Does T.Y. Hilton Deserve an Elite-Level Contract?

Hilton's rookie deal is up after the 2015 season. Should we consider the speedy receiver one of the best in the league?

Part of it was hubris, I know, a feeling that maybe I deserved something that seemed too good to be true. There have been times in my life where something great - and free - has been offered to me, and the whole time I would keep hoping that I was getting extra recognition for my work, that I deserved it. I convinced myself to believe it was possible.

Let the lesson of this be that hubris will be your downfall, and that there is no such thing as a free lunch.

This led me to an interesting reflection about what it means to deserve recognition for work, though, especially when it comes to players in the NFL. While Dallas Cowboys and Denver Broncos wideouts Dez Bryant and Demaryius Thomas were busy signing their long-term contract extensions last Wednesday, Indianapolis Colts receiver T.Y. Hilton -- whose contract is up after this year -- tweeted this:

Every big-time receiver in the NFL must be licking his chops, but what does it take to deserve an elite-level deal? Is Hilton in that conversation?

Prince of the Myrmidons

I feel like even asking this question is going to set off the “Team Small WR” supporters across the world, but here goes nothing: is T.Y. Hilton truly elite? The former third-round selection in the 2012 NFL Draft has been one of quarterback Andrew Luck’s favorite targets in the passing game for the last three seasons, racking up 215 receptions (an average of 72 per season) for 3,289 yards receiving and 19 touchdowns.

Pretty impressive resume for only three years of work, especially for a player who stands just 5’ 9”, weighing 178 pounds.

I only bring up Hilton’s size because that is a huge reason that many in the football community perceive him to be something less than a true outside wide receiver. The stereotype is that a boundary receiver has to be taller than six feet and weigh at least 200 pounds, while smaller players like Hilton are only gimmicky slot players. Big guys are supposed to get the touchdowns. Small guys like Hilton get lots of volume. Still, we see that Hilton bucks this trend a bit, in that he is versatile. But can he do both at an elite level?

The table below shows T.Y. Hilton and his ranks among his peers in the context of receivers with more than 100 targets last season, based on box score stats and rates. How does Hilton stack up against other high-volume options?

RecTargetsYardsYards/RecTDTD %YAC/Rec
82 (16th)130 (t-16th)1,345 (6th)16.4 (1st)7 (t-16th)8.54% (21st)4.54 (18th)

We can see clearly here that the only area Hilton absolutely excels in is yardage, and that is partially a result of his quarterback being one of the best young passers in the game right now. We could feel more comfortable in Hilton’s natural ability at creating yardage if he ranked higher in per-reception Yards After Catch, but having an exceptional total and ranking mediocrely in the rate statistic is worrisome. Even when we consider Hilton against only the other “small” wide receivers (under six-feet tall), he still only ranks seventh of 13 in touchdown percentage and just eighth in Yards After Catch on a per-reception basis.

By traditional statistics, Hilton has put up some impressive seasons in his short career but does appear to be a bit more dependent on his current air-raiding offense for production than most. Still, yards and touchdowns aren’t the only things we measure. How does the diminutive Hilton measure up when we look at advanced metrics?

Hero of Troy

Here at numberFire, we are notorious for not believing what the box score tells us. We know that there’s more than meets the eye to the game of football, so we like to look at the value of each play as it relates to the game as a whole. For that, we turn to our signature metric, Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP helps us take the numbers we get from the box score and assign them contextual value so they relate even closer to the game on the field. By adding down-and-distance value, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

To this end, we will be looking at Hilton’s annual marks in Reception NEP and Target NEP, as well as his ranks among receivers with 90 or more targets, to figure out just how good he’s been in the league. Maybe he’s being undervalued in terms of his production, or maybe he’s just not in the same tier as Bryant and Thomas. What do we find?

YearAgeRec NEPPer-PlayTarget NEPCatch Rate
20122282.46 (26th)0.92 (2nd)44.49 (14th)55.56% (28th)
20132389.17 (20th)0.64 (t-25th)45.80 (16th)59.71% (25th)
201424108.36 (10th)0.83 (11th)61.06 (10th)62.60% (23rd)

We can see that every year, Hilton has increased his Reception NEP, his Target NEP, and his Catch Rate, taking steady steps forward each time. The only inconsistency lies in his per-play Reception NEP, which had one hiccup in 2013, his sophomore season. Still, that can be explained away as merely a function of adapting to his new role as the primary receiver in Indianapolis; he went from 90 targets in his rookie season to 132 in his second year.

All in all, we see a classic trajectory of development for a very valuable player in the NFL. In every category each year he’s been in the league, he has ranked as a top-32 (read: “number one”) NFL wide receiver. Only this past season has he stepped into the elite conversation in terms of value provided, but his trajectory is still currently pointing upward.

Achilles Heel

Hilton will only be 25 when the 2015 season starts. If you recall my work on the career trajectory for wide receivers, we figured out that an average NFL receiver sees his peak production end after Year 6 in the league. In 2016 -- the first year of his new contract -- Hilton will be entering Year 5. Does this mean that he has only two years of good value left? Absolutely not, especially considering that he plays with one of the best passers in the NFL right now.

That said, we do see our average receiver drop in value from Year 3 to Year 4 per that study. With the data pointing against him, Hilton might face a similar negotiation situation to Bryant and Thomas: he will need to play out his contract year and excel again in order to remove any doubts within his organization that this level of production is sustainable. Should he falter, the Colts may use that as ammunition to either pay him less than he wants, or he might walk in free agency altogether.

Does he deserve that big of a contract? As of right now, I don’t believe he should get “Calvin money.” He has a career catch rate of less than 60%, and doesn’t create the yardage he should if he was an “elite” player. I will be absolutely convinced he deserves an elite-level contract if 2015 sustains -- or surpasses -- his 2014 production in both the box score and advanced metrics.

Regardless of the contract talks, though, I have faith that Hilton will produce at a consistently high level this season and many years that follow.