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Agent's Take: Breaking down the richest deals in the salary cap era

By Joel Corry | Former Sports Agent

Adrian Peterson is the only NFL running back whose contract averages more than $10M.  (USATSI)
Adrian Peterson is the only NFL running back whose contract averages more than $10M. (USATSI)

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One of my responsibilities with the sports management firm I worked for was conducting practically all of the contract research and negotiation preparation for the company's clients regardless of whether I was the primary negotiator.

When I began preparing for the firm's negotiation of Steven Jackson's contract extension in 2008 as he entered his contract year, it was quickly apparent that the top of the running back market had become fairly stagnated since LaDainian Tomlinson signed a six-year, $48 million extension (includes $16.54 million guaranteed) with the Chargers in 2004.

I started creating different ways to value the market because of this development. One such method was to adjust contracts into the existing salary cap climate. Using Tomlinson as example, I reflected his deal as averaging $11,516,219 per year with $23,809,784 in guaranteed money because the salary cap had increased from $80.582 million in 2004 to $116 million in 2008. In essence, Tomlinson's actual deal was adjusted by the 43.95 percent growth in the salary cap since it was signed. I didn't get the opportunity to put the method to use because I left the agent business before negotiations for Jackson's new deal began.

I've applied this methodology to contracts signed since the salary cap was implemented in 1994 with the following parameters:

1. Existing contracts weren't adjusted regardless of the signing date. For example, Ben Roethlisberger's 2008 extension is valued at $14,664,417 per year.

2. Actual value for contracts of released players was used if the deal was signed after the start of the 2013 league year (i.e.; Darrelle Revis-Tampa Bay Buccaneers).

3. The following year's salary cap is used to determine the adjustment for deals signed right before the end of a regular season.

4. $123 million is used for the 2009 salary cap. This is in accordance with the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement's (CBA) calculations of franchise and transition tags. An adjustment was made to the 2009 salary cap to raise it from $123 million to $127.997 million because spending on players in 2008 fell below 59.5 percent of the NFL's total revenue.

5. $121,687,500 is used for the uncapped year in 2010 as with the CBA's franchise and transition tag calculations. This figure is the average of the 2009 salary cap ($123 million) and the 2011 salary cap ($120.375 million).

Here's a look at the most lucrative contracts during the salary cap era at the positions used by the NFL for franchise and transition player designations:

Quarterback
NameClubYear signedSalary capGTD moneyAvg. salaryAdjusted GTD moneyAdjusted avg. salaryContract length
Troy AikmanCowboys1993$34.608M$8.25M$6.708M$31.71M$25.78M6 Yr Extension
Brett FavrePackers1997$41.454M$12M$7.87M$38.5M$25.25M5 Yr Extension
Peyton ManningColts2004$80.582M$34.5M$14M$56.94M$23.11M7 Years
Aaron RodgersPackers2013$123M$54M$22MN/AN/A5 Yr Extension

The importance currently placed on guaranteed money didn't exist in the early years of salary cap. It took agents and teams awhile to figure out the most advantageous contract structures for their respective sides. Guaranteed money primarily consisted of signing bonus in the initial years of the salary cap. Peyton Manning's $34.5 million of guaranteed money was all signing bonus. It was the largest signing bonus ever received at the time. Teams have shifted away from giving huge signing bonuses in recent years where guaranteed money is usually a combination of signing bonus, salary guarantees and early roster bonuses in the first year of a deal.

Manning's deal had $45.7 million in the first three years. His compensation in the first three years would be $75,427,515 under the current salary cap. By comparison, Matt Ryan sets the NFL standard with $63 million in the first three years of the five-year extension he signed last year with the Atlanta Falcons averaging $20.75 million per year.

Technically, Troy Aikman's deal was signed with two games left in the 1993 season before the salary cap was implemented. He opted for a lump sum $8.25 million signing bonus instead of an $11 million signing bonus with significant deferrals.

Brett Favre's 1997 deal was reworked in 2001 when he received a seven-year, $80.6 million extension. It's the equivalent of a deal averaging $21,538,375 per year with a $133 million salary cap. In 2001, the salary cap was $71.101 million.

John Elway and Dan Marino were consistently among the NFL's highest paid players before the salary cap. The extensions they signed in 1996 while in their mid-30s average slightly over $20 million per year when adjusted.

