Rolando McClain's Contract Conundrum

Dallas plucked Rolando McClain off the retirement list to replace Sean Lee. The club has indicated he's in their future plans. What will it take for them to be in his?

There are several factors at play in the soon-to-come negotiations between the Dallas Cowboys and Rolando McClain’s agent. It’s a bit of romantic novella for fans to assume that McClain would offer the team some sort of discount because they are the team that claimed him off the scrap heap after a previous comeback attempt flamed out with the Baltimore Ravens. The club has already indicated they'd like him to be their man-in-the-middle moving forward. The NFL is a cutthroat business when it comes to player contracts and every player should focus on maximizing their value whenever they have the upper hand. The story told by the stats is an interesting one.

Here’s a look at the tackling rates for McLain in 2014, as well as Lee for each of the last two years.

YearPlayerSnapsSoloAssistTotal TklsTklSnaps/Tkl
2014 Rolando McClain474536598.033898305
2 yr Avg Sean Lee52465.510.5766.894736842
       
2013 Sean Lee7178612987.316326531
2012 Sean Lee331459546.12962963

While McClain has filled in admirably for Lee, has he really replaced him in full? Tackle rate say no, he hasn’t. For 2014, McClain is averaging a tackle every 8.03 snaps. That’s not even the highest amongst the team’s linebackers for the season. In fact, it’s only third behind Justin Durant’s 6.6 and rookie Anthony Hitchens’ 7.2. By comparison, Sean Lee achieves a much higher rate of tackling when he’s on the field, besting McClain in his average over the last two seasons, and each year individually as well.

However, the trend seemingly evens out when looking at high impact plays. Very crudely, we’ll categorize an impact tackle as a “stop” or a sack. Half sacks will be counted as whole sacks, while a stop is classified as keeping the opponent under 40% yards to go on first down, 60% on second down, and 100% on third or fourth down. All data is compiled by Pro Football Focus and will likely not match team tallies.

YearPlayerSnapsSacksStopsImpact TklsSnaps/ IT
2014 Rolando McClain4741353613.16666667
2 yr Avg Sean Lee524033.533.515.64179104
       
2013 Sean Lee7170424217.07142857
2012 Sean Lee3310252513.24

While it’s clear that Lee was on his way to a phenomenal season in 2012, his 2013 is far below McClain’s Impact Tackle rate, and the average is a wide gap of 2.5 snaps. McClain also enjoys the advantage when it comes to turnovers; which have become Lee’s calling card while with Dallas.

YearPlayerSnapsFFINTForced TOsSnaps/FTO
2014 Rolando McClain474123158
2 yr Avg Sean Lee52402.52.5209.6
       
2013 Sean Lee717044179.25
2012 Sean Lee331011331

There’s really no room for fairy tale romances between a team and a player, and McClain has a story his representation should have much more interest telling.

Pretend you work as a temporary employee. You’ve been out of work for a while, but were sitting on enough savings that you were comfortable going back to school and taking time to figure out your next move. A friend of a friend contacts you and says, “Hey… I have a temporary assignment I think you’d be good at. It’s exactly what you used to do at your old job before you quit. They had a guy, but he is going to be out on extended sick leave for a few months. You’d be working for me, and you know me and your mentor from back in the day are good friends and of like minds. You won’t be making what you used to, or at the level of the guy you’ll be filling in for, but it will be sufficient. What else do you have to do?”

Pretend you said yes to that opportunity. Not only did you say yes, but after fumbling your way back into your profession for the first few weeks, you really hit your stride. But you didn’t just hit your stride, you were one of the best worker bees in your company. Others in the company started looking up to you, and followed your work ethic and enthusiasm to a surprising level of competency. You were seen as one of the best in the industry, not just at your company.

Now the new employer wants you to stay on with them at the end of your assignment; even though the guy you filled in for soon will be able to resume his duties. They have flat-out stated that they’d rather you keep the job and they’ll reassign him within the division.

You’re very appreciative of the company you work for, but they aren’t the only gig in town. Other companies have noticed your return to the industry and want you to come and ply your trade for them. Your temporary assignment restricts these other companies from pursuing you until a certain amount of time has passed, but you are free to talk to your current employer about moving forward with the relationship.

So, Rolando McClain… how much is it going to take for you to stay in Dallas? The easy answer for him? “At least as much as you’ve been paying the guy I replaced, Sean Lee.”

