Are the monster contracts of the 2014 NFL free-agency period being paid out in Monopoly money?
That's what some folks seem to think.
Players are signing four- and five-year deals with huge maximum values. At the time of this writing, per Bleacher Report NFL lead writer Michael Schottey, over a billion dollars' worth of free-agent contracts have been signed—and free agency is just a week old.
Yet, as CBS Sports' Jason LaCanfora pointed out, numbers can lie. For years, NFL contracts have been heavily backloaded; this lets teams do clever accounting to spread out the hit of heavy up-front money. In 2013, Darrelle Revis signed a six-year deal with the Buccaneers worth $96 million; in 2014 the Buccaneers cut him.
Many of the richest contracts signed this week seem designed to be torn up after just a year or two. With heavy roster bonuses and exponentially increasing base salaries, teams are clearly building themselves an out in case the player doesn't play up to his lofty play.
Did the owners really "win" the last round of CBA negotiations? Are the players getting screwed out of their rightful pay, their eyes bedazzled by sky-high maximum payouts they'll never earn?
In a word, no.
The NFL and NFLPA have never been able to agree on how long the average career is. The NFLPA says it's "about three-and-a-half seasons," while NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said if a rookie's good enough to make his team's opening-day roster, it's "very close to six years."
Either way, under the old salary structure, most NFL players wouldn't ever play out the length of their rookie deals; excepting the early first-round picks, those deals weren't rich enough to set a player up for life.
Meanwhile, those first-rounders were signing outrageous contracts. 2010 No. 1 overall pick Sam Bradford's rookie deal, per Spotrac.com, was a six-year, $76 million deal with $50 million guaranteed. That's much, much bigger than any of the free-agent contracts inked this week, and all of that money went to a player who'd never played a down in the NFL.
During the 2011 lockout, NFLPA Vice President of Communications George Atallah told Stephen J. Dubner of Freakonomics.com the players were pushing for reduced rookie salaries and shorter rookie contracts. Why?
The players wanted money "shifted away from high, 'unproven' first-round picks and towards veterans and former players," and to get players to the open market of free agency much faster.
The NFL is a win-now league, today more so than ever. Coaches are fired more quickly than ever, and players are given up on more quickly than ever. The pressure to win is so intense that the instant anyone—player, coach, staff, janitor—isn't earning their pay, they're sent packing. The days of beloved old veterans or coaches "naming their price" or being allowed to retire on their own terms are long gone.
In the NFL, nobody is on scholarship.
When a player hits the open market, his valuation is exposed to market forces—that is, he'll get paid whatever teams are willing to offer. Why does the new CBA shorten rookie deals? Because both owners and players have a vested interest in getting players to market early and often.
Excellent young NFL players like two-time All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman spend less time waiting to get paid the money they deserve, and NFL teams spend way fewer dollars on players who aren't living up to their contracts.
But what about players who don't outplay their deals? What if they get signed to a massive contract, and then get cut a year or two after collecting all the up-front money? Where's the security? Where's the loyalty? Where's the guarantee?
Here's a hint: It's in all the up-front money.
Better Than It's Ever Been
In 1995, the Detroit Lions selected Utah defensive tackle Luther Elliss with their first-round pick, No. 20 overall. He went on to have a 10-year NFL career, making two Pro Bowls in the process, and becoming a fixture in the community.
Per Jason Cole, then of the Orlando Sun-Sentinel, Elliss's rookie deal was worth $5.026 million over five years, $1 million of which was a signing bonus. Elliss made a total of $11.6 million across his second and third contracts, per Mlive.com, bringing his career earnings just over $16 million.
Ellis had as good of an NFL career as anyone could ask for, much, much better than most. Still, it took his entire career to build up that money, but a couple of bad investments and one real-estate market crash made him lose almost everything, per Mlive.
2013's No. 20 overall pick, Chicago Bears guard Kyle Long, received a $4.4 million signing bonus on his four-year rookie deal, which per Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune has a total value of $8.3 million. Excepting the $759,790 roster bonus due three days into the fourth season, the entire contract is guaranteed versus skill, injury and cap situations.
If the Bears exercise their fifth-year club option, Long will have earned nearly what Elliss did across his entire career in his first five seasons—and then Long will be an unrestricted free agent.
This season, a talented young offensive lineman who could play either guard or tackle hit the market: Anthony Collins. Though Long doesn't project to left tackle quite like Collins does, Collins hasn't ever been a full-time starter, let alone made the Pro Bowl as a rookie like Long did.
LaCanfora picked apart Collins' announced five-year, $30 million deal to see that the Bengals would only have to eat $3 million in guaranteed money if they cut him after one season.
Even if Long signed that same deal in 2018, got hurt, and got cut, he'd still have earned about $18.3 million over just six years in the NFL.
That's set-for-life money—and, unlike Elliss, Long was able to earn interest on millions of it during his career.
For late-round picks who come good, like Sherman, they may only get one blockbuster deal. If Sherman rakes $12 million guaranteed in the first year of his eventual megadeal, as LaCanfora reports new Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib has, he'll only need that one year to be set for life.
Even if Sherman somehow signs a blockbuster and never plays again, he'll never need to work again.
The Sky's the Limit
None of this takes into account the cap growing over time, either; ESPN's Adam Schefter reports league insiders think the cap could top $150 million per team by 2016—and when Long hits free agency in 2018, it could be much higher.
This was the express goal of the NFLPA in the last round of negotiations: To make it so the "average" player Goodell described (a productive five-to-seven year veteran) gets their fair share of the billions being earned off their work. In today's NFL, signing a multi-year free-agent contract guarantees real-world financial security, even if the contract itself isn't guaranteed or secure.
As long as we keep watching the games in person, on TV and online, buying gear and following our teams and players with the same passion we always have, the men wearing our favorite teams' helmets won't ever have to hold out their hat.