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

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