Projecting Travis Benjamin’s Contract With the Falcons

Ken Blaze-USA TODAY SportsTravis Benjamin specialized as a vertical threat in Cleveland

Let’s continue this series by looking at what the Atlanta Falcons might pay to add Cleveland Browns wide receiver Travis Benjamin in free agency.

In case you missed it, this series began with Benjamin’s teammate in center Alex Mack and continued with Denver Broncos linebacker Danny Trevathan.

There have already been reports that the Falcons are likely to pursue Benjamin this offseason, as he represents one of the few big names among a thin wide receiver market. He joins a pair of Cincinnati Bengals receivers in Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu as the two most prominent impending free agents.

There’s an obvious connection for why the Falcons might have Benjamin atop their free-agent wide receiver wish list, and it’s his previous experience working with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan while both were in Cleveland in 2014.

Benjamin experienced a breakout 2015 campaign, his first as a starter where he caught 68 passes for 966 yards and five touchdowns, making him the most productive wide receiver on the Browns roster this past season. However Benjamin had somewhat emerged as a regular playmaker prior to this year, particularly in 2014 where he had 18 catches for 314 yards and three touchdowns. While on the surface those 2014 production totals look low, it’s noteworthy to include that Benjamin was a regular playmaker for the Browns, with nearly half (eight) of his receptions going for 20 or more yards.

However in trying to predict Benjamin’s contract, I had a bit more difficulty than I did with those of Mack and Trevathan. Those players are clearly in the running to have deals that approach the highest paid players at their respective positions, making it easier to project a baseline for what they could make. That won’t be quite the case for Benjamin.

There were five contracts I looked at that were signed within the past two years that I used to compare what Benjamin’s impending market value might be: Michael Crabtree (Oakland Raiders), DeSean Jackson (Washington Redskins), Eric Decker (New York Jets), Emmanuel Sanders (Denver Broncos) and Golden Tate (Detroit Lions).

All are notable because they represent what I feel is the market for what a No. 2 wide receiver might make on the market. Despite the fact that Benjamin was the Browns’ leading wideout, it’s doubtful that any other NFL team will deem him a No. 1 option and pay him accordingly. But the aforementioned deals do somewhat represent what could be the premium for what a secondary receiver option might make on the open market.

Crabtree signed a four-year extension this past December worth $34 million, which is a hefty price when one considers he’ll likely be the No. 2 receiver opposite Amari Cooper moving forward. Although Crabtree led the Raiders in targets, receptions and touchdowns in 2015, Cooper was right behind him. Considering Cooper was a rookie, there should be every expectation that moving forward, he’ll be able to slide past Crabtree as the go-to option for the Raiders in the years to come.

Jackson is probably the No. 1 receiver for the Redskins, but considering that in 2012 the team had already paid Pierre Garcon a $42.5 million contract, when the team signed him, he was technically being paid as a No. 2 guy. Especially when you consider that just two years prior to landing in Washington, Jackson signed a $48.5 million contract with his former team in the Philadelphia Eagles.

Decker was signed by the Jets to be their No. 1 receiver, but was widely deemed to be the second option in Denver. His status atop the Jets depth chart only lasted a year before the team brought in Brandon Marshall, who eclipsed his production in 2015. Decker represents the cost of what a player that was widely considered the No. 2 in his previous stop could make on the open market with a new team.

Sanders replaced Decker essentially as the No. 2 receiver and arguably signed for an “under-market” deal with Denver in 2014. But his contract is still a good way of contrasting the lower end of what Benjamin might make on the open market.

Steve Flynn-USA TODAY Sports

Golden Tate’s contract with the Detroit Lions could be a benchmark for Benjamin

Tate was clearly expected to be the No. 2 option when he signed to a Lions team that already had Calvin Johnson. Similarly to Benjamin, Tate had led his team (Seattle) the previous year at the wide receiver position in targets, receptions, yards and touchdowns.

All that being said, I would expect that Benjamin strives to land a contract in Atlanta comparable to what Tate signed in Detroit two years ago. The other team rumored to be in heavy pursuit of Benjamin is San Diego, who also have Keenan Allen as their primary weapon at wide receiver.

It’s also worth noting that there were previous reports in February that the Browns and Benjamin were close to agreeing on a new contract, but within 24 hours follow-up reports indicated that talks had broken down. Typically talks break down when team and player are very far apart on what they feel the latter’s value is. But I’ll try not to read too much into that for this exercise, but it’s worth mentioning for the time being.

