Agent's Take: 12 contract-related thoughts and observations about the NFL offseason so far
Here are a dozen mostly free agency related thoughts, from Antonio Brown gaming the system to the new Packers philosophy
The initial days of free agency were a buyer's market, as usual, where several players received mind-boggling contracts. With more than $1 billion of collective salary-cap space, some NFL teams spent like money was burning a hole in their pockets.
The tide has turned since the first wave of free agency ended. It's now a seller's market. Teams are exercising more fiscal restraint and starting to sign players at a much better value. Most of the consensus best players available in free agency are off the market. Defensive end Ziggy Ansah and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh are among those still unsigned.
The NFL annual owners meeting -- March 24-27 in Phoenix, Arizona -- typically signifies the end of free agency for all practical purposes. Teams will devote most of their attention to the upcoming NFL Draft -- April 25-27 -- after the meeting wraps up.
Here are a dozen contract-related thoughts and observations relating to free agency and the early part of the offseason.
1. Gaming the system
Antonio Brown may have created a blueprint for superstar-caliber players to follow when disgruntled. Conventional wisdom suggested that Brown's antics on social media and wanting to renegotiate his contract severely diminished his trade market and value. The Steelers received only 2019 third- and fifth-round picks from the Raiders instead of the desired first-round pick but that isn't any of Brown's concern. He got a change in scenery and an upgraded contract. Brown received an $11.2 million raise over the three remaining years of his contract to bring his total compensation during this span to $50.125 million with the potential of an additional $4 million through incentives. None of the $38.925 million in Brown's contract prior to the trade was secure. His adjusted contract has $30.125 million fully guaranteed.
2. Le'Veon Bell's blunder
Bell became the NFL's second-highest-paid running back at $13.125 million per year with the four-year, $52.5 million contract he received from the Jets. His deal has a veteran running back contract record $27 million fully guaranteed at signing. There are $35 million in overall guarantees. Incentives and salary escalators make the maximum value of the deal $60.15 million.
Under ordinary circumstances, a contract like Bell's would be considered a big financial win, but that's not the case in his situation. Bell sat out the 2018 season rather than make $14.544 million playing under a franchise tag for a second-straight year. He previously rejected a five-year deal in the $14 million to $15 million per year range containing a $10 million signing bonus and a $10 million roster bonus due a few days after signing as the mid-July deadline for long-term deals with franchise players was approaching, according to various reports. $33 million of the money was in the first two years. The three-year cash flow was $45 million to $47 million.
Bell's contract doesn't fundamentally change how running backs are compensated, like he repeatedly said he wanted to do over the last two years. He had also suggested that he should be paid like a No. 1 running back and a No. 2 wide receiver because of his dual threat capabilities.
Bell is in a worse financial position compared to his breakeven points with the rejected Pittsburgh offer. His Jets deal needed to have $33 million in the first year to be in the same place he would have been through 2019 with the Pittsburgh offer, since he voluntarily didn't earn any money in 2018. It has $14.5 million, which is essentially the same amount as his 2018 franchise tag. Practically speaking, Bell was virtually assured of making the $33 million regardless of how he did in 2018. Pittsburgh almost never releases a player one year into a multi-year contract despite the second year being unsecured.
Additionally, the first two years of Bell's new contract have $28 million. There was $45 million in the Pittsburgh offer through 2020.
Bell recouping the $14.544 million of lost income from the second franchise tag will be nearly impossible. Trading a high priced peak earning year in 2018 for potential career longevity because of avoiding consecutive high mileage seasons in 2017 and 2018 isn't a sound move economically. If Bell finishes his Jets contract, he will be 31 when looking for a new deal. Typically, running backs don't make big NFL money after turning 30. There wasn't a running back last season who signed in his 30s with a contract averaging more than $4.5 million per year.
3. The power of the franchise tag
The franchise designation is a powerful management tool that hinders players from getting fair market value and can depress salaries. Landon Collins is a good illustration of these notions. He should be thankful that the Giants didn't place a franchise tag on him for $11.15 million. A second franchise tag in 2020 at a Collective Bargaining Agreement mandated 20 percent raise would have been $13.38 million.
