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Calvin Johnson to Mike Wallace: Re-evaluating receiver contracts

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It can be tough to accurately gauge a deal's true value immediately after it has been signed.

So while Dez Bryant and Demaryius Thomas celebrated the big-money contracts they landed last week, I thought it would be worthwhile to take a breath and look back at some of the more notable contracts signed by receivers a few offseasons ago, to see how similarly eye-popping pacts have played out over the long term.

Below, I've reassessed five big contracts handed to receivers between the 2012 and 2013 offseasons, ranked from best to worst. I did not consider contracts signed in the 2014 offseason or later, as I felt not enough time has elapsed to allow for them to be properly evaluated. Thus, you will not see guys like Bryant, Thomas, Jeremy Maclin, Torrey Smith, Randall Cobb, Larry Fitzgerald, Golden Tate, DeSean Jackson or Jordy Nelson on this list. I also did not consider first contracts, which eliminated players like A.J. Green and Julio Jones. I wanted to focus on guaranteed money, which provides a good idea of a team's real commitment to a player, and I wanted to focus on those who were at the top end of the scale, which is why Antonio Brown -- who is a comparative bargain for the Steelers, with the five-year, $42.5 million extension he signed in 2012 including just $8 million guaranteed -- is not listed here.

Among other things, this exercise confirmed that, if you're going to invest a sizable chunk of change in a non-quarterback, he had better be an extraordinary player, as it's tough to justify sinking a lot of cash into a receiver who is anything less. Luckily for the Cowboys and Broncos, Bryant and Thomas appear to be capable of living up to their monumental deals -- although, as we can see below, receiver contracts are no sure thing. 

1) Calvin Johnson, Detroit Lions

The deal: Signed an eight-year, $130 million contract in March 2012, with $53 million guaranteed.

Stats since signing: 43 games in three seasons, 277 catches, 4,533 receiving yards, 25 receiving touchdowns.

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Johnson is getting paid a boatload of money, but even so, I think one could argue the Lions are getting a heckuva bargain. He'll turn 30 this season, and he's missed five games over the past two seasons with various injuries, but he's still so smooth. I don't think he's lost any speed, which he uses in combination with his size (6-foot-5, 236 pounds) to devastating effect. He's also a super individual, someone who never loafs on routes where he's not the primary. Simply put, he's a tough, tough out.

Yes, Detroit has invested quite a bit more in Johnson than you would in most receivers -- but then, he's produced at a level that far eclipses the average pass catcher. In the three seasons since he signed the deal, Johnson has racked up more receiving yards than anyone else in the NFL (4,533) and set the current single-season record with 1,964 in 2012. He demands the attention of the defense, opening things up for teammates like Golden Tate, and has a sizable impact on games. I also don't see any decline in his ability whatsoever. Of course, the Lions will have a decision to make next offseason, given that Johnson is currently set to count for $24 million against the cap in 2016. If they feel good about Johnson and where their team can go, they can figure out a way to keep him, which is what I think I'd try to do, barring some kind of unforeseen drop-off in production.

2) Vincent Jackson, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The deal: Signed a five-year, $56 million contract in March 2012, with $26 million guaranteed.

Stats since signing: 48 games in three seasons, 220 catches, 3,610 receiving yards, 17 receiving touchdowns.

Jackson has produced at a fairly high level since arriving in Tampa Bay as part of a spending spree that included committing big money to guard Carl Nicks (whose career was waylaid by a toe injury and subsequent MRSA infection) and cornerback Eric Wright (who only lasted a season with the Bucs). Over the past three seasons, Jackson has the seventh-most total receiving yards (3,610) in the NFL. Of course, in that span, the team also won just 13 games, illustrating the limitations of investing in the supporting cast without having a solid quarterback under center.

His recent production aside, there are signs that Jackson -- unsurprisingly for a 32-year-old heading into his 11th NFL season -- is on the downside of his career. Yes, he posted his sixth 1,000-yard campaign of the past seven years -- but just barely, recording 70 catches for 1,002 yards. While he finished with a relatively robust 14.3 yards per catch, that mark was the lowest of his career to date. He also scored just two touchdowns. Much of that slippage can likely be attributed to the explosive rookie season of Mike Evans, but the fact is, at this point, Jackson looks like the team's second receiver -- and it's not especially great when your second receiver carries a cap hit of $12.2 million. At this point, his remaining shelf life appears somewhat limited.

