Looking At a Possible Contract for Cowboys WR Dez Bryant


I wanted to take a look today at Dez Bryant of the Dallas Cowboys, who is entering the final year of his contract and more or less proclaimed that he is a top five receiver in the NFL. I find Bryant a pretty intriguing contract negotiation since there are arguments that could be made on both sides for his salary and there are many potential risks and rewards associated with an early extension for Bryant.

The Salary Landscape

Here is the list of current top of the market players whose contracts were signed under the age of 30 (Bryant is 26 this season)

WR contracts

Bryant should have two goals in this negotiation. The first is to establish that he is far superior to the bottom four names on this list such that he, at the very least, begins a new salary tier for the position. The second is to argue that he should be paid alongside Johnson and Fitzgerald.

The Second Pay Tier

First I just want to look at base stats to quickly establish Bryant’s position among this group. Here is how Bryant’s three year performance stacks up against the average performance of the four players who make under $13 million a season.

Bryant Performance

n terms of total usage, Bryant laps the field. He ranks first in games, receptions, yards, and touchdowns. However he ranks below average when we start looking at his performance per play where his yards per reception and yards per target both lag the field.  Does that really matter though when working on a contract for a player with the physical abilities as Bryant?  Probably not.

The Top Tier

The reason I stated above that the per play type data likely has limited effect on a contract is when you look at the three year numbers of Johnson and Fitzgerald, at the times they signed their contracts, to the average of the four second tier players and add them to the chart you get the following:

top tier performance

Those other players were unable to attain the salary levels of the big two despite the barely average or below average performances in those yards per reception and per target type categories. But Johnson and Fitzgerald were, much like Bryant, considered physical marvels at the position and not interchangeable pieces. The overall usage numbers indicate dominant and durable players at the position and they were thus paid accordingly.

Looking at it this way I think we can definitely make the argument that Bryant, among the group of current veteran contracts, is worthy of being no worse than the third paid player at the position. Getting him above $16 million a season, however, may not be easy.

His greatest asset is the ability to find the end zone. He has more touchdowns over this three year period than the other two did. He also is catching more passes that come his way, though he has played with the better QB over a three year stretch as well. On a per game basis he only slightly trails Johnson at 0.733 to 0.723 touchdowns per game. He is neck and neck with Johnson in receptions as well. His receptions are well behind Fitzgerald’s.

The major negative on Bryant being considered on par with these two players is his usage stats. The next time you see a Bryant outburst on the sideline about getting him the ball (however one wants to spin it) think about the fact that he gets one less target a game than Johnson and 1.5 less than Fitzgerald. That one added target would basically have put him on par with Johnson for yards and Fitzgerald for receptions. At that point you can make the case that he could warrant the largest contract at the position.

The fact that Dallas’ offense has so many passing options through the years has hurt Bryant. Loosely adjusted for games played, Bryant is responsible for about 22.5% of his teams’ targets. Johnson was at 24.4% and Fitzgerald 26.9%. Among the first and second tier, his team usage ranks just 5th, just ahead of Wallace and Jackson (Harvin and Bowe both benefitted from being on poor teams with limited alternatives).

It’s the one area of statistical dominance that he can not claim right now and it is doubtful that will change. There are a few arguments that he can bring to the discussion regarding that. One is that he is the only one of the two players to play with a dominant tight end in Jason Witten. Jackson had a similar situation with Antonio Gates in San Diego. When it comes to actual attention among wide receivers on the Cowboys, Bryant’s numbers are more impressive.

Secondly I think it would be worth bringing up the fact that Witten is 32 years old and may not have as many seasons left as a dominant player. Once that happens the fact is Bryant can pick up the slack and get those dominant numbers that compare with Johnson and Fitzgerald.

Finally, Bryant is just 26 years old and has years of exceptional football ahead of him. Unlike many other players you are not going to pay for non-results on the backend of a contract, but will get a dominant player for at least four years if not more.

Where Should His Salary Fit

Based on the fact that this is the Dallas Cowboys, who have gone above and beyond for certain players, I think Bryant should have a compelling case to come in very close to those top two players. Can he reach $16 million?  I don’t think that is a possibility. Both Johnson and Fitzgerald had their teams over a barrel in regards to salary cap charges and contract structures which helped get them the deals they received. Bryant is by no means an albatross on the Cowboys salary cap right now and Dallas is probably fluid enough with the cap to be able to threaten back to back franchise tags, which would leave him somewhere between $28 and $29 million in earnings over a two year period..

