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Paul Richardson is about to be pretty richer soon

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at San Francisco 49ers Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

Some time back I asked who you’d like to see free agency comps for and nearly every response included the name Paul Richardson. With Richardson having by far the best year of his career, and Alistair Corp taking a quick look at the debate regarding the team retaining either Jimmy Graham or Richardson, it seems like a good time to find some comps for him.

The short version for those who don’t want to put up with a lot of discussion or numbers or debate: If he doesn’t get injured, P-Rich is gonna be rich P-Rich.

Finding Comparable Players and Contracts

In putting together these comps, what I did was look for receivers who produced between 750 and 950 receiving yards in their fourth season in the NFL. From there I took a look at what those players made when they hit free agency after their fourth year, and this is what those results look like.

It should be noted that there are a handful of players on this table that I have excluded from analysis for the simple reason that they fall well outside the parameters of free agent additions. Michael Floyd was paid $7.3M on his fifth year option and Alshon Jeffery had the franchise tag place on his at the conclusion of his rookie contract. Thus, while these players were paid handsomely for their services, it does a minimal amount of good to compare salaries of players whose earnings are artificially constrained by the CBA to those whose earnings are inflated as a result of the free agent system.

In short, I’m only considering contracts for players who signed as unrestricted free agents. Thus, here’s the table.

Paul Richardson free agency comps

Player Opening Day Age after Signing Contract 40-time 5th Year Cap Hit
Player Opening Day Age after Signing Contract 40-time 5th Year Cap Hit
Paul Richardson 26 We'll see. Probably big. 4.40 ???
Marvin Jones 25 5 years, $40M 4.46 $6.6M
Golden Tate 26 5 years, $31M 4.42 $3.1M
Jeremy Maclin 26 1 year, $6M (ACL Rebuild) 4.48 $5.5M
Mike Wallace 27 5 years, $60M 4.33 $3.25M
Riley Cooper 27 5 years, $22.5M 4.56 $1.8M
Rueben Randle 25 1 year, $3M 4.55 $3M
Torrey Smith 26 5 years, $40M 4.44 $3.6M
Doug Baldwin Excluded 3 years, $13M (as RFA) 4.48 $4.65M
Michael Floyd Excluded 1 year, $7.3M (5th yr option) 4.47 $7.3M
Alshon Jeffery Excluded 1 year, $11.164M (Franchise) 4.48 $11.164M
Donnie Avery Excluded 1 year, $625,000 (3 receptions in 2 seasons prior; signed 3 year, $8.55M deal with KC next year) 4.49 $625,000

I think Richardson is likely to easily clear the 5-year, $31M deal that the Detroit Lions gave to Golden Tate. In fact, that could probably be used as a floor from which to start. Between Richardson’s speed, his development as a receiver over the past year, the continued increase in the salary cap and the associated capflation, I will not be surprised if Richardson exceeds the recent 5-year, $40M contracts that players like Torrey Smith and Marvin Jones have signed in recent seasons. There is currently slated to be well over a billion dollars of salary cap space available to teams for 2018, with the six most cap space flush teams alone looking at having over a half a billion dollars in available cap space.

On top of everything else that will work in Richardson’s favor, he will be only 26 years old when the 2018 season opens, meaning that even if a team signed him to a five year contract, he wouldn’t hit thirty until the spring before the final year of the contract.

For those who think Richardson may not exceed the 5/31 that Tate got, the only response I have is that it only takes one team to step in and offer a contract that sets the market. For example, in 2016 it was the Atlanta Falcons stepping in and giving Mohamed Sanu a 5-year, $32.5M contract coming off a season in which he had 33 receptions for 394 yards. Simply adjusting Sanu’s contract to the ballpark in which the 2018 salary cap will be easily puts the deal in the upper 30s. Taking the effects of cap funneling into consideration, the numbers could easily reach into the mid 40s.

