Agent's Take: Here are the 10 best NFL contracts from the player's perspective
Kirk Cousins, Khalil Mack and Sammy Watkins top our list of the NFL's most player-friendly deals
The devil is in the details when assessing NFL contracts, since the deals aren't fully guaranteed as in MLB and the NBA. The structure of a deal matters more because of the lack of security. Overall contract value and the average salary are the most popular contract metrics with the general public. The amount of guaranteed money, particularly at signing or vesting early, and compensation in the early years of a multi-year deal are far more significant.
The three-year total can be useful in determining whether a multi-year contract is front loaded or back loaded. Back-loaded contracts are considered as team-friendly deals. Since salary guarantees are becoming as customary as signing bonuses in NFL contracts, whether the guarantees have offset language is important. An offset clause reduces the guaranteed money a team owes a player when he is released by the amount of his new deal with another team. Without an offset, the player receives his salary from the team that released him as well as the full salary from his new contract with another club (also known as "double dipping").
The general public sometimes gets confused on how to value contracts. Professionals within the industry (agents and team negotiators) typically value deals by new money, which is the amount of compensation in a contract, excluding what a player was scheduled to make before receiving a new deal. Every negotiation I had while I was an agent for a player with an existing contract was over new money.
New money can be illustrated with Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who is the NFL's highest-paid player. Rodgers had two years remaining on his existing contract with $20.4 million and $21.1 million salaries for 2018 and 2019 when he signed a new deal during the preseason. Although Rodgers signed a six-year contract for $175.5 million, his deal is considered as a four-year, $134 million contract extension averaging $33.5 million per year among industry professionals. His two existing contract years for $41.5 million are subtracted from the $175.5 million six-year total to arrive at this number.
The same concept applies when calculating the first three new years compensation. A cash-flow analysis looks at a player's compensation under a deal in its totality. The concept of new money is irrelevant in this metric. The focus is on the amount of money received in the first two, three or four years of a contract regardless of whether it's considered as new money. Cash flow and compensation in the new years have the same dollar amount when a player signs a new contract as a free agent or when his contract is set to expire.
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Articles on the best or worst contracts usually only reflect the viewpoint of teams. As a former agent, my outlook is instinctively from the often neglected player standpoint. The 10 best NFL contracts from the player's perspective have been identified. The contracts are ordered from highest to lowest average yearly salary. In addition to the factors already mentioned, the circumstances when a contract was negotiated and how the deal has held up is also being taken into account. It should be noted that that high-end contracts are often surpassed relatively quickly after they are negotiated.
Contract Value: $84 million/3 years (worth up to $90 million with incentives)
Average Yearly Salary: $28 million
Contract Guarantees: $84 million
Fully Guaranteed At Signing: $84 million
Earliest Realistic Exit Point: None
Cousins is breaking new ground with the NFL's first lucrative fully-guaranteed veteran contract. He was briefly the NFL's highest-paid player at $28 million per year but turned down a chance to become the NFL's first $30 million-per-year player in order to play for a Super Bowl contender. The Jets offered Cousins a fully-guaranteed $90 million over three years. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan was the first to hit the mark before the Packers signed Aaron Rodgers to a four-year extension averaging $33.5 million per year. The Vikings contract also contains a no-trade clause and language preventing Cousins from being designated as a franchise or transition player in 2021.
Cousins' contract raised the bar for truly guaranteed money by nearly 40 percent. Lions quarterback Matt Stafford was the previous benchmark with $60.5 million fully guaranteed at signing. Cousins also set the stage for Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan to take guaranteed money to another level. His $30 million-per-year extension has $100 million in overall guarantees and $94.5 million fully guaranteed at signing.
Cousins opted for a shorter contract than most quarterbacks sign. Typically, lucrative quarterback contracts are at least four years in length. The 30-year-old Cousins is in an excellent position to take advantage of changing market conditions sooner than with the conventional quarterback deal. He could be in line for an extension in 2020 if he is living up to his contract. Cousins is set to hit the open market at 32 in 2021, when a new Collective Bargaining Agreement will need to be negotiated, which could be more favorable to players than the current one.
Contract Value: $141 million/6 year extension
Average Yearly Salary: $23.5 million
Contract Guarantees: $90 million ($34 million as signing bonus)
Fully Guaranteed At Signing: $60 million
Earliest Realistic Exit Point: 2022 ($90.946 million earned)
The circumstances surrounding Mack's deal were different than any of the other contracts being recognized. The deal was in conjunction with a trade from the Raiders, whom Mack was engaged in a holdout that was likely going to continue a few games into the regular season, at the NFL roster cutdown on Labor Day weekend. The negotiations were in a compressed timeframe because of these dynamics.
