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Let's Talk About Greg Jennings

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The Daily Norseman takes an in-depth look at Jennings statistical production over the past two years, and how his performance has been relative to his contract and salary cap number.

Rob Foldy/Getty Images

Flashback to the 2012 offseason.  We had just barely made the playoffs on tiebreaker rules after Peterson's historic 2,000+ yard season by winning the last 4 games in a row to finish the year 10-6, and then had to suffer through the Joe Webb debacle in Green Bay.  We traded Percy Harvin to Seattle for some draft picks in the lead-up to free agency, and in March of that year our wide receivers were as follows: Jerome Simpson, Jarius Wright, Michael Jenkins, Devin Aromashodu and Stephen Burton.  It was literally a who's who of no-name wide receivers.  Jenkins was an aging, possession receiver who was not likely to return to the team after 2-years in Musgrave's offense.  Simpson was a troubled WR with tons of potential that couldn't seem to put it all together, and Wright was coming off a non-existent rookie year that flashed a little bit of speed and talent.  Devin Aromashodu was a career backup with potential that could never be realized.  In nutshell, we had one of the worst wide receiver corps in the NFL.

Then free agency started and rumors swirled that the Vikings were interested in former Steelers receiver Mike Wallace.  He signed with Miami.  The Packers were attempting to resign Greg Jennings for less money, but were having cap problems after extending Aaron Rodgers and Clay Mathews to massive deals.  Enter the Vikings offer to Greg Jennings: $45 million over 5 years ($9 mil/year average).  Then the Vikings traded back into the first round of the 2013 draft to take WR Cordarrelle Patterson out of Tennessee.  He was viewed as a raw prospect that needed to work on refining his route running, but his athleticism and speed has never been in question.  Common wisdom at the time suggested that pairing him up with one of the best route runners in the business (Greg Jennings) and a solid coach in Greorge Stewart who has coached up some of the best receivers in the league (Terrell Owens, Percy Harvin, etc) would be enough to develop Patterson into one of the dominant receivers in the NFL.  And not only that, signing Jennings would have finally given Ponder a reliable receiver to help elevate his quarterback play, which was a mixed bag in 2012, but did show a few signs of progress and flashes.

Unfortunately we all know what happened in 2013: a disastrous 5-10-1 finish that saw Leslie Frazier get fired and had Greg Jennings compiling a disappointing 68 receptions, 804 yards and 4 TDs, his lowest production outside of his rookie year and shortened 2012 season due to injury to that point in his career.  But by and large, his low production was mostly a by-product of the horrendously bad quarterbacking the team endured.  It was a season where three different quarterbacks made a start in the season, and one where the team changed starting quarterbacks between those three players four times mixing and matching the likes of Christian Ponder, Matt Cassel and Josh Freeman.  While Jennings had one of the lowest yardage outputs of his career, he showed increase rapport with quarterback Matt Cassel, especially towards the end of the season.  In looking at his statistical splits between his games with Ponder/Freeman versus Cassel, there was a noticeable uptick in targets, receptions, yards and touchdowns.  In other words, as the level of quarterbacking improved in 2013, so too did Greg Jennings production.  Here are the splits averaged out on a per-game basis:

Greg Jennings 2013 Production

Matt Cassel Games (81.6 QB Rat)

6 Games

Ponder/Freeman (71.1 QB Rat)

