2017 Free Agency: Martellus Bennett

Martellus Bennett was drafted in the second round (61st overall) by the Dallas Cowboys in 2008 and was the fourth tight end selected in that draft. In his four years in Dallas, Bennett’s season highs were 33 receptions, 47 targets, 283 yards, and 4 touchdowns. Unfortunately for Bennett, he was stuck behind Jason Witten during Witten’s run of excellence from 2007 to 2012. In that period, Witten never received less than 117 targets in a season and never caught fewer than 79 receptions for 942 yards.

When Bennett’s contract with the Cowboys expired, he signed a one year deal with the New York Giants for $2.5M. In his lone year with the Giants, Bennett set career highs in every receiving category.

The following offseason, Bennett signed a four year $20.4M deal with the Chicago Bears. In his first two years with the Bears, Bennett again set career highs for receptions, targets, and yards while either matching or setting career highs in touchdowns. His third year in Chicago was cut short by a rib injury, the first time in his career that Bennett failed to appear in at least 14 games. While his 2015 game rates were the first time in several years that Bennett failed to set or match career bests, they were still respectable numbers for a starting tight end.

After the 2015 season, Bennett was traded to the New England Patriots. So far in 2016, while playing full time without Rob Gronkowski in the lineup and part time with Gronkowski, Bennett has performed very well. He is currently tied for the league lead among tight ends with 4 touchdowns and he is ninth in receiving yards among tight ends.

Current Status

Bennett is currently playing out the final year of the four year contract he originally signed with Chicago. He is performing the #2 tight end role when Gronkowski is available and is filling in well as a #1 tight end when Gronkowski is out of the lineup. While he is receiving the fewest targets per game in 5 years, his catch rate, touchdowns per game and yards per catch are all career highs, indicating that he is still capable of performing as the top tight end on a roster.

Catches/GameTargets/GameCatch %Yards/GameTD/GameYards/Catch
Bennett 20123.45.662%39.3111.4
Bennett 20134.15.969%47.3111.7
Bennett 20145.68.070%57.3810.2
Bennett 20154.87.366%40.278.3
Bennett 20164.25.281%56.4413.3

Similar Players

Over the past few years, many tight ends have signed new contracts with APYs of at least $5M. Of those, almost all were 27 or younger upon signing: Dwayne Allen, Charles Clay, Zach Ertz, Coby Fleener, Ladarius Green, Travis Kelce, Jordan Reed, and Julius Thomas. The average contract for those younger players is 4 years, $8.4M APY, 40% guaranteed. Based solely on his recent production, Bennett has earned a contract in line with those players. However, his age may keep him from signing a 4 year, top of the line contract.

Bennett will be 30 years old when the 2017 season kicks off. Two players with similar production to Bennett have signed extensions in the past few years when they were in their age 30 or 31 season: Delanie Walker and Greg Olsen. While both signed extensions with their existing teams, I don’t think the extension figures are unreasonable as a free agent contract for a player or Bennett’s age.

On a per-game basis, Bennett, Olsen, and Walker have very similar performance over the past few seasons:

Catches/GameTargets/GameCatch %Yards/GameTD/Game
Bennett 2012-20164.46.469%48.34
Olsen 2012-20164.87.465%61.37
Walker 2013-20164.87.267%58.39

Olsen signed a three year contract extension in 2015 for $22.5M ($7.5M APY) with a $12M signing bonus and $12M fully guaranteed.

Walker signed a two year contract extension in 2016 for $13.375M ($6.7M APY) with a $2.5M signing bonus, $1.75M roster bonus in the first year, and $6.7M fully guaranteed.

Option #1 Return to New England

New England has several impending free agents that it will likely make an attempt to retain. In no particular order, New England’s other free agents along with a conservative rough estimate of their possible APY:

Malcolm Butler – $12M

Logan Ryan – $7M

Sebastian Vollmer – $6M

Donta Hightower – $8M

Marcus Cannon – $3.5M

Jabaal Sheard – $3M

Martellus Bennett – $7M

Right now, New England has an estimated $64M cap space for 2017, so it could sign all of the above free agents if it so desired. It’s more a question of which players will be prioritized. Where another team may not want to dedicate too much cap space to a second TE with a large chunk already invested in Gronkowski, New England likely has budgeted space for a second TE contract in lieu of a top tier WR contract. New England’s highest APY among its wide receivers is Danny Amendola’s $4.75M, which is 34th highest in the NFL.

If Bennett returns to New England, it would likely be on the lower end of a Tier 2 TE contract similar to the extension that Delanie Walker signed earlier this year: 2 Years, $14M, $4M signing bonus, $8M fully guaranteed.

P5 SalaryProrated BonusRoster BonusCap NumberRunning Cash
Year 1$3.5M$2M$500K$6M$8M
Year 2$5.5M$2M$500K$8M$14M

This contract would make Bennett the 13th highest TE in terms of APY and would have substantially similar cash flows compared to the first two years of other recent TE contracts ($14M compared to $14.7M for Fleener and $13.7M for Allen).

In this scenario, Bennett would have identical cash flow to Gronkowski over the next two years, avoiding a potential issue if his contract exceeded Gronkowski’s, and it would keep Bennett’s cap charge below Gronkowski’s in both years.

Option #2 Another Team

Tight Ends that have signed free agent contracts over the past year for at least $5M APY have gotten 4 or 5 year deals. The one exception is Antonio Gates, who re-signed with the Chargers in a deal more similar to an extension that a free agent contract.

PlayerTotalYearsAPY$ GuaranteeGuarantee %Signing & Roster Bonus

If Bennett goes this route, his deal should look close to the deals Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener signed earlier this year: 4 years, $30M, $6M signing bonus, $12M fully guaranteed.

P5 SalaryProrated BonusRoster BonusCap NumberRunning Cash
Year 1$3.5M$1.5M$5M$9.5M
Year 2$4.5M$1.5M$6M$14M
Year 3$5.5M$1.5M$1M$8M$20.5M
Year 4$8.5M$1.5M$1M$11M$30M

Other Considerations

Bennett publicly expressed a desire for a pay raise after his career season in 2014. While he was quieter after the 2014 season, it may still be something on his mind. Currently, Bennett is the 17th highest TE by APY. A contract with an APY around $7-7.5M would put Bennett somewhere between the 8th and 13th highest depending on the final numbers. If Bennett sees himself as a top 5 or 10 TE and refuses to be paid less than a top 5 TE contract, that may price him out of several teams, with New England likely one of them.

At various times in his career, Bennett has been reported to be something of a locker room headache. Dallas didn’t make much of an effort to resign him after his rookie contract, the Giants only kept him for one year, and rumors came out during his third year in Chicago. While this season has been very quiet on that front, a team that signs him as a free agent may be wary of how he will affect their locker room.

Bennett does not have a history of injuries.

Final Thoughts

There are at least 10 teams in the NFL where Bennett would step in immediately as the top tight end on the roster. Some teams already have an established veteran starter taking up a large chunk of their cap and may not want to add a second TE on a large contract. Others have players on rookie contract that are expected to develop into top weapons. Some of the remaining teams either won’t have the cap space or are opting to build their team with younger players. My guess is that Bennett will sign with New England for two or three years at around $7M APY.