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.




Is the Wide Receiver Market the Next to Fall?


The other night during the Dolphins loss once again the thought of Mike Wallace being underutilized/overhyped was afloat on Twitter. I was not a fan of the contract the Dolphins gave Wallace, but the repeated comments made me to consider if the wide receiver market as a whole is going to decline this season much in the way the cornerback and defensive end market did in 2013.

Since 2011 there have been a number of big contracts signed at the wide receiver position and this year in particular featured a number of free agents including Wallace, Dwayne Bowe, Victor Cruz, and Greg Jennings.  Here is a look at who we have estimated to be the 15 highest paid players at the position and what their projected production is this season:


Annual ValueProj RecProj Yards

Calvin Johnson




Larry Fitzgerald




Percy Harvin




Mike Wallace




Dwayne Bowe




Brandon Marshall




Vincent Jackson




DeSean Jackson




Andre Johnson




Miles Austin




Greg Jennings




Victor Cruz




Roddy White




Pierre Garcon




Santonio Holmes




The average production for the group is 69 receptions for 955 yards. Now that number could rise if Percy Harvin comes back strong from injury in the last 7 games, but for the most part 4 of the top 7 salaried players are financial busts at the position. Those seven players represent the top tier of the market. Johnson is justifying the cost while Brandon Marshall is always consistent every year as is Vincent Jackson. The bottom 8 has 4 busts though Roddy White has more than justified his contract over the last three or four years.

Essentially we are looking at paying over $10 million a year for a 50/50 shot at having a player that justifies the big investment. That sounds a lot like the NFL draft except with a far more money being spent. That makes me think that downgrading the entire position is a reality next season.

In terms of per game yardage this season the top 15 includes eight players on rookie contracts (Julio Jones, Justin Blackmon. AJ Green, Josh Gordon, Demaryius Thomas, Torrey Smith, Alshon Jeffery and Eric Decker),  one player on a low cost deal (Jordy Nelson), and four lower upper salaries (Andre Johnson, DeSean Jackson, Antonio Brown, and Pierre Garcon). That leaves just two elite salaried players (Marshall and C. Johnson) to make the list. If we remove those  who played 5 or less we add one lower upper salary (Cruz) and one rookie (Randall Cobb) to replace two rookie contracts.

This season is not really an aberration. Here are the top 15 players in yards per game sorted by contract. Elite would be a player earning over $10 million a year, high end over $8 million, low is all other veterans while rookies are those on rookie deals.



High End


















I tend to think that the performance this season of the big money signings might be a tipping point in the way some teams approach free agents. With a few notable free agents and a handful of players in potential extension scenarios in 2014 I guess we’ll see if teams continue to spend high or bring the top end of the market back down into the $9 million per year or less range.



Is Hakeem Nicks’ Value Really Falling?


There has been a lot of discussion lately regarding Hakeem Nicks and his level of play in a contract year. Having watched most of his games this season I can understand the negative feelings towards Nicks. He has clearly fallen out of favor with Eli Manning following the emergence of Victor Cruz in 2011 and has become just another secondary target. At times Nicks doesn’t look like he is concentrating leading to what seems to be a large number of drops.  But at the end of the day does it really matter?

Nicks, by pretty much all accounts, wanted a new contract this offseason. The Giants at one point made it known that Nicks was more valuable that Cruz, which likely only added more reasons to seek a new deal now. The Giants, who really had limited cap space to work with, preferred to let Nicks play out the contract. Nicks was unhappy and maybe that has carried over to the field. But it’s not like he is the first to do this.

Mike Wallace, now of the Miami Dolphins, sulked through his final year in a Steelers uniform. Wallace was a Restricted Free Agent who had no choice but to play on his tender. Like Nicks, Wallace watched a teammate be signed to a contract extension while this occurred. DeSean Jackson of the Eagles had hoped for a new contract in 2011. It never happened and he was unhappy throughout the 2011 season. He did get a new contract in 2012 with the Eagles.

