Is Marshall’s big deal a big risk for Dolphins?

In this uncapped year, there have been few eye-opening contracts. The diluted free-agent class and lack of a cap floor have chilled spending. Last week’s Brandon Marshall deal, however, is an interesting one.

Different deals for top receivers

Santonio Holmes – with a four-game suspension coming -- was shipped to the Jets for a fifth-round pick. The Steelers were prepared to trade him for a ham sandwich. The Jets reportedly looked into acquiring Marshall prior to obtaining Holmes but were unable to reach accord on a new contract. There was no talk of a new contract for Holmes despite the fact he was in the last year of his rookie deal.

The Dolphins acquired Marshall on the one-year, $2.5-million tender contract and replaced it with a five-year contract.

The Denver deletion

As written here last week, Marshall’s past is littered with off-field issues. He was suspended in 2008 and somehow avoided suspension in 2009 (league executives were incredulous that he avoided missing games after yet another domestic abuse incident).

Word in Denver is that there were cheers in the locker room when word of the trade came down last week. The Broncos even chose to have team captain Daniel Graham make an official statement about Marshall’s departure rather than the owner, coach or general manager. That was as telling as any announcement of a trade I’ve seen.

It’s one thing to acquire Marshall on a one-year deal with implicit motivation to perform for a new contract; it’s another to empower and enable him with financial security.

The contract

Could the Dolphins have acquired Marshall without giving him a new deal? Good question. Yes, they would not have parted with two second-round picks for only one year of a contract, and Marshall may not have been thrilled. However, removing him from a coach he did not like in Josh McDaniels and finding himself in Miami may have been enough to brighten his mood.

Ignoring the total value of $47.5 million, much of it nonguaranteed funny money later in the deal, the Dolphins raised Marshall’s 2010 compensation from $2.5M to $9.5M – a signing bonus of $5.5M, guaranteed salary of $4M, plus $3M in future guaranteed salary with an offset (the Jake Delhomme lesson).

In 2011, the Dolphins can retain Marshall with a $3M option bonus, and that secures future guarantees of $12.5M in 2011 and 2012.

Thus, Marshall either makes between $9.5M and $12.5M for one year, or he makes up to $25M guaranteed over three years. Not bad for a character risk.

Two views on the deal

I’ve heard spin on this deal from team executives complaining that the Dolphins gave too much and agents complaining that Marshall didn’t get enough. I’ll try to look at both sides.

The Dolphins did well to protect a large amount of the guarantees, structured in the form of future guaranteed salary rather than bonus, allowing for easier recovery or non-payment for bad behavior and/or suspension.

From the Dolphins’ perspective, they did not want to part with two second-round picks without having the player under contract for more than one year. However, if they don’t exercise the option bonus next April – presumably because the player has become the prima donna or Personal Conduct Policy offender they maintain he is not – they will have had him for one year and $12.5M (with a $3M offset) in exchange for those two second-round picks.

From the player’s standpoint, Marshall’s deal is not at the level of the gold standard contract for a receiver -- that of Larry Fitzgerald’s $30M guaranteed on a four-year $40M deal where he’ll be a free agent again soon. But Fitzgerald, in the year of negotiation, was scheduled to make $14.6M (and $17.4M the following year). Marshall, as noted above, was scheduled to make $2.5M.

Third try a charm?

The Dolphins invested $14M guaranteed in this position in the 2007 draft (Ted Ginn Jr.) and then $7M in 2008 in free agency (Ernest Wilford). With both players now off the roster, the attention turns to Marshall and his $9.5M guaranteed this year, bringing the total to $30.5M guaranteed in four years in their attempt to find a go-to receiver.

League-wide reverberations

Vincent Jackson and Miles Austin are watching this deal closely. Both are playing under the “super tender” – fist- and third-round picks – compared to Marshall’s first-round tender. And somewhere, DeSean Jackson and Sidney Rice are also smiling.

Austin, Rice, DeSean Jackson and Vincent Jackson (and Santonio Holmes, for that matter) had more receiving yards than Marshall last season.

The Marshall plan may have lasting effects, reverberating from Florida to Texas to California to Minnesota to Pennsylvania and more.

Maybe Marshall will become a team player with high character to go along with his prodigious talent. My sense is that that’s more hope than expectation, making this trade and contract a calculated risk.

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