Measuring the Value of Leon Washington
Alvin Keels broke the news last week that Leon Washington may indeed hold out once training camp begins in late July. Washington, in the final year of a four year contract, is looking for a contract extension with the Jets prior to the beginning of the season. The Jets have been willing to play ball before with their players in their contract years, with Kerry Rhodes getting an extension last season while he was also in the fourth and final year of his contract he signed as a rookie, though the situations are slightly different. Rhodes was scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent while Washington will still have his rights controlled by the Jets at the end of this season unless a new agreement is reached between the NFL and the NFL Players Association.
The two sides reportedly remain far apart in negotiations with Keels looking for 6 million per season and the Jets offering around 2 million. At the heart of Keels’ argument is the contract just recently signed by Jacksonville Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew, who also was in the final year of his rookie contract. Jones-Drew’s deal added four years onto his current contract and carries a value of $30.95 million and a max value of $32.75 million if he reaches all his incentives over the five year period. Broken down by year that is slightly more than 6 million per year in the base contract, which is where Keels’ gets his initial offer number for the team. From the Jets point of view a look closer at the statistics more or less puts Washington's value distinctly lower than Jones-Drew.
The numbers are not even close. Jones-Drew has 23 more touchdowns on offense and over 1,650 more yards from the line than Washington. He has proven to be able to handle a big workload, with his lowest ever workload, 207 touches in 2007, being 31 touches greater than Washington’s highest workload which came as a rookie in 2006. Does Washington have better special teams value? As a punt returner he does, but as a kick returner the numbers are nearly equal with both averaging about 26 yards per return, though Leon has more touchdowns. Based on the discrepancy of those numbers one could make the argument that Washington is about 40% less productive than Jones-Drew with major questions about whether or not Washington’s numbers would significantly decrease if he saw a similar amount of touches. Using the statistical comparison of these two players, plus the uncertainty regarding Washington, a fair value would be around 3 million per year.
Perhaps a better comparison would be the first three years of Philadelphia Eagles running back Brian Westbrook. Westbrook was a part time player with questions about what would happen if he was given a full load in the offense. Like Washington, Westbrook was unhappy about his contract and decided to hold himself out of camp in 2005. Eventually the team signed him to a contract in the middle of the season worth 24 million over 5 years, about 4.8 million a season, and included about 12 million in guarantees. The 3 year statistics are much closer between Washington and Westbrook.
From a numerical standpoint Washington is about 20% less productive than Westbrook was at that point in his career. Now there are a few differences in the situations, both from a contractual and an on the field perspective. For one thing Westbrook was set to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year. The Eagles were also in the midst of a PR nightmare with Terrell Owens and working with Westbrook was a way to put a positive spin on a season that had spiraled out of control. The league was also different at the time, being running back oriented and premium dollars being paid to a teams “number 1”. None of those situations apply to Washington. The one other difference is that Westbrook had that one big season under his belt when he started to gripe about his contract. Westbrook had 250 touches for 1,515 yards from scrimmage and 9 touchdowns in 2004. At the time when he signed his extension he was on pace for a season with nearly 270 touches, 1,650+ yards and another 9 touchdowns. Washington has yet to prove he can be that type of player. Westbrooks peak numbers are basically double Washington’s peaks thus far. Based on the Westbrook contract and the difference in numbers the the fair value should lie somewhere between 3 and 3.4 million depending on how much special teams are factored in.
The third comparison is a name that never is brought up. This is a player that is currently in the exact same situation as Leon Washington. He was drafted in 2006. He is set to be a restricted free agent at the end of the year. He has always played second fiddle to someone else on the team and is a tremendous kick returner. Perhaps his name is not mentioned because his team spent a significant amount of money on what they perceived to be a number 1 back. Maybe its because the team has other weapons on the team, namely a young stud at quarterback and at wide receiver. Needless to say there is no threatened holdout because the player has no leverage with his current team. That player is Jerious Norwood of the atlanta Falcons.
Norwood was drafted in the third round of the 2006 NFL draft to be a part time compliment to their primary runner Warrick Dunn. Norwood was explosive, running for over 6 yards per carry and scoring two touchdowns, as a rookie, but the Falcons had no faith that he could handle much more than maybe 140 touches a year. The team decided to break the bank for Michael Turner once Dunn got old rather than giving Norwood a chance to carry the offense, keeping him in his part time role and allowing him to return kicks. Here is a look at the numbers between the two players over the first three years of their careers.
The numbers are strikingly similar. Norwood has proven to be slightly more productive as a runner and out of the backfield as a receiver, though Washington has been used more in that role. Washington produces 5.6 yards a play while Norwood goes for 6.6 yards a play. Norwood is a bit more explosive with 24 plays for 20 yards or more in his career and 8 for 40 or more while Leon is at 13 and 7. Washington has a better nose for the end zone and is the better open field runner as evidenced by his higher touchdown total. As a kick returner its about a wash. Norwood is a bit more consistent, but Leon breaks plays for the score which Norwood does not. Neither player has a breakout year to justify a big contract, with neither topping 900 yards from scrimmage in their most productive seasons.
Therein lies the problem for Washington. From the Jets point of view why should Leon Washington be a holdout if there has not even been a peep out of a player like Norwood? The Jets have two options in this case, even in the event that a new CBA is ratified and Washington becomes an unrestricted free agent. They can see what happens with Norwood and allow him to set the real market for Washington or they can simply sign Norwood to replace Washington. The Jets have a smart front office and this is most likely a contingency plan they have set aside.
From Washington’s perspective if he wants that six million dollar a year contract he has to play the season out and find a way to produce similar to Jones-Drew or a Westbrook. He simply doesn’t have the history that either of those two players had when they received their big paydays to justify such a contract for himself. His value right now would be somewhere between 15 and 17 million dollars and between 7.5 and 8.5 million guaranteed on a 5 year contract. That is more than the Jets 2 million per season offer, but much less than the Washington camps desires.
Washington doesn’t have much to lose by playing the year out. Unless he gets injured he can not really hurt his stock. Even if the Jets gave him more of a role and he fell flat on his face, every other team in the NFL knows the guy is a good 3rd down back that will produce 800-900 yards, a few touchdowns, and some nice kick returns and they would pay him accordingly, right around that same figure he would get today if he agreed to a deal. But he has everything to lose by sitting the season out. Not only will he and his agent get branded around the league, but most likely he is going to lose touches by missing the first few weeks of camp. The Jets have other players on the roster that will jump him on the depth chart and all Washington will see is his numbers dwindle. If that happens he has no chance of ever getting the big money extension he wants and would likely get closer to the lower end of what his contract would project to be right now. His agent should know this and advise him to show up for camp, have a great season, and let the money come his way the following year, not be publicly negotiating with the team via twitter and the newspapers. But it appears that is the approach Keels is taking with Washington. Hopefully Leon is smart enough to show up ready to play and then he can have this discussion with the Jets at a later time this season after he puts up those big numbers that will get him his large contract.