When you look at some of the big name contracts given out to Wide Receivers in the last two years there has been minimal importance given to the “down season”  leading into the new contract. The players I want to look at here are Jackson, Wallace, and Dwayne Bowe. I considered Greg Jennings, but his injury plagued season was so bad I thought that it was unfair to include him.

The following table will include the percentage increase/decrease in a number of key categories from the players “contract season” to  the two year prime season. For Nicks we’ll be using the 2010 and 2011 season as he struggled with injuries in 2012. The categories are target per game, yards per game, yards per target, yards per receptions, and catch rates. All raw data used to compile this figures is courtesy Pro Football Focus






Catch Rate

























In terms of yards per target and yards per reception Nicks numbers are actually better than where he was back in 2010 and 2011 when he looked like a can’t miss player. Each of the other players saw dramatic dips in their contract seasons. On a per game basis  Nicks is right alongside Bowe and Jackson and significantly ahead of Wallace, who crashed on the Steelers.  His reception rate decline is the worst of the group, however, and his targets were way down.

The real important takeaway for a player like Nicks, who used to be a dominant target in the passing game, is that all he has to do is convince one team that the Giants are not featuring him for reasons unknown to him and that it has nothing to do with his play. If he was featured the way he was in the past his numbers would be right on  his career averages, which is more than the other three could say at contract time.

The alarming items for Nicks come from two areas. One is drops. Like I said above his drops seem terrible and the stats completely back that up. His fall in that category is unique compared to the others.
















Nicks is essentially dropping double the amount of passes he did in the past. That should be a red flag to an organization about how distracted he can be once taken out of an offense and a clear indication of a reason why he is not being featured as much in the offense. Nicks does have an injured finger and I am sure they will argue that these numbers are so far above his averages that they are a byproduct of injury, but it would be the one major concern.

The other concern is that you do have to go back, because of injury, two years to hit Nicks’ prime seasons when Eli Manning treated him as a number 1 receiver in an offense. I’m not sure how much weight teams will put on that but it could potentially be an issue.

Again though, all it takes is one team to bite. The Eagles eventually paid Jackson $9.7 million a season, at the time one of the more lucrative contracts at the position. Bowe became the highest receiver not named Calvin or Larry for a few weeks this season before Wallace jumped him with his $12 million a year contract. Whether they are worth it or not is a different debate (Bowe and Wallace are struggling and Jackson is hoping to avoid a re-done contract in 2014), but the seeming lack of production is not something that should compromise his ability to earn a new contract, provided his finishes the year on the same pace. If he can bring his drops down there is little to really point to about his decline.

In some ways it may be better for Nicks to remain on the Giants for the remainder of the season. If he gets traded and fails to perform that could have an impact on him, much more than what is occurring in New York. While I think many positions are capable of transferring offenses in-season I don’t believe wide receiver is one of them. It takes chemistry with your QB to be a top level producer. For whatever reason he doesn’t have that with Eli, but I would think he would have far more chemistry with Eli than with a QB he has never played with before.

Years ago when the Dallas Cowboys traded for Roy Williams of the Lions, Williams was someone with 1,000+ yard talent and an injury history. He was struggling in his contract year and the Cowboys gave up a significant set of draft picks to bring him on the team before the trade deadline. He went from bad to worse in Dallas averaging under 20 yards a game as he struggled to learn the offense. Luckily for Williams, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones blindly gave him a $54 million dollar contract before he ever played a down for Dallas. Had Williams played the season out and failed with the Lions and Cowboys I think his options would have been more limited since you can make an excuse for not being used on one team, but once you get to two teams it starts to look more troublesome.

So if a team is able to pry Nicks away for a minimal haul and fails to extend him then I think his price tag could be damaged. If he keeps doing what he is doing he will have all offseason to convince a number of teams that this one situation was poor in New York and if given the opportunity he’ll be every bit the number 1 receiver most projected him as two years ago.


Stock Down: Week 1


Every Monday during the season we will take a look back at three players who are entering important stages of their contract that may have hurt their stock in upcoming negotiations with their play on Sunday. In addition we will also look at one player signed in the offseason to a new contract that did not live up to the expectations that his contract sets for the player.

