Which Receiver Should Set the Market for a Long-Term Extension?

Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas, Julio Jones, and A.J. Green need new contracts. Who should come out on top?

For a league that has thrived on innovations and deviating from groupthink, many in the NFL are still scared to be the first do anything. Setting a precedent still appears to be a dangerous proposition.

This isn’t going to devolve into an article about what it could be after those first two sentences given the past year in the league office. Instead this is going to be about wide receivers -- four of them, specifically.

Within the next 10 or so months, the contracts of Dez Bryant, A.J. Green, Julio Jones, and Demaryius Thomas will need to be addressed. Each of those receivers are both very good and only under contract for the 2015 season. Green and Jones are entering the final year of their rookie contracts while Bryant and Thomas are set to play 2015 under the franchise tag. Something about those deals needs to be done and something will be done. The question is when.

We see it during free agency when the middle tier players wait for the big guy to sign so the market can be set at that position. That’s exactly what’s happening here, except there are four marquee players and no team involved wants to set the market. Dallas Cowboys chief operating officer Stephen Jones even said as much when discussing the outlook of talks regarding a Bryant extension. It’s not an enviable position for these teams to be in, as there’s enough wiggle room to make a case for each receiver within the $13 to $16 million per year range.

By average salary, Calvin Johnson leads all receivers making $16.2 million per year per Spotrac. After him it’s Bryant and Thomas on the franchise tag at $12.83 million, and the fourth highest paid receiver is Minnesota’s Mike Wallace at $12 million. There’s quite a large gap to be filled, but these four receivers will fill it before next season at the latest.

The question now is which receiver should be the one to set the market? To answer this, let’s look at a few different things. The most important of which will be our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. NEP measures the value of each play on the field based on how an average player would be expected to score in each scenario using historical data. It helps show how a player performs versus how he’s expected to perform.

Using NEP, we can rank the four receivers in the following categories: average Reception NEP, average Reception NEP per target, total Reception NEP, Reception NEP in that player’s best season, and Reception NEP per target in his best season. Using those five categories, along with age and health, each receiver was given a numerical value based on where he placed among the group. Four points were awarded to the leader in the group while one point was given to the receiver in last place. Health was determined by percentage of games played out of total team games.

Here’s how these receivers turned out. Below you'll find individual tables showing the totals for each receiver in each category and the value given. Spoiler alert: there was a very clear winner.

4. A.J. Green - 15 points

PlayerAvg. RNEP/TargetAvg. RNEPTotal RNEPBest Season RNEP/TargetBest Season RNEPAgeHealth
Green0.73 (1)103.88 (4)415.51 (2)0.85 (1)127.49 (1)26.2 (2)93.75% (4)

This shouldn’t discount how good Green has been, considering he’s in this group to begin with while playing the with worst quarterback of the four. That is an achievement itself. Any new contract for Green should also come with a handwritten apology from Mike Brown for sticking him with Andy Dalton.

Green placed first in only two categories: he tied for first in health and had the highest average Reception NEP. Green was the only receiver not to have a season with a Reception NEP under 80. For some context, receivers with a Reception NEP of roughly 80 in 2014 were Torrey Smith, Marques Colston and Malcom Floyd.

In the other categories, Green was either last or second to last and had the most last place finishes of the four receivers.

3. Julio Jones - 16 points

PlayerAvg. RNEP/TargetAvg. RNEPTotal RNEPBest Season RNEP/TargetBest Season RNEPAgeHealth
Jones0.79 (3)91.12 (1)364.48 (1)0.88 (2)142.69 (4)26.0 (4)76.5% (1)

Jones’ health managed to hold him back in three categories. Health, obviously was one of them. Jones has only played in 76.5 percent of his team’s regular season games since 2011, the lowest of the group. Because he has missed that time, his total Reception NEP numbers take a hit. Jones was last in both average Reception NEP and total Reception NEP.

However, Jones did have the best single season of the four in Reception NEP. That season was this past one in 2014 when he finished second in the league (142.69). Jones can clearly thrive when he’s on the field, but how much he can be on the field should be a real concern when considering his future value. Even though he only missed one game in 2014, he was listed on the injury report in nine weeks. Six of those weeks were listed as “probable,” but they were also for a different injury than what caused him to be listed as questionable during the final three weeks of the season.

2. Demaryius Thomas - 17 points

PlayerAvg. RNEP/TargetAvg. RNEPTotal RNEPBest Season RNEP/TargetBest Season RNEPAgeHealth
Thomas0.79 (3)92.52 (2)462.65 (3)0.92 (3)140.59 (3)27.1 (1)86.25% (2)

Thomas finished last in only one category: age. He’s the oldest of the group by a wide margin, the only one to have turned 27 years old. Thomas also ranked second in every on-field category except for average Reception NEP. That stems from the pre-Peyton Manning era when Thomas failed to surpass a Reception NEP of 50 in each of his first two seasons.

Miles Austin and Kendall Wright had over 50 Reception NEP during the 2014 season for some context. A question about Thomas’ future will clearly be linked to the future of his quarterback. Manning will be in his age-39 season during 2015, and Thomas has undoubtedly been his favorite target since coming to Denver -- Thomas leads this group of receivers in targets since 2012.

Thomas excels after the catch, which should help with a future transition to a new quarterback, but Denver might feel more comfortable going year-to-year with Thomas as they figure out who that quarterback might be.

1. Dez Bryant - 24 points

PlayerAvg. RNEP/TargetAvg. RNEPTotal RNEPBest Season RNEP/TargetBest Season RNEPAgeHealth
Bryant0.81 (4)98.25 (3)491.25 (4)0.94 (4)127.79 (2)26.1 (3)93.75% (4)

Finishing first place in every category would have gotten a receiver 28 points. Bryant came pretty freaking close. There was only one category in which Bryant wasn’t in the top two: best single-season Reception NEP. While Jones and Thomas have put up a higher ceiling, Bryant has been consistently very good during his career. It also wouldn’t be surprising to see him eventually have the type of season that would place him on top within the next few seasons.

The craziest part of this is that Bryant is the second-youngest of these four players. Bryant, Green and Jones are only separated by a few months, but that’s still something that favors Bryant going forward. He’s also coming off his best season on a per-target basis. His 0.94 Reception NEP per target was tied with Randall Cobb for the best among receivers with at least 100 targets in 2014.

Thomas was the only other receiver of the group to have a season with a Reception NEP per target above 0.90 (2013). In discussing a long-term deal with with Bryant, the Cowboys can make claim he’s not not Calvin Johnson, but they’re going to have a hard time making a case Bryant isn’t the best of this class. Stephen Jones was the one who admitted he was wary of setting the market, but it’s his receiver who should come out on top of it.