3) Pierre Garcon, Washington Redskins

The deal: Signed a five-year, $42.5 million contract in March 2012, with $21.5 million guaranteed.

Stats since signing: 42 games in three seasons, 225 catches, 2,731 receiving yards, 12 receiving touchdowns.

Garcon remains a bit of an enigma to me; I'm not entirely sure why the Redskins saw fit to give him such a big contract. He seems to have a hard time getting off the line of scrimmage when defenders engage and press him. His first year in Washington was marred by a foot injury; appearing in just 10 games, he finished with a measly 44 catches for 633 yards. He improved dramatically in 2013, recording a league-high 113 catches and topping the 1,000-yard mark for the first and thus far only time in his career, despite dealing with turmoil at signal caller. But I'm not sure he'll match that high-water mark in catches again.

In fairness to Garcon, I should note that he's been working with a hodge-podge of quarterbacks in Washington, and he's got to share targets with a talent like DeSean Jackson, who joined the team last offseason. Jackson bested Garcon in receiving yards (1,169 to Garcon's 752) and touchdowns (six to Garcon's three) in 2014 despite being targeted 10 fewer times and finishing with fewer total catches. All that said, Garcon is still relatively young (28) and fast, and he has pretty good hands, meaning he has time to make this deal look better.

4) Marques Colston, New Orleans Saints

The deal: Signed a five-year, $40 million contract in March 2012, with just under $20 million guaranteed.

Stats since signing: 47 games in three seasons, 217 catches, 2,999 receiving yards, 20 receiving touchdowns.

This is shaping up to be a pivotal season for the 32-year-old, who might face some competition on the Saints' roster even after restructuring his 2015 salary to stick with the team for a 10th season. When he signed in 2012, he was coming off his fifth 1,000-yard campaign in six years, and had racked up 48 touchdown catches over that span -- providing stunning value as a former seventh-round pick out of Hofstra. Since re-upping with the Saints in 2012, he's collected the 16th-most receiving yards in the NFL (2,999) -- but he's broken the 1,000-yard barrier just once, in the season immediately following the deal. He's also scored just five touchdowns in each of the past two seasons, yielding more of the pass-catching spotlight to tight end Jimmy Graham.

With Graham and receiver Kenny Stills having been traded away this offseason, there would seem to be an opportunity for Colston, who did up his yards-per-catch figure in 2014 (15.3) even as he recorded the second-lowest totals in both receptions (59) and receiving yards (902) of his career. But I've noticed a big drop-off in what he can do in the past two years. His hands and hand-eye coordination are not what they were earlier in his career. Colston seems to have lost some speed and has not been catching the ball as well as he did two or three years ago, and I don't anticipate that he'll impact the game nearly as much as he did in his prime.

5) Mike Wallace, Minnesota Vikings

The deal: Signed a five-year, $60 million contract with the Miami Dolphins in March 2013, with $30 million guaranteed.

Stats since signing: 32 games in two seasons, 140 catches, 1,792 yards, 15 touchdowns.

This deal ranks last for the simple reason that Wallace is no longer with the team that gave it to him; in March, the Dolphins shipped Wallace and a seventh-round pick to Minnesota for a fifth-rounder, which the team used on running back Jay Ajayi. Wallace was OK in Miami, leading the team with 862 receiving yards last season and contributing 10 touchdowns. But, since signing the massive deal, he's come nowhere close to matching his career high of 1,257 yards in 2010, when he had 21 yards per catch for the Steelers, or even the 1,193 yards he posted in Pittsburgh in 2011. And don't forget the self-benching episode that tainted the end of his final season in Miami.

So what happened with Wallace? After all, Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill has a big arm, and Wallace's forte is running the deep route. But while he's still fast and young (28), he's not a great route-runner, and he didn't appear able to adjust to the tactics defenses were using to blunt his impact. Opponents were forcing Wallace more to the sideline, restricting his area. They were also pressing him at the line of scrimmage, making me wonder if he possesses the leg strength to work through press coverage. The good news for Wallace is, if anyone can help him turn things around, it's Vikings coordinator Norv Turner. The receiver is far from a lost cause, provided he listens to what Turner has to say.

Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.

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