Odell Beckham Jr. wants a new deal. Odell Beckham Jr. deserves a new deal, given that he will be the 64th-highest paid wide receiver in football at $1.8 million this season. He's not the only one from the class of 2014 facing a similar situation.
Aaron Donald might be the best defensive tackle in football, but this year, he will also take home just $1.8 million in actual cash. For comparison, Kawann Short, who will earn $26 million this season as part of his new extension, will make nearly that much per game. You don't have to be a Rams fan to see how that might be considered inequitable.
Players such as Taylor Lewan, C.J. Mosley and Zack Martin also have delivered on their potential after being selected outside of the top 10 picks of the first round of the 2014 draft and are in line for massive contracts. On merit, they all deserve to be paid like players at the top of their respective positions. In reality, they might find it difficult to command the contracts they would hope for.
The problem? Their current contracts. Players such as Beckham and Donald have gotten so good in such a short period of time that they've outgrown their rookie deals with years to go. Meanwhile, the perennially rising cap is leading to players making massive amounts of money in free agency or as they approach the free market. As a result, the economics of an extension for Beckham or Donald this offseason are difficult to square up.
Let's start with the Giants' star receiver. Beckham is entering the fourth year of a four-year deal that was worth just $10.4 million (all guaranteed) at the time of signing. He's due the $1.8 million that I mentioned earlier for 2017. Because he was a first-round pick, though, the Giants can (and have chosen to) lock Beckham up for a fifth season. If Beckham were a top-10 pick, he would receive a fifth-year salary in 2018 equivalent to the average of the top 10 players at his position, which would be $13.3 million. Instead, because he fell to the 12th pick, Beckham will make the average of the third through 25th players at wide receiver, which is just $8.5 million.
All of this means the Giants have massive amounts of leverage in negotiating an extension. They know they have Beckham under contract for the next two seasons at just $10.3 million combined, which is a bargain. Even further, they can use the franchise tag to keep Beckham around in the years to come. My estimate is that the franchise tag for wideouts in 2019 will come in at $18.3 million.
That brings the Giants' potential three-year outlay to $28.6 million. Several organizations around the NFL use a player's earnings over the first three years of a contract extension as a measure of the contract's "true" value, given the likelihood a player will either sign a new deal or be released after those three seasons.
That $28.6 million figure is a fraction of Beckham's true value. Compare Beckham to A.J. Green, who signed his first contract extension before the 2015 season, as he was entering the fifth-year option of his rookie deal. Green racked up $47.3 million over the first three years of his pact. Julio Jones, who signed the same offseason under the same circumstances, hit $47.5 million. Pierre Garcon netted $29 million over the first three years of his free-agent deal with the 49ers this offseason. Garcon is a useful player, but he's not Beckham.
Antonio Brown serves as a useful warning case for a Beckham deal. Like Beckham now, Brown was two years away from unrestricted free agency when he ended up signing a five-year, $42 million extension. That deal wound up being one of the biggest veteran bargains in all of football. When Brown finally signed his new contract this offseason, he ended up netting $68 million over four years as an extension to his old deal.
Brown's new contract guarantees the superstar just his $19 million signing bonus, although he'll likely earn a minimum of $48.9 million over the next three years before the Steelers would ever seriously consider moving on, given the cap structure of the contract. Consider that the Giants could franchise Beckham twice and hold onto him for the next four years at a total of $50.6 million, a far cry from that $68 million Brown figure. In other words, the Giants hold all of the cards in a Beckham deal right now.
The same is true for Donald, who will make just $8.7 million over the next two seasons before his rookie deal expires. Using the same logic for Donald, the Rams could go year-to-year and pay him $15.6 million in 2019 for a three-year total of $24.3 million, then pull the same feat off again in 2020 for a four-year total of $43.0 million.
Those figures are even larger bargains, given how much it costs to lock up dominant interior disruptors in this market. Short, who was set to play under the franchise tag, will earn $51.5 million over the first three years of his new deal, more than double Donald's earnings without a new deal. Fletcher Cox racked up $47.8 million to stick around in Philly. And forget the stratospheric heights of Von Miller, whose contract Donald will try to top. Miller is making $61 million over the first three years of his extension and $78.5 million over its first four seasons, figures that Donald wouldn't be able to come close to matching this offseason, two years away from free agency.
The economics are unfair, but they are what they are. Rookie salaries were rising to astronomical heights before they were capped as part of the negotiations in the most recent collective bargaining agreement. From here, one of three things can happen with players such as Beckham and Donald:
1. Their teams give in and hand them massive deals anyway. It's hardly out of the question that the Giants and Rams just ignore their leverage and hand out full-freight contracts in the hopes of keeping their superstar players happy and focused. They'll attach language about wanting to reward their players, which isn't how the NFL works, when you consider just how many players bust their behinds and don't get large contracts. The Rams are just one year removed from handing an inexplicable deal to Tavon Austin, who will make a shade under $15 million fully guaranteed American dollars this season. Take a look around the league at the NFL's perennial contenders -- the Patriots, Seahawks and Packers come to mind -- and note how rarely they hand out extensions with multiple years to go just to keep players happy.
2. The players wait a year and sign their extensions before the fifth-year option approaches. Just four members of the first-round class of 2013 -- Austin, Lane Johnson, Kyle Long and Travis Frederick -- signed new deals before the fourth season of their rookie contract began. Of those four, Johnson was the only one who signed before August, agreeing to terms on a five-year, $56 million extension with the Eagles in January 2016. It's also fair to note that Johnson signed what would be considered a below-market deal for left tackle, the position he will eventually play in Philadelphia: He'll make just $31.6 million over the first three years of that extension, less than what Matt Kalil ($32.8 million) earned from the Panthers this offseason.
The leverage situation changes dramatically if these stars wait one more season, which is why most rookie first-rounders end up signing extensions after Year 4. I mentioned earlier how the Giants could control Beckham for $28.6 million over the next three seasons under his current deal. If we're looking at this same question one year from now, the Giants would need to pony up $48.8 million over the ensuing three years to keep Beckham on board with his fifth-year option and two franchise tags. Suddenly, the math in giving Beckham an Antonio Brown-sized extension makes way more sense. Donald would still be a bargain at $36.4 million, but it's certainly more defensible to hand him a contract similar to Short's a year from now.
3. Find a middle ground. All contracts are compromises, of course, and it's not out of the question that these players and teams will find a way to make everyone happy. It's just a lot harder than it would have been before. The Giants would rather not go year-to-year with Beckham, but there's an enormous gap between the $28.6 million three-year cap figure he would be owed now and the $50 million he would seek to be in the stratosphere ahead of Green, Jones and Brown. Is he willing to settle for a contract that won't set records? Are the Giants willing to pay another massive signing bonus this year after shelling out for several free agents last offseason and giving Jason Pierre-Paul $20 million up front earlier this year?
The Rams have to ask themselves the same question. Defensive tackle is about as risky as positions get in terms of injuries; knee problems have derailed stars on a temporary (Geno Atkins) and permanent (Tommie Harris) basis. The Rams unquestionably want to build around Donald -- he's too good not to keep around and pay. But do they want to make a long-term commitment to him two years before even needing to slap him with the franchise tag? Is Donald willing to take a small percentage of what Miller picked up after winning the Super Bowl? Compromises are there, but when the gap between sides is as wide as it is for Beckham and Donald with their organizations, those compromises can be nearly impossible to find.