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Michael Thomas: To pay or not to pay?

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That is the question when it comes to the Saints’ prolific wide receiver Michael Thomas.

Pittsburgh Steelers v New Orleans Saints Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

When it comes to getting paid in the NFL, the quarterback position has long been king. A player’s value to their franchise can most easily be quantified by the contract they earn following the completion of their rookie contract. Of the 23 highest paid players in the NFL, all but six are quarterbacks.

Most would expect quarterbacks to be the highest paid, but what positions are these other six players whom their teams are still paying north of $19 million per year? Four of these superstars are pass rushers and include Von Miller, DeMarcus Lawrence, Melvin Ingram, and Chandler Jones. The other two are wide receivers including Mike Evans and Sammy Watkins.

17 of the top 50 highest paid players are quarterbacks. 11 are pass rushers. Seven are left tackles. Six are wide receivers. Five are defensive backs. The JaguarsAndrew Norwell is the only guard to crack the Top 50 while the PanthersLuke Kuechly is the only inside linebacker to do the same.

By looking at these raw figures, we can assume a few truths about how players are currently valued in today’s NFL. Regardless of their salary, quarterbacks are the most valuable player on any team for many reasons, but maybe most because they touch the ball almost every offensive snap. That’s why the league has passed several rules over the years affording quarterbacks more built in protections than any other position on the field.

Naturally, the next highest paid players are those whose jobs consist of harassing and disrupting these signal callers. Therefore, it makes perfect sense that the next highest paid players are those tasked with protecting quarterbacks from said pass rushers.

The next position group that stands out in the Top 50 is wide receiver. Defensive backs who must cover these explosive play makers are the next position group on the pay scale totem pole. We can then infer that the most valuable positions in football currently are quarterback, followed by pass rusher, followed by left tackle, followed by wide receiver, and finally defensive back.

The Saints have two players in the Top 50: quarterback Drew Brees and left tackle Terron Armstead. Their premier pass rusher, Cam Jordan, would be in there too if he hadn’t signed a fairly team-friendly extension that ranks him as the 66th highest paid in the league and 10th highest paid defensive end.

Brees, Armstead, and Jordan easily comprise three of the Saints’ most valuable and important players. Because Brees and Jordan have been so reliable, their contributions on the field sometimes allow us to forget the weight of their impact. But because Armstead has dealt with injury issues, his production has been more easily quantifiable. The offense performs better in all facets when he is on the field rather than off it.

This aspect of reliability must be factored in when looking at possible extension terms for wide receiver Michael Thomas. Excluding Alvin Kamara, who is stuck in his rookie wage scale until 2021 (the same year the current CBA expires), Thomas is easily the next most valuable player on the Saints’ offense besides Brees and Armstead.

There are 13 wide receivers in the NFL making base salaries between $10-20 Million per year. Thomas is as good as or better than every single one of them, including the FalconsJulio Jones, who puzzlingly sits below that earning threshold as the 15th highest paid.

Total cash earnings and cap hits are higher than base salaries because they include bonuses, so it’s important to factor those figures in as we compare values across a particular position.

For instance, Rams’ wide receiver, Brandin Cooks, will actually be the highest paid at his position this year by earning a whopping $27,459,000 in total cash while actually earning only $1 Million in base salary. Cooks comes in #1 in total cash while somehow ranking #79 in base salary.

His total cash earnings in 2019 are over $7 Million more this year than the Bucs’ Mike Evans and $10 Million more than the GiantsOdell Beckham Jr. No wonder Julio Jones is seeking a raise despite having two years remaining on his five year contract extension from 2016.

Of these top paid receivers, there are only five who I think are in the same stratosphere as Thomas. Here they are listed in order of lowest to highest base salary: Julio Jones ($9.6M), DeAndre Hopkins ($12.5M), Antonio Brown ($14.62M), Odell Beckham Jr. ($16.75M) and Mike Evans ($17M).

The only one of those players who could possibly reset the market before Thomas’ pay day is Jones, who is currently looking to add more value to his current contract. The Falcons already sweetened the pot last year with an extra bonus in the form of $4.4 million, but the move didn’t appease Jones enough for the long term.

The good news is Jones appears to be more interested in allowing financial flexibility to bolster his roster rather than positioning himself to be the highest paid player at his position.

”Me, personally, I don’t really care about as far as being the highest-paid receiver, man,” Jones said. “It’s a number. We’ve got some other guys on the team. If we can do it in a way to get all the other guys to stay on the team ... it’s a lot of ways you can do money.”

Jones must have seen Cooks’ contract and realized there are many creative ways to pay a player in today’s NFL. Personally, I think the Saints should have channeled their salary cap creativity towards extending Thomas this offseason before another wide receiver has a chance to reset the market and make that task increasingly more difficult.

The Saints lucked out that Tyreek Hill is still a domestic abuser or else he would have broken the bank with a potential $100 Million extension. They could luck out again if Jones feels comfortable taking a slight hometown discount in order to allow more cap space for other playmakers around him.

Perhaps the Saints are playing the long game here and want to see if Brees will play past the 2019 season before they make a significant financial investment in another skill position. They might want to try and franchise tag Thomas next year, but that is risky for a number of reasons.

First, players hate playing on the franchise tag. It only offers them one year’s salary guaranteed and as Thomas’ teammate Brees know all too well, that’s not a great deal when you play in a 100% injury sport. Every snap could be your last. Players want long term financial security and large chunks of their contracts to be fully guaranteed; ideally, they want 100% guaranteed contracts like the NBA and MLB have.

If the Saints placed the exclusive-rights tag on Thomas, they would have to pay him $17,327,000 for the year and no other team would be able to negotiate with him. If they place the non-exclusive tag on him, they would have to pay $16,787,000 or match whatever another franchise offered him, which would undoubtedly be much more.

If they chose not to match, the Saints would receive two first round picks from Thomas’ new team. There’s no reason to put the transition tag on Thomas except to gauge his value, which has already been debated and inflated ad nauseam.

If the Saints want to play hard ball but are also trying to avoid another Jimmy Graham fiasco or a rebooted version of Antonio Brown’s power play down in the bayou, they might want to consider the non-exclusive franchise tag.

For the Saints, two first round picks, if spent well, could make a solid impact with minimal cost towards the salary cap. By getting paid fair market rate, Thomas would get what he’s already been wanting for more than a year. At least both would benefit instead of one or both parties inevitably being disappointed.

Still, I hope the Saints have been preparing for this day. They’ve already had three seasons to know Michael Thomas is something worth holding onto. Shoot, I remember halfway through Thomas’ rookie season a smart due at the gym I call David the Oracle told me, “he’s already the best wide receiver the Saints have ever had, Marques Colston included.”