I think the challenge here should come with designing the 1A tier that is lacking. How much above the second tier average of $11.79 million makes Bryant happy while also being acceptable to the Cowboys? I would think the range here would be $14.7 to $15.3 million a season. I think there is also a point to be made here that Johnson’ five year contract value works out to $15.6 million a season, so coming in close to $15 million is really not that far off from true top of the market pricing.

In terms of years I think the deal has to be similar to the big two at 7 years. That is necessary for salary cap flexibility and can also give Bryant the important distinction of having a $100 million contract. If the $100 million number is a big deal they may be able to push the annual value down to the $14.3 million level, but I’m just guessing as to that being a big benchmark for Bryant. It might not be and they may be more interested in hitting $15 million a year as a benchmark.

Cash flows of the contract will be an important issue. Johnson received $45.75 million over the first three years of his contract. Harvin will receive $43.145 million.  Harvin also could have been threatened with multiple franchise tags and that had no bearing on his extension numbers. I think Bryant needs to come in between both players and I don’t feel that it would be acceptable to him to receive the $37 million total that went Wallace unless that number was fully guaranteed from day one. Both Harvin and Johnson present better comparisons as well because they both had one year remaining under contract when extensions were signed.

Here is the breakdown of how the Harvin and Johnson yearly annual values work out over the first five years of their contract:

yearly salary

There are a couple of interesting things to note here. One is the structure of the deals. Harvin’s is a pure waterfall style contract that starts high and continues to come down. Johnsons follows a unique pattern in that the APY falls and then rises again in a u-shape.  That is very uncommon, but marked the importance for Johnson to eventually get to a final annual value of over $16 million while the Lions were likely stuck working in the $15.5 million range. This is the compromise and the type of structure I would suggest for Bryant as well, except $15 million being his maximum value. The other interesting point is how close the two year values on the contract are. Basically Harvin and Johnson should set the parameters for the first three years of payments pretty easily.

The other thing that stands out is just how strong the Harvin contract was in terms of cash flows. Harvin’s three year annual value was nearly a 1.12 multiple of the five year value. Most other players are in the ballpark of 1. The tradeoff for Harvin was the low guarantee compared to the others at the position. Harvin received just $14.5 million in full guarantees with a maximum guarantee of $25.5 million. Wallace received $27 million fully guaranteed upon signing and $30 million in total guarantees. Johnson received nearly $49 million in fully guaranteed salary. Each of these numbers is important, but the Harvin model should be paid attention to if Bryant’s camp would not agree to a “reasonable” contract and Dallas felt compelled to keep him at a higher number.

Based on the structures of the contracts I would suggest a cash flow to be somewhat along these lines for Bryant, assuming our seven year value ends up around $15 million, which again I think is the maximum he will get.

Bryant Cash Flow

How might we structure such a deal?  Right now Dallas has around $10 million in cap space in 2014 following the $5.5 million in cap savings that they earned from Miles Austin coming off the books. They still have to sign their first two draft picks which will result in a net loss of cap room of about $1.6 million. Assuming that they have no other major signings to make this year they should be able to afford to increase Bryant’s cap charge by $4 million and still get by for the season.

In 2015 Dallas has $138 million currently on the cap, but that includes charges for Doug Free and Kyle Orton, both of whom will have their contracts void, creating another $9 million in cap space. Henry Melton has a $9.25 million cap charge which would never occur. He would either be released or restructured for added cap space. In 2016 the team can begin to turn over the roster without devastating salary cap issues. My goal is to keep the cap charges moderate enough to where I don’t feel forced to restructure the contract in 2015 or 2016.

I think a very fair offer is a $20 million signing bonus with no other change to Bryant’s 2014 salary. That would bump his compensation this year to $22.03 million which actually exceeds Johnson’s salary in his extension year.  Dallas can go lower than that and have it still be acceptable but for salary cap purposes I’d rather give the big bonus and work on a payment schedule that the team will find adequate for cash purposes.  The initial guarantee would consist of the signing bonus, 2014 and 2015 base salaries and half of the 2016 salary. I’d give an injury guarantee on the other half of the 2016 salary and $10 million of his 2017 salary with the opportunity to earn a full guarantee if on the roster in March of those respective years. That works out to a full guarantee of $31.405 million and injury guarantee of $45.03 million.

Bryant cap Chart

I like this structure because it gives me Bryant at reasonable cap figures for the next three years that should not be difficult to handle under the current roster makeup. If I absolutely have to I can take money in 2015 or 2016 and prorate it, but I should not have to here.  Bryant will turn 30 in 2018 and I would have a good deal of leverage to bring his numbers down if he was no longer an elite receiver at that stage. If he was still a terrific receiver I have plenty of years to prorate money into and work out more reasonable numbers.