Running Back
NameClubYear signedSalary capGTD moneyAvg. salaryAdjusted GTD moneyAdjusted avg. salaryContract length
Barry SandersLions1997$41.454M$14.5M$6.54M$46.52M$20.98M5 Yr Extension
Emmitt SmithCowboys1996$40.753M$10.5M$5.714M$34.27M$18.65M7 Yr Extension
Terrell DavisBroncos1998$52.388M$11M$6.167M$27.93M$15.66M9 Yr Extension

Barry Sanders' and Emmitt Smith's deals are examples of how differently running backs are valued in today's NFL. Generally, top running backs made more than top wide receivers during the first few years of the salary cap. Adrian Peterson is the only current running back with a deal averaging more than $10 million. He received a six-year, $85.28 million contract extension (with $36 million in guarantees and a 2017 base salary escalator worth up to $4 million) in 2011.

Seven wide receivers have deals averaging at least $10 million per year.

Wide Receiver
NameClubYear signedSalary capGTD moneyAvg. salaryAdjusted GTD moneyAdjusted avg. salaryContract length
Jerry Rice49ers1996$40.753M$4M$5.8M$13.05M$18.93M5 Yr Extension
Randy MossVikings2001$67.405M$18.5M$9.3M$36.5M$18.35M7 Yr Extension
Calvin JohnsonLions2012$120.6M$53.25M$16.207MN/AN/A7 Yr Extension
Larry FitzgeraldCardinals2011$120.375M$45M$16.143MN/AN/A7 Yr Extension

The contracts of Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson set the top of the current non-quarterback market. Their deals are eclipsed by the adjusted contracts of Jerry Rice and Randy Moss. Rice's deal is another example of how contract structured has evolved over time. He received a modest amount of guaranteed money with his deal.

Tight End
NameClubYear signedSalary capGTD moneyAvg. salaryAdjusted GTD moneyAdjusted avg. salaryContract length
Rob GronkowskiPatriots2012$120.6M$18.7M$9MN/AN/A6 Yr Extension
Tony GonzalezChiefs2002$71.101M$10M$4.5M$18.71M$8.42M5 Years

Jimmy Graham should replace Rob Gronkowski as the standard for tight end compensation if he signs a long-term deal instead of playing under a franchise tag in 2014. It is expected that Graham will become the NFL's first $10 million per year tight end with his next contract. Only Tony Gonzalez's 2002 deal with the Chiefs as a franchise player is the only adjusted tight end contract in Gronkowski's neighborhood.

Offensive line
NameClubYear signedSalary capGTD moneyAvg. salaryAdjusted GTD moneyAdjusted avg. salaryContract length
Jonathan OgdenRavens2000$62.172M$16M$7.45M$34.23M$15.94M6 Yr Extension
Tony BoselliJaguars1999$57.288M$8M$6.5M$18.57M$15.09M4 Yr Extension
Demontti DawsonSteelers1997$41.454M$4M$3.64M$12.83M$11.67M4 Yr Extension

Tony Boselli probably would be mentioned in the same breath as Jonathan Ogden and Walter Jones if shoulder surgeries hadn't cut his career short. The three-time All-Pro was a member of the 1990s All-Decade team.

The adjusted salaries of Ogden and Boselli are significantly more than the seven-year contract extension Joe Thomas received from the Browns averaging $11.5 million (including $37 million in guarantees and an additional $3.5 million in Pro Bowl escalators) in 2011. Alex Mack set the market for centers when the Browns matched the five-year, $42 million offer sheet he had signed with the Jaguars. Dermontti Dawson's deal isn't one of the most lucrative adjusted offensive lineman deal but is noteworthy among contracts for centers.

Defensive end
NameClubYear signedSalary capGTD moneyAvg. salaryAdjusted GTD moneyAdjusted avg. salaryContract length
Michael StrahanGiants1999$57.288M$12M$9.767M$27.86M$22.67M3 Yr Extension
Bruce SmithBills1997$41.454M$6M$5.2M$19.25M$16.67M5 Yr Extension
Mario WilliamsBills2012$120.6M$50M$16MN/AN/A6 Years

The three-year, $29.3 million contract extension Michael Strahan received from the Giants in 1999 essentially paid him like a quarterback. It wasn't until Dwight Freeney signed a six-year, $72 million contract with the Colts in 2007 that Strahan's average yearly salary was surpassed in a defensive end contract. The difference in the actual guaranteed money and the adjusted guaranteed money of Mario Williams and Bruce Smith's deal is quite dramatic.

