It’s the annual NBA free-agency frenzy, featuring B-level players getting more money than A-list NFL stars. Among other things, the money handed out to basketball players renews calls for fully-guaranteed NFL contracts.
This year, Chargers left tackle and NFLPA executive committee member Russell Okung took to Twitter to push the issue in an extended thread. While much of what he says is accurate, some of his arguments are unrealistic — including the notion that an “overhaul” of the Collective Bargaining Agreement is possible, given that the players likely won’t go without game checks for a year in order to apply maximum pressure to ownership.
The real question is whether NFL players can secure fully-guaranteed contracts, individually or via the CBA. It’s possible, with one important caveat: The contracts necessarily would be shorter, like the three-year deal Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins signed in March.
That would actually be a good thing for players. Look at the current contract squabble between the Falcons and receiver Julio Jones. With three years of his contract over and three non-guaranteed seasons to come, Jones has to hope the team will rip up the rest of the deal. If it had been a three-year contract, he would have been in the driver’s seat. As he embarks on the back end of a six-year deal, he has few options and limited leverage.
If the Falcons had been required to give Jones a fully-guaranteed deal, the team likely wouldn’t have committed to six seasons. And while some players may prefer the certainty and security that comes from four, five, or six fully-guaranteed years, it’s better to have three guaranteed years only than three guaranteed years followed by three non-guaranteed years, since the player will either be underpaid (and out of luck, like Jones) or overpaid (and out of a job, like former Dolphins defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh) when the final three years of the deal arrive.
With fully-guaranteed contracts, some players (mainly franchise quarterbacks) would possibly be able to leverage five or six fully-guaranteed years. But what if the player is no longer justifying his pay? Teams would be required to continue to devote cash and cap space to players who aren’t carrying his weight, leaving less cash for players who are doing more to help the effort to win games and chase championships.
Shifting to fully-guaranteed contracts also would force the NFL to deal with the outdated funding issue. Introduced years ago to protect players from potentially insolvent charlatans, the requirement that guaranteed payments in future years be largely set aside in escrow now makes teams less likely to tie up so much money when the contract is signed.
So instead of clamoring for fully-guaranteed deals covering four or more years, players and agents should focus instead on negotiating two- or three-year contracts, getting as much of the amount as possible fully guaranteed. That will give players more opportunities to get new contracts, and it will ensure that players who no longer merit large paydays would be gobbling up cap space that would better go to the players who do.