Stock Down

Blaine Gabbert– Gabbert is basically fighting for his career at this stage and is close to running the risk that the Jaguars will not even invoke the 5th year injury protected option for him. While there is little to lose by picking up the option I don’t think a team will want to even chance him being injured and paid on the sidelines when the upside looks to be so minimal. For Gabbert to have any kind of chance at a new contract in the future for more than the minimum he needs to do enough to at least keep his job in Jacksonville. 16 of 35 for 121 yards, two interceptions, and 6 sacks isn’t going to help his cause whatsoever.  Gabbert’s $2.011 million dollar salary in 2014 is guaranteed but with all the cap room that the Jaguars have they could just pay him to go home if this continues. If things get so bad that he gets cut his career will probably be finished.

Isaac Redman– Redman is playing the year out on a RFA tender and if he matched last years production should be capable of a mid tier contract in free agency. Unfortunately for Redman he never got anything going against the Titans, rushing 8 times for just 9 yards and not being a factor in the passing game, usually his best asset. His fumble around the goal was a big momentum changer and the Steelers never really recovered.  Injuries have already taken their toll on the Steelers running game, but after the game the perception is that Redman can not be a solution and the Steelers should look outside of the organization for help.  The lower end of running back market was already shrinking in 2013 and Redman will need to perform better over the next 15 weeks to gain that new contract.

Josh Freeman– While it would be easy to blame everything on Lavonte David, and he is clearly the guy who was directly responsible for the final loss, nobody has more riding on this season than Freeman and he was underwhelming to say the least. I’m not sure I have ever seen a QB take back to back delay of game penalties following a time out until Sunday. That sequence eventually led to a 3rd and 35 play. Freeman looked like he forgot the snap leading to an unforced safety on the next possession. While some might point to his leading the team to what seemed like the game winning FG, it was a terrific play by Vincent Jackson rather than the good play of the QB. There may not be a QB more dependent on one WR  than Freeman is on Jackson. Maybe Jay Cutler would be the only other one with Brandon Marshall, but the feeling on Cutler is that he can be passable with others. Freeman runs the risk of teams beginning to believe that he happens to be the recipient of a strong WR that pads what little numbers he has. Freeman will be a free agent in 2014 and needs to do a far better job than he did against the Jets if he wants to get his name into the mid level QB contract discussions.

New Contract Disappointment Of The Week

Mike Wallace– The $60 million dollar man produced all of 15 yards in the first game of the season for the Miami Dolphins. While there are other contributions that he made to the team, specifically pulling the Browns best coverage to help his teammates, those are all nullified by the attitude after the game. There is nothing worse than having an overpaid player complaining after a win  about how he is being used. That is why he belongs in this list even more than the lack of statistics. The last thing the Miami Dolphins need is their version of Santonio Holmes ripping anything the team does because he isn’t getting the looks he wants. Wallace is in a position where he can have his contract restructured next season to ensure he makes even more than his guaranteed salary. More Sundays like this and there is no chance that it happens, no matter how much it impacts the teams salary cap in 2014.


Utilizing Free Agency to Build a Team


As Ryan continues his excellent State of the Rebuild series, in which he looks at new General Managers and their situations, I thought it might be worthwhile to just give a general overview of the manner in which teams are utilizing free agency to build their starting rosters for the 2013 NFL season. For this I will look at the AFC (I’ll be happy to run the numbers for the NFC if requested) and use the current starting players listed on Ourlads depth charts. Traded players do not count when looking at free agency unless they signed a new contract with the team. For example Chris Ivory of the Jets would count (though he is not listed as a starter) but Alex Smith of the Chiefs would not.

Free agency is often a short sighted approach to building a football team. The NFL is a young man’s game and often the most productive years for a player come during the first six or seven seasons of a career.  For some teams this leads to a philosophy of extending draft picks early in their careers.  The manner in which this works is that a team, after a players third season in the league (it used to be his second season), extends the player for a period of anywhere from three to five seasons on top of his existing contract.

