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Is Nelson Agholor Worth $9.4M?

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A full film and contract review on Nelson Agholor’s value and future with the Eagles

Film Review

Any good film review of a player begins by answering questions that seem simple — and usually are. What position does he play? What is his role in the offense?

For Agholor, these items are a bit more confusing to suss out.

Per PFF, Agholor took 587 from a “Wide” alignment this season, and 471 from a “Slot” alignment — that’s a pretty even distribution. If we map them from a weekly perspective, however, we can see how Agholor’s snap distribution changed with the wide receiver room.

Before the Golden Tate trade, Agholor had more snaps in the slot than out wide in 7 out of 8 weeks. Afterward, he had more snaps out wide than in the slot in 7 out of 10 subsequent weeks. His role changed once Tate was acquired.

It’s worth noting that, in 2017, Slot Agholor drastically out-snapped Wide Agholor: 826 to 117 — and that year is generally viewed as Agholor’s best season. After all, it was the season after which the Eagles’ front office felt comfortable exercising the fifth-year option on Agholor’s contract — but more on that later.

It’s worth delving into that production, though. If we compare Agholor’s receiving stats across those two seasons, we see that really, his 2018 wasn’t measurably that much different than his 2017 season, despite the fact that public discourse on his game seems to have shifted.

Nelson Agholor Production (By Year)

Stat 2017 2018
Stat 2017 2018
Targets 95 97
Receptions 62 64
Catch Rate 65% 66%
Yards 768 736
Yards/Catch 12.4 11.5
Yards/Game 48 46
Touchdowns 8 4

The main difference? The change in his touchdown production. Agholor’s red zone targets dropped this past season, from a team-leading 18 in 2017 to 11 in 2017, behind Alshon Jeffery’s 13 and Zach Ertz’s 27. Interestingly, 6 of Agholor’s 11 red zone targets came in the first four weeks of the season — the remaining 5 were spread across the next 12.

So over time, Agholor became decreasingly involved in the red zone passing game. He also became a progressively deeper threat over time. If we divide the season again by the return of Alshon Jeffery and the arrival of Golden Tate, it’s easy to see how Agholor’s role in the offense changed.

We have to be careful with the trends we’re seeing here. It seems, over the season, that Agholor moved from slot to wide; that he became less involved in the red zone passing game; and that he became more involved in the deep passing game. But these things don’t necessarily have to be linked.

For example: while Agholor moved more out wide and got more deep attention, Agholor was still most effective — and most often used — as a deep receiver from the slot alignment.

This was Agholor’s best deep route this season: the deep over, deep post, whatever you want to call it.

When we conceptualized deep routes and the role of a deep receiver, we can make mistakes by limiting ourselves to a third of the field — thinking exclusively of 9 routes, or “go” routes. These deep crossers that Agholor runs are effective against man and zone, as they provide good natural leverage against man and often surprise/confound basic zone rules. The slot alignment maximizes their value, because it prevents Agholor from getting pressed off the line of scrimmage, which would delay a route that already takes quite some time to develop.

Agholor was rarely used, pre- or post-Tate trade, on true go routes. When he won, it was with speed against off or bail-coverage, like here against the Cowboys.

If Agholor is able to develop this aspect of his vertical game — winning with speed to separate against man coverage with a single-high safety — he’ll develop into a more consistent downfield threat. As it stands, the ability to open up a player on deep crossers is more a product of scheme than talent, at least in comparison to a true 9 route. If Agholor is only an effective deep receiver on crossers, then that production can be replaced by other receivers.

The biggest concern with Agholor as a downfield threat is his ability in contested catch situations. Agholor does not like contact downfield, and rarely wins in jump-ball situations, or when he’s expecting a hit.

Not a single one of these passes are pretty — each could be better and make life easier on Agholor. But no receiver will get perfect passes on every throw, especially deep downfield. Agholor should be expected to better track and attack these passes to prevent interceptions and haul in difficult catches, especially if he’s going to be the Eagles’ titular downfield threat.

When not filling the downfield shoes, Agholor is a solid receiver in the short and intermediate areas. Agholor’s best trait has always been his route-running, and that shows up on intermediate breaking routes, especially when working into the sideline from the slot alignment.

These throws, because they are to the outside, do limit Agholor’s ability to generate YAC. Agholor has good speed and great explosiveness with the ball in his hands, but isn’t a very elusive player and doesn’t break many tackles. Per Next Gen Stats, Agholor generates about the average amount of YAC you’d expect, from a player with his target distribution.

Philadelphia did feed Agholor screen and mesh targets all year long, regardless of the week — they like him as a YAC player. But the returns on that usage don’t move the needle much either way, in Agholor’s overall film evaluation.

A final film note: Agholor does deserve credit for the dirty work he does. An energetic and surprisingly effective blocker from the slot or even in-line, Agholor helps create space on off-tackle runs that other slot players would not, given his effort as a blocker.

Contract

Per Over the Cap, this is Nelson Agholor’s current contract:

That’s the rookie deal, plus the fifth-year option. It’s important to remember how we got here.

