2022 Cost-Benefit Analysis: Christian Kirk Breaks Wideouts
NFL Offseason - Did Christian Kirk break the NFL?
Kirk was an intriguing prospect when free agency began. His 2021 season saw him set career highs with a 23.2% DVOA and 286 DYAR, not to mention 77 receptions and 982 receiving yards. It was his first above-average season, but he'll be just 26 in 2022. Experts were projecting him to get somewhere around $10 million a year in free agency, which would place him at about the 25th-highest paid receiver in football. A bargain for a team willing to gamble that 2021 wasn't a fluke season, but rather the first step in his development.
Then the Jaguars backed up the Brinks truck on the first day of free agency, the first salvo in what became one of the craziest offseasons for player movement in recent history.
Kirk's four-year, $72-million deal wasn't the 25th-highest deal of the year. It was, at the time, the seventh-biggest contract a wide receiver had ever gotten, in terms of average per year. Even after accounting for salary cap inflation, it was still one of the 50 largest contracts ever handed to a wide receiver. It reset the receiver market and, for that, the rest of the league's wideouts are extremely grateful.
It's not just that seven receivers signed bigger deals than Kirk in the aftermath of his massive deal—players such as Tyreek Hill and Davante Adams were always going to get paid by somebody—it's that the entire pay scale got thrown out of whack. If Kirk is worth $72 million, then Adams and Hill are easily worth nine figures, costs the Packers and Chiefs simply couldn't absorb. Kirk's contract accelerated the growth of receiver contracts dramatically. That growth is why Hill is in Miami, and Adams is in Las Vegas, and A.J. Brown is in Philadelphia, and Deebo Samuel wants out of San Francisco and DK Metcalf is beginning to make noise himself.
But did the Jaguars really overpay for Kirk? (Yes). And if so, by how much? (Maybe not as much as you think).
Breaking the bank—and even future year's banks—for a game-changing player makes sense when you have the cap room to do so. To generate that cap space, however, you have to find savings elsewhere on the roster. One of the best ways to do that is to find good values in free-agent players on middle-class contracts who provide a bigger impact on the field than they do to your pocketbook.
That's why, every season, we take a look at the year's free-agent class and try to find the best values around—the guys on the free-agent market who signed for surprisingly cheap and can make up the veteran backbone of a roster. Signing a boatload of these guys isn't a surefire recipe for playoff success, but it can sure make the rest of your roster construction that much easier.
Using Pro Football Reference's Approximate Value (AV) statistic as our measure of player quality, we perform a regression analysis that looks at each player's previous three years of performance, adjusted for the aging curve of their position. By comparing that to previous deals and adjusting for cap inflation, we can create a Performance-Adjusted Yearly Monetary Expectation, or PAYME. We can then compare the actual contracts each player has signed and see which comes out as the most valuable.
As usual, a couple final caveats: a low-value score does not necessarily mean a bad contract, just not a not-very-cost-effective one. That does not make splashing a bunch of money on a Tyreek Hill or a Von Miller a bad deal—there's only one of each, and when 32 teams are fighting for one guy without an equal on the market, his contract value is going to shoot through the roof from the ensuing bidding war. And that's OK—the point of good-value contracts is to make room for the kinds of players you can't get for a bargain. I can't afford to eat at a three-star Michelin restaurant every night, but that doesn't mean saving up the money to go to one for a special occasion is a bad use of my money. It just means that's what I'm saving up for when I'm having leftover chili. Roster management is about using your cap space wisely, not just accumulating the most low-budget role players.
Secondly, while we can calculate value for any player making more than the veteran's minimum, including all that information in one article wouldn't be useful or interesting. Our tables will include every player who signed a contract of $4 million a year or more, as well as specially highlighted cheaper players near the top or bottom of their positional value. Typically, we also only look at deals for players who actually reached free agency, as extensions, trades, and franchise tags offer a different set of negotiating positions. However, with a near-unprecedented number of trades this offseason, we'll make sure we cover the new deals for players such as Hill or Deshaun Watson. Any player who signed an extension rather than receiving an entirely new contract is marked with an asterisk.
