By Wednesday’s deadline for franchise-tagged players to reach long-term contracts, three NFL superstars were happy. Three teams were also relieved that the drama and threats of holdouts were history, as Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant, Denver Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas and Kansas City Chiefs outside linebacker Justin Houston each landed megadeals that put them among the league’s highest-paid non-quarterbacks.
The jaw-dropping numbers rolled in steadily with Houston’s deal finalized around lunchtime. Bryant’s contract was signed with about an hour to spare, and Thomas got done just before the 4 p.m. ET deadline.
But it wasn’t just a big day for that trio and the New England Patriots’ Stephen Gostkowski, who, according to ESPN, signed a four-year contract that made him the league’s richest kicker.
There were also other winners.
The Thomas and Bryant deals — identical at five-years and $70 million each (Bryant’s $45 million in guarantees bested Thomas’ $43.5 million) — have set the bar for the next elite wide receivers on the cusp of major paydays. While neither Thomas nor Bryant wound up as the NFL’s highest-paid receiver — that title still belongs to the Detroit Lions’ Calvin Johnson — there is now a clear market for the Cincinnati Bengals’ A.J. Green and Atlanta Falcons’ Julio Jones. Both are heading into the final year of their rookie contracts and could command even more than Bryant and Thomas.
Houston’s monster contract (worth $101 million over six years) makes him the NFL’s second-highest paid defensive player, behind only Miami Dolphins defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and surpasses the $100 million deal Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt signed last year.
So who might have been the next-happiest person about Houston’s deal? Maybe Denver pass rusher Von Miller, who has a half-sack more (49 to 48½) than Houston since both players entered the NFL in 2011. Miller will play 2016 on the fifth year of his rookie contract. Though he may receive the franchise tag next March, he could command around $100 million as well.
“We’ll have a plan for Von next year,” Broncos general manager John Elway said. “It’s impossible to hold on to everyone in the salary cap era, but we’ll do our best to keep them all.”
San Francisco 49ers pass rusher Aldon Smith, also a top-10 pick in the 2011 draft, could also hit free agency in 2016, though his off-field troubles might hurt his earning power.
New York Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, the only franchised player in 2015 who didn’t get a lengthy contract, is in a similar financial boat. He lost his chance at security after a July 4 mishap with fireworks led to the amputation of a finger and further damage to his hands. If he can maintain his status as an elite pass rusher after rehabbing the injury, he may yet cash in next year after playing under a $14.81 million tag in 2015.
But those are issues for next year, when the salary cap (currently at $143.28 million) could spike thanks to new television deals. So however lucrative the deals signed Wednesday look right now, they might seem like bargains in a year.
But for now, 2015’s franchise players, aside from Pierre-Paul, and their teams are feeling like winners.
The Chiefs locked up the NFL’s reigning sack king. With 22 last season, Houston was just a half-sack shy of tying Michael Strahan’s single-season record. After skipping offseason workouts for the second consecutive year during the contract dispute, the Chiefs will get a happy Houston at training camp — and a motivated one.
“Once you get paid, it’s not like you won the lottery,” Houston said. “You still have a lot of work to do. You still have to prove yourself. You can still get better each and every day, so that is my goal.”
Bryant’s negotiations had the most drama given his threats to skip training camp and even regular-season games minus a new arrangement. But Cowboys owner Jerry Jones flew to New York on Tuesday for a face-to-face meeting with Bryant’s negotiating team. By about 3 p.m. ET, the all-pro wideout was inside the Cowboys’ training facility in Irving, Texas, to sign the deal that gave him the protection he had been seeking.
“There was never a doubt in my mind that we wanted a long-term deal with Dez,” Jones said on a conference call. “We just had to get the pot right.”
Bryant’s pact helped the Broncos finalize their contract with Thomas, given the duo of comparable players had been looking to set the market at their position. Talks between Elway and Thomas’ agent stalled after a June 1 meeting in which both sides exchanged proposals and didn’t restart until Wednesday morning, at which point each camp made compromises in terms of total years and guarantees.
Though Thomas’ guarantees were slightly lower than Bryant’s, Thomas does net $35 million fully guaranteed over the next two years.
“We had our numbers set up, and we figured out what we believed was the correct value for the Broncos as well as Demaryius, it just took a while to get to that point. I think that any time you have two special football players at the same position that are going into a franchise year, there is always caution that no one jumps the gun,” Elway said.
“I think that’s why it went as long as it went, to be able to make sure that everybody — especially on the agent’s side — that they were where they needed to be.”