With the New York Giants willing to part with wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. for the right price, many San Francisco 49ers fans want general manager John Lynch to trade for the premier wideout. But, is Beckham worth the $20 million per season that he expects to command in his second contract?
New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. is unquestionably one of the NFL’s top playmakers. In fact, his first three seasons were perhaps the best ever by a wide receiver; he is the NFL’s only receiver to top 90 catches, 1,300 yards and 10 touchdowns in each of his first three years in the league.
Also unquestionable is the fact that with Beckham’s on-field production comes his share of issues on and off the field. On Sundays, his temper tantrums have become commonplace, and he missed substantial portions of two seasons due to injury. In 2017, Beckham taught us that boat parties and post-season victories don’t mix — and more recently, that drugs and pizza in bed don’t either.
Contract negotiations have stalled as Beckham enters his fifth-year-option season, forcing Giants co-owner John Mara to recently admit that Beckham is a possible trade candidate, with NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport reporting that the Giants have already fielded offers for their star receiver. Meanwhile, Beckham says he won’t play in 2018 without a contract extension, and expects a contract worth at least $20 million per season.
Fans in New York are pleading with Giants management to pay the man. With the San Francisco 49ers reportedly “monitoring [the situation] closely,” fans in the Bay Area are pleading with 49ers general manager John Lynch to pony up draft picks for the opportunity to pay the man.
But is Odell Beckham Jr. worth $20 million a year? Let’s set aside the wildcard that is OBJ’s controversies, lawsuits and diva status, and start with a clean slate. We won’t address “worth” from a Publilius Syrus perspective (dust off your “Econ 101” textbook), as there is likely an NFL team willing to pay Beckham, Julio Jones or Antonio Brown $20 million a year — rather, we’ll answer a more important question: should an NFL team pay any wide receiver $20 million a season?
To answer that question, we need to break down the objectives of an NFL franchise. Off the field, a team’s first objective is to make money, because a team is a business. The money a team makes is directly correlated with the popularity of the NFL, as well as the popularity of that particular team. A team can increase or decrease its popularity a number of different ways, but the most powerful method is directly related to the team’s play on the field; the best way for a team to gain popularity is to consistently win football games, and particularly the Super Bowl. And don’t forget that NFL franchises are owned by competitive businessmen and businesswomen who want to win at everything they do. A good NFL franchise’s efforts are focused around building a team that has the best chance to win a Super Bowl in the shortest reasonable amount of time.
To give itself the best chance to win a Super Bowl, a team needs to acquire the best players that fit into a cohesive scheme; while all teams look for players to fit their particular scheme, the best teams modify their scheme to better fit their personnel. Still, regardless of the type of football a team wants to play, general managers and coaches all look for similar types of athletes — especially compared to teams from decades ago. There are a limited number of these elite athletes, therefore teams are in direct competition for their services — and teams can only pay so much for each of these athletes, because the NFL has a salary cap on player spending. If the combined salaries of a team’s players were a pepperoni pizza, giving one player two slices means another player gets none. And we all know that OBJ loves his pizza.
Every team wants a player of Beckham’s caliber, so when a team dangles a proven elite receiver in exchange for a couple of draft picks, fans want to jump at the chance to land a rare talent. But how much better would Beckham really make your team? If you’re a Giants fan, ESPN’s Bill Barnwell believes that Beckham makes your team a lot better:
If you want to know why the Giants won’t trade Odell Beckham, these are Eli Manning’s stats with and without Odell on the field over the last three seasons: pic.twitter.com/yCynKTU3UI
— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) March 26, 2018
More specificially, Barnwell believes that Beckham makes Gaints quarterback Eli Manning a lot better — and that’s the real issue. If the Giants pay Beckham over $20 million a year, they could still field a Super Bowl winning team; it’s never been done before, but it could feasibly happen. The real question — and New York’s problem — is if the Giants pay both Beckham and Manning over $20 million a year, could they still field a Super Bowl winning team? History tells us that it’s quite unlikely.
NFL Network’s Bucky Brooks touched on a portion of this concept during a fury of tweets on Wednesday:
Explain to me how @OBJ_3 isn’t a $20M+ WR when Sammy Watkins is at $16M? Better yet, tell me how Bortles, Keenum, Bradford, Cousins and so many others are more deserving than him.. Oh, I don’t see any SB rings on those QB’s fingers either https://t.co/HoZml0aezI
— Bucky Brooks (@BuckyBrooks) March 27, 2018
Certainly a faulty generalization, while the Kansas City Chiefs technically made Sammy Watkins a $16 million receiver, a wideout with tier-2 to tier-3 production is certainly not worth his inflated contract. And yes, if Watkins was worth $16 million in a $400-million-salary-cap world, then Beckham would easily be a $20 million receiver, but we don’t yet live in that world.
