On Wednesday, Dez Bryant and Demaryius Thomas each signed 5-year contracts just before the Franchise Tag deadline to reach multiyear agreements. The teams and players involved were kind enough to agree to contracts of identical length and face value, thereby setting up a perfect situation for Expected Contract Value comparison.
Both contracts are purportedly worth $70 million over the course of 5 seasons (2015-2019). Bryant’s $32 million worth of “true guarantees” are comprised of a $20 million signing bonus and fully guaranteed base salaries in 2015 and 2016. Thomas’s $35 million worth of “true guarantees” are comprised of an $11 million signing bonus and fully guaranteed base salaries in 2015 and 2016. The Expected Contract Value calculations for each contract are as follows:
|Year||Salary||Expected Outcome||Expected Value||Adjustment|
|Year||Salary||Expected Outcome||Expected Value||Adjustment|
The effect of Bryant’s larger signing bonus can be seen in his higher Expected Outcomes in Year 4 and Year 5. He will carry dead money protection totaling $8 million into Year 4, whereas Thomas will only carry dead money protection totaling $4.4 million in Year 4 (the Broncos will have the opportunity to release Thomas before paying him a $4 million option bonus in 2018). So Bryant is less likely to be released in 2018 than Thomas despite having a higher cap number than Thomas, and in 2019 Bryant will have both a lower cap number and more dead money protection.
However, the most favorable contract term for Bryant as compared to Thomas is that Bryant’s 2017 base salary becomes fully guaranteed on the 5th day of the 2016 League Year, rather than in 2017. Only a handful of contracts in the NFL work this way, and such a term is very powerful for increasing Expected Contract Value. Having the 2017 base salary guarantee vest in 2016 instead of 2017 increases Bryant’s 2017 Expected Outcome from 77% to 95%, which is a difference of about $2.4 million when applied to a $13 million base salary. This is because even though Bryant’s 2017 base salary is not fully guaranteed at this moment, it will be fully guaranteed at the outset of the 2017 League Year if Bryant is kept under contract for 2016. And because Expected Contract Value forecasts a 99% likelihood that the Cowboys will keep Bryant under contract for 2016, the 2017 base salary is as close to being fully guaranteed as possible without technically being fully guaranteed.
This once again highlights the incoherent way in which NFL contracts are reported. As I detailed when I initially introduced Expected Contract Value, NFL stakeholders frequently resort to using oversimplified contract metrics that represent under-inclusive or over-inclusive estimates of contract value. A fan following the contract news on Twitter would have come across terms such as “guaranteed money, “ “fully guaranteed money,” “injury guarantees,” “guaranteed money per year,” “three-year cash flow,” “average annual value,” “money guaranteed by March 2016,” and so on. Andrew Brandt described Bryant’s deal as “3 years, $45 million and then we’ll see” and Joel Corry asserted that Thomas’s deal is “really 3 years for $43.5M with an option for 2018 and 2019.” The word “guarantee” has lost all meaning within the context of the NFL, and money scheduled for Year 4 or Year 5 of a contract apparently exists as nothing more than a figment of the imagination.
I understand that Brandt and Corry are simplifying the analysis for the consumption of their Twitter followers, and I get that all of the reporters are attempting to convey that $70 million does not mean $70 million, but this coverage simply reinforces the need for an all-encompassing metric such as Expected Contract Value. Everyone understands that NFL contracts are not guaranteed, but focusing too strongly on certain contract characteristics at the expense of others is not the ideal way to emphasize this point. Expected Contract Value – or similar but superior metrics not yet created – incorporates all relevant contract characteristics and weights them each appropriately. The NFL community can save a lot of confusion by adopting a singular metric for reporting and evaluating contract numbers.
From a team perspective, Bryant’s contract keeps Dallas among the most committed teams in the league as measured by Commitment Index. Based on my running Commitment Index calculation (which now includes all signed draft picks), I have the Cowboys scoring as a 166, trailing only the Saints (183) and Dolphins (182). Possessing a high Commitment Index score does not necessarily foretell future salary cap problems or talent drain, but it does mean that the Cowboys have less flexibility relative to most other teams if things go south with the current roster. The important thing is committing to the correct players, and the Cowboys should not allow any previous mistakes to be compounded by causing a reluctance to commit to Bryant if they have determined that he is worth such a commitment.
I have the Broncos as currently scoring 91 on Commitment Index, a little below the average-by-definition of 100. This is perhaps surprising for a team that seems to have handed out a number of large contracts in recent years, but the team actually has very little salary cap space truly committed beyond 2015 to high profile players such as Peyton Manning, Ryan Clady, Emmanuel Sanders, and Von Miller.
The Cowboys preserved optionality in the short-term, keeping Bryant’s 2015 and 2016 cap numbers to $7 million and $13 million, respectively. The Cowboys currently maintain more than $17 million worth of cap space, so if they do not find an opportunity worth using that cap space on in 2015 (which would also increase the Commitment Index score), then they can earmark some of that cap space to be rolled over to effectively “smooth out” Bryant’s cap numbers. On the other hand, the Broncos did not preserve much in the way of short-term optionality, but they may benefit from significant surplus value in Year 3, when Thomas’ cap number will be just $10.7 million. The most likely scenario would result in both teams incurring a few million dollars worth of dead money in 2019 after releasing the receivers.
 Corry is also correct on a technical level due to the fact that Thomas actually does have an option bonus in 2018, but every NFL contract can be looked at as being a series of team options after one or two guaranteed seasons.