Last month, the Browns crossed a major threshold in NFL contracts by giving quarterback Deshaun Watson a five-year, $230 million, fully-guaranteed contract. NFL Players Association president JC Tretter wants that deal to be the first of many, or at least more.
In a column posted at the NFLPA’s website, Tretter makes the case for the Watson deal to become a “turning point” for the league. He points out that the original Kirk Cousins contract with the Vikings (fully guaranteed for three years) created hope that “other top free agents — especially QBs who were negotiating immediately after Cousins — would demand the same.”
Currently, the first 2o or so picks in every draft get four-year, fully-guaranteed deals. Beyond that, it’s all a subject of negotiation between players and teams. Tretter points out that, in the NBA and MLB, fully-guaranteed contracts aren’t specified by the Collective Bargaining Agreement. The practice of fully-guaranteed contracts in basketball and baseball arose from the process of negotiating contracts, one after another.
So will the Watson deal spark a sea change? Watson had rare leverage. He’d crossed the Browns from his list of potential destinations, and the Browns swooped in with a five-year, fully-guaranteed deal in order to get him to choose Cleveland. It was an unprecedented set of circumstances, one that won’t be duplicated soon.
If any player will get a five-year, fully-guaranteed deal, it will be a franchise quarterback. Few franchise quarterbacks ever get cut before their contracts expire, minimizing the risk of the player eventually not earning the money.
Even then, the funding rule — which Tretter downplays but which will require the Browns to set aside $169 million next March — will be a barrier for some teams, especially when it comes to guaranteeing money five years into the future.
The next players to watch when it comes to the possibility of four or five years of fully-guaranteed money will be Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson and Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson. They have real leverage, for different reasons. The Broncos already have given up major resources to get Wilson. Now, they have no choice but to pay him. Jackson, by refusing to negotiate with the team, could get them to eventually agree to whatever he wants.
That said, the chances of widespread fully-guaranteed contracts remain slim. At a minimum, the contracts would become shorter and shorter in duration. On a four- or five-year deal, there’s a chance the player eventually will be burning up cap space without earning it. That keeps money from the players who are.
Then there’s the fact that the other teams will regard the Watson deal as an aberration, downplaying it and resisting any efforts to repeat it. Collusion happens in the NFL, as evidenced by the public complaints from multiple other owners regarding the Watson deal. The fact that one owner flinched in a moment of desperation probably won’t spark a flood of similar deals.
That doesn’t mean players and agents shouldn’t try. But their expectations need to be realistic. Tretter wants a “true standard” or guaranteed deals. It will take a lot to make this a new standard, and that’s the truth.