Justin Jefferson's Massive Contract: What It Means for the Dallas Cowboys & CeeDee Lamb

by Sam Bruchhaus|June 13, 2024

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In 1687, the scientist-philosopher Isaac Newton published his now ubiquitous Laws of Motion. The first Law of Motion is that “a body at rest, stays at rest”, while his third law of motion is that “for every action, there is an equal, but opposite, reaction.”  

In the NFL player salary economy, Newton’s Laws of Motion might as well be the Laws of the Market. Every major deal is both a begrudging reaction to an earlier signing and the kindle to a series of other negotiations. In short, a new contract for a player virtually forces owners, general managers, players, and agents into action, especially during the offseason. 

Justin Jefferson’s Massive Contract 

The most recent deal to set off shockwaves through the NFL markets is the Justin Jefferson extension. Whether it is his immediate on-field impact or the off-field advertisements,  Jefferson, a product of New Orleans’ Westbank who played his college days at LSU, is perhaps the closest a non-quarterback can be to Patrick Mahomes in terms of youthful hype and popularity. 

“JJettas”, as he is nicknamed, has earned accolades such as: 

  • The Offensive Player of the Year award, 
  • Three All-Pro nods, and 
  • Three Pro Bowls.  

Even last year, when he played in only ten of seventeen games, many of which were without his starting quarterback Kirk Cousins, he still topped one thousand yards receiving and was fourth in the league in adjusted yards per route run. Perhaps most importantly to the contract negotiations, he did all this before turning twenty-five years old. 

Fantasy football players know Jefferson’s immense production well. He has never ranked outside of the top ten in standard fantasy points per game in his entire career, and in the last three years has never ranked outside of the top five. 

By all indications, Jefferson’s shiny pedigree projects him to be the top wide receiver in the league for years to come. As a result, he set the record for the highest paid non-quarterback at the time of signing. To the tune of an immense and unprecedented $88.743 million fully guaranteed at signing, including a gargantuan $36.938 million signing bonus, Jefferson was paraded in as the non-quarterback king of the NFL. 

As described earlier, this action cannot go without reverberations across the market. This signing is certainly a celebration of Justin Jefferson’s talents and a beacon of the Vikings’ hope in his pairing with their young rookie quarterback, J.J. McCarthy.  

But the greater impact of the signing will be on the contract negotiations between the Dallas Cowboys and CeeDee Lamb, who is currently locked up with the Cowboys in accordance with his rookie contract’s fifth year option. 

CeeDee Lamb’s Golden Pedigree 

While Lamb does not quite have the all-around platinum pedigree that Jefferson has, it is much closer on the field than many would expect. Lamb has  

  • Made the Pro Bowl in each of the last three seasons, 
  • Earned an All-Pro nod in each of the last two, and 
  • Received enough Offensive Player of the Year votes last year to put him in third place.  

 Of the more analytical measures, Lamb was  

In last year’s fantasy world, Lamb was first in total fantasy points among wide receivers and second in fantasy points per game. To top all that off, Lamb, like Jefferson, is only 25 years old.  

The Cowboys’ Contract Precedents 

The NFL is different than other leagues in that its teams have more control over players, more variables to consider, and more diversity in standard operating and negotiating procedures. As a result, many teams elect to play hardball in situations like this. “Sharper” teams, most notably the Philadelphia Eagles, elect to extend key players as early as possible. During this offseason, the Eagles extended wide receiver De’Vonta Smith after his third season. The process behind this is that, given cap inflation, team-friendly deals can be wrought early on rather than having time (as is happening with Lamb) or the open market raise the premiums on player costs. The risk here, of course, is that the player does not perform up to his deal, whether that be caused by skill or injury. 

Interestingly, the Cowboys are a good example of the downsides of such a strategy. They extended running back Ezekiel Elliott in 2019 to a massive six-year, $90 million extension. However, Elliott’s production tailed off after the 2019 season, leaving a massive cap and cash burden on the Cowboys moving forward. Elliott was eventually cut in 2023. 

Since the “Zeke” situation, the Dallas Cowboys have since been “behind the 8-ball” to act on extensions and have paid premiums to keep their stars (pun intended) in The Star as a result. 

The most notable example of this procedure is with their franchise quarterback, Dak Prescott. The Cowboys tagged Prescott twice before finally coming to a long-term agreement in September of 2021 that made him the second highest paid quarterback in the league at the time of signing, behind Patrick Mahomes. 

The Cowboys have also done this with more tenured, proven players. Zack Martin, an offensive guard, made the Pro Bowl and the All-Pro team every season but one in the nine years after he was drafted by the Cowboys. Martin signed a long-term contract in 2018, which was reworked for cap purposes many times leading up to the 2023 season, including in the spring of 2023. However, Martin became disgruntled that his salary was below that of other top guards in the league such as Chris Lindstrom and Quenton Nelson. As a result, Martin held out until the second week of the preseason before the Cowboys ultimately worked a deal out with him to vault him into the elite in terms of payment. 

These signings are elucidating how the nuts and bolts of Lamb’s contract will be handled. In the Prescott situation, Mahomes was the consensus top in the league, with Prescott a fellow member of an up-and-coming class of young quarterbacks. Similarly, Lamb sits just underneath Jefferson in terms of accomplishments. Notably, another “1B” level receiver, Ja’Marr Chase, is also coming to renegotiation time. Should Chase reach a Jefferson-level deal before an agreement is reached with Lamb, as was the case with Zack Martin’s situation, the Cowboys will almost certainly have to match that level of payment. 

With these proceedings in mind, the Cowboys are in an interesting situation, as CeeDee Lamb is currently holding out from mandatory mini camp. They could stand pat, bet that the Jefferson contract and its huge jump in guaranteed money is an aberration, and try to work in a market simultaneous to the Bengals and Chase. Notably, the Bengals typically refuse to give guaranteed money outside of the signing bonus, a particularly thorny operating procedure, especially given the market at wide receiver. Should the Bengals hold their process yet agree to a deal with Chase (even though they broke for Joe Burrow’s contract), the signing bonus would likely be exorbitant. This would put the Cowboys in an interesting situation, having to balance the precedent of Jefferson’s exorbitant total guaranteed salary and Chase’s potentially exorbitant annual non-guaranteed payment figures, though potentially reaping the cap benefits of the Chase comparable. 

On the flip side, Dallas could agree to a deal soon at around the value of the Jefferson contract, lock in their WR1 for the near future, and potentially earn some savings should the Chase market exceed the Jefferson range. However, this could risk another situation such as Elliott’s should Lamb’s skill or injury decline in the coming years. 

Whatever they choose to do, much according to Newton’s Law of Motion, it will not only have a team-wide reaction with respect to borderline MVP candidate Micah Parsons and his new deal, but will also have a market-wide reaction, particularly for Ja’Marr Chase and future top wide receivers. 

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