Game Theory

Ten NFL players who most deserve new deals: Dak Prescott No. 3

There are a lot of factors that come into play when signing long-term, big-money contracts. A variety of market dynamics facing individual players -- like positional scarcity, teams' cap situations, years left on the contract and the player's relationship to the organization -- can carry weight. And, of course, this offseason, there is uncertainty stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic to contend with, as well. However, performance and production as they relate to wins is almost always the main measuring stick that drives the value of a deal. 

As it stands right now, a number of high-profile, high-value players are in line to earn a hefty new contract, with some players potentially even resetting the market at their positions. Which begs the question: Taking into account all of the on-the-field clues contextualized data can provide, who deserves a new deal the most? 

Using my win-share model results and forward-looking projections to estimate future win impact, I've ranked 10 high-profile players in line for potential new deals according to the urgency with which their teams should approach negotiations, with the universal caveat that adjustments made necessary by the COVID-19 pandemic could throw a monkey wrench into the proceedings. You can see all 10 players ranked below, listed along with 2020 win-share projections and my model's deal priority ratings (these are presented on a scale from 1, or least urgent, to 10, or most urgent):

Rank
T-1
Patrick Mahomes
Patrick Mahomes
Kansas City Chiefs · QB

2020 win-share projection: 5.0 (first among QBs). Deal priority rating: 10.


The reigning Super Bowl MVP is my model's top-rated QB next season, narrowly edging out the current highest-paid QB (Russell Wilson). Next Gen Stats shows that Mahomes threw 25 touchdowns on deep passes over the past two seasons, the most in the NFL, and he also had the second-highest yards-per-attempt mark targeting receivers aligned in the slot last season (10.5). So while the 10th overall pick of the 2017 NFL Draft does have two years remaining on his deal, it would behoove the Chiefs to get something done as soon as possible, both to reward the player who helped drive their championship run -- and to lock him in now before his price rises even higher.

Rank
T-1
Deshaun Watson
Deshaun Watson
Houston Texans · QB

2020 win-share projection: 4.82 (QB 4). Deal priority rating: 10.


Remember, my models rate win-win situations higher than distributive ones. Meaning, I would be pushing for a deal to be signed now whether I was working for Watson -- who can be retained for two more years on his rookie deal -- OR the Texans. Houston made some big moves this offseason, trading away receiver DeAndre Hopkins and signing left tackle Laremy Tunsil to an extension, and the best historical references show that securing Watson now correlates to more wins in the long term. My models rate getting Watson's deal done this season as almost exactly the same value as the Chiefs extending Patrick Mahomes. When I sort the surrounding offensive casts of the top seven QBs in terms of win-share in my model (including Watson, Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Drew Brees, Tom Brady), Watson's current surrounding cast on offense ranks the lowest ... by far.


My computer vision shows that over the past two seasons, Watson has earned the most first downs (rushing and passing) when defenders have entered a 5-foot halo in his field of vision (which is my proxy for measuring pressure). Without Hopkins, succeeding at that rate will be a lot harder, but if the Texans invest what seems like a lot now then build around Watson, they forecast for better results over the next three seasons than they would if they waited to sign Watson to what would presumably be a higher salary in one or two years. That is, they should be better positioned to acquire higher-value surrounding cast members if they extend Watson now.

Rank
3
Dak Prescott
Dak Prescott
Dallas Cowboys · QB

2020 win-share projection: 4.5 (QB 11). Deal priority rating: 8.


Prescott, who signed his $31.4 million exclusive franchise tag this week, has until July 15 to sign a long-term extension with the Cowboys. His ranking here is interesting, because Dallas' non-QB offensive players have a higher collective win-share total than the supporting casts of all but two teams. In other words, the Cowboys' offensive line, running backs and pass-catchers add a lot more win-share value than most quarterbacks work with around the league. And yet, Prescott is crucial to the Cowboys' success. Consider that Next Gen Stats show Prescott ranked third in the NFL in passing yards per attempt on passes of 10-plus air yards (13.0) in 2019; he also threw 18 touchdowns on such passes (third-best). And for all the value the receivers add, Dak's pass-catchers dropped the most passes in the NFL (43), per Pro Football Focus. If he ends up playing on the tag, Dak will be the seventh-highest paid QB in the NFL on an average annual basis, per Over the Cap.

Rank
T-4
Dalvin Cook
Dalvin Cook
Minnesota Vikings · RB

2020 win-share projection: 0.83 (RB 5). Deal priority rating: 7.


Let's set aside for now the question of Cook's reported intention to hold out heading into his contract year, as well as the observation made by NFL Network's Tom Pelissero that the new collective bargaining agreement would make a holdout "virtually prohibitive." Yards after contact and yards after the catch are two categories in which Cook really drove his value, and he projects to continue driving even more value there going forward. His ability to earn chunk yardage showed up in the fact that he logged 73 rushes of at least 15 miles per hour, the most among RBs in 2019 -- only Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson had more. Reaching these speeds often means having and/or finding open lanes and forcing missed tackles. Last season, Cook earned 10 touchdowns on rushes outside the tackles, tying Derrick Henry for the most in the NFL, per NGS.

