Agent's Take: How Sammy Watkins' contract is changing the game for the WR market
What happens when a receiver gets a huge deal without elite production? Let's take a look
Wide receiver salaries unexpectedly exploded during free agency. Wideouts who haven't done much to distinguish themselves during their NFL careers, such as Albert Wilson and Paul Richardson, signed $8 million-per-year deals.
Allen Robinson received a three-year, $42 million contract with $25.2 million in guarantees because the Bears are confident he'll have a complete recovery from the left ACL he tore in the Jaguars' 2017 season opener. He was trying to bounce back from a subpar 2016 campaign that can be attributed to Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles' struggles. Robinson had a breakout season in 2015, when he became the first Jacksonville player to top 1,000 receiving yards (1,400) since Jimmy Smith in 2005. He also led the NFL with 31 catches of 20 or more yards.
The most surprising deal belongs to Sammy Watkins, who got a three-year, $48 million contract with $30 million fully guaranteed from the Chiefs. The 2014 fourth-overall pick is being paid like an elite receiver without matching production. Watkins drew considerable interest in free agency -- the Bears, Cowboys and Packers reportedly were among his suitors -- before signing with the Chiefs.
Watkins caught a rather pedestrian 39 passes for 593 yards and eight touchdowns with the Rams last season after being traded from the Bills during training camp. Watkins' only 1,000-receiving-yard season came in 2015. Prior to the trade, the Bills passed on Watkins' fifth-year option in 2018 at $13.258 million due to persistent problems with a broken left foot.
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The Watkins contract is game changer in the wide-receiver market because of his lack of productivity. The deal's effect is already being seen.
Effect on Jarvis Landry and Julio Jones
Jarvis Landry, who was designated as a franchise player by the Dolphins for $15.982 million before being traded to the Browns in March, has fundamentally changed the way slot wide receivers are paid. The Browns signed Landry to a five-year, $75.5 million deal with $47 million in guarantees and $34 million fully guaranteed at signing.
Wide receivers that primarily thrive in the slot typically have been paid less than those that excel on the outside or can take the top off opposing defenses. This dynamic had the potential to limit Landry to second-tier wide receiver money despite his production. Landry, a 2014 second-round pick, has the most catches in history during the first four seasons of an NFL career with 400. He led the NFL in 2017 with 112 receptions but didn't crack the 1,000-yard mark while averaging a meager 8.8 yards per catch.
Falcons All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones is skipping organized team activities, which started on Monday, because he reportedly wants his contract addressed. He also wasn't present for Atlanta's other offseason workouts.
The top of the wide-receiver market hasn't dramatically changed since Jones signed a five-year, $71.25 million contract extension in 2015. Jones' $14.25 million average yearly salary is still eighth among wide receivers. His $47 million in overall guarantees is tied for third with Landry. Only Mike Evans and DeAndre Hopkins have gotten more than the $35.5 million Jones had fully guaranteed at signing.
Jones, who is arguably the best wide receiver in the NFL, is underpaid relative to Watkins. He is scheduled to make $34.426 million over the next three years, which includes $10.5 million this season. Watkins, whose three-year contract includes a $21 million signing bonus, is making $34 million in the first two years. Jones has averaged slightly over 100 receptions and almost 1,600 receiving yards a season since Watkins' NFL career began in 2014. The five-time Pro Bowler had one of the most prolific seasons for a wide receiver in 2015 when he had 136 catches for 1,871 yards. Both marks are the second-most ever in an NFL season. Jones' catches in 2015 are nine more than Watkins has had over the last three seasons. Watkins' 2,070 receiving yards during this span are just about 200 more than Jones' 2015 total.
Effect on the Chiefs
The Chiefs aren't paying Watkins, who turns 25 next month, based on past performance but on the speedster's expected contribution. As the NFL's fourth-highest paid wide receiver by average yearly salary, Watkins should be consistently threatening to break every Kansas City major single-season receiving record. Jeremy Maclin owns the reception mark for a wide receiver with 87 in 2015. Derrick Alexander's 1,391 receiving yards in 2000 is the franchise record. The 15 touchdown catches Dwayne Bowe had in 2010 are a Chiefs high.
Watkins may not have an easy time justifying his contract through his play because of Kansas City's other offensive weapons. Travis Kelce is the NFL's best tight end not named Rob Gronkowski. He is the only tight end to top 1,000 receiving yards in each of the last two seasons. Kelce also leads NFL tight ends in receptions since 2016 with 168.