THE NUMBERS

The Dallas Cowboys have already set the market for what they believe an upper-tier middle linebacker should be paid when they inked Sean Lee to a six-year, $42 million extension prior to the 2013 season. Lee was heading into the final season of his rookie deal signed in 2010. Dallas kept his base salary at the league minimum, $630,000, and gave him a $10 million signing bonus. It also guaranteed his base salary for 2014 of $5.5 million, bringing the total guaranteed amount to $16,130,000. His average annual salary was a neat $7 million per season.

Sean Lee’s annual contract breakdown, courtesy of OverTheCap.com

Near the end of the previous season, San Francisco had locked up their “second” star middle linebacker, Navarro Bowman, to a hefty deal as well. Bowman was part of McClain and Lee’s draft class of 2010, but had thrived with the 49ers without going through Lee’s injury issues (until this year). His deal was one year shorter, only five seasons (through 2018) but for more overall money. Bowman’s extension was for a total of $45 million, an average of $9 million per season but with only $11 million guaranteed.

To make up the difference, and to protect themselves from Lee’s storied injury history, Dallas included playing time incentives. If Lee had played in 80 percent of the team’s defensive snaps during 2013 and 2014, his 2015 base salary would have jumped another $1.5 million. If he plays 80% of the team’s snaps in 2015, his 2016 salary jumps $2 million. Same goes for the next two seasons. If he hits the marker in 2018, 2019’s base salary jumps $1.5 million. In total, Lee could have reached $51 million over the life of his contract. An interesting point though is that after the one for 2015 (which he will not earn) none of the escalators are guaranteed money. Lee also is penalized $500,000 per season for missing workouts; though at this time we cannot confirm the exact percentage.

Dallas basically told Lee, “we think you are one of the best in the league when you play, but we don’t have faith you’ll be able to play consistently.” Without the playing time escalators, Lee’s contract is only the 12th highest in the league for inside linebackers. If he had hit every incentive, it would have moved him up the 6th.

Lee is basically a lock in Dallas for the next two seasons, 2015-16. The dead money associated with his prorated bonuses along with his extremely high ceiling warrant that. However, the team could easily walk away from him going into the 2017 season. There would be just under $4 million remaining and the team could divide that (~$3m in 2017, ~$1m the following year) to lessen the hit. They would save $7 million off of each year’s cap hit at that point.

So, that’s the argument that McClain is likely to make. The Cowboys concern over Lee is that he isn’t really built for the wear and tear of the NFL. Injuries to various body parts prove that. The concern over McClain is that regardless of what he says or does, he has a history of walking out on the game of football. It’s really hard to guarantee a guy money and know the fight that will have to ensue should you want to recoup cash and/or space. The team has pursued it in Jay Ratliff’s case, but relented to Kyle Orton’s “retirement” façade. Those things will, and should, shape the way they negotiate with McClain.

In what way can Dallas argue these points from McClain’s point of view? Their salary cap guys are probably spending plenty of time figuring out how though, all while juggling Dez Bryant and DeMarco Murray contract proposals. Each game the team’s three leading stars play like they did against the Giants… things get more and more difficult for the club.

Dallas will have to figure out a way to construct a deal for McClain that rivals Lee’s, in at least its annual value. Here’s one of several ways that could be done.

Contract Length: 5 years
Signing Bonus: $8 million
Base Salaries: $750,000 (2015) | $6 m (’16) | $6.25m (’17) | $7m (’18) | $7m (’19)
Guaranteed Money: $11 million (SB, ’15 base salary and $2.25m of ’16 base salary)
Average Value: $7 million
Total Value: $35 million

A contract structure similar to this will accomplish the following. McClain will receive the same amount of guaranteed money as Navarro Bowman received in 2013; that should be looked at as a fair number by his camp considering his admitted risk with the team building in inflation and booming salary cap numbers. Remember, when the Lee and Bowman deals were signed, the league was still pedaling the idea that the salary cap would only be increasing incrementally. The average annual salary will also appease McClain’s camp that he is paid what Dallas sees as the going rate for high quality linebacker play.

On the flip side, Dallas can retain McClain for a 2014 cap hit of just $2,350,000 ($8m prorated over 5 years = $1.6 million each year, plus base salary of league minimum $750k).

The Cowboys will also be able to choose between McClain and Lee prior to the 2017 season with reasonable escape clauses from each deal. By that time, Anthony Hitchens will be a three-year vet land the club may be able to wave goodbye to both players if he continues to improve on his stellar rookie campaign. McClain would have more “dead money” left than Lee, $4.8 million to $3.9 million, but would actually have less dead money than Lee on the 2017 books if either was done as a June 1st divide.

Dallas would then enter 2015 with, if healthy, one of the fastest, smartest 43 linebacking corps the league has seen in some time; and that’s without consideration of bringing back either Durant or Bruce Carter as key backups.


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