Applying Cap Increase

Using Tate’s contract as a comparative example, that five-year, $31M contract was signed when the 2014 salary cap was $133M. is projecting the 2018 salary cap to be in the $178M range, which is 33.8% higher than the 2013 cap. Adjusting Tate’s contract with a 33.8% increase, would transform the 5-year, $31M deal into a 5-year, $41.5M deal ($8.3M APY), which would be almost right in line with the Torrey Smith and Marvin Jones contracts.

Factoring in Richardson’s Speed

Further, referring back to the chart of comparables, there appears to be an interesting phenomenon at play. I will be the first to admit that it is an extremely, extremely small sample size, but it appears possible there may be somewhat of a correlation between the forty time of a wide receiver and the APY of the contract they signed. For a visual representation, here is a quick scatter plot of this small sample.

Contract APY versus 40 times for receivers in this sample.

In this chart, the y-axis is the APY for the various contracts signed in millions, while the x-axis is the player’s forty time. Using the mad skillz I have developed in MS Paint over the course of my professional career, I have bolded the vertical line corresponding to Richardson’s 4.40 forty from the combine and added a rough approximation of the best fit line for the plot.

The best fit line actually fits remarkably well, so I hopped into my spreadsheet to find the correlation coefficient between the two variables. Turns out the correlation coefficient is -0.91, which would be an extremely high correlation if one were to put any weight into a sample size of seven. In any case, the intersection of the best fit line and Richardson’s forty time would put any contract somewhere in the $9M-$9.5M APY range. If Richardson indeed signed a contract in that APY range, either a 4-year, $37M contract or a 5-year, $46M contract would be well within reason.

Cap Funneling Effect

Returning to Tate’s 5-year, $31M contract, the cap increase adjusted estimate for a similar contract for 2018 of was based on a simple 1:1 cap to salary increase. However, this is not how it works in actuality due cap funneling. Cap funneling is the process by which available cap space is disproportionately channeled to a handful of high end players, while the rookie wage scale works to keep the remainder of the roster under cost-constraints that are not as rapidly increasing as the overall salary cap.

Tate’s 5-year, $31M contract was signed prior to 2014, while Richardson’s first shot at a free agent contract should be in 2018, meaning the cap would have been exposed to four years of cap funneling. As we saw previously, the salary cap is expected to have increased 33.8% between 2014 and the time free agency for the 2018 season arrives. However, minimum salaries have not kept up with this same percentage increase. For example, in 2014 the minimum salary for an NFL rookie was $420,000, while the minimum salary for 2018 is scheduled to be $480,000. The rookies are obviously happy to receive the salary bump, but the $60,000 increase over the four years is an increase of just 14.2% compared to a 33.8% increase in the overall salary cap.

That gap - the 19.6% between the salary increase for minimum salary players and the overall salary cap increase gets allocated by GMs disproportionately to the best players. Say for example a team has roughly 25 to 30 roster spots at any one given time assigned to rookies and minimum salary players. Under the terms of the CBA those roster spots will each see a base salary increase of $15,000 next season. For a minimum salary rookie spot, that means a pay increase of 3.23%. In contrast, is projecting a 6.59% increase in the overall salary cap. That means for every player on a rookie minimum contract, their pay increase is lagging the overall cap by somewhere in the neighborhood of at least 3.36%.

For more experienced players the percentage difference is even greater because the $15,000 annual raise mandated by the CBA represents a smaller percentage increase as the minimum salaries increase. For example, for second year salaries of $540,000 in 2017, the $15,000 increase in 2018 to $555,000 is a 2.78% increase, and the $15,000 increase in third year salaries from $615,000 to $630,000 is just a 2.44% increase. Again, the margin between these percentage increases and the increase to the overall salary cap only increases as the minimum salaries increase with years of experience.

