Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. The topics of this edition include:
-- A transitioning team that could replicate New England's chameleon approach.
-- One receiver who's due for a serious raise -- but can his team accommodate it?
But first, a look at the changing landscape on fully guaranteed contracts -- and who deserves them most ...
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Nothing sparks conversation in an NFL locker room more consistently than someone from another sport signing a mega-deal. The fully guaranteed contracts inked in basketball and baseball lead to a little jealousy among football players when they sit around and discuss money matters in small groups.
So, with Manny Machado agreeing to a 10-year, $300 million deal with the San Diego Padres -- and Bryce Harper poised to potentially sign an even bigger deal in the coming days -- it's only natural to think about the prospects of fully guaranteed mega-deals in the football world.
Last offseason, Kirk Cousins hit the jackpot in signing an historic contract with the Minnesota Vikings: three years, $84 million, fully guaranteed. The veteran quarterback parlayed a pair of franchise tags into the enormous payday, and the carefully crafted deal has other players thinking about fully guaranteed pacts.
Recently, we've heard seven-time Pro Bowl receiver Antonio Brown voice his desire for a new contract with "no unguarantees," as he attempts to leave the Pittsburgh Steelers via trade. Meanwhile, Le'Veon Bell's agent said last offseason that the lack of ample guarantees in the Steelers' proposed long-term offer was the deal-breaker. Bell's ensuing decision to not sign the franchise tag cost him $14.5 million in 2018, but we will see if he is able to land a long-term deal with more guaranteed dough this offseason.
From a management standpoint, the prospect of fully guaranteeing an NFL contract is fraught with risks. Decision-makers are not only concerned about injuries and complacency affecting the production associated with enormous compensation, but they are tasked with managing a salary cap around big deals that aren't cap-friendly on paper. With signing bonuses spread out over the length of contracts, teams can bring down the cap numbers on their star players by inking them to "fluff" deals that include years and money that might never come to fruition.
That's why the NFL community reacted so strongly to Cousins netting big money on a shorter-term deal one year ago.
"It's obviously very different for the league," Packers president Mark Murphy said last offseason of Cousins' deal. "I think you've seen in recent years an increase in the amount of guaranteed money in contracts, and I think this is probably the first -- at least that I'm aware of -- that's guaranteed to that percentage. The other thing, it's only a three-year [deal]. So it's fairly short and typically contracts like that have probably been more often five years rather than three years."
Russell Wilson was a little ahead of the curve when he signed an extension with the Seattle Seahawks back in 2015. Fresh off his second straight Super Bowl appearance, Wilson agreed to a four-year, $87.6 million contract that featured $61.5 million in guarantees. Granted, the contract wasn't fully guaranteed, but Wilson opted for an NBA-like deal that was shorter in length to provide him with another chance to earn a major payday in his prime. By gambling on himself, Wilson could become the NFL's first 35 Million Dollar Man, with 2019 being the last year of the aforementioned extension.
With all of this in mind, I took to the Twitterverse earlier this week to discuss the top five players in the league right now, while offering up one accompanying question:
My answer to the question, when it comes to those five players, is a resounding yes. And here's why:
Aaron Donald, DT, Los Angeles Rams: The back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year is the most dominant defender in football. He completely disrupts the game from his DT position. Few opponents have discovered ways to minimize his impact as a run stopper/pass rusher.
Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs: The reigning NFL MVP is revolutionizing the game as a gunslinger with A+ arm talent, athleticism and improvisational skills. Mahomes has expanded the playbook for one of the best play designers in football, creating headaches for defensive coordinators around the league.
Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Dallas Cowboys: The two-time NFL rushing champion is the best running back in football. While some devalue the position, based on injury risk, there's no denying No. 21's impact on the Cowboys' offense as a 30-touch wizard with a blue-collar running style and an underrated set of receiving skills.
DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Houston Texans: It's hard to find another WR1 in the league as capable of putting up big numbers regardless of who's throwing him the ball. Hopkins has arguably been the most dominant playmaker in the passing game over the past four seasons, and he's finally getting the recognition he deserves now that he's linked up with a young franchise quarterback with All-Pro potential.
Jalen Ramsey, CB, Jacksonville Jaguars: Say what you want about his antics and trash talk, but you can't find a better cover corner than Ramsey on the island today. The two-time Pro Bowler has been as good as advertised -- a world-class athlete with exceptional cover skills and an alpha-dog attitude.
I know that I left some worthy playmakers off my list, but those are the five guys I'd feel comfortable locking up on the terms given -- the fully guaranteed terms given. Who's on your list? Let me know @BuckyBrooks.
SOUTH BEACH PATS? Fins could replicate New England's unique offense
The NFL is the ultimate copycat league, with teams routinely stealing popular plays and concepts from each other, but the Dolphins could become the first organization to successfully replicate the multi-faceted offense that's been such a crucial ingredient in the Patriots' unprecedented dominance over the last two decades.
Before you aggressively @ me regarding the absence of a TB12-like quarterback in a Miami uniform, I'm specifically speaking to the chameleon nature of the team's scheme, as well as the individual and collective versatility of the Dolphins' skill-position players.
