An informal poll of the Hogs Haven regulars seems to favor backing a Brinks truck up to Brandon Scherff’s house and unloading whatever sum of money is necessary in order to get him signed to a second contract. To that, I’ve said: Not so fast! What follows is an exploration of the options on the table, the pros and cons for each, and a case for the path forward in dealing with our long term situation at right guard.
The Outlook for 2019
The good news is that, in the near term, Brandon is signed through 2019. Originally drafted in 2015, the Redskins have had a very good situation. They’ve essentially paid a very good guard about $5.3M/year for each of the first four years of his rookie contract. That’s a great deal, and it’s the product of drafting well. Last year, the Redskins picked up his 5th year option, which will cover the 2019 season. The salary calculation for the 5th year option is more involved, and explained well by Bill-in-Bangkok here.
For a first-round top ten draft selection, the value of the fifth year will be equal to the appropriate transition tag tender (by position) in place during the fourth year of the player’s contract.
The transition tag tender is based on the average salaries of the top ten paid players at the position. So, in Brandon’s case, his 5th year option salary was determined by taking the average annual values of the salaries of the top ten offensive linemen (there is no distinction between T, G, or C for these purposes). That calculation resulted in a $12.525M salary for Brandon in 2019 - an approximately $5.75M increase from his 2018 salary - making him the third highest paid guard in the league this year, behind only All Pros Zack Martin ($14M AAV) and Andrew Norwell ($13.3M AAV), both of whom signed last year.
Brandon’s 5th year option salary was “inflated” a bit, however, as a result of the way the transition tag is calculated. As mentioned above, offensive linemen are aggregated for calculation purposes, which has the benefit of pulling up the salaries of guards, and particularly centers, as a result of grouping in tackle salaries (who tend to be the most highly compensated offensive linemen). To emphasize the point, looking at 2019 salaries for the three positions, the average salary of the top ten players at each is:
Tackles - $14,065,000
Guards - $11,707,500
Centers - $9,777,500
These numbers include 2019 contracts, so this is a fairly conservative estimation, but the 5th year option for a top ten drafted center is approximately $2.5M/year higher than it would be if the transition tag were more granular. It’s also more than $1.25M more than the top paid center in the league receives. For guards, the difference is less dramatic - about $800k more than they would be paid if they weren’t lumped in with tackles - but still significant. Alternatively, tackles lose out to the tune of about $1.5M.
In any case, what is the relevance of this exercise to Scherff’s situation? It’s an important consideration because what it means is that his 5th year option is an overinflation - by about three quarters of a million dollars - of what he would likely be getting paid as a “market rate” top ten guard. As was covered earlier, it’s actually the third highest salary among guards league-wide in 2019.
The Cream of the Crop
Three time All Pro and five time Pro Bowler, Zack Martin of the Cowboys is unquestionably the top guard in the NFL, and last year, he got paid like it, receiving a 6-year contract with a $14M/year AAV and $32M guaranteed. From my perspective, that is the ceiling of the guard market, even though the contract was signed in 2018.
How about the other recent All Pros? In 2017, Joel Bitonio of the Browns signed a 5-year deal with a $10M AAV and $17M guaranteed. The Colts’ Quenton Nelson is still on his rookie contract, so we won’t figure him into these calculations. This offseason, Marshal Yanda of the Ravens signed a two-year deal with a $10M AAV and $10M guaranteed.
Looking back to 2017 All Pros, David DeCastro of the Steelers signed a 5-year, $10M AAV deal in 2016. Rodger Saffold of the Titans signed a 4-year, $11M AAV deal, with $22.5 M in guarantees in the 2019 offseason.
These seven players are essentially the top guards in NFL. The highest paid of them makes $14M per year. The most recently signed of them (in 2019) make an average of $10.5M per year. Their average salary (dropping out the rookie Nelson) is $11.39M/year. Some of these contracts are a little older though, so let’s (arbitrarily) apply a 10% inflation adjustment to that average salary of the best guards in the game. The revised figure is $12.52M/year, which is remarkably close to the figure that Brandon will be paid this year under the 5th year option. In my opinion, that number becomes the basis for a firm, fair offer from the Redskins to Brandon, with a guarantee number in the range of $30-35M, and a contract length of around 4 years, taking him through age 32.
On top of the “caliber of play” elements above, it can’t be forgotten that Brandon is currently in the process of recovering from a severe injury, a season-ending torn pec, suffered midway through 2018. Redskins’ fans will - painfully - recall this is the same injury that plagued Brian Okrapo multiple times in his stint with the team. Fortunately, the long term prognosis for pro football players with surgically repaired pecs appears to be good, but this needs to be considered as part of the contract negotiations, particularly around issues of guaranteed money and ultimate contract length.
What If Brandon Wants More?
No one can blame a player for wanting to be paid more, or wanting to be the highest paid player at their position in the league. However, the reality is, Brandon isn’t the best guard in the league. He’s almost certainly not even in the top 3, although this offer would pay him like he was. And that’s fine, he’s a very good guard, and in 2 or 3 years, the contract will likely be more in line with his rank among NFL guards.