Wide receiver Tyreek Hill had a breakout season in 2017. His 1,183 receiving yards were seventh in the NFL and led the Chiefs. Hill's 75 receptions were second on the team to Kelce's 83.
Kareem Hunt, a 2017 third-round pick, led the NFL with 1,327 rushing yards as a rookie. He established himself as a dual threat running back by catching 53 passes for 455 yards. He earned a Pro Bowl berth.
The Chiefs were comfortable trading quarterback Alex Smith to the Redskins in March because of Patrick Mahomes, the 10th overall pick in 2017. Mahomes' enormous potential and strong arm should allow head coach Andy Reid to have a more vertical passing game, but since he is essentially a rookie in playing experience, there are likely to be some growing pains this season.
A team simultaneously having two 1,000 yard wide receivers isn't unprecedented. It's happened 13 times over the last five years. The Broncos accomplished the feat four straight years (2013 through 2016). None of those teams had a tight end of Kelce's caliber or a running back as productive as Hunt was in his rookie campaign.
Andy Reid has never had two 1,000-yard wide receivers in the same season during his 19 seasons as a head coach. The closest was in 2010 with the Eagles, when DeSean Jackson had 1,056 yards on 47 receptions while Maclin caught 70 passes for 964 yards with 10 touchdowns. Something is probably going to have to give statistically because of the addition of Watkins and the above factors.
Kansas City has a potential problem on its hands with Hill because of Watkins' contract. As a 2016 draft pick, Hill becomes eligible to sign an extension once the 2018 regular season ends. Kansas City is going to have difficult time getting Hill to accept any offer that's less than Watkins' deal, especially if his production this season is comparable to or better than his receiving counterpart's.
Effect on the rest of the NFL
Watkins's contract is not only a potential headache for the Chiefs, but also the rest of the NFL. Odell Beckham Jr., a fellow 2014 first-round pick, insisting on becoming the NFL's first $20 million-per-year wide receiver wouldn't be unreasonable now. Beckham arguably had the best first three seasons for a wide receiver in league history. He caught 288 passes (tied for first) for 4,112 yards (second) with 35 touchdowns (tied of fifth) in 43 games. Jerry Rice and Randy Moss are the only wide receivers with comparable production. Beckham is still in the top 10 through four seasons in these categories despite missing 17 out of 64 games, which includes the final 12 in 2017 because of a broken ankle.
The Rams acquired Brandin Cooks, also a 2014 first-round pick, in an early April trade with the Patriots to replace Watkins as a wide receiver who can stretch the field. Cooks should be an upgrade over Watkins. If Cooks hits the 1,000 receiving-yard mark this season, it will be three times with three different teams and quarterbacks in five NFL seasons. It would be his fourth-consecutive 1,000 receiving-yard season. Rams general manager Les Snead recently revealed in an interview on Mad Dog Radio that there have been discussions with Cooks' agent about a new deal. Watkins' deal is likely Cooks' salary floor for a new contract.
The Vikings were already going to have a challenging negotiation with Stefon Diggs, who is in a contract year, because of Adam Thielen's All-Pro season in 2017. Thielen signed a four-year, $19.246 million year deal during the preceding offseason as a restricted free agent where he gave up three unrestricted-free-agency years for $16.5 million, which can be worth as much as $25.8 million thanks to base salary escalators and incentives. Diggs might find testing the open market attractive even if he wants to ultimately stay in Minnesota because of the deals wide receivers got in free agency this year.
The explosion of wide-receiver salaries in free agency ensured that the Raiders picked up 2015 fourth-overall pick Amari Cooper's option year in 2019 for $13.924 million. Cooper's production took a steep drop in 2017. After becoming the third player in NFL history with at least 70 receptions and 1,000 receiving yards in each of his first two seasons, Cooper caught only 48 passes for 680 yards with seven touchdowns in 2017. A bounce-back performance this season may not be necessary anymore for Cooper to become one of the NFL's highest-paid wide receivers in 2019, when he is entering his contract year.
Effect on the future
The agent community was pleased with the Raiders' liberal spending during the latter part of the late Al Davis' ownership. The contracts Davis gave to cornerback DeAngelo Hall, defensive tackle Tommy Kelly, wide receiver Javon Walker and safety Gibril Wilson in 2007 helped drive up the market for other players at those positions. Teams would unsuccessfully try to dismiss those deals as market anomalies in contract negotiations with the agents. It remains to be seen whether teams will attempt to take a similar tact with Watkins' contract. The deal could be the bane of every team's existence in negotiations with highly productive or number-one wide receivers over the next couple of years unless Watkins starts living up the potential that made him a top-five pick in the 2014 NFL draft.
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