The fifth-year option is an extra year at the end of a contract extended only to first-round picks. The price tag for each fifth-year option is set both by position and by the draft pick used to select the player (1-10 v. 11-32) — for Agholor, as we can see, the figure is around $9.4M.

The fifth-year option must be picked up by May 3rd of the fourth year of the player’s contract — i.e., because Agholor was drafted for the 2015 season, the option needed to be picked up before 5/3/18. The Eagles elected to pick it up on April 30th, after 2018 NFL Draft was complete.

At the moment at which the fifth-year option was picked up, it was fully guaranteed for injury. If Agholor had been badly injured in 2018, the Eagles would not have been able to cut him and get back the $9.4M figure — however, the fifth year does not become fully guaranteed until the league year begins for the option. That would be March 13th, the league new year, which is in just two weeks.

As such, Philadelphia could cut Nelson Agholor before the new year with no cap hit. That said, a crucial note: it would be considered a cut, because Philadelphia has picked up the option, and not just a player’s contract expiring. Accordingly, Agholor would not qualify for the compensatory pick formula, and Philadelphia would not get a draft pick back for losing Agholor in free agency.

A $9.4M dollar hit in 2019 will make Nelson Agholor T-21st on the list of WR cap hits for the year. He’ll stand alone once the Dolphins cut DeVante Parker, Agholor’s classmate who never panned out for Miami, who is also under the fifth-year option for 2019. At that figure, Philadelphia will be the only team in the league playing two wide receivers (Alshon Jeffery) over $9M; only the Eagles, the Vikings (Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen), and the Dolphins (Kenny Stills and Albert Wilson) will have two receivers making over $8M in 2019.

Of course, Nelson Agholor does not have to stay on the roster at the $9.4M. Philadelphia can restructure his deal at any time between now and the new year (March 13th), likely extending him for multiple years beyond 2019 while lowering his 2019 cap hit specifically.

Options At The Position

Rostered

Looking through this offseason and into next year, Philadelphia is thin in their wide receiver room. Mike Wallace (32 years old) and Golden Tate (30 years old) are both on the wrong side of the hill and likely not to return to Philadelphia next season; Jordan Matthews (26 years old) could return at a good value, but he’s also staring down the barrel of free agency.

As it stands, if nobody is re-signed, Philadelphia’s WR3 is third-year Mack Hollins, a fourth-round pick who was reportedly working his way into a bigger role before a groin injury sidelined him for 2018. WR4 is Shelton Gibson, the 2017 sixth-round selection who has not earned any significant playing time on offense in the past two seasons.

It is likely that Philadelphia adds a cheap veteran FA wideout, as they have done the last two seasons with Torrey Smith and Mike Wallace (both on one year deals). That would push Hollins to WR4 and Gibson to WR5, which is a more palatable outlook on 2018 — but without knowing that hypothetical free agent, it’s still tough to feel great about the Eagles’ 2018 WR room.

Agholor is the clear WR2 in that group, and he can take snaps both on the outside (471 last year) and in the slot (587 last year), which allows for more versatility in who “WR3” is in 11 personnel sets. Hollins also has that inside-out versatility given what we’ve seen of him in the past two years, but it’s tough to get a feel for where Hollins is in his development given the whole season he just missed.

Beyond 2019, Agholor will be a free agent, and Philadelphia will likely look to retain him given the lack of promising players currently under contract. All that could change with an early- or middle-round draft selection, or a multi-year deal in free agency. But given how Philadelphia has approached the WR position to this point, it would seem they have Agholor in their plans for 2020 and beyond.

Free Agency

Here’s the list of pending NFL free agents at WR, with age attached, that BLG (may he forever reign!) shot to me in Slack when we were all bickering about Agholor earlier this week.

Golden Tate (30)

Devin Funchess (24)

John Brown (29)

Jamison Crowder (25)

Tyrell Williams (27)

Adam Humphries (25)

Randall Cobb (28)

Donte Moncrief (25)

Michael Crabtree (31)

Phillip Dorsett (26)

Cordarrelle Patterson (29)

Chris Hogan (30)

Cole Beasley (29)

Rishard Matthews (29)

Mike Wallace (32)

Breshad Perriman (25)

Dontrelle Inman (30)

Pierre Garcon (32)

Tavon Austin (29)

Chris Conley (26)

Jordan Matthews (26)

Aldrick Robinson (30)

Bruce Ellington (27)

Michael Floyd (29)

Kelvin Benjamin (28)

J.J. Nelson (26)

Justin Hardy (27)

Jermaine Kearse (29)

Ryan Grant (28)

Terrance Williams (29)

Russell Shepard (28)

Deonte Thompson (30)

Eli Rogers (26)

Justin Hunter (27)

Demaryius Thomas (31)

De’Anthony Thomas (26)

Dez Bryant (30)

Cody Latimer (26)

Kevin White (26)

T.J. Jones (26)

Dwayne Harris (31)

Andre Roberts (31)

Josh Bellamy (29)

Rashad Greene (26)

Bennie Fowler (27)

Geremy Davis (27)

Darrius Heyward-Bey (32)

Rod Streater (31)

Andre Holmes (30)

Brandon LaFell (32)

Carlos Henderson (24)

ArDarius Stewart (25)

You can see some clear targets for Philly’s cheap veteran field stretcher (Darrius Heyward-Bey, Michael Crabtree, Dontrelle Inman) and for potentially multi-year contract players who can be had on the cheap (Jamison Crowder, Eli Rogers, Cole Beasley), mostly as pure slot options.