Those numbers seem large, but I would not be that worried in the event he was dominant. In this structure his plus 30 years (2018 to 2021) would amount to $60.6 million in non-guaranteed compensation. Brandon Marshall, who would be the elite standard bearer for the plus 30 extension, will earn $39.3 million over a 4 year period.  Assuming $7 million a year in cap growth, Marshall’s contract uses up around 6.8% of the total cap room. If the cap grows at the same figure then it’s about 8.8% for Bryant.  That’s certainly higher but it is not crippling.

Potential Risk of Not Signing

Outside of injury risk, which exists for every player in the NFL, there are two unique circumstances that might pertain to Bryant which could impact a contract offer made in 2015.  The first deals with his quarterback, Tony Romo. Romo has now undergone two back surgeries in the last two years and I think there are some legitimate questions about his health this season. With Orton claiming he will retire from the NFL that would leave Bryant catching passes from the likes of Brandon Weeden. That can crush his statistical production and bring questions up as to how QB dependent Bryant may be.

The other risk lies with the position where three big time receivers will also be up for possible extensions during this year. Those players are AJ Green, Julio Jones, and Demaryius Thomas. Here is how this group matches up in some of the major receiving categories.

extension class

There should be no argument that Green is the superior receiver. The case is going to be made that he is superior to Johnson and Fitzgerald at the times they signed their deals and it is a solid case. The only place where he lacks is touchdowns. The other two players you can make a case for as being somewhat equal to Bryant, depending on how much you believe that the players will remain healthy.  Thomas is probably most similar in terms of offensive importance and potential QB dependence.

Now there is nothing wrong with dropping from 3rd to 4th or 5th best, but the danger comes in the contract possibilities. Right now the market is set in stone with overpaid players like Wallace and Harvin and the big two on top. Dallas has always been very fair with their players within the existing frameworks of contracts at a position. The same can not be said of the Denver Broncos and Cincinnati Bengals who seem to be much more difficult to deal with on big contracts.

If Bryant plays things out and those two players decide to sign extensions with their respective teams (Jones would be less of a risk to sign a monster deal off injury) it could change the landscape of the WR market and solidify the Johnson and Fitzgerald deals as unattainable outliers. If, for example, Green signs for $13.3 million a season, Bryant has almost no leg to stand on when asking for the moon. At that point it’s about getting a little more than Harvin with strong up front guarantees. Any of these players coming in low in dollars more or less signals that both the club reps and the player agents agree the Wallace, Harvin, and Bowe deals are all invalid and carry the asterisk that nobody would have close to matching those contracts. It also further solidifies the top two being unattainable.

Of course it can work the other way as well. If Jones or Thomas signed in the $14 million plus range it makes getting $15 million an easier task. If Green somehow was to surpass the Johnson contract Bryant should be able to push even higher than $15 million as it redefines the WR market and validates the contracts at the top and second tiers. I find this scenario less likely, but it could be a consideration.

Bryant also has the ability to explode this year and take the leap into the next level when it comes to production. If he opts to play things out and does something like the 1,700 yard type season Johnson put up in 2011 when he earned the monster extension than Bryant can increase his asking price. That should also give him a year that surpasses anything Green does if Green gets an extension.

These are all considerations that both sides need to take into account if they open negotiations over the next few months.

The Final Verdict

I think both sides will benefit in the long run by trying to do a contract now rather than waiting. I think it benefits the Cowboys on the salary cap and locks up Bryant pretty much for his career.  Bryant does deserve recognition as one of the top few players in the NFL at the position and should be paid accordingly.  For all of the negatives we hear about Bryant I don’t think it has ever impacted his play nor does he give off the vibe that he is a take the money and run player, cruising through the next two or three seasons and collecting a paycheck. It will definitely be a fun situation to keep an eye on and one that maybe will start to play out over the summer.




Initial Reaction to Larry Fitzgerald’s Restructured Contract


Yesterday I had discussed salary cap space in 2014 and how yesterday marked the start of restructuring and termination season. Today we get our first big move with Larry Fitzgerald announcing that he restructured his contract to provide the Arizona Cardinals with salary cap relief.

My projections for the Cardinals were to have about $1 million in cap room following the earning of escalators and incentives by QB Carson Palmer. Cleary that was not going to be enough for the Cardinals to try to improve further and close the gap between themselves and the Seahawks and 49ers. Restructuring the contract of Fitzgerald, who had an $18 million cap charge and $13 million in cash coming his way, is the easy solution for a quick fix to the teams salary cap situation.

