Even casual sports fans today know that NFL player contracts never measure up to their full value and are almost always backloaded with “funny money” that the player will never make.
But if this offseason’s free agency period taught us anything about life in the NFL under the new collective bargaining agreement, it’s that a guarantee isn’t even a guarantee anymore.
Colin Kaepernick’s contract extension is the latest example of this new reality for NFL players, whose “long-term” contracts are increasingly becoming “year-to-year.”
Kaepernick’s contract was initially reported as being worth “up to” $126 million with $61 million guaranteed, but a closer look at the details, obtained Friday by the Globe, reveals quite a different story.
The only true guarantee Kaepernick received was $12.973 million — a $12.328 million signing bonus and his base salary of $645,000 this season. It’s a nice chunk of change, but hardly close to the true $54 million guarantee given to Aaron Rodgers, $42 million to Matt Ryan, or $40 million to Tony Romo. In fact, Kaepernick’s true guarantee ranks him 17th among starting quarterbacks, just above Ryan Tannehill.
Kaepernick will have to earn the rest of his contract, which runs through 2020. His base salaries from 2015-18, totaling $78 million, won’t become guaranteed until he is on the 49ers’ roster on April 1 of each season. If Kaepernick’s performance falls off, they have until April 1 each year to cut him and save millions while absorbing mostly reasonable salary-cap charges.
Realistically, Kaepernick bought himself at least two years as the 49ers’ quarterback, with dead money totals of $13.5 million this year and $9.86 million next year. So he should at least make $28 million over two years, and if he doesn’t restructure in 2016, he could make $44 million over three years.
That’s pretty good money for a young quarterback such as Kaepernick, but well below the $62 million Joe Flacco got over three years or $47 million for Jay Cutler. And Kaepernick can forget about playing under his current contract in 2017 and beyond, which contains almost $73 million in base salary, which he certainly won’t see.
Kaepernick is hardly the only player this offseason whose “guarantees” aren’t really so. Aqib Talib is in the same boat with the Broncos — he technically got $25.5 million guaranteed over three seasons, but the Broncos can easily make it a one-year deal worth $12 million, or two years and $18 million. And a handful of teams this offseason, most notably the Buccaneers and Jaguars, have signed all their free agents to the same contract structure, in which there is no signing bonus, and only fully guaranteed base salaries that trigger if the player is still on the roster at a certain date of the offseason — the ultimate pay-as-you-go approach.
As one longtime agent explained, only a handful of 12-15 elite players, such as Tom Brady, Rodgers, Larry Fitzgerald, and Calvin Johnson, can earn true long-term security in the NFL. The now-three-year-old CBA significantly cut rookie pay — only the top 52 picks out of 255 in this year’s draft will average even $1 million per year over their four-year deals — and had two effects.
With rookies now such reasonable investments, it forces veterans to accept less-than-favorable contracts if they want to get paid at all. And rookies are now so starving for a big payday — Kaepernick made $3.95 million in his first three seasons combined while leading the 49ers to two NFC Championship games — that they’re often dazzled by big dollar signs, even if the offer is team-friendly and well below market value.
Just look at some of the terms Kaepernick agreed to:
■ In addition to having to make the roster each year on April 1, the contract includes up to $12 million in salary de-escalators — $2 million per year starting in 2015. Kaepernick can only stop the de-escalation if he plays 80 percent of the offensive snaps in a given year, and gets the 49ers to the Super Bowl or is named first- or second-team All-Pro. Basically, if Kaepernick gets hurt or the 49ers flop in a given year, he loses $2 million per season.
■ Kaepernick also has $2 million in roster bonuses starting in 2015, meaning he loses an additional $125,000 for every game he misses — an important fact given that Kaepernick takes more hits as a running quarterback and is more prone to injury.
■ Kaepernick even agreed to buy a disability policy that pays the 49ers $20 million if he suffers a career-ending injury.
