It has been three months since the start of NFL free agency and the New York Jets and Ryan Fitzpatrick still aren't close on a new deal. There doesn't appear to be an end in sight to the stalemate, with both sides seemingly doing more negotiating in public than with each other.
The Jets recently leaked through the team's beat writers that Fitzpatrick was being offered a three-year contract containing $12 million in the first year. Shortly thereafter, NFL Media's Ian Rapoport revealed that each of the two remaining years had $6 million salaries for a total of $24 million over three years. Factoring in incentives, the deal could be worth as much as $36 million -- with $15 million guaranteed. This offer has reportedly been on the table since March.
Fitzpatrick, who was reportedly looking for at least $15 million per year initially on a long-term deal, indicated last week that he is willing to take the $12 million the Jets have proposed in a multi-year deal for one year to break the impasse. The Jets have no interest giving Fitzpatrick a one year, $12 million contract.
It has been suggested that the Jets could move on from Fitzpatrick sooner rather than later or that he could take less money from another team out of principle. This is likely just posturing and either side is unlikely to follow through on those threats before the start of training camp in late July.
The two sides should be able work out a compromise, which I will propose after first examining what's wrong with each side's approach.
What's wrong with the Jets' approach
The Jets are under no obligation to increase their offer since no other team has been in the same ballpark financially with Fitzpatrick. The take-it-or-leave-it approach adopted by the Jets may be shortsighted. Fitzpatrick is represented by seasoned agent Jimmy Sexton, who also has Julio Jones, Brock Osweiler, and Ndamukong Suh as clients. Sexton is likely to remain a major force in representing NFL players during the foreseeable future. By using leverage to the maximum extent possible, the Jets should be prepared for Sexton to return the favor when the shoe is on the other foot. A little goodwill could be bought for the future with a less heavy-handed approach.
The Jets may have also miscalculated how playing hardball with Fitzpatrick would be received in the locker room. Wide receivers Eric Decker and Brandon Marshall missed OTAs two weeks ago, which may or may not have been in support of Fitzpatrick's contract difficulties.
Whenever there were major contract disputes while I was agent, a majority of clients would ask for my opinon. I would try to be objective but the benefit of the doubt usually went to the player/agent side. If my experiences as an agent are indicative of the agent community as a whole, the Fitzpatrick saga has been a topic of discussion especially among Jets players and their representatives.
At $24 million over three years with another $12 million in incentives, Fitzpatrick is being offered top money for a backup quarterback with a shot to start. The Philadelphia Eagles signed Chase Daniel to a three-year, $21 million deal with $12 million fully guaranteed in March.
Daniel's deal is worth up to $36 million through base salary escalators and incentives. Daniel earns $750,000 annually for throwing 19 touchdown passes in a season. He gets an additional $750,000 for each season he has at least 3,500 passing yards. There are also annual incentives starting at $500,000 for at least 70 percent offensive playtime and eight wins by the Eagles that increase to $1.5 million for 10 wins and a playoff berth with the same playtime threshold. Any incentives earned in a season also increase the next season's base salary by a corresponding amount.
Later in the month, Robert Griffin III (RG3) signed a two-year, $15 million deal with the Cleveland Browns where he is being given an opportunity to win the starting quarterback job. He has $3.5 million of annual incentives based on his playtime, passing yards and passer rating each season.
There's $500,000 for playing between 75 percent and 89.99 percent of Cleveland's offensive plays in a season. The amount increases to $1.5 million with 90 percent playtime. RG3 gets $250,000 with 3,250 to 3,499 passing yards in a season. He has an additional $250,000 for reaching 3,500 yards and $500,000 more at 4,000 yards. A season with a passing rating between 88 and 89.9 (minimum of 224 pass attempts) is worth $250,000. There's additional $250,000 for a 90 passing rating. It increases by another $500,000 with a passer rating of 93 or better.
Fitzpatrick's incentives will need to have higher initial thresholds than the deals for RG3 or Daniel to keep from counting against the Jets' salary cap. Any incentive based on what he or the Jets achieved statistically during the 2015 season will be classified as likely to be earned (LTBE) for 2016 and count toward the cap while anything that wasn't achieved in 2015 will be considered not likely to be earned (NLTBE) and won't count against the cap. Any individual incentive at a lower threshold than Fitzpatrick's 2015 performance will be classified as NLTBE, provided that it is coupled with an allowable team incentive.
