Estimating Braxton Berrios’ contract value
Racking up a career-high 1,392 all-purpose yards and being named a Pro Bowl alternate as a kick returner, New York Jets wideout Braxton Berrios has become a fan favorite in the 2021 season.
Berrios, 26, is set to become an unrestricted free agent after the season. Many fans have feverishly demanded the Jets to extend him or at least come to terms on a new agreement once Berrios hits the open market in March.
What is the speedy returner and shifty slot receiver worth?
Let’s dig into what Berrios brings to the table and then figure out what those tools might earn Berrios on his new contract.
Berrios is having an awesome year as both a kickoff returner and punt returner.
On punts, Berrios has gained 201 yards on 15 returns for a career-high average of 13.4 yards per punt return, which ranks second-best out of the 34 players with at least 10 punt returns.
On kickoffs, Berrios has gained 797 yards on 26 returns for a career-high average of 30.7 yards per kickoff return, which ranks second-best out of the 35 players with at least 10 kickoff returns.
This is not the first time that Berrios has provided elite production as a punt returner. He ranked third out of 38 qualifiers with 11.4 yards per punt return in 2019. However, Berrios took a step back in 2020 as he ranked 17th out of 31 qualifiers with 8.6 yards per punt return.
Berrios’ sure-handedness as a punt returner is a tremendous compliment to his explosiveness. He has muffed just one punt in his career out of 123 opportunities – and that was back in 2019 during his sixth career game. He’s gone 41 games without a muff since then.
The kickoff prowess is a new weapon for Berrios. Over his first two years, Berrios returned 13 kickoffs and averaged only 16.5 yards per return with a long of 28 yards. He’s surpassed 28 yards on nine of his 26 kickoff returns this year.
While Berrios has two big-time highlights as a kickoff returner – the 102-yard touchdown he scored against Jacksonville and the 79-yard game-opener he had against Philadelphia – he has also impressed with his consistency. Berrios has taken 14 of his 26 kickoff returns (53.8%) past the 25-yard line. Of those 14, nine of them (34.6% of all returns) were taken to the 30-yard line or further.
Berrios has never fumbled across 46 career punt returns and 39 career kickoff returns (nor has he fumbled as a receiver or rusher).
Possessing top-notch explosiveness and ball security in both phases of the return game, Berrios is about as appealing of a returner as you will find.
As an offensive player, Berrios has proven to be a solid backup slot receiver. He has filled in admirably when called upon to replace the Jets’ starting slot receiver, Jamison Crowder.
Crowder has missed eight games as a Jet, with Berrios taking over his snaps in each one. In those eight games, Berrios averaged 5.1 receptions on 7.1 targets for 47.4 yards, 2.6 first downs, and 0.25 touchdowns (catching 41 of 57 passes for 379 yards and two touchdowns).
Comparatively, Crowder is averaging 4.8 catches on 7.2 targets for 50.3 yards, 2.1 first downs, and 0.36 touchdowns in 39 games as a Jet.
That’s essentially equal production.
However, it’s worth noting that the Jets’ offense has been noticeably worse when Berrios has had to take Crowder’s place.
In eight games with Crowder sidelined, the offense scored only 9.8 points per game. In 39 games with him, the unit has been substantially more competent, averaging 16.8 points. New York is 1-7 (.125) without Crowder and 12-27 (.307) with him – the Jets’ win over Jacksonville this past week was their first victory without Crowder since he joined the team.
One potential reason for the Jets’ offensive drop-off with Berrios despite his similar production to Crowder is this: it is clear that Berrios is not quite a starting-caliber receiver when it comes to creating his own production. He struggles to separate against man coverage.
Berrios ranks 100th out of 103 qualified wide receivers with an average of only 7.0 yards per reception against man coverage, generating 84 yards on 12 catches. He also ranks 79th in yards per route run (1.18) against man coverage.
Those numbers are no fluke, as in 2020, Berrios ranked 101st and 84th in the same categories, respectively, out of 109 qualifiers.
This is the main reason why Berrios has been a backup throughout his Jets career. He can be effective when he takes the field in spurts to be fed the ball and used as a chess piece, but over larger diets of reps, his lack of ability to beat defenders on his own becomes a detriment to the offense – thus explaining the Jets’ scoring drop-off with Berrios on the field versus the more dynamic Crowder.