There have been rumblings that perhaps he wants to wait out the new CBA, to see if the salary cap numbers increase substantially such that he could take advantage of that in his negotiations. In the meantime, the Redskins were able to reach a very reasonable accord with DL Matt Ioannidis, paying him $21.75M over 3 years, raising the prospect that perhaps a similarly “win-win” bargain could be struck with Scherff this offseason. If a deal is not struck this year, however, we begin to wade into eerily familiar territory.
What About 2020?
If the Redskins and Brandon remain at loggerheads throughout the 2019 season, there are several options on the table: 1) The Redskins can cave (presumably) and overpay him, locking him up to a long-term contract; 2) The Redskins can transition tag him, and probably pay him between $12.5-13M; 3) The Redskins can franchise tag him, and pay him nearly $15M; 4) The Redskins can tag him and trade him; 5) The Redskins can let him walk.
So What If the Redskins Overpay Him?
I suspect this will be the preferred position of the vast majority of fans. It’s just Dan Snyder’s money after all, right? Wrong. As Bill-in-Bangkok has so thoroughly and astutely explained in his “nugget” series, the salary cap pot is a fixed amount of money for each team, and a zero sum pool from which to pay player salaries. It makes no difference to Dan Snyder if Scherff is paid $10M/year or $30M/year in 2019. He’s only on the hook for $188.2M, and he has to pay that amount to the team one way or another. He doesn’t get to pocket any savings, because there aren’t any.
So, if the Redskins overpay Scherff, the only people affected are his teammates, who will have a smaller pie to be paid from, and any possible free agents that the team might otherwise sign with those dollars.
What if the Redskins Tag Him?
In my estimation, a franchise tag, which would result in a stratospherically high $15M/year figure, is basically a non-starter. Such a move would immediately induce Kirk Cousins’ themed night terrors in the fanbase and would represent a massive failure of negotiation on the part of the front office. A transition tag, which would allow the Redskins to match competing, outside offers would be a reasonable way to proceed, and would either pay him close to what he will be paid in 2019, or allow him to walk as a free agent, invoking the scenario described below this one. In reality, it basically buys the Redskins one more year to find his replacement. It also opens the possibility to a “tag and trade,” in which case the Redskins would tag him and then decide to trade him for immediate value, likely a first or second round pick (to be fair, there are some questions about how viable this is, in practice).
What If Brandon Walks?
Letting Scherff, one of the Redskins’ best offensive linemen, walk after 2019 seems nearly unthinkable, but it’s exactly what the New England Patriots did with their first round-drafted, two time Super Bowl champion tackle, Nate Solder, after a short two-year contract following his rookie deal. Solder walked, signed a monster deal with the Giants, and netted the Pats a coveted third round compensatory pick in the 2019 draft. The Redskins would almost assuredly be in a similar position in the 2021 draft - securing a third round comp pick - if Scherff were able to test the open free agency market in 2020.
It would also throw the Redskins into looking for another starting guard, likely in the draft. In practical terms, what would that mean for the team? Let’s use the 2019 draft as a starting point. Assuming a worst case, that the Redskins use their first round pick in 2020 to take a replacement guard, what does that look like? Chris Lindstrom, taken at pick 14 by the Falcons, was the top guard taken this year. Let’s assume for this exercise that Lindstrom turns out to be at least a decent, starting guard for the Falcons for the next 4 years. He’s going to cost the Falcons $3.675M/year over that timeframe. Compared to a hypothetical $14M/year contract for Scherff, that represents over a $10M/year, or incredible $40M over the life of the contract, savings by picking up a very highly regarded guard on a rookie deal. That’s real money, and essentially a swap of a first round pick for a 3rd rounder and $40M. And, it assumes that Ross Piersbacher, Ereck Flowers, or another player aren’t capable of carrying some of the replacement load at guard.
I like Brandon Scherff, I would like to see him re-signed to a fair deal, but not at any cost. I think the negotiation of this particular deal gives Eric Schaeffer and others in the front office an opportunity to showcase their chops. I won’t be impressed by a backloaded contract that averages $15M+ in AAV, but frees up a little cap space in the next couple of years, saddling us with balloon payments in the out years (ala the Landon Collins deal). I will be impressed if they can make a firm, but fair, offer to Scherff, stand behind it, and live with the consequences (as well as plan for them). This team has drafted well for the past three years, this contract represents an opportunity for them to demonstrate maturation on the veteran negotiation side as well.
How would you handle the contract negotiations with Brandon Scherff?
This poll is closed
Pay him whatever he wants, up to $15M/year.
Offer him the deal described in this piece, between $12.5-13M/year.
Offer him a deal at the current average of the top guards in the game, around $11.5M/year.
Prepare to transition tag him in 2020 and move on.
Let him walk after 2019.