Before NFL players would ever miss game checks during a work stoppage, they need to show a willingness to drive a hard bargain in other ways. Here’s one way they now can, thanks to the examples set by (of all people) Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins and Rams cornerback Trumaine Johnson.
Star players who attract the franchise tag may now be inclined to refuse to sign long-term deals and to play on a year-to-year basis. One source with extensive experience negotiating player contracts firmly believes that this will become the trend.
If it happens, here are a few names to watch in the near term: Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, Raiders pass rusher Khalil Mack, and Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald.
Consider Stafford’s situation. With a cap number of $22 million in 2017, Stafford would be eligible for a franchise tag of $26.4 million in 2018. By rule, that would move to $31.68 million in 2019 and then to $45.6 million in 2020.
That’s a three-year haul of $103.68 million.
And what’s the risk for Stafford to go one year at a time? He’ll get $16.5 million this year in salary, pushing his eight-year haul to $125 million. Unlike Cousins and Johnson, Stafford has the money to let it ride; if he suffers a career-ending injury or suddenly loses his ability to play at a high level, he’s already set, multiple lifetimes over.
Though Mack and Donald have far less in the bank (and a far greater risk of injury), a year-to-year arrangement makes sense for them, too.
For Mack, who isn’t getting a new deal this year and thus will make less than $3 million, he can pocket $13.846 million under his fifth-year option and then do the year-to-year tag dance in 2019, 2020, and 2021.
Ditto for Donald, who would make $1.8 million this year and $6.892 million next year before going year-to-year under the tag.
For all three guys, the question becomes whether they’d trade the year-to-year haul for a long-term deal that has two years of fully guaranteed money before becoming a one-way street that the team exclusively controls.
Consider the record-setting (not really) contract signed by Raiders quarterback Derek Carr. He traded roughly $1 million in salary this year and the franchise tag next year for $25 million in cash flow in 2017, another $22.25 million in 2018 and then, essentially, a year-to-year option held by the team.
Consider what Carr gave up. If he’d been willing to keep his salary at $1 million in 2017, he would have been eligible for $22 million (maybe more) in 2018 under the tag, a 20-percent bump (at least $26 million) in 2019, and a 44-percent increase over that ($38 million, minimum) in 2020.
That’s at least $86 million over three years, estimated conservatively. Under his current deal, Carr will make $86.5 million over the next four years, with no fully-guaranteed money at signing beyond the first $40 million.
It’s hard to call the richest contract ever (not really) a bad deal, but it’s actually kind of a bad deal in light of the alternative. If Carr had gone year to year, he’d have more money over the next four years than he’ll have — and he wouldn’t have been tied to the team for two more years at an average of $19.7 million, which will come at a time when the market for franchise quarterbacks could be well north of $30 million per year.
Maybe Carr crunched the numbers and consciously chose to take a long-term deal that is less advantageous than going year to year. Maybe the injury guarantee for 2019 influenced him, given the broken leg he suffered last last year. Regardless, it’s reasonable to say he would have been better off going year to year.
And it’s definitely reasonable to assume that more star players will seriously consider it — and that some of them will do it.
All of them, frankly, should.