The benefit to this is that the player is locked up for what are considered his “prime” football years with minimal down  the road impact if the player needs to be released for dropoff in performance. The reason the impact is minimized is because bonus money can only be prorated over a 5 year period, leaving the final extension years often clean from a salary cap standpoint. Teams also have a great deal of leverage in these early extension negotiations and can lock up players at below market values. In general you are sacrificing the salary cap benefit of the rookie contract for long term salary cap flexibility. The 49’ers, Packers, and Eagles have all been major proponents of this strategy.

Of course there is risk involved in this strategy. First of all you have a very small sample size of real game action to evaluate the player. For many players you can throw a rookie season out simply due to the immense learning curve of the NFL, leaving a team with just one or two years to evaluate the talent. If the talent busts you are stuck with cap charges you never would have had if you allowed him to play the rookie contract out. This is how the Patriots got into cap problems with Aaron Hernandez. While that is an extreme example it shows the negative side of the early extension.

It can also be a difficult strategy to stick with because GM’s jobs are directly tied to wins and losses and this strategy is a better long term rather than short term strategy. You are sacrificing the opportunity to get better immediately to stay better over a longer period of time, which could lead to some losing seasons early in the philosophical transition. That often leads to a team going in the other direction and looking to build via free agency.

There are various types of building through free agency. There is the more short term enhancement designed to put a “win now” team over the top. The Broncos would be an example of this. They will have nearly $20 million(as measured by annual value) in new talent take the field for them this year, but three of those four players are signed for 2 or fewer seasons. This, in essence, gives the team a great escape if the “win now” team doesn’t win. There is no long term commitment whatsoever.

There is the barren roster situation which would be exemplified by the Raiders. The Raiders are essentially an expansion team and need bodies on the field. They have eight new starters signed as free agents, tied for most in the AFC.  They are not signing them to turn the franchise around; it’s simply better than the alternative of the completely unknown undrafted free agent.  Of those eight, six will be free agents after this season.   It is a stop gap solution with no long term damage.

There are other teams that see free agency as an opportunity to add one or two big pieces to the long term plan of the team. The Browns and Titans would both fit in that category. They added some significant big money players but not to the point where it completely overhauls their roster. These players are not short term solutions either but more admissions of either draft failures or a desire to not spend future draft allocations on these positions.

Finally you have the complete rebuilding approach. I find this to be the most fascinating to watch unfold because the expectations are not so much to build on what is in place but to turn a franchise completely around in a very quick manner.   Failure at the early stages of this process often lead to significant salary cap damage down the line. This strategy is completely opposite to the “extend early to avoid the cap pain late” approach. Teams that build this way often do not have a happy ending when the 28 year old free agent makes the turn past 30 and they have all kinds of guarantees or bonus prorations in their contracts. What makes this even more difficult is that you are not putting one or two parts into an existing system but multiple pieces. With limited practice time in the preseason it can leave units of 11 that need to function as 1 right out of the gate struggling for answers on the field. By the time they figure things out the season could be lost and GM’s jobs will be in jeopardy.

The two AFC teams utilizing this strategy this year are the Miami Dolphins and Indianapolis Colts, though there are differences to both internally in the way that they approached this. Miami is one of the most unique attempts at a quick rebuild that I can recall. They have more or less been waiting for the last two years for contracts to run out so that they had significant money to spend. Miami doled out over $42 million in annual salary to other teams’ free agents. That is nearly $8.5 million more than the next closest team.  They will have 7 new starters this year, nearly 1/3 of their starting roster.

What makes their situation even more unique is that for all this money spent, $13.5 million of it is just for one year rentals. That $13.5 million represents the contracts given to TE Dustin Keller, CB Brent Grimes, and RT Tyson Clabo. Normally you would expect this more on a “win now” team where you go all in on a few short term pieces, but the Dolphins have shown no signs of being that type of team. They have been a steady as a rock 6 to 7 win team since their trip to the playoffs in 2008.

