Agent's Take: Inside the financials behind 2020 NFL free agency's biggest deals
How the money breaks down, from a big QB market to huge deals for Amari Cooper, Byron Jones and more
It was a seller's market as usual when the free agent signing period opened on March 18. Most notably, the quarterback carousel spun at a faster pace than ever before, as an unprecedented number of starting quarterbacks had expiring contracts.
Average salary and total compensation are the details about NFL contracts both mentioned most often publicly but the least meaningful. 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 important.
Here's a look at the key contract metrics with 15 of the biggest multi-year deals from the early part of the NFL offseason. Notable contract extensions have been included. Quarterback Philip Rivers' one-year, $25 million deal with the Colts has been omitted because his contract doesn't fit the criteria. The earliest realistic contract exit point for the team is also highlighted with each player.
Tom Brady, QB, Buccaneers
Contract value: $50 million for two years ($25 million per year average)
Contract guarantees: $50 million (no signing bonus)
Fully guaranteed at signing: $50 million
Earliest realistic exit point: None ($50 million earned)
Brady's primary suitors were the Buccaneers and Chargers as he decided to end his 20-year tenure with the Patriots. It shouldn't come as a surprise that Brady didn't leverage the two teams against each other for the most lucrative contract possible. Brady hasn't been interested in getting top dollar since becoming the NFL's highest-paid player in 2010 with a four-year extension averaging $18 million per year.
The maximum value of Brady's contract is $59 million based on his playtime and Tampa Bay's playoff success. He also has a no-trade clause and can't be designated as a franchise or transition player when his contract is expiring, which suggests he plans on playing as a 45-year-old.
Ryan Tannehill, QB, Titans
Contract value: $118 million for four years ($29.5 million per year average)
Contract guarantees: $91 million ($20 million as signing bonus)
Fully guaranteed at signing: $62 million
Three-year cash flow: $91 million
Earliest realistic exit point: 2023 ($91 million earned)
The Titans got a deal done with the 2019 NFL Comeback Player of the Year before the March 16 deadline to designate franchise and transition players. This allowed Tennessee to place a franchise tag on running back Derrick Henry. Since Tannehill's injury-guaranteed $29 million 2022 base salary becomes fully guaranteed next March on the fifth day of the 2021 league year, the deal is essentially a three-year commitment even if his outstanding 2019 season proves to be an anomaly.
Drew Brees, QB, Saints
Contract value: $50 million for two years ($25 million per year average)
Contract guarantees: $25 million (no signing bonus)
Fully guaranteed at signing: $25 million
Earliest realistic exit point: 2021 ($25 million earned)
Just as in 2018 when Brees signed a two-year, $50 million contract, he gave the Saints another break financially this time around. Brees' new deal is structured just like the 2018 contract. His $23 million roster bonus that was due on March 22 is being treated as signing bonus for salary cap purposes because it was fully guaranteed when the deal was signed. The roster bonus is prorated at $5.75 million on the salary cap through 2023. That's because of 2022 and 2023 contract years automatically voiding on the last day of the 2021 league year in mid-March 2022.
Saints head coach Sean Payton anticipates the 41-year-old Brees will retire after the 2020 season. If that's the case, the Saints will have to deal with $22.65 million in salary cap charges (i.e., dead money) relating to the bonus proration in Brees' 2021 through 2023 contract years.
Amari Cooper, WR, Cowboys
Contract value: $100 million for five years ($20 million per year average)
Contract guarantees: $60 million ($10 million as signing bonus)
Fully guaranteed at signing: $40 million
Three-year cash flow: $60 million
Earliest realistic exit point: 2022 ($40 million earned)
Cooper became the NFL's second highest-paid wide receiver by average yearly salary at $20 million per year when he re-signed with the Cowboys. Curiously, Cooper's deal wasn't structured as player friendly as the five-year, $105 million contract defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence signed with the Cowboys last year as a franchise player.
As an unrestricted free agent with the Redskins, an NFC East rival, in pursuit, Cooper should have been able to leverage the interest into a better structure than in Lawrence's deal. Instead, Lawrence's third-year salary in 2021 was fully guaranteed last week on March 22 while Cooper's third-year salary in 2022 doesn't become fully guaranteed until the fifth day of that league year. In other words, the third-year guarantee for Lawrence vests a year earlier contractually than Cooper's.
It wouldn't matter as much if Cooper had gotten the same $25 million signing bonus as Lawrence because he would be better protected from a potential release in 2022 than with his actual signing bonus. If Cooper isn't producing, the Cowboys can pick up $16 million of salary cap space by releasing him in 2022 before the full guarantee is activated. Dallas would only have a $6 million cap charge from the remaining proration of Cooper's $10 million signing bonus.
