Who really got the best NFL free-agent deals? Let's go behind the numbers

ByDan Graziano ESPN logo
Monday, March 19, 2018

The first week of NFL free agency brings a flood of news and numbers. Gotta be careful with those numbers, though. NFL contract figures aren't always what they're initially cracked up to be.

A dive into some of the hard numbers of this year's deals shows a willingness by some teams (for some players) to shell out big cash in the first year. But a lot of these deals are still structured in a way that allows teams relatively easy ways to escape after only a year or two. So when you hear the initial numbers, be careful not to get too excited. As always, the truth lies in the details.

For example, look at two of the big offensive lineman deals of the first wave:

Even accounting for the difference in value between tackles and centers, Solder's deal has several elements that make it a more desirable deal than Richburg's. Solder gets a $15.5 million signing bonus and fully guaranteed salaries of $5.9 million in 2018 and $12.9 million in 2019. He's absolutely guaranteed to see every penny of the $34.8 million the Giants owe him over the next two years. And while nothing is guaranteed beyond 2019, the Giants have to decide on a $3 million roster bonus by the first day of the 2020 league year and a $4 million roster bonus by the first day of the 2021 league year. So if they want to move on, Solder will know in time to hit free agency when it opens each of those two years.

By contrast, the 49ers are really not tied to Richburg beyond 2018. He gets a $9.3 million signing bonus, a $3 million fully guaranteed 2018 salary and a $4.2 million 2018 roster bonus that paid out Sunday. That's $16.5 million just this year, which is excellent. But while his $5.5 million 2019 salary and his $6.5 million 2020 salary are injury-guaranteed, the Niners can still cut Richburg healthy as late as March 31 each of those two seasons. Those salaries don't fully guarantee until April 1 of their respective years. If the Niners want to find a better solution at center -- as they apparently did this year, signing Richburg and trading away recently signed Daniel Kilgore-- they can wait two or three weeks into free agency before setting Richburg free, which could theoretically cost him dearly.

These are the kinds of details that really separate the good NFL deals from the not-so-good ones, and that's why we like to do this annual look at free agency to see whether we can figure out who really did well and what kinds of trends are emerging.

So please enjoy a few hopefully enlightening observations from the first week of 2018 NFL free agency:

1. Trumaine Johnson played the franchise game as well as Kirk Cousins did

Quarterbacks get the headlines, so everybody knew that Cousins played his way through two straight franchise-tag seasons in Washington before hitting free agency this offseason and collecting his three-year, fully guaranteed $84 million deal from Minnesota. But Johnson was doing the same thing with the Rams at the less-heralded position of cornerback.

Johnson played on a $13.925 million franchise tag with the Rams in 2016 and a $16.742 million franchise tag in 2017. Franchising him for a third straight year would have cost the Rams $24.108 million, so they didn't do that, and he signed with the Jets for a deal with a top-line value that comes in at five years, $72.5 million. But the best part of Johnson's deal is the structure. He is absolutely guaranteed to make $34 million of that $72.5 million.

Johnson's $20 million signing bonus is the highest ever for a cornerback and the eighth-highest ever for a non-quarterback. He'll make that, plus a fully guaranteed $6 million salary this year and a fully guaranteed $8 million salary in 2019. His $11 million salary in 2020 is guaranteed against injury, and it guarantees fully if he's still on the roster on the third day of the 2020 league year. Which means, if he's healthy, the Jets will have to decide pretty early whether to pay him $11 million in 2020 or send him back out onto the market at age 30.

You need to have a fair bit of patience and self-belief if you're going to play the franchise-tag game the way Johnson and Cousins did. But if you do, it can pay off. From 2016-19, Johnson will end up having made $64.7 million in fully guaranteed money over four years -- an average of $16.175 million a year, for a cornerback.

2. Sammy Watkins was among the other big winners

Watkins' $21 million signing bonus from the Chiefs is the 16th-highest ever, the fourth-highest ever for a non-quarterback and the highest ever for a wide receiver. Obviously, that's guaranteed, as is his $790,000 2018 salary and $8.21 million of his $11.95 million 2019 salary. Which means $30 million in real guarantees at signing and a contract structure that would make it tough for the Chiefs to cut Watkins after only one season. His top-line numbers are $48 million for three years, but he's guaranteed to make at least 62.5 percent of that, and the chances of him earning his full 2019 salary are high.

