Agent’s Take: 10 key contract-related takeaways from the 2020 offseason through the first wave of free agency

Money was flying fast and furious at the beginning of free agency when it was a seller’s market. With over $1 billion of collective salary cap space, some NFL teams spent like money was burning a hole in their pockets. Predictably, teams began exercising more fiscal restraint a couple of days into the free agent signing period. Nearly all of the consensus best players available when free agency started are off the market. Most notably, edge rusher Jadeveon Clowney and quarterback Jameis Winston remain unsigned. 

Here are a 10 contract related thoughts and key takeaways relating to free agency and the early part of the 2020 offseason. 

1. Quarterback Musical Chairs

Demand is typically greater than supply when it comes to starting quarterbacks and the open market. The opposite occurred in free agency this year when an unprecedented number of starting quarterbacks had expiring contracts. With quarterbacks Andy Dalton, Joe Flacco, Nick Foles and Cam Newton initially on the trading block, it was inevitable that there were going to be more quarterbacks than starting jobs available. 

As expected, Drew Brees stayed put by re-signing with the Saints. Ryan Tannehill did so as well with the four-year, $118 million deal containing $91 million in guarantees ($62 million fully guaranteed) he received from the Titans.
The biggest domino to fall was Tom Brady ending his 20-year tenure with the Patriots to join the Buccaneers. Brady’s move has left Jameis Winston, who had been Tampa Bay’s signal caller since being 2015’s first overall pick, without an obvious landing spot as a starter. He could be looking at becoming one of the league’s highest backup quarterbacks like 2015 second overall pick Marcus Mariota, who received a two-year, $17.6 million deal (worth up to $47.5 million through incentives and salary escalators) from the Raiders. 

With Saints backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater taking a three-year, $63 million deal ($33 million fully guaranteed) from the Panthers, 2015 NFL MVP Cam Newton became expendable. He was subsequently released. The Panthers picked up $19.1 million in salary cap space by parting ways with Newton. Philip Rivers reunited with Colts head coach Frank Reich in Indianapolis. Reich was offensive coordinator with the Chargers, where Rivers just left after 16 years, in 2014 and 2015. 

The Patriots and Chargers don’t appear to be in the market for established veteran starting quarterbacks after losing Brady and Rivers respectively. That’s bad news for Newton in particular.

2. Baffling Bill O’Brien

Trades may very well be Bill O’Brien’s Achilles heel in Houston. He waited too long to maximize edge rusher Jadeveon Clowney trade market last year by dealing him after the July 15 deadline for franchise players to sign long term deals. O’Brien neglecting to get a new deal in conjunction with offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil trade from the Dolphins right before the start of the 2019 regular season was also a mistake. The Texans might as well as give Tunsil a blank contract and have him fill out it in when trying to extend him given the leverage handed to him through the lack of a new contract and the trade compensation, which was essentially two first-round picks and a second-round pick.

O’Brien may have ou done himself in trading three-time first team All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins to the Cardinals. The Texans received running back David Johnson, a 2020 second-round pick and a 2021 fourth-round pick in exchange for Hopkins and a 2020 fourth-round pick. Johnson’s last highly productive season was in 2016 when he led the NFL with 2,118 yards from scrimmage and 20 touchdowns. 

Inexplicably, O’Brien didn’t make the Cardinals eating a portion of Johnson’s fully guaranteed $10.2 million 2020 base salary a requirement for the trade to be completed. This shouldn’t have been a foreign concept to O’Brien because the Texans converted $7 million of Clowney’s $15 million 2019 salary into signing bonus to facilitate his trade to the Seahawks last year.

Hopkins wanting an upgraded contract although he has three years remaining and a deteriorating relationship with O’Brien may be mitigating factors but the return pales in comparison to what the Vikings got from the Bills for Stefon Diggs, an inferior wide receiver. The Bills gave up a 2020 first-round pick, a 2020 fifth-round pick, a 2020 sixth round and a 2021 fourth-round pick to get Diggs and a 2020 seventh-round pick. 

Another dynamic is it was fairly well known in NFL circles that the Bills were looking to improve at wide receiver. It’s fair to wonder whether O’Brien placed a call to the Bills before making the trade considering that former Texans general manager Brian Gaine, who was ousted by O’Brien last June, is now a front office executive in Buffalo. 

3. Todd Gurley’s Gains

The Rams raised some eyebrows in 2018 by dramatically resetting a steadily declining running back market when Todd Gurley had two years remaining on his rookie contract. Gurley signed a four-year, $57.5 million contract extension. The Rams released Gurley last week before his $5 million 2020 base salary and $5 million roster bonus in 2021 became fully guaranteed. 

Gurley didn’t end up playing any of his new contract years since his four-year extension ran from 2020 through 2023. He gets $34.5 million from the 2018 contract thanks to his $7.55 million third day of the 2020 league roster bonus being fully guaranteed last March. If the Rams had let Gurley play out his rookie contract, he would have made $11,949,978 in 2018 and 2019. Gurley is $22,550,022 better off from signing the extension than having his rookie contract expire. It’s a small consolation for the Rams that $2.5 million of Gurley’s $7.55 million roster bonus is subject to an offset, which will come from the one-year deal reportedly worth $6 million he quickly signed with the Falcons.