Getting heavily involved with the top of the WR market (Phillip Dorsett or Devin Funchess being the names that stick out here) seems unlikely for Philadelphia, and would necessitate cutting Agholor outright.

It’s worth noting that free agent deals for wide receivers are a surprisingly wild field — more so than I expected before I leapt into the fray. Last year, Albert Wilson turned out his first season with more than 40 yards/game with the Chiefs, and the Dolphins gave him $24M over 3 years with $14.5M guaranteed. 2 years removed from his only season over 500 total yards, Donte Moncrief got a fully-guaranteed $9.6M from the Jacksonville Jaguars for one season, with another $2M possible in incentives.

Regular starting WRs — nothing to write home about — have been doing well for themselves on the open market.

We shouldn’t take the Miami and Jacksonville front offices as shining examples of cap management, of course, but if that’s the price tag for Moncrief and Wilson, it’s the price tag Agholor and his agent can use to determine his relative worth on the market.

NFL Draft

This WR class is thick and diverse. Regardless of how Philadelphia views Agholor’s best usage — slot or wide, underneath YAC guy or deep threat — they can find a player to compliment him.

It is unlikely Philadelphia goes for a WR in Round 1, but as early as their two Round 2 picks — 53 and 57 overall — there could be value worthy of an early selection. Players like Deebo Samuel (South Carolina) and A.J. Brown (Ole Miss) both make sense because they can play inside/outside like Agholor and have strong YAC ability — Deebo particularly interests me, given his returner background and high ceiling.

If Philadelphia is looking rather for a true Z-receiver, to move Agholor to the slot long term (a la 2017 snap counts), Georgia’s Riley Ridley and Ohio State’s Terry McLaurin are two options. Both have effective intermediate/downfield profiles and would benefit from a free release away from press coverage afforded by the Z-alignment. McLaurin is most exciting, as he also brings special-teams value and true sub-4.4 speed.

Later in the draft, there is a bevy of names who could fill WR3 spots. Philadelphia will be interested in WVU product David Sills, a Z option, and should accordingly look at his teammate, Gary Jennings Jr. True slots available on Day 3 include Georgia State’s Penny Hart, a personal favorite, and Oregon’s Dillon Mitchell. Don’t sleep on Nebraska’s Stanley Morgan Jr. either as a Deebo Samuel knockoff.

Evaluation and Expectation

So, what to expect from Philadelphia and Nelson Agholor this offseason?

Firstly, a contract renegotiation. Howie Roseman has opened up a healthy amount of cap space over the past few days, but don’t think for a second that means he’s done.

Now, you always want to create cap space for reasons. Cap for cap’s sake isn’t valuable. We don’t expect Philadelphia to be active movers and shakers on the free agent market, as they endeavor to protect the compensatory picks they’ll gain by the departures of Nick Foles, Jordan Hicks, Timmy Jernigan, and others. Perhaps Roseman will be satisfied with the cap space the Eagles have, the free agents they can attract with it, and call it a day.

But once the league year begins, Agholor’s contract becomes fully guaranteed — that’s in less than a week. Again, you’d be paying Top-20 money for a player that, off of his recent film, is replacement-level. His film does not illustrate a role that he and only he could fill; it does not have $9.4M value to the team.

But at a lower cap figure? Sure. Agholor’s first two seasons are hard to evaluate given his struggles with drops and the changing of the coaching staff. He’s also never enjoyed the luxury of having the same WR coach for two straight seasons — and he won’t again in 2019. Agholor remains a solid WR2, and a cap hit closer to $6M per better reflects his talent relative to other wide receivers in the league (Robert Woods, Mohamed Sanu, Taylor Gabriel).

If Agholor is unwilling to renegotiate his deal, and wants to play out the $9.4M year and then potentially hit the open market, Philadelphia will have to consider cutting him.

I’m not sure there’s a ton of value to opening up $9.4M in cap this season, because again — Philadelphia is not likely to sign big free agent deals. If there’s nothing else you’d spend the cap on, then keep him at the big figure and swallow the pill. You wouldn’t recoup a compensatory pick because you cut him, so the only reason you’d do it is to acquire talent with the created cap.

Accordingly, the ball is very much in Agholor’s court. If he’s fine with the possibility of leaving Philadelphia at some point in the next two seasons, he’d be wise to play hardball with the Eagles’ front office. Given the activity of the free agent market at the position, an ex-first round pick about to turn 26 would attract a pretty penny. The only incentive for him to renegotiate his deal is if he wants long-term stability in Philadelphia specifically.

Otherwise? Force them to pay you the $9.4M, have a more productive season with Tate gone, and make money on the open market.

Agholor will likely play the next season on the $9.4M figure, and I’d expect he hits free agency next year and plays elsewhere in 2020.