception of
Johnson’s Year 1 cashflow he received in 2018. However, where Jones’s deal
separates itself is Year 2 and Year 3. The Year 3 cashflow of $54.375M is also
the total guaranteed value of the deal.
Another interesting thing to look at is
the sum of Jones’s and Howard’s cash flow for the 2020 season. The Dolphins
will be spending $37.925M in cash for their top 2 CBs and $44.835M for all CBs
on their roster. To put these number into perspective, the Ravens are second in
the league in cash spending for CBs at $28.615M, per OTC numbers. The average
cash spending by teams for CBs in 2020 is approx. $14.4M. Obviously this number
will fluctuate as we get through the rest of FA, draft, and potential
extensions, but I’d still expect the Dolphins to be at the top in CB spending
for at least this year. That being said, anything short of a top 10 pass
defense this season will be seen as a disappointment. In
looking at Jones’s contract structure, it is pretty player friendly. Jones will
receive a $15M signing bonus, and fully guaranteed 2020 and 2021 salaries. In
2022, when Jones turns 30, Jones has a $14.375M base salary. Of that amount,
$6M is already guaranteed and another $8.375M becomes guaranteed on the 5th
day of the 2022 league year. That being said, if things go terrible with Jones
and the Dolphins, the team can walk away from him before the 5th day
of the 2022 league year and avoid paying the additional $8.375M in base salary
for 2022. However, at that point, they would have paid Jones $46M for just two
seasons, which would come out to an average of $23M. For Dolphins fans, lets
hope that won’t be the case.
A look at the NFL Tight End Market and Potential Market Movers
Per my recent article on the NFL Cornerback Market, several NFL positional groups have experienced robust growth over the
last 5 years. This growth can be attributed to star players maximizing their
leverage and the 31.35% rise in salary cap since 2015. The top 5 of the QB market has grown 57.96%, the
safety market has experienced a 51.34% market boom, linebackers at 48.74%, and edge
rushers at 40.34%.
However, there are also positional groups that haven’t experienced the
same modicum of success. The stagnant cornerback market was highlighted in my
article and the devaluation of running backs has been discussed for several years.
Another positional group experiencing sluggish growth is tight end. Since 2015, the top
of the tight end market has only grown 6.91%, the lowest growth rate of all
positional groups, excluding special teams. Below is a graph illustrating all the
positions that haven’t kept with up with salary cap growth.
Tight End Market
In looking at the
top of the tight end market, 3 of the 5 highest APY values have remained flat
since 2016. This includes Jimmy Graham’s $10M APY, Travis Kelce’s $9.368M APY,
and Jordan Reed’s $9.35M APY. In fact,
Graham’s $10M APY has been the benchmark for the TE Market since 2014. No other
positional group has been close to having the same benchmark for such an
extended period. Graham first became the highest paid TE when the Saints
extended him to a 4 Year, $40M extension in 2014, eclipsing Rob Gronkowski’s 6
Year, $54M extension from 2012. Graham went on to play the entire deal with the
Saints and Seahawks and became a free agent in 2018. The Packers then signed
him to a 3 Year, $30M extension and Graham quickly regained the title of
highest paid TE with the same $10M APY. The tables below illustrate the top 5
of the TE market by APY and Guarantees.
deals since Graham’s extension include Greg Olsen’s 2 Year, $17.1M extension
with $12.115M guaranteed, Kyle Rudolph’s 5 Year, $36.5M extension with $16.025M
guaranteed, and Trey Burton’s 4 Year, $32M FA deal with $22M guaranteed. While
Burton’s deal didn’t crack the top 5 by APY, he eclipsed Jordan Reed’s fully guaranteed
figure by $4M, setting the new benchmark in Fully Guaranteed at $18M.
there are 3 players who I believe will uplift the market between now and the
The Kansas City Chiefs have had
great success with tight ends over the last two decades. From 1997-2008, the
Chiefs saw great production from Hall of Fame Tight End, Tony Gonzalez. Several
years later, the Chiefs selected Travis Kelce in the 3rd round of
the 2013 draft. In his first 33 regular season games, Kelce recorded 1,737
receiving yards and 10 Touchdowns. This led the Chiefs to extend him in 2016 to
a 5 Year, $46.8M extension, making him the 2nd highest paid TE at
time of signing. Since his extension, Kelce has continued to prove his worth. The
table below illustrates his production among other top ranked TEs since 2016.
Kelce’s value, the table below compares his production to WRs since 2016. Kelce ranks 10th in Yards/G, 9th
in TD/G, 11th in Targets/G, and 9th in Receptions/G.
While Kelce will have 2 years remaining on his deal after this season, his level of production has given him the leverage to approach the team for a new deal. The Chiefs have also shown good faith in extending players with multiple years remaining as they extended Mitchell Schwartz this past off season. Regarding a value for Kelce, his representatives should make the case for high producing TEs to be paid like a low-end Tier 1/ high-end Tier 2 WR. This should put him in the $13M-14.5M APY range. Assuming the salary cap for 2020 is set around $200M, an APY between $13M-$14.5M would be between 6.5-7.25 percent of the salary cap. Kelce’s 2016 extension was 6% of the salary cap at time of signing. The highest paid TE by APY as % of signing was Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham at 7.5%. Kelce’s figure should be in that ballpark.
2. Austin Hooper
The Falcons drafted Austin Hooper in the 3rd round of the 2016 NFL Draft. Coming off a Pro Bowl season last year, Hooper’s receiving totals in his first 9 games this season puts him on pace for over 1,000 yards. Hooper is a prime example of a player maximizing his future earnings by producing at the right time as he will be an Unrestricted Free Agent after this season. It’s doubtful the Falcons will retain him as they will have major cap issues next year, as highlighted in Zack Moore’s recent article. However, Hooper will have many buyers on the open market and should easily surpass all the current benchmarks in the TE market.
3. George Kittle
George Kittle was a
great find for the 49ers in the 5th round of the 2017 draft. Since
entering the league, Kittle has racked up over 2400 receiving yards, ranking 3rd
in TEs. His value to the offense is further validated by his 256 targets since
2017. The next closest over the same time period is Marquise Goodwin at 169
targets. While Kittle has one more year on his deal after this season, the
49ers should do an extension early as he is the focal point in their pass game.
Kittle should also eclipse all the current benchmarks in the TE market.
Other candidates who
could uplift the TE Market include Eric Ebron and Evan Engram. After posting
career highs in receiving yards and touchdowns last season, Ebron has struggled
to find the same level of production this year. However, his first-round
pedigree and upside will make him an attractive option for several teams during
2020 free agency. Regarding Engram, the Giants will need to decide on whether
to exercise his 5th year option by the first week of May 2020.
Thereafter, he’ll be eligible to sign an extension.