Landon Collins signed a six-year, $84 million contract containing $44.5 million in guarantees with the Redskins on the open market. His deal has a fully guaranteed $32 million in the first two years. Collins would have made $24.53 million during this period playing under two franchise tags, which is slightly under $7.5 million less than in Redskins' contract.
Trey Flowers benefitted from the best potentially available edge rushers (Seahawks defensive end Frank Clark, Texans outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney, Chiefs outside linebacker Dee Ford and Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence) getting franchise tags. Without the additional competition in free agency, Flowers signed a five-year, $90 million contract containing $56 million in guarantees with the Lions; $40 million was fully guaranteed at signing.
By contrast, Ford signed a five-year, $85 million deal when he was traded to the 49ers for a 2020 second-round pick. Not only did Flowers sign for more money, but he got a vastly superior contract structure. Ford had $19.5 million fully guaranteed at signing and $45 million in overall guarantees. Flowers' $28.07 million signing bonus is nearly 45 percent more than Ford's fully guaranteed money. Ford's overall guarantees aren't much more than Flowers had fully guaranteed at signing.
4. Cleveland's talent collection
The Browns made the leap to NFL respectability last season by going 7-8-1 after a winning one game in 2016 and 2017 combined. Baker Mayfield, the 2018 first-overall pick, is potentially Cleveland's best quarterback since Bernie Kosar in the late 1980s.
A high-caliber quarterback on a rookie contract, like Mayfield, is the most valuable commodity in the NFL because of the roster flexibility it can provide. Mayfield's cap numbers for the next three years are just over $7.425 million, a little under $8.915 million and approximately $10.4 million. General manager John Dorsey is taking advantage of the window he has to amass talent before Mayfield becomes eligible for a new deal at the conclusion of the 2020 regular season. This is what the Rams did last offseason by going all in with a "Super Bowl or bust" mentality after quarterback Jared Goff started living up to the potential that made him 2016's first overall pick.
The Browns aren't at that same stage as the Rams. The last time the Browns made the playoffs was the 2002 season. Cleveland is now considered as odds-on favorites to win the AFC North after acquiring wide receiver Odell Beckham, Jr. and edge rusher Olivier Vernon in trades with the Giants while also signing interior defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson to a three-year, $36 million deal worth up to $40.5 million through salary escalators. Running back Kareem Hunt, who was the NFL's rushing leader in 2017, is trying to resurrect his career in Cleveland after being released by the Chiefs late last season once video of him assaulting a woman surfaced. Hunt will miss the first half of the 2019 season, serving an eight-game suspension under the NFL's Personal Conduct Policy.
The biggest concern about the Browns is whether first time head coach Freddie Kitchens is up to task with the raised expectations.
5. Safety market correction
An extremely soft market in 2018 has corrected itself despite a deep pool of safeties. Eric Reid, who didn't find a job in 2018 until the early part of the season, re-signing with the Panthers in February for $22.05 million over three year (worth up to $24 million with incentives) was the first inkling things would be different.
Landon Collins got the biggest deal. He signed a six-year, $84 million contract containing $44.5 million in guarantees with the Redskins. Tyrann Mathieu betting on himself last year after the Cardinals released him by signing a one-year, $7 million "prove-it" deal with the Texans paid off. He took a three-year, $42 million contract with $26.8 million fully guaranteed from the Chiefs. Five-time All-Pro safety Earl Thomas received a four-year, $55 million deal with $32 million fully guaranteed from the Ravens.
Lamarcus Joyner, who was designated as a franchise player by the Rams last year, also signed a contract averaging more than $10 million per year. His four-year, $42 million contract with the Raiders has $21.3 million fully guaranteed at signing.
6. Daunting dead money
Teams are showing more of a willingness to absorb massive amounts of dead money, which is a cap charge for a player no longer on the roster. The current CBA allowing teams to carry over unused salary cap room from one year to the next helps make this possible. The Steelers have a $21.12 million residual cap charge or dead money from Antonio Brown's trade to the Raiders. If $12.96 million of Brown's 2018 salary hadn't been converted to signing bonus, the dead money would have been $11.4 million instead.
