In doing the best and worst contract articles and then re-hashing yesterday some old thoughts on Mike Wallace I thought what might be interesting was to look at just how important a WR is to a specific offense when deciding to throw money at them. Normally I would just look at WR targets for this but with the TE’s in the news in New England I thought I would include them as well.
Wide Receivers cost a hefty sum in this market. When you sign one of them for a large value and expect them to become some type of incredible upgrade you need to know if you are getting a true number 1 or a piece to a puzzle. A true number 1 is someone who has proven that they can be the lone dominant target on a football team and still succeed. Being a cog in the offensive wheel and then being expected to handle 30-35% of the targets on a team is unrealistic. If the player doesn’t have the track record of doing so, you need to plan on allocating more money or draft picks to the position to get the best out of the free agent.
The average top target on a team in the NFL in 2012 was 29.1%. 17 players qualified above that number. Only two of the 17 were primarily slot receivers (Victor Cruz and Wes Welker) and only 1 Tight End made the cut (Jimmy Graham). The low total for a top target was 19.3%, which was the number for Josh Morgan of the Redskins. The high was Brandon Marshall of the Bears with 48.2% of their receiver targets, showing either how bad the Bears WR corps. are or how little QB Jay Cutler trusts anyone on that team.
But as we look further into the numbers its important to identify the help that the player receives. For that we look at the separation between the top receiver on a team and the second most targeted receiver on a team. If the gap is large I have more confidence that we have a player who can perform in a number 1 role on a team. The average result for the top player on each team was a 7.5% differential.
In this case only 13 players qualified. Again top of the chart was Marshall with 35.9% more targets than Earl Bennett. The most surprising name in the top was Jeremy Kerley of the Jets. He was only targeted 95 times and it was likely more of a reflection of how bad the Jets passing game was than anything else. The least impactful top target was Graham with only 1.1% more targets than the next highest on the Saints.
If you combine the two qualifiers you can get the group of players who were given what I would consider elite treatment last season. These are the players I would feel most comfortable signing to be the primary target on my team and not worrying as much about the downside of the move. I know they can perform without the great assistance other players will get.
This list is very different than top receiving yards. Gone from that list are Dez Bryant, Vincent Jackson, Demaryius Thomas, Roddy White, Julio Jones, and Marquez Colston. That doesn’t mean that these players are not true number 1’s just that I would have more reservations about them if I were to sign them as a free agent and my next best option is Early Doucet. When you are the primary target like this a team knows that not only is the ball coming your way 1 out of every 3 chances but also that there is nobody else significant they need to worry about. It changes the way you play defense and makes it far more difficult on a receiver.
For the less productive players from a yardage standpoint, who would be Dwayne Bowe, Larry Fitzgerald, Stevie Johnson, and maybe Cruz and Michael Crabtree, my attention needs to go first to the QB and then to the team. If the QB is good (only Cruz’ is as Crabtree only played a handful of games with Kaepernick) then I may want to improve the players around him. Maybe a little too much is being asked of him. In Cruz’ case this is mitigated if Hakeem Nicks could stay healthy for 16 games. For the others I need to make a QB change first rather than jumping on the WR train.
Using a chart like this isn’t going to tell you who to sign or who not to sign its just a way to help better plan for your future. If Miles Austin for example has never shown the ability to be the man in an offense I am taking an incredible risk by paying him $11 million a year to come to say Minnesota. The day I make that decision to do that I also am making a decision to likely invest at least one of my top two draft picks on a Wide Receiver and also bringing in a 1A type that can be productive and demand 20% of the passes thrown his way. Very quickly my allocation needs to move from $11 million to $19 million plus a draft pick.
But if I sign Bowe for $11 million and have a decent QB I can probably get by with lesser players around him. I may not need to waste that draft pick any more. I might be able to avoid the secondary star. That $11 million is probably going to turn to $16 million or stay around $11 million and I’ll allocate a draft choice instead. I may be able to get two low cost players to pair with Bowe whereas Austin needs two higher priced ones. This is a piece of planning that will spiral into disaster if not followed by a team.
Of this list the two interesting situations will be those created by Crabtree and Welker. Crabtree was likely lost for the season giving the 49’ers nothing to fall back on. They acquired Anquan Boldin (25.8%), but Boldin was one of three highly targeted players in Baltimore. Vernon Davis was only targeted 16.7% of the time. It is a very different situation in Baltimore than San Francisco which leaves Boldin in what could be a bad situation with Crabtree out.
Its similar in New England. They replaced Welker with Danny Amendola. Amendola was a 22.5% target last year which was 4.2% higher than the next player. That may be better than it appears since he did miss 4 games last year, though the productivity was low. The Patriots approach here is clear- blame the QB. But they have also seen changes to their corps replacing Brandon Lloyd (23.6%) and Aaron Hernandez (15.1%) with Michael Jenkins (18.6%), Donald Jones (16.8%), and Jake Ballard (DNP). Both Jenkins and Jones are going to be looked at as QB upgrades improving numbers, one of which will be asked to fill Lloyds shoes.
In terms of salary, half of the top 10 highest priced players did not make the list. They include Percy Harvin(injured), Wallace (26.4%/2.9%), Vincent Jackson (30.2%/4.3%), DeSean Jackson (17.4%, -6.7%), and Miles Austin (22.1%,-5.4%). V. Jackson is probably in the perfect situation in Tampa with Mike Williams (25.9%) doing just enough to help him. Wallace is going to go to Miami and pair with Hartline and Dustin Keller, who should be able to replicate the Steelers formula of 3 players with 20% looks. He will likely need that to succeed. DeSean Jackson could easily be released next year if he continues to underperform.
Jason is the founder of OTC and has been studying NFL contracts and the salary cap for over 15 years. Jason has co-authored two books about the NFL, Crunching Numbers and the Drafting Stage, which are widely circulated in the industry and hosts the OTC Podcast. Jason’s work has been featured in various publications including the Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, NFL Network and more. OTC is widely considered the leading authority on contract matters in the NFL.