Suffice it to say, Victor Cruz’s offseason has likely gone far differently than the star receiver expected.
Heading into the offseason with his train-robbery rookie contract finally ending—Cruz made only $1.25 million during his first three NFL seasons—it finally seemed like the New York Giants would have to open their checkbook. Sure, Cruz was a restricted free agent and the Giants could simply tender him for a cheap $2.88 million non-guaranteed salary.
But they wouldn’t do that and risk alienating their best receiver, right? And if they did, the two sides would at least be working on a long-term deal to give Cruz his rightful payday, right?
Well...not so much. The Giants did tender Cruz at a first-round level this week, meaning any team who signs the restricted free-agent would have to give up their top pick in April’s draft. However, the team has not negotiated whatsoever with Cruz thus far, according to NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport:
Interesting that John Mara told reporters Victor Cruz will get a 1st-round tender. Team hasn't negotiated with him at all. Radio silence— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) March 11, 2013
It only gets worse from there. Left stranded on an island without a new deal, Cruz fired his previous representation and has hired CAA power broker Tom Condon, per Yahoo! Sports. This is the second time in a year that Cruz has changed agents, which is far more a sign of his flailing leverage than anything else.
Undoubtedly, Condon sold Cruz on being able to do something his previous representatives could not: Get him his money. Though Rapoport reported that the two sides aren’t negotiating whatsoever, Cruz has made it clear he wants top receiver money, according to the New York Daily News’ Ralph Vacchiano:
The problem, according to several NFL sources, is that Cruz and his old agents wanted him to be paid like a No. 1 NFL receiver, and the going rate for that is a contract in the range of $11 million per year.
Over the past two seasons, Cruz’s numbers back up his “No. 1 receiver” desires. The 26-year-old Cruz has averaged 84 receptions, 1,314 yards and 9.5 touchdowns in his only two years of notable NFL service. He was also a critical component of the Giants’ Super Bowl XLVI victory.
One could say his numbers dipped in 2012—and they did. He went from third to 26th in Football Outsiders’ DYAR metric, had a disconcerting 12 drops and took a big leap back in downfield receptions.
But every notable Giants star was the victim of a 2012 malaise—especially quarterback Eli Manning. So if Cruz is a No. 1 receiver—and he is—you pay him like one. Period.
It just so happens the Giants don’t seem to view it under the same prism.
Giants co-owner John Mara indicated to Vacchiano that the Giants have a set price in mind for Cruz’s services and likely wouldn’t exceed those prices.
“Listen, he’s been a great player for us,” Mara said. “Like we do with all of our players, there’s a limit as to how far we’re going to go on a contract. You have to pay 53 and if the money goes over that limit, we have to make a decision.”
Considering the contract he just landed, it's hard not to see the similarities between Cruz and Mike Wallace. The freshly signed Miami Dolphins receiver walked into the 2012 offseason as arguably the most talented skill position player on the market. He was just three years into his career, already had a Pro Bowl selection under his belt and had been an integral part of the Steelers’ run to Super Bowl XLV.
On a statistical level, it was hard to argue against Wallace being the NFL’s best deep threat. He had averaged 18.75 yards per reception over his first three seasons, connecting with Ben Roethlisberger to create one of the most dynamic twosomes in the league. And at just 25 years old, he seemed highly unlikely to regress—unlike fellow free-agent Vincent Jackson, who was looking for a long-term deal at 29.
Is Victor Cruz right to demand No. 1 WR money?
The problem with Wallace’s open-market viability was the same as Cruz’s: He was a restricted free agent. Pittsburgh tendered him at the first-round level, thereby making him the human double-whammy in NFL circles. First-round tendered restricted free agents are the equivalent to stealing a man’s dog and wife in the same day in NFL circles. Restricted free agents are the NFL’s every country song ever.
So Wallace waited. He waited as Jackson signed a $55 million contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He waited as the Steelers low-balled him with a below market contract (five years, $42 million), one that they eventually gave to teammate Antonio Brown. He waited until Aug. 28 of last year to report to camp, as criticism mounted about his ongoing holdout.
In the end, Wallace’s on-field numbers screamed worst-case scenario. He finished with 64 receptions for 836 yards and eight touchdowns, averaging a career-low 13.1 yards per reception right as he was on the precipice of becoming an unrestricted free agent.
Still, waiting paid off big-time. Wallace landed a five-year, $65 million contract with the Dolphins on Tuesday, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. Only Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald are guaranteed more money than Wallace’s $30 million, per ESPN Stats & Information.
Mike Wallace's reported $30M guaranteed would be the 3rd most in a current WR contract behind L Fitzgerald ($45.0M) & C Johnson ($43.8M)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 12, 2013
Does Wallace getting $65 million this offseason automatically mean Cruz would get the same next? Of course not. They are two different players and the market almost always dictates the price of a player.
But it does prove that Cruz is far better off delaying the gratification of signing his long-term contract than accepting a below-market deal. At 26 years old, it’s highly likely that Cruz will only get one massive paycheck in the NFL. Looking out for himself and demanding to be paid like his peers is not selfish. It’s what every single rational human being would do in the same situation. To expect Cruz to take millions of dollars less than what the market says he’s worth is disingenuous at best.
And let’s save the talk of whether Cruz or is “worth” that price level. An NFL player is worth whatever the highest bidder is willing to pay. Nothing more, nothing less. Wallace was in a situation where the Dolphins desperately needed a top target, and Cruz is highly likely to find himself in the same boat 12 months from now.
Whether he has Wallace’s patience, however, is another question entirely.