But whenever you hear the word restructure it often means deferring trouble to later in the contract. Renegotiating a contract means a paycut to help the team. Restructuring usually just means conversion of salary into bonus money. While there is no guarantee that is what the Cardinals did, there is a strong possibility that they will just recycle the money into future years, where Fitzgerald already has a $21.25 million cap figure in 2015.

The Cardinals, in a full restructure, can lower his salary in 2014 to just $955,000 and convert the remainder to a signing bonus. If so Fitzgerald’s new contract would look as follows:


Base Salary

Prorated Bonus

Roster Bonus

Workout Bonus

Salary Cap

Dead Money

Savings if Cut









































This would create nearly $10 million in additional cap room but at a major cost moving forward, with incredibly high dead money charges and salary cap charges. This is for a player who has accounted for just 1,752 yards in the last two seasons combined and will be 31 in August.  Fitzgerald’s agent has always negotiated an incredible set of contracts, second in the league only to those of Ndamukong Suh in my opinion, and if this is the restructured deal then agent Eugene Parker did it again as a way of nearly ensuring that Fitzgerald earns his 2015 salary.

Hopefully we’ll get the full breakdown tomorrow and see just exactly what the two sides decided to work out.



Thoughts on Larry Fitzgerald Possibly Being Traded


Adam Schefter today shared some insight into the situation between the Arizona Cardinals and Larry Fitzgerald, which could lead to Fitzgerald being traded either by Tuesday or at some point next season.

Fitzgerald’s record setting contract extension has more or less become unsustainable for the Cardinals. Fitzgerald’s salary cap hit in 2014 is $18,000,000 and he is set to earn $13 million in cash. In 2015 the salary cap charge jumps to $21.25 million with $16.25 million actually paid in cash. The cost to trading Fitzgerald will not be cheap for Arizona. Due to a signing bonus and option bonus paid to Fitzgerald his 2014 “dead money” is $10,000,000. That represents a $8 million cap savings for Arizona.

Arizona has to look at this with a sense of realism about Fitzgerald and his long term price. In the first year of his contract extension, 2011, Fitzgerald caught 80 passes for 1411 yards, despite having Kevin Kolb and John Skelton as his Quarterback. Those numbers represented about 26% of the teams receptions and 35% of the teams passing yards. His numbers crashed in 2012 to just 798 yards on 71 receptions, with similar suspect QB play. The Cardinals felt that they upgraded the QB position this year with the addition of Carson Palmer, but Fitzgerald is on pace for just 964 yards on 73 receptions. He now makes up just 20% of the teams receptions and 24% of their yards. For the most part in four of his last five years he is averaging right around 1,000 yards a season.

Though nobody will ever consider any of the players he has played with over this time to be Aaron Rodgers, there are enough Quarterbacks to where people will begin to at least consider the thought that at 30 years of age and a decade in the NFL that maybe he is not the player he once was. The longer the Cardinals wait on a trade the more people may consider that it’s not just the QB keeping Fitzgerald from producing those 1,400 yard seasons he seemed to have with regularity in his prime. Once you hit $16.25 million cash salary due in 2015 his value will likely plummet in a trade, especially if he has another 1,000 yard or less type year in 2014. It’s just too much money for a team to part with a decent pick. That makes 2014 a must trade year if that is the end-game for Arizona and they want value back from him.

In terms of negotiating leverage the Cardinals may never find a better time to trade him that before Tuesday. If Fitzgerald were to be traded before the deadline a team would require just $2.65 million in cap room to have Fitzgerald for their stretch run. That has to make him extremely attractive to a number of playoff teams. That would give the team Fitzgerald for 24 weeks over the next two years at just $15.65 million in cash and cap commitments. Because no prorated money would be included in the deal Fitzgerald could be cut with no damages in 2015 if his play did not increase to justify the huge salary investment.  If Arizona traded him before the deadline they would save the $2.65 million which would be carried over to help offset the dead money charge the following season.

The contract of Fitzgerald brings up another point that I’ve touched on a few times which is the general view on paying certain players in the QB realm. The average veteran QB earns around $15 million and there are only 6 non-QB’s in the NFL that earn in the ballpark of the starting veteran QB- Fitzgerald, Calvin Johnson, Darrelle Revis, Mario Williams, Adrian Peterson, and Julius Peppers. Fitzgerald’s team is just 16-23 since he signed his extension and the combined records of those players is just 69-100 with Peterson’s Vikings being the lone team to make a playoff appearance. These players can be salary drivers for others in the NFL, but if the lack of success continues the League will likely continue the pullbacks in salary to all positions except Quarterback.




