Agent's Take: Here's why Aaron Donald and Khalil Mack are still waiting for new deals

The top of the quarterback market has seen remarkable growth in the last year. Raiders signal caller Derek Carr became the first NFL player to hit the $25-million-per-year mark last June. The Falcons recently made Matt Ryan the NFL's first $30-million-per-year player with a five-year, $150 million contract extension containing a league-record $100 million in overall guarantees.

Ryan's reign as the NFL's highest-paid player should be short lived. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is expected to sign an extension before the start of training camp in late July eclipsing Ryan's $30 million average yearly salary.

The same phenomenon isn't occurring with non-quarterbacks. The top of the non-quarterback market has been stagnant, comparatively speaking. In the almost seven years since the existing Collective Bargaining Agreement was ratified (in August 2011 after the lockout), the top of the non-quarterback market has grown by just over 18 percent. By contrast, the top of the quarterback market has increased by almost 67 percent. In fact, the market has escalated by 20 percent in a little less than a year.

Passers haven't always been immune to the stagnation afflicting non-quarterbacks. It took nearly three years before Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco supplanted Rodgers as the league's highest paid player in March 2016.

Next non-QBs in line

It's been widely assumed that Raiders edge rusher Khalil Mack and Rams interior defensive lineman Aaron Donald, who are scheduled to make $13.846 million and $6.892 million respectively this year in their contract years, would become football's first $20-million-per-year non-quarterbacks. Mack and Donald, as well as several other high-profile players, are expressing displeasure with their contract situations by skipping organized team activities. Withholding services has become old hat for Donald. The Rams won the battle in a contest of wills last preseason, when Donald ended his lengthy holdout right before the regular season began without getting a new contract.

The 2014 first-round picks, both 27 years old, didn't waste any time in making their presence felt in the NFL. Mack was the first player in league history to earn First Team All-Pro honors at two different positions during the same season (defensive end and outside linebacker) in 2015. Mack followed up that outstanding campaign by being named the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year in 2016. Mack's play in 2017 wasn't quite at the ridiculously high level of the previous two seasons, although he earned a third-consecutive Pro Bowl berth. His 36.5 sacks are second most in the NFL over the last three seasons and two more than what Broncos six-time All-Pro outside linebacker Von Miller has over that span.

Donald is the closest thing to a modern-day John Randle, an undersized interior defensive lineman who is in the Hall of Fame because of his ability to consistently pressure opposing quarterbacks during the 1990s and early 2000s. Donald, the 2014 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, solidified his standing as the league's most disruptive force from the interior of a defensive line last season, when he was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year. According to Pro Football Focus, Donald led the league with 91 quarterback pressures (combined sacks, quarterback hurries and quarterback hits) despite sitting out the season opener because his holdout had just ended and sitting out the season finale as a precautionary measure with the playoffs looming.

Sticker shock for Raiders and Rams?

Signing players of this magnitude is supposed to be a smooth process. It wouldn't be a surprise if the Raiders and Rams are having sticker shock. I suspect that restoring the traditional financial relationship between the highest-paid quarterback and non-quarterback that's existed under the current CBA is the end game with these dominant defenders. Both have high-powered representation that has helped shape the upper portion of the non-quarterback market with player-friendly deals.

Todd France, Donald's agent, negotiated Marcell Dareus' 2015 extension with the Bills, which made him the NFL's second-highest-paid NFL interior defensive lineman behind Ndamukong Suh at $15.85 million per year. The six-year extension was worth a maximum of $100.35 million thanks to salary escalators based on All-Pro honors. Dareus' $60 million in overall guarantees was a record for non-quarterbacks. His $42.9 million fully guaranteed at signing was on par with the top quarterback contracts in existence at that time. The six-year, $102 million extension with $63.299 million of guarantees France got defensive tackle Fletcher Cox from the Eagles in 2016 also raised the bar for non-quarterback guarantees.

Mack is represented by Joel Segal. Segal made Chiefs outside linebacker Justin Houston, who had been designated as a franchise player, the NFL's second highest-paid non-quarterback in 2015 with a six-year, $101 million contract containing $52.5 million of guarantees.

Segal also helped cornerback Trumaine Johnson play the franchise-tag game to perfection. After making slightly under $30.7 million the last two seasons with the Rams while on franchise tags, Johnson signed a five-year, $72.5 million deal with the Jets containing $45 million in guarantees this offseason. He is making a little less than $56.7 million from 2016 through 2018, which includes the first year of the Jets contract. The almost $56.7 million is NFL record compensation for a cornerback over a three-year period.

It's become a common practice for agents to adjust contracts into the existing salary-cap climate when preparing for negotiations on behalf of clients, which is something these two savvy negotiators probably have done to help formulate contract offers. How persuasive this methodology is with NFL teams varies.

