The collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and the NFL Players Association features a provision that helps high-performing players on low-dollar rookie contracts earn a significant bonus in their fourth season. The Proven Performance Escalator allows players who meet certain snap count thresholds to get a significant one-time boost in their base salaries for their fourth NFL seasons.
The intent of the program is to reward players who carve out a significant role for themselves as young players, one that often outshines a humble draft status. However, it’s not hard to imagine cases where this could backfire for the player; the increase is not guaranteed, and it makes these players a more significant salary cap liability.
The reason it’s not hard to imagine is that the Green Bay Packers are dealing with one such scenario in 2020. Jamaal Williams met all of the snap count cutoffs for the PPE program, which resulted in him earning a raise from $735,000 to $2.133 million this year. Williams, while a useful player, is hardly a star; even though he exceeded 400 rushing yards and 35 percent of the team’s offensive snaps in each of his first three seasons, Williams remains a backup behind Aaron Jones, and is primarily a role player.
Enter rookie second-round pick AJ Dillon, and it’s clear that Williams will be in a fight for the number two job. This week, ESPN’s Rob Demovsky noted Williams as the most prominent veteran on the team’s roster bubble this summer, noting both his new contract and his role as reasons for that assessment.
In one respect, Williams improved in 2019. With a somewhat lighter workload — Jones played all 16 games for the first time in the players’ careers — Williams improved his yards per carry average from the mid-3s to 4.3. However, a look at the advanced numbers shows that this number was entirely due to an increase in his yards before contact, suggesting that he was the beneficiary of better run-blocking from the Packers’ offensive line rather than improvement in his own running. His rushing DVOA also dipped to its lowest point in his career.
Meanwhile, Williams’ receiving efficiency ostensibly improved, as he ranked 8th among running backs in receiving DVOA and improved his catch rate to nearly 90 percent. However, his yards per reception plummeted to just 6.5 in 2019, and the DVOA boost was heavily influenced by his five touchdown catches, a great performance in a category that is a notoriously unreliable statistic.
Ultimately, Williams is probably still worth his money if he keeps the number two job behind Jones. If Dillon proves to be a critical performer early on and takes that primary backup job from him, however, Brian Gutekunst may decide that moving on and freeing up about $2 million to use for another player’s contract extension — think Kenny Clark and David Bakhtiari — is worth the risk of letting a #3 running back walk.