Each table will have a player's new deal details—their total dollar amount, average cost per season, and amount of guaranteed money. We'll then list their PAYME Projection, or how much money our model predicted they would get paid based on their prior performance. Then, you'll have the Value, showing how much teams saved or overpaid. Finally, you'll have words which explain where the model might be overly optimistic or pessimistic on specific players—and those words are more important than usual this year, because there were a lot of strange situations, far more than normal.
|2022 Quarterback Contracts|
Aaron Rodgers gets an asterisk because we don't normally include extensions on these lists, but Rodgers' contract drama was huge and he got a sufficiently large contract to match—the largest contract ever given to a quarterback in terms of average per year, even after adjusting for the size of the salary cap. There are just a couple key points to keep in mind:
- Rodgers' $30.4 million PAYME is huge. It's the fourth-highest PAYME ever, behind 2020 Patrick Mahomes, 2020 Deshaun Watson, and 2019 Jared Goff (oops), all of whom were 25 years old and not 39. Even after adjusting for salary cap inflation, it's the 14th-highest PAYME of the last decade.
- You're not going to get a bargain when you're signing an MVP-caliber passer. And actually, the model thinks that the Packers are getting a very solid Rodgers Rate for 2022 and 2023; he stays under 15% of the salary cap and the model is OK with that. It's the big jump up in bonuses that starts in 2024 when Rodgers will be 41 that the model doesn't like. The Packers don't care about 2024; they're trying to extend their championship window for a couple more seasons right now. That'll hurt in 2024 and 2025 unless Rodgers can match Tom Brady's age curve, but the Packers are willing to suffer that to try to win a championship in 2022. Not a bad deal, just one very much focused on the present.
Deshaun Watson is awkward to talk about for a wide variety of reasons. There isn't a variable in the projection system for "player was a healthy scratch for off-field issues," and so Watson's PAYME is lower than it probably should be. If you assume he would have looked the same in 2021 as 2020, Watson would actually top Rodgers' PAYME, hitting $31.9 million—players of Watson's ability don't become available at age 27. Even if you ignore the off-field issues, however, the model dislikes Watson's deal more than Rodgers'. Watson will eat up 24.4% of the projected salary cap in 2023 and 21.5% in 2024. That's simply too much; Josh Allen's extension never goes higher than 17.7%, and Patrick Mahomes tops out at 20.8%. Watson currently has the highest cap hit in both 2023 and 2024, and he's just not the best quarterback in football.
It's the kind of deal you'd give to a perennial MVP candidate, but Watson has never received an MVP vote. He has never been an All-Pro. He has only had one season in the top five in passing DVOA or DYAR. And every single penny is guaranteed, adding further complications to the deal. If Watson falls back into being a very-good-but-not-quite-great player, then the Browns have no wiggle room to get out of what would be a massive load on their salary structure It's a more intense version of what the Vikings have experienced with Kirk Cousins. So even if you ignore all the off-field concerns, this is, at best, a highly questionable financial deal from Cleveland's perspective, a massive investment above and beyond what other teams have paid for better players even before considering the draft picks Cleveland traded away to do it—or the potential short-term and long-term impact of Watson's ongoing legal and civil situations.
Of course, it's hard to put a number on someone who might be a generational talent at the most important position in football. Systems like this find projecting quarterbacks to be somewhat difficult—your quarterback position is an all-or-nothing proposition, so there's not a middle class of just-above-average value being produced by a rotational passer or something. The expected value of a quality starter is "look how many zeroes I can draw" dollars, while the expected value produced by a backup is "we hope to never actually have to watch you play" AV. As such, we muddle through the best we can while trying to project players going from backup to starter or vice versa.
And that's why the model really loves the Dolphins signing Teddy Bridgewater. $6.5 million for a quarterback who has been in the top 20 in DYAR and DVOA in each of the last three seasons? Steal! Now, I wouldn't pay $22.5 million for Bridgewater even if I was planning on starting him, but in a world where Sam Darnold has a $19.0 million cap hit in 2022, you can see what the model is seeing, even if it is overexuberant. Of course, the Dolphins aren't planning on starting Bridgewater; he'll be one of the pricier backups in the league. So he's obviously not a massive value, monetarily. Think of this instead as an endorsement for Bridgewater as a high-quality backup.
|2022 Running Back Contracts|
Would I want to pay a running back $7 million a year? No, probably not. But let me put that another way—should Leonard Fournette be the 10th-highest paid running back in football? He was fifth in DVOA and second in rushing DYAR last season, as well as a surprisingly solid contributor in the receiving game. At any rate, $7 million a year is far more reasonable than the $12 million Fournette hwas reportedly looking for at the beginning of free agency! It's uncommon for the model to see a running back deal as large as Fournette's and give it a passing grade; it hasn't happened since DeVonta Freeman's 2017 extension, and the model has since frowned on big deals handed out to the likes of Joe Mixon, Derrick Henry, and Nick Chubb. But it's fine with giving a quality back like Fournette upper-single-digit millions. Both he and Chase Edmonds were top-10 backs in DVOA, both get about the same contract, and both grade out as just about market value, even if the market itself might be too high.