Projecting a Contract for the Saints Jimmy Graham


One of the biggest name free agents in 2014 will be Tight End Jimmy Graham of the New Orleans Saints. Because of his incredible start to the season, racking up 593 yards in just 4 weeks, he and his pending contract have become discussion points around the league, so we’ll take our look as well at Graham and see what could lie in store.

Statistically Speaking

I think there is a perception around the NFL that Graham had little to gain by having another incredible season this year. I actually agreed with that until running some of the numbers on Graham for the last two years where and comparing them with a number of other “high end” Tight Ends in the NFL over the same time frame. While Graham produced the most yards of any player at the position over the two year period he was also the most targeted player at the position.  His numbers were actually behind those of Rob Gronkowski on a per game basis. Here are the two year averages at the position for the top 10 in cumulative yards from 2011 and 2012.

TE market 1

Had Graham been extended before this season I would think it would be arguable about approaching the contract numbers of Gronkowski. Unless the argument is strictly based on games (which is certainly important) Graham would not track as the best in the NFL at the position. That changes for Graham this season.

Graham is on pace for a 118 reception season for a ridiculous 1897 yards. His catch rate is up to nearly 70% and he is averaging 16 yards per reception. With Gronkowski on the shelf with another set of injuries Graham has distanced himself from the field and even if he slows down on the year, he should have done enough to break away from the pack. But if Graham finished the year with 1000-1100 yards I don’t think his leverage would nearly be as high as many people believed coming into the season.

Pushing Beyond the Position

Graham is going to shatter records this year with the type of season he is having which is going to bring up the major question of whether or not Graham should be treated as a Wide Receiver or a Tight End.  From a contract standpoint there is a major difference between the two positions. The highest paid Tight End averages $9 million a season. $9 million is less than Miles Austin makes per year with the Dallas Cowboys. So the disparity between the two positions is great. But this is an argument that no player has been able to win in the past. Can Graham?

The current highest ever receiving total for a Tight End is 1,397 yards which was accomplished by Gronkowski in 2011. Graham’s 2011 output of 1,310 yards ranks second all time. Only four players in the history of the NFL have produced more than 1,200 yards at the Tight End position. So the type of numbers Graham is producing are historic, but are they WR contract worthy?

For Graham to be in the conversation we obviously need to make some assumptions. The assumption I will make is that he will finish the year with about 1,540 yards, meaning he’ll produce for 13 weeks this season at his current rate and have three games of no production.    This averages out to about 90 yards a game down the stretch of the season which is not unreasonable all things considered.

I want to take the three year averages for Graham and compare them to the top 10 paid receivers in the NFL at the time they signed their contracts. So for Brandon Marshall we will be looking at his 3 year stats from 2007 through 2009 with the Denver Broncos and not with the Dolphins or Bears since those stats had no bearing on the contract he received. I will also include Gronkowski’s numbers for the last three seasons in the mix.

TE market

Graham, if he meets the production levels of the assumption, does not just track with the most highly compensated players in the NFL, he exceeds their performance. He ranks 2nd in receptions, 5th in targets, 2nd in yards, 2nd in touchdowns, 3rd in yards per game, 3rd in catch rate, 9th in yards per reception, and 7th in yards per target. Those would be exceptional numbers and he will likely be the first Tight End to produce at this kind of level walking into a contract year (I say likely because Tony Gonzalez possibly could have been in a similar spot back in 2005).

One of the arguments against Graham will likely be the offense that he plays in inflates his stats because of all the weapons the team has at their disposal. While there is some truth to that he is the most targeted receiver on his team the last few years and is the player who should get the most defensive attention on the Saints team. Saints QB Drew Brees does spread the football around so he may not be a number 1 like a Brandon Marshall who has the entire passing game run through him, but it does compare favorably to many on this list including Wallace, Jackson and Harvin.

Perhaps the bigger argument against Graham will be age. Graham, despite so few years in the NFL, will be 28 in 2014. So this is not signing a very young player like Gronkowski who will only be 25 next season. He is going to be looked at as more of a veteran in terms of years ahead of him. Still this is a prime age and the continued success of Witten, Gonzalez, Gates, plus numerous Wide Receivers over the age of 30 should help him fight any such arguments.

The Saints First Move

In hindsight the Saints probably made a mistake not extending Graham this season. Part of that was circumstances as the Saints had, and continue to have, a poor salary cap situation and they decided to try to keep the team intact rather than creating room that could have allowed for an extension that would have been slightly less than the one given to Gronkowski. Now he should surpass Gronkowski by quite a bit. At this point I’m not sure the Saints would even benefit from an extension now rather than next season.

