I love Golden Tate. If you are a Lions fan, you probably do too. Since coming to Detroit, the electric wide receiver has played in every game, scored 22 touchdowns, and has made defender after defender look completely silly. Tate’s effort against the Cowboys last Sunday was a perfect example of exactly what he can do with the ball in his hands.
When Tate signed a five-year, $31 million contract with the Lions before the 2014 season, it had the potential to be a steal. Indeed, his $6.2 million average annual value puts him at just 38th among NFL receivers this year. For a player who is borderline top 10 at his position, Detroit made one of the best signings in the league.
However, as this contract comes to an end, it is impossible to ignore the future. With under a month until the NFL trade deadline, the Lions need to think about the team’s plans going forward and how Tate fits in. As exciting as he can be, it would be in the team’s best interest to trade him now while they still have a chance.
Re-signing makes little sense
Tate will be 31 at the start of next season but will command a salary much higher than his current contract. While age might be a factor in term length, he will certainly look at what his peers are getting paid and look for something similar. Right now, top-15 wide receivers are seeing at least $13 million in AAV, while top-20 receivers are all making over eight figures.
It is possible he could take a hometown discount, but given the fact that he has vocally celebrated every big receiver contract, it seems clear where his heart lies. This is perfectly normal—players should absolutely maximize the paychecks that they earn. Though he has mentioned wanting to stay in Detroit and retire as a Lion, asking and hoping for Tate to take a smaller cut just to help out the team seems foolish and unfair.
Not spending upwards of $10 million a year on Tate will give the Lions flexibility to spend elsewhere. Detroit has massive needs along the defensive line and linebacking corps, both of which are much higher priorities than wide receiver, where they already have two very capable options. There is no logical reason for the Lions to spend at a position of strength with gaping holes existing on the other side of the ball.
Get draft capital
Losing Tate at the end of the year will likely trigger a compensatory pick, but knowing where that pick will land is tough to tell. There is a chance it could end up in the third round, but that depends on whether the Lions sign any top free agents in the offseason and what other players are on the move. There is an argument that Tate would net the team a third-rounder, but this is more of a guess than a statement of fact.
I am not going to spend much time speculating about a possible return for Tate in a trade because that would absolutely be guessing. However, the NFL has shown that the wide receiver market to be profitable, with players like Brandin Cooks netting at least a first-round pick on two occasions and Sammy Watkins bringing home around a second-rounder.
Those players are younger than Tate and had different contract situations. I include them here only to show a rough idea of how teams value top receivers and that teams are willing to part with good picks for good players. A first-rounder is very unlikely, but a second-round pick seems right within his range, and would be a clear improvement over a compensatory selection the Lions would get for not trading him.
The offense will be fine...
The Lions made Matthew Stafford the highest quarterback at the time of his extension. They have committed millions and draft picks to the offensive line. They went out and snagged Marvin Jones. They drafted Kenny Golladay and Kerryon Johnson in back-to-back years. Lions fans know that this offense has enough weapons to do everything it needs to do.
Tate is a unique player with tons of talent, but the team can survive without him. As the running game continues to develop, there is no reason to expect a huge drop off from the offense with Tate to the offense with whoever replaces him. Most likely, his targets are simply going to Jones and Golladay. I can only see good things happening as those two continue to be fed the ball.
...but if not, it does not matter right now
At 1-3, the season is not over for Detroit, but the on-field product should cause some hesitation. Do the Lions look capable of winning the division? Do they look like they can even hang around the Wild Card hunt? The reality is that everything needs to go right for the Lions to even have a chance at the No. 6 seed in the conference; that would be the best-case scenario.
The more plausible outcome is that the defense continues to struggle and the Lions have no ability to stop opposing running games. Stafford and the offense should be able to sneak out a couple wins, but even with Tate, the ceiling is probably around .500. There is no harm in losing Tate right now, as this is not a competing season for the Lions anyway. In fact, it probably helps them with their draft position for next year. Losing potentially the best skill player on the offense will have an impact, but in terms of season outcomes, the variance will be minimal.
Making the difficult choice
Again, it is impossible to know what other NFL front offices are willing to surrender for Tate, but if general manager Bob Quinn gets a competitive offer, he should seriously consider making a move. It will hurt to lose Tate, one of the few constants over the past four seasons, but his production is going to wind down sooner or later. It makes sense to let someone else make the mistake of overpaying him and getting out now.
A second-round pick and additional cap space, plus the team’s own picks—which will likely be high in draft order—will go a long way in helping the Lions fill out the roster. The offense might take a slight step back, but that sacrifice is more than worth it to see the defense take huge leaps forward. Thank you for your service, Golden, but the hardest choice is the right one in this case. It is time to move on.