Rank
T-4
George Kittle
George Kittle
San Francisco 49ers · TE

2020 win-share projection: 0.73 (TE 2). Deal priority rating: 7.


Only Philadelphia's Zach Ertz has a higher win-share projection for 2020 at the tight end position -- and that is driven by questions around the Eagles' running game and receiving corps. Kittle, a fifth-round pick in 2017 who is entering the final season of his rookie deal, is on a team that enjoys more certainty at the ball-carrying and pass-catching positions. Last season, NGS shows Kittle averaged 3.3 receiving yards per route run in 2019, the most in the NFL among those with a minimum of 100 routes. Kittle should have no problem re-setting the tight end market, considering the top salary at that position currently averages $10.6 million (per Over the Cap), but he might have a hard time convincing the team to give him receiver-type money, if that's what he's looking for. Only time will tell what a "George Kittle deal" -- which is what his agent told NFL Network's Michael Silver he's seeking, as opposed to the standard tight end valuation -- will look like.

Rank
T-6
Chris Jones
Chris Jones
Kansas City Chiefs · DT

2020 win-share projection: 1.8 (DI 3). Deal priority rating: 6.


The deal priority rating here reflects that the Chiefs used the franchise tag on Jones (set to pay him $16.1 million), which draws some parameters on the deal terms for securing his services but also leaves the opportunity for Jones to earn more money next season on an average annual basis than he would this season (Jones' trajectory is increasing). A second-round pick in 2016, Jones has ascended to be my model's third-best projected interior defender, a ranking he achieved over the past two seasons, as well. Jones' efficiency on passing downs (as with his 24.5 sacks over the past two seasons) is easy to see on film. Jones' help against the run last season in coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's defense drove even more value for the Chiefs, as he ranked sixth in my computer vision defensive run-stopping metric among interior defenders. This means when a back ran into the space near Jones, he helped stop their ability to earn first downs and touchdowns at the sixth-highest rate at his position.  

Rank
T-6
Alvin Kamara
Alvin Kamara
New Orleans Saints · RB

2020 win-share projection: 0.82 (RB 6). Deal priority rating: 6.


Broken tackles mean extra yards, and Kamara's impact rushing and catching passes is characterized by his ability to gain extra ground by eluding defenders. My model ranks his impact after the ball is in his hand (whether he's attempting a rush or catching a pass) as the third-highest in the NFL over the past two seasons. NGS adds that his 5.1 yards-per-rush mark outside the tackles ranks as the third-highest in the NFL since 2017 (among those with a minimum of 250 outside rushes; Nick Chubb ranks first and Derrick Henry ranks second). The 2017 third-round pick is entering the final season of his rookie deal. I know many "analytics" people say not to pay a running back, but I would amend that to say no position should be overpaid -- and no players should be devalued just by virtue of the position they play. 

Rank
8
Allen Robinson
Allen Robinson
Chicago Bears · WR

2020 win-share projection: 0.69 (WR 16). Deal priority rating: 5.


Robinson is the only player I'm looking at for this article who is seeking a third contract, as he's entering the final year of a three-season deal with the Bears. His average of $14 million dollars over each of the past three seasons ranks 14th at the position, per Over The Cap, which is a higher ranking than my projection -- but even so, he's likely undervalued. How? Only 64.9 percent of Robinson's career targets have been catchable, the fifth-lowest rate among the 82 receivers with 250-plus targets since 2014, per PFF. In other words, QB play has been a limiting factor for a receiver who's spent his career catching passes from Blake Bortles and Mitchell Trubisky. 

Rank
9
Jamal Adams
Jamal Adams
New York Jets · S

2020 win-share projection (if he plays out the season with the Jets): 0.77 (S 3). Deal priority rating: 4. 


Adams' place on my Analytics All-Star team for 2019 was very much driven by his ability to generate pressure; his 17 quarterback pressures in 2019 ranked highest among defensive backs. He's no doubt a valuable asset. His ranking at the bottom of this list has more to do with the fact that, as the No. 6 overall pick of the 2017 NFL Draft, he could technically be kept on his rookie deal for up to two more seasons, including the fifth-year option. Now, one complicating factor, of course, is his demand for a trade and a new deal. And the Jets should consider the potential ramifications of Adams being unhappy or potentially holding out -- if he refuses to play, they should trade him. But the bottom line is, the team currently has enough leverage to let this situation play out a little bit. And unlike Mahomes, his position simply doesn't carry the same impact as a quarterback.

Rank
10
Myles Garrett
Myles Garrett
Cleveland Browns · DE

2020 win-share projection: 0.86 (EDGE 9). Deal priority rating: 3.


As with Adams, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft can be kept on his rookie deal for up to two more years, thanks to his fifth-year option. His data from 2018 to '19 shows excellent pass-stopping ability but less-exceptional run-stopping ability. NGS shows that Garrett pressured opposing quarterbacks on 17.1 percent of dropbacks in 2019 (the second-highest rate of any player in a season since 2016). Without Garrett on the field, the Browns' front pressured QBs on 21.5 percent of dropbacks; with him on the field, that number was 23.9 percent, per NGS. His value to the team is clear, and Cleveland might decide the best move is to lock him in now, but the team does have time on the clock to decide what to do, which is why he falls at the bottom of this list.

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