Predicting Big-Money Contracts for Wide Receivers on Verge of Monster Paydays

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistJune 22, 2019

Predicting Big-Money Contracts for Wide Receivers on Verge of Monster Paydays

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    The contract statuses of four superstar NFL wide receivers have generated plenty of chatter this offseason. Michael Thomas of the New Orleans Saints, Julio Jones of the Atlanta Falcons, A.J. Green of the Cincinnati Bengals and Amari Cooper of the Dallas Cowboys are all looking for new long-term deals in the short-term future.

    This week, ESPN's Dan Graziano reported that new contracts for all four of those game-changers "are likely to get done by camp, or at least the regular season," with the caveat that "none of them wants to go first."

    Indeed, the order in which they sign could impact who brings home more green. But these things are tough to predict.

    Graziano was responding directly to a report from Jeff Duncan of the Times-Picayune that Thomas and the Saints "remain far apart, but both are motivated to get a deal done."

    Meanwhile, sources with the Falcons told ESPN's Dianna Russini that the team is confident it'll extend Jones before camp.

    Speaking as the Bengals were wrapping up their offseason program, Green called Cincinnati home and expressed his desire to remain in town "for a couple more years."

    And earlier this offseason, Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones told 105.3 The Fan—per Pro Football Talk—that the team was involved in "active discussions" with Cooper. However, Clarence E. Hill Jr. of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported more recently that the three-time Pro Bowler's contract demands were "shockingly high."

    That won't stop us from making some predictions as to the terms and dollars each contract will possess. Let's do some guesstimating.

Michael Thomas Has Time on His Side

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    Michael Thomas is actually a year older than Amari Cooper, but he has one fewer pro season under his belt and thus likely has more tread on his tires. That could explain why sources told Dianna Russini that the Saints "are comfortable making him the highest-paid receiver in the game."

    It's going to happen.

    The 26-year-old has put together three unbelievably productive seasons in as many years as an NFL player, and his third campaign was easily his best yet. Pro Football Reference has reception rate statistics dating back to 1992, and Thomas' 2018 reception rate of 85.0 percent is the highest among receivers with 100-plus catches in that 27-year span by nearly an eight-point margin over Wes Welker.

    He's also the only player in NFL history to catch 300-plus passes in his first three seasons.

    Yes, a lot of that has to do with the fact that he's working with future Hall of Famer Drew Brees, but it's not as though Brees or Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers or even Peyton Manning got that kind of early-career production out of any other receiver.

    The key is the Saints likely see Thomas—who is entering the final year of his rookie deal—as a player who will continue to rise beyond the end of the Brees era, one who could team up with Alvin Kamara and possibly Teddy Bridgewater to keep the team competitive after Brees retires. He should only be entering his prime.

    Odell Beckham Jr. set the wide receiver market with a five-year deal worth a record $18 million per season last August, and it'd be shocking if Thomas didn't eclipse that with the salary cap 6 percent higher now than it was then.

    Projected contract: Five years, $100 million with $70 million guaranteed

Julio Jones Has Plenty Working Against Him

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    It's a little more complicated with Julio Jones. He's already the 12th-highest-paid receiver in the NFL; unlike the other three guys in this exercise, he isn't entering a contract year; and he's on the wrong side of 30.

    You can't deny his remarkable productivity. He and Antonio Brown are the only players with more than 500 catches in the last five seasons. Jones leads all receivers with 7,994 receiving yards in that span (only he and Brown have more than 7,000), and he's averaged a silly 9.8 yards per target as well.

    Is he on Brown's level? They're both 30, and nobody holds a candle to their numbers. But dating back to 2013, Brown has more than twice as many touchdowns (67) as Jones, who is tied for 17th in the NFL during that span with 33 scores.

    The Raiders made Brown the second-highest-paid receiver in the league with a three-year, $50.1 million contract when they traded for him in March, but that was the only way to make that deal happen with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

    Jones doesn't have that kind of leverage. He could and probably will hold out, but he did that and eventually bit last offseason. The Falcons won't likely cave to his top demand if he does so again this summer.

    Considering his age as well as his lack of both touchdowns and leverage, Jones will probably sign a shorter-term deal with plenty of guaranteed money but an average annual salary south of Beckham and Brown.

    Projected contract: Three years, $49 million with $32 million guaranteed

A.J. Green Has Bad Timing

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    Gary Landers/Associated Press

    The man was a Pro Bowler in each of his first seven seasons, and then he wasn't. What's unfortunate about A.J. Green's injured-derailed 2018 campaign is that before he suffered a season-ruining toe injury midway through the year, he was averaging a tremendous 5.6 catches and 85.9 yards per game.

    Prorated for a full season, he would have accumulated nearly as many receiving yards as Michael Thomas.

    But teams have to take age and durability into account in contract negotiations, and the soon-to-be 31-year-old Green has now missed 13 games the last three seasons.

    He appears to be recovering well from December toe surgery, but there's a strong chance Green will never be the same player he was in his prime. He was one of just four NFL players to catch 350-plus passes for 5,000-plus yards and 35-plus touchdowns during a four-season stretch from 2012 to 2015.

    Like Jones, Green is already one of the 12 highest-paid wideouts in professional football. While he hasn't been as healthy or as productive as Jones, his team might have more of a sense of urgency considering he's entering a contract year.

    Green won't likely be willing to work for less than the $15 million per year he got when he signed his last contract in 2015, because he'd likely bet on himself to make more on the open market in 2020 following a bounce-back season. Watch for the frugal Bengals to begrudgingly reward a hometown staple with a slight raise and more long-term security.

    Projected contract: Three years, $48 million with $24 million guaranteed

Amari Cooper, on the Other Hand...

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    The dynamics surrounding Amari Cooper's situation are interesting because he struggled so much in 2017 and 2018 with the Oakland Raiders that folks were using the B word to describe the 2015 No. 4 overall pick. But he's still only 25 years old, and after being traded to the Cowboys midway through the 2018 campaign, he turned it on.

    During Cooper's nine-week run in Dallas, he, Julio Jones and Antonio Brown were the only players in the NFL with 50-plus catches for 700 or more yards and more than five touchdowns.

    The Cowboys also went 7-2 over that stretch, vindicating owner Jerry Jones for his highly-criticized decision to trade a first-round pick for Cooper's services.

    But those nine games might have tied the team's hands. Dallas can't let the dude go just a season and a half after surrendering that first-rounder, and the price will only go up if he produces that way for an entire season in 2019 (something the Cowboys must expect considering what they gave up for him).

    Dallas would rather not play franchise-tag chicken with Cooper because it also faces looming talks with key players Dak Prescott, Byron Jones and Jaylon Smith, all of whom are entering contract years. What's more, star running back Ezekiel Elliott's status is already generating buzz as his 2020 option year looms.

    Cooper probably knows he has the Cowboys just where he wants them, which might explain the report from Clarence E. Hill Jr. about his "shockingly high" demands.

    Still, even in small samples, Cooper hasn't produced like Michael Thomas. If he's asking for projected Thomas or actual Odell Beckham Jr. money, this could take a while. But if he'll accept a slightly upgraded version of the deals Mike Evans, Brandin Cooks and Jarvis Landry all signed (five-year pacts worth about $16 million a season with practical guarantees in the $50 million range) last offseason, then we'll likely see a deal get done.

    Projected contract: Five years, $83 million with $50 million guaranteed

              

    Contract details courtesy of Spotrac.