They're certainly better deals than the likes of James Conner. Conner made the Pro Bowl last season on the back of 18 touchdowns, but he really wasn't that effective as a runner. He technically bounced back to a 0.5% rushing DVOA after a couple of years in the negatives in Pittsburgh, and he added a lot of value as a receiver out of the backfield, but it's hard to justify guaranteeing him more money than someone like Fournette. The touchdown number is a fluke, and paying top-10 money to a back who averaged less than 4.0 yards per carry and has a pretty extensive injury history seems excessive. Conner's PAYME is about the same as it was last season, when the Cardinals signed him for just $1.8 million. His new contract isn't a disaster or anything, but he's the same player as a year ago; he was just healthy last season. A $5.3-million annual raise is hard to swallow.
There are players playing at or near minimum deals that teams could plug in rather than dumping large contracts on a James Conner or a Rashaad Penny. Ronald Jones may have fallen out of favor in Tampa Bay, but he has consistently been in the top 25 in rushing DYAR; he may well be the Chiefs' best early-down rusher for 2022. Both D'Onta Foreman and Dontrell Hilliard played well when Derrick Henry went down in Tennessee; they should be quality members of running back rooms in Carolina and Tennessee. And that's not to mention guys such as Duke Johnson or Matt Breida on veteran minimum deals with recent histories of success. The availability of those types of players is why running backs are so fungible—it's not that any back can produce, it's just that there's an abundance of players who will provide acceptable levels of play at low prices.
Cordarrelle Patterson's deal grades out OK if you just look at last season, with him serving as a full-time running back who can run receiver routes, rather than a receiver who occasionally lines up in the backfield. His PAYME is being hurt by his time as a return specialist and misused gadget player in Chicago; if you believe Arthur Smith has unlocked Patterson's true potential, his deal is fine.
I'm going to delay the table for a moment, because we have a problem. I believe the methodology we're using here is not catching the incredible growth in receiver contracts we have seen over the last couple of years, and especially the slew of megadeals we have seen this offseason.
The model takes all the contracts above veteran minimum signed in the past 10 years, adjusting them up to the current year's salary cap. It weighs more recent contracts more heavily, but it still includes a decade's worth of deals as it analyzes new contracts. That's usually fine, for while positional value can fluctuate from year to year, it usually doesn't change dramatically enough in one season to invalidate the model. But what we have seen in 2022 has been crazy, and practically unprecedented. Seven different receivers signed deals with an average value of $20 million a year, or 9.5% of the 2022 salary cap. Only 36 receivers in history have signed that sort of deal, and the previous high in a single season was four by the quartet of A.J. Green, Demaryius Thomas, Dez Bryant, and Julio Jones back in 2015. This has been a gradually growing trend for a while—more than half of those 36 deals have been signed since 2017—but we have never seen anything like the sheer volume and size of paydays we have seen doled out to receivers in just the last month and a half.
The model can't keep up with it; it doesn't even include 2022's contracts when judging this year's deals. As a result, the vanilla version of the model calls every single receiver contract of $4 million or more this season an overpay, which is demonstrably false. If all of the top 15 or 20 receivers are going for that much money, then that's the going rate for receiving talent in 2022. If you just limit the model's inputs to the 2017 onwards, the provisional PAYME of the top receivers jumps by about 20%, so you can tack that on if you want to try to adjust these numbers for the insanity of the last six weeks.
|2022 Wide Receiver Contracts|
The sudden rise in costs was not something anyone planned for. The Packers and Chiefs probably had $20 million a year or so earmarked for their top receivers, money that would gotten you Tyler Lockett or Kenny Golladay last season, or Robert Woods or Keenan Allen the year before. That became impossible in a world where Christian Kirk is getting $18 million a year, and the race to the top was something that teams paying roughly $1 kajillion to a starting quarterback simply hadn't budgeted for. Add in the recent increase of highly touted receiving prospects in the draft, with no sign of that trend ending anytime soon, and you can see why well-run teams were willing to give up legitimate superstars for oodles of draft capital. I don't think receivers will turn into running backs, where you get what you can out of a rookie deal and then let someone else overpay them; receivers aren't that fungible. But having a quarterback-receiver combination eat up 35% of your salary cap seems untenable if you want to actually build a contending team, so we might see at least a temporary end to All-Pro quarterbacks getting to play with All-Pro receivers for an extended period of time.
