Thoughts on the Matt Stafford $135 Million Contract

Unless you have been living under a rock for the last few days you are well aware that Matt Stafford signed a new contract that made him the highest paid player in NFL history. I waited to write on it until we got more concrete details and thanks to the job of Mike Florio at PFT we now have those details to examine and this contract sure is a winner for Stafford. Continue reading Thoughts on the Matt Stafford $135 Million Contract »

Comparing Pre- and Post-Contract Numbers for Top WRs

I’ve decided to go through some of the highly compensated players in the league and see how their performance has been since signing their deal, compared to before it.

I considered any player that is currently on a significant deal (above or around early 1st round pick range), and has played at least two seasons since signing. Today I’m taking a look at the wide receivers.. I’ve taken some baseline numbers to use for comparison, but also have to consider other factors such as age, injury and whether they changed team or system. Pro Football Reference has been a valuable tool for finding sortable stats across season ranges.

I’ll go in rough order of how successful I think the contracts have been and have put the players into broad categories: Exceeding Expectations, Meeting Expectations, Slight Underperformance, Underperformance and also Injury Problems to cover for players whose injuries have affected their subsequent seasons.

Exceeding Expectations

Jordy Nelson

 Pre-Contract Post-Contract 
GPTgt/GRec/GRec YdsRec YPGTDTD/GYPRGPTgt/GRec/GRec YdsRec YPGTDTD/GYPR
2012126.14.174562.170.5815.22014169.46.1151994.9130.8115.5
2013167.95.3131482.180.515.52016169.56.1125778.6140.8813
TOTAL287.144.8205973.5150.5415.4TOTAL329.56.1277686.8270.8414.2

At 32 years old, Nelson is the oldest receiver that I’ve looked at for this article, and so for him to be what I consider the best value since his extension is notable. He basically seems to be having a very late prime compared to other most wide receivers.

After Nelson’s slow first three seasons, the Packers had seen enough to offer him a three year extension at $4.3 million APY in 2011, a year before his rookie deal was up. He quickly proved that to be a bargain for the Packers with a breakout 1263 yard, 15 TD season that year. The next two years of the deal, Nelson missed several games from injury but still put up solid numbers with over 2000 yards and 15 TDs across those years.

The Packers then put their trust in Nelson and signed him to a four year, $39.05 million contract in 2014. Despite having produced so well, he was 29 at the time and the Packers wisely kept the guarantees reasonably low at just $11.5 million, far below most of the receivers in his salary range at the time.

Nelson was then outstanding in his first year on the deal with a Pro Bowl season of 1519 yards and 13 TDs, before succumbing to a torn ACL that took him out of the whole 2015 season. He bounced back in 2016 to win NFL Comeback Player of the Year with 1257 yards and 14 TDs.

Since signing in 2014, whenever he has been on the field he has been an elite playmaker and reliable weapon. Comparing his numbers pre and post contract show that his game-by-game contribution has increased across the board, going from 7 targets, 74 yards and 0.54 TDs per game before the deal to 9.5 targets, 87 yards and 0.84 TDs since the deal.

It is safe to say that Nelson’s isolated on-field value is currently several million per year over his current APY, but his age will obviously be a significant factor in any future negotiations as he will be 34 when this deal expires. It would be a difficult move for the Packers to extend Nelson early and tack on any more years, as he is obviously reaching an age where his value could plummet and very few receivers have managed to play at a high level. But for now, the Packers must be enjoying the elite production that they are getting from Nelson with his cap hits set to rise to $11 million and $12 million over 2017 and 2018. Their Super Bowl window is, in my opinion, very open and having #87 for Rodgers to throw to is a big part of that.

Meeting Expectations

Julio Jones

 Pre-Contract Post-Contract 
GPTgt/GRec/GRec YdsRec YPGTDTD/GYPRGPTgt/GRec/GRec YdsRec YPGTDTD/GYPR
2013511.88.258011620.414.120151612.78.51871116.980.513.8
20141510.96.91593106.260.415.32016149.215.91409100.660.4317
TOTAL2011.17.32173108.780.415TOTAL3011.17.33280109.3140.4715

The next three receivers are in the “Meeting Expectations” category and have each managed to keep very consistent numbers from pre-contract to post-contract. We start with Jones simply because of his postseason impact last season which I thought was incredible. For a position which had been getting grief from many media people, particularly around the Odell boat scandal, Jones showed us in the 2017 NFC Championship that receivers can still put the team on their back and take over a huge game. New England did a good job on him in the Super Bowl but he still had some exceptional moments against them, a Patriots defense that is clear about its philosophy of shutting down the opponent’s best player.

Jones had immediate impact in the league with over 2000 yards and 18 TDs through his first two seasons. Jones missed most of 2013 with a foot injury but then came back in 2014 to have 1593 yards and 6 TDs. He signed a five year deal just before his 2015 5th year option season began, at $71.25 million with a hefty $35.5 million in full guarantees. Since signing, Jones has gone from strength to strength and amassed 3280 yards and 14 TDs in the past two seasons. As I mentioned he played a huge role in helping the Falcons reach Super Bowl 51 and continues to be an elite pass catcher.

