How do NFL teams allocate resources? Dave Archibald has looked at the real price of contract extensions and draft picks on quarterbacks, running backs, and offensive linemen. In this installment, he looks at how teams evaluate wide receiver investment.
NFL quarterbacks throw more and more passes each season, and teams invest heavily in the receivers that catch those passes. Better receivers can get open more easily, make more spectacular catches, and rack up big gains with the ball in their hands. Many teams see top wideouts as difference makers and sink money and draft picks into superior performance. Other franchises eschew heavy spending on pass catchers and try to do more with less.
The chart below shows the amount of money and draft value expended on wide receivers. Money is measured by average cap hit. This is not a perfect measure, as it can be inflated by “funny money”, or non-guaranteed years tacked on to the end of the long-term deals, but it serves as a rough indicator. Draft value is measured by cumulative Draft Trade Value Chart figures through the last four years, plus 2011 first-rounders (more on that methodology):
These figures represent only players currently rostered as of the beginning of the season, not “dead” money or draft value spent on WRs no longer with the team. Thus, they do not incorporate traded picks or players:
There are four groups according to spending pattern. The teams that spend more than average on both draft picks and money see the best rate statistics, with the best completion percentage, yards per completion, and yards per attempt. The group that spends money only, despite featuring many excellent quarterbacks (see below), has the shortest yards per completion and yards per attempt, though their completion percentage is a tick higher than the two groups that don’t spend much money. The group that spends below-average on both money and draft picks throws the most, ironically, and their efficiency is about in the middle.
Money and Picks
Five teams spend an above-average amount on WRs, both in terms of money and draft capital. The Atlanta Falcons have spent the most money and the fifth-most draft capital, largely on one player: star wideout Julio Jones, who they drafted with the sixth pick in 2011 and recently signed to a contract paying him $14.3M per year. Roddy White ($6M) and return specialist Devin Hester ($3M) are also pricey, but the Falcons have not used much in the way of draft picks to augment the receiving corps post-Jones. The Bills are barely above-average in cap spending at the position, but no team has used more draft capital on receivers, with fourth overall pick Sammy Watkins in 2014 and 2013 picks Robert Woods (second round) and Marquise Goodwin (third round).
Notable Performances: The Cardinals rank fourth in completion percentage on passes to wide receivers, fourth in yards per completion, and first in yards per attempt. The Buccaneers get the big cannons out, ranking last in completion percentage to wideouts, but first in yards per completion.
It’s Only Money
These teams use a considerable amount of their cap on wide receivers, but have not invested heavily via the draft. The Lions spend the second most of any team on WR, with Calvin Johnson the highest-paid wideout in the NFL at more than $16M per year and Golden Tate averaging more than $6M. They have also used by far the least draft capital, with 2013 sixth-rounder Corey Fuller their only WR draft pick on the team. This category contains the receiving corps for many of the game’s great quarterbacks, as their respective teams give Aaron Rodgers (Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson), Peyton Manning (Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders), Andrew Luck (T.Y. Hilton and Andre Johnson), Tom Brady (Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, and Brandon LaFell), and Tony Romo (Dez Bryant and Cole Beasley) veterans to work with.
Notable Performances: The Patriots run the ultimate dink-and-dunk attack, ranking second-best in completion percentage to wide receivers but second-worst in yards per completion to receivers. The Colts rank 30th in completion percentage to receivers and 28th in yards per attempt, but throw to wideouts the second most often. Washington ranks last in both yards per completion and yards per attempt.
Youth Is Served
These teams spend less money than average but invest heavily via the draft. No team has used more raw draft value than the Jacksonville Jaguars, who made oft-suspended Justin Blackmon the fifth pick in the 2012 draft and used 2014 second-rounders on Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson. The Raiders, with fourth-overall pick Amari Cooper, and the Bears, with seventh-overall pick Kevin White, join this list thanks to their 2015 first-rounders. The Panthers have spent the second-least amount of money on their wideouts, but feature 2014 first-rounder Kelvin Benjamin (currently on injured reserve) and 2015 second-rounder Devin Funchess.
Notable Performances: The Seahawks boast the best completion percentage to receivers and the #3-ranked yards per attempt, though they are 28th in attempts. The Panthers are 31st in completion percentage to receivers and 30th in yards per attempt.
Doing It Cheap
These teams are spending a smaller percentage of both their cap space and their draft picks than the average team. No team spends less money than the Houston Texans, who have only one receiver (Cecil Shorts at $3M) making more than $2M. Houston comes just short of average in draft capital with 2013 first-rounder DeAndre “Nuk” Hopkins. The Chargers have only one drafted wide receiver on his rookie contract, 2013 third-rounder Keenan Allen (on injured reserve).
Notable Performances: The Steelers rank second in yards per completion and fourth in yards per attempt. The Texans throw the most to their wideouts, but rank 27th in completion percentage and 26th in yards per attempt.
Bargains and Bad Deals
The charts below show the top bargains and biggest disappointments as measured by receiving yards per dollar or per unit of draft value. All statistics are through Week 8, and all categories are with a minimum of five games played. The “bargains” require 200 yards as a minimum:
Calling the 2015 draftees “underperformers” is unfair as many wideouts experience a learning curve. The steepness of the draft value chart also means it is almost impossible for top-10-drafted receivers to be considered bargains; even superstars like Cooper and A.J. Green wind up in the top-20 “underperformers” according to this methodology.
The Jaguars feature three bargains in the chart, with second-year receivers Robinson (61st overall pick) and Allen Hurns (undrafted) the team’s top two receivers in yardage, and veteran bargain free agent Bryan Walters third on the team in yards. That helps make up for the lack of contributions from Blackmon and Lee.
The five-game requirement excludes several notable busts, such as Jonathan Baldwin, Stephen Hill, and A.J. Jenkins, who are no longer with their initial teams. Notable successes falling just under the five-game threshold include Alshon Jeffery, Martavis Bryant, and rookie sensation Stefon Diggs.
An Emerging Trend
The three most-WR-heavy five-year periods are in the past 20 years, and teams have selected a whopping 11 wideouts in the past two drafts. It seems teams are putting more of a priority on the position, though interestingly none have been drafted higher than fourth since Detroit’s Johnson was taken second in 2007.
Ask and Ye Shall Receive (Maybe)
The focus on the passing game in the modern NFL has led to big money and high picks at the wide receiver position, and it seems that on balance there is some positive impact to the investment. There remains a large number of players with performance, good or bad, out of proportion to their team’s investment, giving hope to teams that are unwilling or unable to sink major resources into their wideouts. However teams choose to invest their resources, they need to find a way to get production out of the position, or their modern air attacks will never get off the ground.
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