About a week ago, Jason Garrison made a compelling argument on Cincy Jungle as to why the Cincinnati Bengals might not want to sign star receiver A.J. Green to a new contract. Garrison didn't necessarily give his own definitive opinion either way, but rather raised the question for discussion. He did a lot of research in contract extensions and the like, painting an interesting picture the day before the Bengals signed Green to the long-term deal.
Before we get to the nuts and bolts, as well as the counter argument, I have to give a tip of the cap to an old CJ friend. Garrison, along with Josh Kirkendall, both have showed me the ropes here since my on-boarding in the summer of 2011 and I'm always grateful for that. I've always respected Garrison's works and prior to last week, his last post at CJ was about a year ago. I'm hopeful that his recent post is a sign of more to come in the near future.
Last Friday, Green inked a four-year extension for $60 million. He was already signed for 2015 at just over $10 million, so the entire deal was for five years and $70 million. The deal pays Green in the range of similar star wide receiver deals given to Julio Jones, Demaryius Thomas and Dez Bryant.
When we posted the news on the new contract, fans were excited to keep a star player around, but some were also leery about paying so much money to a wide receiver. Further criticism arose when Green dropped a sure touchdown against the Raiders--his first game taking the field as a mega-millionaire. The (non) play deserves fan ire, but signing the perennial Pro Bowler makes sense for a variety of reasons.
The Salary Cap Handcuff Myth:
One of the biggest arguments against signing Green long-term is the the amount of money which is now allocated to one player at a position some deem non-premium. Before the new deal, Green's cap hit in 2015 with the exercising of the fifth-year extension on his rookie contract had a hit a little over $10 million. His extension restructured the cap hit for this year to be $15 million. The reason the team rolled over money the past two years was to have enough in their pocket to work these types of needed deals without being up against the cap annually.
If the Bengals couldn't get a long-term deal done with Green this or next offseason, it was almost a certainty they would franchise tag him for 2016. The 2015 cap figure for the position when franchise tagged was $12.8 million and would likely rise a little bit in 2016. With the extension, the Bengals used front office savviness to have next year's cap hit at $13 million.
Even though it's a solid structuring, it's still a big chunk out of the team's 2016 salary cap, right? As of Wednesday morning, the Cincinnati Bengals have just north of $13 million of cap space in 2015. They would have been up against the $143 million cap had they not rolled over almost $9 million of space from previous years. The looming big issue is the amount of coveted free agents the team has going into next year.
Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu, George Iloka, Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith all headline the crop set to hit the open market. Pro Football Talk has reported the cap could hit up to $160 million in 2016. While Mike Florio's information was made public in 2014, it was still accurate as it predicted the 2015 cap would be around $145 million (actual was $143 million).
While Green's deal might take them out of mega-deals for open market players, the team still should be fine when re-signing their own, which has been their offseason strategy lately anyway. The worry might be around the high-priced tackles, but the team also drafted two in the first two rounds in 2015 as a windfall.
If there is one thing this front office pays attention to, it's money. They have long been criticized for not spending enough money and having a plethora of cap space while not making strides in the postseason. While the sentiment has both truth and myth, the Brown family knows how to work the books effectively and not put the team's future in jeopardy because of money issues. Such is the case going forward with the Green deal.
A Keeping of the Core Guys Long-Term:
The Bengals have made a habit of signing their best players to long-term deals shortly before the season starts. Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap, Andy Dalton, Vontaze Burfict and now Green are all locked up for the foreseeable future. Add in Michael Johnson's free agent deal this spring and most of the major contributors at critical positions are with the team.
George Iloka, Kevin Zeitler, Dre Kirkpatrick and the aforementioned tackles are guys who are question marks over the next two seasons, but the strategy in the draft keeps providing safety nets if, for some reason, these guys aren't kept in free agency. The team has exercised the fifth-year options with Kirkpatrick and Zeitler which keeps them in Cincinnati through 2016, but recent high picks in Darqueze Dennard and Jake Fisher provide emergency help if deals can't be struck until then.
Having Green, perhaps their most high-profile player, sign a long-term deal props the championship window open a little longer with so many other talented players in the fold. Teams have to keep their best players as long as they're able and Green is definitely one.
A Star Who Wants to Stay in Cincy and Acknowledges his Responsibility:
Of course, anyone who gets $60 million coming their way would be ecstatic about the future. Still, Green's statement of being "just so happy right now" seems to go just beyond the money. Statistically speaking, he's had one of the best runs to the beginning of his career in NFL history for players at his position. And, given the criticism thrown at his quarterback, Green seems to really enjoy playing with Andy Dalton.
Green also knows the increased responsibility and accountability that comes with signing a huge deal. In response to the ugly drop he had on Sunday in the Bengals' first game of the 2015 season, he was terse, but the message was clear:
"I can't be dropping touchdowns," the star receiver said... "Drops happen, but I've got to do my best not to let that happen," Green said. "I've just got to keep playing and that's what I did. I had some catches after that. I played well after that."
To the earlier point, how many star players left Cincinnati for what they felt were greener pastures? Perhaps Green's contract truly points to a change in culture in Cincinnati, along with Johnson's return in free agency a few months back.
Grabbing Opposing Defenses' Attention and Assisting the Quarterback:
Most people want to focus on the drop in Oakland and how Tyler Eifert made so many plays to pick up the slack in the passing game. However, the threat of Green taking the top of the defense and his ability to make nearly every kind of catch keeps defenses honest. While credit should be given to Eifert for his route-running and hands, Green's mere presence opens things up for others.
You can see the difference in the offense with all of the weapons at Dalton's disposal. In 2014, Cincinnati's receiving corps was depleted and Hue Jackson was forced to become vanilla at times. Green's absence was perhaps the biggest void, both in his own production and the grabbing of the opposing defense's attention.
Even though Dalton has four playoff appearances and played well on Sunday against the Raiders, he needs his weapons. It's why the team has loaded up on running backs with different strengths and, when everyone is healthy, there are a plethora of viable receiving options to prop him up. While Dalton has thrown a high number of interceptions when looking Green's way as Garrison noted, he's a major key to what they do on offense.