Less than 48 hours after Rams interior defensive lineman Aaron Donald became the NFL's highest paid non-quarterback at $22.5 million per year, Mack surpassed him. The assumption was Mack would top Donald by a nominal amount, like when Broncos All-Pro linebacker Von Miller signed a six-year deal in 2016 for $125,000 more than then Dolphins defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh's six-year contract to replace him as the league's highest-paid non-quarterback. Mack's deal averages $1 million more per year than Donald's.
Mack's $60 million fully guaranteed at signing establishes a new record for non-quarterbacks. Suh previously held the distinction at $59.955 million. Only four players, all quarterbacks (Ryan, Cousins, Rodgers and Stafford), have more fully guaranteed at signing. Mack has the fourth-most overall guarantees ever in a NFL contract at $90 million, behind only Ryan ($100 million), Rodgers ($98.2 million) and Stafford ($92 million).
Suh was released by Miami this offseason once his fully-guaranteed contract years were over. That shouldn't happen to Mack. He is practically assured of remaining in Chicago through the 2021 season. Mack's entire 2020 base salary and almost all of his 2021 base salary are guaranteed for injury at signing. 2020 becomes fully guaranteed on the third day of the 2019 league year (early next March) while the 2021 money is fully guaranteed in March 2020.
Mack is also protected in the final three contract years (2022 through 2024). Each year contains a $5.5 million third day of the league roster bonus. The roster bonuses force the Bears to make a decision about Mack at the beginning of free agency in those years so that if he is going to be released, it won't be at an inopportune time, like the Cowboys did with wide receiver Dez Bryant in April as the NFL draft was approaching.
Contract Value: $135 million/6 year extension
Average Yearly Salary: $22.5 million
Contract Guarantees: $86.892 million ($40 million as signing bonus)
Fully Guaranteed At Signing: $50 million
Earliest Realistic Exit Point: 2022 ($86.892 million earned)
It was widely assumed that any long-term deal Donald signed would make him a charter member of the $20 million-per-year non-quarterback club. Donald shattered the barrier by getting 18 percent more than Miller, who had been the NFL's highest-paid non-quarterback on the six-year deal he signed in 2016 averaging $19,083,333 per year. Donald's $86.892 million of overall guarantees is almost 25 percent more than Miller's $70 million, which was the previous non-quarterback standard.
Donald's contract has an extremely player-friendly structure. $40 million of the guarantees are a signing bonus. Donald is tied with Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco for the fourth-biggest signing bonus in an NFL contract. There are no offsets for $77 million of the guarantees. Between the lack of offsets and the large signing bonus, the Rams are committed to Donald at least through the 2021 season. Donald's 2020 and 2021 guarantees vest early like Mack's, and have $5 million second day of the league year roster bonuses in the final three years.
Donald's deal is front loaded. He has $80 million in the first three new contract years (through 2021) for a $26,666,667 per year average. Almost 60 percent of Donald's new money is the first three new years. By contrast, Miller and Suh, the two most recent non-quarterback benchmarks, had approximately 53 percent of their money in the first three years. Miller was designated as a franchise player after playing out his rookie contract and Suh was an unrestricted free agent while Donald was in a contract year and facing a franchise tag in 2019.
Contract Value: $48 million/3 years
Average Yearly Salary: $16 million
Contract Guarantees: $30 million ($21 million as signing bonus)
Fully Guaranteed At Signing: $30 million
Earliest Realistic Exit Point: 2020 ($34 million earned)
Watkins is being paid like an elite wide receiver without matching production. When signed, the deal made him the NFL's fourth-highest-paid wide receiver by average salary (he's now sixth). Watkins caught only 39 passes for 593 yards and eight touchdowns with the Rams last season after being traded from the Bills during training camp. This type of performance is more consistent with a No. 2 wide receiver than a primary receiving threat. Prior to the trade, the Bills passed on a fifth-year option in 2018 for Watkins at $13.258 million due to persistent problems with a broken left foot.
Fortunately for Watkins, the Chiefs aren't paying him based on past performance but on his expected contribution. Watkins, whose only 1,000 receiving yard season came in 2015, should be consistently threatening to break every Kansas City major single-season receiving record with the type of money he is making. Jeremy Maclin owns the reception mark for a wide receiver with 87 in 2015. Derrick Alexander's 1,391 receiving yards in 2000 is the franchise record. The 15 touchdown catches Dwayne Bowe had in 2010 are a Chiefs high.
Watkins may not have an easy time justifying his contract through his play because of Kansas City's other offensive weapons, although he is coming off his first 100-yard-receiving game since Week 3 of the 2017 season.
Travis Kelce is the NFL's best tight end not named Rob Gronkowski. He is the only tight end to top 1,000 receiving yards in each of the last two seasons. Kelce also leads NFL tight ends in receptions since 2016 with 176.
