Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Locking It Down for a Decade

According to a multitude of reports, Monday marked the day when the Cowboys agreed to terms with their top pick (and only pick in the top 80) of the 2012 NFL Draft, Morris Claiborne on a 4 year/$16.4 million dollar contract which will get him to camp in plenty of time to help the cause. The Cowboys now have $66 million and change invested this offseason to insure that the starting cornerback duo at the start of business 2012 is both new and improved with the picking of Claiborne and the signing of top free agent corner Brandon Carr from the Kansas City Chiefs. That cash outlay has certainly been discussed, but as we have been distracted in this city by the employment fates of Tyson Chandler, Deron Williams, Josh Hamilton, CJ Wilson, and Yu Darvish, I am not sure enough has been made of the $50m investment in Carr. Hard to believe a Cowboys' headline has been overlooked, but it appears in that case, it has.

Regardless, thanks to the new Collective Bargaining Agreement in the NFL signed in 2011, the signing of rookies - especially the top of the 1st round rookies - has become painfully simple and quite honestly, a much more sensible endeavor for the owner's and management of any NFL team.

The truth is, the difference in deals has changed dramatically. And it needed to change dramatically. The player's concessions included guaranteed contracts and shorter durations, but the owners are no longer feeling like they would rather trade out of the top of the 1st Round altogether rather than make their picks and have to pay the "going rate" for the #1 pick or a pick in the Top 10. In the past, agents have properly just worked off last year's top pick and factored in the 10% raise for inflation or whatever they would make up and kick a $40m deal up to $44. Then, to $49 the next year. And up and up it went.

In 2010, the #1 pick in the draft was Oklahoma QB Sam Bradford, going to the St Louis Rams. As you might recall, one of the main discussions about whether or not a QB should turn pro early in 2010 was to slip in under the "Old CBA", because when the NFL shut down for negotiations, one thing that the owners wanted and that the players were not going to fight them on very hard was the idea that rookies were making too much money before ever taking a snap. The argument for the owners was not to keep that money, but rather, to pay players with it - just not players who are rookies. Pay veterans that money makes more sense than giving the money to someone who has never done a thing and may never do a thing in the NFL (read: JaMarcus Russell).

Bradford's rookie contract turned out to be a 6-year deal, worth potentially $86m, with $50m guaranteed. And when his deal was done, his deal dwarfed Tom Brady and Peyton Manning's deal. And nobody would argue that this was a good idea. So, it changed. And when Andrew Luck agreed to terms with the Colts on his first contract for 4 years and $22 million - all guaranteed, it was noted that he was a rich man, but not comically rich by NFL standards. To achieve that, he would have to spend the next 4 years proving his worth. Then, and only then, would his deal - which under the new CBA would surely have been over $100 million - get to silly standards.

All of this is a good step for the NFL. But, what is my Cowboys angle for the day?

I wanted to look at Claiborne, Tyron Smith, and Dez Bryant through the scope of reality versus fantasy when it comes to rookie contracts. With Dez Bryant most recent controversy, many of you have asked about the details of his contract and when the Cowboys will be expected to pay him crazy money in his next deal.

Dez's contract - under the old CBA - calls for 5 years at nearly $12m, with over $8m in guarantees. As the 24th pick of the 2010 draft, he is under contract for that extra 5th season, and will hit free agency after the 2014 season. That is the same year that Tyron Smith will need his new deal, because Tyron, the 9th pick of the 2011 draft, inked a 4 year deal worth $12.4 million - fully guaranteed. So, you see the concessions in the new deal - fewer years to free agency, more in guaranteed money, but much less in the value of the full contract.

So, Claiborne is free after 2015, with Smith and Bryant (and Sean Lee) hopefully needing giant extensions at the end of 2014. As a team, you hope they are worthy of giant extensions when their time comes, because that means they have turned into key members of your team. So, from the handbook of building from within, remember - you WANT to sign players to lucrative extensions for huge money. You DO NOT WANT to have to draft their replacements before their rookie contracts expire.

We like to fantasize on draft day about the longevity of a 1st Round pick as it pertains to his new team. Who among us didn't claim that "if you take Tyron Smith, you won't have to worry about left tackle for the next decade". And that is the hope. But, how often has it been true around here?

I began thinking in my head about the history of the Cowboys taking players in the 1st round that would hopefully "lock down their position for the next decade" and I wanted to look at the results to see how many actually have. Let's work backwards:

2009: There was no 1st Round pick (Roy Williams trade). Players in this draft would roughly be 25 or 26 years old right now, and the heart of the roster.