The consistency from pre-contract to post-contract is notable. Jones averaged 11.1 targets, 7.3 receptions, 108.7 receiving yards and 0.4 touchdowns per game over 2013 and 2014. Over 2015 and 2016, Jones averaged 11.1 targets, 7.3 receptions, 109.3 yards and 0.47 touchdowns per game. While it’s difficult to really exceed expectations after signing as the 2nd highest paid receiver in football, increasing his touchdown count would push him towards a historic career. Nonetheless, Jones puts fear into every defense he faces and that is exactly what the Falcons wanted both on draft day in 2011 and the day he signed long-term in 2015.

AJ Green

 Pre-Contract Post-Contract 
GPTgt/GRec/GRec YdsRec YPGTDTD/GYPRGPTgt/GRec/GRec YdsRec YPGTDTD/GYPR
20131611.16.1142689.1110.6914.62015168.255.4129781.1100.6315.1
20141395.3104180.160.4615.1201610106.696496.440.414.6
TOTAL2910.25.8246785.1170.5914.8TOTAL268.925.8226187140.5414.9

AJ Green was drafted two spots higher than Julio Jones and signed his four year, $60 million extension 12 days after Julio Jones. Green received $750,000 more in APY but signed for one less year. The deals had very similar cash flows but Green essentially set the ceiling WR market at the time (until Antonio Brown’s contract earlier this year).

Green has been extremely consistent throughout his career. He has had at least 950+ yards and a Pro Bowl nod in each of his first six seasons in the league. He hasn’t had quite the elite yard production of Jones, Brown and Beckham Jr but his reliability and mismatch-creating skillset have made him a franchise player worth paying for. Whether his statistics justify him being the 2nd highest paid receiver in the current market is arguable, but he is certainly a top-tier receiver and if he can remain healthy enough, could be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

Comparing his numbers pre and post contract, Green averaged 5.8 receptions, 85.1 yards and 0.59 TDs per game in the two seasons before signing. He has then gone on to average 5.8 receptions, 87 yards and 0.54 TDs since the deal. Green did miss 6 games in 2016 with a hamstring tear but still managed to be named in the Pro Bowl. As with Jones, he has been incredibly consistent in terms of per game efficiency before and after his extension. Green has given the Bengals just what they’ve grown to love since his rookie season, and the team will just be hoping to keep him off the trainer’s table in 2017.

TY Hilton

 Pre-Contract Post-Contract 
GPTgt/GRec/GRec YdsRec YPGTDTD/GYPRGPTgt/GRec/GRec YdsRec YPGTDTD/GYPR
2013168.75.1108367.750.3113.22015168.44.3112470.350.3116.3
2014138.75.5134589.770.4716.42016169.75.7144890.560.3815.9
TOTAL298.75.3242878.3120.3914.8TOTAL329.035257280.4110.3416.1

The Colts probably didn’t think that they’d found Andrew Luck’s favourite weapon in the 3rd round of the 2012 draft, but they did. Hilton has had superb production since coming into the league, for any round, let alone the very late 3rd. He has also shown great durability having never played less than 15 games in a season.

Hilton had a surprising rookie year with 861 yards and 7 TDs, and over his next two seasons he had 2428 yards and 12 TDs, getting his first Pro Bowl nod in 2014. Hilton then signed a five year, $65 million extension with very low full guarantees of $11 million. Since signing, Hilton made another Pro Bowl in 2015 and led the league in receiving yards in 2016.

Over his two pre-extension seasons, Hilton had per-game averages of 5.3 receptions, 78.3 yards and 0.39 TDs. Since the extension, he has maintained that level with 5 receptions, 80.4 yards and 0.34 TDs per game. Despite fluctuations in QB play/health, Hilton has been a very reliable playmaker in Indy, and has rewarded the faith that the Colts front office showed in him as a 25-year-old 3rd round pick back in 2015.

Slight Underperformance

Demaryius Thomas

 Pre-Contract Post-Contract 
GPTgt/GRec/GRec YdsRec YPGTDTD/GYPRGPTgt/GRec/GRec YdsRec YPGTDTD/GYPR
2013168.95.8143089.4140.8815.520151611.16.6130481.560.3812.4
20141611.56.91619101.2110.6914.620161695.6108367.750.3112
TOTAL3210.26.3304995.3250.7815TOTAL32106.1238774.6110.3412.2

It is difficult to put Thomas in a definite category as he has seen perhaps the most drastic drop in quarterback play of any star receiver in the league, going from a surefire Hall of Famer to a historic free agency bust to a 7th round rookie in the space of 2 seasons.

Thomas was the Broncos’ 1st round pick in 2010 and had an injury-plagued first two seasons in the league. He had some big plays but couldn’t stay on the field enough to prove himself. 2012 brought the arrival of Peyton Manning to Denver and Thomas became an elite receiver within a year. That season he had 1434 yards, 10 TDs, and a Pro Bowl nod. It was a sign of things to come as over 2013 and 2014 he played every game and averaged 6.3 receptions, 95.3 yards and 0.78 TDs per game.

The Broncos then tagged him in March 2015 and in July he signed a 5 year, $70 million extension with a whopping 50% full guarantee of $35 million.