They also have five other starters in their walk year (Randy Starks, Paul Soliai, Chris Clemons, Koa Misi, and Richie Incognito) which could keep the Dolphins in line for another major overhaul in 2014. With a good deal of cap room to carry over into 2014 and some wiggle room  to restructure existing contracts, Miami could conceivably go on a large spending spree again in 2014, potentially under a new GM if the team fails in 2013. So it’s not really a big window of opportunity for the team as presently constructed but more of a one year vision with an open window to improve internally and externally in the future.

The Colts are different. They have taken an approach that you can take a relatively young overachieving team, and I’m not sure any team has ever overachieved more than the Colts last season, and quickly take it from the learning stages right into the advanced playoff stages. Indianapolis will have 8 new starters in 2013, 5 of whom are signed for 4 or more seasons. They committed 26 seasons to these 8 players so this was a long term plan, not a short term fix.

But the Colts are also making a leap of faith on the talent they acquired. These players are not so much proven talents as they are key backups now expected to start. The 8 players only combined for 72 starts in 2012. S LaRon Landry and RT Gosder Cherilus are really your only true proven starters. Almost everyone else the team signed long term comes with a huge “buyer beware” sign and the decisions left a number of people around the league wondering why they paid so much for some of the players.

That said I would consider this a more traditional approach to building via free agency with long term deals as the centerpiece. Normally teams might wait one more season rather than right after the rookie year of a number of key pieces but the Colts are young and cheap enough to where this may just be the prelude to the main event which could take place in free agency in 2014. They will be tough to outbid next year if they want to add more pieces.

I do think that many teams will watch the success or failure of the Colts and Dolphins very closely. There are a number of teams that are going to have significant cap room next season and what could be impatient owners and/or fanbases that want to see results fast. These teams include the Raiders, Jaguars, Jets, Browns, and Bears. If the Dolphins can go from a 7 win to an 11 win team it is going to be hard to state that you want to avoid free agency and build via the draft on a 3 year plan. But if Miami goes 7-9 again and the Colts fail to make the playoffs it will likely be another reason to not go wild in free agency.

A lot may hinge on these types of teams besides free agency philosophies. Spending in general was down last season on most positions other than QB and WR. The flat salary cap has made some teams a bit more cautious than they were in the past with their spending  and as a result free agency in 2013 was almost a non-event outside of a handful of contracts. Players need some of these big money contracts to actually result in improved won-loss records and playoff success to convince teams that spending is just as important as drafting.

I’d actually say it is far more important to the players to see players like Mike Wallace and Paul Kruger help turn the fortunes around of their franchise than it would be for a bargain chip like Wes Welker to push the Broncos to the Super Bowl. While a player like Welker would show that you can enhance your results by participating in free agency, his next to nothing contract would still signal that teams should put low caps on their offseason evaluations. If the big money items make a meaningful splash more bidding wars could ensue.

The following chart illustrates the annual amount spent per team on 2013 starters that came via free agency. The two lines show how many players were signed and how many total years were potentially invested in those players. If you would like to see an overview of the NFC feel free to send me an email.

2013 NFL Free agency


Planning Wide Receiver Dollar and Draft Spending


In doing the best and worst contract articles and then re-hashing yesterday some old thoughts on Mike Wallace I thought what might be interesting was to look at just how important a WR is to a specific offense when deciding to throw money at them. Normally I would just look at WR targets for this but with the TE’s in the news in New England I thought I would include them as well.

Wide Receivers cost a hefty sum in this market. When you sign one of them for a large value and expect them to become some type of incredible upgrade you need to know if you are getting a true number 1 or a piece to a puzzle. A true number 1 is someone who has proven that they can be the lone dominant target on a football team and still succeed. Being a cog in the offensive wheel and then being expected to handle 30-35% of the targets on a team is unrealistic. If the player doesn’t have the track record of doing so, you need to plan on allocating more money or draft picks to the position to get the best out of the free agent.

