Pro Football Focus may do an excellent job of charting plays and not selling the results to anyone outside of the NFL, but their analysis wing is really substandard. They rely so much on their own internal grading which is already highly suspect, and often apply analysis without any broader concept of what NFL teams are actually trying to do on any given play or with any given contract. Case in point, this piece by John Breitenbach claiming the Julius Peppers has one of the 5 worst contracts for any pass rusher in football.
This is ludicrous on its face. I would argue that any NFL player with only one year left on his contract, regardless of their actual talent level, can not have one of the worst contracts in the league. The Packers could cut Peppers right now and it would barely affect them.
That’s just the beginning. Breitenbach seemingly has no idea of how NFL contracts work, what would constitute a bad one, and what makes an NFL defensive player valuable. He states that Peppers graded as the 27th best pass rusher among edge defenders last season (please keep in mind there are 32 NFL teams, each with 2 starting “edge defenders”) and was the 7th-highest-paid player at the position. Let us for a moment give more credit to PFF’s grade than is warranted and assume that is true. Breitenbach’s point is still ridiculous for 3 major reasons.
1. Contracts are not structured to pay a player for what he will be worth on a year-to-year basis.
When the Packers signed Julius Peppers in 2014 they agreed to pay him something like $27 Million over the life of the contract. Peppers was an absolute monster in 2014 with 7 sacks, 2 picks and 2 touchdowns, and he was disruptive in all facets of the game. His cap hit that year was just $3.5 Million. Under Breitenbach’s theory we should apparently ignore how underpaid Peppers was on the first year of this deal. Moreover, the Packers have strong incentives to structure contracts in certain ways. With many established players up for new deals next year, but not this year (Lang & Sitton for instance), this is a good time to pay someone $10 million. The Packers structured this deal as such because it fits with their cap plans, not because Julius Peppers was expected, in 2016, to play up to his back-weighted contract.
2. One year contracts are fine, always.
One year contracts, or having a player with one year remaining on his deal, is great for any NFL team. You don’t have to do any clever cap wrangling or restructuring, you can cut them if necessary and save money on the salary cap, and you have no risk other than the player leaving. If your concern is under-performance, this is no concern at all. Bad contracts tend to lock teams into holding on to player too long due to too much guaranteed money that need to be amortized over multiple seasons for cap purposes. If Ndamukong Suh is still a Dolphin in 2018, it will cost the dolphins $26,000,000 in cap space. If they cut him it will still cost them over $10 Million. That’s a bad contract.
3. PFF grades don’t reflect what makes a player good or bad.
PFF grades are extremely granular. They rate how players perform certain, well-defined tasks without a complete understanding of context, team strategy, and with little understanding of what actually constitutes a valuable play. Julius Peppers was a completely dominant athletic freak in his younger days, adept in pass rush, coverage, and run stopping. In baseball analytics, one of the early insights of Bill James was that young players with “old player skills” tend to age worse than their more athletically gifted counterparts. Put simply, hefty power hitters were often out of the game in their early thirties while speedy 5-tool guys tended to age into hefty power hitters. This general concept, that great athletes age better, is true in other sports as well, and it’s true of Peppers.
I think everyone, the Packers included, expected Peppers to slow down and turn into more of a situational pass rusher, and that is exactly what has happened. Peppers used to be great at everything and conventional wisdom was that while he might lose a step, he should have have enough juice to make life miserable for quarterbacks in a more limited role. That, again, seems to be exactly what has happened.
This by itself is not an excuse. If a quarterback aged into an excellent fullback that would be less than useless. Fortunately, hurrying quarterbacks is extremely valuable. In the modern, pass-happy NFL, it is in fact the most valuable defensive skill. A pass rusher who cannot stop the run can be exploited elsewhere, but by and large, the value they provide in the passing game, if successful, far outweighs their deficiencies. If a baseball player loses some speed but ages into a 30 home run guy, that’s still extremely valuable, and that is essentially what Peppers now is.
Of course, I don’t trust PFF’s grade of Peppers at all. While he was certainly not as dominant last year as he was in 2014, he was still extremely effective in small doses and given the totality of his contract compared to the totality of his play, worth every penny. Peppers is currently on the last year of an extremely team-friendly, and extremely productive contract. Anyone who tells you different is selling something.