Of the 54 multiyear deals I've reviewed so far, 23 have at least some fully guaranteed money in 2019, and 11 have full guarantees for 2019. The list of players (in addition to Solder and Johnson) whose new deals include full guarantees for 2019 include: Chiefs linebacker Anthony Hitchens, Bears tight end Trey Burton, Texans cornerback Aaron Colvin, Chargers tight end Virgil Green, Jaguars wide receiver Marqise Lee, Titans defensive end DaQuan Jones, Jaguars guard Andrew Norwell and, believe it or not, Bears kicker Cody Parkey. Parkeygets $5.5 million fully guaranteed this year and $3.5 million fully guaranteed in 2019. If you got a deal that doesn't allow your team an out in March or April of 2019, you got a good deal.

3. Drew Brees really did the Saints a solid

If Cousins got $28 million a year, what could Brees have made on the open market? The answer is that we'll never know, because Brees made good on his vow not to leave New Orleans. Look, he's getting $27 million in cash this year, so it's not as if he's crying poverty. But the notion that Brees couldn't have secured a deal worth as much per year as Jimmy Garoppolo's or Cousins' if Brees had taken other teams' calls is obviously crazy.

With nothing guaranteed in the deal beyond this year, the 39-year-old Brees is clearly willing to go year-to-year and help the Saints build and maintain a playoff-caliber roster around him. You wonder if anything would have been different if the Saints hadn't nailed the 2017 draft and opened this new late-career window for Brees, but based on the way he did his last deal in 2016, you have to think it would have been the same. Brees has made his money, and he has built a life and career in New Orleans. His days as a top-of-the-market contract crusader are in the past.

4. Progress on guarantees?

A lot of focus this year is on guaranteed money. NBA free agency annually brings complaints from NFL players and observers about why NFL players can't get fully guaranteed deals. So Cousins signs with Minnesota for three years fully guaranteed, and now we want to know whether that's a sign of things to come.

Answer: Maybe, but it's going to take a while.

Unless you're a healthy starting quarterback in the prime of your career who can wait out the franchise-tag process the way Cousins did, you're not about to strut into some team's facility and effectively demand a fully guaranteed deal. It matters that Cousins did what he did, and it could enable stars like Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan to get fully guaranteed extensions this summer if they decide to dig in on that point. But the rank and file is still moving somewhat glacially toward guaranteed deals.

The NFL Players Association says that the first 54 deals it processed during this free-agent cycle (Cousins wasn't one of them) had a combined total value of $1.00247 billion, and that $487.88 million of that was guaranteed. That's about 49 percent, which the union says is a figure that shows improvement over this same stage of previous seasons. It's progress, even if it's slow and will remain slow.

5. The significance of 2020

The three-year deals aren't a coincidence, because that's how many years are left on the current collective bargaining agreement. Nobody knows what the rules will be for contracts and the salary cap in 2021 and beyond, or whether another lockout looms in 2021. TV deals expire around that time too, so projecting league revenue much further into the future is also risky.

But 2020 is a weird year, per the collective bargaining agreement, and its weirdness is likely to continue to affect contract structures this year and over the next two. The CBA, for example, establishes a "30 percent rule." Any player under contract in 2020 and beyond is prohibited from earning a salary more than 30 percent higher than his 2020 salary in any subsequent season. So, for example, the Hitchens deal runs through 2022, but his salary actually goes down from $7.8 million in 2020 to $5.8 million in 2021 before rising again to $7.8 million in 2022.

Another 2020-specific rule to watch is one that allows teams to designate one franchise player and one transition player that year, as opposed to one or the other. And it's also worth noting that there are no post-June 1 release designations allowed in 2020, which could affect the way teams make decisions on roster cuts as early as next year. As the end of the current CBA draws closer, teams and agents are going to have to work even harder to structure deals in ways that dance around that ominous "final league year."

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