By contrast, it's going to be much more difficult for Dallas to move on from Lawrence next offseason when entering the third year of his contract if he underperforms in 2020. The Cowboys will have a $32 million cap charge for releasing Lawrence next offseason unless a post-June 1 designation is used because his $17 million 2021 base salary is already fully guaranteed. The $32 million is $10 million more than Lawrence's actual 2021 cap number. Dallas would get some sort of cap relief because Lawrence's 2021 guarantee has an offset.
Byron Jones, CB, Dolphins
Contract value: $82.5 million for five years ($16.5 million per year average)
Contract guarantees: $54.375 million ($10.5 million as signing bonus)
Fully guaranteed at signing: $46 million
Three-year cash flow: $54.375 million
Earliest realistic exit point: 2023 ($54.375 million earned)
Jones became the new benchmark for a stagnant cornerback market, replacing new teammate Xavien Howard, whose five-year extension from last offseason averages $15.05 million per year. Jones has a cornerback record $54.375 million in overall guarantees. More importantly, Jones' $46 million fully guaranteed at signing is the NFL's fifth-most for a non-QB.
Kirk Cousins, QB, Vikings
Contract value: $66 million on two-year extension ($33 million per year average)
Contract guarantees: $96 million ($30 million as signing bonus)
Fully guaranteed at signing: $61 million
Earliest realistic exit point: None ($96 million earned)
Minnesota's tight salary cap and the way Cousins' fully guaranteed three-year contract from 2018 was structured created leverage for him to get a new deal this offseason. The contract contained a no-trade clause and language preventing Minnesota from designating Cousins as transition player. It would have been $44.64 million to put a franchise tag on Cousins next offseason.
The Vikings created just over $10 million of much needed cap relief with Cousins' two-year extension. The total contract guarantees greatly exceed the $66 million of new money in the extension because Cousins had one year remaining on his contract for 2020, which is fully guaranteed, and his injury-guaranteed $35 million 2022 base salary becomes fully guaranteed on the third day of the 2021 league year (next March). Cousins is perfectly positioned for another extension in 2022 because of a $45 million 2022 salary cap number, the early vesting of his 2022 salary guarantee and putting a franchise tag on him in 2023 would cost $64.8 million (144 percent of Cousins' 2022 salary cap number).
Contract value: $63 million for three years ($21 million per year average)
Contract guarantees: $33 million ($15 million as signing bonus)
Fully guaranteed at signing: $33 million
Earliest realistic exit point: 2022 ($42 million earned)
Bridgewater capitalized on the five games he started for the Saints in 2019, all victories, while Drew Brees was sidelined with a thumb injury. His performance led to him finding a starting quarterback job in free agency. Bridgewater's signing by the Panthers made 2015 NFL MVP Cam Newton expendable. Newton was subsequently released. The Panthers picked up $19.1 million in salary cap space by parting ways with Newton. Bridgewater's performance in 2020 could be pivotal in determining whether he is the long-term answer for the Panthers or just a stopgap or bridge quarterback.
DeForest Buckner, DT, Colts
Contract value: $84 million on four-year extension ($21 million per year average)
Contract guarantees: $56.378 million (no signing bonus)
Fully guaranteed at signing: $39.378 million
Three-year cash flow: $56.378 million
Earliest realistic exit point: 2023 ($56.378 million earned)
The Colts gave the 49ers the 13th overall pick in the upcoming NFL Draft to get Buckner, who was scheduled to play under a $12.378 million fifth-year option in 2020. Buckner joins the exclusive $20 million per year non-quarterback club, which now has seven members, with the four-year contract extension he received in connection with his trade. At $21 million per year, Buckner is tied with Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence as the league's fourth highest-paid non-quarterback.
Arik Armstead, DL, 49ers
Contract value: $85 million for five years ($17 million per year average)
Contract guarantees: $45.85 million ($17.5 million as signing bonus)
Fully guaranteed at signing: $34.15 million
Three-year cash flow: $50 million
Earliest realistic exit point: 2023 ($50 million earned)
Armstead and DeForest Buckner were an either-or proposition for a long-term future in San Francisco. Signability played a factor in San Francisco's decision. Armstead's deal was kept in line with the contract fellow defensive lineman Dee Ford received last year when he was traded from the Chiefs after being given a franchise tag. It's a more player-friendly deal than Ford's structurally. Armstead is one of the few 49ers who has his second-year base salary (2021) fully guaranteed at signing. The 49ers also structured Armstead's contract with a $7.5 million option bonus next year, which is prorated on the salary cap like a signing bonus from 2021 through a voiding 2025 contract year. The practical effect of the option bonus is additional dead money if Armstead isn't living up to his contract because of the extra bonus proration.
