Dez and Demaryius Get Paid: What Does It Mean?

Both Dez Bryant and Demaryius Thomas got new contracts, but the structures will impact their teams in completely different ways.

It turns out deadlines help get things done -- that was the case with your college english paper, and it extends to professional football teams negotiating multi-million dollar deals with their star players.

Before the deadline on Wednesday for franchise tagged players to sign long-term extensions, there was reportedly little hope deals would get done for the two big-name wide receivers involved in contract talks, and then all of a sudden there was.

Probabilities went from 50-50 to suddenly Dez Bryant being in route to the Cowboys' complex with the intention of finalizing a deal. Minutes later, an agreement came out of nowhere in Denver, and the Broncos were able to come to terms with Demaryius Thomas.

Either these owners and agents are lightning-quick negotiators, or these deals were never as far away from happening as had been reported.

When the dust settled from a day that also saw Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston get a record $100-plus million deal, the two top receivers walked away with strikingly similar contracts.

At face value, which can be tricky when judging NFL contracts, both Bryant and Thomas signed five-year deals for $70 million. While it would appear both of these players got the same deal, those raw numbers are where the similarities end. Both receivers were looking for Calvin Johnson-type money, but neither receiver exceeded any parts of Johnson’s seven-year, $113.45 million deal with $53.25 million guaranteed.

This appears to show the Johnson contract was viewed as an anomaly by both the team and, likely begrudgingly, by the player and not as the realistic market for top tier wide receivers, even as the salary cap has increased since that deal has given in 2012. This could also be key in setting the bargaining point for the contracts of Julio Jones and A.J. Green, who are likely to receive new deals within the next year. But just because these deals aren’t the biggest, that doesn’t mean these receivers didn’t get paid.

At an average of $14 million per year, Bryant and Thomas tie as the second highest paid receivers in the league behind Johnson’s $16.2 million average annual salary. But again, the similarities in these deals conclude with the raw numbers. Bryant edged out Thomas in both guaranteed money ($45 million to $43.5 million), and received almost twice the signing bonus ($20 million to $11 million).

And there’s some good reason for that.

Bryant at the Top

By our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, no high-volume receiver was more efficient than Bryant last season -- no receiver targeted at least 100 time had a better Reception NEP per target than the Cowboys’ star at 0.94. Three players did have a higher Reception NEP per target, but none were targeted as much as Bryant. Kenny Stills led the league with a 1.05 Reception NEP per target, but was targeted 53 fewer times than Bryant. Bryant was also targeted on 28.6 percent of Dallas’ pass attempts last season, while only Antonio Brown and Thomas were targeted more often.

Heading into the offseason, there was little reason to argue Bryant should not be paid as one of the league’s top receivers. When the discussion came up about teams being hesitant to set the market for receivers, Bryant came out well ahead of the the pack as the one who should be on top with the highest average Reception NEP per target, total Reception NEP and health of the four wide receivers looking for new deals. In seven categories compared, Bryant was worse than second place in just one -- best season’s Reception NEP.

There were legitimate threats from Bryant that he would hold out from not only training camp, but regular season games if a long-term deal was not reached. The Cowboys didn't have much of a choice giving into some of Bryant’s demands, especially given what would have been left as their receiving corps without him. And while the salary doesn’t quite say it, the boost in both signing bonus and guaranteed money give him the edge over Thomas.

With what’s been revealed about the structure of Bryant’s contract, he’s going to be set for quite a while. While much of the signing bonus will be paid up front -- $7 million will be deferred to March of 2016 -- it appears most of the money will come in the latter years of the deal. With what’s currently been reported, Bryant will only have a cap number of $7 million for the upcoming season, saving the Cowboys a little over $5 million from what he would have counted on the franchise tag.

This is interesting, as it would appear to push back some of the guarantees in Bryant’s contract and put higher cap numbers in the latter years of the deal. Instead of throwing a few extra million on the cap for the upcoming season when the Cowboys are seemingly not going to be spending much more, Bryant’s highest cap numbers could come in years when they need to start re-signing some of their young offensive lineman like Travis Frederick, Zack Martin and possibly La’El Collins, most of whom were responsible for Dallas’ ninth ranking in Rushing NEP per attempt last season.

But as has been the case with Dallas, multiple restructures could be on the way for Bryant. This is almost surely the last year for Brandon Carr on the Cowboys, and Dallas will get about $5 million in cap space by cutting ties after the season.

Demaryius and a Way Out?

There’s also been little question that Thomas has been one of the better receivers in the league over the past three years. The main concern is that the three-year period also coincides with Peyton Manning's arrival in Denver.

It might not be fair to judge Thomas on the quarterback play he had before Manning, but it’s not really debatable that his breakout came when he was paired with the world’s best quarterback. Thomas saw his Reception NEP per target rise from an average of 0.72 during his first two seasons to an average of 0.83 over the last three -- think difference between the 2014 versions of Dwayne Bowe and T.Y. Hilton.

For more on this topic, check out Joe Redemann's piece on whether or not Demaryius Thomas is quarterback-proof.

None of this, of course, is Thomas’s fault. We shouldn’t think less of Thomas because he’s had career years with a great quarterback. He doesn’t sit at home wishing for the days of Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow so he can show the world the type of receiver he can be now.

Some of the concern of how Thomas will perform in the post-Manning era, though, appears to be built into the contract. Thomas got $43.5 million guaranteed, and all of that will come within the first three years of the deal, including a cap hit of $13.2 million in the first year. That essentially makes the contract a three-year deal worth the $43.5 million with the final two years serving as options. While Denver gave in by guaranteeing that much money, the concession was given for that money to almost exclusively impact the first three years.

We can scoff at mid-tier quarterbacks getting those late-year options that will rarely come into play, but if Thomas doesn't continue to be a top tier receiver as Denver switches to new quarterback, it would be much easier from a management perspective to part ways with a 30-year-old receiver versus those quarterbacks. None of this suggests Thomas is just a creation of his quarterback, but the Broncos have appeared to have an exit plan just in case. It’s worth noting in the same vein that Thomas wasn’t even the most efficient receiver on the Broncos last season, at least by Reception NEP per target. That was Emmanuel Sanders, who averaged 0.89 NEP per target on 141 targets versus Thomas' 0.76 on 184 targets.

What this deal could impact more for Denver is future negotiations with Von Miller. Miller will be playing 2015 on his fifth-year option as a 2011 draft pick, and could be looking at a similar situation to Thomas at the end of next season. But, again, as has been the case with the Broncos since 2012, that hinges on Manning. If 2015 is to be Manning’s last season before retirement, around $20 million would be coming off the Denver salary cap in 2016. That would leave plenty of room for a Miller extension.

But if Manning returns for another season, Miller could be headed for the franchise tag. Yet, unlike the Bryant deal, the higher cap numbers early in the contract could lead to a new extension after three years that could push money into future seasons and make room for the Houston-type of contract Miller is likely to receive.