It certainly shouldn't come as a surprise that new head coach Brian Flores wants to duplicate the adaptable tactics and interchangeable personnel utilization that have become hallmarks of New England's program under Bill Belichick. He spent 15 years working for the organization in various capacities and he knows the system works when the proper people are plugged into the right spots.
With Chad O'Shea joining Flores in the move from Foxborough to South Beach -- and taking over as Dolphins offensive coordinator -- Miami will undoubtedly utilize some of the concepts run by the Pats while also building around the strengths of the current roster. Part of New England's success has been fueled by the multiplicity of its scheme and personnel. In Miami, O'Shea wants to have some core concepts while always tailoring the scheme to the strengths of his top players.
"An important part of the offense is the ability to be multiple, to not be a specific scheme," O'Shea said, via the team website. "But again, it goes back to we're going to do what the players do well, and what are their strengths. We always identify what they can do, not what they cannot do, and game plan or set up our offense according to that."
Studying Miami's roster, there are plenty of playmakers to build around. At wide receiver, the Dolphins have a big-play threat (Kenny Stills) and a pair of catch-and-run specialists (Albert Wilson and Jakeem Grant) at their disposal. The individual and collective talents of the trio will enable Miami to be a dynamic unit with a multi-dimensional approach.
With Stills, the Dolphins can incorporate a vertical passing game. No. 10 blows the top off the coverage on go-routes and posts from the outside. Additionally, he can stretch the field as the designated target on double moves and stutter comebacks against one-on-one coverage.
Wilson and Grant are terrific with the ball in their hands, which makes them dangerous weapons in the receiver screen/run game. As former punt returners, both display outstanding quickness, elusiveness and burst to navigate through traffic on the perimeter. From a schematic standpoint, it is sensible to put them in situations to take advantage of their strengths as open-field runners. Wilson and Grant showed big-play potential under the previous regime, and I would expect O'Shea to exploit those skills. Miami can stretch the defense from sideline to sideline, whether it's flipping the ball to Wilson and Grant on bubble screens or handing it off on fly sweeps and reverses.
The Dolphins could also swipe some of New England's RB-centric game plans, given Miami's pair of big-bodied hybrids in the backfield. Kenyan Drake (6-foot-1, 211 pounds) and Kalen Ballage (6-2, 237) are unique talents as big backs with outstanding receiving skills. Each is capable grinding it out between the tackles or carving up the defense as a pseudo-receiver aligned out wide. With Drake and Ballage also flashing explosive potential in the screen game, O'Shea can tap into their versatility to expand the playbook.
"The back is an important part of the offense. The skill position, obviously, is something that is an important part, but the backs in particular. I think it's something that you look at the Dolphins' roster right now, it's exciting to look at the backs," O'Shea said. "Competitively playing against those backs in New England that are in Miami now, it's been a group that has a lot of strengths, and I can't wait to work with them."
Considering the playmaking potential at O'Shea's disposal on the perimeter, the Dolphins appear to be a quarterback away from fielding a competitive offense in the AFC East.
Ryan Tannehill is currently listed as a starting QB on the depth chart, but a checkered injury history and a hefty salary cap number could prompt the team to move on from the veteran. The 30-year-old passer has a $26,611,666 cap hit in 2019, quite a significant number for a player with 25 missed games over the past three seasons. When healthy, No. 17 has been average -- at best -- with a career passer rating of 87.0 and a 123:75 TD-to-INT ratio on his resume. That said, the 2019 quarterback class (free agency and the draft) is littered with question marks. So, Miami must decide if it is better to sit out this spin on the carousel and just roll with the veteran for another season.
If the Dolphins can get viable quarterback play -- granted, that's a big if -- the pieces are in place for Miami to put together a chameleon-like offense that creates headaches for defensive coordinators around the league.
TWO-POINT CONVERSION: Quick takes on developments across the NFL
1) One big contract question for the Vikings. The Minnesota Vikings' front office has to make some hard choices this offseason with Sheldon Richardson and Anthony Barr slated to hit the free-agent market, but the team also needs to address the contract of Adam Thielen after his agent recently raised concerns about his current deal.
The two-time Pro Bowler is currently poised to make $5.85 million in 2019 despite playing like a top-five receiver in each of the past two seasons. Since 2017, Thielen ranks fourth in receptions (204) and sixth in receiving yards (2,649). During this span, he has 13 touchdowns, 37 receptions of at least 20 yards and eight of 40-plus. Considering No. 19 is sharing the marquee with Stefon Diggs, this kind of individual production is pretty astounding. Thus, it is easy to make the case for Thielen to receive top-of-the-market money.
"This team has a lot of really good things in place for it, and I know they want to take care of Adam and I know they want Adam there and I know they want to reward Adam," Thielen's agent, Blake Baratz, said on an ESPN radio affiliate in the Twin Cities.