Average yearly salary

Average yearly salary is a necessary but somewhat misleading contract measure. This metric doesn't give a complete picture of a contract. Despite average yearly salary being simplistic, adjusting top non-quarterback contracts signed under the 2011 CBA to the current $177.2 million salary cap could be providing a general framework for Mack and Donald. The chart below outlines these contracts.


PositionTeamYear signedSalary capGrowth factorNew $ averageAdjusted new $ averageContract length

Calvin Johnson

WR

Lions

2012

$120,600,000

46.93%

$16,207,143

$23,813,480

7-year extension

Larry Fitzgerald

WR

Cardinals

2011

$120,375,000

47.21%

$16,142,857

$23,763,359

7-year extension

Ndamukong Suh

DT

Dolphins

2015

$143,280,000

23.67%

$19,062,500

$23,575,342

6 years

Mario Williams

DE/OLB

Bills

2012

$120,600,000

46.93%

$16,000,000

$23,509,121

6 years

J.J. Watt

DL

Texans

2014

$133,000,000

33.23%

$16,666,667

$22,205,514

6-year extension

Avg.

$23,399,514

Surprisingly, Von Miller, who is the current standard bearer for non-quarterbacks, isn't in the top five. His adjusted contract ranks sixth at slightly more than $21.775 million per year. Miller signed a six year, $114.5 million contract averaging $19,083,333 per year as a franchise player in 2016. The Super Bowl 50 MVP's $70 million in overall guarantees is also the benchmark for non-quarterbacks.

The top adjusted contracts are consistent with the traditional economic relationship between the NFL's highest-paid quarterback and non-quarterback during this timeframe, which can also help put into context a re-setting of the market for players that don't throw the football. The chart below illustrates the difference.

YearHighest-paid QBAverage salaryHighest-paid non-quarterbackAverage salary% of QB salary

2011

Tom Brady/Peyton Manning

$18,000,000

Larry Fitzgerald

$16,142,857

89.68%

2012

Drew Brees

$20,000,000

Calvin Johnson

$16,207,143

81.04%

2013

Aaron Rodgers

$22,000,000

Calvin Johnson

$16,207,143

73.67%

2014

Aaron Rodgers

$22,000,000

J.J. Watt

$16,666,667

75.76%

2015

Aaron Rodgers

$22,000,000

Ndamukong Suh

$19,062,500

86.65%

2016

Andrew Luck

$24,564,000

Von Miller

$19,083,333

77.69%

2017

Matthew Stafford

$27,000,000

Von Miller

$19,083,333

70.68%

Total

$155,564,000

$122,452,976

78.72%

The difference between the highest-paid quarterback and non-quarterback when applied to Ryan's $30 million per average yearly salary suggests slightly over $23.6 million per year for Mack or Donald.

Guaranteed money

Contract security is of the utmost importance in the NFL because of the lack of full guarantees. Quarterback Kirk Cousins broke new ground in free agency this year with the NFL's first lucrative fully-guaranteed veteran contract. He signed a three-year, $84 million deal (worth a maximum of $90 million through incentives) with the Vikings. His contract laid the groundwork for Ryan to raise the bar for full guarantees to $94.5 million with his recent deal. In just a matter of months, the amount fully guaranteed at signing has gone up a little more than 55 percent since Matthew Stafford received a five-year, $135 million extension from the Lions last preseason. Stafford's $60.5 million fully guaranteed at signing replaced Suh as the league benchmark. Suh's $59.955 million fully guaranteed had been significantly more than any other NFL player. The next closest was Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, with $47 million fully guaranteed at signing.

France and Segal are likely insisting that some sort of market correction for non-quarterbacks is in order. A way to quantify the adjustment is by first looking at the difference in overall contract guarantees for quarterbacks and non-quarterbacks. The following chart summarizes the disparity between the two in recent years.

YearQuarterbackGuaranteesNon-QBGuarantees% of QB guarantees

2011

Peyton Manning

$51,000,000

Larry Fitzgerald

$45,000,000

88.24%

2012

Drew Brees

$60,500,000

Calvin Johnson

$53,250,000

88.02%

2013

Drew Brees

$60,500,000

Calvin Johnson

$53,250,000

88.02%

2014

Colin Kaepernick

$61,000,000

Calvin Johnson

$53,250,000

87.3%

2015

Philip Rivers/Eli Manning

$65,000,000

Marcell Dareus

$60,000,000

92.31%

2016

Andrew Luck

$87,000,000

Von Miller

$70,000,000

80.46%

2017

Matthew Stafford

$92,000,000

Von Miller

$70,000,000

76.09%

Total

$477,000,000

$404,750,000

84.85%

The $28 million option bonus in Peyton Manning's 2011 contract with the Colts is included as a part of his guaranteed money even though he was released during the team's two-day window to exit the deal after the first year without making the payment. Although an option bonus, which 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, doesn't quite provide the same security as a signing bonus, it's unusual for a team to release a player with a lucrative contract before paying it. The Colts' dismal 2-14 record in 2011 while Manning recovered from a career-threatening neck injury that sidelined him for the season created extenuating circumstances.