Wide receiver Tyreek Hill had a breakout season in 2017. His 1,183 receiving yards were seventh in the NFL and led the Chiefs. Hill's 75 receptions were second on the team to Kelce's 83.
Kareem Hunt, a 2017 third-round pick, led the NFL with 1,327 rushing yards as a rookie. He established himself as a dual-threat running back by catching 53 passes for 455 yards. Hunt was named to the Pro Bowl in 2017 because of his efforts.
Patrick Mahomes, the 10th overall pick in 2017, has been sensational so far this season. He has earned back-to-back AFC Offensive Player of the Week honors. Growing pains are almost inevitable with a first-year starting quarterback, particularly as opposing defensive coordinators get familiar with him through film study.
A team having two 1,000 yard wide receivers and a 1,000 yard tight end simultaneously is almost unprecedented. The 1980 Chargers with John Jefferson, Charlie Joiner and Kellen Winslow, Sr. are the only team in NFL history to accomplish this feat. The type of rushing attack Hunt gave Kansas City last season didn't exist with those Chargers.
Andy Reid has never had two 1,000 yard wide receivers in the same season during his 19 seasons as a head coach. The closest was in 2010 with the Eagles, when DeSean Jackson had 1,056 yards on 47 receptions while Maclin caught 70 passes for 964 yards with 10 touchdowns. Something is probably going to have to give statistically because of the addition of Watkins and the above factors.
Should Watkins start living up to the potential that made him the fourth-overall pick of the 2014 NFL draft, he'll reap the benefit of signing a shorter-term deal where his next contract would likely dwarf this one, since he is only 25 years old.
Contract Value: $75 million/5 years
Average Yearly Salary: $15 million
Contract Guarantees: $50 million ($15 million as signing bonus)
Fully Guaranteed At Signing: $36.5 million
Earliest Realistic Exit Point: 2020 ($51 million earned)
Norman raised the salary bar for cornerbacks a couple of days after the Panthers rescinded the franchise-player designation placed on him. The Redskins made him the NFL's highest paid cover man leading up to the 2016 NFL draft. His contract contains a cornerback-record $50 million of guarantees. Norman's contract is extremely front loaded. $51 million, which represents 68 percent of the contract, is in the first three years. The high-end cornerback deals signed after Norman's (A.J. Bouye, Kyle Fuller, Stephon Gilmore, Trumaine Johnson, Xavier Rhodes and Desmond Trufant), haven't been able to top Norman's $36.5 million fully guaranteed at signing.
Contract Value: $57.5 million/4 year extension (worth up to $60 million through salary escalators)
Average Yearly Salary: $14.375 million
Contract Guarantees: $45 Million ($21 million as signing bonus)
Fully Guaranteed At Signing: $22 million
Earliest Realistic Exit Point: 2022 ($49 million earned)
A long overdue reset of the running back market finally occurred with Gurley's extension. The deal is almost a 75 percent increase over Devonta Freeman's contract with the Falcons, which had been the benchmark for running backs. Freeman signed a five-year, $41.25 million extension containing slightly over $22 million in guarantees last preseason. Gurley's total guarantees are more than Freeman's entire contract.
Gurley's deal established new standards for running backs in practically all key contract metrics. At $14.375 million per year, Gurley is the highest-paid running back in NFL history. Gurley's $45 million in overall guarantees are the most ever in a running back contract. The previous record was Adrian Peterson's $36 million in his 2011 extension with the Vikings. Gurley's $21 million signing bonus is also the largest ever for a running back. The $22 million fully guaranteed at signing eclipsed Peterson's veteran running back contract record of $20.25 million, but was subsequently broken by David Johnson's $24,682,500 in the three-year, $39 million extension he received from the Cardinals. The first three new years of Gurley's contract average just under $15.7 million per year.
Gurley's $40 million three-year cash flow (through 2020) is more than he would have made by finishing his rookie deal and playing on franchise tags in 2020 and 2021. Gurley's 2020 franchise tag would have been $11.556 million, a 20 percent increase over his 2019 option-year salary. A second franchise tag at another 20 percent increase would have put him at $13,867,200 in 2021. Gurley would have made slightly under $37.375 million this way over the four-year period, which is about $2.625 million less than his actual three-year total.
Gurley is also the only 2015 first-round pick who has gotten a new contract. First-round picks selected under the rookie wage scale implemented by the 2011 CBA typically don't get new deals after three seasons. Just 13 first-round picks have gotten extensions at this juncture of their NFL tenure over the last four years. Nobody from the 2014 first round did.
Contract Value: $55.5 million/5 years
Average Yearly Salary: $11.1 million
Contract Guarantees: $25 million ($12 million as signing bonus)
Fully Guaranteed At Signing: $24 million
Earliest Realistic Exit Point: 2020 ($33 million earned)
Taylor Lewan and Nate Solder top the left tackle market on $16 million and $15.5 million-per-year deals signed this year respectively with the Titans and Giants. Kalil's contract sticks out like a sore thumb. He got the deal after missing most of the 2016 season because of a hip problem and regressing since being named a Pro-Bowl alternate as a rookie in 2012. Conventional wisdom suggested a one-year "prove it" deal because of the injury and downward career trajectory.