As discussed before, this money gets channeled to the best players. Using only the smallest margin on the smallest salaries, the 3.36% difference on a $465,000 salary yields roughly $15,624 in what is effectively newly found salary cap space available for a GM. With 20 to 30 players on contracts that are growth restricted in this manner, that is somewhere in the neighborhood of a minimum of $300,000 to $500,000 in cap space that will be funneled to higher end players. Most teams only have two or three big name players to resign or sign in any given season, and that $300,000 to $500,000 gets split among those two or three players. This means a team dividing that money among three players would result in an increase of $100,000 to $150,000 per player per season in their APY. The actual amount is likely to be even greater based on a larger margin created by weighting the margin over more than just rookie minimum contracts, but this gives a ballpark estimate from which to start.

So, to wrap up this long winded discussion, over the four seasons since Tate signed his contract, on the low end there could easily be an additional $400,000 to $600,000 in APY added on top of the straight percentage increase we looked at earlier. On the higher end the numbers could easily exceed $1M in APY increase over the four years.

With the straight percentage increase applied to Tate’s contract as discussed earlier potentially putting a Richardson contract into the $8.3M APY range, cap funneling could easily push that APY into the $9-$9.5M range. Add in Richardson’s blazing speed, his highlight reel catches and the fact that he will only be 26 for the opening weekend of the 2018 season, and it is not unrealistic to foresee a contract as large as $50M over five years.

Summary of Expectations

In summary, I’m expecting Tate’s 5-year, $31M deal to act as a floor for where Richardson’s agents will start. In fact, I’d expect the is floor somewhere in the range 4-year, $30M. That would put any five year contract likely approaching $40M in total value. Again, that’s on the low end.

On the high end, it is easily possible for me to see the contract reaching an APY as high as $10M, thus putting a 4-year, $40M or 5-year, $50M contract not completely out of the question.

Obviously a lot will depend on Richardson’s production in the second half of the season, but a receiver with the speed to take the top off the defense is the type of receiver who can reset the entire market, just like Mike Wallace did back in 2012.

Potential Matches

With Richardson becoming available one of the biggest questions becomes which teams might be interested, and there is no shortage of candidates, including half of the NFC West.

Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch could pull two benefits in one in signing by adding Richardson to the San Francisco 49ers while depriving the Seahawks of his services. The 49ers are looking at having the most cap space available of any NFL franchise, and even if they use the franchise tag on Jimmy Garoppolo, there will still be more than enough room for them to pursue potentially impact players. Further, depending on how Pierre Garcon’s recovery from neck surgery goes, the team could be looking at needing a replacement for his services.

Further south down the Pacific coast, the Los Angeles Rams might be in the market to replace Sammy Watkins, who is also scheduled to be a free agent next spring. The Rams have roughly four times as much cap space as the Seahawks heading into 2018, and while they will need to address certain contract matters, namely Aaron Donald, it would be a completely Rams thing to do to go after Richardson. The fact that Richardson was born and raised in the Los Angeles area will likely only further the rumors that L.A. is a potential destination for him.

Other teams with large amounts of cap space that could be interested would include the New York Jets, the Cleveland Browns or the Indianapolis Colts. The Colts currently have only four wide receivers on the roster, with two of those four being free agents in the spring. Add in over $80M in projected cap space, and it’s not out of the question to be watching Paul Richardson breakup arm punts from Andrew Luck.

There are not a ton of big name wide receivers set to hit the free agent market next spring, but the three biggest names are all in the Washington-Baltimore-Philly region as those teams will be looking to replace Terrelle Pryor, Mike Wallace and Alshon Jeffery, though only Washington has any cap space to speak of and they need to figure out what is going on with Kirk Cousins before moving on to anything else.

As such, it’s possible Richardson’s biggest suitors will be those that have watched him play the most so far in his career. Hawks fans hope that won’t be the case, and while salary cap situation for the Hawks is not so tight that they cannot resign Richardson, there are plenty of other teams in the league that will have far, far more cash available to pursue him. While I am certain many fans would love to extend Richardson, it seems unlikely to me for a team that is as defense oriented as the Hawks, and has younger, less expensive receivers on the roster.