Berrios’ inability to make big plays against man coverage places a firm cap on his offensive ceiling. His career-high for receiving yards is 73. Crowder, meanwhile, has posted more than 80 yards in over a quarter of his games as a Jet (10 of 39, 25.6%).
While Berrios has revealed clear limitations in his game this year, he has made some improvements as well.
The biggest positive for Berrios is that he has minimized his drop-proneness. He has only one drop against 38 catches for a 2.6% drop rate. He struggled with drops last season, dropping four passes against 37 catches (9.8% rate).
Secondly, Berrios has found an important niche in offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur’s scheme. LaFleur has featured Berrios as a motion man and gadget weapon in his offense. Berrios receives a decent chunk of designed touches on end-arounds, jet sweeps, and screens.
Berrios has rushed five times for 28 yards and caught 10 screen passes for 47 yards. New York frequently puts Berrios in motion pre-snap to help tip off the defense’s coverage, and they often feed him the ball on plays where he is motioning as the ball is snapped.
The Jets build off of the threat of Berrios. They show looks in which he is a possible option to get the ball and then either fake a play to him or simply work the play to the opposite side, using the defense’s respect for Berrios against them.
A “gadget guy” is key in LaFleur’s offense. LaFleur needs a player who can make things happen on manufactured plays so the Jets can utilize that threat to establish other things. Many thought Elijah Moore would be that player when the Jets drafted him, but Moore has instead developed into a legitimate all-around threat at wide receiver. Rather, it’s been Berrios handling that role.
When used situationally, Berrios is proving to be a valuable piece.
What is Braxton Berrios’ value?
Essentially, we need to figure out what NFL teams generally like to pay for elite kick returners who are backup-quality wide receivers.
One great comparison is former Jets receiver Andre Roberts. After making a Pro Bowl for the Jets as a returner in 2019, Roberts signed a two-year, $4.6 million deal with the Bills, including $3 million guaranteed.
This year, former Lions All-Pro returner Jamal Agnew signed a three-year, $14.3 million deal ($4 million guaranteed) with Jacksonville. However, while Agnew’s returning production was around as good as Berrios’ is (arguably better as Agnew had four touchdowns in four years), he was nowhere near the receiver. Agnew was averaging 2.3 receiving yards per game for his career.
But the Jaguars projected an expanded offensive role for Agnew (as evidenced by his lofty contract relative to his receiving production), and he has performed in that role slightly better than Berrios has for the Jets. Agnew is averaging a career-high 34.0 scrimmage yards per game this year, a decent distance ahead of Berrios’ career-high 26.3 scrimmage yards per game for the Jets this season. Agnew’s 11.0 yards per offensive touch also beats out Berrios’ mark of 9.2.
Cordarrelle Patterson is another interesting comparison. Patterson was a similarly-productive offensive player to Berrios last season, averaging 22.8 scrimmage yards per game for Chicago. He earned his fourth All-Pro appearance as a kickoff returner. Yet, he earned only a one-year, $3 million deal from Atlanta (although Patterson is 30 years old).
In 2020, former All-Pro returner Pharoh Cooper was coming off of a season with a career-high 18.8 scrimmage yards per game (his first season adding offensive usefulness to his returning reputation) and signed a one-year, $1.2 million deal with Carolina.
Looking solely at receiving production, most prime-age wide receivers in Berrios’ range did not get very hefty deals on the 2021 market:
- Josh Reynolds: 38.6 receiving YPG, signed 1 year, $1.8 million deal
- Chris Conley: 31.4 receiving YPG, signed 1 year, $1.5 million deal
- Adam Humphries: 32.6 receiving YPG, signed 1 year, $1.2 million deal
- Willie Snead: 32.2 receiving YPG, signed 1 year, $1.1 million deal
- Isaiah McKenzie: 17.6 receiving YPG, signed 1 year, $1.1 million
Of those five, Humphries and McKenzie are the most similar to Berrios, both offering productive returning experience and a reputation as the type of player who could handle a “gadget” role. That didn’t do anything to push either player’s contract beyond their lackluster volume production offensively. Kick returning just doesn’t make the big bucks.
Berrios likely shouldn’t be too expensive for the Jets to retain. A deal ranging from $2-3 million per year should get the job done. Anything above $3 million per year would probably be a bit rich. There simply isn’t much of a precedent for players of Berrios’ ilk (great special teams value but limited offensive production) getting paid more than that.
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