In the two years since, Thomas’ numbers have dropped but the QB changes in Denver have not helped. In 2015, Manning’s injury and the play of Brock Osweiler contributed to a loss in production from Thomas, but the Broncos would still go on to win Super Bowl 50 that season. In 2016, Thomas’ numbers dropped even further as Manning retired and 7th round pick Trevor Siemian didn’t have the same sort of connection with Thomas. In the two seasons post-extension, Thomas averaged 6 receptions for just 74.6 yards and 0.34 TDs per game. His yards per reception also dropped nearly 3 whole yards.

Although it may be harsh to label Thomas’ performance as below expectations at all, due to a gradual reduction in the quality of QB play throughout his career, his numbers since signing the deal have not been at the elite level for which he is paid. It is looking like Siemian will be back starting for the Broncos in 2017, and perhaps he and Thomas will have developed enough chemistry to push Thomas back into the elite category.

Underperformance

Randall Cobb

 Pre-Contract Post-Contract 
GPTgt/GRec/GRec YdsRec YPGTDTD/GYPRGPTgt/GRec/GRec YdsRec YPGTDTD/GYPR
201367.85.243372.240.67142015168.14.982951.860.3810.5
2014167.95.7128780.4120.7514.12016136.54.661046.940.3110.2
TOTAL227.95.5172078.2160.7314.1TOTAL297.34.8143949.6100.3410.4

Randall Cobb has had some battles with injuries in recent seasons, but it’s safe to say that he has not performed to the level that he flashed in his 2014 contract season. A 2nd round pick in 2011, Cobb was more of a special teams weapon in his rookie season, but had a good receiving year in 2012 with 954 yards and 8 TDs. He then missed most of 2013 with a broken fibula before having his career year in 2014, with 1287 yards and 12 TDs.

In the 2015 offseason, the Packers saw enough promise in the 24-year-old Cobb to give him a 4 year, $40 million contract. It was a nice contract for Cobb being so young and allowing him to get another shot at free agency at age 28, which isn’t too old for a versatile weapon in the NFL.

Cobb has never really earned back the same role in the Green Bay offense that he had in 2014. In 2015, Jordy Nelson went down with an ACL injury and Cobb couldn’t step up to become the #1 threat. He earned a lot of targets but wasn’t used much downfield and averaged just 10.5 yards per reception. Cobb ended the season with 829 yards and 6 TDs. He struggled with injuries in 2016, missing several games and ending with just 610 yards and 4 TDs, while Davante Adams seemed to gain a much larger role in the offense. Cobb’s per-game averages went down from 78.2 yards and 0.73 TDs before his deal to 49.6 yards and 0.34 TDs after the deal.

Overall, Cobb is still a talented football player, and he is young at 26 considering the fact that he’s played 6 seasons in the league. The Packers like to trust their own homegrown talent and took the risk on Cobb after his massive year in 2014. With the Packers bringing in Martellus Bennett, Lance Kendricks, and the emergence of Davante Adams, I’m not sure how Cobb retains enough of a role in the offense to meet the value of his contract. To be fair to Cobb though, his range in the WR market features several players with either inconsistency, durability or age issues, so his contract isn’t severely out of place.

Injury Problems

Dez Bryant

 Pre-Contract Post-Contract 
GPTgt/GRec/GRec YdsRec YPGTDTD/GYPRGPTgt/GRec/GRec YdsRec YPGTDTD/GYPR
2013169.95.8123377.1130.8113.32015983.440144.630.3312.9
2014168.55.5132082.5161152016137.43.879661.280.6215.9
TOTAL329.25.7255379.8290.914.1TOTAL227.63.7119754.4110.514.8

In each of the three seasons before signing his huge five year, $70 million contract in 2015, Dez Bryant had over 1200 yards and 11 TDs. After a series of holdout threats and skipping workouts, the Cowboys and Bryant came together to sign the deal just before the July 15 deadline for long-term contracts. Despite some on-and-off health issues, Bryant had basically been healthy in that superb stretch of seasons and no one doubted his ability on the field. To make him the 2nd-highest paid receiver in the league was not a confusing decision.

Since signing the deal though, Bryant has been afflicted with several tough injuries that have kept him off the field for 10 games. The injuries haven’t just caused those missed games, they have also affected his ability to contribute in the games when he does get back on the field. If you look at his pre and post contract numbers, Bryant has gone from 79.8 yards and 0.9 TDs per game before the deal to just 54.4 yards per game and 0.5 TDs per game since the deal. His efficiency and effectiveness were affected. However, he showed everyone what he can do with a 9 catch, 132 yard and 2 TD performance against the Packers in the playoffs.

Bryant should still be an elite receiver when healthy, and the game against Green Bay showed that. But he needs to stay healthy if the Cowboys are going to start making Super Bowl appearances soon. As soon as he’s consistently back on the field making ridiculous plays and opening up the offense for everyone else, then the $16-17 million cap hits don’t look so bad. But as long as he’s on the trainer’s table, the contract starts to feel like a big hindrance on Dallas’ attempts to build a Super Bowl champion.