4. Veteran Quarterback Discounts

Ben Roethlisberger, who is 38, set the older quarterback market last April when the Steelers gave him a two-year, $68 million extension where $37.5 million was fully guaranteed. His contemporaries didn’t follow his lead contractually. Drew Brees gave the Saints a slight break financially for the first time in 2018 when he signed a two-year, $50 million contract. His new deal with the Saints is for the same amount, another $50 million over two years.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Tom Brady didn’t leverage the Chargers and Buccaneers against each other for top dollar. 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. He signed a fully guaranteed two-year, $50 million deal with the Buccaneers. Incentives make the deal worth as much $59 million.

Rivers took a fully guaranteed one-year, $25 million deal from the Colts. Jacoby Brissett, his backup, was scheduled to play out his rookie contract with a $2 million 2019 base salary remaining when he signed through the 2020 season for a total of $30 million over the two years shortly after quarterback Andrew Luck surprisingly retired last preseason. That makes Brissett’s deal a one-year extension for $28 million (i.e.; the new money over the new contract years).

5. When $100 Million Is Really $40 Million

The devil is in the details with NFL lucrative contracts because the money isn’t fully guaranteed as in MLB and the NBA. Amari Cooper signed a five-year, $100 million contract to remain 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 a couple of days ago 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 $10 million 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.

6. Kirk Cousins’ Craftiness

Quarterback Kirk Cousins broke new ground with the NFL’s first lucrative fully guaranteed veteran contract in 2018. He signed a three-year, $84 million deal (worth a maximum of $90 million through incentives) with the Vikings making him the NFL’s highest-paid player at $28 million per year. The contract also contained a no-trade clause and language preventing Minnesota from designating Cousins as their transition player. 

Minnesota’s tight salary cap and the way Mike McCartney, Cousins’ agent, had the contract structured created leverage for Cousins to get a new deal this offseason. Cousins signed a two-year, $66 million extension creating just over $10 million of much-needed 2020 cap relief for the Vikings. His 2020 and 2021 contract years are fully guaranteed at signing, which includes a $30 million signing bonus. Cousins’ $35 million 2022 base salary was guaranteed for injury at signing. The $35 million becomes fully guaranteed on the third day of the 2021 league year (next March). Cousins is perfectly positioned for another extension in two years 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 be $64.8 million (144 percent of Cousins’ 2022 salary cap number). 

7. Cincinnati’s Philosophy Change

The Bengals surprised the NFL community in doing something out of character by being aggressive in free agency. Defensive tackle D.J. Reader was signed to four-year, $53 million deal to set the market for run-stuffing interior defensive linemen. Cornerback Trae Waynes was also given a three-year, $42 million contract. Big money signings of players from other teams in free agency is an unprecedented strategy for the Bengals.

8. Cornerback And Tight End Market Movement

Two stagnant positional markets, cornerback and tight end, finally had some movement. When the 2020 league year began on March 18, Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard was the position’s highest-paid at $15.05 million per year. The top of the market had grown a little over five percent since Nnamdi Asomugha signed a two-year deal with the Raiders in 2009 averaging $14.296 million per year, which was considered a market anomaly at the time. 

Byron Jones became the new cornerback benchmark by signing a five-year, $82.5 million contract averaging $16.5 million per year with the Dolphins. The deal has cornerback records of $54.375 million in guarantees and $46 million fully guaranteed at signing. Darius Slay quickly replaced Jones as the highest-paid cornerback when he signed a three-year, $50.05 million extension ($16,683,333 per year) in connection with his trade from the Lions to the Eagles.

Austin Hooper became the first tight end in league history to sign a contract averaging more than $10 million per year. He joined the Browns on a four-year, $42 million deal with $23 million in guarantees. 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.

9. Melvin Gordon’s Miscalculation

Gordon reportedly turned down $10 million per year during an ill-conceived holdout that lasted until the fourth week of the 2019 season. No other details about the reported offer were ever disclosed. There were reports that Gordon was looking for top tier running back money in the same ballpark as David Johnson’s $13 million per year. 

Gordon never really got untracked last season when he returned. The holdout gave Austin Ekeler, a 2017 undrafted free agent, the opportunity to demonstrate that he was more than just a complementary running back. His 2019 efforts were rewarded with a new four-year, $24.5 million contract (worth a maximum of $26 million through salary escalators) with $15 million in guarantees. The Ekeler deal essentially forced Gordon to find a new home.

A soft free agent market resulted in Gordon signing a reported two-year, $16 million contract containing $13.5 million in guarantees with the Broncos. In hindsight, Gordon would have better off taking the Chargers’ $10 million per year offer if adequately structured. An adequately structured Chargers extension would have surely contained more than the $13.5 million of guarantees in his Broncos deal and had more than $16 million of new money in the first two new contract years.

10. Chase Daniel’s Charmed Life

Daniel continues to make out like a bandit relative to his actual playing opportunities. He’s only thrown 218 passes and started five games during his 11 NFL seasons. Daniel has made slightly over $31 million in the seven NFL seasons since first becoming an unrestricted free agent in 2013. This total will exceed $43 million if Daniel completes the three-year, $13.05 million contract he has signed with the Lions to backup Matthew Stafford. Nice lucrative work if you can get it. 

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