Young NFL Players Beginning To Cash In?

Steve O Speak

One of the side effects of the uncapped season is it limited teams ability to negotiate long term extensions with their young players. Players were limited to getting a raise of 30% on their next season’s salary, which isn’t a lot when some of these players could expect raises of 500% or more. Players coming off rookie contracts, since their base salaries were so low to begin with, are the most affected.

This left teams and players in a lurch, since unrestricted and restricted free agents had no limitations to what they could sign for, but extensions were basically non-existent. This left a number of young stars in a bind with their contract situation. Stars like Chris Johnson and DeSean Jackson, who have shown they are worth mega-extensions, haven’t been able to get them. Also, surprisingly given the number of stars, the restricted free agents this season haven’t gotten major deals as well. Teams seem to be more willing to let them play out their last season at a bargain basement price rather than open up the checkbook now.

This had led, until a few days ago, teams to not lock up any of their young guys long term, with the three notable restricted free agent exceptions, Brandon Marshall (after he was traded), DeMeco Ryans and Nick Collins. In the past two days teams have found a work around to the NFL’s 30% rule and shown a renewed willingness to lock-up their young talent. The 49ers and Saints shelled out over $100 million combined to keep two of their young budding stars. The most interesting case is the 49ers, who resigned their stud linebacker Patrick Willis, because they found the work around that players have been looking for (and teams possibly looking to avoid).

Willis signed a 5 year $50 million dollar extension, which will take effect next season. The deal includes over $29 million guaranteed, and gets around the 30% rule by shelling out two separate signing bonuses, the second of which is a “supersede signing bonus”, which basically means its a conditional signing bonus. Teams use that bonus to protect them in case a player suffers major injury, retires unexpectedly, or holds out. This means teams only have to pay the bonus, if the player is still on the field.  In this case the bonus is only protected against injury and is really more of a formality since the payment is due next season. But by using the two bonus structure, they could resign him without shelling out the whole amount this year, and maintaining the 30% rule in regards to his base salary. In hindsight the 30% rule still kept this a reasonably manageable contract, as I think there is little doubt Willis would have had a more favorable deal without the restriction.

Even still, both Willis and the 49ers did a great job of finding a smart workaround that didn’t hurt either side. Now teams like Philadelphia and Tennessee will have to see if they can make the numbers work using a similar strategy. No longer the excuse of being unable to negotiate a workable contract will apply to these teams.

The other mega-deal reached yesterday was the Saints with guard Jahri Evans, a restricted free agent, for 7 years and $56.7. Evans has established himself as one of the premier guards in the league. His forte is run blocking, which was evident last season as every Saints ball carrier had success running the football. Evans easily becomes the highest paid guard in the league with this deal, which should be celebrated by Drew Brees and the running backs. While 7 years seems like a long investment, I would say there are even odds that he plays out the length of his contract. Guards typically have longer careers than most, and Evans hasn’t missed a single game yet. With a clean injury history and his level of play this is a great deal for the Saints. It is also a great deal for (guards) other young restricted free agents, particularly the free agent tackles like Jared Gaither, Jammal Brown, and Marcus McNeil. All three of whom are considered very good-elite starting left tackles, but have yet to see the money flow their way given their restricted free agent status. If Evans can get $56 million, these guys should expect that or more given their positional value.

While there is a potential lockout looming (though I wouldn’t bet on it) and no one knows how the new CBA will shake out, resigning or extending these top young players is a good thing for these teams. Because a couple major deals have been struck, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a trickle down effect with a few other deals being worked out in the next week or so. Willis and Evans were the the first two to sign, but will be by no means the last.

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