Will Eddowes is a 20 year old college student from New Zealand. Will is in his third year of study at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, pursuing conjoint degrees in law and economics. Despite living so far away from football, Will has developed a strong passion for the game, particularly the front office aspects of salary cap analysis and team building/scouting. Follow Will on Twitter @WillEddowesNFL

The Oldest and Most Expensive NFL Teams in 2017

With the NFL regular season just around the corner, I wanted to look at the teams that really have the most riding on this season. In general teams expect a lot from their most expensive players on the team, but expensive players often have a very short shelf life due to the nature of the NFL being a very young man’s game. That often means that the window for some of these teams is very small and a step in the wrong direction can quickly turn a team into the 2017 Jets. So for this post I wanted to focus on the top 10 valued players on a team and see at what stage we should view the teams this year.

To identify where each team sits I wanted to go a step further than just the traditional age and APY metrics. While those tools are valuable they don’t take into account positional trends. For example an older QB is not as negative towards a roster as a running back. The 30 year old QB is essentially in his prime while the 30 year old running back is likely just hanging on in the NFL. Likewise a QB making $20 million a year is far less of a real investment than a defensive tackle making the same. This allows for a better indication of team spending above average and prevents a player like Andrew Luck from grossly inflating a team’s commitment to their top players.

So what I used here were positional adjusted ages and salaries as metrics to determine a team’s lifecycle. To do this I first broke the league into positional groupings (QB, RB, WR, TE, OL, Edge, DL, LB, S, CB, P, K, and LS) and then calculated the average age and annual salary for each position. Each player was then given a position adjusted salary and age which is simply the difference between the players age/salary and the average at the position. I then grouped each team into one of four quadrants which I’ll discuss below.

Oldest and highest paid in NFL

Quadrant 1: Low Expectations

The low expectations quadrant is for teams that have young rosters and are spending very little on their top 10 players. These are teams that should be looked at as playing with house money since the experience level is low and the team is not investing money at the top anymore.

The bottom three in this region are the Jets, Bears, and 49ers. The Jets have the 3rd youngest group in the NFL and the 2nd lowest investment. The Bears rank 4th and 3rd while the 49ers rank 7th and 1st. The Jets and 49ers are the only two teams with less than $45 million in total salary over average and not surprisingly the two are considered the worst two teams in the NFL. If either does well it will mean that many young players did well while veterans outperformed their contracts.

When you look objectively at that Bears roster it makes no sense why they are not starting the rookie QB. They have attempted to make some type of unjust expectations by hanging onto some veterans and going with Mike Glennon as the starter. I would not like to be in John Fox’s shoes as he is likely to be a fall guy for a team that really would need to get some unexpected performances to compete.

The team that surprised me the most about being in here were the Cowboys. I always think of the Cowboys as a very high priced roster of veterans, but in recent years Dallas has sunk that money into younger talent and they have been much more efficient with the salary allocations. That said expectations in Dallas given their play last year are sky high but they really should be tempered as they will continue to need not only last year’s young players to do well but this year’s draftees to make an impact too.

The coaches that should be most worried for the year are Chuck Pagano and Bill O’Brien. The Texans are still a young, cheap team but has higher expectations than they should in part because of their defense and in part because of how bad their division is. Seeing the state they are in the Texans, had they found a QB, likely would have been set up to be a top tier team for a long time. I think Chuck Pagano is likely in the same category though that roster is not to the same extreme as the Texans.

Quadrant 2: Win Now and the Future

The teams in this quadrant, in theory, are those best positioned for the future. If the teams have priced their players properly then they have some pretty high level talent on top and these players are still young, which either means they were extended proactively by the team or recently signed as a free agent. These are the teams that should have high expectations in 2017, but the window should not be shut if the year doesn’t end in the playoffs.

The Browns are interesting as the youngest group in the NFL but with the 4th largest investment. Some of that is a bit misleading since it includes Brock Osweiler, which was simply a bad decision, but a number of free agent signings for offensive linemen, linebackers, etc… really pushed them.

The Rams and Jaguars both look to be in an interesting position moving forward, though both are generally considered year after year disappointments. The two should have a foundation to build on and if either finds a long term answer at QB (the Rams are the more likely of the two) they have potential to be in a great position for the next 2-3 years if they can keep their rosters intact.

The Vikings, Redskins, and Eagles are very close to the age line averages which makes this an important year for the three teams but wont put them into more of a must win territory until next season. Also moving there next year will be the Seahawks, but with the amount of money they spend (nearly $10 million more than the next closest team) the expectations have to be sky high.

Quadrant 3: Win Now

The teams in this quadrant are the ones who really are at their roster peaks. They are above average spenders and their roster ages are also quite high. If things don’t break right for these teams there is a good chance that they will crash and burn in the near future. These are the teams that need good drafts to keep their window open.

The two teams with the most to lose this year are the Cardinals and the Dolphins. I’d argue that the Cardinals already saw their window close last year but decided to try it again rather than rebuilding this year. They have the 3rd oldest and 7th highest paid group in the NFL and that typically is not going to be a good combo. Miami has the 6th oldest and 2nd highest paid group. Those numbers tell you why they went out and signed Jay Cutler because they didn’t want to take the risk that Matt Moore could not handle the job.

The next few teams you could take in any order. I’d probably put the Giants, who have the 4th oldest group, next in terms of needing to win now. Like the Cardinals they have an older QB and receiver, and are also older at cornerback. This really is a team that should be considered all in on the year.