Tyreek Hill's new deal with Miami is the largest ever in terms of APY, even after adjusting for salary cap—he takes the crown away from 1996 Jerry Rice, who had a $5.8 million per year deal that would be $29.6 million under the current salary cap. It's interesting to note that Hill does have the largest PAYME of the past decade—specifically, 2019 Hill had a $24.0 million PAYME when he signed his original extension with Kansas City. That means that the Chiefs got his services for significantly less than what he should have been making the last few seasons; they paid him $12 million a year for three years and got three Pro Bowls and an All-Pro nod out of it. His PAYME has dropped $5.4 million over those last three years. About a third of that is just aging, with a receiver usually having more room to develop at age 25 than at 28. But he has also been slightly less effective over the last three seasons than he was when he first arrived in the NFL. He has averaged "just" 290 DYAR the last three seasons, compared to 387 the year he signed his new deal. He has averaged "only" a 16.1% DVOA, compared to the 23.7% he averaged in 2017 and 2018. He has averaged "just" 8.8 yards per target and 76.7 yards per game, compared to the 11.0 and 85.9 he had in his first two years as a starter. Clearly, the Chiefs traded him just in the nick of time!
The best value among the pricey receivers ends up being Michael Gallup, whose $11.5-million annual deal seems positively quaint in the new paradigm. The Cowboys locked up Gallup for five years at a very reasonable price with a very low percentage of guaranteed money. The contract should only look better in the future as more mega contracts get doled out, and if Gallup struggles to return from his ACL tear or otherwise declines, Dallas can get out of it after three years with almost no salary cap penalty. Obviously, the Cowboys would be better off on the field if they could have kept Amari Cooper, but you have to find value elsewhere when Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott are eating a quarter of your cap.
The model did find a lot of cheaper deals it could highlight, even with salaries going up so quickly for the top names. Sammy Watkins and JuJu Smith-Schuster come in as very low-cost refurbishment options for the Packers and Chiefs—obviously not replacements for their superstars, but if you're switching from high-priced players to value shopping, you could do far worse than grabbing useful veterans like that for a song. But most of the value in the receiver class in 2022 involves either having a player on a rookie deal or keeping a restricted free agent such as Allen Lazard, Jakobi Meyers, or Deonte Harty (the Saints receiver formerly known as Deonte Harris).
|2022 Tight End Contracts|
I'll be honest: I thought Zach Ertz was done after a terrible 2020 season. His 50% catch rate and sub-10 yards per reception screamed "end of the line" to me. Instead, going to Arizona rejuvenated Ertz's career, and he has been rewarded with the highest of the non-franchise tag contracts this year. He very nearly qualifies as a value signing, too—if you just pretend 2020 never happened and pencil in either 2021 or 2019's value in that slot, then Ertz comes out as a net positive. I doubt he'll pull in 112 targets again next season, but he looks like he has a few years of solid play left in him.
The model thinks Will Dissly's deal is the worst among tight ends, and they're not alone in that. Seahawks general manager John Schneider implied that Seattle had to pay him more money than expected because another team was coming after him; no clue who else would be willing to pay $8 million a year for a guy who has never played 60% of starts in a season. Still, I'd rather be saddled with Dissly's contract than that of Evan Engram, whose AV is boosted by his inexplicable Pro Bowl nod in 2020. When solid players such as Tyler Conklin and Gerald Everett are going for $2 million or $3 million cheaper, Engram is a hard move to justify. Hopefully, Jacksonville will try to split Engram out wide more and use his athleticism rather than do whatever the heck Jason Garrett was doing with him.
I'm a little surprised Robert Tonyan didn't get any offers outside of Green Bay; his 2020 was fantastic. A slow start to 2021 followed up by a torn ACL killed his value, and so the Packers get a good receiver back for a very reasonable price, something they needed with Davante Adams out the door. The model also likes Hayden Hurst as a C.J. Uzomah replacement; Uzomah is better but the model doesn't see a $4.5 million gap between their production. Going to Cincinnati is great for Hurst, too—get out of Kyle Pitts' shadow and work with Joe Burrow rather than Marcus Mariota.
