Estimating a Contract for WR Wes Welker
After a Twitter exchange with Greg Bedard, excellent reporter for the Boston Globe , about correctly valuing Wes Welker I thought maybe it would be interesting to take a closer look at him. My contention was that he is difficult to value because he is 31 years old and has limited value to the other NFL teams because of the short passing game he plays. There is also the fact that prior players have left the Patriots system and completely failed which could make other teams caution. So lets look at some of the factors and see if that is right or not.
The pure stats
Production wise you simply can’t shortchange Welker. Sometimes people get too caught up in the fact that he’s 5’9” and not a highlight reel athlete, but the numbers are better than almost every elite receiver in the game. Here is a comparison of the 3 year averages of Welker to Andre Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, Calvin Johnson, and Roddy White:
Welker contributes the most catches, 2nd most yards, and most YAC of these players. His 72% percent of targets caught is ridiculous compared to the other players, at least at first glance. He is clearly treated as a 1 based on his times targeted by Tom Brady. The only area where he falters is in percent of receptions that go for a TD. He’s not dangerous like the other players in that manner, which is probably a big reason why he gets overlooked by many as not being as valuable as these bigger name players. But in terms of offensive contribution he’s right there with the elite.
Value to Others
Going back to our first chart the low YPC and high YAC one thing that is pretty apparent is that Welker is catching most of his passes just a few yards down the field while the others are likely going for deeper pass routes which are less successful. Based on data I compiled from Profootballfocus.com, the average percent of passes completed between 0 and 9 yards is 70.8 % for the 38 QBs who participated in more than 25% of their teams snaps. That puts the extremely high completion percentage in a little better perspective. I don’t have the individual breakdowns for the players for various parts of the field, but PFF does track long attempts over 20 yards. If we pull those numbers out of the matrix Welker catches 75% of his passes while the others all rise significantly more with the exception of Whit who only increases to just over 60%. Welker still has the best catch rate, but people will note that he also plays with one of the best QBs in the game.
That short game has extreme value to the Patriots. Last year 57.1% of Tom Brady’s pass attempts that travelled beyond the LOS went for less than 9 yards in the air. It was the 5th highest in the NFL of the 38 players I tracked. The only players with a higher percentage were Dan Orlovsky, Colt McCoy, Josh Freeman, and Kevin Kolb. The average is just 49%. Brady had the 8th fewest attempts beyond 20 yards at 10.1% of passes attempted. The players with less were Freeman, Kolb, Fitzpatrick, Gabbert, Orton, McNabb, and McCoy. The average in the NFL was 13.1%.
That’s why I say that there is somewhat limited value among other teams with Welker. He fills a role, but doesn’t provide that threat that some other players do by being featured in a down the field game. I think it’s rare that an offense changes their game for a WR and if you force Welker into a role where he is not going to be able to run the same routes or be targeted the same amount of times as he is now the numbers are going to decline. At 31 you can probably eliminate teams with young QBs as interested in him, with the exception of maybe the Brown and Rams who are both desperate. To me his potential landing spots just based on situational play would be Tampa Bay, San Francisco, Arizona, Detroit, Buffalo, Atlanta, Tennessee, New York Jets, and New Orleans. Arizona, Atlanta, and Detroit are already committed to multiple receivers while the Saints have too many cap problems to probably consider him. That leaves Tampa, San Francisco, Buffalo, Tennessee, and the Jets to bid against New England if this was an open market bidding war. With the Titans on the cusp of going young at QB and Tampa a mess they would be more cautious than the other squads.
The Age Factor
Is 31 old? I kind of thought it was but when you look at the production of wideouts beyond 30 its really pretty young. Jerry Rice was a freak of nature, but Rod Smith, Jimmy Smith, Terrell Owens, Isaac Bruce, Tim Brown, Cris Carter, Marvin Harrison, and Donald Driver were all very effective players in the 30s. Maybe there is some added concern that with the type of game Welker plays, which is predicated on yards after catch, that the age will be more of an issue than players who were more “around the field” threats, as we will see later with Anquan Boldin, but its probably reasonable to assume he would produce similar to his averages for the next 3 years. The question really is when he hits 34 is the decline steep as for many players that seemed to be the last hurrah and the end of the line. I’d imagine his value caps at 3 and maybe 4 years to a team.
The New England Curse?
New England makes WRs look good or at least that’s what many of us are led to believe. The most prominent example was Randy Moss who looked completely finished before he came to New England and returned to become one of the best in the game again. David Givens put up decent numbers as a Patriot, got a deal in Tennessee to be a top target and was terrible. He had 8 catches in 5 games before tearing his ACL and never playing again. Deion Branch was brought in to be a top target in Seattle, flopped, came back to New England and played well again. Even Reche Caldwell looked adequate in a Patriot uniform.
Maybe some people take pause because of that and I think there are clearly some WRs who want to play in NE in hopes of bumping their pricetags, but Welker is a far superior talent to Branch and Givens. Moss is a player I touched on a few years ago when the Jets were rumored to be interested and I think his demise in Oakland was greatly exaggerated and had more to do with poor QB play and overestimating the value of a WR than anything else. Welker isn’t putting up 800 yards as a two and you hope he can be the man like Givens and Brach were. He is a bonafide top player that would gain over 1000 yards in any system that values the slot type player. So probably not really a factor at all.
