We've been here before. The only thing new between Dez Bryant and the Cowboys this year is the brinksmanship over a possible holdout. As late as Aug. 26, 2014, Bryant and the Cowboys were expressing optimism about a deal. A week after that they had tabled negotiations for the start of the season.
By November, we learned that Bryant fired his agent, Eugene Parker, for the second time and replaced him with Tom Condon through a special arrangement with Roc Nation. Don't forget about those curiously timed leaks about Bryant's off-field behavior and some damning security footage that never existed. We knew this standoff was coming.
The Cowboys have been profiting off Bryant's so-called "character concerns" since they drafted him with the 24th overall pick in 2010. He slipped in the draft that year because of a flap with the NCAA and the kinds of troubles associated with a difficult upbringing. The most money Dez Bryant ever made in a single season was $2,898,500 (in pro-rated bonus and base salary, per Over the Cap) in 2014. That was the last year of his original rookie deal.
Bryant's production accounted for more than 20 percent of the Cowboys' total offensive yards and team scoring in 2014 (don't forget that the Cowboys' offense included the league's leading rusher this year, too). He's been consistently one of the most productive receivers in the NFL and someone who's very presence defines the Cowboys' offense. He's also just 26 years old.
Renewed contract talks
Bryant reportedly wants a deal with numbers similar to the eight-year deal the Lions gave Calvin Johnson in 2012, with $48 million guaranteed and an annual average north of $16 million. Under the franchise tag, he'd make $12.8 million, fully guaranteed, this season, and Dallas would then have the option to tag him again in 2016 for a one-year deal in the neighborhood of $15.5 million.
One problem Bryant faces is that the price of receivers has dropped since Megatron signed his deal. Miami signed Mike Wallace to a $60 million deal with $27 million fully guaranteed in 2013, then dumped his salary and winning locker room presence in a trade with the Vikings this year. (Successful front offices usually don't stay that way by emulating the Lions and Dolphins).
Next on the list is Vincent Jackson, who signed a five-year, $55.5 million contract with $26 million guaranteed. The biggest wide receiver contract signed this year was Jeremy Maclin ($22.5 million guaranteed). Green Bay re-signed both Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson, with $24.5 million in guaranteed money split between the two.
Dallas has a history of poor contract decisions when it comes to receivers, a holdover from Jerry Jones' over-involved general manager days. But it's not Dez Bryant's fault the Cowboys got burned on deals for Terrell Owens and Roy Williams.
That brings us to the $48 million question: How much is he worth?
Start with what Bryant would make he gets tagged again in 2015. That's more than $28 million in guaranteed money over two years and an annual average in excess of $14 million. But it's only two years. The ceiling for these negotiations is the Megatron mega deal, maybe even a little higher, even though that deal now looks more and more like an outlier.
Bryant's an essential part of the Cowboys' offense, but, theoretically anyway, they could get by without him with a pretty dramatic shift in schemes until they could find a viable replacement. Easier said than done. No Dez means Terrance Williams and "Clean" Cole Beasley as the No. 1 and 2 receivers, respectively. Not even the Giants' secondary would be threatened by that tandem. Safeties will cheat up closer to the line, Dallas would be forced to lean on Darren McFadden even more and unhappy fans would be forced to watch a rare superstar player bolt for another team.
Okay, what about Demaryius Thomas?
Thomas' career got off to a slower start than Bryant, his fellow 2010 draftee, thanks to injuries and the team's search for a quarterback. Since 2012, Thomas has made all 16 starts in each of the next three seasons, as well as Denver's smattering of fruitless playoff appearances, and the production has followed.
Take a look at Bryant and Thomas' production from last year compared to Calvin Johnson's in 2011, the year before he got his extension:
Thomas has the second most yards and touchdowns of any receiver during that span. Dig into the advanced stats, and you'll see Thomas' name right up there with Bryant and Johnson in most categories. Bryant gets a 20.3 rating from Pro Football focus for his 2014 performance; Thomas is right behind him at 19.3. Whatever stock you may put into those numbers, it confirms something we already know: both of these guys are two of the best receivers in the game right now ... and we have every reason to believe they will be for years to come.
Reports of contract talks between the Cowboys and Bryant have been few and far between, mostly just hazy leaks about a potential holdout and whether or not he's bluffing. Wednesday morning, a report surfaced that said the Cowboys had upped their offer to more than $13 million per season.
Insiders have had more details to share about talks between Thomas and the Broncos. The latest has Thomas rejecting a deal with $40 million guaranteed. That's as good of an indication we're going to get that these two situations aren't going to get resolved by 4 p.m. ET. Not long after that Ian Rapoport of NFL Network reported that a deal between Thomas and the Broncos isn't likely to happen and communication between the two sides may be finished.
In a world where Mike Wallace has a $60 million deal, something like a six-year deal worth $90 million, averaging out to $15 million per year, seems like a fair price for Bryant and Thomas. The guaranteed money is the number that matters. If they could agree to $40 million in guarantees that would put both players in rare company -- among non-quarterbacks, only two players, Johnson and Ndamukong Suh, currently have more guaranteed money in their contracts.
If they can't get at least that much guaranteed, well, there's really only one thing they can do: hold out as long as it's feasible to do so. At least we'd still get to see both players for the last six weeks of the season.
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