By Matthew Postins
This past weekend the Dallas Cowboys announced they would activate the fifth-year option on offensive tackle Tyron Smith for the 2015 season. By doing so Smith would be guaranteed to get $10.039 in base salary before becoming a full-fledged free agent in 2016.
There are few observers, if any, that follow the Cowboys that believe that Smith will ever sniff free agency. Same goes for wide receiver Dez Bryant, who hits free agency next season. The belief is that owner and general manager Jerry Jones will lock them up both long-term next offseason, if not earlier.
For a team that is seeking to get younger and more talented, retaining both players is a must. The big question is the cost of keeping them.
Smith will get $10.039 million in 2015 because of a quirk in the collective bargaining agreement when it comes to Top 10 picks. If the team picks up the option, then the player receives the transition tag amount for his position. But if the Cowboys work out a long-term deal, would Smith receive more or less?
As a way of projecting what Smith and Bryant might get, and their impact on future salary caps, let’s use the contracts that are out there as a guide.
Smith plays a premium position, left tackle, and he’s now considered one of the best at his position after reaching his first Pro Bowl a year ago. If he’s not a Top 5 player at left tackle, he’s surely a Top 10 player. But knowing Jones, he might pay Smith like a Top 5 player. So what would he likely get?
By total contract Cleveland’s Joe Thomas is the highest paid left tackle at a whopping $80.5 million, followed by Denver’s Ryan Clady ($52.5 million), Washington’s Trent Williams ($60 million), the New York Jets’ D’Brickashaw Ferguson ($60 million) and Houston’s Duane Brown ($53.4 million). By average yearly value, the range of the top 5 runs from Thomas’ $11.5 million to Cincinnati Bengal Andrew Whitworth’s $9.762 million. Let’s use that as a jumping off point.
The median of the Top 5 looks to be about $10.5 million. Smith is 24 and will be 25 next year. He’s not quite yet in the prime of his career and would appear to have at least six to seven good years left in him. Let’s say Jones decides to give Smith seven years. That’s about $73.5 million over seven years at the median salary.
I don’t think Smith will get anything close to what Thomas did. When Thomas signed his $80 million extension in 2011, he had already been to the Pro Bowl four times. It’s not a stretch to say that Thomas was one of the Top 3 tackles in the game when he signed that deal, and he remains in that top echelon. Instead, I think Smith will get closer to the $60 million that Williams and Ferguson received. $70 million sounds about right. That’s an average of $10.0 million per year.
Of course, NFL contracts are different from most contracts. They’re filled with signing bonuses, roster bonuses, guaranteed money and non-guaranteed money. Smith may not see all of that. When I look at the Top 10 contracts for left tackles, the guaranteed money averages between 30 and 40 percent of the deal, according to overthecap.com. Thomas, Clady and Williams average about 31.8 percent of guaranteed money in their deals. For the sake of easy math, let’s say that Smith gets 30 percent guaranteed money. That’s $21.0 million.
That’s the amount you start with to calculate the cap hit. Divide $21.0 million by 7 years and you get $3 million per year. That doesn’t sound too bad, does it? Well, don’t forget you have to calculate in the non-guaranteed money, which is the base salary. That’s $49 million. So take $49 million and divide by 7 and you get $7 million. Add that to the $3 million cap hit in guarantee money and you get a yearly cap hit of $10 million.
That assumes the Cowboys choose to mete Smith’s contract out equally. We’ve seen in years past the Cowboys don’t always do this in an effort to create cap space. So let’s say the Cowboys count just $1 million in base salary in the first year of the contract, along with the $3 million hit in guaranteed money. That’s $4 million in cap money the first year of the deal. But in years 2-7 the cap hit escalates yearly to $11 million, assuming even distribution.
That’s an example of the investment you’re making in Smith, who will be Romo’s blind side protector until the end of Romo’s career and, most likely, the blindside protector for Romo’s successor.
So what about Bryant?
Two receivers have deals with an overall value of more than $100 million – Detroit’s Calvin Johnson and Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald. That significantly skews our calculations. So instead we’ll skip straight to the average yearly value of the Top 5 contracts, a figure Bryant is likely to get. That range is $16.207 million (Johnson) to $11.2 million (Dwayne Bowe). Bryant strikes me as a cut below Johnson and Fitzgerald, but a cut above the other three players in the Top 5 – Percy Harvin, Mike Wallace and Bowe. It seems likely Bryant would get something in the neighborhood of $80 million over seven years, though Bryant’s agent will likely lobby for more. So let’s use $85 million over that span.
The top five receivers average 34.4 percent of their contracts as guaranteed money. Let’s round up to 35 percent for a guaranteed money allocation of $29.5 million for Bryant. Now divide $29.5 million by seven and you get $4.21 in guaranteed money per year, plus $7.92 million in base salary per year for a total cap hit of $12.14 million per year.
So in this scenario Smith ($10 million) and Bryant ($12.14 million) would add up to a yearly cap hit of $22.42 million per year. This all assumes Jones isn’t more generous when it comes to contract time.
So where does that all of that fit into 2015?
Well, right now the Cowboys are sitting at approximately $128.6 million in cap money for the 2015 season, according to Spotrac.com. Add extensions for Smith and Bryant to the mix and that number swells to $150 million. While the 2015 salary cap isn’t set, the expectation is that the cap will rise about $10 million from this year’s $133 million. That would be a cap of $143 million, which would mean extensions for Smith and Bryant would cost the Cowboys their remaining cap space for 2015, plus $7 million, give or take.
It’s the cost of doing business. Losing Smith and Bryant would create humongous holes offensively. The contracts must be written. The devil will be in the details. The cost will be tremendous. The cost of not retaining both players might be even worse.