The Saints, despite the cap woes, will apply the Franchise tag to Graham to control his rights next season. This is where Graham will need to argue that he is a WR and not a TE with the League. The Franchise tag for a Tight End is in the ballpark of $6 million compared to $10.5 million for a Wide Receiver.  The Saints will need to shave significant salary to be cap compliant in 2014 so that extra $4.5 million is of major importance. Getting the WR designation would also remove the threat of the Exclusive franchise tag as it would be in the ballpark of $14.5 million for a receiver and just $8.5 million for a TE.

Removing that threat is important for Graham, who will not want to play under any tag provisions that will only bring him closer to 30 when true free agency finally begins. In 2012 the Saints applied the Exclusive tag to QB Drew Brees. The two sides fought over a contract until mid-July when the Saints finally gave in to Brees’ desire to earn $20 million a season. Graham’s best contract will come from a situation where he can shop himself around the NFL even at the cost of a number 1 draft pick. If he gets that WR designation the Saints will be in a position where they are forced to negotiate for cap purposes.

I do think that Brees’ contract is also helpful in that Brees was the first player in the NFL to break the $20 million dollar barrier. At the time the highest paid player in the NFL was Peyton Manning at $19.2 million and behind him was Tom Brady at a shade above $18 million. In terms of percentage raise over top of the market that would place Graham somewhere between $9.4 and $9.9 million a year which I would guess would be the absolute least he would take if his played trailed off dramatically over the next 11 games. Graham is superior to Gronkowski at this point so arguing a raise should be simple. At the least Graham should be making it a point to be the first TE to break the $10 million a year barrier the same way that Brees was the guy who broke the $20 million number.

Contract Guesstimates

Now even though the numbers are projected to be exceptional for Graham and he is going to enter a contract period off his best season, dreaming of Fitzgerald/Johnson money is ludicrous. These are players I refer to as “break the system” players in that their salaries are so far above the norms for elite players that they have broken the contract system in place in the NFL.

Last year Calvin Johnson’s contract represented a 67% increase over the 5th highest salary at the WR position.  In other words he(well actually Fitzgerald since he was the original huge contract) broke the pay system in place. That number has decreased now (44.7%), but in part that is because Johnson’s and Fitzgerald’s contracts raised the market for the likes of Bowe and Wallace. Other position busters include Adrian Peterson (86.3%, around 65% at time of signing) and Darrelle Revis (64.1%). You have to be a special talent to break the system. The other player who did it would be Chris Johnson, who set the standard a few days before Peterson received his extension from Minnesota. That is really it.

If I am Jimmy Graham I want to break the system. That has to be my goal in this negotiation. While in the worst possible case I may settler for $10 million a year the reality is that I want Graham to be a position buster. Gronkowski failed to do that. His $9 million a year salary represented a 24% increase over the 5th highest paid player at his position. Using this logic helps me avoid the WR vs TE debate. I will agree Graham is a Tight End provided that the Saints agree that he has separated himself apart from the field the way all the others have. I think that is an easier argument to have than first going down the Wide Receiver versus Tight End route.

The two star receivers were unique. They were devastating number 1 targets that could not be replaced and had created a great deal of separation between themselves and the rest of the receivers in the NFL. The two running backs were unique and had were the only non-QB’s in the NFL that teams felt they could build around. Revis, in his prime with the Jets, had no peer. All of these players impacted the game beyond the norms of their position.  Graham is that same type of player.

This is not a negotiation about earning “receiver money”. It should be a negotiation about recognizing how great the separation is between Graham and Jason Witten or Jared Cook. The numbers show how superior Graham is to those players.   You can compare him to a WR the way Revis could be compared to a pass rusher or Peterson to a QB. Those players could find ways to back that up and so can Graham if he finishes this season over 1,500 yards.

I want to be somewhere around that 65% raise level that most of the others were at the time they signed their contracts. Once Graham is signed the 5th highest contract on the books should be that of Antonio Gates at $7.235 million. That works Graham out to be just under $11.94 million a season.  That should be the fair number for him. It will ensure that he is the highest paid Tight End for, most likely, the entire contract.