Darius Slay, CB, Eagles
Contract value: $50.05 million on three-year extension ($16,683,333 per year average)
Contract guarantees: $30.05 million ($13 million as signing bonus)
Fully guaranteed at signing: $26.05 million
Three-year cash flow: $43.05 million
Earliest realistic exit point: 2022 ($26.55 million earned)
Slay quickly replaced Bryon Jones as the league's highest-paid cornerback by average salary when he received a new deal as a part of his trade from the Lions. Jones remains the benchmark in the other more important contract metrics. Slay will be vulnerable in 2022 when his salary cap number is $19.75 million unless he continues to be a Pro Bowl caliber cornerback. He'll be 31 at that time.
Anthony Castonzo, OT, Colts
Contract value: $33 million for two years ($16.5 million per year average)
Contract guarantees: $17 million (no signing bonus)
Fully guaranteed at signing: $17 million
Earliest realistic exit point: 2021 ($17 million earned)
Castonzo becomes the NFL's highest-paid left tackle by average salary at $16.5 million per year after contemplating retirement. His $16 million 2021 salary is unsecured, but the Colts will need to make an early decision on keeping him because $6 million of the money is a fifth day of the 2021 league year roster bonus. The deal is worth as much as $34 million because of $500,000 in annual incentives for being selected to the Pro Bowl or first team All-Pro. These honors have eluded Castonzo in his nine NFL seasons.
The Colts could have saved a little money by using a $14.781 million franchise tag on Castonzo instead. A second franchise tag in 2021 at the NFL collective bargaining agreement mandated 20 percent increase would have been $17,737,200. Castonzo will make $33 million by playing out his contract. It would have been $32,518,200 playing under two straight franchise tags.
James Bradberry, CB, Giants
Contract value: $43.5 million for three years ($14.5 million per year average)
Contract guarantees: $31.9 million ($9 million as signing bonus)
Fully guaranteed at signing: $29.9 million
Earliest realistic exit point: 2022 ($30 million earned)
Conventional wisdom suggested that Bradberry would rejoin former Panthers head coach Ron Rivera with the Redskins. He landed with another one of his connections. Giants general manager Dave Gettleman selected Bradberry in the second round of the 2016 draft when he was running the Panthers.
Jack Conklin, OT, Browns
Contract value: $42 million for three years ($14 million per year average)
Contract guarantees: $30 million ($15 million as signing bonus)
Fully guaranteed at signing: $30 million
Earliest realistic exit point: 2022 ($30 million earned)
Conklin should thank the Titans for declining to pick up a $12.866 million fifth-year option on him for the 2020 season. He was coming off a challenging season returning from the right ACL he tore during a January 2018 AFC playoff game when the decision on the option year was made last May. Conklin bounced back in 2019 to display more of the form that got him named first-team All-Pro at right tackle as a rookie in 2016.
Conklin's contract contains voiding 2023 and 2024 contract years so the annual signing bonus proration is $3 million instead of $5 million. The three-year deal gives Conklin the chance to cash in again because he will be hitting the open market in 2023 when he's 28.
Javon Hargrave, DT, Eagles
Contract value: $39 million for three years ($13 million per year average)
Contract guarantees: $30 million ($11.75 million as signing bonus)
Fully guaranteed at signing: $26 million
Earliest realistic exit point: 2022 ($26 million earned)
Hargrave's deal moved the needle for interior defensive linemen who aren't known as pass rushers. Eagles executive vice-president of football operations Howie Roseman was able to fit Hargrave in on a $3.45 million 2020 salary cap number because of a $1 million base salary and two voiding years in 2023 and 2024 were added to the contract. Voiding contract years are something Roseman has started using frequently with high end contracts. Hargrave's cap number jumps to $15.2 million next year.
Austin Hooper, TE, Browns
Contract value: $42 for four years ($10.5 million per year average)
Contract guarantees: $23 million ($10 million as signing bonus)
Fully guaranteed at signing: $18.5 million
Three-year cash flow: $32.5 million
Earliest realistic exit point: 2022 ($23 million earned)
Hooper is the first tight end in league history to sign a contract averaging more than $10 million per year. Prior to Hooper, Jimmy Graham had been the standard at $10 million per year. Graham first hit the mark in a 2014 deal with the Saints. He was still the league's only $10 million per year tight end until the Packers released him from the three-year, $30 million contract he signed in 2018 free agency days before the 2020 league year started. The Browns added a voiding 2024 contract year so Hooper's $10 million signing bonus could be prorated over five years instead of four years.
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