It’s easy to say that NFL contracts should be fully guaranteed. In theory, every player should want that.
In practice, fully-guaranteed contracts could create plenty of problems, both for teams and for players. Especially for younger players trying either to get a job or to get paid a fair salary.
Assume, for example, that Adrian Peterson’s contract were fully guaranteed through 2017. With $12.75 million committed this year, $14.75 million committed next year, and $16.75 million committed in 2017, the Vikings would have far less flexibility to pay other players under the hard-cap system the NFL uses.
And if Peterson’s skills were to suddenly decline in 2015, the Vikings would be stuck with a guy who is no longer earning his keep, but in turn unable to properly compensate the player(s) who would be carrying the load on his behalf.
The truth is that if the NFL had fully-guaranteed contracts, the Vikings never would have loaded so much money into the last two years of the Peterson deal. The contract either would have been shorter in duration, or it would have paid out far fewer dollars beyond the running back witching hour of his 30th birthday.
Having NFL contracts that aren’t fully guaranteed ensures that the game will remain closer to a meritocracy, with the best players getting the most money and earning the playing time. If/when those players are no longer earning the playing time, they’ll no longer be getting the dollars. Which is how the system currently works.
Already, too many players who don’t deserve to be in the starting lineup up get those spots at least in part to justify their contracts and/or their draft status. Fully-guaranteed contracts would give teams another reason to keep trotting out a player who may no longer be better than his backup, because if the highly-paid player with the guaranteed contract isn’t playing, the fans and the media will have another reason to lobby the owner to fire the guy who signed the player to that contract in the first place.
In a cap-driven system, fully-guaranteed contracts can become as problematic as the pre-2011 system for paying guys taken at the top of the draft. Previously, unproven players who never became contributors sucked millions out of the system that could have gone to players who deserve it. Fully-guaranteed contracts would potentially do the same thing on the back end of a career, allowing a player who isn’t what he used to be to coast to the finish line, collecting checks that otherwise should go to the guys who are getting the job done.
With an ever-growing cap and a spending minimum that keeps pushing higher and higher, the players will get paid. It’s better for the players who are contributing to get paid. Fully-guaranteed contracts could keep that from happening.
With fully-guaranteed contracts, some teams would likely insist on shorter-term deals. And that would give players more flexibility to change teams or to get more money. But it also would make it harder for players to receive a major, multi-year, life-changing contract, because teams won’t want to put huge dollars into a contract if the team has no way out if the player isn’t earning money that could otherwise go to someone who is.
Non-guaranteed contracts give players who have gotten past the guaranteed portion of the contract a clear reason to keep working hard and to keep fending off the guy who is trying to take his job. If every year of the salary is guaranteed, the player at some point could lose his edge — and the team would be paying a lot of money to a guy who simply isn’t earning it.