Here's the problem: Minnesota rewarded Thielen with an above-market deal in the 2017 offseason, before he was an established star. And last summer, the Vikings gave Thielen's running mate (Diggs) a five-year, $72 million deal to fill a similar role on the perimeter. Most importantly, according to Over The Cap, the Vikings have just $7.25 million in cap space at the moment, so lavishing Thielen with a new contract commensurate with his production would blow through their budget.
All that said, in a vacuum, the former undrafted free-agent signee obviously deserves a hefty pay raise. He is arguably the cleanest route runner in football, with an assortment of stutter-step releases and hesitation fakes that keep defenders on their heels. Thielen's slick route-running skills and underrated speed make him a nightmare to defend, particularly when he's given free access at the line. As a versatile playmaker capable of manning three different positions (flanker, split end and slot receiver), he creates mismatches all over the field.
Studying the All-22 Coaches Film from the Vikings' past two seasons, it's easy to see how Thielen's versatility and explosiveness have boosted Minnesota's offense. He routinely thrives as the Vikes' No. 1 option in the passing game, but also posts big numbers as a secondary option when Diggs is featured as the WR1. With Kirk Cousins needing a full complement of weapons to succeed, Thielen's continued presence is necessary for Minnesota to flourish going forward.
Granted, the Vikings have the leverage in this situation, based on the two years remaining on Thielen's current deal, but the team should want to do right by arguably its biggest offensive playmaker.
"What exactly that looks like and when that happens, I can't speak to yet, but I'm cautiously optimistic that everyone will come around and do the right thing," Baratz said, via ESPN. "There's not -- no one's being greedy. Everyone understands the situation and it's really in their court. He has a couple of years left on his deal, but he's earned a significant pay raise. Not to mention what he's done on the field, he might be one of the best people in the entire National Football League and represents the city and the organization and state and, frankly, the entire region unbelievably."
Looking at the Vikings' financial situation, it might be in the team's best interest to hammer out a lucrative extension that rewards Thielen for his performance while also giving the team some salary-cap relief to help Minnesota retain some of its other core players. If No. 19 agrees to a restructured deal that extends the years on his contract while dropping his cap number, it's win-win.
From a numbers standpoint, Thielen's per-year figure should be in the $14-16 million range, based on his production over the past two years and the recent deals inked by the likes of Sammy Watkins (three years, $48 million), Jarvis Landry (five years, $75.5 million) and Allen Robinson (three years, $42 million). Ironically, that would put Thielen in the same area as Diggs, but it's fair market value, given how they both kind of handle WR1 duties in Minnesota. Although that's a lot of money to commit to the wide receiver room -- especially with a handful of free agents at other positions seeking new deals -- the Vikings have to adjust the contract of their top playmaker to continue thriving in the NFC North.
2) Dallas needs to just lock up Lawrence already. I don't know what's taking so long for the Dallas Cowboys to reach an agreement with two-time Pro Bowl defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, but it is time for Jerry Jones to open up the checkbook for the ultra-energetic sack master. After breaking out in 2017 with 14.5 sacks, Lawrence showed the football world that he was worthy of being paid like an elite defender with another fine campaign (64 tackles, 10.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and even a pick) while on the franchise tag.
Now, I certainly understand the dilemma facing Jones when it comes to prioritizing which Cowboys should earn big paydays, with several core players (Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper, Ezekiel Elliott and Byron Jones) due contract extensions in the near future. But signing Lawrence to a long-term deal should be a no-brainer for a team that's quietly becoming a defensive force in the NFC.
The 6-3, 265-pound edge rusher has come into his own as a disruptive playmaker over the past two seasons. Lawrence has routinely whipped offensive tackles with an array of pass-rush moves that combine speed, strength and power with refined technical skills. As an explosive rusher with cat-like quickness, he wins with pure speed off the edge, exhibiting a subtle dip-and-rip maneuver or a one-handed swipe to shake loose from blockers. Lawrence also wrecks pass protection with a series of blue-collar moves that showcase his power and hand-to-hand combat skills. He overwhelms blockers with his physicality and non-stop motor, making him a nightmare to block for four quarters.
Given his consistent performance over the past two seasons, I can't imagine the Cowboys moving on from a young defender playing like a monster in his prime. In fact, I believe you could make the argument that Lawrence deserves to be in the $20 million-per-year range, based on the impending franchise tag ($20.5 million) and the recent contracts of Khalil Mack ($23.5 million per-year average) and Aaron Donald ($22.5 million). Although No. 90 hasn't claimed a Defensive Player of the Year award -- like those two -- he has played like a top-five talent at his position, and the Cowboys' "wait and see" approach has only driven up the price following another spectacular season.
"Certainly a huge priority for us to get him signed. We want to sign him up long-term," executive vice president Stephen Jones said at the Senior Bowl, per the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "I think he's going to play this season at 27 and still be a young player and it's still in front of him in terms of him improving and getting better."
If Dallas' team-building model really revolves around drafting, developing and re-signing core players, we should see a blockbuster deal for Lawrence scroll across the bottom of the TV screen before the March 5 franchise-tag deadline.