The Broncos, Panthers, and Packers you can probably all lump together. The Packers are the least worrisome only because of Aaron Rodgers, but all three are up there in age and salary commitments. In Denver the most interesting names are Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, and Aqib Talib. They extended Sanders already and Talib has played at a high level, but I would wonder if Thomas and Talib are in future plans if the team fails to advance further this year. Given how the Panthers finished the year this is not a good place for them. They are loaded with expensive players who are making the wrong turn on age.

Teams like the Chiefs and Raiders are right on the border and should get another year out of these teams without too much worry. LA, Atlanta, and Pittsburgh are the three teams where if things go right they probably can get two years out of their teams, though if things go wrong they could look to make changes. The Chargers, who have had no success of late, if they fail to win should indicate a really bad job by their GM in building the team.

The Patriots have the 2nd oldest roster in the NFL, though some of that is attributed to a 40 year old Tom Brady. Given their success it is near impossible to say that there is any window of opportunity especially since they are always willing to turn over the roster a year too early rather than too late.

Quadrant 4: Declining Rosters

These are the teams with lower relative cost players at the top of their roster that are older.   I generally look at teams like this as hanging on or chasing something long after a window of opportunity has closed. For these teams to be successful it is likely going to take draft picks to pick up the slack.

The lowest rated team in the NFL is the Ravens. Baltimore is the only team in the NFL with a legit top 10 group already above 30 years old. Their top 10 players are a combined 40.4 years older than the average players at that position. The next closest team is the Patriots at 30.3, so this roster by any metric is old. They have not made the playoffs in some time so its hard to understand what they are building here unless they are just hoping to get by as an 8 win type team until they hit in the draft.

Next in line is the Saints which should be no surprise to anyone. This is been a team trying to hang on for at least 3 years and thus far cant get over the 7 win hump. They have a a majr decision on their hands at years end when Drew Brees’ contract is up.

The Bills are still dealing with the mishaps of their last general manager and coaches decisions. I would expect them in the low expectations quadrant next year as they completely start over. The Bengals, who gave up some of their better players in free agency will likely drift closer to that lower quadrant though I don’t expect them to just jump into a rebuild as they will hang onto many players until the end. Their window of opportunity with this group pretty much closed in 2015.

The Lions are one of those teams in limbo. My guess is they will make a few tougher roster decisions once they re-sign Matt Stafford to drop into the lower quadrant. This is a roster that still needs a lot of work before they should over invest in too many older players.

Finally we have the Buccaneers who are among the lowest spenders, but they have spent on older guys. If the hope was to surround the younger guys with more veteran talent I think there were better ways to go, but the Bucs for years have not done well with any type of free agent acquisitions. In that case maybe cheaper works better. If they contend for the playoffs this year I would expect them to replace some of the older guys with more expensive players in their prime.

Here are the total numbers for each team’s top 10. Later this week I’ll do a similar look at the entire rosters.

TEAMAverage APYAverage AgeYear Over Avg. Age$’s over Avg. Apy
Seahawks$11,698,33328.619.8$87,079,704
Dolphins$11,211,50029.426.5$77,776,058
Packers$10,915,00029.124.4$77,691,638
Browns$10,831,14027.14.9$77,648,914
Panthers$10,597,73929.123.7$75,613,913
Vikings$10,552,00028.619.4$74,904,164
Cardinals$10,477,96229.629.8$74,875,995
Broncos$10,138,33328.825.4$74,268,514
Raiders$10,410,50028.620.0$72,726,481
Chiefs$10,430,46328.820.2$71,906,146
Falcons$10,211,25028.823.4$71,685,111
Redskins$10,254,75128.618.6$71,114,210
Jaguars$9,638,99927.310.8$70,812,603
Giants$10,015,47329.227.8$70,124,309
Steelers$10,045,35329.124.3$69,361,591
Chargers$10,070,59228.821.6$69,361,465
Eagles$9,568,33328.419.1$68,553,452
Rams$9,799,77227.27.20$67,235,684
Patriots$9,480,60030.130.3$66,105,756
Bills$9,541,0002923.0$64,435,742
Colts$9,316,33127.610.5$62,955,789
Saints$9,136,66729.527.7$60,743,657
Bengals$8,988,27328.621.9$60,493,389
Ravens$8,831,32530.540.5$57,680,232
Lions$8,695,33928.620.2$55,317,878
Cowboys$8,053,90927.915.3$54,137,055
Texans$8,083,74227.813.0$50,386,100
Buccaneers$7,905,4492924.8$48,583,509
Titans$7,681,46827.711.9$46,641,941
Bears$8,000,81127.99.6$45,187,122
Jets$6,982,24227.69.6$37,719,111
49ers$6,607,86827.811.5$37,527,789

The 2017 Sando/ESPN QB Tiers Rankings

Mike Sando has released his latest QB tiers results at ESPN and once again we’ll use that to see just how well the ranking of players matches up with salaries. For those who have never read these pieces before, Mike generally asks a number of NFL executives to slot the various quarterbacks into tiers and then he goes through the figures to do a leaguewide ranking. It’s a great concept and definitely one of my favorites of the year and I really enjoy seeing how the salaries match up with the rankings. Continue reading The 2017 Sando/ESPN QB Tiers Rankings »

Mistakes With The 5th Year Option Decision

In the past rookies drafted in the first round were all signed to five and six year contracts, but in general the sunk cost was so high that a relatively low cost fifth year was a given for top picks even if teams were no longer that high on the player. The current CBA added a new wrinkle to that decision making process with a new fifth year option. Teams were given a gift in that they could see a player for three years before opting in to a higher value fifth year. Some teams are still screwing it up.

