“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”
It was the month before free agency…
While I never intend to write anything with a Dickensian bent, I always felt that the opening to “A Tale of Two Cities” is never more apropos than when applied to the specter of looming free agency in the NFL. Never are more paper championships and Super Bowls won and lost, than in the annual roster re-shuffling known as the free agent signing period.
For some teams this is a chance to help solidify a roster base, for some a desperate gamble for relevance and for yet others it is a chance to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic; hoping to shuffle pieces and desperately remain competitive for the only thing that really matters in the ever waning moments of a championship cycle. A Lombardi trophy.
The Broncos find themselves more inclined to the latter of these examples.
An aging quarterback on his last legs who will be eating up an estimated 15.2 percent of the salary cap, and a litany of potential salary cap casualties returning from a one and done playoff team. A tight end who changes the game (for the average of 9 games he actually makes it on the field for over the last four years) in Julius Thomas, a safety who is better than average in Rahim Moore (but is only remembered for a game losing busted coverage in the playoffs against the Ravens), a space-eating defensive tackle in Terrance Knighton (who struggles with his weight, and has really only ever played under the now departed Jack Del Rio), and a young wide receiver many consider a top-five receiver in the league (but who seems to disappear in the big games) in Demaryius Thomas.
Consensus opinion here in Denver, where I live and work in the media, seems to be to let Moore, Knighton and Julius Thomas walk, and re-sign Demaryius Thomas to a top-five wide receiver contract.
Building your team by investing your money in the wide receiver position isn’t historically intelligent. Pass rushers, pass protectors and passers are the money positions.
Of the 25 most highly paid wide receivers in the league last year, only nine made the playoffs. Of those eight, only Nelson, Wayne and Amendola were on teams that won even one playoff game.
Danny Amendola was the only wide receiver in the top 25 highest paid wide receivers that went to the Super Bowl.
Danny Amendola…and he was tied as the 25th largest cap hit.
Lest you think that type of scenario is an aberration, in the season prior (2013-14) nine top 25 largest cap hit wide receivers made the playoffs, with only two making the Super Bowl (Sydney Rice and Percy Harvin). The season prior to that, only seven made it.
On average over the last decade, only about 30% of the wide receivers who were top 25 cap hits even made the playoffs. Let that sink in. Less than a third of the top 25 paid wide receivers in the NFL make the playoffs, annually.
Which brings me to Demaryius Thomas.
Public perception is that Demaryius Thomas is a top 5 wide receiver in the NFL. He certainly looks the part. Six-foot-three, 230 pounds with sub-4.4 speed will do that for you.
When Thomas came out of Georgia Tech and was billed as the second coming of fellow Georgia Tech alumnus Calvin Johnson, although maybe a “poor man’s Calvin Johnson” (whatever that actually means).
Thomas hasn’t failed to put up great production either.
While he didn’t play much during his first two seasons, once Peyton Manning and Adam Gase got to town his seasons never produced less than 1400 yards and 10 Touchdowns. Fantastic production by any stretch of the imagination, don’t get me wrong.
I have an issue with surface numbers, however. Specifically as they relate to determining what a contract is worth.
Is Demaryius Thomas responsible for all that production, or is he the by-product of a Hall of Fame quarterback who made Austin Collie, Anthony Gonzalez and Blair White household names briefly; and an offensive system that once saw the likes of converted safety Mike Furrey and no-one-is-mistaking-him-for-great Roy Williams (remember him?) put up over 1,000 yards each and 6-7 TDs apiece in the same season with Jon Kitna throwing them the football?
To try to ascertain this I decided to get the cumulative average statistics for the top two wide receivers to play with Peyton Manning, as well as the cumulative average for the top two wide receivers in a Mike Martz/Adam Gase offense. Gase is a Martz disciple and runs the same offense with a few tweaks.
Below is the table:
|Receiver||Average catches per year||Average yards per season||Average TDs per season|
|Avg. Manning WR||99||1466||11|
As you can see, Demaryius plays slightly above the averages for those offenses, but the difference is nearly negligible. Thomas averages two more yards per game than the average number one or two wide receiver that has Peyton Manning as his quarterback, and slightly over three yards per game more than the average Martz or Gase wide receiver.
To secure Demaryius the Denver Broncos are going to have to cough up a (ballpark) five-year, $60 million dollar deal, with $20+ million in guarantees. Is it worth that to secure a wide receiver who is barely out-performing expectation for his position given the system and quarterback he has been playing with?
With the hire of Gary Kubiak, the Broncos look poised to be moving to a run heavy, zone rushing attack that will utilize play action for deep ball. While on the surface Demaryius fills out a box score, when you delve deeper, you begin to see an elite athlete who is barely outpacing the per play numbers of guys like Mike Furrey and Pierre Garcon, who played in the same or similar conditions.
Football Outsiders advanced metrics show Thomas to be the second best wide receiver on his team behind Emmanuel Sanders, and his DVOA to be a staggeringly mediocre 28th in the league.
Why would you spend $10 million a year (the combined yearly salaries of Emmanuel Sanders and TJ Ward, by the way) on a wide receiver who performs at a level you’d expect of anyone in that role (I again refer you to Roy Williams, Mike Furrey and Pierre Garcon)?
The Broncos could afford to keep Terrance Knighton, Peyton Manning at his current salary, and afford to be very active in free agency with the money they’d save by letting Demaryius walk.
“But Ben, who will line up outside in Demaryius Thomas’ spot?”
I’m so glad you asked, dear reader, the answer is the guy you drafted last year to replace he and/or Eric Decker anyway…Cody Latimer. Latimer has been great in practice for the Broncos, and privately players have told me he has the best hands on the team. He’s already under contract, and thanks to first contract salary scaling, under contract cheap.
Fans will hate me, call me stupid and throw out “blogger” as a pejorative; but the reality is stark and simple. Teams that invest heavily in wide receiver contracts don’t win Super Bowls, in fact they barely make the playoffs. Couple that with Demaryius not really outperforming expected numbers for a wide receiver playing with Manning and/or in the Gase/Martz system, and the team gearing toward a different offensive philosophy and you could have a recipe for hamstringing your team financially for the next half decade.
The Broncos should take a page from the Pittsburgh Steelers “next man up” mentality on wide receivers over the last ten years, and let Demaryius get his money elsewhere.