Graham will probably earn anywhere from 48% to 50% of the contract in the first three years, based on some of the other contracts that we want to use as a guideline. Revis receives 50% over the first three years, though his deal contained no guarantees. Fitzgerald earned nearly 52.5% of the 6 year contract value in his first three new money years while Calvin Johnson and Peterson earned 48%.  Chris Johnson’s contract was just 4 years in length so we will throw that one out. Looking at those numbers it’s reasonable for Graham to receive around $34.38 million within the first three seasons of his contract. That number will far surpass the $30 million earned by Gronkowski .

In terms of a first year cash payout we come up with the following: Revis earned 16.7%, Peterson 20.8%, Fitzgerald 34%, and Johnson 29.7%. I think it’s also worth mentioning that Gronkowski earned 22% of his contract in the first year and that the Saints were willing to go to 40% of the contract value for Brees. Knowing that Tight End is not considered a premier position, I don’t think I would touch the WR numbers. Peterson and Revis would be in similar less importance positions and accordingly received much less up front. I think I would be happy hitting the same percentage as Gronkowski, which works out to a payout of $15.76 million in 2014. Regardless, he needs to earn about 34% of his deal in the first two years to keep pace with the “system breakers”.

How to Keep Him on the Saints

Some of the numbers we are talking about are pretty steep. I currently have the Saints estimates around $138 million in 2014 cap commitments. Just to reach the salary cap limits they will need to bring that number down to around $124.5 million. $11.5 million will be created by releasing Will Smith and from there they will need to begin restructuring contracts to get below the salary cap limits and have room for completing their roster. Their cap does not get much better in 2015 either, so Graham is going to need to carry low cap figures in the first two years of his contract.

That will work in Graham’s favor because it is going to require the use of multiple prorated bonuses to artificially lower his cap numbers while keeping the cash outflows high.  Though I don’t believe the Saints are a big option bonus team I would imagine that the contract will either contain an option bonus in 2015 or be designed to allow for a conversion of salary to prorated bonus.

My proposed contract structure will contain a minimum salary in 2014 and close to the minimum in 2015. I would use a $15 million dollar signing bonus and a $7.5 million option bonus payable in 2014. I’d have the first two years salaries fully guaranteed with an injury guarantee in 2016. I don’t believe that the Saints would need to go higher than that on the guarantees unless they need to backup the option with a guarantee. Considering the dead money in the deal Graham probably can concede on the paper guarantees. Here would be a proposed contract structure:

graham proposed cap

And here is how our cash flows will work out:

Graham proposed cash

This is going to be a very player friendly contract that will essentially ensure him of earning those first three seasons. His fourth year is virtually guaranteed unless the Saints choose to designate him a June 1 cut. For that reason I would imagine in this structure a roster bonus of $4-$5 million being in place in 2017 to ensure a quick decision by New Orleans. The high cap figures in 2017 and 2018 should force the Saints into an early extension or a release which at 31 and 32 years old would be a final chance to cash in.

The Saints get the low cap figures in the first two years. Applying an exclusive tag to Graham in 2014 would cost around $8.5 million. Under this proposed deal he is only going to carry $9.33 million in salary cap charges in 2014 and 2015 combined. That is a major benefit for the Saints. The cap structure is flexible enough to keep the June 1 release a possibility in the fourth year so they would have some outs after investing around $34 million in Graham for three years in the event he or the team goes south.

Overall I would think if Graham keeps this pace up he will have an exceptional chance at reaching the numbers discussed here. In the NFL teams will always find a way to keep the players that they feel are irreplaceable and I would be quite surprised if Graham is wearing another uniform at any point over the next few years. I’d expect this deal to be done certainly before the 2014 offseason begins and maybe even this year if the Saints feel that they have unused cap room that can be used towards the contract.

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Best & Worst Contracts: Arizona Cardinals


A few weeks ago Jason LaCanfora published a list of best and worst contracts in the NFL so I thought it might make a good idea for us to do the same here at OTC, with a team by team approach. I’ll try to be a bit more analytical in terms of why money was paid and how it fits in the market, but the general premise is the same. The one key difference is outside of restructured rookie contracts under the old CBA we will only use veteran contracts as there is a big difference between best draft picks and best contracts.  Please note that there is a difference between a bad player and a bad contract when discussing some of the selections. Clicking on a players name will take you to his salary cap page.

daryl washingtonBest Contract: Daryl Washington

This is another difficult team to find contracts that stand out in a positive manner. The Cardinals have overpaid a number of players for years and have not gotten great results from those players.  Calais Campbell would be an example of a player who has lived up to the price tag, but can you call a contract with high cap charges and very high dead money throughout the deal a good contract? Probably not.

