Was Cutting Greg Jennings the Right Call for the Minnesota Vikings?

The Vikings will move on from Greg Jennings. Was it the right move?

No one can be absolutely objective; it’s just not possible. We all have biases based on our genetics, where we grew up, the people we’ve been around, and so on. There’s a large debate in educational psychology and child development about whether “nature” or “nurture” plays a bigger role, but so far, they’ve seemed to find that both influence a child fairly evenly. I’ve mentioned my Green Bay Packers’ bias before, but it’s not often that that gets in the way of my analysis.

That said, I was both born with the blood of Cheesehead and raised within the borders of Packer Nation; both objectively and subjectively, I cannot understand why the Vikings would cut wide receiver -- and former Packer -- Greg Jennings this offseason.

I know and understand the rationale: in the 2013 offseason, Minnesota was pursuing another free agent wide receiver -- Mike Wallace -- and they lost out to the Miami Dolphins. So, instead they signed Jennings away from my Packers in free agency. Now, however, the Vikings were able to swing a trade for Wallace in the 2015 offseason, and this left Jennings expendable.

But will this really improve the Vikings?

Spin Doctor

Like I mentioned before, there’s obviously a large element of this that has to do with the cap numbers of the players. Jennings had a consistent $11 million cap hit for the last three years of his contract. Wallace has a $9.9 million cap hit in 2015, then $11.5 million for his last two years.

By moving on from Jennings with Wallace, the Vikings are actually taking on more money this year, due to the dead money left over from Jennings’ contract. With a $6 million bonus due to him for 2015, the Vikings then took on $9.9 million from Wallace, and when we do some simple addition, we find that Minnesota is now shelling out $15.9 million for that roster spot, instead of Greg Jennings’ $11 million salary.

Was it worth it to boost the spending on that spot by nearly 33 percent?

Homer’s Where the Heart Is

In a rational world, NFL teams will pay for the best production possible; that’s not always true, though. In many instances, it’s the perception of the best production possible that teams actually chase, making ill-informed personnel decisions due to reputation, age, and even former draft slot (looking at you, Trent Richardson). Was Mike Wallace really the guy the Vikings should have gone after, or was savvy veteran Greg Jennings a better fit?

The way we’ll look at this is through the eyes of numberFire’s signature metric: Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP is a contextual production metric, assigning situational value to events that actually happened on the field. A three-yard run isn’t worth the same in a game when it’s first-and-10, compared to a fourth-and-one. By weighting these plays with expected points, we see how much a team or player actually contributed to their team’s success.

The table below shows Jennings’ career in Reception NEP (all NEP gained or lost on successful receptions), Target NEP (all NEP gained or lost on any target), and Reception Success Rate (the percentage of plays where the player contributed positive NEP). His ranks among receivers with at least 60 targets each season are also listed next to each category.

Where does Jennings’ Packers legacy stand?

YearAgeRec NEPTarget NEPRec NEP/PRec Success %
20062351.67 (54th)-1.90 (58th)0.49 (64th)86.67% (33rd)
20072488.52 (20th)52.82 (9th)1.05 (2nd)88.68% (38th)
200825115.32 (5th)59.73 (5th)0.82 (10th)90.00% (t-20th)
200926101.11 (12th)62.65 (6th)0.85 (11th)95.65% (5th)
201027111.37 (7th)61.60 (4th)0.90 (3rd)89.47% (t-24th)
20112886.87 (19th)55.71 (8th)0.86 (12th)83.58% (58th)
20122935.62 (69th)9.43 (60th)0.57 (57th)86.11% (42nd)

2012’s struggles were due to an injury-shortened season, which belies the fact that he was still playing a crucial role in his eight last games in the Green Bay offense. Jennings had performed at an elite level in nearly every category from 2007 onward, his rise tied almost directly to Aaron Rodgers’ growth as the starting quarterback for the Packers.

The one surprising fact of Jennings’ resume in Green Bay is that his Reception Success Rate ranking was pretty poor almost every year. This is a metric that measures the percentage of receptions that resulted in a positive NEP gain for a player. In only one year in Green Bay did he have a rate lower than 86%, but he ranked inside the top-25 of this metric only three times, from 2008 to 2010. This, in conjunction with his relatively high Reception NEP per target rankings, indicates that Jennings was a little bit more of a big-play player than we might expect. It suggests that he wasn’t consistently great but more so frequently average and sometimes excellent.

What about in his time in Minnesota?

YearAgeRec NEPTarget NEPRec NEP/PRec Success %
20133067.47 (36th)15.54 (52nd)0.64 (t-41st)82.35% (56th)
20143169.39 (34th)35.93 (30th)0.76 (t-21st)89.83% (20th)

When he went to the Vikings in 2013, we can see that he likely didn’t live up to the fairly hefty extension he signed, but he was still a very good player. Not only was he a top-40 receiver in total value (Reception NEP), but also he was a top-30 receiver in his second year with the Vikings in Target NEP. Mind you, this was with a corps of Matt Cassel, Christian Ponder, and rookie Teddy Bridgewater. In addition, he was top-25 in per-target Reception NEP, showing that he was making the most of each play. With Bridgewater at the helm, it seemed like Jennings was having a personal renaissance.

Distancing Yourself

Enter Mike Wallace, legendarily one of the fastest players and most difficult personalities in the league. The would-have-been crown jewel of Minnesota’s 2013 free agent class, he now dons the purple-and-yellow after all. We know offensive coordinator Norv Turner love his deep threats; will Wallace be a better fit for this offense?

The table below shows Wallace’s and Jennings’ last two years of NEP production, totaled. Which one was better for his team?

PlayerYearAgeRec NEPTarget NEPRec NEP/PRec Success %
Greg Jennings20133067.47 (36th)15.54 (52nd)0.64 (t-41st)82.35% (56th)
Mike Wallace20132767.23 (37th)13.52 (53rd)0.48 (t-55th)80.82% (64th)
Greg Jennings20143169.39 (34th)35.93 (30th)0.76 (t-21st) 89.83% (20th)
Mike Wallace20142877.23 (32nd)42.17 (23rd)0.67 (t-38th)91.04% (15th)

There is an obvious edge to Wallace in terms of age, but a big concern for him has always been reliability. Most question his hands and catch ability, but we look at this a different way when we compare Success Rate. This way we can see a bit better how often a player helped his team, as opposed to just catching the ball. In this regard, Wallace actually did enough to improve in Success Rate drastically from 2013 to 2014, even passing Jennings.

In every other category, Wallace kept abreast of Jennings in 2013, but then passed him by in 2014 quite handily, excepting Reception NEP on a per-target basis. A lot of Wallace’s value came from great volume (115 targets in 2014 compared to Jennings’ 91), but he still wasn’t doing as much with each of his opportunities. It’s hard to extrapolate anything from that one data point, but if we can say anything about it, it’s that consistency has never been a huge part of Wallace’s game.

There’s No Place Like Home

The data indicates that cutting Jennings, while seemingly nonsensical for a team that just signed him two years ago, may be the right move. Only the Vikings can assess for themselves whether the extra money and draft pick they spent in order to get Wallace will make the marginal difference in their production worth it, but there’s no denying that due to his age and skill-set, Wallace is a player with much more upside.

Does Jennings deserve another job in the league? I think so. He’s still playing at a fairly high level, and has a sustainable possession-style skill-set. He could have played out his remaining three years until age 35 with solidity, I believe. He won’t be unemployed for long.