The Franchise Tag Folly
When the NFLPA agreed to this new concept of pricing the franchise tag it did nothing but hurt the players and their leverage. Welker signed his tag and is now set to be a Patriot for 1 year at a price of $9.5 million. As a bargaining point it’s a mistake. By signing the tender, in essence, the player has agreed that the value for his services are $9.5 million. It’s one thing for a younger player to do this who is possibly entering his prime years. You can reasonably assume that the player would be worth 3 years on the tag with the price rising 120% each year leading to an annual value of $11.5 million over the 3 seasons. There is at least some negotiating room. Welker is still going to be effective as he ages but his prime seasons are probably done and he’ll be expected to go backwards from here. If you assume a 10% decline a year you are looking at a player telling the team he is only worth about $8.6 million a season over a 3 year span. It gives the team the opportunity to take the wait and see approach to determine just what you have left and in the cases of questionable talent or aging talent likely costs them a great deal of potential earnings. Welker would have been better off just holding out rather than giving in to public pressure.
What is the Value
All things considered I think you have to compare Welker to players who are seeing a good deal of time in the slot that also aren’t running deeper routes during most games, rather than those big name players even though the overall production of Welker is very high. I think your true value comparables become Marques Colston, Miles Austin, Nate Burleson, and Anquan Boldin. There are some other players such as Percy Harvin who clearly fit the bill, but playing on a rookie contract gives us no idea of free agent worth. Here are their stats presented as 3 year averages at the time of their new contract signing, with the exception of Austin, where I just used his 2009 stats. The reason I did this was because Dallas so overpaid Austin, who did nothing in the two prior years before 2009, that there is no way to use any 3 year average as a reliable valuation metric for him.
This is a far superior set of closer players to Welker’s skillset, far more so than the original group in the first table. Here is a group of players that, for the most part, have games built around catch and go routes. Extremely high catch levels since the deep routes were never a major factor in their games. Welker is more productive overall per game, but this I think is where you factor in the New England short game system. Welker was targeted more than 2 times more a game than everyone here except Boldin. His actual production per target ranks 4th on the list just below Boldin. In terms of game style I’d consider Boldin a pretty good barometer for Welker since Boldin was a short play, big run after catch player before his new contract from the Baltimore Ravens. Patriots aside I think the targets you see here are more indicative of what you would expect from Welker in a different uniform. Somewhere around 6 receptions a game for 70 yards and 6 TDs a year. There is nothing wrong with those numbers at all but its 1100 yards good not 1500 yards good like Welker gained last season.
Now lets look at the deals signed by these players. As always please note that these are my best estimations of the contracts based on information I have either received or done my best to calculate from reports.
First of all its pretty notable how the slot type player is lessened in value to players that present more of an overall threat around the field. Again the first person I am looking at here is Boldin for a few reasons. One is that he played with a top of the line caliber QB in Arizona the same situation Welker has with Brady. When he signed his extension he was going to be 30 years old, but he also had one season left on his contract, so the real extension years are from ages 31-33, the same as we would have been looking at for Welker had he not signed his franchise tag. Statistically its very close, though Boldin did play with Larry Fitzgerald while Welker has pretty much been the guy in New England for some time.
Austin got a ridiculous Jerry Jones contract. Made no sense at the time and even less sense now. Still he caps off at $9 million. Colston didn’t get more than that. He does have incentives he can earn to push the value of the deal to $40 million, but even then its Boldin money. Burleson is the least productive and paid that way. I kind of wonder if Colston, who seems like he got shortchanged, was hurt by the way Boldin bombed with Baltimore. Without the QB he just isn’t the same player nor is he close to the YAC he had in his 20s. Could that effect Welker? Possibly, especially since Colston is more productive on a per target basis. He just isn’t looked at as much.
So where do you fit Welker in? He’s already earning 9.5 million guaranteed so any extension would be on top of that. Other than Austin the deals would carry each player to the 33 year old mark. So I think that is our stopping point with Welker. Two year extension on top of his 1 year franchise tag. Those two years will likely carry an additional 6-6.7 million in guarantees. I’d anticipate annual salaries closer to those of Colston with a similar incentive based structure to allow the ability to earn more money. Welker is more important to New England than any of these players were to their teams, but I don’t think New England feels that way. I think their opinion is more that they have a glut of receivers and anyone can take the job and perform well. So I don’t see that additional value at play. One thing that New England may be thinking is that any deal signed is a 3 year contract, but if you already committed the 9.5 million to him you have to live with it.
Fair number? 2 years $15 million with $7 million guaranteed and the opportunity to earn another $2 million in incentives. That would make his total contract effectively a 3 year deal for $24.515 million with $16.515 million guaranteed and the chance to earn another $2 million in compensation. If New England is in that ball park its probably a fair contract for Welker. You could throw another year on it to make everyone feel happy even though you know it will most likely never be honored, but I think that is the number that the two sides should be playing with to get a deal done.