The week of July 15th is always a busy time for business in the NFL- it’s the deadline for players on the franchise tag to sign new extensions. For the most part, the attention was on quarterback Dak Prescott’s negotiations with the Cowboys, but instead, three different players signed new massive contracts. It’s nice to see Chris Jones, Myles Garrett, and Derrick Henry get rewarded for their recent production. However, when looking at it from the perspective of the Chiefs, Browns, and Titans, it’s clear that teams still are struggling to grasp positional value, and that’s compromising their roster-building ability.
In general, it’s hard for a non-quarterback to be worth a monster contract. However, as we’ve discussed several times, if you have your quarterback, investing in perimeter talent (receiver, cornerback, safety) is smart, as even $20+ million is strong value for several players at those positions. Yet, the closer you are to the line of scrimmage, the less likely you are to provide value. The average quarterback generates 1.63 Wins Above Replacement (WAR), while receivers (0.28), cornerbacks (0.23), and safeties (0.23) are the most-valuable non-QB positions. The average front four defender, however, is only worth about 0.06 WAR, while that number (0.10) is only slightly higher for running backs and offensive linemen. In other words, the idea that you build from the trenches is ludicrous in the modern NFL, but, for whatever reasons, teams still haven’t learned from their past mistakes.
Let’s start with Jones, who always seemed likely to play this season on the franchise tag, especially after the Chiefs signed Patrick Mahomes to a monster $450 million extension. The 26-year-old is clearly one of the best interior pass rushers in the NFL, as evidenced by the fact that he’s had back-to-back seasons with a pass-rush grade over 90 with 64+ total pressures. However, in the past three seasons, he’s only eclipsed 0.20 WAR once, and even if you only compare his contract to other contracts from the market, that 0.20 WAR would mean that his implied value would be just over $20 million, short of the $21.125 million per season he’ll make over the next four seasons. Yet, no one said that the Chiefs had to overpay for a player at a non-valuable position, and when you take into account the actual value he provides, he’s more in the $15 million/year range. Strictly from a value perspective, this contract doesn’t make much sense for Kansas City, but there is even more to this situation that is puzzling. As mentioned, they just signed Mahomes to that huge extension, and also are paying edge rusher Frank Clark over $20 million per season for the next four years. In other words, they’ll be paying three players $85 million+, which I’m not sure is feasible in a sport in which depth is a necessity. Mahomes gives them both an incredibly high floor and ceiling, but as their roster continues to age, it appears that they’re positioning themselves to go all-in for a few seasons- the talk of them becoming a potential dynasty must be put to a hold, especially when you add in the fact that they drafted a running back with their first-round pick and missed the opportunity to add future draft capital by trading Jones.
Sticking with dominant pass rushers, Garrett wasn’t on the franchise tag, but that didn’t stop the Browns from moving quickly to sign him to a five-year, $125 million extension. Yes, you read that right- Garrett will be making $25 MILLION PER SEASON. Similarly to Jones, when you look at Garrett’s implied value based on edge rusher contracts alone, he’s worth $22.69 million/season, and when you factor in his $/WAR value, the star edge rusher is more in the $19 million range. Previously, Khalil Mack’s $23.5 million/year contract with the Bears was where the top of the market was at the position, yet he was more established than Garrett, and, regardless, Chicago’s tough financial situation right now tells you all you need to know about how that contract is aging. Now, Cleveland is in a much better situation with their long-term salary cap, and Garrett is coming off of multiple high-end seasons. Nevertheless, even if you consider him the best edge rusher in the NFL, I’m not sure it’s possible for him to generate enough value at his position to simply be worth $25 million per season, and when you cannot get surplus value from a contract, it’s probably not a good one. Players at more valuable positions, such as cornerback Denzel Ward and quarterback Baker Mayfield, will need new contracts in a few seasons, and when the time comes, the Browns likely will regret paying Garrett the amount they are- this is a surprising deal given general manager Andrew Berry’s analytical background and the leverage they should’ve had after Garrett’s notable suspension-worthy incident last season.
We’ve saved the best for last- Derrick Henry’s four-year, $52 million contract extension. By now, the case against giving running backs is pretty clear, but every time a running back is due for a contract, we’re told that they are “the exception”. Yet, the following turn of events tends to happen, in predictable fashion:
- Team signs running back to extension, fans rejoice
- It doesn’t look egregious at first, but the running back’s production slightly decreases
- This contract prevents the team from keeping the infrastructure for the running back intact, causing his production to regress further- the team also begins to have financial troubles
- All of a sudden, the running back is a financial burden (Todd Gurley, David Johnson)
Will Henry fall victim to this trend? Maybe not, but at the same time, I’m not even sure he’s as talented as some of the other running backs that have signed high-end contracts in the past. Sure, the 25-year-old is terrific when it comes to breaking tackles, but he’s earned a receiving grade of 50.6 or lower in each of the past three seasons. As a result, he’s a non-factor on passing downs, has only played over 410 snaps once in his four-year career, and also relies on rushing production to generate his value. That last part is far from ideal:
- Rushing isn’t efficient, so you shouldn’t be encouraged to do so more often
- Rushing production is far more unstable, as it’s highly dependent on box counts and the offensive line
Even at Henry’s peak last season, he was only worth about 0.22 WAR last season, and when you look at his splits with and without Ryan Tannehill, it’s clear that he was not the reason for the Titans’ success, despite what public perception would indicate:
- Without Tannehill: 3.6 Yards Per Carry, 43% Success Rate, -0.08 EPA/Attempt
- With Tannehill: 5.8 Yards Per Carry, 54% Success Rate, 0.09 EPA/Attempt
These statistics come from Warren Sharp of Sharp Football, who also notes that Henry had the second-easiest schedule of run defenses. Simply put, the red flags with Henry are enormous, and although $12.5 million is much closer to the $10 million range that I believe should be the top-of-the-market for a running back, I’d much rather invest in a player with more versatile, less replaceable skillset- Christian McCaffrey, Aaron Jones, Austin Ekeler – rather than someone who demonstrated first-hand how dependent running backs are on their situation.
On the surface, these contracts may not look egregious for these teams, as although they’re overpaying for these players, they’re keeping high-end talent (depending on how you feel about Henry). Yet, all one has to do is take a quick look at the Dallas Cowboys to see how investing at the wrong positions could become extremely consequential. They chose to sign running back Ezekiel Elliot and edge rusher Demarcus Lawrence to massive contracts, and now, had let one of the top cornerbacks (Byron Jones) in the NFL leave via free agency, while their future cap space will be further complicated when they sign Dak Prescott (who should’ve been their first priority) to a new contract at some point. All of these teams are talented enough to compete for this season, yet all have long-term holes that need to filled, and that’s going to be more difficult now that they’ve signed these players to massive extensions. From a value perspective, as well as the context in which they were signed, the decisions made by these three respective teams are very confusing, and reveal the not-so-hidden truth surround NFL front offices- they are still behind the curve when it comes to positional value.