The NFL’s most elite batch of young receivers were supposed to be vertically stacked, side-by-side, like dominoes. Once one reached terms on a new long-term contract, the others were predicted to fall one by one. In the case of the Dallas Cowboys’ Dez Bryant, his five-year, $70-million contract tipped the Denver Broncos and Demaryius Thomas to agree on a nearly identical deal.
But the Cincinnati Bengals’ A.J. Green and the Atlanta Falcons' Julio Jones are still standing, and both enter the final year of their rookie contracts at the identical rate of $10,176,000.
With roughly two weeks left until the start of training camp, the NFL will now turn its attention to Cincinnati and Atlanta’s front offices to see which side blinks first. At this moment, no deal seems imminent for Green or Jones, but that could change later this year.
A sense of urgency is the key factor missing from Green and Jones’ contract situations. Both Denver and Dallas slapped the franchise tag on Thomas and Bryant and were under a strict July 15 deadline to get a new deal done. Otherwise, per league rules, discussions couldn’t take place until after the season.
Atlanta and Cincinnati could do the same next March, but that leaves the opportunity for bad blood to seep into any negotiations.
ESPN reported earlier this week that Atlanta and Jones, including his agent Jimmy Sexton, have yet to hold any talks over a new contract. And Green actually said he planned to play out the rest of his deal, going so far as to tell ESPN earlier this month: "I don't get into all the 'I need a contract' stuff. I'm not here for money. I'm not broke. So I'm fine. I can wait until the end of the year to get a contract, but I know that time is coming."
Those are strong words from Green, and maybe he believes he still has something to prove after posting the worst statistical season of his young career. Green missed three games with various injuries and wound up with 69 receptions for a career-low 1,041 yards and six touchdowns in 2014.
Like Green, there’s been no indication that Jones is bothered by his current contract status, but piece of mind has to play a role as the Pro Bowlers rev up for the 2015 season.
Former sports agent Joel Corry told The Cincinnati Enquirer that the $45 million and $43.5 million in guarantees that Bryant and Thomas, respectively, received could pose a problem for the Bengals.
"In overall dollars it clarifies the market," Corry said. "It's what I've been saying since day one: The problem is going to be guaranteed money because of the way Cincinnati structures contracts. Something has to give, big time on this one. If every other receiver is going to be over $40 million guaranteed as a comparable player, A.J. Green is not going to accept a contract with $20 million in guarantees."
The Enquirer also pointed out that while the Bengals aren’t famous for loading up contracts with guaranteed money, they do largely keep players for the duration of their deals unlike many teams who release a player if their deal gets to expensive down the line. Cincinnati made waves by signing quarterback Andy Dalton to a six-year, $96 million extension before last season, but only $17 million is guaranteed. Still Dalton’s salary cap hit won’t exceed $18 million throughout the life of the deal and that allows the Bengals cap room to stay competitive in the loaded AFC North.
As for Jones, ESPN also indicated that while talks haven’t begun, there is a “general sense” around the team that Atlanta can get a deal done before training camp begins July 31.
Their careers have been inexplicably linked well before they entered the NFL in 2011. Both were dominate college stars in the SEC, with Jones staying home in Alabama, and Green settling a couple hundred miles west of his home state of South Carolina to play for Georgia.
Each played three years and entered the NFL Draft with high aspirations. They were chosen one pick apart, with Cincinnati taking Green at No. 4 overall, and Atlanta selecting Jones at No. 6.
Since then, Jones and Green have lit up opposing secondarys for eye-popping plays, but one has thus far stood out. Green’s played 11 more games, 60 to Jones’ 49, a fact Green’s agent Ben Dogra will assuredly play up when it comes to guaranteed money.
Green’s also totaled more than 1,000 yards in each of his four seasons, and 35 touchdowns, compared to two 1,000-yard seasons and 26 touchdown grabs from Jones. However, Jones stayed healthy last season and as a result showed he’s capable of putting up 104 receptions for 1,593 yards and six touchdowns.
With their career’s paralleling so much already, it seems likely Jones and Green will stay on the same course when they finally land their next deals.