The same signing and option bonus structure as in 2015 NFL MVP Cam Newton and 2013 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly's contracts was used with Kalil. An option bonus is essentially an additional signing bonus that's usually paid in the second or third year of a contract to exercise later years in the deal. Since an option bonus is given the same treatment on the salary cap as a signing bonus, it is prorated or evenly spread out over the life of a contract for a maximum of five years.
Carolina exercised the option on Kalil's 2021 contract year, which required a $10 million payment, during a five-day window from the first to fifth days of the 2018 league year (March 14 through March 18) that reduced his fully-guaranteed $11 million 2018 base salary to $1 million. The 2018 salary guarantee and the signing/option bonus structure practically ensure that Kalil should see at least the first three years of the deal -- although he performed poorly in 2017 and is currently on injured reserve after preseason surgery on his right knee -- because of the adverse salary-cap consequences of releasing him prior to the 2020 season.
Contract Value: $9.6 million/1 year (worth up to $11.6 million with incentives)
Contract Guarantees: $9.6 million (fully guaranteed)
Players coming off disappointing contract-year seasons are expected to receive modest compensation when going the one-year "prove it" deal route. Michael Crabtree took a one-year, $3.2 million deal (worth a maximum of $5 million through incentives) from the Raiders in 2015 because of a tepid free agent market after taking a backseat to a then 34-year-old Anquan Boldin in the 49ers' passing game during the 2014 season. Crabtree caught 68 passes for 698 yards with four touchdowns in 2014.
Moncrief was plagued by injuries the last two seasons. In 21 games, he had 56 receptions for 698 yards and nine touchdowns with the Colts in 2016 and 2017.
One year with a base value of approximately $4 million is the equivalent of Crabtree's deal after adjusting to the current $177.2 million salary-cap environment. A contract in this neighborhood would seem to have been more in order for Moncrief. Marqise Lee's season-ending knee injury in the preseason opens the door for Moncrief to have a career year and take advantage of the "prove it" deal.
Contract Value: $32 million/4 years (worth up to $34.8 million with incentives)
Average Yearly Salary: $8 million
Contract Guarantees: $22 million
Fully Guaranteed At Signing: $18 million
Earliest Realistic Exit Point: 2021 ($24.9 million earned)
Burton's contract easily exceeded all reasonable projections for him prior to free agency considering he spent the last four years with the Eagles playing behind Pro Bowl tight end Zach Ertz and the recently retired Brent Celek. The signature moment of Burton's NFL career is completing a touchdown pass to quarterback Nick Foles in a fourth-and-goal situation (known as the Philly Special) during the Eagles' Super Bowl LII victory over the Patriots.
Burton's deal puts him among the NFL's 10 highest-paid tight ends by average yearly salary. His $18 million fully guaranteed at signing is the most in any existing tight end contract. Charles Clay is the only tight end with more than Burton's $22 million of overall guarantees. Clay's Bills contract contains $24.5 million in guarantees. Burton should be expected to consistently catch at least 60 passes while routinely exceeding 700 receiving yards per season as one of the league's higher-paid tight ends.
Contract Value: $21 million/4 years
Average Yearly Salary: $5.25 million
Contract Guarantees: $9.75 million
Fully Guaranteed At Signing: $7 million
Earliest Realistic Exit Point: 2019 ($10.75 million earned)
It was inconceivable that Juszczyk could land a deal that, at the time, made him the NFL's sixth-highest-paid veteran running back on a multi-year contract when 2017 free agency started, considering he plays a position that is increasingly becoming an afterthought. Juszczyk's deal averages over twice as much as the NFL's second-most-lucrative fullback contract. The next-highest-paid fullback is Patrick DiMarco with his four-year, $8.4 million deal ($2.1 million per year) he got from the Bills last offseason. The money in DiMarco's first two years is $100,000 less than Juszczyk's $5 million signing bonus.
49ers general manager John Lynch described Juszczyk as a versatile offense weapon when he was signed. So far, that hasn't been the case. Although Juszczyk led NFL fullbacks in playtime last season with 35.8 percent on 394 offensive snaps, his 40 touches were fewer than he had in either of his last two seasons with the Ravens in 2015 and 2016. Juszczyk averaged 39 receptions and almost 300 receiving yards in his the last two seasons in Baltimore. He caught 33 passes for 315 yards in 2017. Juszczyk was also on the field a little more during his last season in Baltimore. His 40.8 percent offensive playtime (463 plays) in 2016 was the most for fullbacks.
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