Will virus affect big paydays for Lions' Kenny Golladay, Taylor Decker?
Detroit Lions general manager Bob Quinn has crossed off a number of key items on his offseason checklist, making significant additions on both sides of the ball, hypothetically improving a number of the team's deficiencies.
Quinn accomplished these goals while retaining a hefty chunk of cap space. Even factoring in the rookies the team has yet to sign, the Lions are operating with more than $25 million in cap room heading into the 2020 season.
Based on his track record, Quinn prefers to leave a buffer heading into the season, a rainy-day fund if you will, but not in excess of $25 million. Before the draft in late April, he noted the team had other financial responsibilities on the horizon, suggesting there were in-house issues needing to be addressed.
Presumably, that means contract extensions. Among the current deals expiring after the 2020 season, wide receiver Kenny Golladay and offensive tackle Taylor Decker are most pressing.
Let's explore what those deals could look like, first with Golladay.
In terms of age and production, the receiver is set to hit the market at an ideal time. He'll be 27 — the heart of his physical prime — and is coming off a season where he finished seventh in receiving yardage, third in yards per reception and first in receiving touchdowns.
If you're looking for a wart to his game, Golladay isn't the most efficient receiver in the league. He hauled in just 56 percent of his targets in 2019, which ranked 58th out of 66 receivers with at least 40 catches. That figure is the result of a combination of the depth of his targets, his inability to get consistent separation and playing with three different quarterbacks last season.
That's one of the few things keeping Golladay outside the conversation of the league's elite pass-catchers. But he has established himself in the tier directly below that group, headed by Michael Thomas, Julio Jones and DeAndre Hopkins. So expect Golladay to be paid accordingly.
In March, the Dallas Cowboys inked Amari Cooper to a five-year, $100 million deal with up $40 million guaranteed ($60 million when you factor in injury-related guarantees). Despite the pedigree as a former top-five pick, Cooper's production at this stage of his career is similar to Golladay's, establishing a benchmark for the going rate.
The key question is how the COVID-19 pandemic will impact future contracts. As things are trending, the NFL is unlikely to be playing games in front of full stadiums next season. That would significantly impact local revenue, which could lead to either a decreased cap in 2021, or, more likely, a flat cap for multiple seasons as the league borrows cap space from future years while waiting for revenue streams to stabilize.
The pandemic could make negotiations tricky for teams and star players in line for extensions, such as Golladay. Contracts factor in a steadily increasing cap, which has grown more than 5 percent each of the past eight years, or a total of 61.1 percent since 2013.
Without building in those cap increases, the $20 million annual value of Cooper's deal would be closer to $17.5 million per season. In weighing the team's options, the Lions could always offset a lower annual offer with better guarantees, the key figure to any long-term NFL contract.
For example, a five-year, $85 million contract with $50 million fully guaranteed would be an enticing offer. By annual value, it would still make Golladay the seventh-highest-paid player at his position, while giving him added long-term assurance through the guarantees.
Of course, the other option will be the franchise tag. As it's currently tracking, the one-year tag for Golladay would cost the Lions $18.3 million. That would be a significantly larger cap figure in 2021 than if the receiver is inked to a long-term extension, because teams typically back-load multi-year contracts. Using Cooper's deal as an example, he carries a $12 million cap hit for the first year of his contract.
As for Decker, he's in a similar situation as Golladay, negotiating an extension at the age of 27. But unlike Golladay, Decker isn't viewed by most observers as one of the best players at his position.
But even though Decker hasn't performed at a Pro Bowl level to this point in his career, he is objectively a quality offensive lineman who is above-average as both a pass protector and run blocker. And outside of the serious shoulder injury suffered during the offseason program in 2017, he's been durable.
So while Decker won't be looking at a top-of-the-market deal, similar to the three-year, $66 million contract Laremy Tunsil scored from the Houston Texans this offseason, the Lions' blindside blocker could be in line for a package that nets him between $13-15 million per season. That's similar to contracts signed by Nate Solder, Donovan Smith and D.J. Humphries in the past year.
People might look at that and say there's no way Decker should be one of the highest-paid left tackles in football, but that's the nature of salary cap inflation. Remember, it's been more than three years since the Vikings gave Riley Reiff — the man the Lions drafted Decker to replace — nearly $12 million per season. The cap has increased nearly 19 percent since 2017, so it figures Decker, an equal if not better player, would be looking at a similar increase in annual pay to his predecessor.
Again, negotiating any long-term deal is tricky, and that's even more true in an era where the league's short-term revenue streams are uncertain, but the Lions have reserved enough cap space to comfortably get both deals done, if they so choose.