Fitzpatrick completed 59.6 percent of his passes (29th in the NFL) for 3,905 yards with 31 touchdowns and 15 interceptions to post an 88.0 passer rating (24th in the NFL). The 31 touchdown passes set a single season franchise record and his 3,905 passing yards were the second-best single season total in team history. He took 94.13 percent of the offensive snaps in 2015.
Why $12 Million for one year is impractical
Fitzpatrick's willingness to accept a one-year, $12 million offer isn't realistic. The Jets aren't in a position to absorb a $12 million cap charge for Fitzpatrick with just a little less than $3.5 million of cap space. Signing first-round pick Darron Lee will take up a good chunk of the existing cap room since he is expected to sign a four-year, $10,221,645 deal with a $1,858,481 2016 cap number. The average salary typically being higher in a multi-year deal than in a one-year contract is also problematic.
Voidable years would need to be added or contracts would need to be restructured to lower Fitzpatrick's 2016 cap number to something more manageable. A deal with 2017 and 2018 contract years that automatically voids seven days before the start of the 2017 league year could be a possibility. Assuming a $9 million signing bonus, the Jets would have a $6 million cap charge in 2017 from the signing bonus proration in those years after they voided. Fitzpatrick's 2016 cap number would be $6 million if he had a $3 million base salary.
Restructuring Darrelle Revis' five-year, $70,121,060 deal could create the most cap room from players under contract because he has a fully guaranteed $17 million salary this year. It's probably better to leave his contract as is since the Jets can walk away from the deal after the 2017 season when there isn't any guaranteed money with minimal cap consequences. This ability could be compromised with a restructure.
Reworking Marshall's deal, which runs through the 2017 season, may be a better idea. He has the third-highest cap number on the team at $9.5 million and there isn't any signing bonus proration with his contract. Decker and Buster Skrine, who have $6.5 million 2016 salaries on $8 million and $7.75 million cap numbers, would be possibilities. Their contracts run through the 2018 season.
How to break the impasse
The Jets should really extend some sort of olive branch through an increased offer. This could potentially alleviate any hard feelings from Fitzpatrick's camp because the Jets would no longer be shoving a deal down their throats. He represents the Jets' best chance to get to the playoffs in 2016, although 2013 second-round pick Geno Smith has been getting good reviews in OTAs and Christian Hackenberg was taken in this year's second round.
Fitzpatrick needs to recognize that his market never developed the way he had hoped. He is a 33-year-old journeyman who doesn't have any other viable starting opportunities. Fitzpatrick was never going to get anything close to Sam Bradford's two-year deal with the Philadelphia Eagles that averages $17.5 million per year and has $22 million fully guaranteed. One big reason: Those three fourth-quarter interceptions in the regular season finale to kill the Jets' playoff hopes.
It might be more constructive for Sexton to focus on getting the base value of Fitzpatrick's deal on par with what his client would earn under the contracts of RG3 or Daniel, including incentives/salary escalators by duplicating his 2015 performance if the Jets continue to balk at a one-year deal. Fitzpatrick would earn $19.5 million over two years with RG3's contract for an average of $9.75 million per year. Under Daniel's contract, he would make $33.5 million in three years ($11,666,667 per year).
The $12 million in the first year and same overall guarantees of the existing three-year offer should be acceptable to both sides. The 2017 and 2018 salaries could be increased from $6 million each to $9 million for a base value of $30 million over three years. $4 million of the $9 million could be in roster bonuses due on the third day of the league year (mid-March 2017 and 2018) to force the Jets to make a quick decision on whether Fitzpatrick would remain a part of the team.
The deal maximum could be $45 million over the three years where $3 million is available in NLTBE incentives and an additional $3 million in salary escalators annually. The first $2 million of the incentives could be based on Fitzpatrick's individual performance with the remaining $1 million contingent on the Fitzpatrick reaching a specified playtime threshold during regular season, like 75 percent, and the Jets' playoff performance. Any incentives earned would be added to the following year's base salary.
A $3 million salary de-escalator could be included in 2017 and 2018 to bring the salaries in those years back to the $6 million level in the current offer if Fitzpatrick didn't play at least 50 percent of the Jets' offensive plays or performed poorly -- such as ranking 25th or lower in passing yards, passer rating and touchdown passes simultaneously -- in the prior season.
A salary de-escalator isn't a foreign concept to Fitzpatrick. His 2011 contract extension with the Buffalo Bills had de-escalators in the 2016 and 2017 contract years based on his playtime in the previous contract years. The inclusion of a mechanism allowing Fitzpatrick to void the remainder of the contract after a Pro Bowl selection on the original ballot also seems appropriate, considering his compensation is at the low end for starting quarterbacks on veteran contracts.