As always, we need to put in a caveat here. AV is not the best tool for evaluating single seasons from individual offensive linemen. If a player isn't an All-Pro or a Pro Bowler, AV can't differentiate between good and bad starters on the same offense; it just knows that player X filled spots for Y games on an offense that managed to do Z. As a result, some filler-level players get higher grades than perhaps they should, and there's only so much we can do to mitigate that. Also note that guards, tackles, and centers are evaluated individually even though they're in one table here; we note in each row at which position a player is being considered.
|2022 Offensive Linemen Contracts|
Terron Armstead and Brandon Scherff's values are hurt from missing some time in 2021. Pretend that Armstead played a full season in 2021 and his PAYME shoots up to nearly $14.0 million, making him the very rare massive free-agent signing that doesn't come at a premium price.
The same is not true for Scherff. Scherff now has signed the three-highest APY deals for a right guard in history—his two franchise tags with the Washington Football Team, and his new deal with Jacksonville. Give Scherff the same benefit of the doubt as we gave Armstead, and his PAYME would be over $11.0 million. There have been guards in the past decade who the model would have considered at least decent at nearly 8% of the salary cap—2012 Carl Nicks, 2015 Marshal Yanda, and 2018 Zack Martin, to name three. But Scherff's durability is a concern. I'd subjectively give the Scherff deal a much better grade than PAYME does (AV for offensive linemen has problems!), but the Jaguars didn't exactly go budget-shopping for linemen between Scherff and Cam Robinson's new deal. The Jags didn't need to look for financial values, because they have a quarterback on a rookie deal; they were willing to pay top penny for linemen to try to keep Trevor Lawrence upright, and I can't fault them for that. At least, not once or twice. Stay tuned, however.
The model also questions some re-signings. Jake Matthews had his contract restructured because the Falcons were in dire financial straits; he's now the seventh-highest paid tackle in football behind regular fixtures in the Pro Bowl. He took advantage of a situation where the Falcons had few other options and it's not like he's a bad player or anything, but it's hard to justify a $34-million cap hit for Matthews in 2023 in any situation other than "Atlanta had trouble filling out an actual roster for 2022." The model also doesn't like Joseph Noteboom re-signing with the Rams, but that's mostly because it doesn't know Noteboom is sliding into Andrew Whitworth's spot at left tackle. Obviously, you don't pay a backup tackle $13.3 million a year, but Noteboom is only the 23rd-highest paid tackle. If he's a bit above average, the deal is fine.
The model does find some decent-sized deals it thinks are bargains. It gives its stamp of approval to Connor Williams going from Dallas to Miami and helping the Dolphins' terrible, terrible offensive line. Trent Brown remains a very, very good player when healthy, though "when healthy" is playing a larger and larger role in recent years for the mammoth right tackle. Morgan Moses is above average every year and never misses a game, making him a great value at a mid-tier price for Baltimore.
Among the budget options, the model loves the Broncos pouncing on Billy Turner, who had to be cut from Green Bay to make room for the Aaron Rodgers extension and Davante Adams franchise tag. He had been a great find for the Packers, and Denver gets a second chance at seeing what he can do for them after letting him go after 2018. The model might be giving Andrew Wylie too much credit for his starts for Kansas City, but he's a very valuable piece for Kansas City's offensive line, able to fill in anywhere at any time. Bradley Bozeman was rumored to have a big market this year, but that never developed; Carolina gets the ex-Ravens center at a bargain-basement price.
Interior Defensive Line
|2022 Defensive Linemen Contracts|
D.J. Jones, Foley Fatukasi, and B.J. Hill signed identical three-year, $30-million contracts this offseason, and PAYME has a clear hierarchy among them. Jones has been a force as both a run-stopper and an interior pass-rusher for San Francisco—only seven sacks over the three seasons, but a substantial amount of pressures to go along with excellent run defense. It remains to be seen what he'll do outside of the 49ers' talented line, but he's a very solid replacement for Shelby Harris in Denver. Jones had the second-highest run stop rate among defensive tackles last year, but Fatukasi was No. 1. While I love Fatukasi as a player, he's more of a one-dimensional run stopper than Jones is, and $10 million a year for a run-stopping nose tackle is a bit much.
Both Jones and Fatukasi have a solid track record of success, whereas the Bengals are paying Hill big bucks after years of being more of a depth rotational guy before breaking out some last season. Cincinnati had to keep either Hill or Larry Ogunjobi, and they jumped on Hill when Ogunjobi signed with the Bears as free agency began. But Ogunjobi failed a physical with Chicago and remains a free agent. If Ogunjobi was healthy, he'd have the second highest PAYME among the IDL class this year, just behind Jones; maybe there's a chance for a reconnection there?
