Insights on 10 trending topics in the NFL, from Jerry Jones passing on Johnny Manziel to the Dolphins’ double-standard and Tom Brady’s contract projections
1. Ratings Bonanza
Although the timing of the draft had nothing to do with it—the same drama would have played out in April or even February—the draft’s boffo television ratings mean it will likely remain in May (or perhaps get pushed back even later). Despite complaints from fans, media and even teams, the NFL will focus on the metrics.
Of course, a major factor in this year’s record ratings was the Johnny Manziel reality show. Manziel moves the meter; the Browns are a more interesting brand today than they were last week. Now, to temper the hysteria, Browns’ owner Jimmy Haslam has proclaimed Manziel the backup and Brian Hoyer the starting quarterback. We’ll check back on that statement in late August. Haslam also recently said that Rob Chudzinski was coach, Joe Banner was CEO and Michael Lombardi was general manager.
2. The Cowboys’ Prudence
Speaking of mercurial owners, I thought Jerry Jones admirably resisted the Manziel impulse and trusted his scouts to make the prudent choice. The Cowboys, for better or worse, have cast their lot at quarterback, emotionally and financially, with Tony Romo.
Romo has the most mortgaged contract in the history of the NFL. If the Cowboys were to somehow part ways with him—through release, retirement or trade—the amount accelerated onto the Cowboys’ salary cap would be a staggering $42 million. Manziel would have been a celebrity-in-waiting behind an incumbent quarterback who, for at least the next two years, is uncuttable, untradeable and unretireable.
3. Brady Altruism
The Patriots’ second-round selection of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo made me immediately think about the extension that Tom Brady signed last year. Despite some reports that he “took less to help the team,” I noted that Brady actually received $3 million more than previously scheduled to earn in 2013 and 2014, with much better cash flow.
Next year, however, will tell the story of whether Brady made a sacrifice for the team. Brady is currently scheduled to play for $7 million, an absurdly low number for an A-list QB. If Brady is the starting quarterback for the Patriots a year from now and making $7 million, I will be thoroughly impressed (and surprised) by his altruism.
The Garoppolo selection brought a potentially different angle to this. I could see Tom Brady as the backup quarterback making $7 million in 2015 (or his scheduled $8 million in 2016 or $9 million in 2017). That, of course, would require that 1) Brady accept backup status, and 2) Garoppolo earn the starting job, though I find both of these possibilities unlikely.
I expect Brady’s contract will be upwardly adjusted next year rather than him playing for a fraction of what his peers will be making. Garoppolo’s entry into the mix, combined with the precipitous scheduled decrease in Brady’s contract next year, presents a Hmmm moment. Stay tuned.
4. Quit Clowning Around
Despite the intrigue about who would be taken first in the draft, I think Jadeveon Clowney’s status as the top pick in 2014 had been all but cemented for almost two years. It is hard to think of anything, barring serious injury, that would have changed the script.
Many people have complained about the NBA’s “one-and-done” requirement; yet the NFL three-year requirement dwarfs basketball’s restriction, blocking players, Like Clowney, who are clearly ready to play professionally.
I have heard the argument from both NFL and NCAA executives: many underclassmen are not ready for the physical and emotional stress of professional football. Some like Clowney, however, clearly are and they’re sacrificing a precious year (or more) of earnings in an-already short career. No other collegiate sport (or academic major) requires such a waiting period.
5. Kelly’s Truth
I thought Chip Kelly’s arrival into the NFL last season was a breath of fresh air, representing a change agent for a profession sorely in need of one. Kelly further impressed me this week with his candid comments about the process of taking Marcus Smith as his first-round pick.
Kelly eschewed the usual coach-speak about how Smith was the player they really wanted and how lucky they were to get him. He admitted there were six players the Eagles had targeted with the 22nd pick, and all were taken by the time the pick arrived. The Eagles thus moved back and selected Smith. Very few general managers, coaches or scouts are ever as frank about their draft process.
6. The Dolphins’ Non-Democracy
The Dolphins are the latest team to prove that the NFL is not a democracy. While a down-the-roster player, Don Jones, was suspended for insensitive tweets regarding Michael Sam, the more valuable Mike Pouncey appears to be immune from discipline for his continued insensitivity.