These are not terms we are used to seeing in NFL contracts, especially not for budding star quarterbacks. However, it’s not fair to say that it’s solely the result of the new NFL economics. Once Kaepernick broke onto the scene in 2012, many of the top agents in the country tried to woo him away from XAM Sports, a midsize agency in which Kaepernick was the biggest client. For example, Kaepernick lived in Miami this offseason and hung out with several of Drew Rosenhaus’s clients, prompting rampant speculation.
Kaepernick, to his credit, stayed true to XAM, which signed him out of Nevada in 2011. But it’s fair to wonder if XAM took a below-market deal before the sharks swooped in and stole Kaepernick away. It will be interesting to compare Kaepernick’s contract to the ones that will be given next offseason to Cam Newton and Russell Wilson.
In the end, it’s hard to criticize a kid for signing off on a life-changing contract, even if it’s technically “below market.” But Kaepernick will soon learn that in the NFL, even a guarantee isn’t guaranteed.
Brady still among
the league’s elite QBs
When the calendar hits June, it usually means the only NFL headlines involve arrests or silly debates like the one pushed by ESPN and ProFootballFocus.com last week about Tom Brady not being a “top five” quarterback. The writer, Sam Monson, concluded that Brady’s “decline is well under way” and that Brady is struggling to handle defensive pressure. Brady is going to be 37 in August, and can only be effective if he has good blocking up front, Monson wrote.
Brady’s defenders quickly point out that he had a fairly terrible cast of receivers last year outside of Julian Edelman and seven games of Rob Gronkowski. That Brady still went 12-4, led the NFL in fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives (five each), and pulled some incredible wins out of thin air (New Orleans, Cleveland) is proof enough to us that Brady is still “elite.” We respect the work of PFF, but that same site ranked Brady behind Ryan Tannehill in its 2013 quarterback rankings. Do we really believe that Tannehill was better than Brady last year?
Whether Brady is better or worse than Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger or Cam Newton is subjective and impossible to answer given the wide number of variables affecting each player. Brees, for example, probably isn’t the same player if he plays for an outdoor team instead of in a dome, and Brady probably isn’t the same player if he has Rodgers’s receiving corps or Newton’s offensive line.
But Monson isn’t totally off base, either. Brady has to be one of the worst quarterbacks in terms of throwing the deep ball. He does struggle against pressure, although this isn’t exactly a new problem. And we’ve heard from more than a few league sources this offseason that Brady’s mechanics have gotten a little out of whack since the death of his former private coach and mentor, Tom Martinez, in February 2012. Brady has since worked with former baseball pitcher Tom House on his throwing motion and footwork, but is having mechanical issues when throwing to his left.
Those are issues to watch, but it also feels like nitpicking. Brady may not be at the peak of his career, and has to work a little harder at maintaining his mechanics and health. But he’s still a good quarterback who is capable of winning a Super Bowl, and that’s all that matters.
has a full calendar
It’s not getting quite the same attention, because perhaps we’re all just used to this now. But 2014 once again has turned into the Summer of Gronk, with 25-year-old Patriots star tight end Rob Gronkowski keeping quite busy while rehabbing his knee from ACL surgery in January.
In addition to working out at Gillette Stadium up to four times per week this offseason, Gronkowski has partied in Las Vegas with Johnny Manziel, danced his heart out on the improv comedy TV show “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”, held a youth football camp last weekend in Melrose, and will host his second Football 101 Women’s Clinic July 22 at Medfield High School. Participants will learn some fundamentals of football while taking pictures with Gronkowski and sipping on “Gronk-tinis,” his signature drink. Gordy Gronkowski, Gronk’s father, is also featured in an article in Esquire this month titled “One Thousand Two Hundred and Fifty-Eight Pounds of Sons” about raising five sons, three of whom play in the NFL. Among the facts we learn about Rob Gronkowski: His childhood home had a massive backyard with a baseball field (325 feet down the lines), a pool, a hot tub, a full tennis court, and regulation basketball hoops and hockey nets. No wonder he became such a jock.