When we talk about screwing it up we are only talking about top 10 picks because the salary is so high. The fifth year tag is essentially like having an extra transition tag for the season except you opt into it a year earlier and it carries a full injury guarantee. That guarantee can present a problem when used on a question mark talent because the guarantee can get in the way of doing whats in the best interest of the team.

The first really bad use of the option came when the Redskins inexplicably used the tag on Robert Griffin III. Griffin had already fallen out of favor with the organization and was a walking injury waiting to happen. Soon after picking up his option someone woke up and seemed to realize that they now had a potential $16.2 million liability on their hands if RG3 either suffered a really bad injury at any time during the year or anything requiring surgery late in the season.  At the time his play was also not worth $16 million (he would sign with the Browns the following year for under $8 million) so even if he remained status quo its not like the team was going to see keeping him at $16 million.

So what did the Redskins do?  They benched him. And benching might be a generous term. He more or less wasn’t allowed to do anything football related. At one point I believe they had him playing scout team safety. The Redskins screwed this up so badly they ended up playing the year with a 52 man roster rather than a 53 man roster

This was an extreme event but when you screw up the option decision it is going to impact decision making. If you fall out of contention and the player isn’t worth his option value but is still a contributor what do you do?  Some teams would bench him. This isn’t exclusive just to draft picks but most of the time players don’t have injury guarantees deep enough into a contract to cause that to happen.

The most recent examples of that occurring both were with a QB- Colin Kaepernick and Tyrod Taylor.  The 49ers stuck Kaepernick on the bench until he agreed to a new contract that freed the 49ers of any future obligations if injured. The Bills went so far as to fire their head coach when he refused to sit Taylor, who the organization wanted benched because of his contract when the team was still in contention for a wildcard spot. These are rarer occurrences with veterans and something that should never happen with rookies since teams have so much control of the situation.

The latest folly with the option looks to be with the Jaguars and Blake Bortles. He’s a fine fantasy QB who puts up a bunch of garbage time stats that are meaningless for a real team.  Bortles has simply not been good at the professional level. If you asked me right now what would Bortles get if he was released in March Id say a max of a two year deal for $8 million a year. The Jaguars option for him in 2018 is worth $19 million.

As Bortles continues to struggle in the preseason the Jaguars decision making process is further compromised by their contract decision. If he isn’t showing the upside to necessarily be very competitive is it worth putting him in a position to get hurt? They can simply go to the no risk Chad Henne even if it may not give them the best chance to win. At least if no contract option existed they could go with the higher upside player for a few weeks in real action before making the move to Henne.

These mistakes should never happen. What’s the worst that happens if you don’t pick up the option?  Bortles is great?  Ok then you franchise tag him for about $22 or $23 million. Is the loss of $3 or $4 million that big of a deal. Absolutely not. Maybe he’s upset without getting the option?  Well if that’s the case you don’t want him anyway. Players need to be strong enough to deal with that. Look at how Kirk Cousins responded to the franchise tag when the team said they didn’t see him worth the money. That is what you want. Challenge the player to be great.

This is why a team like the Bills got it right with Sammy Watkins.  The guy had talent but not enough to justify the risk. At worst they could have just tagged him for a few bucks more. The Rams, who now have Watkins, did the same thing with Mark Barron eventually re-signing him to a market value contract. Had they picked up the option they would have been locked into $8+ million for a guy they weren’t sure of at the time. He ended up earning $10 million instead after the Rams got a full look plus they had him for the long haul. It was a win/win for them because they took the risk out of the equation by declining the option.

Teams need to take a much harder look at some of these decisions. One of my biggest pet peeves with NFL front offices is how much stock they sometimes put into draft status. Granted some of that is understandable since a player drafted in the top round generally has some type of skill that only a small percentage of players have, but that also leads to a bias in decision making. If you think about a player drafted in the 2nd or 3rd round who is a so-so player for the first few years of his career and then he has a great year as free agency approaches what usually happens?  Teams still process cautiously more often than not and offer a very good but not great contract. Think Andy Dalton and Kaepernick and compare their situations to a Tavon Austin, Lane Johnson, or Eric Fisher.

Teams should think about the whole career just like they would do with those later draft picks. Don’t get blinded by the draft status or position. All you are doing is hurting yourself. The Jaguars have nobody to blame but themselves if they don’t feel that they can even consider dressing Bortles from this point forward. Sure it would be nice if he turned into Aaron Rodgers but there was no need for them to simply forget about the other side of the equation that he’s more likely to be Blaine Gabbert.

