by Warren Sharp
The salary-cap era of the NFL has always been a tale of class structure. But not about rich or poor, since teams can’t merely outspend limitlessly. Its about intelligent and unintelligent. The teams who make the smart decision about player acquisition (draft, free agency) and player retention typically find themselves at the top year in and year out. Certainly there is the element of the new CBA and the desire to obtain cheap labor in reasonable first year contracts, thus, collecting a lot of draft picks (as discussed in my FOX Sports piece). But let’s merely discuss key positions, and one in particular. Obviously the most important piece is the quarterback. More than skill positions, a sound offensive line can make a good QB great enough for one season to win a Super Bowl. But I’d argue that the tight end is a more important weapon than the running back or wide receiver positions.
Part of the reason is supply and demand. While no doubt there are special talents at all skill positions in the NFL and each position experiences drop off at some point, the drop off from elite tight end to average tight end occurs the fastest. How many tight ends in the NFL are truly ridiculous talents? And how many are simply adequate players who get usage simply because the tight end position is a key position which many offenses can utilize effectively against a defense?
The New England Patriots have the NFL’s best tight end: Rob Gronkowski. This past offseason, they traded for another solid tight end in Martellus Bennett. The rich get richer. The Packers decided to go out on a rare limb to sign a free agent in tight end Jared Cook, which tells you how important the tight end is for Green Bay, considering they rarely sign free agents. The Pittsburgh Steelers similarly made a move to bring in Ladarius Green, the former Charger, to take over for Heath Miller. When three of the best NFL franchises make moves to acquire tight ends via free agency or by trading away draft picks, it should turn on a light bulb for you, if it already wasn’t on.
The Washington Redskins decided that contracts aren’t getting any cheaper, and in a franchise year for Kirk Cousins this year, (which will help the team decide if they want to hold onto Kirk for years to come) tight end Jordan Reed could see a lot of usage. So the team signed Reed to a five year, $46.75M contract before he became an unrestricted free agent next spring. This gives Reed the 3rd highest average TE salary, joining Jimmy Graham, Travis Kelce, Julius Thomas and Rob Gronkowski in the top 5. But the contract’s cap hit doesn’t go crazy until year 3 (2018). Until then, Reed hits the 2016 cap for $3.4M (19th most for a TE) and the 2017 cap for $5.8M (13th most for a TE). Compare those numbers to some of the other TE contracts for players far less skilled, such as the Colts Dwayne Allen (hits the cap for $8.9M in 2016 and $6M in 2017) or the Lions Brandon Pettigrew (hits the cap for $4.65M in 2016 and $5.35M in 2017) and you can see this won’t really stretch the Redskins too thin at the position until 2018.
So what does Reed do that made the Redskins decide he was worth keeping long term for a hefty total? For one, its his hands. The 6’2″, ~240 lb tight end from the Florida Gators has the best hands the NFL has seen, not just from a tight end, but from any receiver over the last decade. For any receiver (TE or WR), Reed has the best catch rate in the last 10 years, and its not particularly close:
And these are career numbers, not just 2015 from Kirk Cousins. It includes over 100 passes from Colt McCoy and Robert Griffin III. Yet that didn’t matter for Reed. Nor did it matter that due to injuries in 2013 and 2014, he was in and out of the lineup and couldn’t develop real consistency with any QB. If you notice, most of the top players on the above list had perennial Pro-Bowl and/or Super Bowl-winning QBs throwing them passes: Jermichael Finley (2nd) and Randall Cobb (4th) from Aaron Rodgers; Jason Witten (3rd) from Tony Romo; Steve Smith (5th) and Odell Beckham (6th) from Eli Manning; Wes Welker (7th) and Julian Edelman (11th) from Tom Brady and some from Peyton Manning. Catching 78% of all passes is obscene. It’s ridiculous.
Second, its his importance to what GM Scot McCloughan and HC Jay Gruden envision the passing game heading in the future. Last year, apart from Cousins, there was no more important player to the Redskins than Jordan Reed. Teams up at halftime win at an exceptional rate, and the Redskins led at halftime in 11 games. Only two teams led more often at halftime: The Panthers and Bengals. The Redskins 11 games up at halftime tied with the Patriots, Seahawks and Cardinals. And a big part of the reason for their halftime lead was Jordan Reed.
