Yesterday, presumably while researching for this article breaking down the Buffalo Bills' free agent class of 2017 (which you should definitely read), WGR 550's Sal Capaccio sent out the following tweet comparing Bills receiver Robert Woods to two former Cincinnati Bengals wideouts that landed solid free agent deals this offseason: Marvin Jones (Detroit) and Mohamed Sanu (Atlanta).
As FAs this year, Marvin Jones got $8M/year; Sanu got $6.5M/year....Here's # vs Robert Woods, a FA after this season pic.twitter.com/Cf1mn5Ysq3— Sal Capaccio (@SalSports) May 9, 2016
Capaccio also pointed out in a subsequent tweet that Woods' production came after three seasons in the league, where both Jones and Sanu were drafted in 2012, one year before Woods.
The tweet raised my eyebrows, to be certain. I finished my work day, drove home, and mowed the lawn - and when I opened our team Slack channel to check in on the site, I found a lengthy conversation between Matt Warren, Dan Lavoie, and Tom Mitchell, with Dan delivering the quote that summed up the general sentiment: "I'm honestly surprised how well (Woods) appears to stack up against those two. I'd suggest digging deeper."
I felt compelled to do exactly that, simply because the comparison was surprising enough to warrant it. If we'd asked almost any Bills fan prior to yesterday, not many would have noted that parallel and drawn that conclusion. There are a couple of additional details worth pointing out, but by and large, Woods does, indeed, look to be on track for a similar pay day next spring.
Let's start with playing time. While Woods has been in the NFL one season less than both Jones and Sanu, he has played more snaps than either (his 2,583 barely edge out Sanu's 2,582, and dwarf the 1,797 of Jones, who missed the entire 2014 season due to a foot injury that required surgery). He has also seen more targets in the passing game than either (269, compared to 249 for Sanu and 215 for Jones). On a production-per-snap basis, Woods compares favorably with Sanu, but Jones is a step above both.
(In the chart below, "SPG" is "snaps per game," "SPT" is "snaps per target," "SPR" is "snaps per reception," "YPS" is "yards per snap played," and "SPS" is "snaps per score.")
Some of those numbers above help to explain the gap between the five-year, $40 million deal with $20 million guaranteed that Jones signed this offseason, and the five-year, $32.5 million deal with $14 million guaranteed that Sanu inked. It also illustrates that Jones and Sanu have been more efficient players than Woods to differing degrees, which we'll touch on a little bit more below. Jones is a little longer and a more explosive deep threat than either Sanu or Woods, too, which likely also played into the contract gap.
There are also a couple of factors working in Woods' favor with this comparison. NFL teams should be very aware that Woods has not had the benefit of either quarterback or coaching stability that Jones and Sanu enjoyed in Cincinnati; Jones and Sanu did endure one coordinator change (Jay Gruden to Hue Jackson, who are now both head coaches), but Andy Dalton was under center for them all four years. Meanwhile, Woods has endured transitions at both coordinator (Nathaniel Hackett to Greg Roman) and twice at quarterback (EJ Manuel and Thad Lewis, to Kyle Orton, to Tyrod Taylor). The league will probably be willing to write off some of Woods' receiving efficiency issues, particularly when compared to Jones and Sanu, as the fault of his situation.
Age is also a factor working in Woods' favor. Jones signed his deal going into his age-26 season. Woods isn't quite at his level, but Jones' numbers are attainable for Woods if he stays healthy and can wrangle enough targets away from Sammy Watkins. Sanu, meanwhile, signed his deal going into his age-27 season; today, Woods is much more comparable to Sanu, but when he hits the free agent market next spring, he'll still be a month shy of turning 25. That number will be appealing to teams looking to spend wise cap dollars on a veteran who will make it through his entire deal.
The Bills have a fairly weak unrestricted free agent class coming up next spring - discounting cornerback Stephon Gilmore and quarterback Tyrod Taylor, whose contracts have already been discussed for months - but Woods looks like he'll be an exception to that rule. If he has another season with similar production to his previous three, it's easy to project him signing a deal worth at least $6.5 million annually next spring, putting him on par with Sanu. Whether that happens in Buffalo, or elsewhere, remains to be seen.