Niyo: Lions' Tate could hit slot jackpot with new deal

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Lions receiver Golden Tate has at least 90 catches in each of the past four seasons.

Allen Park — Golden Tate sees the numbers — both the ones he has collected and those that others have grabbed — and he knows what they mean: He’s going to get paid.

But the question is when, and where, and ultimately just how much it’ll take for it to be here.

And that’s also the next serious problem for Lions general manager Bob Quinn as he continues to chart a new course in Detroit, trying to build a consistent winner while balancing the books in ways his predecessor never really could.

How much is Tate’s consistent production worth to a franchise with its fortunes tied to the success of Matthew Stafford’s right arm? And where do you slot Tate now that the value of his position seems to have caught up with the way the game has shifted?

Those are the issues Quinn must resolve in the next few months, as a new coaching staff led by Matt Patricia imprints itself on a retooled roster. And in the end, Tate and his agent may have to decide for themselves, depending on how far Detroit’s front office is willing to do what he routinely does in covering the middle ground.

But for now, those also are the questions Tate would prefer not to answer, mostly because, as he said with a shrug after Tuesday’s OTA practice, “I don’t know what to expect.”

'I just want to get better'

He is entering the final year of a free-agent contract he signed in a snowstorm in 2014, and Tate is well aware it’s a deal — for five years and $31 million — that he has significantly outperformed. Since 2014, Tate ranks sixth in the NFL in receptions (372) behind only Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, Jarvis Landry, Demaryius Thomas and Larry Fitzgerald. He’s ninth in the league over that same span in receiving yardage, and no receiver has gained more yards after the catch or forced more missed tackles, according to Pro Football Focus.

More: Patricia: New kickoff rules will have significant impact

More important, Tate, who’ll turn 30 in August, is showing no real signs of decline. Last season was his fourth consecutive with at least 90 catches, and his third in four years topping 1,000 yards — marks he achieved despite suffering a separated shoulder in Week 6 at New Orleans.

“Look, what I did last year doesn’t matter,” Tate said. “It does not matter, unless I come back this year and have a great year. … I have one more year on my contract, and that’s that. I just want to get better and help this team.”

Of course, the past does matter when it comes to negotiating a contract extension in the NFL. Just how much is the issue, though. And that’s where we may learn something more about Quinn’s approach and how closely it might resemble the one he left behind.

The Patriots, under Bill Belichick, haven’t paid a receiver more than $5 million a season since 2012, Wes Welker’s last in New England. That obviously excludes tight end Rob Gronkowski, Tom Brady’s primary pass-catching target who is in the middle of another contract negotiation this offseason. But to put it in perspective, the blockbuster deal Landry just signed with Cleveland — worth up to $75.5 million over five years, with $34 million in guaranteed money — means he’ll likely carry a higher salary-cap charge in 2018 ($15.5 million) than the entire New England corps of wide receivers.

The Lions, meanwhile, are projected to have about $21 million of their 2018 cap tied up in a position group that ranks among the NFL’s best. Detroit was one of three teams to boast a pair of 1,000-yard receivers last season, with Tate providing the ideal complement to downfield threats Marvin Jones (61 catches, 1,101 receiving yards, nine touchdowns) and rookie third-round pick, Kenny Golladay, who seems poised for a breakout season.

More: Wojo: NFL is posturing with its national anthem policy

Landry is only 25, but his new contract is relevant here in Detroit, perhaps, because his NFL-leading 112 receptions for Miami last season came with him operating primarily as a slot receiver, in a role similar to the one Tate fills in Detroit. So is the four-year, $46 million contract Tate’s former teammate in Seattle, Doug Baldwin, signed a couple summers ago.

'I've got to prove myself'

Slot receivers' value on the field has grown steadily as NFL offenses rely more on high-percentage, short-passing games to negate opposing pass rushes. But only recently has the free-agent marketplace seemed to acknowledge that, so Tate's next deal may be another benchmark.

If the Lions are looking for comparables in contract negotiations, that Baldwin deal is probably a reasonable place to start. Quinn probably will have to give more in guaranteed money to get a deal done, and Tate may have to accept a shorter term. Just where they finish — or if they will — only time will tell, though both sides have indicated the goal is to get something done between now and September.

“It’s only the first week of OTAs and there’s a lot of offseason left,” Tate said. “I just try to take it day-by-day, not worry about the things I can’t control. One thing I can control is the effort that I come out here with, the leadership that I bring to this organization and the product that I put on film.”

Quinn, for his part, has followed a similar script in signing other core players to contract extensions — Stafford, Darius Slay, Theo Riddick, Glover Quin and Sam Martin — either during training camp or just prior to the regular-season opener.

“I think all those things, in my time here, have happened in the summer,” Quinn said prior to last month’s draft.

But something needs to happen here. Because it doesn’t appear there’s ready-made successor to fill Tate’s role beyond this season. And it sure doesn’t like Tate is ready to slow down.

“We’ve got a new coaching staff, and I’ve got to prove myself,” Tate said Tuesday. “That’s kind of the mentality I come into every season. Just try to prove myself, and do a little bit better than last year."

As for the bottom-line numbers?

“I try not to worry about all that right now,” he added. “I’m just trying to play ball and let it work out the way it’s gonna work out.”

Tate rates

Lions wide receiver Golden Tate has caught the sixth-most passes in the last four years in the NFL.

1. Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh, 472

2. Julio Jones, Atlanta, 411

3. Jarvis Landry, Miami, 400

4. Demaryius Thomas, Denver, 389

5. Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona, 388

6. Golden Tate, Detroit, 372