So enough prefacing, let’s get into the nitty-gritty. As usual, I primarily used Over the Cap for contract information with a bit of help from SpoTrac.

Comparing the Top Contracts of Free-Agent Wide Receivers

As I’ve done in the past, I wanted to examine three different ways of looking at the five aforementioned player contracts. The first is the annual per-year average over the life of the entire contract.

Annual Per-Year Average

  1. Michael Crabtree – $8.5 million
  2. DeSean Jackson – $8 million
  3. Eric Decker – $7.25 million
  4. Golden Tate – $6.2 million
  5. Emmanuel Sanders – $5 million

Crabtree’s contract is arguably the upper limit of what a No. 2 receiver can expect to make on the open market. I suspect Benjamin’s deal will fall into a range somewhere between Tate and Jackson.

The next way of examining the contracts is to take a look at guaranteed money. And as mentioned when breaking down Trevathan’s deal, guaranteed money is tricky because it can be “misreported.” In this case, I’m going to be including all the guaranteed base salaries and any bonuses included in the deal as guaranteed money. Even though in reality, much of those guarantees aren’t really guaranteed at all.

Guaranteed Money

  1. DeSean Jackson – $20.25 million
  2. Michael Crabtree – $19.5 million
  3. Eric Decker – $15 million
  4. Golden Tate – $13.25 million
  5. Emmanuel Sanders – $6 million

Again the likely range for Benjamin is probably going to be something north of Tate’s deal, but probably come in under $20 million.

Now let’s look at the total money due in the first three years of each contract.

Three-Year Payout

  1. Michael Crabtree – $24.25 million
  2. DeSean Jackson – $24 million
  3. Eric Decker – $21.5 million
  4. Golden Tate – $18 million
  5. Emmanuel Sanders – $15 million

Crabtree once again represents the upper limit of what a quality No. 2 receiver can receive. Again, Benjamin should hit Tate’s number, but how much higher he goes than that remains to be seen.

Breaking Down Benjamin’s Possible Contract

Projected terms: 5 years, $37.5 million with $21 million guaranteed

How did I come up with these terms? Well, I used Tate’s deal as the basis of the contract. But when Tate signed his contract in 2014, the salary cap was $133 million. Now it’ll be $155.27 million in 2016, which is an increase of about 16.7 percent. If you take Tate’s $6.2 million annual average and increase it by the same rate, you’d reach $7.25 million per year. And so I threw in a little bit extra to make Benjamin’s hypothetical contract average $7.5 million per year.

That guaranteed figure looks excessive at first glance, but again I want to emphasize that I’m using a very loose definition of what constitutes guaranteed money. In the way I’ve structured this hypothetical contract, Benjamin gets $6.5 million guaranteed at signing in the form of a $5 million signing bonus and a $1.5 million fully guaranteed base salary due in 2016. It’s worth noting that Crabtree’s deal included $5.5 million guaranteed at signing.

Then the contract has a two-tiered option bonus, meaning that Benjamin will receive a separate bonus at the start of 2017. In this projected contract, that bonus will be $3 million and be spread over the remaining four years of his deal. Upon payment of that bonus, Benjamin’s 2017 base salary ($3.5 million) and a significant portion of his 2018 base salary ($4.5 million) become guaranteed. That constitutes an additional $11 million in guaranteed money, which is very likely to be earned.

The additional guarantees come in the form of the per-game roster bonuses paid out every year in the contract which total $3.5 million. Even though in reality the chances that Benjamin earns all of them are small.

In this contract, Benjamin’s three-year payout equals $20.5 million. Here’s how things break down year-by-year:

2016

Base salary: $1.5 million (fully guaranteed at signing)
Prorated signing bonus: $1 million
Per-game active roster bonus: $31,250 (for annual total of $500,000)
Cap hit: $3 million

2017

Base salary: $3.5 million (guaranteed upon payment of option bonus)
Prorated signing bonus: $1 million
Prorated option bonus: $750,000
Per-game active roster bonus: $46,875 (for annual total of $750,000)
Cap Hit: $6 million

2018

Base salary: $5.5 million ($4.5 million is guaranteed upon payment of 2017 option bonus)
Prorated signing bonus: $1 million
Prorated option bonus: $750,000
Per-game active roster bonus: $46,875 (for annual total of $750,000)
Cap Hit: $8 million