The average top target on a team in the NFL in 2012 was 29.1%. 17 players qualified above that number. Only two of the 17 were primarily slot receivers (Victor Cruz and Wes Welker) and only 1 Tight End made the cut (Jimmy Graham). The low total for a top target was 19.3%, which was the number for Josh Morgan of the Redskins. The high was Brandon Marshall of the Bears with 48.2% of their receiver targets, showing either how bad the Bears WR corps. are or how little QB Jay Cutler trusts anyone on that team.

But as we look further into the numbers its important to identify the help that the player receives. For that we look at the separation between the top receiver on a team and the second most targeted receiver on a team. If the gap is large I have more confidence that we have a player who can perform in a number 1 role on a team.  The average result for the top player on each team was a 7.5% differential.

In this case only 13 players qualified. Again top of the chart was Marshall with 35.9% more targets than Earl Bennett. The most surprising name in the top was Jeremy Kerley of the Jets. He was only targeted 95 times and it was likely more of a reflection of how bad the Jets passing game was than anything else. The least impactful top target was Graham with only 1.1% more targets than the next highest on the Saints.

If you combine the two qualifiers you can get the group of players who were given what I would consider elite treatment last season. These are the players I would feel most comfortable signing to be the primary target on my team and not worrying as much about the downside of the move. I know they can perform without the great assistance other players will get.


This list is very different than top receiving yards. Gone from that list are Dez Bryant, Vincent Jackson, Demaryius Thomas, Roddy White, Julio Jones, and Marquez Colston. That doesn’t mean that these players are not true number 1’s just that I would have more reservations about them if I were to sign them as a free agent and my next best option is Early Doucet. When you are the primary target like this a team knows that not only is the ball coming your way 1 out of every 3 chances but also that there is nobody else significant they need to worry about. It changes the way you play defense and makes it far more difficult on a receiver.

For the less productive players from a yardage standpoint, who would be Dwayne Bowe, Larry Fitzgerald, Stevie Johnson, and maybe Cruz and Michael Crabtree, my attention needs to go first to the QB and then to the team. If the QB is good (only Cruz’ is as Crabtree only played a handful of games with Kaepernick) then I may want to improve the players around him. Maybe a little too much is being asked of him. In Cruz’ case this is mitigated if Hakeem Nicks could stay healthy for 16 games. For the others I need to make a QB change first rather than jumping on the WR train.

Using a chart like this isn’t going to tell you who to sign or who not to sign its just a way to help better plan for your future. If Miles Austin for example has never shown the ability to be the man in an offense I am taking an incredible risk by paying him $11 million a year to come to say Minnesota. The day I make that decision to do that I also am making a decision to likely invest at least one of my top two draft picks on a Wide Receiver and also bringing in a 1A type that can be productive and demand 20% of the passes thrown his way. Very quickly my allocation needs to move from $11 million to $19 million plus a draft pick.

But if I sign Bowe for $11 million and have a decent QB I can probably get by with lesser players around him. I may not need to waste that draft pick any more. I might be able to avoid the secondary star. That $11 million is probably going to turn to $16 million or stay around $11 million and I’ll allocate a draft choice instead. I may be able to get two low cost players to pair with Bowe whereas Austin needs two higher priced ones. This is a piece of planning that will spiral into disaster if not followed by a team.

Of this list the two interesting situations will be those created by Crabtree and Welker. Crabtree was likely lost for the season giving the 49’ers nothing to fall back on. They acquired Anquan Boldin (25.8%), but Boldin was one of three highly targeted players in Baltimore. Vernon Davis was only targeted 16.7% of the time. It is a very different situation in Baltimore than San Francisco which leaves Boldin in what could be a bad situation with Crabtree out.

Its similar in New England.  They replaced Welker with Danny Amendola. Amendola was a 22.5% target last year which was 4.2% higher than the next player. That may be better than it appears since he did miss 4 games last year, though the productivity was low. The Patriots approach here is clear- blame the QB. But they have also seen changes to their corps replacing Brandon Lloyd (23.6%) and Aaron Hernandez (15.1%) with Michael Jenkins (18.6%), Donald Jones (16.8%),  and Jake Ballard (DNP).  Both Jenkins and Jones are going to be looked at as QB upgrades improving numbers, one of which will be asked to fill Lloyds shoes.

