Kirk Cousins broke new ground by signing the NFL's first lucrative fully guaranteed veteran contract as an unrestricted free agent in 2018. The Vikings gave the quarterback a three-year, $84 million deal worth up to $90 million with incentives, which made him the league's highest-paid player at $28 million per year.
The hope was Cousins' deal would be the catalyst to more fully guaranteed contracts in the NFL. The door Cousins opened quickly shut with the next two quarterbacks who signed for more than he did.
Matt Ryan became the NFL's first $30 million-per-year player a couple of months later. The five-year, $150 million contract extension Ryan received from the Falcons had NFL records of $100 million in overall guarantees and $94.5 million fully guaranteed at signing.
Aaron Rodgers replaced Ryan as the league's highest-paid player that preseason. He signed a four-year, $134 million extension with the Packers worth a maximum of $138 million through salary escalators and incentives. There were $98.2 million of guarantees, which included the largest signing bonus ever at the time of $57.5 million.
It took four years for there to be another fully guaranteed veteran contract of a greater magnitude than Cousins' deal. Nobody expected Deshaun Watson to get a fully guaranteed, five-year, $230 million contract in March as part of his trade from the Texans to the Browns because of his alleged inappropriate sexual conduct during numerous massage sessions. It is expected that Watson will begin the 2022 regular season serving a suspension for a violation of the NFL's personal conduct policy.
Watson had four years worth $136 million remaining on the four-year extension averaging $39 million per year he signed with the Texans in September 2020. He has the type of guaranteed money typically in lucrative NBA contracts.
Kyler Murray just became the first quarterback since Watson signed to top his deal. The Cardinals gave Murray a five-year, $230.5 million extension worth up to $238 million through salary escalators. There's $160 million in overall guarantees where $103.3 million is fully guaranteed at signing. The 2019 first overall pick has an unprecedented clause in his contract requiring four hours of independent film study during each week of the regular season to prevent his guarantees from voiding.
Pick Six Newsletter
Crafted By The Best NFL Experts
Get the day's big stories + fun stuff you love like mock drafts, picks and power rankings.
Thanks for signing up!
Keep an eye on your inbox.
There was an error processing your subscription.
A fully guaranteed contract never seemed like a realistic possibility for Murray because the Cardinals aren't considered a cash-rich team. Meeting the NFL's archaic funding rules, where teams are required to put into an escrow account the amount of any guarantees in a contract other than those just for injury, including ones in future contract years, was going to problematic for the Cardinals.
Murray's signing bonus in his rookie contract wasn't paid in a lump sum like 2019 second overall pick Nick Bosa got from the 49ers as $6,839,924 of Murray's $23,589,924 signing bonus was deferred until March 1, 2020.
The next quarterback to receive a big payday should be Lamar Jackson. The 2018 first-round pick is scheduled to play this season under a $23.016 million fifth-year option.
It is unknown whether getting a fully guaranteed contract is a priority for Jackson, who represents himself. Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti acknowledged the potential impact of Watson's contract at the NFL owners meetings in March. "I wish they hadn't guaranteed the whole contract," Bisciotti said. "I don't know that he should've been the first guy to get a full guaranteed contract. To me, that's something that's groundbreaking, and it'll make negotiations harder with others." He also added, "But it doesn't necessarily mean that we have to play that game, you know? We shall see."
Nonetheless, Jackson would be justified in insisting on a fully guaranteed contract comparable to Watson's. He is more accomplished than Watson. Jackson established a new single-season quarterback rushing record with 1,206 yards on the ground and led the NFL with 36 touchdown passes in 2019 when he was league MVP. He was also the first player to have at least 3,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards in the same season.
Watson has never been a first team All-Pro, let alone NFL MVP. There also aren't any concerns about Jackson's off-the-field behavior.
The conditions could be favorable for Russell Wilson to get a fully guaranteed deal even if Jackson doesn't. Broncos general manager George Paton indicated on Tuesday that a Wilson deal will get done at the right time.
Wilson, who has two years left on his contract worth $50 million, should have considerable leverage because of his acquisition cost. The Broncos gave the Seahawks multiple players (tight end Noah Fant, defensive lineman Shelby Harris and quarterback Drew Lock), 2022 and 2023 first-round picks, 2022 and 2023 second-round picks and a 2022 fifth-round pick for Wilson and 2022 fourth-round pick.
Mark Rodgers, Wilson agent, hasn't been afraid to think outside of the box. He reportedly proposed tying Wilson's compensation in the latter years of a contract to the growth in salary cap during previous negotiations with the Seahawks. A fully guaranteed contract might be particularly appealing to Rodgers because of his experience as a baseball agent where he's accustomed to dealing with completely secure deals.
The ownership group buying the Broncos, led by Walmart heir Rob Walton, has deep pockets. Walton will easily be the NFL's richest owner with an estimated net worth of $58.3 billion, according to Forbes. The NFL's funding rules won't be an issue for him.
The same probably isn't true for family-run organizations like the Bengals and Chargers. In just two NFL seasons with the Bengals and Chargers, respectively, 2020 first-round picks Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert have entered into the elite-quarterback discussion. Burrow and Herbert will be eligible to sign extensions once the 2022 regular season ends next January.
Bengals president Mike Brown has already acknowledged that retaining Burrow is the organization's main focus. Cincinnati's veteran contracts have an antiquated and vanilla structure. The only true guaranteed money is in a signing bonus. Unsecured March roster bonuses in the second and/or third contract years, typically due on the third or fifth day of the league year, are supposed to be substitutes for additional contact guarantees. A refusal to include traditional guarantees in any new contract should be a deal-breaker for Burrow at this point.
The Chargers established records for total guarantees and money fully guaranteed at signing with non-quarterbacks in edge rusher Joey Bosa's 2020 extension. It wouldn't be surprising for the Chargers to set new benchmarks with Herbert in these contract metrics for quarterbacks without fully guaranteed contracts.
Whether history repeats itself like in 2018 will depend on the ability of the next quarterbacks in line for paydays, particularly Jackson and Wilson, to capitalize on Watson's contract. Watson will likely become an outlier because of his unique circumstances with those two getting traditional contract structures. Multiple teams were recruiting Watson to waive his no-trade clause, so he was more like a free agent than the typical contract-extension candidate where there's a closed negotiation only with the player's team. It might take another quarterback willing to embrace franchise tags like Cousins did and hit the open market for there to be another fully guaranteed veteran contract if that door shuts again.