Remember back a few drafts, say, the 2014 one specifically. The Cowboys were keen on linebacker Ryan Shazier but he was scooped up by the Pittsburgh Steelers. So they had to look elsewhere and if Jerry Jones had his way they might have picked Johnny Manziel. Instead, sanity prevailed as the rest of the organization persuaded Jerry to go along with picking Zack Martin. Disaster averted.
Since Martin has entered the league, he’s been one word - elite. He’s made the Pro Bowl every year and has a trio of First-Team All Pro selections to go with it. He is considered by many to be the best guard in football, and he is paid like the best guard in football.
ESPN does an annual article where they identify the top “outlier” contracts. What they mean by that is explained buy the author of the article, Bill Barnwell.
To measure outlier deals, I’ve gone through each multiyear deal of three seasons or more signed since the league adopted its current CBA in 2011 and sorted them by position. As a measure of contract value, I’m using the three-year compensation for each deal, which I’ve found several salary cap managers in the NFL to use as a reasonable shorthand for value. This is the actual cash a player stands to take home over the first three years after he signs an extension. Few deals have any guaranteed money after three seasons, at which point organizations usually opt to sign a player to a new deal or move on.
I compare each contract’s three-year value to the top 20 deals signed at that contract’s position since 2011, and that yields our difference.
So basically, it’s how much bigger is one contract compared to the average of the top player’s contracts at the same position. When it comes to guards, not one is getting paid like Martin.
5. Zack Martin, G, Dallas Cowboys
Three-year compensation: $43 million
Percent above average: 46.4
It would be hard to raise any serious reservations about the Cowboys giving Martin the largest contract for a guard in NFL history and one of the most significant position-independent deals in all of football. Martin has now made the Pro Bowl in each of his first five seasons, with three first-team All-Pro nods along the way.
The list of guys who can say they’ve done that across their first five pro seasons is 14 players long. Nine of those players are eligible for the Hall of Fame, and eight -- Lou Creekmur, Ollie Matson, Jim Brown, Dick Butkus, Lawrence Taylor, Dan Marino, Emmitt Smith, and Barry Sanders -- are enshrined in Canton. Patrick Willis and Joe Thomas are locks when they become eligible, and fellow active players Aaron Donald and Patrick Peterson are on course themselves. Martin is a 28-year-old and his peers all have gold jackets. Of course he’s going to get paid.
The fact that Martin’s contract is in the top five of outliers isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Other players in this area of the list include Landon Collins, Aaron Donald, Russell Wilson, and Khalil Mack, among other great players. Sometimes you overpay at a position through bad judgement, and sometimes you just recognize that a player is that good and you lock him in.
Barnwell notes that the Cowboys tend to lock in their players to longer deals than other teams.
The Cowboys are the king of the never-ending contract. The longest contract in the league is the eight-year, $97.6 million extension signed by Dallas left tackle Tyron Smith. No player is currently signed to a seven-year contract, but two of the 15 players signed to six-year deals are Martin and Cowboys center Travis Frederick. It would hardly be a surprise if Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott join this list when the two other Dallas cornerstones sign their own extensions as early as this summer.
The Cowboys deal with Tyron Smith was considered a bargain then, and is still considered one today. Even though in total dollars Smith’s deal is the highest at the position, going by average annual salary, Smith’s contract is only ninth in value. Plenty of players have signed new deals since his, but he still isn’t a free agent until 2024. No player has a major deal at left tackle and is singed for any longer period of time, with only Taylor Lewan and Jake Matthews matching that 2024 date.
A very similar dynamic is at work with Travis Frederick. He ranks first in total money at the center position, but when you look at average annual salary, Frederick is seventh. As new players sign deals, the Cowboys contracts with their linemen look better each year. Of course, the risk is the player declining with age or injury/illness. The Cowboys got a brief taste of what that may be like with Frederick and Guillain-Barré Syndrome. The team is still not totally out of the woods on that as they need to see Frederick actually play, but it looks promising.
As for Martin, his contract has the highest monetary layout for a guard, and he also has the highest annual salary. Some guard will likely beat it in the next few years, but even though his contract is one of the biggest outliers, you probably can’t find a Cowboys fan or observer who doesn’t think he is worth it.