What is the Detroit Lions’ Golden Tate actually worth in free agency?

DETROIT, MI - DECEMBER 31: Golden Tate #15 of the Detroit Lions runs for yardage against Lenzy Pipkins #41 of the Green Bay Packers during the first half at Ford Field on December 31, 2017 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
DETROIT, MI - DECEMBER 31: Golden Tate #15 of the Detroit Lions runs for yardage against Lenzy Pipkins #41 of the Green Bay Packers during the first half at Ford Field on December 31, 2017 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images) /

Golden Tate is a key member of the Detroit Lions offense. What might his next contract actually look like, whether with the Lions or not?

Golden Tate came to the Detroit Lions a borderline NFL starting wide receiver in the minds of most. The Lions were considered to have vastly overpaid the fifth-year wide receiver. Tate had never hit the 1000 yard plateau, despite being the Seattle Seahawks number one receiving threat. He had three career 100-yard receiving games to his credit. He said at the time that the primary reason he came to Detroit was the Lions had offered him more in the first year that the Seahawks had offered for two.

This was probably the best free agent signing in the Mayhew era. Since coming to Detroit, Tate has reached the 1000 yard plateau three of four seasons. He has put up 90 or more catches every year. His salary cap hits in the first year of the four-year deal was $3.1 million. It then spiked to $6+ for the remainder of the contract reaching a $9.3 cap hit in this, the final season. The team essentially gave him an opportunity to step into a bigger role than he had in Seattle, where his career high in receptions had been 64. He took the opportunity and ran with it. Literally.

Every year Golden Tate is at or near the top of the NFL’s wide receivers in yards after the catch. This is partially because of the Detroit Lions tendency to use him on short passes that inherently give him catch and run opportunities. The consistency of it, however, leads to the conclusion that it is the player, not just scheme that is responsible. This is also backed up by his place near the top of the broken tackles and the yards after contact lists for wide receivers. Golden Tate has a rare skill set.

There is still the issue of red zone production. Piling up yards after the catch has been absolutely key in the offensive success of the Lions. Unfortunately, despite a huge increase in overall production, Tate’s seven touchdowns in 2012 is still his career high. In his four seasons with the Lions.

Another limiting factor for Tate’s next contract is the fact that he is going to be 30 years old when his next contract starts. By the end of the contract, his production will have fallen off. Wide receivers do fall off a cliff like running backs. With that said, those who remain productive far into their 30s are the exception, not the rule. They also tend to be the bigger receivers that can transition into a possession receiver role, like the Arizona Cardinals Larry Fitzgerald has. At 5’10, 197 lbs, when Tate loses a step, his career is probably over.

All of this paints a picture that will probably be, effectively, a short but lucrative contract. Tate has said he would like to retire a Lion. He has also said that he’s not going to lose money to do it. It is very likely that he will test the open market next year unless the Lions give him what he thinks he could get there.

As far as perceived roles go, the closest wide receiver contract to Tate’s signed this offseason was Jarvis Landry‘s 5 year, $75.5m deal. Tate, however, will not get anywhere near that. Landry signed his contract with the Cleveland Browns. They were a team desperate to inject talent into their receiving corp to support the rookie quarterback they were about to draft, Baker Mayfield. They also had essentially unlimited salary cap space to do so. There are receiver-needy teams with cap space next year, but none of them are likely to go 0-16 in 2018.

The receivers who found big deals in free agency shared a common thread. Allen Robinson, Sammy Watkins, Landry, and others were 25 years old or under. Teams are paying them not only for what they’ve done, but what they might do in the future. That is what the Lions did with Tate in 2013. The older wide receivers, such as Jordy Nelson and Michael Crabtree, got deals for around $7 million per season. The reason is the same. They do not get paid for what they’ve done, but what they are likely to do in the future.

Tate sits between these examples, however. His best comparable is likely Pierre Garcon. The San Francisco 49ers offered Garcon a five-year, $47.5 million deal in 2017. Garcon’s deal had a $12 million dollar signing bonus, started wit ha $6.425m salary cap hit, and gradually escalates to $12 million for the final season. The contract is organized in such a way that in any year after the second, the team can save cap space by moving on. As long as Garcon produces, however, he will be a reasonably well-paid starting receiver.

Next: What is the best part of the Lions offseason?

Adjusting that value for inflation, the salary cap goes up each year after all, the over/under for Tate’s next contract should likely be set at a five year $52.5 million. If they can extend him for less than that, they likely should. If they can not, then the team should probably let him get that contract elsewhere. There are always teams desperate for receivers, and willing to overpay. Tate will find that contract somewhere if he looks for it.