Oct 1, 2012; Arlington, TX, USA; Chicago Bears defensive end Julius Peppers (90) in action against Dallas Cowboys tackle Tyron Smith (77) at Cowboys Stadium. The Bears beat the Cowboys 34-18. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
What should a new Tyron Smith contract look like? As the Cowboys left tackle enters the final year of his rookie deal, the impending cost to keep him almost certainly influenced some of the team’s roster decisions this offseason. The club can exercise a one-year option for 2015, but the challenge of extending a franchise cornerstone beyond that without blowing up future caps will test the team’s nascent commitment to fiscal prudence.
The man known as Tyron Island, for his consistent ability to shut down elite rushers without any help from backs or tight ends, enjoyed his finest season as a pro in 2013. Smith earned his first Pro Bowl berth and was named a second-team All Pro behind two of the league’s established stars, Cleveland’s Joe Thomas and Philadelphia’s Jason Peters. Thomas is at or near his prime at age 29 and Peters is entering the back nine of his career at 32. Smith, at just 23, still possesses tremendous upside.
Smith’s 2014 cap number of $3.97 million is a bargain, ranked 19th in the league among left tackles, according to sportrac.com. Brandon George over at the Dallas Morning News reported recently the team is sure to exercise the club option for 2015. The deadline to do so is May 3 and it will guarantee Smith $10.039 million in 2015.
Even that may be a bargain. Smith’s combination of elite play and uncommon youth make him something of an outlier, so determining his market value will make contract negotiations tricky. Head Coach Jason Garrett said recently the team will base roster decisions and contract negotiations on projected future performance:
"“You don’t want to build your team with guys based on what they’ve done in the past. It’s based on what they can do now for your team, and what they can do going forward for your team.”"
At the time, Garrett’s revelation was widely interpreted as a justification for the release of Cowboys icon DeMarcus Ware. But this philosophy applies not just to who gets cut, but who gets extended as well. It makes placing a market value on Smith a bit scary – he’s already so good at 23, how much better can he get going forward, and how best to identify the price tag for that potential? A good place to start is by examining existing contracts. Here’s a look at some of the top left tackle contracts in the last few years, along with the age of the player when he signed and his NFL accolades up to that point:
[table id=5 /]
Half those contracts extend the player until age 34. We can’t be sure if that’s a coincidence or if 34 is a “magic number” in the eyes of most NFL GMs for projecting productivity along the offensive line. Either way, given his age and talent, a 10-year contract for Smith isn’t out of the question, depending on how creative the Cowboys brass wants to get.
And it might be a good investment. Left tackles represent one of the pricier NFL positions, and player salaries should increase as team cap limits are expected to continue to rise. Top left tackles today tend to average about $10 million a year, with anywhere from 15 to 35 percent of it guaranteed. Odds are, that’s only going up.
A recent data study at footballperspective.com looked at how age affects production at the tackle position in the NFL. The data suggests tackles tend to peak at age 28, but above average players will retain much of their productivity through age 34.
If those numbers are right, then Smith is still 4 to 5 years away from his prime. That means a more conventional contract term could force the Cowboys to negotiate a third deal while Smith is playing the best football of his life, possibly exposing the team to overpaying for a player whose production is likely to deteriorate. Sound familiar? A 10-year extension next offseason would lock him up through 2024, all through his prime, as well as most of his productive post-prime years. Perhaps an average salary of $10 million per year, today’s going rate for elite left tackles, would appeal to Smith and his agent if a larger than normal portion of it was guaranteed. Hard to say.
Fiscal prudence in the NFL requires creativity, a keen eye for the long view, and no small amount of ruthlessness. Smith’s youth and talent will give him plenty of leverage at the negotiation table. So will the strategic importance of the position he plays. Should be interesting to see how the matter is handled by a Cowboys front office outwardly professing an organizational commitment to smart, responsible cap management. We’ve seen the team refuse an expensive extension for defensive tackle Jason Hatcher, an aging, home-grown player coming off a career year. Now let’s see how they handle one of their own whose best days are still ahead of him.