Slot receivers are getting pinched.
Just so we’re clear, this isn’t some anti-Patriots rant about how the franchise may or may not have disrespected Wes Welker on his way out to the door, particularly in the wake of some very pointed comments from New England owner Robert Kraft on Monday about how everything went down between the team and Welker. This is a league-wide issue. This offseason, it’s becoming clearer that the elite slot receivers in the game -- marquee pass-catchers like Welker, Victor Cruz, Anquan Boldin -- aren’t getting the sort of money they deserve.
With the proliferation of spread offenses, the slot receiver is more integral than ever when it comes to the success of the passing game. According to ESPN Stats & Information, in 2012, the Patriots got 38.1 percent (second only to the Cardinals) of their total receptions from receivers in the slot -- down from a ridiculous 46.8 percent in 2011, a total that was best in the league. In 2012, the Ravens got 29 percent of their total receptions from the slot. Cruz and the Giants were at 29 percent in 2012, up from 27 percent in 2011. Slot receivers carry a sizable portion of the workload, and they deserve to be rewarded appropriately.
While they are all different physically and have mild differences in their games, slot guys like Welker, Cruz and Boldin have moved beyond working as set pieces -- as passing games have evolved, these guys are no longer regarded as third and fourth receivers, but are now tremendously important to their respective offenses. But to this point, they still aren’t getting paid commensurate with their overall contributions.
Frankly, the money isn’t in the slot. It’s on the outside. Look at Mike Wallace and his deal in Miami, a five-year, $60 million contract that includes $30 million in guarantees. Greg Jennings, a guy who has spent time in the slot but is predominantly an outside guy, signs a five-year, $45 million contract with $17.8 million guaranteed, including a $10 million signing bonus. With the understanding that the real measuring stick comes with the guaranteed money, the slot guys come up way short comparatively. Welker gets $12 million guaranteed. Amendola gets $10 million guaranteed. Right now, Cruz will play under a first-round tender of $2.879 (although both sides are apparently talking, and Giants co-owner Steve Tisch said Monday Cruz should see more annual money than Welker or Amendola). And Boldin -- who is set to make a base salary of $6 million in 2013 -- is dealt to the Niners rather than accept a reduced contract less than two months after proving his worth as Baltimore’s best postseason receiver.
(You can argue as to whether or not Percy Harvin belongs in this category, because -- while he’s commonly described as a slot receiver -- he’s more of a hybrid between a slot guy and third-down changeup back in that he’s a multidimensional threat in both the running and the passing game. For what it’s worth, he recently received $67 million over six years, with as much as $25.5 million guaranteed.)
As for Welker, he settles for something in the neighborhood of two years and something in the vicinity of $12 million from the Broncos, depending on who you believe. A receiver who became the first guy in league history to catch at least 100 passes five times in a six-year span doesn’t have the same sort of juice on the market as Wallace, a receiver who has never caught more than 72 passes in a season and has played a full 16-game season once in his career? It leaves you scratching your head.
At far as all this relates to the Patriots, Welker’s agent David Dunn told Tom E. Curran of Comcast Sports Net on Sunday that no offer was ever extended to Welker. On Monday, Kraft disputed that, and laid the blame at the feet of Dunn, saying Dunn “misrepresented ... what [Welker’s] market value was.”
“Their incentive – they don’t really care about the New England Patriots,” Kraft said of the demands issued by Welker’s reps. “They care about getting the best financial deal for their client they can get. I understand that. Their compensation is based on that and they want to attract other clients. In the end, our job is to look out to put the New England Patriots in the best position to win continuously.”
However -- while being very delicate not to point an offending finger at any particular team -- some agents allege there’s collusion afoot among NFL owners when it comes to slot receivers.
“I think that’s a very valid theory,” said an anonymous agent when asked specifically about offers toward slot receivers. “This year has been a buyer’s market overall, but it seems particularly for slot guys. I think teams think these guys are easily replaceable so they don’t value them as high as, say, a Randy Moss-type game breaker. I also think there are more and more slot guys to draft each year so the market is getting a little more saturated. But given the abundance of one and two year contracts, I wouldn’t put it past the owners to have colluded on this as well.”
Others argue that it’s not just as the slot receiver position.
“In my opinion, it’s 100 percent collusion to reset the market and values,” said one high-profile agent. “Remember Carolina owner Jerry Richardson during the lockout saying the owners were going to take back the league? They used the worst collective bargaining agreement ever negotiated by the absolutely atrocious and corrupt NFLPA as an excuse, and decided to reset certain spots, including offensive tackle, cornerback, defensive end, defensive tackle and slot receiver.”
“The league has resolved itself to bring all salaries under control -- the NFL would live to have more options in terms of markets, positions, franchise tenders and the like, but mainly they are just trying to lower all the bars to get salaries back to where they should be across the market,” added a third agent. “The feeling around the league is ‘No more players who aren’t elite should be paid as elite just because they got to free agency,’ and all the teams know what everyone is willing to pay. They talk more than ever, and if you price your guy out of the market, you’re screwed.”
Look, there’s nothing that says slot receivers deserve Larry Fitzgerald-type of deals -- that eight-year, $128.5 million deal that included $50 million guaranteed he signed in 2011 contract is an outlier, and certainly not the norm for any position. But there has to be some sort of middle ground that rewards the slot guys for their consistency, toughness and overall production. Traditionally, the slot guys are the ones who consistently move the chains and take the most abuse. They are not the glamorous, outside guys -- instead, the blue-collar guys like Cruz, Welker, Amendola and Boldin are the physical types who take a beating and come back for more. Boldin broke his face a few years ago and was back in the lineup three weeks later. No matter how much you want to question Amendola’s toughness (and we have over the last week or so), he returned from a life-threatening clavicle injury a month after the incident. And Welker ... well, he was back on the field a few plays after this hit, so you be the judge.
As it stands right now, in their pursuit of bigger deals, the slot guys have two things against them: as one Twitter follower noted on Monday, it’s a supply-and-demand market, and because not everyone uses a slot receiver, they have limited options. And two, many teams are starting to evolve past the slot receiver concept -- some teams find flexible tight ends who can offer the same level of production out of the slot. To that point, expect the Patriots to feature Aaron Hernandez in the slot in 2013 as New England will do whatever it takes to continue to best utilize Hernandez’s strengths. And it’s worth wondering if the Patriots were thinking ahead when faced with Welker’s contract conundrum to committing to use Hernandez more often in the slot when they gifted him with a seven-year, $41.115 million contract -- with $16.4 million guaranteed -- last August.
History will show us if this is just a one-year anomaly in the market, or if this year is a true representation of how the league feels about slot receivers. But for now, it is clear that the landscape has been reset, and that teams are adjusting on the fly -- with those rapidly changing market conditions helping to explain why, for better or worse, Welker is no longer with the Patriots.