Wide receivers -- especially the great ones -- are a stubborn group. Most have an ego that commands attention as often as it does the football. Terrell Owens, Randy Moss, Antonio Brown -- the list goes on. But stubbornness isn't always a defining factor for receivers. It's like what I like to say about mean tweets on Twitter. Not all people with dogs as their picture tweet mean things, but all mean tweets come from people with dogs as their picture. (This is an inexact science, bear with me.)
Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green? He's got a little stubbornness to him. Not in the way of an ego, not by a long shot -- but rather just refusing to let his talent wither away on a disorganized, middling franchise like the one he's played for in Cincinnati since 2016. Green entered the NFL in 2011 and the Bengals flourished with the dynamic receiver from 2011 to 2015. The Bengals went 52-27-1 over that time span and Green caught 415 passes for 6,171 yards and 45 touchdowns over those first five seasons. Green made the Pro Bowl every year and was widely considered a top talent at his position.
But the Bengals went 0-5 in the playoffs, losing the Wild Card round each and every year. And in the three years since, the Bengals have melted away into a shell of that imposing team. Green has fought back -- producing impressive receiving yardage every time he touches the field. But Father Time is now knocking on the door for Green, who is 31 years old and missing the start of the 2019 season with an ankle issue.
What are the Bengals to do? They have a new coaching staff, are in prime position to target a new franchise quarterback and have an aging alpha-receiver who continues to tear up the field -- but only when he's on it. Oh, yeah and A.J. Green will be a free agent at the end of the 2019 season, too.
A tough decision looms for the Bengals.
But the decision is clear -- yes, the Bengals should trade A.J. Green for the right price. An expiring contract with Green's reputation will provide a Super Bowl contender with not just a rental for the second half of the season but also a first impression to look to extend Green in hopes that he'll enjoy winning a playoff game or two and want to stick around in hopes of lifting a Lombardi Trophy. With Green still recovering from surgery this summer, the ideal time to move for Green would be right now -- you can onboard him with the playbook as he continues his rehab and Green would theoretically be mentally ready to roll by the time his leg is back to 100%.
What exactly is "the right price"? Because without getting their money's worth, Cincinnati should keep Green for the end of the season and either attempt to resign him or let him walk and recoup a 2021 compensatory pick for losing him in free agency.
Would the Bengals be assured to get a comp. pick for a departing Green? Oh hell yeah. The biggest contract the Bengals have handed out since 2016 in free agency was a 3-year, $18M contract to TE C.J. Ozumah this past offseason. This team doesn't spend for anything. So assuming Green hits the market, there's a zero percent chance the Bengals won't be in position to recoup on his loss with a pick.
And that fact helps us define exactly what we should be looking to see in an asking price for Green on the trade market. If Cincinnati can sit on their hands and get a comp pick when he leaves, the asking price should sit above the expected eligible pick they'd get in return. This revelation shifts the question from "should the Bengals trade Green?" to "what would Green be worth on the free agent market?" because financials are the barometer to which compensatory picks are calculated.
Are there any contracts that would serve as framework or expectation for a Green contract? Terrell Owens was 31-years old when he was traded from the San Francisco 49ers to the Philadelphia Eagles in 2004 -- and the terms of his deal immediately after that trade were 7-years, $49M. Granted -- the salary cap was $80.6M for the 2004 season, so there's some math required to find an approximate value now that the 2019 NFL salary cap sits just over $188M. Adjusting for inflation, Owens' contract signing with the Eagles as a 31-year old receiver would equate to a mega contract totaling 7-years, $114M. Let's be honest. Green isn't going to see that contract -- not in the way of years or financials.
But the average per-year salary of $16.3M? That's nearly in line with the $16.6M "market value" assigned to A.J. Green by the fine folks over at Spotrac. Spotrac's forecast for a 2020 free agent contract for A.J. Green is 3-years, $50M. Is comparing Green to Terrell Owens even a fair comparison? You tell me, here's their first eight seasons in the NFL side by side:
- Terrell Owens (1996 - 2003): 121 games, 592 receptions, 8,572 yards, 81 TDs
- A.J. Green (2011 - 2018): 111 games, 602 receptions, 8,907 yards, 63 TDs
Looks close enough to me. I'll give those skeptical of the argument this -- Green's leg injury after missing 7 games in 2018 is a looming black cloud that could feasibly detract from his value on the free agent market. But let's assume he doesn't touch $16.6M average salary per year, that's fine.
2019 free agency contracts have been signed, sealed and delivered. And the forecast calls for ten 3rd-round compensatory picks to be awarded to NFL teams for the 2020 NFL Draft. Here are the players signed, the teams they left and the average per year salary of those deals, courtesy of Nick Korte of Over The Cap:
- Philadelphia Eagles - QB Nick Foles ($22M)
- New England Patriots - DE Trey Flowers ($18M)
- Baltimore Ravens - DE Za'Darius Smith ($16.5M)
- New England Patriots - OT Trent Brown ($16.25M)
- Houston Texans - S Tyrann Mathieu ($14M)
- New York Giants - S Landon Collins ($14M)
- Seattle Seahawks - S Earl Thomas ($13.75M)
- Pittsburgh Steelers - RB Le'Veon Bell ($13.125M)
- Miami Dolphins - OT Ja'Wuan James ($12.75M)
- Minnesota Vikings - DL Sheldon Richardson ($11.93M)
Is A.J. Green going to come away with less than $12M average per year on a 3 or 4 year contract in free agency? The Buffalo Bills just gave John Brown a $9M average this offseason on a 4-year contract. The same John Brown who averaged 500 yards and 3.33 touchdown receptions between 2016 and 2018. And as a point of reference, the Ravens are poised to collected a 4th-round compensatory pick this year for letting Brown walk in free agency to sign in Buffalo.
So you want to trade for A.J. Green? Good -- the Bengals would be smart to deal him considering the state of their franchise. But that's going to cost you -- even if you don't re-sign him in free agency.
The bidding starts with a 2020 3rd-round pick -- and not an ounce lower than that. Because if the Bengals were to let Green hit the market, the financial history of similar player contracts and the 2019 free agent market indicate that's what they'd get back to let him walk in March. Teams hoping to entice the Bengals with a 4th-round pick are likely playoff contenders, putting their Day 3 picks at least 25-30 slots in the draft order behind where the Bengals would be awarded a pick in 2021 should Green walk. And if a playoff team is scared of the kickback of flipping a 3rd-round pick for a rental, guess what? If you trade for Green and he walks on you, YOU GET THE COMPENSATORY PICK IN 2021.
So now that we've laid it all on the table, who wants to make a deal?