10 Games

Targets per Game

8.2

5.7

Receptions per Game

5.7

3.4

Yards per Game

68.8

39.1

TDs per Game

0.5

0.1

As you can see, the first column is Greg Jennings per game average when Matt Cassel started a game, and the right column is his per game average when Ponder or Freeman started a game.  There is more than 10 points of improvement in Quarterback Rating when comparing Matt Cassel to Ponder/Freeman, and it results in significant gains in Greg Jennings production as well.  I don't think this is a coincidence.  If we were to take his 6-game average with Cassel as the quarterback in 2013 and multiply that by a full 16-game season, the final season stat line would be 91 receptions, 1,100 yards and 8 TDs.  In Bill Musgrave's conservative, run-heavy offense that would have to be viewed as a very successful season for a wide receiver.  When you also consider that he was "always open" last year too, I think his 2013 season can safely be judged as underrated.  I would argue that his final season stat line is not indicative of his true on-field skill and talent.  In other words, his low production was primarily a result of the terrible quarterbacking.  When you also consider just how productive he was in Green Bay with MVP and future Hall-of-Famer Aaron Rodgers throwing him the ball, we can safely conclude that Greg Jennings was still a great wide receiver in 2013, even if all of the Vikings quarterbacks couldn't get him the ball consistently.

Flash forward to this past season, and it's not an exaggeration to say that our quarterbacks were again, inconsistent.  Yes, Teddy Bridgewater improved as the season went along and finished on a strong note, but there were some pretty poor games throughout the 2013 season, at least from a quarterbacking perspective.  Once again Greg Jennings had to endure three different starting quarterbacks and it should be no surprise that he had an equally bad season statistically as the year before, totaling only 59 receptions for 742 yards and 6 touchdowns.  So I wanted to again see if there was a correlation between his production, and how well the quarterbacks played.  So I took a look at the QB rating for each game of the 2014 season and compared that to Greg Jennings production in the same game.

Greg Jennings 2014 Production

QB Rating: 81.5-120.7 (10 games)

QB Rating: 39.1-79.8 (6 games)

Targets per Game

6.1

5.2

Receptions per Game

4.2

2.8

Yards per Game

55.5

31.2

TDs per Game

0.50

0.17

Generally speaking, a QB Rating of 80 is deemed to be "league average".  So I looked at those games where QBs scored at least a rating of 80 or better and lumped them together as "good games".  Anything that fell short of the 80 rating threshold was lumped together as "bad" games.  Interestingly, the total number of good versus bad games for quarterbacks was almost flipped exactly between 2013 and 2014, but the production splits are still very similar, regardless of the change in total number of games. As the table above shows, I noticed pretty much the same trend as the 2013 season: when the quarterback's level of play was better, so was Greg Jennings production.

If we take his per-game average of the "good" games where the QB Rating was at least 81.1 or better, and multiply that out over a 16-game season it would result in the following stat line: 67 receptions, 888 yards and 8 TDs, a modest improvement compared to what he actually produced.  That per game average when compared to 2013 is a little lower, but there is one big difference to consider: he is not the primary receiver in Norv Turner's offense.  If you compare his per-game targets in "good games" between 2013 and 2014 there is a decline of more than 2 targets per game.  In other words, good QBs were not throwing Jennings the ball as often in 2014 as they were in 2013.  I think this can be explained by the change in offensive coordinator and a change in role for Jennings.  He was no longer the "go-to" guy in the offense in 2014.  That was supposed to be Cordarrelle Patterson and then eventually it became Charles Johnson.  Those two guys were the primary "X" receiver that guys like Josh Gordon and Vincent Jackson have been in Norv Turner's past offenses, but that was not ever supposed to be Greg Jennings.  In 2013 however, Greg Jennings was the primary receiver in Musgrave's offense.  So the difference in yardage between his "good games" on a per game basis (13 yards or over 200 on the year) could partly be attributed to a change in role as dictated by the change in offensive coordinator and scheme.

But arguably, Jennings skills and abilities as a wide receiver should not really be in question, despite the low season total statistically.  I saw it first hand on the sidelines at training camp when I watched the wide receivers run drills last July: Greg Jennings was simply the smoothest, most polished and refined route runner of all the wide receivers, and it wasn't particularly close.  I think a strong case can be made that Jennings lack of offensive output again in 2014 can be blamed mostly on poor quarterbacking, but also partly on a change in role in the offense.  Again, I would argue that his 2014 season was underrated.

