A Look at Titans RB Chris Johnson
With everyone taking a stab at Chris Johnson's new contract I figured why not jump into something non Jet related at take a look at one of the last two big running back contracts the NFL will probably see for the foreseeable future as most teams have phased out the one back system with a multi back approach.
Johnson is looking to become the highest paid non QB in the NFL. At first I had assumed that this meant he wanted to be the highest paid skill positional player (essentially RB's and WR's) and earn more than Larry Fitzgerald, however reports were that Johnson wants a deal that pays him in the neighborhood of $13 million per season, significantly more than Fitzgerald's $10 million per season deal that he signed in 2009 and significantly more than the highest paid running back in the NFL, DeAngelo Williams, at $8.6 million per year.
This is a tough spot for the Titans because Johnson is currently their best football player, but investing this type of money in a RB is very dangerous. Johnson was excellent as a rookie with 1,488 total offensive yards from scrimmage and all worldly in 2009 with his 2,509 offensive yards. There are two problems for Johnson, however. While nobody expected him to duplicate his 2009 season, his 2010 season fell dramatically, nearly 36% less offensive yards and 27% less yards per touch. 1609 yards is still a great number, but is that worth $4.4 million per year more than the next highest paid running back? Absolutely not.
But the bigger problem for Johnson is the nature of the position. The big contract players at running back are Williams, Steven Jackson, Maurice Jones-Drew, and Frank Gore. None were used as much as Johnson in their rookie seasons and began their production in their second years in the NFL. In that respect I would consider year 4 and 5 of these players to be the equivalent of Jones' 3rd and 4th seasons. Lets look at the production:
Jackson set the market in 2008 with a $43.2 million extension from the Rams. This deal came a full season after Jacksons 2,334 yard campaign, which came in his 3rd season as a pro. Jackson never came close to that form again. His total yards dropped 45% in his 4th year and the closest he came to that incredible season again was in his 6th season in the NFL where he was 25% below that career high. The closest his yards per touch came was within 9.4% in year 5. Jackson has only played 16 games once since his career year.
Williams is the new market setter, in what I would consider a very risky deal by the Panthers. Williams never put up yardage numbers like Johnson, Jackson, or Gore. He hit his high, 1,636 yards, in year 3. He only played in 13 games in year 4, leading to a 16% drop in productivity, and 6 games in year 5. He was 23% off his year 4 pace in terms of yards per touch when he got injured.
Gore produced 2,180 yards in his second year as a pro. His yards fell almost 30% after that season and in almost every year thereafter his stats have declined. Gore has yet to play 16 games since his superb season.
Drew is the one exception to the group, though he never had the touches these other players had. His yards per touch have fell from years 2 thru 4 before a modest 2% increase in 2010 over his 2009 yards per touch. His high point in terms of yards is 1765 in his 4th season. He only played 14 games the following year and its anyone's guess as to how his career will wind up.
So there is the risk for Johnson. It is most likely that his games played is going to fall and he is probably going to continue to see slight declines in his productivity over the life of his contract. 2,500 yards is never going to happen again. He may see a small bump in production from 2010 this season, but that is not going to be worth the kind of money he is looking for.
From the Titans perspective there is also the additional risk of overpaying for a position they will likely phase out over time. The Titans just used the 8th overall pick in the draft on a Quarterback. When you spend that pick on a QB you are going to eventually start throwing the football. For as much as the Jets like to talk about "Ground and Pound", they threw the ball more last season and will likely throw more in 2011 than they did in 2010. Money is being spent by the Jets on wide receivers for Mark Sanchez, while they bring in mid draft rookies for the running game.
The problem for the Titans is the contract that Williams just got from the Panthers. Johnson is a significantly better player and is coming off 3 excellent seasons. Williams never approached Johnson's biggest numbers, declined in the year following his career season, and was injured last year. If Williams is worth $8.6 million per year and $21 million guaranteed Johnson has to earn more than that.
Statistically Williams is not equivalent to Jackson and to consider this the top of the market is probably not fair to Johnson. I think Williams has to be looked at as the correction to the running back market. When Jones-Drew signed his deal he had produced 2,564 yards of offense in the two years before the deal. Gore had 2,919. Williams had 3,005 in his two non big injury seasons before his deal. So I think these are the two players we should look at.
Both Gore and Jones-Drew had time remaining on their deals when they signed their extensions. Gore's total contract was worth $5.6 million per year and the extension years were worth $6.9 million. Jones-Drew was a $6.3 million deal with $7.6 million in new money. Using Gore as the baseline, Williams deal would represent about a 25% increase in annual pay per year over the extension value of Gore's contract. The guarantee represents a 53% increase and the 3 year total a 64% increase. Compared to Jones-Drew , a more recent contract, the increases are 13%, 20%, and 18% respectively.
I would use those numbers to set the high and low values of the market and probably settle in between the two since the Gore deal is so old and there is already some correction built into the MJD contract. That puts the annual value on the extension years between 9.7 and 10.7 million per year, with a guarantee around $28 million and $33 million coming in the first three years of the deal.
But Johnson also has to realize that he does have two years left on his contract, unlike Williams who signed a new deal. All of the other players signed contracts whose annual values were around $1 million per year less than the reported extension values. At the very least Johnson has to honor one of those seasons which would likely bring the annual value of the total deal down into the $8.7-9.0 million range.
So how would you structure such a contract? I'm certainly not familiar with the Titans cap situation, but a recent report said they had $6.9 million in room left. So they can probably take on an additional 3 million in cap charges for Johnson in year 1 of his deal. Because of the nature of the running back position the Titans have to structure the deal in a way that they can escape by 2015 in the event Johnson declines badly. I would think that they want the dead money in 2015 to be no more than $5 million and whatever the figure is have it be half of Johnsons cap charge that year.
So I see two options. 1 is to defer some of the cash to Johnson by paying a $7 million signing bonus and $2.7M salary in 2011. He would receive an option bonus of $9 million in 2012. The cap charges and dead money charges from prorated money would be as follows:
|Year||Cap Charge||Dead Money|
Option 2 would pay more now, in the form of a $14.55M signing bonus, but only leave $4 million in dead cap on the books in 2015, making it even less likely for Johnson to play out that year. Those charges would be as follows:
|Year||Cap Charge||Dead Money|
In either case he earns $10.3 million per year on the extension with $28 million in guarantees and $33 million being paid in the first three extension years. My guess is once they move into the 2014 year you will see 20% of his salary paid in per game roster bonuses to try to protect against excessive time spent on the sidelines.
Is this a bit high for a running back? Probably so, but it's probably the fairest way to compromise between the two sides and then set up the next showdown at the position when Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings hits the open market in 2012. We'll be back to Jets talk shortly...