The Giants are absorbing a $16 million cap charge for trading Odell Beckham, Jr. one year into a five-year, $90 million extension (worth a maximum of $95 million) that had a $20 million signing bonus. The Dolphins have an $18,423,334 cap charge after trading quarterback Ryan Tannehill to the Titans. $5 million of Tannehill's 2019 salary was converted to signing bonus, which is part of Miami's dead money to facilitate the trade.
The Jaguars are taking a $15.5 million cap hit from releasing quarterback Blake Bortles; $6.5 million of Bortles' 2019 salary was guaranteed in the contract extension he signed last offseason with the Jaguars. Since the guarantee has an offset, the Jaguars are getting $1 million of cap relief from Bortles' fully guaranteed $1 million contract with the Rams, which has been factored into the dead money.
7. It pays to be in the trenches
Offensive linemen continued to be paid a premium in free agency. The Raiders made offensive tackle Trent Brown the NFL's highest-paid offensive lineman at $16.5 million per year. Brown signed a four-year, $66 million contract with $36.25 million fully guaranteed. He successfully made the transition to left tackle in 2018 once the Patriots acquired him from the 49ers in a trade during last year's NFL Draft after primarily playing right tackle. It remains to be seen on which side of the offensive line Brown will play. 2018 first-round pick Kolton Miller was Oakland's left tackle last season.
Ju'Wuan James raised the salary bar at right tackle, assuming Brown remains on the left side. James received a four-year, $51 million deal with $32 million in guarantees from the Broncos. The Bills made Mitch Morse the NFL's highest-paid center on a deal averaging $11.25 million per year. Morse signed a four-year, $44.5 million contract with $26.5 million in guarantees.
8. Colts caution
The Colts entered free agency with an NFL-best $102.067 million of salary cap room, according to NFLPA data. General manager Chris Ballard has stuck to his plan of being judicious in free agency rather making high-priced, splash signings. He can afford to be patient because of the Colts' six-game improvement from 2017 to a 10-win season, making the playoffs for the first time since 2014.
His first move was finding quarterback Andrew Luck another wide receiver in the passing game to go with T.Y. Hilton. Devin Funchess was signed to a one-year, $10 million deal that's worth up to $13 million with incentives. His addition doesn't preclude a Dontrelle Inman re-signing.
Cornerback Pierre Desir, Indianapolis' best cover man, returns on a three-year, $22.5 million contract with $12 million in guarantees. Incentives and salary escalators bring the maximum value to $25.2 million.
Ballard also bolstered the pass rush by signing Justin Houston, reportedly to a two-year, $24 million contract. Houston was released by the Chiefs, where Ballard was a front office executive for the four years prior to going to Indianapolis in 2017.
Ballard's moves should put the Colts in a position to win the AFC South. Challenging the Patriots for AFC supremacy might be a different story.
9. Injuries aren't a kiss of death in free agency anymore
A serious injury in a contract year used to be the kiss of the death in free agency. Signing a one year "prove-it" deal or a below market long-term contract was almost a certainty. Teams are beginning to take a more enlightened approach toward injured free agents.
Kwon Alexander, who tore the ACL in his left knee during the middle of last season, briefly raised the bar for what had been a stagnant inside linebacker market. He received a four-year, $54 million deal with $27.5 million in guarantees from the 49ers.
Safety Earl Thomas fracturing his left leg for the second time in three years last season didn't prevent him from becoming one of the NFL's highest-paid safeties. The five-time All-Pro signed a four-year contract averaging $13.75 million per year with the Ravens. Thomas, who turns 30 before the 2019 season starts, has $32 million fully guaranteed.
This doesn't mean high-caliber injured players aren't going to still sign "prove-it" deals. Right tackle Daryl Williams' 2018 season was derailed by injuries to his right knee. He played only one game. Williams returned to the Panthers on a one-year, $6 million contract with additional $500,000 in incentives. Regaining his 2017 form, which earned second team All-Pro honors, could put Williams in position to eclipse the four-year deal averaging $12.75 million per year Ju'Wuan James signed with the Broncos.
