The Cowboys enjoyed a very successful bye week and were accommodated by losses from all divisional foes - Philadelphia, New York, and Washington - as well as Seattle and Detroit. That means that although they did not even play, they picked up games on almost everyone in the NFC. Of course, the exceptions were Green Bay, San Francisco, and Arizona who all won, which means that the latter two teams that have head-to-head tie-breakers with Dallas are now bigger concerns than they were.
What we don't know is whether the Cowboys spent the bye weekend trying to sew up the details for the Dez Bryant contract. I assume that most of us are not stressing out about this as you would if your best player was about to be a free agent in any other sport because in the NFL if you want to keep your version of LeBron or Cliff Lee, you simply lock him down to the Franchise Tag and he is powerless to leave. It is an amazing tool that has been negotiated by the teams to make sure that a franchise player - especially a QB that is considered elite - doesn't change teams unless for some reason the franchise itself decides to cut him loose (like Drew Brees from San Diego or Peyton Manning from Indianapolis).
Meanwhile, a player - like Bryant - who has performed at an elite level for an extended period of time and feels like he should be paid accordingly, has very little leverage to avoid being given the franchise tag other than giving the impression that he would get very, very angry. That or a training camp holdout and the festering media swarm that would follow are the only real weapons that someone like Dez has at his disposal. And that is why he has carefully navigated the last several months with calculated media sessions, rumors of unrest on the agent front, and even the occasional hint delivered while in uniform that he would take it personally if the team tried to find "financial common sense" at his expense.
In 2014, the "Franchise Tag" for a WR was the 3rd highest position in the sport at $12.3 million for the season, behind only QB ($16.1m) and DE ($13.1m). It pays a player an average of the top 5 players at the position, but it is also a 1-year tag that resolves nothing but kicking the overall problem down the road a bit. Of course, during that 1-year, players know that entire career paths may become diverted or even stopped. So, while you might find very little sympathy for a player who would make about $770k for each of the 16 games in 2015 (after he made $130k a game in his first 5 seasons), Bryant would feel that his chance for the monster payday that puts him in the same class as Mike Wallace, Dwayne Bowe, and Percy Harvin may have to come elsewhere as it did for Wallace (Miami from Pittsburgh) and Harvin (Seattle from Minnesota and then on to New York).
It would be incorrect, I believe, to argue that the Cowboys don't want to extend him out and get this behind them. They have no plans of letting him wear another uniform during his prime and are simply trying to accomplish the #1 employer objective in any walk of life: to get the employee to work at as small a pay rate as possible. This, of course, flies directly in the face of the #1 employee objective: which is to get as much from the employer as possible to perform said job. We all deal with it as well, albeit with considerably fewer zeroes on our pay-stubs.
So, today, my hope is to arrive at a deal as an independent arbiter. I want to consider both sides and the going rate and project a total deal that will get this to the finish line. The Cowboys have every right to drag their feet on this and can certainly exercise their negotiated right to a franchise tag, but it seems that in this particular case, unless they know something we don't know about off-field conduct, there is no reason that Bryant wouldn't be thought of as a franchise cornerstone from now until 2020 or so.
In other words, it seems obvious that this is a deal that both sides really want, so using those assumptions, let's find a number that makes sense.
I know we get caught up in the total value of a deal and the number of years used to inflate the contract, but for this exercise, let's limit the discussion somewhat. I want to focus on the numbers that are interesting to a player ultimately - guaranteed money and average per year.
The guarantee is an interesting topic in itself, because Dez is the type of guy to bet on himself and in a world where Tyron Smith received $22m of his roughly $100m as guaranteed dollars. That means that there will come a time (basically after 2016) where Smith will have almost all of his money on a pay-as-you-play basis. Yes, he is extended through 2023, but when people talk about how Tyron agreed to a team-friendly contract (that also was called the largest deal ever given to a offensive linemen in the history of the sport), that is what they are talking about.
I believe that is what the Cowboys have in mind. Pay Dez handsomely and competitively, but keep the onus on him to still be elite or close enough each year to validate their paychecks beyond the first 2 years of the deal.