In terms of salary, half of the top 10 highest priced players did not make the list. They include Percy Harvin(injured), Wallace (26.4%/2.9%), Vincent Jackson (30.2%/4.3%), DeSean Jackson (17.4%, -6.7%), and Miles Austin (22.1%,-5.4%).  V. Jackson is probably in the perfect situation in Tampa with Mike Williams (25.9%) doing just enough to help him.  Wallace is going to go to Miami and pair with Hartline and Dustin Keller, who should be able to replicate the Steelers formula of 3 players with 20% looks. He will likely need that to succeed. DeSean Jackson could easily be released next year if he continues to underperform.

Best & Worst Contracts: The Miami Dolphins


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.

Cameron Wake

Jim Rassol/Sun Sentinel/MCT

Best Contract: Cameron Wake

This is a no brainer. Wake is the best defensive player in the NFL and was close to the best defensive player in the NFL when he signed his contract in 2012.  While I am not a fan of the Dolphins front office or their handling of contracts they hit a home run with Wake. Jeff Ireland steamrolled Wake, who was a in the final year of a low cost contract, into accepting a contract that offered little protection as he got older and the need to continue to perform at a high level in order to earn incentives to bump the value of his contract to a reasonable level.

Wake’s APY ranks behind that of Chris Long, Trent Cole, Jared Allen, Charles Johnson, Tamba Hali, Terrell Suggs, Lamarr Woodley, and so on. The base value of his contract is about 48% less than that of Mario Williams. In the last three years Wake has produced 37.5 sacks and 191 additional pressures while Williams has produced 24 and 113.  Even if Wake hits his upside values he will only be compensated around the levels of Hali. Wake’s lowball deal may have been the impetus that has made teams rethink
the spending that they thought they were forced to allocate to premier pass rushers as the market has declined greatly following the Wake contract.

Whether it was an over-reliance on a fluke sack conversion stat or something else off his 2011 season, Wake took a deal that will never push his cap number beyond $9.8 million on the base value of the contract. His cap number this season is only slightly above $5 million and in 2015, when he turns 33, there is only $2.8 million of dead money on the books if they decide to release him. Quite frankly he’ll probably be in a position where he may be forced into a paycut. It was this bargain deal that allowed Miami to spend wildly in the 2013 offseason and the deal is arguably the best non-rookie contract in all of the NFL.

Mike Wallace

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Worst Contract: Mike Wallace

The Dolphins spent tons of money in 2013 on multiple long term contracts which raised questions among observers as to what the Dolphins were seeing in some of the players. None typified that response more than Wallace. The Dolphins have taken an amazing risk on Wallace, paying him $12 million a year on a cap killing contract hoping that he can be what Plaxico Burress was to Eli Manning or what Calvin Johnson currently is to Matthew Stafford.

For the first time in his career Wallace is going to be asked to be the primary target on a team. He is no longer going to be that deep threat running down the sidelines while teams have to guess where to roll coverage. He is going to be the man. Statistically his previous three seasons compared closer to that of DeSean Jackson and Santonio Holmes in terms of team contribution at time of signing, players more in the $9 million dollar a year range than the elite category the Dolphins priced Wallace in.  Like those two Wallace has also shown some maturity issues that seemed to pull his play down last season. Miami has to hope that paying him the money he wanted brings out a renewed interest for a player whose numbers were down across the board last year.  Wallace currently ranks 4th in the NFL in compensation at the position.

The contract structure pushed the deal for me into clear worst category. In order to make his cap hit artificially low in 2013, Wallace’s cap number will never be below $12.1 million over the course of the deal.  He will earn an additional $3 million in guarantees in 2014 pushing his dead money in 2015 to $9.6 million, assuming Miami does not rework his contract in 2014, when he will carry a $17.25 million dollar cap charge.  For Wallace to justify the Dolphins investment he is going to have to produce somewhere between 1,400 and 1,500 yards. That is a tall task for almost any WR in the NFL.