However, Brooks does hit on the latter point in his tweet. Blake Bortles, Case Keenum and Sam Bradford are not worth $20 million per season, and their inflated contract numbers preclude their teams from signing a $20 million receiver. There’s an argument to be made that Kirk Cousins is worth a $20 million salary, but his three year, $84 million contract takes Beckham off of the Minnesota Vikings’ radar as well.
In his 2018 book Caponomics, Zach Moore from Over the Cap discusses a study from The University of Texas’ McCombs Business School that analyzed the contracts of starting NFL quarterbacks and the impact those contracts had on team performance. The study determined that the maximum amount of money a starting quarterback can earn before his salary begins to have a negative impact on his team’s ability to win is 8.67 percent of the salary cap. Once you reach 8.67 percent, you’re taking too many slices from your teammates — but if you’re one of the NFL’s elite QBs, you’re worth the extra slices, because you can make up for your team’s personnel losses with your superior play. However, in 2018, 8.67 percent of the salary cap is just over $15 million, meaning approximately two-thirds of NFL teams pay their quarterback so much that it negatively affects their chances of winning — and the majority of those quarterbacks are far from elite.
Non-elite quarterbacks are overpaid, and by overpaying them, teams are less likely to win — but this doesn’t mean that elite quarterbacks aren’t worth top dollar. Brooks continued his debate with the masses:
Remind me again when a team has won a Superbowl Championship with an elite wide receiver to the level of Odell Beckham? https://t.co/z69rmMWfMI
— Brady poppinga (@BradyPoppinga) March 27, 2018
This is a good point, although the results are a bit skewed due to the New England Patriots, who rely on an elite receiver who plays tight end instead of wide receiver. If we go by the Beckham standard of 90 catches, 1,300 yards and 10 touchdowns, Denver Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas surpassed Beckham’s numbers in 2014, and then nearly again during Denver’s 2015 Super Bowl season — so Thomas was close, but he doesn’t qualify. In 2007, Randy Moss blew Beckham’s numbers out of the water on a New England Patriots team that was one of the best in the history of the league — but failed to win the Super Bowl.
The answer to this question is 2006, when Marvin Harrison’s 95 catches for 1,366 yards and 12 scores helped lead the Indianapolis Colts — along with Peyton Manning — to the team’s first Super Bowl victory since their exit from Baltimore. Prior to Harrison, we have to go back to Michael Irvin and the 1995 Dallas Cowboys, and Jerry Rice and the 1994 San Francisco 49ers. None of these Hall of Fame wide receivers were paid $20 million a year; instead, the three were paid $11.3 million combined. In today’s salary-cap dollars, their respective cap hits were just $11.1 million, $9.4 million and $15.2 million during their Super Bowl seasons.
Remind me when a $20M+ QB has won a Super Bowl? https://t.co/1r1iP5yZWc
— Bucky Brooks (@BuckyBrooks) March 27, 2018
Instead of comparing apples to oranges, we’ll determine which quarterbacks earned $20 million in today’s salary-cap dollars — and again, the Patriots skew the data thanks to Tom Brady’s hometown discount. Still, we don’t have to search far for the answer. In 2015, the Broncos paid Peyton Manning $21.6 million in today’s dollars, and in 2014, Brady barely missed the mark at $19.7 million. Eli Manning also makes the list with a cap hit of $20.8 million in 2011. Otherwise, the list of recent Super-Bowl-winning QBs is littered with future $20 million men, including Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Joe Flacco and Russell Wilson — which leads us to the answer of our original question.
Should an NFL team pay any wide receiver $20 million a season?
Possibly, but only if the receiver is truly elite, and only if he’s paired with a quality low-cost rookie quarterback. Pairing a $20 million receiver with a $20 million mediocre quarterback will produce a serviceable passing game, but the capital you will spend on these two players precludes you from forming a Championship-caliber team around them. And pairing a $20 million receiver with a more expensive elite quarterback won’t elevate the passing game enough to compensate for the lack of slices available to form the rest of your team.
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