Estimating the Value of WR Stevie Johnson
I had a request to look at Buffalo Bills WR Stevie Johnson, so here goes. Johnson is one of those real success stories in the NFL. Based on draft positioning you would not expect much from Johnson. He was a 7th round pick in the 2008 NFL draft, picks that often have about as much a chance at success in the NFL as an undrafted free agent. Johnson ended up on a team with relatively poor QB play, a rotation that included JP Losman, Trent Edwards, and Ryan Fitzpatrick. Johnson has played for 3 head coaches and an offense that typically ranks in the 20s in yardage. Yet somehow Johnson has overcome the odds and is set to cash in big as an unrestricted free agent in 2012.
Earlier this year there were reports that Johnson was seeking about $7.5 million a year from the Bills, a figure that the Bills reportedly were not interested in discussing, offering closer to $5.5 million a season. Talks broke down as the Bills finalized a ridiculous contract for journeyman QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, and would be tabled until the offseason. So what would the market look like for Johnson now?
Johnsons 3 years leading into his contract season are not all that different than the players I used to compare with Santonio Holmes of the Jets last season, so weíll go back to those players. Unlike Holmes, Johnsons path follows more closely with that of Greg Jennings and Roddy White in that he was a non factor in the first of those 3 years. So I updated the numbers by using a weighted average for the players, with 60% weight being given to the most recent season, 30% to the prior year, and 10% to the first season I am using as a comparison. The only exceptions are YPR and % targets caught, which are totals. Why do I like to use three years? I like to use three years to factor in the 1 year wonder aspect of a player. You want to pay for the least risk possible and a player with 1 miracle year is a huge risk.
Where does Johnson do well? He ranks 2nd in Tds and targets per game. Where Johnson falls short is yards per game and yards per reception, where he ranks dead last. The fact that he has a high amount of targets and touchdowns tells me he has the makings of a number 1 receiver. His getting into the end zone this year has what has really made him noticeable, especially since he makes a scene whenever he scores. The fact that he has decent success on the targets means its more than just being the lucky guy on a bad team. His opportunities do translate into yards.
The low yards per reception and yards per game says something about both his upside and perhaps the passing game of the Bills. Johnsons upside is more of a possession guy than home run hitter. You probably need better QB play than Fitzpatrick to really realize Johnsons full upside. The 57.3% catch rate, while ranking third, may not be what you want from someone who is going to be a possession guy. Thatís probably the risk. On the safer side though you would expect that type of player to continue to do well even as they get older and slow down a little.
|Name||Years||Avg Per Year (millions)||Three Year (millions)||Guarantee (millions)|
The real big change to the market came in the form of Miles Austin of the Dallas Cowboys. Austin was one of those one year wonders when the Cowboys rewarded him with a 6 year, $54.1 million dollar contract. Other than some of the big number categories such as YPR, there was almost no reason for Austin to be given the deal he was given. Austinís contract completely changed the playing field, representing a 5.5% increase over the White contract on a per year basis despite White being a much better and more proven player. It was likely the Austin deal that led to Holmes receiving $9 million a year from the Jets rather than the $8.5 million or so White received. Not surprisingly Austinís numbers have never been close to the production that occurred in the year prior to his new contract and his contract is hard to justify at this point even though he is still effective when healthy.
So where do we place Johnson in this group? Immediately eliminate Holmes and Jennings from the group. They just showed more than Johnson and while Johnson has the upside to improve even more, it would be unrealistic to expect those levels consistently. He is a better player than Evans who was more of a one trick pony with the deep passes. His closer players are Holmes and Wayne. It is arguable if he is better than Holmes when Holmes signed his contract with the Jets. Holmes is more of a threat though both caught passes in the end zone. Johnson is slightly more reliable.
In Wayneís case you have to factor in the fact that he put these stats up with Peyton Manning as his QB and Manning can inflate a players numbers across the board. He probably cant get to Wayneís level but at least you could make the argument that if the Bills end up with an upper echelon QB he has that type of upside. Wayneís contract is very old and adjusting it based on franchise tag growth through the years we are getting a value of something like $8.8 million in 2011.
Johnson had said he would give the Bills a discount to remain in Buffalo and that will probably need to happen if he is to remain a Bill. Buffalo has not exactly been known as a big spender and the few times they have spent it seems to not work out for them. The biggest scare for them is that he turns into another Lee Evans. Evans played well enough to justify the contract, but once the deal was signed Evans fell off a cliff. His best season was 612 yards in 2009 and the Bills traded him in 2011. Teams, I believe, get scared off when they see similar situations between players they signed.
The Bills are going to point to the decline of Evans, Austin, Holmes, and former Cowboy Roy Williams as reasons that Johnson is not worth the money he is seeking. Still for every bust there is a success. Wayne, White, and Jennings were huge successes, not to mention the recent explosion of the Packers Jordy Nelson who they wisely locked up before his great season. It is a 50/50 proposition and you have to pay for that chance in the NFL.
Because the guys right at the top of the list did not live up to the deals I donít think you will see Johnson ask for or get $9 million a season. To come up with his value Ill compare him with the success guys of Wayne, White, and Jennings. In looking at how he performs across the categories I calculate his value to be about 97% of Wayneís, 94% of Whiteís, and just under 92% of Jenningsí when they all signed their contract extensions. To come up with a final value Iím adjusting each of their deals based on the franchise tag growth of about 6 ľ% each year over the last 4 years and calculating based on that since that puts those deals in todays dollars.
Johnson should be worth somewhere between $8.45 and $8.6 million a year to a team. There is no escape from a three year total, which is essentially guaranteed. Other than Jennings, who only received 3 new years, all of the current long term extension players received around $30 million. He should not receive less than $28.5 million. In terms of firm guarantees he will be in the $18 million range. Holmes received $24 million which is far more than anyone else at the position, but nearly $8 million of that is a conditional guarantee based on being on the roster, something that he may not even be by the end of this month. That brings his real guarantee down into the $16 million range. So he will probably receive around $18 million in guaranteed money.
If the Bills can get Johnson for $7.5 million a season itís a real steal. If the team still believes he is only worth $5.5 million a season then there is no possible way to reach a deal. Johnson is worth far more on the open market. The Bills can threaten Johnson with the franchise tag, but with an estimate of about $9.3 million I canít see why they would do that. The franchise tag is meant for either an older player that is still playing well, such as 31 year old Wes Welker, or a one year wonder like Austin. Johnson will be 26 and has already put together 2 solid seasons. Franchising him does not benefit Buffalo in any way.
Iíd be surprised if Johnson ends up under $8 million a season, unless it contains some relatively easy incentives to bump up the value of the deal. I also canít see him reaching the $9 million threshold, but he firmly belongs somewhere in between. Buffalo should be coming down from that number not up from $5.5 million if they really want to keep him. If the $7.5 million a year still stands they should be calling up Johnsonís agent and asking him if Johnson can sign that deal right now. I guess we shall see in the next few months how this all plays out.