The Patriots don’t seem to mind that Gronkowski is keeping himself busy as long as he puts in his rehab. He was actually bursting, planting, and cutting during the early portions of Thursday’s practice open to the media, and doesn’t look like he’s having any limitations. Whether he’ll be ready to play in the first month of the season is another matter.
gets assist from league
We like the idea behind the NFL Players Association’s proposal to have player salaries apportioned out over 52 weeks instead of bi-weekly during the regular season. Fiscal responsibility needs to be stressed to young players, and having a steady cash flow could help many make responsible decisions with their money.
That said, the most the NFLPA should do is make the 52-week system optional for players, who still should favor the current system. Anyone who has taken an Economics 101 course knows that $1 today is worth more than $1 tomorrow, and it’s better for the players to receive their money in lump sums so they can start making it grow or work for them right away. And if a player is truly concerned about his cash flow, he should authorize his agent or financial adviser to disperse the money evenly throughout the year, not the team.
The 2011 draft class is the guinea pig for the new NFL, and it’s interesting that the only players to get contract extensions so far are lower-round draft picks: 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (second round), Bills safety Aaron Williams (second), Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman (fifth), and Eagles center Jason Kelce (sixth). Twenty-one of 32 first-round picks had their fifth-year options exercised this offseason and not one of the 32 has received a contract extension from his original team.
First-round picks make more money than everyone else in the first few years of their careers, but it can take them up to seven years to reach unrestricted free agency (four-year contract, fifth-year option, and two franchise tags). Players drafted in Rounds 2-7, meanwhile, can cash in as early as three years in, giving them much more flexibility and leverage.
It was a little curious when Ken Whisenhunt chose to become the head coach of the Titans instead of the Lions this offseason, because on paper, the Lions look to be the much more attractive option. They have a promising young quarterback in Matthew Stafford and several star players such as Calvin Johnson, Reggie Bush, and Ndamukong Suh, while the Titans have a murky quarterback situation with Jake Locker and seem to be a much bigger rebuilding job than the Lions.
Chargers tight end Antonio Gates, though, may have cracked the case. Gates, a Detroit native who had Whisenhunt for an offensive coordinator last season, said Whisenhunt’s decision did come down to paper — money, of course. Tennessee doesn’t have a state income tax, and Michigan does — a significant factor for a coach making millions of dollars.
“I told him, ‘You went out there, and they have no state tax. You got a bigger house. You saved more money,’ ” Gates told the Detroit Free Press. “I said, ‘That’s a smart decision.’ ”
Colts owner Jim Irsay had his driver’s license suspended for a year in relation to his arrest in March for driving while intoxicated, but an NFL spokesman said Friday that the matter is still under review, meaning commissioner Roger Goodell is not ready to decide on any punishment. Irsay is facing two misdemeanor counts after being pulled over with a controlled substance, and per the Indianapolis Star, Indiana law mandates Irsay’s license be suspended for one year for refusing to take a blood test after he was arrested March 16 . . . Albert Haynesworth hasn’t played since 2011, and now he’s transitioning to life as a restaurateur. Haynesworth, who turns 33 this month, is opening a location of the popular hamburger chain BurgerFi in Knoxville, where he played at the University of Tennessee. According to a report from Knoxville TV station WATE, “Haynesworth says his burgers will be your new favorite.” . . . Jets first-round pick Calvin Pryor jumped headfirst into the Patriots-Jets rivalry on Friday. “We don’t like Tom [Brady] at all,” Pryor told SportsNet New York. “When I first came here, that was one of the first things I heard about: We hate the Patriots, and we hate the Giants. That’s what everybody was telling me. We hate those guys, and I look forward to playing them this season.” Pipe down, Sparky. Wait until you play an NFL game first . . . Quote of the week from Eagles coach Chip Kelly, who was asked about the ideal size for a linebacker: “Ideally I would want someone 6-11 that weighs 400 pounds.”Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.