Defensive tackle
NameClubYear signedSalary capGTD moneyAvg. salaryAdjusted GTD moneyAdjusted avg. salaryContract length
Warren SappBuccaneers1998$52.388M$8.65M$7.09M$21.96M$18M5 Yr Extension
Bryant Young49ers1997$41.454M$5M$5.208M$16.04M$16.71M5 Yr Extension
Richard SeymourRaiders2011$120.375M$20M$15M$33.15M$16.57M2 Years
John RandleVikings1998$52.388M$30M$6.5M$50.77M$16.5M5 Years

I was the co-negotiator of the five-year, $32.5 million contract John Randle signed with the Vikings in 1998 as a transition player. The deal is the forerunner to the modern contract structure. Randle's $20 million in guarantees consisted of a $10 million signing bonus and $10 million in base salary guarantees. Because Randle had $1 million guarantees without offsets in each of the last two years of the deal, he was getting paid from the Vikings after his release in 2001 while playing with the Seahawks. Randle's deal made him the NFL's highest paid defensive player before Warren Sapp took that honor a few months later.

Ndamukong Suh has enough leverage to set a new standard for defensive tackle compensation because his 2015 franchise tag is $26.87 million and the Lions would like to reduce his current $22,412,500 cap number. It's unlikely that his new deal will approach the adjusted average yearly salary of the above contracts.

Linebacker
NameClubYear signedSalary capGTD moneyAvg. salaryAdjusted GTD moneyAdjusted avg. salaryContract length
Junior SeauChargers2000$62.172M$6.14M$7.346M$13.13M$15.71M3 Yr Extension
Ray LewisRavens2002$71.101M$19M$7.8M$35.54M$14.59M5 Yr Extension
Derrick BrooksBuccaneers2001$67.405M$12M$7.24M$23.68M$14.29M4 Yr Extension

The Chargers adjusted Junior Seau's deal every couple of years to keep him near the top of the linebacker market. His days at the top of linebacker market stopped with his 2003 trade to the Dolphins. He took a pretty substantial pay cut after joining the Dolphins.

Safety
NameClubYear signedSalary capGTD moneyAvg. salaryAdjusted GTD moneyAdjusted avg. salaryContract length
Lawyer MilloyPatriots2000$62.172M$6M$5M$12.84M$10.7M7 Yr Extension
Carnell LakeJaguars1999$57.288M$5M$4.5M$11.61M$10.45M4 Years
John LynchBuccaneers2000$62.172M$5.6M$4.8M$11.98M$10.27M5 Yr Extension

Carnell Lake would have an extremely difficult time getting a deal at the top of the safety market in today's climate as a soon-to-be 32-year-old. The Jaguars made some curious decisions in free agency when they were considered as Super Bowl contenders. Troy Polamalu's three-year, $29.6 million contract extension with the Steelers from 2011 was not adjusted despite his recent two-year extension because his 2014 salary did not change.

Cornerback
NameClubYear signedSalary capGTD moneyAvg. salaryAdjusted GTD moneyAdjusted avg. salaryContract length
Deion SandersCowboys1995$37.1M$11.9M$5.04M$42.66M$18.07M5 Years
Ty LawPatriots1999$57.288M$14.2M$7.335M$32.97M$17.03M6 Yr Extension

Deion Sanders' 1995 contract had to be reworked because having minimum base salaries for the first years was considered by the NFL as circumventing the salary cap. This structure led to a CBA provision known as "the Deion Rule" where a portion of signing bonus proration from later contract years can be reallocated to the early contract years depending upon the yearly salaries in the deal.

The seven-year, $56.125 million contract Sanders signed in 2000 with the Redskins was disregarded because he retired before the 2001 season. Sanders made $8.5 million during his one season in Washington.

Kicker/Punter
NameClubYear signedSalary capGTD moneyAvg. salaryAdjusted GTD moneyAdjusted avg. salaryContract length
Sebastian JanikowskiRaiders2009$123M$9M$4M$9.73M$4.325M4 Years
Shane LechlerRaiders2009$123M$9M$4M$9.73M$4.325M4 Years

The Raiders took the philosophy that special teams are one-third of the game in setting the kicker and punter market with Sebastian Janikowski and Shane Lechler's deals. Pete Stoyanovich's 1994 four-year, $4.275 million with the Dolphins when the salary cap was $34.608 million almost made the cut.

It equates to a deal averaging $4,083,232 per year with a $133 million salary cap.


Joel Corry is a former sports agent who helped found Premier Sports & Entertainment, a sports management firm that represents professional athletes and coaches. Before his tenure at Premier, Joel worked for Management Plus Enterprises, which represented Shaquille O'Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon and Ronnie Lott.

You can follow him on Twitter: @corryjoel

You can email him at jccorry@gmail.com

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