Your Contract Questions About Aaron Donald

Per a report today from Adam Schefter, Aaron Donald of the Rams intends to hold out into the regular season if he does not receive a new contract. This really should be no surprise given that he decided to push the issue this year and play his lone trump card. Once you get beyond a certain date you are going to cost yourself money by simply ending the hold out with nothing to show for it. So I have gotten a bunch of questions on the topic and will do my best to answer them here rather than random Twitter replies. As usual these are my interpretations of the rules and it is possible that they are not 100% accurate and any opinions on the contract are just that- my opinions not some inside info or anything like that. I will gladly update if anyone supplies me with any verified corrections.

  1. Why do you say that this was his only “trump card”?

Rookies generally have very little leverage when it comes to forcing the issue on a new contract. The lone leverage they have is by refusing to report and play with the team. However rookies also only reach true free agency if they play a certain amount of years in the NFL. First round rookie contracts run for 5 years, assuming that an option is picked up on the contract. In order to qualify for free agency when their contract expires they must earn an accrued season in 4 of those 5 years. By holding out this long Donald can no longer earn an accrued season this year. If he were to hold out again next year he would be unable to earn another accrued season and be stuck at 3.

The difference between 3 and 4 years is gigantic. At 3 years a player becomes a restricted free agent and can be tendered at 110% of his prior years salary with draft compensation coming back to the team in the event he signs elsewhere and they elect not to match the contract. Its essentially a low cost, slightly lower compensation version of the franchise tag. So you can pretty much be certain that he will not hold out next year if a contract extension doesn’t come his way this season.

There is also more money at stake right now in the event of a holdout due to the potential of bonus forfeiture on top of fines. Next year this is no bonus proration to forfeit. Teams, I believe, would also be far more willing to not fine a player if the agreement is finally made to either get the player back to the team or to extend him.

Obviously I understand the threat of injury that these players face but in terms of keeping a good relationship with the team, having more leverage with a hold out and even finances I think next year would have been the time to do this.

  1.  How much money is Donald losing?

Right now the Rams have the right (but not the obligation) to fine him $40,000 per day. I haven’t calculated the dates here but as a loose guide he is also potentially forfeiting $350,000 of his signing bonus. At the start of the regular season he would lose about another $250,000 and $106,015 for each game missed. He was only scheduled to earn $1.8 million this year so essentially he would lose his entire year’s salary to fines and forfeiture if he just ended his holdout with nothing to show for it. Again that’s the reason why he has to be pretty firm to come out ahead in some way.

  1. Does his contract toll?

As of today no it does not. For the Rams to gain an additional season out of him he would have to miss the entire year. IIRC, players who fail to report can not be reinstated in the last 30 days of the season, so basically that’s the end of November. If he is still holding out then an extra season will be added to his contract. So the timeframe for this is really from now to Thanksgiving.

  1. Does anyone hold out that long?

I believe back in 2010 when there were some very different rules in place that Logan Mankins and Vincent Jackson held out for some time, though neither was technically under contract (they were 5th year RFAs). Both came back in time to make sure they would earn a year towards free agency, with Mankins coming back after 8 weeks and Jackson after 6 and then serving a 4 game suspension. Kam Chancellor a few years back held out for two weeks I think.

  1. Does Donald have any leverage?

Star players always have some leverage, but I would think its minimal. I remember when Darrelle Revis held out back in 2010, which may have been the last real rookie contract holdout of merit, he benefitted greatly from not only being recognized as the best defender in the NFL but by the fact that the Jets just came off an AFC championship game. Revis was also immensely popular at the time and there was both media and fan pressure to get a deal done and that Revis was being wronged by his contract. They needed him on the field and after pleading from the coach came to a deal on the eve of the regular season.

The Rams haven’t been a good team nor are they in a position like the Jets were. For as good as Donald is, right now he is not the difference between a potential title and a disappointing year. This is a work in progress and one seemingly focused more on offense and the development of a QB. The Rams can probably hold out longer than he can. The Rams are also in a new city and admittedly I don’t know if there is that kind of connection with the fans or media that Revis had.

  1. Does Donald void his guarantees?

Yes, but as a practical matter it makes no difference. Guarantees are all wonderful to talk about but when you have a player of this caliber hes not going to be cut.

  1. Why haven’t the Rams signed him yet anyway?

I can’t say for certain, but it is worth nothing that the Rams traditional way of doing business is to extend after the conclusion of the preseason in late August or early September. My guess is had he reported as a show of good faith they would get a deal done sometime between preseason game 4 and the kickoff of the regular season. Of course maybe they were way apart on numbers and he felt that it wasn’t going to happen anyway, but that is the general timetable for LA.

  1. What might Donald be looking for?

I’d think at a minimum he wants to be the first $20 million a year defender. I think that could be easily doable given some of the Rams recent contracts which have been very optimistic. The guarantees could be trickier. If the goal is to surpass Suh the Rams would need to guarantee him, at signing, $60 million. That’s a ton and the Suh contract was just silly when it happened.   The going rate for other players would be around $42M+ at signing and $65M+ for injury.  I’d target $49M at signing to take into account the $7M or so he is originally guaranteed and $70M for injury just to hit a new benchmark number that sounds cool.

  1. What could be some contract hangups

I’d imagine one possibility is the amount of raise that the Rams would offer him. The Rams don’t have much cap room (around $5 million by my estimates) and Donald’s base is so low its not as if they can lower his cap charge. But more than that again comes down to Rams tendencies. If you look back on their extensions for Robert Quinn, Michael Brockers, and Tavon Austin the Rams generally put very little new money in the existing contract years.