And speaking of the Bears, Bilal Nichols is a nice pickup for Las Vegas. Chicago moved him all across the line to take advantage of his athleticism, and there's a good chance he'll lead the Raiders' linemen in snaps in 2022. The Raiders themselves saw Quinton Jefferson leave for a reunion in Seattle, a much-needed boost to the Seahawks pass rush at a reasonable price. As for the Bears, they recovered decently from the Ogunjobi disaster by picking up Justin Jones for cheap; when healthy, Jones has been an above-average starter.
The budget deal the model loves the most is Derrick Nnadi re-signing with the Chiefs; his 2021 season was pretty bad as he fought through a hip injury, but his track record is better than that, and getting him on a cheap deal to solidify the middle of Kansas City's defensive line is a very good move. The Raiders get props not just for Nichols but also for re-signing Johnathan Hankins, the sort of steady player who won't pop highlights but provides a very solid run-stuffing presence for less than $1.5 million a year. The model also likes Jarran Reed when you discuss him as a defensive tackle who can add to a pass rush, as opposed to a pass-rusher who can slide inside. I think that AV overrates him, which leads the model to giving him a too-high PAYME, but the Packers are at least getting him for a decently low price.
|2022 Edge Rusher Contracts|
Edge rusher is a position of "yeah, but…" this year, with a lot of these numbers needing more context due to missing years in the database.
Von Miller's number is a bit nonsense there. Miller missed all of 2020 with a dislocated ankle, and his split season in 2021 alters the AV calculation in ways that don't really capture his full value. Adjusting his PAYME for this still has him coming in under Maxx Crosby and Harold Landry, because 25-year-old pass-rushers are entering their prime and 33-year-old pass-rushers are leaving it. After common-sense adjustments, the model says that as Miller enters his dotage, he should still be taking up about 7% of the cap each year. In 2023 and 2024, he's at about 8%, a reasonable premium to lock up the best pass-rusher freely available—in a world where every pass-rusher was on the free market, Miller might not be pulling down $20 million a year, but that's not the case. And there's very little harm in a contending team paying a bit extra to lock up the best available player at his position as they try to maximize their championship window.
After adjusting for Miller, Randy Gregory comes out as the least-valuable edge rusher contract, but that too can be argued against. Gregory missed 2019 and some of 2020 with an indefinite suspension and has had a passel of injury issues; if you base his deal only on his 2021 performance, his PAYME jumps to $8.8 million. So adjust for Gregory, and the worst value title falls to Chandler Jones, but even he you could argue is being undervalued due to his 2020 bicep injury. When it comes to thirtysomething pass-rushers, I'd rather pay Miller $20 million a year than Jones $17 million a year, though your mileage may vary.
Za'Darius Smith is also being underestimated by the model because he missed 2021 with an injury. Assume he would have matched his 2020 form and his $14 million contract is the most valuable of the large deals by a significant margin; he actually ends up with the highest PAYME of the year. Lingering back injuries are definitely a concern, but the Vikings are taking a very solid gamble on someone who was lights-out when healthy, and he's still three years younger than Miller. I'd call him a better value than PAYME's actual champions among the large contracts: Derrick Barnett, Al-Quadin Muhammad, and Jacob Martin.
I have no idea on what planet Lorenzo Carter gets such a high PAYME, mind you. He had 8 AV last season for the Giants which … no? Five sacks, career highs in hurries and tackles, and some solid pass coverage is good, mind you, but Mario Addison had 7.0 sacks and an AV of 2; Carlos Dunlap had 8.5 and an AV of 3; Markus Golden had 11.0 and an AV of 4. I'll spot Carter being a more versatile player, but in no world was Lorenzo Carter as valuable a player in 2021 as Von Miller. I still like the Falcons picking him up for $3.5 million a year, but not "you saved $16.5 million over Von Miller" good.
I really like the Cowboys buying low on Dante Fowler and reuniting him with Dan Quinn; it seems unlikely that Fowler will ever live up to the numbers he put up in Los Angeles next to Aaron Donald and company, but I think he's a sneaky choice to rebound in a better system. Ditto Kerry Hyder coming back to the 49ers after a year in Seattle. Hyder had 8.5 sacks in San Francisco in 2020; that number is a fluke, but he should be a useful cog in the 49ers pass rush for very little money.
|2022 Linebacker Contracts|
|Leighton Vander Esch||26||DAL||1||$2,000,000||$2,000,000||$1,750,000||$8,165,000||$6,165,000|
The Jaguars have shown up a few times now in the "most overvalued free agent" sections. Some of the time we can explain what they're doing and justify it, but it's really hard to justify Foyesade Oluokun getting the fourth-largest off-ball linebacker contract in the league. He was the best unrestricted free agent to hit the market, and he's young, but that's a lot of money to pay for a player at a less-than-premium position. And when guys like Fred Warner and Darius Leonard got paid last season, you could say that they played an important cog in the center of their respective defenses. Oluokun gets lost too easily on the field; he's a player with potential, but not one who has ever actually been notably above average at his position. Add in drafting Devin Lloyd and Chad Muma in the first two days of the draft, and I'm very confused as to what Jacksonville is doing at linebacker this year.
