Receiver Spending and Passing Game Efficiency

Recently I have been discussing a bit about spending on the receiver rooms in the NFL and decided to do a deeper dive into the efficiency of team spending on receivers by looking at receiving EPA/play and PFF receiving grades when grouped by salary levels.

The data set I looked at was from 2015 through the 2021 NFL season. Receiver spending for this will consist of the annual salary of every wide receiver on the team in a given season and tight ends who earn at least $4 million a season and/or have at least 25 targets on a season. I thought of including running backs in but my feeling was that in most cases their overall contribution to the receiving efficiency is limited and that the portion of spending that is given for receiving ability is very small. The salary will include salaries for players on reserve lists.

For each season I adjusted the salary levels to adjust for the increase in the salary cap through 2021. While this is not a perfect measure (salaries for veterans typically rise at a faster pace than the cap) it should put the way the team is valuing the position into a decent enough position. Each group was broken into quartiles to create buckets that would represent high levels, above average levels, moderate levels, and low levels of spending. The same buckets were created for EPA and team receiving grades. First let’s look at the average results for spending

Annual SalaryEPA/PlayPFF Rec Grade
<$25.9M0.01188372.3
$25.9-$32.3M0.03867774.7
$32.3M-$38.2M0.06215775.5
>$38.2M0.07954376.4

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On average the teams who spent above the average did produce the best receiving offenses while those with the least investment had the lowest numbers for their offense. Here is how each offense performed by quartile in PFF receiving grade.

Annual Salary/Rec Grade<69.969.9-74.774.7-79.7>79.7
<$25.9M37.5%28.6%23.2%10.7%
$25.9-$32.3M23.2%26.8%25.0%25.0%
$32.3M-$38.2M23.2%25.0%19.6%32.1%
>$38.2M16.1%19.6%32.1%32.1%

About 32% of the teams with high and above average spending had highly graded rooms compared to 25% in the moderate spending levels and just 11% in the low spending levels. At the highest levels of spending over 64% saw the overall receiving grade above 74.7, which would indicate a pretty high quality group of players. 38% of the low spending teams are basically fielding replacement rooms. The moderate and above average spending levels did have a similar percentage of those over 74.7.

Here is the percentage of teams that produced a positive EPA/play , avery high level of EPA/Play (top quartile was >0.132), and the lowest quartile EPA (<0.03).

Annual SalaryPositive EPA% Positive EPAHigh level EPA% High Level EPABottom Level EPA% Bottom Level EPA
<$25.9M2850.0%1017.9%3664.3%
$25.9-$32.3M3562.5%916.1%2544.6%
$32.3M-$38.2M3867.9%1628.6%2137.5%
>$38.2M4173.2%2239.3%1933.9%

Again here you can see the overall quality that occurs with the teams that spend on wide receivers. 73% of high spenders are producing a positive pass EPA and nearly 40% rank in the top quartile. At the next level it falls to 68% and 29% followed by 63% and 16% and finally 50% and 18%. While these are not linear relationships it does indicate that the best odds of a highly productive passing offense are usually coming from teams that do invest in their receiving rooms.

Looking a little deeper into the overperformers that had the cheap rooms, many could be attributed to the QB/breakout WR performance. Of the 10 teams that posted the high passing EPA’s, four were the Drew Brees led Saints and one was the Aaron Rodgers led Packers. Ryan Tannehill in 2020 also posted a great season and they had two rookie contract players in AJ Brown and Cory Davis both break out. The others were the 2019 Cowboys, 2017 Chiefs, 2021 49ers, and 2015 Steelers. The Steelers and Cowboys both had good QB’s. The Chiefs and 49ers are also likely considered system offenses that are designed to use a bit more of a game manager (Alex Smith and Jimmy Garoppolo) to move the chains. Most of these teams were very close to the moderate limit of spending on receivers as well.

For the teams that spent a lot and flopped you had:

Seven seasons of young poor QB play: Mitch Trubisky in 2019, Joe Burrow in 2020 (also injured), Trevor Siemian in 2016, Baker Mayfield in 2019, Blake Bortles in 2016, two years of Daniel Jones

Five teams that dealt with injury at QB: Jacoby Brissett taking over for the Colts, the 2015 Romo-less Cowboys, the 2015 Bears of Matt Barkley and Brian Hoyer, the 2017 Packers starting Brett Hundley for most of the year, and Tom Savage and TJ Yates picking up for an injured (rookie) Deshaun Watson.

Three teams where the QB fell apart: 2015 Broncos with end of career Payton Manning and the Carson Wentz and Jared Goff implosions of 2020.

Two teams where the QB was just done: the last year for Eli Manning in 2018 and Andy Dalton in 2019

The other two teams were the 2017 Cowboys and last years Dolphins. Dallas’ year led to them dropping Dez Bryant and basically redoing their entire receiver room. Miami, who also dealt with some injuries at QB, spent way up in 2022 to try to improve the group.

If there is a takeaway from this its probably that unless you have an elite level QB you can’t just punt on the receivers and tight ends and/or hope that only some rookies pan out. Teams probably need to be aware of the downside of the aging QB and overspending to try to help him, potentially leaving the team with some expensive players who may not be good when the young players take over. Finally, the Giants should probably stop spending on receivers as they were the only 3x offender.  

Now WR spending exploded this year which makes it a bit more difficult to identify the teams that will truly fall into a high tier of spending. Many contracts across the board really indicated that the NFL is treating 2022 as if the cap limit was significantly higher than expected, which prior to Covid would have been about $218M. I would imagine this is in part due to the massive new TV deals which are expected to hit the salary cap no later than 2024. So this will lead to a massive number of big spenders from this year as the middle class kind of vanished.

The teams that will definitely be considered high level spenders will be the Raiders, Patriots, Buccaneers, Dolphins, Rams, Seahawks, Commanders, Chargers, and Cardinals. The 49ers, Panthers, Jaguars, Eagles, Saints, Bills, Jets, and Browns would be considered high spenders in a normal year. Thus far the Eagles, Dolphins, Bills, and Jaguars have produced at a high level. The Patriots, 49ers, Jets, Panthers and Saints have been really bad.

The teams which will rank in the bottom are the Bears, Colts, Packers, Falcons, Bengals, Vikings, Texans, Lions, and Ravens. Of those teams the Ravens have been highly productive and the Falcons are close. The Bears, Colts, Texans, and Vikings have all been off to rough starts with the first three likely having little hope of turning things around.

Questions about this article? Reach Jason Fitzgerald on Twitter at @Jason_OTC