When word broke earlier today (courtesy of Jay Glazer of FOX) that 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis had signed a five-year, $50 million extension, we immediately considered the much-discussed (but rarely understood) 30-percent rule, which severely limits the raises that can be paid to players with existing contracts in an uncapped year.
Under contract for two more years, the 49ers needed to find a way to pay Willis without dumping too much money into a first-year signing bonus.
They did it by giving him a relatively manageable signing bonus of $15.5 million, along with a second signing bonus (technically known as a “supersede signing bonus”) of $4.8 million in 2011. Basically, a new contract kicks in next year, with a new signing bonus. And none of the money counts against the 30-percent rule.
Other teams have used the supersede signing bonus, primarily in rookie deals. It provides a vehicle for dealing with the CBA ruling that prevents teams from recovering any portion of an option bonus. If the second balloon payment is a signing bonus, it’s subject to full or partial prorated recovery if the player holds out or retires.
Here’s the catch, as it relates to Willis. The $4.8 million is guaranteed for injury only, in order to permit the 49ers to avoid the requirement of fully funding the payment now.
Our initial reaction to this news was to wonder whether the same device could be used to allow the Titans to re-sign running back Chris Johnson to a deal that he deems acceptable. The problem is that, because Johnson’s cap number is significantly lower that Willis’s, even more money would have to be dumped into the signing bonus and the supersede signing bonus. And teams are reluctant to commit so much money to players, even if the supersede signing bonus is guaranteed for injury only.
So, in other words, the supersede signing bonus likely won’t provide an easy answer to the contractual conundrum that the Titans are facing with Chris Johnson.
Meanwhile, check back tomorrow morning for a comprehensive look at the pros and cons of the Patrick Willis deal. It fairly can be described as a deal worth less than what Willis could have or should have gotten. Under the circumstances, however, it also fairly can be characterized as a strong contract.