The early part of this off season for Redskins fans will be devoted to a few key questions:
Who will be the new defensive coordinator?
Will Garcon, Jackson and Baker be re-signed as free agents?
Will Doctson ever see the football field?
Is there such a thing as “too many” draft profiles and mock drafts?
And — Will Kirk Cousins be back as the Redskins quarterback? And if so, how much will he get paid?
Fans and media analysts will be focused on the question of Kirk Cousins’ “value”. How much is he worth?
The answer to that question is often wrapped up in neat bundles in news articles, editorial pieces and reader comments. We hear “$20 million dollar quarterback” or “$100 million dollar contract” and then compare those numbers to Tom Brady, Brock Osweiler, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Aaron Rodgers to try to give them meaning.
But signing an NFL player to a contract is not the same as shopping for a 55-inch LED TV or a pair of running shoes. In an NFL contract, the price — by which most people mean the average per year — isn’t nearly as important as the terms. That’s because most NFL contracts are never completed. What’s really important is the structure of the contract.
Let me try to put that in slightly different terms. For simplicity, NFL offenses and defenses are ranked by the number of yards they gain or give up in a game or a season. The greater the number of yards, the higher the ranking for the offense (or the lower for the defense).
But we all know that the number of yards isn’t really what’s important. The most important thing is the points on the scoreboard. The Redskins offense in 2016 was ranked 3rd in the league for overall yards (6,454), but 12th in points per game (24.8). I suspect that every Redskins player, Redskins coach and Redskins fan would be thrilled to swap those rankings, to be 3rd in scoring and 12th in overall offense.
The headline statistic — that the Redskins had the 3rd ranked offense in the league — sounds great, but Redskins fans know that the devil is in the details. Poor Red Zone offense, in particular, led this “high powered offense” to actually under-perform throughout the season.
So reading the headline number is simply misleading.
When Kirk Cousins’ agent sits down with Eric Schaffer, the Redskins contract guru, to hammer out a deal, there will be a ton of details to be negotiated. There might be discussion of no-trade clauses, performance bonuses, work out bonuses, guarantees triggered by being on the roster on a certain date — hell, maybe Kirk will require a fruit basket delivered to his home every Friday — you never know exactly what will be important to a particular player.
I’ll admit right now that I have no idea what Kirk Cousins contract with the Redskins will look like. In fact, I don’t even know if he’ll re-sign with Washington (though I believe he will).
But for a moment, let’s assume that Kirk wants to come back, the front office wants him back, and a contract gets signed.
Twitter will announce two key numbers — the total amount of the contract (probably $100m or more) and the Average Per Year — or APY — which will almost certainly be $20m or more.
Players will tweet congratulations. ESPN & NFL.com talking heads will spend a 48-hour news cycle talking about those numbers and asking whether Captain Kirk is really worth that contract. Charley Casserly will weigh in with his opinion.
And Hogs Haven will blow up with a Civil War of comments.
The problem will be that the discussions, analysis, commentary and arguments will all revolve around the total amount of the contract and the average per year — which is like using Total Yards to rank the offense. No one will pay much attention to the structure of the contract, which is very important in NFL contracts. Contract structure is akin to the number of points on the scoreboard. The structure defines winners and losers.
I mentioned above that contracts can be very complex. But when it comes down to the heart of the contract and salary cap management, there are actually a few items that are the most critical components:
- Signing bonus — This is money paid up front, which makes it part of the guaranteed money. The player, for practical purposes, gets all this money up front (though anyone who followed the Joey Bosa holdout this past off-season knows it’s a bit more complex than that). Signing bonus is allocated evenly across the life of a contract. For example, if a player gets a $20m signing bonus and a 5-year contract, although the player gets the full $20m up front, for salary cap purposes, it is charged off evenly at $4m per year.
- Guaranteed money — Very few NFL player contracts are fully guaranteed, so the total value of the player contract is often not paid out. For example, Jay Cutler signed a $126m contract with the Bears a few years ago that runs through 2020. Many analysts expect the Bears to part ways with Cutler this off-season. If they do, they’ll save $72.7 million in cash. The $126m contract will end up paying Cutler only around $53m — far less than half of its value!! Chicago can do this because the contract has no guaranteed money beyond 2016, and carries a dead cap hit of just $2m. Guaranteed money can be complex, as some guarantees are for injury only and not paid if a player is cut, and some guarantees only come into effect if the player is on the roster on certain date (usually in March or April). The amount of guaranteed money announced on Twitter is seldom fully guaranteed, and the fine print makes all the difference in the amount of risk assumed by the franchise.
- Length of contract — This is critical for salary cap management, but there are other factors at play as well. The age of the player and his opportunity to sign another big contract when this one ends are important. For older players, teams don’t want to sign a contract that will put the team in a bind if it has guaranteed money or a big dead cap hit after the player has passed his prime (See: Romo, Tony). Some players want a short “prove it” deal, that allows them to bet on themselves and win a bit payday if they succeed. This worked for Joe Flacco. Junior Galette has had a more difficult time making this strategy pay off.
Obviously, the agent’s job is to get the best structure for his player. The front office is trying to get the best structure for the team. Sometimes their interests coincide, and the contract can be easy to put together. Often, the two parties are pulling in opposite directions, and the negotiation can be an extended exercise in bargaining and compromise.
My goal here is not to try to predict what Kirk Cousins final contract will look like. Rather, I want to show a single, simple example of how the Redskins can structure a top-dollar contract so that it works for the team, and still gives Kirk a payday.