Pouncey was identified as a key lieutenant in Richie Incognito’s cabal of intimidators in the Wells Report. As the team continues to try to move past the saga, Pouncey reacted to the drafting of first-round offensive lineman Ja’Wuan James with a tweet: "Great pick! I can’t wait for our gifts he’s getting us lol." Dolphins general manager Dennis Hickey, commenting on the tweet and a subsequent conversation he had with Pouncey said, “We’re all good there.”
I am not suggesting that NFL teams become the Twitter police. I do believe, however, that Pouncey’s actions would have merited a stronger response from the Dolphins had he, like Jones, been a less important player. In the NFL, more talent equals more leeway.
A quick note on Michael Sam: any “first” receives extra attention, extra scrutiny and, fair or not, extra ridicule. But the next openly gay football player to kiss his partner won’t receive so much attention, and the next man after that even less. Compared to the kiss, it’s interesting to note how little attention was paid to the fact that Sam and his boyfriend are an interracial couple. In our fast-paced world, changes come sooner than we think.
7. Teddy’s Option
Three years ago during the lockout, the Vikings selected quarterback Christian Ponder, unaware that a fifth-year option on first-round contracts would become part of the new CBA. And while the Vikings declined that option on Ponder, they wisely moved into the last pick of the first round this year to have that opportunity with Teddy Bridgewater. In the event that Bridgewater becomes the player the Vikings envision, Minnesota could have him at a fixed rate for five years rather than four, while preserving the ability to apply a Franchise Tag in his sixth year. Unlike the timing of their 2011 choice of Ponder, the Vikings are fully aware of the option’s potential impact on Bridgewater.
8. No Increase
Speaking of rookie contracts, the 2014 draft’s signing bonus amounts will be the same as 2013, which were the same as 2012, which were the same as 2011. Only minimum salaries have risen in rookie contracts since the start of the CBA.
Why? I asked the NFLPA and got this response: “We had to borrow against future rookie pools to allow for the $15,000 per year increase in rookie minimums.” In other words, overall salary cap increases to date have not justified annual $15,000 minimum salary increases for all rookies, leaving nothing for rookie bonus increases to this point.
The new CBA’s rookie pay system is, for NFL teams, the gift that keeps on giving.
9. Running Away
The devaluation of the running back continues. In the past three drafts, the top running back selected has fallen from 3rd (Trent Richardson in 2011) to 37th (Giovanni Bernard last year) to 54th this year with the Titans’ selection of Bishop Sankey. Tennessee now downsizes costs at the position from Chris Johnson, who was scheduled to make $8 million before being released, to Sankey, who is scheduled to make $3.7 million over four years.
Unlike the veteran market, the rookie running back devaluation is not due to “tread on the tire.” Indeed, rookie contracts are the “golden years” for running backs. Time will tell who among this crop will receive a lucrative second contract.
10. The Year of Sherman
Finally, speaking of lucrative second contracts, a note about a familiar player from the 2011 draft and a fellow columnist for The MMQB. Last week, just days after Richard Sherman was name-dropped by President Obama while attending the White House correspondents dinner, the Seahawks cornerback signed a striking $56 million contract extension, with $40 million guaranteed.
Though Joe Haden received a larger overall contract, signing a $65 million extension on Tuesday, Sherman’s “new money” average of $14 million per year is higher than Haden’s ($13.8 million per year) and eclipses all previous cornerback contracts (save the now-terminated $16 million per year Darrelle Revis contract with the Bucs). And Sherman’s three-year payout of $35 million is second only to Nnamdi Asomugha’s $36 million with the Eagles from 2011-2013.
In securing Earl Thomas and now Sherman, the Seahawks continue to leverage their spending window with Russell Wilson still on restricted earnings. (The CBA requires three seasons prior to renegotiating rookie deals, and Wilson just finished his second.) While other teams manipulate their roster around $15-$20 million quarterback allocations, the Seahawks can, at least for the time being, reward other core players.
Sherman is that rare young player who cashes in prior to his rookie contract expiring. First-round picks of any value from Sherman’s 2011 draft class are saddled with a fifth-year option; none have received an extension. Sherman, a fifth-round pick, has proved special enough to evade the ever-expanding economic control of young players. His meteoric rise to stardom in now complete.