2019

Base salary: $7.5 million
Prorated signing bonus: $1 million
Prorated option bonus: $750,000
Per-game active roster bonus: $46,875 (for annual total of $750,000)
Cap Hit: $10 million

2020

Base salary: $8 million
Prorated signing bonus: $1 million
Prorated option bonus: $750,000
Per-game active roster bonus: $46,875 (for annual total of $750,000)
Cap Hit: $10.5 million

Like the majority of free-agent contracts, this is essentially a three-year deal. While the Falcons could dump Benjamin presumably after the second season if they’re prepared to eat the remaining guaranteed money in his 2018 base salary, it’s likely that his cap hit that season won’t be too prohibitive when you could potentially project the league’s cap to be around $180 million by then.

At the end of 2018, Benjamin will be 29 years old and due to have his contract reworked or torn up (via being cut). By then the Falcons should have figured out a potential Plan B.

How Benjamin Figures Into the Falcons Future

Benjamin’s role in Atlanta will be to help take the top of the defense and add a much-needed explosive element to the offense. Benjamin will be put in a lot of one-on-one situations with Julio Jones lined up across from him, able to effectively utilize his speed to beat slower CBs.

He also can take shorter routes and turn them into big plays, with Shanahan doing a fine job designing drag and slants routes to make use of Benjamin’s speed over the middle against overmatched safeties and linebackers.

He also utilized him very effectively on go routes, deep posts and deep outs, routes that were sorely missing from the Falcons offense last year unless Jones was running them. Benjamin was also utilized on end-arounds and reverses as well to take advantage of his speed and ability to make plays with the ball in his hands.

from NFL Game Pass

Bottom: Benjamin blows past Bengals Reggie Nelson for what should’ve been a TD, but pass is underthrown by Brian Hoyer and broken up.

 

from NFL Game Pass

Bottom: Benjamin runs a deep out against the Titans in 2014. Take note of his speed forcing the DB to bail, allowing Benjamin to make his break and create easy separation for a 21-yard completion.

That applies to his skills as a returner, where his speed and ability to get to the outside makes him dangerous and able to generate big plays there, which the Falcons will need if they dump Devin Hester this offseason.

He’ll specialize in explosiveness. In the event of an injury to Jones, he won’t be the ideal type that to replace him in the starting lineup as a high-volume target that will move the chains. Those duties will likely fall on Justin Hardy and the Falcons tight end. But Benjamin gives the team another vertical threat that can open things up underneath because opposing secondaries and defenses have to respect his deep speed every snap.

Benjamin’s hypothetical contract is structured so the Falcons could expect to get three years with Benjamin as their No. 2 which will give them opportunity to continue developing Justin Hardy and any other young WRs they might add this year or in future drafts. 2018 marks the final year of Hardy’s current contract and likely the last year in which Benjamin’s cap hit doesn’t become excessively prohibitive. By then the Falcons could be poised to give Hardy a new long-term deal, which could prompt them to release Benjamin in the 2019 offseason.

In the End, Will the Falcons Pursue Benjamin?

It makes sense for the Falcons to make a strong play for Benjamin given his experience workign with Shanahan coupled with the ability to add an explosive element both on offense and special teams. Benjamin represents the type of secondary target that the Falcons have not really had before in recent history, which is a No. 2 receiver that forces opposing teams to respect his play-making ability.

One could point to the heyday of Jones and Roddy White from 2011-12 as a time in which the Falcons had that dynamic, but even then the offense was geared primarily towards ball control and the short/intermediate passing game, which the occasional, measured deep shot. Benjamin and Jones’ ability in conjunction with a strong running game to open up play-action could be exactly what this offense needs to take that next step under Shanahan.

As far as price goes, I don’t believe he’ll come cheap. Ideally, the Falcons will be able to lure him to Atlanta on a contract that is more similar to Emmanuel Sanders, but ultimately I think the weakness of the overall WR class this year in free agency will help drive up Benjamin’s price. But I doubt the Falcons are forced to pay the premium quite to the level that he’ll cost as much or more as Crabtree. So I do feel like the odds are very good that he does not wind up pricing himself out of where the Falcons want him.

About the Author

Aaron Freeman
Founder of FalcFans.com

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