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Why the Packers should save Kenny Stills from the Houston doldrums

While Watt has the hearts of Packers fans, Stills is what they need.

Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

During the Green Bay Packers’ thorough victory on Sunday, many on Twitter dot com made plenty of jokes about bringing Houston Texans players back with them on the plane. This primarily revolved around JJ Watt, the former Wisconsin Badger star turned future Hall of Fame defensive lineman.

Aside from the sentimental reasons behind bringing Watt home, he has a skillset that Green Bay could of course use. Dean Lowry has been a disappointment since signing his extension and the Packers could use someone in that 5-tech role in base, and as a pass rusher either at EDGE or the interior in nickel and dime situations.

Of course, the NFL makes trades very hard. First of all, the hard salary cap gives teams less maneuverability. Secondly, contracts are weird in the NFL, particularly in how they impact the cap. In the NBA, which has an incredibly complicated CBA, they can do what is called “salary matching,” where if you get within a certain percentage of the salary that is coming in, you can actually increase the total amount on your cap. The NBA has a “soft cap.” There is no limit to how much you can spend, but things get expensive with a luxury tax. NBA trades are easy because it’s all about matching salaries.

NFL trades are hard because the contracts aren’t really built to be traded and the league has a hard cap that you cannot go over. The cap hit for a signing bonus is spread out along the entire contract. An easy example is this: If you have a $20M signing bonus and a 4 year contract, your signing bonus hits the cap for $5M each year. Then there are base salaries, roster bonuses, workout bonuses, and more that all factor into the cap calculus.

That’s why it’s hard for your favorite team to trade for your favorite player. It becomes even harder when a cap crunch is coming. It is unclear where the 2021 salary cap will ultimately land, but teams are bracing for some bad numbers. The NFL also allows you to roll saved cap space into the next year, so saving more cap space for this year is a priority since it could lessen the blow in 2021 when it will be at an ultra-premium.

This has all been a preface to get to this: The Packers are almost undoubtedly not trading for JJ Watt. According to Ken Ingalls, Packers Twitter cap expert, the team has $5,300,630 in effective cap space for 2020. Effective cap space is more important to know than the currently available number. The trade deadline is on November 3rd, which is prior to the week 9 games. This means that the team that takes on the player would be responsible for paying nine weeks worth of base salaries.

JJ Watt’s base salary for the 2020 season is $15.5 million. A little math: (9/17)*15.5 = $8.205M. The Packers don’t have $8.205M. The Packers also don’t have the ability to create a lot of cap space for this season, especially since they’d have to get even more than just $8.205M so they could make the little moves on the edges of the roster. The 2021 problem is not an issue with JJ Watt since he has no guaranteed money, but let’s say they cap gymnastics their way to just enough space in 2020 — they also eliminate any rollover cap space they’ll very likely need in 2021 to retain some of their free agents.

With Watt off the table and Randall Cobb not being a viable option (he just signed a contract this past off-season with Houston and would leave a hefty dead cap hit), Kenny Stills is the Texans player that might make some sense. The cap issues are still there a bit, though. Stills fits into the Packers” cap space, with his trade deadline base salary getting down to $3.693M. That’s still a tight squeeze and probably not something the Packers would be all that comfortable doing. If they did finagle some extra wiggle room through re-structures elsewhere, though, Kenny Stills could be an answer to their biggest problem on offense: a lack of receiver depth, particularly as a deep threat.

Stills’ stats for this year are not impressive. He has just 10 catches for 138 yards. He’s also played in no more than 47% of snaps in any of Houston’s games. Why would Green Bay want a receiver who can hardly get on the field for the lowly Houston Texans? Here, context is important. The Texans have a pretty stacked receiving corps. They have Will Fuller, who currently ranks 7th in DVOA; Randall Cobb, who currently ranks 15th; and Brandin Cooks, who currently ranks 38th. All are above average by DVOA. The Texans traded for Cooks and signed Cobb to a decent-sized contract this off-season, so the team fully committed to them. Stills is on the last year of his deal.

Despite limited opportunities, Stills has still been fine this year, with a +3.4% DVOA. With a sample of only 18 passes though, you don’t really look at this year. Stills ranked 5th in DVOA in 2019 at 24.7% and 22nd in 2018 at 12.6%. Stills has a long history of being a very efficient wide receiver, even though his target share has never approached elite levels. That sure sounds like another receiver the Packers have (psst... it’s Allen Lazard).

Stills brings something to the Packers offense that they don’t currently have: a competent deep threat. Marquez Valdes-Scantling is bad. We don’t have to sugarcoat it. We don’t have to hope anymore. We don’t have to dodge it. He is not good.

Allen Lazard has missed the past three games. Davante Adams also missed two games. MVS spent one game as WR1 (week 4 vs Atlanta) and three games as WR2 (week 3 vs New Orleans, weeks 6-7). MVS’ grand total of production in that time is eight catches for 82 yards and no touchdowns. He has those eight catches on 21 targets, giving him a catch rate of just 38%. His yards-per-target is an atrocious 3.9 yards in those games. Over that time frame, MVS’ yards-per-target would rank dead-last in the NFL among wide receivers. His DVOA this year is the second worst in the league, only ahead of AJ Green, who has actively quit on his team. Plus, there is this little nugget on deep-threats around the league from my colleague Paul Noonan:

(This sample shows all wide receivers averaging more than 15 yards per reception with at least 30 targets, sorted by catch rate.)

Stills would be an immediate major upgrade over MVS. His yards-per-target in Houston has been 9.6. In Miami, with mostly bad quarterbacking, it was 8.2. Stills has been a great deep threat, averaging over 14 yards per reception in each season prior to 2020 (13.8 this year). For a deep threat, he also catches a good percentage of his passes, particularly since he arrived in Houston and played with a good quarterback (68.5%, almost nice).

Also, the price for Stills should be pretty cheap. He’s their WR4 who is hardly playing. I cannot imagine he’ll net a large free agent deal, despite a quite productive career, so Houston probably won’t get a good comp pick for him in 2022. If Green Bay throws a 4th or maybe even a 5th to Houston, they could get this done. The bigger question for Green Bay is whether they can make it work from a cap perspective. They’ll be threading a pretty thin needle, but it might be worth it to push some chips in this year.

Green Bay is the current favorite for the #1 seed in the NFC, per FiveThirtyEight, at 25%. The #1 seed is of extra importance going forward because they are the only team that gets a bye. The Packers finally have great Aaron Rodgers back. They have an elite shutdown corner. They have a star wide receiver. They have a Hall of Fame left tackle. They have several talented pass rushers. It would be a real shame to let it fall apart because they didn’t address wide receiver depth. There is low-hanging fruit out there. Just go pick it.

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