In the build up to free agency last offseason, many fans of the Seattle Seahawks were desperate for the team to pursue offensive linemen in order to better protect Russell Wilson. Those fans were quickly disappointed on the opening day of free agency when they learned that the Hawks had agreed to terms with Luke Joeckel, and even more disappointed when the details of the contract became public - $7M guaranteed and an additional $1M attainable through per game roster bonuses.
Coming off major knee surgery and having been looked at as a bust for the majority of his career, this struck many fans as a desperate overpay by the team, however, is that the case? It’s been repeated over and over on social media and in the comments section here on Field Gulls that Joeckel was the fifth highest paid left guard in football, which is absolutely true. However, let’s take a look at his contract and 2017 cap hit from the perspective of the market and see where it falls.
For starters, it is absolutely true that Joeckel had the fifth highest 2017 cap hit among left guards, but a guard is a guard, so let’s see where he falls among all guards rather than just left guards.
When including right guards in the group for evaluation, Joeckel’s cap hit drops to twelfth among the more than one hundred guards on 53 man rosters across the NFL in 2017. However, there is a material difference in cap hits for players on rookie contracts compared to players on second contracts. Therefore, in order to compare apples to apples, let’s eliminate those cost-controlled rookie contracts. Once rookies are eliminated, there are just 46 guards across the NFL who played 2017 on a contract that was not their rookie contract. Joeckel remains in the twelfth spot once this is done, and while 12 of 46 is still towards the high end, it suddenly does not look quite as bad as 12 out of 109.
However, similar to how comparing rookie contracts to veteran contracts is comparing apples to oranges, the same thing applies to contracts for backups versus contracts for starters. Removing backups such as Eric Kush, Tom Compton, Chance Warmack and Vladimir Ducasse from the list leaves just 33 starting guards across the entirety of the NFL that played 2017 on a second contract. Joeckel retains that twelfth spot of these 33 pay, and suddenly he is no longer in the top third of cap hits for starting guards on their second contract.
That leads to the next difference between Joeckel and many others on the list - age. As older players are likely to have less time left in their career, their salaries are correspondingly lower than those of younger players who offer continued upside and the potential for consistency across more seasons. Eliminating guards from the list for whom 2017 was their age 30 season or older (2017 was Joeckel’s age 26 season), there are all of a sudden only 18 guards who fit these criteria. And under these criteria, Joeckel’s 2017 contract held the tenth largest cap hit, or basically right at the median.
And that puts Joeckel’s 2017 cap hit right at market rate for starting guards of his age on a second contract.
Now, obviously, it could easily be argued that he should have a discount applied to his contract for health reasons, but he was not the only player on that list who was coming off a major injury. Joel Bitonio missed eleven games in 2016 due to a foot injury. J.R. Sweezy missed the entire 2016 season with a back injury. Ron Leary started only twelve games in 2016 and suffers from osteochondritis dissecans, a degenerative disease that could end his career at any moment. Thus, it’s possible that any of a number of the players on the list could have their value discounted due to health reasons.
On the flip side, Joeckel is the youngest players in that group. Born November 6, 1991, Joeckel was the youngest starting guard playing on a second contract in the entire NFL in 2017. Thus, a youth premium would be very reasonable on any contract and any such youth premium would likely simply counter any health related discount. Therefore, for valuation purposes, the contract, when signed, was reasonable in terms of the market for comparable players across the league.
While this may seem like jumping through hurdles in order to make Joeckel’s contract fit the market rate, it’s simply making sure the comparable cap hits correspond to the same situation as Joeckel. When estimating value based on comparable assets, it’s necessary to ensure the assets are as similar as possible, and defining the criteria as specifically as possible is the best method to yield the most accurate value. That’s all that was done with this methodology.
A visual representation
Stepping back to the set of all 46 NFL guards that played 2017 under a contract other than a rookie contract, we can plot their 2017 cap hit against their future playing contributions and the result is the following:
The circled dot just above the trendline is Luke Joeckel, and that’s close enough to the line that I’m not going to bother testing whether it’s market rate, it’s not materially above the line and within a reasonable range that it would be considered to fall within market value. Obviously, those three dots down in the lower right hand corner may represent significant value, but those were three players who signed one-year, prove it deals in free agency in 2017 after finding a minimal market for their services in free agency.
Correlation between expected future starts and cap hit
Lastly, to put hard some numbers to this evaluation, looking at the 46 players in the sample of second contract NFL guards, when their cap hits are compared to their expected future starts under the formula I used, what is found is that cap hits are correlated to expected future starts with a correlation coefficient of 0.4314. That correlation is not overly strong, and the sample size of 46 is not as large as might be desired, it is statistically significant at the p < .01 level. Thus, based on his age, Joeckel would have commanded a premium, as the younger a player was in 2017, the larger the amount of a contract he would have been expected to sign.
Thus, through multiple methods we see that Joeckel’s contract falls within what could be considered the market rate for a starting caliber guard of his age. However, just because the Seahawks paid market rate for Joeckel’s services, that does not mean they got a good value for what was paid, and this will be key to remember as free agency approaches in the coming weeks.
Fans are likely to once again clamor for the Seahawks to sign an offensive lineman or two through free agency, but after yet another season of poor offensive line play across the NFL, the market rate for lineman is probably set to increase yet again. And paying market rate may not be the best strategy because as we see with Joeckel, teams don’t always get what they pay for, and market rate for starting caliber linemen in the NFL is not cheap. Those facts likely play significant roles in the strategy of the Seahawks front office in the pursuit of free agent offensive linemen through recent seasons, and in the build up to free agency next month I’ll be taking a look at the free agent offensive linemen the team has added in past offseasons. Hopefully through looking at the team’s past trends we can gain some insight into which free agent offensive linemen the team might pursue this offseason.
The key takeaway from today, however, is simply that market rate doesn’t necessarily mean getting a good value.