I said Oluokun was the best unrestricted free agent to hit the market. That excludes De'Vondre Campbell, who re-signed with the Packers, and Bobby Wagner, who was released and was thus a street free agent (which matters in terms of compensatory picks and the like). And if you're going to be paying an off-ball linebacker double-digit millions, you'd much rather be paying Campbell and Wagner than you would Oluokun. Wagner has, at most, taken a half-step back from his prime. He may no longer be one of the league's best cover linebackers, but he's still solid, and he remains a force in the run game. It didn't make sense for rebuilding Seattle to pay him $10 million a year, but it sure makes sense for contending Los Angeles to do so. Meanwhile, yes, when the guy you signed to a budget deal last year ends up becoming a first-team All-Pro in your system, you do pay him a ton of money. Campbell likely could have gotten more from Green Bay if he had more than a one-year track record of phenomenal play, so it's possible his new deal with the Packers will look even better in a year or two.
The model also sees all these eight-digit contracts going to linebackers and falls in love with solid players making $2 million to $4 million a year. Re-signing Ja'Whaun Bentley, Leighton Vander Esch, Elandon Roberts, or Azeez Al-Shaair to solid midrange contracts makes a lot of sense—productive players who know the system get contracts somewhere between 30th and 60th for linebackers. The best value for a budget player that actually changed teams was Kyzir White, who is definitely an upgrade over Davion Taylor and should help the Eagles' nickel packages significantly.
Like linemen, we're grouping cornerbacks and safeties here, noting at which position each player is being evaluated.
|2022 Defensive Back Contracts|
How much is Denzel Ward worth? Spotrac projects an $18.7 million value for the Cleveland corner; OverTheCap puts his 2021 value at $9.7 million. Suffice it to say, there's a wee bit of disagreement on his value. Subjectively, I'd say Ward has been a consistently good corner, if not one that's ever quite been at the top of his position. Well, he's at the top now with the first cornerback contract worth over $20 million a year. Someone was going to break that mark eventually; the model just would have preferred giving that to Xavien Howard or J.C. Jackson. I think AV is undervaluing Ward a bit, but I also think $20 million for him is a bit out there for my purposes.
It feels like the model is undervaluing the top cornerbacks by $1 million or $2 million this year, which makes it all the more notable that it loves Stephon Gilmore going to Indianapolis. The former Defensive Player of the Year has never quite lived up to that 2018 season, but he remains one of the upper-tier corners of the game, and in a world where Denzel Ward is getting $20.0 million and Charvarius Ward is getting $13.5 million, getting Gilmore for $10.0 million a year seems like an outright steal.
In general, though, the model seems to want teams to spread their cornerback spending out more, paying second corners more and top corners less. Rather than chasing the Wards or Carlton Davises of the world, finding valuable mid-tier players such as Levi Wallace looks more and more valuable. Then again, AV also overrates availability, so a player like Chandon Sullivan gets more credit than he perhaps deserves.
Explaining why the model doesn't like any of the safety signings is easier, though—great safeties are heavily, heavily discounted in today's NFL. When the model first ran, Tyrann Mathieu was still unsigned, and he ended up signing for just $11 million a year a while later. Every year, we see top safeties missing the first few months of free agency, often only getting signed after the deadline at which they no longer count against compensatory picks in early May. And if players of Mathieu's caliber are signing reduced deals two months after free agency opens, it's hard to justify splashing $14 million on a Marcus Williams, no matter how good he has been.
|2022 Special Teams Contracts|
This probably didn't need its own table, but we're including one for completeness' sake. No punters or long snappers signed large enough deals to qualify, but if you're interested, Corey Bojorquez comes out as the highest-value deal for a punter, while the Ross Matiscik extension is the best value for a long snapper. See, the Jaguars can find savings somewhere!
So with all that information, which teams were diving for value, and which were splurging for top talent?