Quinn received about $3.8 million in a raise, while Austin and Brockers were close to $3 million. Over the existing two years for Quinn and Austin the grand total of new money was $12.6 million and $6.1 million respectively. None received big signing bonuses. While their overall first year payout (for Donald that would be the new salaries from 2017-2019 if extended) as a percentage of the three year payout is on par with everyone else in the NFL they are not giving away money like other teams in the year the extension is signed.

Another issue could be contract length. The Rams, wisely, have stuck with shorter deals on their extensions which gives them a pretty good deal of flexibility and I think a better chance to strike deals. In order to reach the kind of threshold numbers I’d assume that Donald would be looking for they would need to do a 6 year extension.

The final issue deals with the CBA. The league is now at the point where the expiration of the CBA occurs after the 2020 season. There is a small rule in the CBA that prevents teams from avoiding cap charges in the CBA seasons and deferring them to potentially uncapped years. This is called the 30% rule which limits the amount of raise in every year after 2020 to 30% of his 2020 salary. So the two sides need to be willing to pack enough into that year to make the contract work out. This shouldn’t be a problem if extended this year but it does reduce some flexibility if doing a contract that will run through 2024. There are some other small issues with guarantees but I doubt those come into play for anyone until 2019.

  1. Is the salary cap an issue?

It should not be long term. Like I said above the Rams will run very close to the cap which they generally do, I’d imagine by design and can help with situations like this, every year. Moving forward, though, they will be in the top 1/3 of the league in cap room. Their QB is only in his second year so they don’t have a QB contract to deal with and they can also move some players around if they need to in order to keep players like Sammy Watkins if he was to break out.

  1. Is there a compromise if no long term contract can be reached?

I’d look towards some other team moves to come up with a compromise. What the Steelers did with Antonio Brown was move money forward in his contract to bring his salary more in line with his play without redoing a whole deal. The Patriots added incentives to Rob Gronkowski’s contract. Years ago the Titans did a small raise for Chris Johnson. I’d have to check the rules on raises and extensions for next season if they did that, but Id think this might work. In return Donald should be held accountable for the highest forfeiture of bonus but not fined.

Thoughts on Devonta Freemans $41.25 Million Contract

Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk just broke the official numbers for Devonta Freeman’s $41.25 million contract extension which gives us a chance to look at it and offer some thoughts. Overall I like the contract for Freeman which I think is an excellent illustration of how to use contract structures to get over the hump of the full guarantee at signing. However, it is also clear that this is not the top contract on the market, though it is very close.

From Freeman’s perspective here is what I really like about the contract- a huge signing bonus relative to the P5 values of the contract at the frontend of the contract. This is the old way that contracts were done which always did a far better job insulating a player from release than the more current system of high P5s with two years of full guarantees. A large part of that is the Falcons front office which skews towards the older style of cap management, which is both a blessing and a curse.

Freeman’s $15 million signing bonus is nearly 70% of the takehome of the first three contract years and 56% of the first three new years of the contract. Those are really terrific numbers. The next closest to that is LeSean McCoy at 48% of his three year value. The rest of the top veteran backs are extremely low percentages, basically between 10 and 30%.

That should mean that Freeman is a lock to earn the new $20.25 million in the contract from 2017 through 2019. He would have to fall so far off a cliff for a team to consider cutting him to save all of $3.75 million given the initial investment in 2019 and even if they did that P5 is so low that he would likely earn $1M as a free agent if it ever came to that. So I think this is very solid and will now be a fundamental starting point for Le’Veon Bell next year when working off percentages to try to maximize his signing bonus with the Steelers.

Now immediately when I saw the numbers the name that came to mind is McCoy of the Bills. It’s pretty clear from the structure that they followed the Bills model with him very closely, but Atlanta more or less used a classic trick of throwing some backend money in the deal to inflate the APY. This allows Freeman to be considered the “highest paid” but realistically he won’t be.

PlayerYear 0Year 1Year 2Year 3Year 4Year 5
Devonta Freeman$14,500,000$16,500,000$20,250,000$26,750,000$33,000,000$41,250,000
LeSean McCoy$0$16,000,000$21,050,000$27,300,000$33,625,000$40,050,000

For the most part Freeman will trail McCoy by about $600,000 each year in total earnings.  It’s rare for players to reach the 5th contract year, especially running backs, but Freeman needs that season to surpass McCoy in earnings. So while the Falcons were willing to budge on the APY they negotiated the contract in a way that was more beneficial to them and one in which they feel they are not the real market setter at the position.

Still the contract blows away the likes of Doug Martin and Lamar Miller who would be the next set of veterans. It’s a strong deal and probably far stronger than he would have found in free agency where interest in running backs has been lukewarm at best.  This is the right fit for his skillset and for the Falcons as well which is why its worth making the deal rather than dealing with the uncertainty for the year and ending up with someone else next year.

His cap hits are generally manageable until 2020 which is the first real uncertain season. By then the team should have its core locked up for the future and will be able to move away from some of the higher ticket items that might clog their cap. If they can get two very good and one decent year out of Freeman they should be happy even if they have to cut him in 2020.