Below is a look at directional passing success in the first half in opposing territory. Its evident how often Reed was targeted, and how successful the Redskins were when targeting him:
In fact, collectively, when targeting Jordan Reed in the 1st half in opposing territory, Kirk Cousins went 28/33 (85%), 10 yds/att, 7 TD : 0 INT and a 149 passer rating. When targeting everyone else, Cousins had a 110 passer rating (which is still very good). Combined, Cousins’ passer rating was 129, the very best in the NFL.
The above infographic is color coded to depict success, and the Reed line looks strikingly similar to another key tight end: Rob Gronkowski. In that while Reed’s numbers are slightly better, its clear that even though both are tight ends, their usage all over the field, sideline to sideline and end zone to end zone, is a constant weapon. And even though the Redskins have deep threat DeSean Jackson, in the above situation (1st half in opposing territory) Reed was used more on deep passes than even Jackson.
Its not just Reed’s direct ability to utilize his incredible hands and skilled running ability for a bigger player, but its his ability to win battles which at times result in better opportunities for other players. As a result, when Reed wasn’t on the field last year, Cousins posted just a 73 passer rating and a 5 TD : 7 INT ratio. But when Reed was on the field, the defense had to adjust, and Cousins posted a 112 passer rating with a 24 TD : 4 INT ratio.
Like most of the smart teams, the Redskins decided to lock up a game changing tight end. One who can line up as a traditional tight end or in the slot or as an outside receiver. This allows the Redskins to do many things, but a key element is to enable the offense to operate at a faster pace. In Cousins’ first season at the helm, the Redskins were exceedingly slow. They were the 2nd slowest tempo team in the NFL in the first half, and 3rd slowest overall. But, when trailing by 7 or more points, their pace rocketed up to 10th in the NFL. When trailing, the Redskins passed the ball on 72% of play calls (3rd most often in the NFL) and over 22% of those attempts went to Reed, which Cousins turned into 63% completions, a 5 TD : 0 INT ratio and a 110 rating.
The Redskins would be wise to operate faster in situations to keep tired defenses on the field on extended drives, which would improve the offense’s efficiency even more. And with Reed’s ability to stay on the field and play multiple positions, it gives the Redskins the option to reduce substitutions and increase the tempo. I would be shocked if the Redskins did not play faster in 2016, particularly because they will be in for a difficult season going up against the 4th most difficult schedule (in part due to their 1st place finish in the NFC East in 2015).
Despite the tight end position being such a boon for offenses, and basketball players crossing over to the NFL with success (see Tony Gonzalez & Antonio Gates as some of the patriarchs), the NFL still lacks an abundance of multi-dimensional talent at the position. The Carolina Panthers just went to the Super Bowl with a tight end (Greg Olsen) as their best receiver. The Patriots won it the year before with Rob Gronkowski. While the Redskins are forecast to come back to earth in a big way in 2016, with current odds showing them struggling to even finish 8-8, locking up Jordan Reed long term as a key difference maker for whichever QB is under center in DC is the right move.
Redskins GM Scot McCloughan was previously GM in Seattle. Seattle locked up Jimmy Graham. As previously mentioned, the Patriots, Packers and Steelers locked up tight ends this offseason as well. Add to that list the Baltimore Ravens adding Benjamin Watson. Between those teams and their GMs, you literally have the some of the best of the best in the NFL. Personnel guys who “get it”. Bill Belichick, Scot McCloughan, Ted Thompson, Kevin Colbert, Ozzie Newsome, John Schneider. And they “got” tight ends either this year or last year. And these are not teams accustomed to outbidding or overspending. But perhaps they see the market for solid tight ends is undervalued right now, and these elite difference makers are well worth it. Time will tell. But when so many of the very best have made the similar moves after coming to similar conclusions, its unwise to think contrarian of their strategy.