2008: This was the year the Cowboys ended up with 2 1st Round picks. Felix Jones signed a 5-year, $10.25 million deal, and Mike Jenkins signed a 5-year, $9.27 deal that would make them both free agents after the 2012 season. The Cowboys have both of these 1st rounders on the roster today, but in the case of Jenkins, the chances of him being on the opening day roster should be at about 50/50 and the feelings of either locking down another lucrative contract by the end of this season should hardly be considered a lock. Both players have had replacements drafted at their position and currently above them on the depth chart. DeMarco Murray has appeared to have taken Jones' spot and Claiborne has surely replaced Jenkins. So, from the standpoint of "locking down their spot for 8-10 seasons, neither player appears to fit that bill.

2007: This is the year the Cowboys traded out of the 1st Round in the Brady Quinn pick in Cleveland (speaking of locking down a position for a decade) and then trading back up into the 1st Round to get Anthony Spencer from Purdue with the 26th pick of Round 1. He, too, signed a 5 year rookie contract valued slightly under $7.5 million dollars. When it came time last winter to offer him a long term extension - LaMarr Woodley of Pittsburgh was selected after Spencer at the same position and after being wildly productive, signed a 6 year/$61m deal last season - the Cowboys passed on such expenditures and slapped a franchise tag on him at a much less risky 1 year/$8m to continue his career here with no long term commitment. Knowing that it will cost them around $40m to extend Spencer long-term, very few people expect that to happen this season given Spencer's lack of sack production.

2006: Bobby Carpenter was the selection with the 18th pick in the draft out of Ohio State. He was quickly inked to a 5-year deal worth as much as $11 million, with over $7m in guarantees. To say this was a bust is an understatement and almost unfair to marginal busts like Mike Jenkins or Julius Jones. He is credited with 3 starts in 4 seasons in Dallas and as he is approaching his 29th birthday, is one of the players who should be part of the spine of the Cowboys defense in 2012. But, alas, he is hoping to make the Patriots roster which would be his 5th team in 4 years. Given he didn't last his entire rookie contract, there is nothing to discuss with regards to the Cowboys decision about an extension.

2005: The 2005 draft had the Cowboys in the 1st Round twice due to trading out of the 1st Round in 2004. They selected DeMarcus Ware with their own pick and paid him a rookie deal of 5 years and $13m. Then, as his 5th year voided, the Cowboys placed a giant extension on Ware of 7 years at $79 million that would carry him from 2009 to 2015. Ware is without question the best 1st Round pick this franchise has selected since Emmitt Smith. Meanwhile, with Buffalo's traded pick, the team grabbed Marcus Spears. Spears signed a rookie deal for 5 years at $9.35m back in 2005 with a team option for a 6th, and when his deal expired, the Cowboys placed another 5-year pact on him at $19m that runs through the 2015 season, although there are not enough guarantees on it to assume he will play 11 seasons here unless his production remains at a level the Cowboys can live with. Honestly, given that his production has never been high, I am not sure what level of production that would be, but he is still here, and for that, the Cowboys celebrate.

2004: No 1st Round pick here due to trading back with Buffalo where the Cowboys drafted Julius Jones. Jones signed his initial rookie deal of 4 years and played exactly that. Then, to start his 5th season, he relocated to Seattle in free agency with the Cowboys making no attempt to keep him.

2003: Terence Newman was given a very lucrative rookie contract followed by a $50m extension of which he did see a great portion of. It would be rather easy to admit that despite his drop off over the last few years, if you take a cornerback in 2003 and are still starting him in 2011, you have to be pretty satisfied with the overall bang for your buck. But, he did receive many of tons of those bucks for sure.

2002: Roy WIlliams was the 6th pick in the draft and signed to a 5 year deal. Then, before the 5th year, the Cowboys placed another 4 year extension on top of that at $30m that would run through the 2010 season. However, he asked for his release following the 2008 season when the writing was on the wall about his future in Dallas.

2001: No 1st Rounder due to the Joey Galloway trade

2000: No 1st Rounder due to the Joey Galloway trade

1999: Ebenezer Ekuban was selected out of North Carolina and was signed to a rookie deal of 5 years. He played out his contract and left as an unrestricted free agent that signed in Cleveland for the 2004 season. To the best of memory, there was no effort to re-sign him in Dallas.

1998: Greg Ellis was selected with the #8 pick from North Carolina and signed a rookie deal for 6 years. He then signed a 6 year extension in 2003 after a holdout and played through the 2008 season in Dallas completing 11 seasons. By just about any metric, he was a solid player and a successful pick.

So, going back 15 drafts with data from 12 of them complete, of the Cowboys 1st Rounders, Greg Ellis, Terence Newman, and DeMarcus Ware would be considered hits. Marcus Spears and Roy Williams would be considered marginal but extendable. The rest would be considered mostly disappointments. Anthony Spencer still has a chance to change minds, but we will need more to his sample, as is the case with Mike Jenkins and Felix Jones who seem possibly to be wearing new uniforms by 2013.

So, is Claiborne locking down corner for 10 years? Are Tyron and Dez ready to do the same? How about in 2015?

Stay tuned.

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