This may not come as a shock, but the Jaguars offseason was not one designed to get maximum value out of every last red cent. Jacksonville handed out 15 contracts this free agency above the veteran's minimum, totaling $327.6 million in total value, with $195.2 million guaranteed and $124.0 million in cash payments this year. Every single one of those numbers leads the league. Christian Kirk, Cam Robinson, Brandon Scherff, and Foyesade Oluokun are all in the top 20 contracts given this offseason in terms of APY, total value, total guaranteed money, fully guaranteed money, and first-year cash. Shad Khan opened up his pocketbooks, sending big name after big name through the forbidden door and into TIAA Bank Field.
Just because a team spends a lot of money doesn't mean it ends up losing value. The Raiders handed out the third-most money in free agency this offseason and still end up on the positive side of the ledger. By finding bargains on players such as Jonathan Hankins, Bilal Nichols, and Jayon Brown, they could afford to splurge on players such as Davante Adams and Chandler Jones—they ate their veggies and got to go the steakhouse as a reward. Team such as the Steelers, Cowboys, Broncos, and Chiefs were mid-pack in terms of spending, and all appear in the top 10 in terms of total value added. Spending money is not necessarily a bad thing.
But boy howdy, did the Jaguars spend a lot of money, and the model hates it. Overall, it has the Jaguars spending $46.3 million above average for their haul. With the extra value received from having a quarterback on a rookie deal, the Jaguars could afford to go a little wild in free agency, but they may have gone too wild. Scherff's double-franchise-tag has shot his price tag through the roof, the extra 20% cost that comes with applying the tag a second time placing him well outside of any sort of value consideration. Experts projected Kirk to be somewhere between a $12 million to $15 million player before free agency; $18 million puts him in Mike Evans territory, and he just doesn't have the track record to back that up. Those same experts had Oluokun up at $10 million a year; $15 million for an off-ball linebacker who doesn't take away a swath of the field is crazy. Cam Robinson got the franchise tag, meaning his long-term deal is paying him like the elite tackle he has never fully been. These are all huge amounts of money—quite possibly the cost of doing business when you're trying to attract free agents to a team that has won 15 games over the past four seasons.
Most of the other teams near the top of the value-lost charts are contenders paying the premium now to maximize their championship window, planning to bite the bullet on costs later. The Bills, Buccaneers, and Rams are all in the top five, with the Browns rounding out the group because of the odd Deshaun Watson situation. It seems more justifiable for contenders to splurge on a few premium impact players than it does for the Jags to do so.
The Bears come out as the team which generated the most value in free agency, which is a good reminder that generating value is not the main goal here! Chicago only spent $53.5 million this offseason on 17 free agents, generating $16.3 million in excess value. Almost none of the Bears' free agents project as significant difference-makers—their biggest move was, what, re-signing DeAndre Houston-Carson? Adding Dane Cruikshank as a special teams ace? Bringing in Al-Quadin Muhammad and Justin Jones to bolster the front seven? Tavon Young in the secondary? Every single one of those deals rates out as a net gain for the Bears, which is great—they're all quality role players and complementary pieces, and those kinds of deals are great for teams that are making room to fit their big contracts elsewhere under the cap. But what the Bears are trying to fit under the cap is $53 million in dead money, nearly half of which came from the Khalil Mack trade. Ideally, you'd like to take the value generated by these budget free-agent signings and a quarterback under a rookie contract, and go find some difference makers elsewhere—maybe some receivers for the aforementioned rookie quarterback? Instead, it goes to make up for the contracts of Mack, and Nick Foles, and Andy Dalton, and Jimmy Graham as the Ryan Pace era continues to haunt Chicago. Credit to Ryan Poles for shopping smart this offseason; it's just a shame that they can't actually do anything with the money they have scrimped and saved.
The Chiefs and Cowboys are more the sorts of teams you expect to see looking for budget contributors for their top-heavy contending teams, and they finish second and third in value added. Both teams get a lot of credit for re-signing their contributors to cheap deals and for taking inexpensive risks on potential projects such as Dante Fowler and JuJu Smith-Schuster. The Chiefs are paying Patrick Mahomes nearly $40 million next season; the Cowboys are doing the same for Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott combined. When you have those kind of contracts on the books, you have to seek value elsewhere, and both franchises did a very good job of doing that this offseason. They can't really afford to keep those large contacts and re-sign a Tyreek Hill or Amari Cooper for a long-term deal at the moment. So, you get good value from those players, patch your pockets elsewhere, and move on. When someone offers you a first-round pick for that expensive of a player, you say yes and you move…
… wait, Dallas only got a fifth-round pick for Cooper? Well, maybe there's more to this front office stuff than just signing free agents.