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The contract Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson signed in 2012 somehow has entered the conversation surrounding Dez Bryant's negotiations with the Dallas Cowboys, for reasons that don't make sense in the marketplace.
Johnson's $16.2 million annual average was a consequence of his monster rookie contract, one that would have forced a $26 million franchise tag in 2013 if he hadn't signed an extension. Bryant has no such advantage, based on his position as the No. 24 overall pick in the 2010 draft. Three offseasons later, his franchise value is $12.823 million. If Bryant's future deal equals or surpasses Johnson's, consider it a massive and unexpected victory for Bryant and his agents.
There is, however, a fascinating connection between the two receivers as their second contracts approached. Both were entering their sixth NFL seasons, one year before elite receivers historically begin a decline in production, according to a recent study at Overthecap.com. Aside from any off-field/character issues, the real question the Cowboys face with Bryant is whether to pay a premium for production that is likely to drop in the next two or three years.
To be clear, Bryant is a unique athlete and competitor. His quarterback led the NFL in Total QBR last season, and no one should be so naïve as to lock him into a trend study without considering the possibility of outliers. But NFL teams perform similar analyses to help guide contract negotiations and long-term planning, and the results in this case are clear.
Overthecap's Jason Fitzgerald examined receivers who produced at least one 1,000-yard season in the first four years of their careers in a 10-year period starting in 2004. It showed that, on average, elite production continued through the player's sixth season. A notable decline in targets, receptions, yards and touchdowns begins in the seventh year and continue through the ninth year before kicking back up a bit in the 10th year.
(For reference, I passed along a similar study on running backs from ESPN Stats and Information two years ago.)
Quietly, we've seen the framework of this pattern in Johnson's career. In his sixth NFL year, after signing a seven-year deal worth $113.5 million, he produced his best season: 122 receptions for a league-record 1,964 yards. In the ensuing two years, he missed five games because of injury and was limited in others. His receptions dropped to 84 in 2013 and 71 last season, and he barely eclipsed 1,000 yards.
A 1,000-yard receiver is nothing to sneeze at, especially one whose physical skills demand that opponents pay special schematic attention. But it's only fair to note how dearly the Lions are paying for Johnson's declining production.
Johnson has no more fully guaranteed money in the deal, but he counts $20.6 million against their 2015 cap. That number will rise to $24.1 million next season, barring a renegotiation, and was part of the reason the Lions couldn't squeeze free-agent defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh's contract into their salary structure.
Again, Johnson remains a major weapon in a league that gives big receivers every chance to dominate. But his own recent history, let alone the larger sample in the study, suggests he's something akin to a 1,000-yard receiver with a 1,600-yard contract. Think of it as a company that grows concerned when profits drop from $700 million to $600 million. Yeah, it's revenue -- but investors want growth.
That's one of the scenarios the Cowboys undoubtedly analyzed in the run-up to their talks with Bryant. And it also helps to explain the urgency Bryant surely feels to sign now. From a negotiating standpoint, playing this season under the franchise tag would reduce his value if he's back at the table next summer, even if he produces the kind of career season in Year 6 as Johnson did.
If you think the Cowboys would fall over themselves to pay Bryant a premium contract after a monster 2015 season, look no further than their disciplined approach with running back DeMarco Murray earlier this year.
As our 2013 post noted, the decline for running backs historically begins at age 27, after a player's fourth or fifth season. The Cowboys churned Murray through an NFL-high 392 carries in his fourth season and, two months after he turned 27, let him depart via free agency to their division rival in Philadelphia.
Teams don't always follow these trend studies as a rule, but they are rooted in fact and context and help inform negotiating positions. The guess here is Bryant should sign the best contract he can get now rather than fight history next year or beyond.