Suspension notwithstanding, Daryl Washington has been a good player for the Cardinals and the Cardinals acted early and extended him after just two seasons in the NFL. This allowed them to give Washington a fair value contract while lessening the cap charges that would have hit the team had they waited until his rookie contract was up. The contract also left the Cardinals a very quick out in the event that  Washington was injured or regressed terribly in 2012.

The Cardinals only paid him a $2.5 million dollar signing bonus in 2012 with the larger bonus coming in 2013 in the form of an option bonus. The option was worth $10 million but was unprotected , meaning there was no fee attached if they failed to execute the option. He also had no guaranteed salary in 2013 meaning the Cardinals could have walked away with just an additional $2 million in dead money if they needed to cut ties with him. This was in stark contrast to the contract signed by Aaron Hernandez in 2012, which was for less total money and represented a player signing after just two seasons, where there was no protection and after 1 year the Patriots were hit with a $10 million dollar cap charge for walking away.

The Cardinals had until the end of the 2013 season to invoke the option but decided to move the decision date for salary cap purposes to the first day in 2014. While that can save Washington some money, since option bonuses can be attacked if a suspension occurs in the year the option is invoked, the Cardinals have maintained a two year evaluation period for a young player with potential. It is a much more cautious approach than most teams have taken when they extend their younger players. With rookie players under the new CBA able to renegotiate their contracts following this season I tend to think more teams will look at the Washington contract construction as  a method to extend their talent and avoid holdouts while also keeping many financial options open to themselves if the player fails to develop once shown the big money.

Larry FitzgeraldWorst Contract: Larry Fitzgerald

I guess it’s worth pointing out right away that worst contract doesn’t always mean a bad player. Fitzgerald is an exceptional talent that is completely wasted because the team has failed to find a Quarterback after Kurt Warner retired from the NFL. This really should be exhibit A as to why a team should never overspend on a WR thinking it will fix a QB. For as great as Fitzgerald is he couldn’t fix Kevin Kolb or make the other folks, who didn’t belong in the NFL in the first place,  even look passable.

Fitzgerald’s series of contracts with Arizona are arguably the finest player friendly deals ever negotiated by an agent. Fitzgerald was drafted in 2004 with the 3rd overall pick in the draft and received a contract that was essentially worthy of the 1st pick in the draft. The contract was  a masterpiece as most highly drafted rookies were going to be tied to their rookie contracts through the 5th season and many through the 6th. Fitzgerald has excessive balloon payments in those last two years, with cap charges over $16 and $19 million that essentially made his contract a 4 year contract. By 2008 Fitzgerald had signed his first extension at the age of just 25.

The extension was more of the same carrying a void year and high enough cap charges to make the team consider extending again. After just three seasons the Cardinals gave Fitzgerald his third contract, an almost unheard of occurrence for a player just 28 years of age. The next deal was a complete game changer- 7 years and $113 million dollars for a Wide Receiver at a time when the top of the market was in the realm of $10 million dollars. Over $50 million in new money would be paid to Fitzgerald over the first three years of the extension, with significant bonuses being placed into the contract that would lead to excessive amounts of dead money in the contract.

Though Arizona added de-escalator clauses to the contract in 2017 and 2018, the deal was structured to include cap charges of $18 million in 2014 and $21.25 million in 2015, making the 2016 through 2018 seasons virtually meaningless. What that means is that Fitzgerald will likely be in a position to receive his 4th contract in 2014 or 2015 when he will be 31 or 32. If Fitzgerald plays his contract thru 2014 he will have earned about $115 million dollars from the Cardinals. Eli Manning, who was selected first overall in that same draft, is a two time Super Bowl MVP and plays a premier position in one of the biggest media markets in the country, will have earned just $18.4 million more.   For a WR to earn that kind of money is almost unheard of. It’s a series of bad deals for the Cardinals but an absolute masterpiece of a contract for Fitzgerald.

Check out Our Other Best & Worst Contract Articles

AFC East: Buffalo BillsMiami DolphinsNew England PatriotsNew York Jets

AFC North: Baltimore RavensCincinnati BengalsCleveland BrownsPittsburgh Steelers

AFC South: Houston TexansIndianapolis ColtsJacksonville JaguarsTennessee Titans

AFC West: Denver BroncosKansas City ChiefsOakland RaidersSan Diego Chargers

NFC East: Dallas CowboysNew York GiantsPhiladelphia EaglesWashington Redskins

NFC North: Chicago BearsDetroit LionsGreen Bay PackersMinnesota Vikings

NFC South: Atlanta Falcons, Carolina PanthersNew Orleans SaintsTampa Bay Buccaneers

NFC West: Arizona Cardinals, St. Louis Rams(July 30)