So, what should the Vikings do with Greg Jennings going forward?  He will turn 32 early on into the 2015 season, and his athleticism, speed and quickness will only continue to decline over the next three years.  But he will count for $11 million against the cap over the next three seasons too.  This is a top 10 cap number when compared to other wide receivers in the league.  Even if he had reached the yardage totals of 1,100 in 2013 and 888 in 2014, that wouldn't have been top 10 levels for production in those years.  So is Greg Jennings worth it?  Are there any other stats worth looking at for wide receivers to determine their value and worth?  Well, here are a few from 2013 and 2014 and how Jennings compared against his peers

Greg Jennings

2013 Stats and Ranks

2014 Stats and Ranks

Yards per Reception

11.8 (73rd out of 111)

12.6 (60th out of 110)

WR Rating (QB Rat when thrown to)

79.8 (62nd out of 94)

101.6 (29th out of 90)

Drop Rate

6.85% (29th out of 94)

7.81 (50th out of 90)

Deep Passing Catch Rate

33.3% (38th out of 80)

43.8% (19th out of 74)

Yards per Route Run

1.62 (44th out of 94)

1.32 (68th out of 90)

Yards after Catch per Reception

5.2 (32nd out of 111)

3.5 (77th out of 110)

When looking at the ranks of Jennings statistics, it doesn't look great.  Some of this can be attributed to bad quarterbacking, sure.  But he doesn't rank higher than 19th in any particular statistic, and in most of them he is ranked somewhere between 29th and 68th.  Hardly a ringing endorsement for a wide receiver who will have a cap hit that is ranked in the top 10.  He also has similar advanced statistics when comparing 2013 to 2014 with the exception of WR Rating (which goes way up in 2014) and Yards after the catch (which goes way down in 2014).  This can partly be explained by the fact that there are significantly more games in 2014 where QBs performed better than in 2013.  But the yards after the catch number declining could be due to any number of factors: age decline, type of routes run, change of scheme/role, etc.

So in the end, I think we have a wide receiver who has definitely been victimized by bad quarterbacking over the past two seasons, but who also is failing to live up to his extremely high contract.  The Vikings were desperate for a wide receiver after the 2012 season though, and based on the state of the roster and available options I don't necessarily blame them for paying Greg Jennings an average salary of $9 Million over 5 years.  It just so happens that he hasn't lived up to that kind of contract on the back end of his career.  Jennings prime years are behind him, and he had his best years already while he was in Green Bay.  So the Vikings are going to have to take a long hard look at Greg Jennings contract and decide if it's worth it.

Has the WR corp improved substantially since 2012?  The changes from 2012 to now are replacing Jerome Simpson, Michael Jenkins, Stephen Burton and Devin Aromashodu with Greg Jennings, Cordarrelle Patterson, Charles Johnson and Adam Thielen.  Jennings is an upgrade over Michael Jenkins, although the older he gets the more and more like Jenkins he will become.  I'm not convinced that Patterson is better than Jerome Simpson (although considering the off-the-field stuff, at least we can count on Patterson to be available for a game).  Charles Johnson and Adam Thielen have flashed a ton of potential, but neither has proven to be a reliable receiving option over the course of a full season, and that sounds awfully familiar to Devin Aromashodu and Stephen Burton.  I'm not really convinced that outside of Greg Jennings, the wide receivers on the roster now are really that much better than 2012.

So, the Vikings may not have a lot of negotiating room with Jennings, especially considering that he will count for $6 million against the cap in dead money if he is cut.  They will lose more against the cap than they will gain if they cut Jennings this off-season.  Perhaps a restructured deal is possible, but again, I think Jennings has all the leverage here, despite the fact that he has not performed like a top 10 receiver.  He can point the finger at the quarterbacks for his poor stats, and call the Vikings bluff in threats to cut him, because there is no one else they can count on that is already on the roster.  And the Vikings will pretty much have to just sit back and pay him.  Next season when his dead money number is more reasonable I would expect the team to approach him about a restructured deal, especially if his production is down, and even more so if they draft a 1st round wide receiver again like Amari Cooper, Devante Parker or Kevin White that could potentially emerge as a dominant, #1-type receiver in Turner's offense.