Kaepernick was used instead of Brees in 2014 despite just under $13 million being fully guaranteed at signing. This was about one-third of the fully-guaranteed amount in other quarterback deals (Jay Cutler and Tony Romo) at the time with a comparable average yearly salary.

The $4.5 million roster bonus from Johnson's rookie contract, which was payable on the same day as his extension was signed, is being included in his guaranteed money since it was a part of the new contract. This is why Johnson's guaranteed money isn't the $48.75 million sometimes associated with his deal.

The disparity between the most overall guarantees for quarterbacks and non-quarterbacks puts Mack/Donald in the $85 million neighborhood based on Ryan's new benchmark.

The correlation between the most overall guarantees for non-quarterbacks and the corresponding full guarantee could also be a useful tool for Mack and Donald. The chart below highlights the discrepancy.

YearPlayerOverall guaranteesFully guaranteed at signing% of overall guarantee

2011

Larry Fitzgerald

$45,000,000

$35,000,000

77.78%

2012

Calvin Johnson

$53,250,000

$53,250,000

100%

2013

Calvin Johnson

$53,250,000

$53,250,000

100%

2014

Calvin Johnson

$53,250,000

$53,250,000

100%

2015

Marcell Dareus

$60,000,000

$42,900,000

71.5%

2016

Von Miller

$70,000,000

$42,000,000

60%

2017

Von Miller

$70,000,000

$42,000,000

60%

Total

$404,750,000

$321,650,000

79.47%

By applying the difference in these guarantee metrics to the projected almost $85 million in overall guarantees, Mack/Donald would be justified in insisting upon approximately $67.5 million fully guaranteed at signing.

Challenges to reaching an agreement

Based on the information currently in the marketplace, the data suggests the following contract for Mack/Donald.

Average per year: $23.5 million
Overall guarantees: $85 million
Fully guaranteed: $67.5 million
Contract length: 6-year extension

The Raiders and Rams are surely more comfortable with a modest increase over Miller's contract instead of a drastic re-setting of the non-quarterback market. The suggested deal would be nearly 25 percent more than Miller's contract. The modest increase would be in line with the trends of becoming the highest-paid non-quarterback since the lockout. The average increase over the previous standard during the five times when a player has become the highest-paid non-quarterback under the existing CBA is slightly under five percent. The biggest jump was in 2014, when Suh raised the bar by almost 15 percent as he replaced Watt. Standard growth would put Mack/Donald at approximately $20.025 million per year. If my suspicions are in the same general ballpark as France and Segal's actual offers, bridging the gap won't be an easy task.

There are additional dynamics with Mack's situation that don't exist with Donald. Contract security could be just as much of a sticking point as the overall dollars in Mack's negotiations because of Carr's $70.2 million in overall guarantees and $40 million fully guaranteed at signing. Typically, the starting quarterback is a team's standard bearer in most contract metrics when he has a lucrative deal in place.

The Raiders are likely to become the first team in league history with a $20 million-per-year non-quarterback and a $25 million-per-year quarterback. The Rams aren't faced with this dilemma for at least another season. Quarterback Jared Goff, 2016's first-overall pick, is a bargain on his rookie contract. Under CBA rules, he isn't eligible for a new deal until the conclusion of the upcoming regular season. Goff's 2018 and 2019 cap numbers are slightly over $7.6 million and just under $8.9 million. His fifth-year option salary in 2020 could be in the $23 million neighborhood.

A lengthy holdout isn't as viable of an option for Donald as with Mack. Donald didn't earn a year of service of free agency, which is an accrued season in the CBA, due to last year's holdout. A player doesn't get the free-agency service time (i.e.; an accrued season) if he doesn't report to training camp at least 30 days prior to NFL's first regular-season game. It doesn't matter that Donald played 14 games last season, because he missed the reporting deadline. Since Donald has three accrued seasons when four are necessary to become an unrestricted free agent at the expiration of a contract, he really can't afford to miss out on another one. The reporting deadline this year is August 7. Donald would need to be committed to missing multiple regular-season games, if not the entire year, to get what he felt was an appropriate contract after this date.

If Donald missed this August 7 deadline and played out his rookie deal with a failed holdout, it would make him a restricted free agent in 2019. From a practical standpoint, the Rams would probably use a franchise tag on Donald anyway because the first-round pick compensation for restricted free agents wouldn't be enough to deter another team from signing a player of his magnitude to an offer sheet. Getting the year of service isn't a concern for a Mack holdout because he already has the necessary four accrued seasons to qualify for unrestricted free agency should be play out his contract. 

Former Sports Agent

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... Full Bio

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