Ronald Darby has occasionally shown shutdown potential during his four NFL seasons. He was the Eagles' best cornerback when he tore his right ACL last November. Darby is staying in Philadelphia with a one-year $6.5 million deal that's worth as much as $8.5 million with incentives. Getting to the open market again as a 26 year old isn't a given for Darby. The Eagles have a track record of signing players performing well in "prove-it" situations to contract extensions (i.e.; Alshon Jeffery, Tim Jernigan, etc.).
10. End of inside linebacker salary stagnation
A stagnant inside linebacker market underwent a major reset. Kwon Alexander briefly became the NFL's highest-paid inside linebacker with the four-year, $54 million deal containing $27.5 million in guarantees he received from the 49ers. C.J. Mosley quickly took inside linebacker compensation to a different level. He signed a five-year, $85 million contract with the Jets. The deal has $51 million in guarantees, of which $43 million is fully guaranteed at signing. I would imagine Mosley's deal caught the eye of Seahawks five-time All-Pro middle linebacker Bobby Wagner. He is in a contract year and can make an excellent case that he is clearly the NFL's best inside linebacker.
11. The new Packers philosophy
Second year general manager Brian Gutekunst's methods of roster building don't resemble Ted Thompson's, his predecessor. Thompson preferred a draft and develop approach while making limited use of free agency.
Gutekunst has been much more aggressive in free agency than Thompson ever was. He has revamped the defense through the open market. Outside linebackers Za'Darius and Preston Smith were signed to four-year deals worth $66 million and $52 million, respectively, to provide a pass rush. Safety Adrian Amos received a four-year, $37 million contract to stay in the NFC North, migrating from the Bears. Billy Turner, who can play both guard and tackle, was brought in to help shore up the right side of the offensive line on a four-year, $28 million deal.
Gutekunst adhering to Green Bay's longstanding policy of structuring veteran contracts where a signing bonus is the only form of true guaranteed money obviously wasn't an impediment in free agency. The lone exception to the policy has been quarterback Aaron Rodgers, whose contracts have had salary guarantees.
12. Brian Hampton's brilliance
Some of the most integral people in an NFL team's front office are also the most unheralded. That's definitely the case with Brian Hampton. As the 49ers' long-time director of football administration and analytics, Hampton's responsibilities include negotiating player contracts and managing the salary cap. His fingerprints were all over San Francisco's free agent signings with team-friendly contract structures.
Kwon Alexander signed a four-year deal averaging $13.5 million per year, which is near the top of the inside linebacker market. The 49ers are protected in case Alexander doesn't bounce back from last season's ACL tear. Unlike most contracts of this size, the first two years aren't fully guaranteed at signing. The 49ers can get out the deal next year with minor cap consequences because Alexander received only a $4 million signing bonus and his $11.25 million 2020 base salary, which is guaranteed for injury, doesn't become fully guaranteed until that April 1. San Francisco would only have a $3 million cap charge in 2020 if a healthy Alexander were released next offseason before April 1.
San Francisco's guarantee vesting date is the latest in the NFL. With most teams, the guarantee vesting date is in March during the first few days of the new league year.
The 49ers traded a 2020 second-round pick to the Chiefs for edge rusher Dee Ford, who had been franchised. A five-year, $85 million contract with Ford, who had a career-high 13 sacks last season, was signed in the process. Ford's $19.5 million fully guaranteed at signing doesn't measure up to comparable contracts. For example, the Cardinals signed edge rusher Chandler Jones to a five-year, $82.5 million deal with $31 million fully guaranteed at signing in 2017 after he was designated as franchise player. Jones' contract has $53 million in overall guarantees. Ford's contains $45 million. His $11.6 million salary guarantee in 2021 is only for injury. All of Jones' $53 million was capable of becoming fully guaranteed.
Similar flexibility as in Alexander's contract exists because Ford's signing bonus is $8 million. Both deals have significant annual 46-man per game active roster bonuses, which are customary in San Francisco's larger veteran contracts. The primary benefit of the roster bonuses, which is $750,000 annually for both players, is providing the 49ers some financial and cap relief with injuries. The per game amount is payable only if a player is on the 46-man active roster for that particular game.
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