Currently, Andrew Luck has the most lucrative contract, with an APY of $24.594 million. By using good structuring techniques, the Redskins could sign Kirk to a contract that would go right to the top of the list, paying Kirk $25m average per year — which would give Kirk and his agent a “win” that they could tweet about — and still have a team-friendly contract.
Let me offer a couple of other player situations to set the stage:
Houston is pretty much stuck with Brock Osweiler for two seasons (including the this one), but after 2017 they can cut him without killing themselves financially.
Josh Norman’s contract with the Redskins is similar, in that it provides "exit ramps" after the 2017 and 2018 seasons. So, while the contract might provide limited flexibility for two seasons, it won’t cripple a team for 5 or 6 years (like a Tony Romo contract).
Andrew Luck’s contract structure pretty much ties him to the Colts through 2019 (or 2018 at least). There are things that the Redskins can do to give Kirk & his agent a “winning” contract that still meet the teams goals of:
- being affordable under the cap
- giving the team control over Kirk for a significant number of years
- minimizing the financial & salary cap risk if Kirk fails to perform to expectations
I think the Redskins can offer a relatively small signing bonus (since Cousins just banked $20m this year), but give Kirk a “win” by offering 100% guarantees on the first two seasons of the contract. This would enable the team to show a strong commitment to Kirk, give him the guarantee that he’s likely looking for.
The benefit for the Redskins is that a smaller signing bonus results in a lower dead-cap number in the latter years of the contract.
I mentioned earlier that this can be very complex to put together in a contract, and it can be really difficult to understand the interwoven structure of bonuses, fully guaranteed money, injury guarantees and guarantees triggered by being healthy and on a roster on a certain date.
I’ll keep it very simple here and only talk about fully guaranteed money. I’ll assume that the Redskins want to front-load the guaranteed money as much as they can, and that they will want the lowest guarantee that they can achieve, while Kirk and his agent will be working to get the highest amount of guaranteed money possible. In real life, this will be an area for negotiation, strategy and compromise. In my simplistic example, it will be a mere assumption.
Length of contract
People keep talking about a 5 year, $100m deal. The Redskins front office might want to sign a longer deal. Counter-intuitively, the longer deal lowers the risk that the franchise takes in signing Kirk, as long as the latter years of the contract are not guaranteed. A 6-year contract leaves the Redskins in control of his contract for an extra year, but without any guaranteed money, it provides flexibility to get out of the contract in 2019 or 2020 if it isn’t really working out — much like the Bears can exit the Cutler contract now if they want to.
Why would Cousins’ agent agree? Well, signing a 6th (non-guaranteed year) adds a lot of money to the total value of the contract and can be used to increase the average per year — the two headline numbers that get reported on Twitter. It’s a PR win, and if Cousins plays well enough for the team to want to keep him, then he will actually get the money.
What would a contract for Cousins look like if the Skins offered 6 years? Well, the chances of me projecting the actual contract terms are pretty close to nil; what I think I can do is give a simple illustration to show how a contract can be structured to give Kirk and his agent a big win, while leaving the Redskins with a team friendly contract. If Kirk plays well enough to earn the full contract, he’ll get 6 big sacks of money. If he shits the bed, the Redskins can get out of the contract after two or three years without crippling the franchise.
1. APY needs to be at least $20m
2. Cousins will want guaranteed money of at least $54m (added to the 20m from 2016 this would mean at least $74m in post-rookie contract money for Kirk).
3. The front office will want to have control over Cousins for long term, but maximum flexibility to get out of the deal if things aren’t going well.
Signing bonus: $12m
Base salary (guaranteed):
Yr 1 $12m ($12) – total cash $24m – cap hit = $14m
Yr 2 $22m ($22) – total cash $22m – cap hit = $24m
Yr 3 $23m ($10) – total cash $23m – cap hit = $25m
Yr 4 $25m (0) – total cash $25m – cap hit = $27m
Yr 5 $27m (0) – total cash $27m – cap hit = $29m
Yr 6 $29m (0) – total cash $29m – cap hit = $31m
Yr 1 = $56m
Yr 2 = $42m
Yr 3 = $18m
Yr 4 = $6m
Yr 5 = $4m
Yr 6 = $2m
This is a 6-year, $150m contract
Average per year = $25m
Guaranteed money = $56m
The reality is that this contract structure gives the Redskins control over Cousins until 2022, but the team could cut Cousins after 3 years with only a $6m dead cap hit.
If the Redskins did cut Cousins after three seasons (’17, ’18, ’19) they would have actually paid him $67m (average of $22.3m per year). If you tossed in the ’16 season, the 4-year average from ’16 to ’19 would be about $21.75m.
As I mentioned before, I’m sure that the actual contract with Cousins will vary significantly from what I’ve outlined.
What I’m trying to point out is that — while nearly everyone wants to talk about whether Cousins is worth $XX per year — it’s never as simple as looking at the APY. Contract structure — including number of years, guaranteed money and dead cap hit — are among the details that make a contract "good" or "team friendly".
You could describe the above contract the way Twitter will: as 6 years, $150m
You could think of it as a 3-year, $67m contract (with 3 options years at a cost of $6m).
To me, the latter description is more accurate.
I am not expecting Scot and Kirk to announce a deal this week, because its the details of the contract that make all the difference, and they take time to negotiate. It’s not just "paying the man"… it’s when you pay him, how you pay him, and the trade-off between control and risk.
It’s the structure that counts.