The Kansas City Chiefs needed to retain wide receiver Dwayne Bowe this offseason and they accomplished that goal. Just before the deadline in March to apply the franchise tag, the Chiefs agreed with Bowe on a five-year, $56 million contract with $26 million guaranteed.
It was a win-win for both sides at the time; Bowe finally got his big pay day and the Chiefs retained their one and only proven weapon in the passing game. However, New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz received a six-year, $45.9 million contract with $15.6 million guaranteed according to Tom Pelissero of the USA Today, about $10 million less than Bowe in guaranteed money and overall.
People may question if Bowe is overpaid by comparison to Cruz, even though doing so is a bit like comparing peaches and nectarines—similarities exist, but they are very different.
Players are paid differently depending on their situations as much as their ability. Understanding the situations of the players and teams is important if we are going to understand why Bowe’s contract averages $3.55 million more per year than Cruz’s new contract.
Bowe and Cruz are both good wide receivers, but the similarities between the two end there. Bowe plays outside and Cruz plays the slot, making them different offensive weapons. Playing style is just one of the differences that resulted in them being paid at vastly different rates.
Cruz is 26 and went undrafted in 2010, making him a bargain for the Giants for the past three years and a restricted free agent in 2013 had he not received a contract extension. Cruz could have played out this year and become a free agent next year when his teammate—wide receiver Hakeem Nicks—was also hitting free agency.
The Giants had Nicks and Cruz under control in 2013, meaning Cruz didn’t have a lot of leverage to get a bigger deal. With Eli Manning at quarterback, the Giants didn’t have to cave to Cruz’s demands to have a productive offense in 2013 and beyond.
Unlike Cruz, Bowe is 28 and has been in the league for six years since being drafted in the first round in 2007. Bowe was paid handsomely having been drafted before the NFL restricted spending on rookies.
Bowe was also just coming off a year in which he was paid like a top player at the position and—unlike Cruz—he wasn’t under team control going into 2013. Bowe made $9.515 million under the franchise tender according to Joel Corry of the National Football Post and was slated to become and unrestricted free agent.
Leverage is a big factor in any contract negotiation and Bowe had all he needed.
Imagine for a second that Cruz didn’t get a contract extension, played out 2013 and was given and played under the franchise tag in 2014. Headed into the 2015, Cruz might be in a similar position as Bowe was this offseason.
However, if that were the case, Nicks might be gone because the tag was given to Cruz. The Giants would have to decide between giving the franchise tag to Cruz for the second time and guaranteeing him 120 percent of the 2014 tag amount (or the 2015 tag amount, whichever is higher according to the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement), signing him prior to the deadline or letting him become a free agent.
Cruz would have significantly more leverage if he were to wait for two years to get to the point where he had maximum leverage like Bowe. However, Cruz would be leaving money on the table and taking a significant risk.
Not only would Cruz risk injury during those two seasons, but he’d make just $2.9 million in 2013 under the restricted free agent tender and approximately $12 million in 2014 under the franchise tender for a total of about $15 million. Instead, Cruz will get $15.6 million guaranteed his first two years according to ProFootballTalk, with salaries around $8 million for the remaining four years of the deal.
Cruz makes more money over the next two years and gets long-term security in return for making a little less and giving the Giants some flexibility. You could call the deal a win-win for both sides.
With Cruz locked up for six years, the Giants can realistically retain Nicks next season. It would have been very hard for the Giants to re-sign both next offseason without overpaying if they hadn’t come to an agreement with Cruz this year.
Unlike the Chiefs, the Giants have more weapons in the passing game, further reducing Cruz’s leverage. Not only do the Giants have Manning and Nicks, but they also selected wide receiver Rueben Randle with the 63rd pick in the 2012 NFL Draft.
Bowe was the only legitimate receiving threat on the Chiefs in 2012 and none of the other options at receiver were ideal. The Chiefs could have let Bowe go, but would have been left without a legitimate outside receiver. Jon Baldwin is entering Year 3 of his unimpressive career, Dexter McCluster isn't much to get excited about and their wasn’t much available in free agency.
The other option was to give Bowe the franchise tag for the second year in a row, guaranteeing him $11.4 million in 2013 and pushing the problem into the future another year. Giving Bowe the franchise tag for a second time would also mean likely losing left tackle Branden Albert to free agency and replacing him with No.1 overall draft pick Eric Fisher.
Fisher will instead play on the right side and protect quarterback Alex Smith from Broncos’ pass-rusher Von Miller twice per season, making the Chiefs a better team in 2013 and buying them a year to sort things out at right tackle.
Bowe was able to get maximum value, but the Chiefs will be better in the short and long term because they have him locked up. The Chiefs would’ve set Smith up for failure if they didn’t retain Bowe.
Had the Chiefs given Bowe a six-year contract extension two years ago when he was 26, they likely would have been able to save money. Instead, the Chiefs were in a weaker position in the negotiation and had to pay the price.
The Chiefs likely didn’t anticipate needing Bowe so badly two years ago, but that’s part of the general manager’s job. Anticipating how markets might change is a big part of being successful in the NFL and it can have a big impact on the future of a franchise.
It’s easy to compare the contracts of two similar players in the exact same situation, but Bowe and Cruz are so different that it’s virtually impossible. When you dive a little deeper, it’s easy to see that Bowe and Cruz received fair deals commensurate with their situations and ability.
Only production going forward will determine if they are overpaid or underpaid, because NFL teams don’t hand out contracts for what players have done for them in the past. It’s worth keeping in mind that Bowe’s production is much more likely than Cruz’s to explode because he now has a competent quarterback and play caller.