CHICAGO — Leverage is the name of the game in contract negotiations, and the deeper this season goes the more Chicago Bears wide receiver Allen Robinson will have as he seeks a multi-year extension that will make him one of the highest-paid wide receivers in the league.
The risk for Robinson, of course, is remaining healthy and productive enough to be paid commensurate to the top players at his position. The former is most significant because as long as Robinson is on the field he’s the preferred target of quarterback Mitch Trubisky.
Where this thing is headed is anyone’s best guess. Chairman George McCaskey told WGN-AM 720 Friday morning “we’re very optimistic” after getting an update on the situation from team president Ted Phillips.
Clearly, there is a large divide between the two sides. Otherwise, Robinson — or someone acting on his behalf — wouldn’t have spent the time needed to scrub all mentions to the Bears in his social media accounts. Twitter and Instagram are platforms for Robinson to represent his brand, his goals and his beliefs, and that was a manner for him to express his increasing level of frustration.
In gearing up for Sunday’s Week 2 meeting with the New York Giants at Soldier Field, Robinson has pledged to compartmentalize his emotions and focus on the preparation, attention to detail and performance needed to remain the most consistent member of a rebuilding offense. It’s no stretch to suggest that protracted contract negotiations can create a tangled web for a player, but if anyone is equipped to perform the mental limbo required to focus on the job while knowing the pay day will eventually come, from the Bears or a future employer, it’s Robinson.
Robinson has the support of his teammates and he’s conducted what all involved described as positive conversations with coach Matt Nagy about the situation. That will help Robinson remain on task but ultimately he is looking for the team to show how much it loves him, not only tell.
The Bears’ willingness to pay Robinson in line with the Los Angeles Chargers’ Keenan Allen, who recently signed a four-year extension averaging $20 million per season, remains to be seen. If they were in the same neighborhood with an offer, a deal probably would have been struck by now. Robinson is one year younger than Allen and their career statistics are very similar.
The marketplace — and leverage — are the two greatest factors that drive negotiations. Friday was pay day for the Rams’ Robert Woods. At the start of the final year of his rookie contract, he reportedly received a four-year, $65 million contract with $32 million guaranteed. The Detroit Lions’ Kenny Golladay and Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Chris Godwin potentially could be paid soon. No matter how you stack Robinson against those players, new contracts will be studied closely by his camp and the team.
The Bears have historically sought a bit of a discount when extending players with one year remaining on their current contract. The argument is that the team is inheriting risk the player otherwise would have during that season. It makes business sense to reward players early and lock them into place sooner rather than later but it’s not always that simple. Allen was similarly positioned entering a contract year before he was paid earlier this month, so it’s not like Los Angeles walked away with a discount. The more games Robinson plays this season without an extension, the more leverage inches toward him.
A baseline sometimes used in negotiations for players in line for the franchise tag is that number projected out over two seasons. The 2020 tag number for wide receivers was $17.865 million. In a normal year, without the sweeping impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, it would have climbed north of $18 million in 2021. With the salary cap expected to dip, potentially as low as $175 million, franchise tag numbers will drop this coming year.
For the purpose of discussion, let’s consider the math in a normal situation. If the wide receiver tag number in 2021 was $18 million, the 2022 tag number for Robinson would be $21.6 million (a 120% increase over the first tag. Add those together and you’re at $39.6 million, meaning an annual average for a new contract could be in the neighborhood of $19.8 million. That’s just about where Allen’s annual average landed.
But we’re not in a normal year and that means the tag could potentially be stronger leverage for the Bears. Of course, Robinson might react adversely to that. He’s already made it clear to the Bears: If they aren’t going to pay him, they should trade him.
Whether the Bears would use the franchise tag to secure Robinson in March is a question for six months down the road — if it gets to that. This isn’t something general manager Ryan Pace is going to dwell on publicly. Way too much can occur between now and then.
Pace has used the franchise tag once, for wide receiver Alshon Jeffery in 2016. And if the Bears have a history of letting players from any one position exit via free agency, it’s at wide receiver. A year later, Jeffery departed for the Eagles. In 2008, the Bears hoped to keep wide receiver Bernard Berrian and linebacker Lance Briggs .
Briggs explored the market but couldn’t find the kind of offer he wanted, allowing the Bears to retain him at their price and make a spirited run at Berrian. He ultimately chose a $42 million, six-year contract with the Vikings. In retrospect, the Bears were better off not paying that kind of money for a one-dimensional wide receiver although the production the offense got from Devin Hester, Rashied Davis and Brandon Llloyd that next season made the position a weak spot.
Jeffery’s situation was complicated by health. He played in only nine games in 2015, catching 54 passes for 807 yards and four touchdowns as hamstring and calf injuries plagued him and made the club hesitant to reward him with the kind of multi-year contract he sought. A four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs in 2016 limited his production to 52 catches for 821 yards and two touchdowns and the sides couldn’t get close to a deal, leading him to sign a one-year, prove-it deal with the Eagles that he turned into $52 million, four-year contract a year later. Injuries have forced him out of 10 games since the start of the 2018 season, including Philadelphia’s opener last week.
Jeffery left the Bears third on the club’s all-time receiving list with 4,549 yards, and you’re hard-pressed to name a better draft pick at the position in franchise history. One key reason the Bears felt comfortable letting him exit was the belief that 2015 first-round pick Kevin White would ascend. That didn’t happen although Pace has been better with picks at the position recently as Anthony Miller looks ready to perform on a consistent basis in Year 3 and rookie Darnell Mooney adds a speed dimension that was previously lacking.
Crazier things have happened than the Bears allowing Robinson to exit via free agency or — crazier — trading him. But such a move would create a gaping hole at a position group that has improved. The Bears could certainly feel good about using high draft picks to fortify the offensive line, defensive line, linebacker — or quarterback — with Robinson in place.
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