So, now let's examine the guaranteed money and average yearly salaries to the Wide Receivers in this discussion:
Calvin Johnson, 29 (today's ages) - $48.7m g/$16.2 per year - March 2012
Larry Fitzgerald, 31 - $27m/$16.1m - August 2011
Mike Wallace, 28 - $27m/$12m - March 2013
Vincent Jackson, 31 - $26m/$11.1m - March 2012
Andre Johnson, 33 - $20.5m/$9.7m - August 2010
Dwayne Bowe, 30 - $20m/$11.2m - March 2013
If we are to believe reports, the Cowboys are offering a $20m guarantee to Bryant (26 years old, by the way) as part of a deal that sounds like it is about 6/$60m with a number of extra years and larger figures on it to help them have flexibility and to make the player feel good, even though he won't see years 9-10 no matter what.
So, now the conversation turns to what the Cowboys think are reasonable comparable to Dez in the other direction:
Antonio Brown, 26 - $8.5m g/$8.3m per year - July 2012
Victor Cruz, 28 - $15.6m/$8.6m - July 2013
Jordy Nelson, 29 - $11.5m/$9.7 - July 2014
Marques Colston, 31 - $17.7m/$7.2m - March 2012
Those 4 can all claim to have accomplishments that are in the neighborhood (or superior) to Bryant over the period of time from 2011-2014. The ages don't work perfectly, but when Jordy Nelson accepted a deal of 4 years, $39m with $11.5 guaranteed back in July, that wasn't very good news for the Bryant camp. The ages aren't the same, but the on-field impact is close. Bryant has 16 more yards during that span and has played in 3 more games. He has 3 more touchdowns but has 105 more targets during that 4 season sample.
The problem with this group being used as a comparable is that either the player had not shown elite productivity (Brown) or they were past the age of elite contract status (26-28). Dez is in the rather unique situation of proven and only 26. That is a key to really focus upon.
There is a 3rd group that is all looking on carefully at this situation and will either get their deals after Bryant or they could actually set the market for Dez if we wait into the next offseason:
DeMaryius Thomas, 26, Denver
AJ Green, 26, Cincinnati
Jeremy Maclin, 26, Philadelphia
Michael Crabtree, 27, San Francisco
Julio Jones, 25, Atlanta
Green and Jones have one more year of their rookie deals, but Thomas, Maclin, and Crabtree are already to go free this March. DeMaryius - drafted right before Bryant - has apparently turned down a deal in the $13m per year range. That is about where I would think Bryant would want his floor, but maybe Thomas' stance should have me thinking $15m is the end goal for these guys. And make no mistake, this group - at least Thomas, Green, and Jones all see Bryant as a comparable and therefore it is likely when one sets the market, they will all be looking for that level.
So, considering the ages of the players above, the level of performance Bryant has offered, and the relative values of those around him, it seems he has every right to want to get to the levels above Wallace/Bowe/Jackson and below Fitzgerald/Johnson. He may not want to slate in below them, but based on a salary cap world, it seems Calvin Johnson also set a ceiling where teams realized paying a WR that level ($1m per game) hamstrings the entire roster and therefore I don't foresee another team going that high anytime soon.
I think the deal that gets this done would be in the 6 year-$84m total with $28m guaranteed. I am sure that Bryant wants to break $30m guaranteed and might be able to if he let's DeMaryius Thomas' situation play out, but the Cowboys better be careful if they wait. They can put the franchise tag on him, but I imagine he would negotiate a settlement that the following year he would hit the market and the Cowboys would lose their tagging leverage altogether. By then, AJ Green and Julio Jones will have their new deals and $14m a year may not seem absurd.
So, there is where I see it. 6 years, $84m, and $28 guaranteed. He is happy and so are they at have this done and then they can even consider using the tag elsewhere (RB?). But, if the Cowboys are dug in with a Jordy Nelson/Victor Cruz type deal, then they better be prepared to ultimately lose Bryant. I imagine their fan base would not look kindly on that after the last few seasons has has put together.
The Cowboys are simply trying to be responsible and should be congratulated for that. But, for a number of reasons, after all of the deals they have written, this would be an odd one to take a stand on. What is really working against them - beyond their payment of $55m guaranteed to Tony Romo - is the Brandon Carr deal. Carr's contract included $25.5m guaranteed, and I would assume Bryant is well aware of that. So, any guaranteed money that comes in below Carr is likely rejected on principle. And frankly, that is understandable if you mean as much to Dallas as Dez has.
That said, the Cowboys are trying to get him for as little as possible. In the end, I wouldn't be shocked if it all gets done soon, to be honest.
Then again, I had them 6-10 this year so what do I know?