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Kirk Cousins Contract: The Real Game-Changer Is Length, not Guarantees

Will Cousins’ fully guaranteed contract set a precedent? Maybe—for the rare class of unrestricted free-agent quarterbacks in their prime. (Typical number: zero.) Look closer at the deal, though, and something else stands out: a short, three-year term that leaves the player with all the leverage at the end

I have been asked hundreds of times why NFL players lack the fully guaranteed contracts of their brethren in the NBA and Major League Baseball. Beyond suggested reasons such as football’s high injury rate (good reason if you’re an owner), the funding requirement (outdated) or blaming the NFLPA for lack of guarantees in the CBA (there are no requirements in the NBA or MLB CBAs either), the true reason is simple: lack of precedent.

Without any precedent of fully guaranteed veteran contracts to negotiate off of, agents and players have had nothing to argue. I have always said that for a full guarantee to happen, there needed to be a player with extreme leverage using that leverage to break the seal.

And it happened. Kirk Cousins and agent Mike McCartney used the extraordinary and unique status of an unrestricted free agent quarterback—after six years in the NFL—in his prime. And they used that leverage to garner a fully guaranteed $84 million contract from the Vikings.

So, according to my theory, this should break the seal on full guarantees and set the stage for more players, especially elite quarterbacks, to join the party. Right? Well, I think we need to hold the phone on that, but the contract does present another leverage tactic. Let’s examine.

Promised Land

Cousins finally got to free agency after a fixed and reasonable four-year rookie contract, two franchise tags and his incumbent team replacing him through trade. The key to this contract, however, is that he got there. There has not been a quarterback in his prime to hit the market, well, ever (not even Peyton Manning; he was coming off a series of neck surgeries in 2012). Cousins had something, free agent status, that no top quarterback on the horizon this offseason—not Matt Ryan, not Aaron Rodgers—has.

Ryan is entering the last year of his deal; Rodgers has two years left. And after that, of course, there are those pesky franchise tags that Cousins knows so well. Both players could certainly claim talent and accomplishments superior to Cousins, but they are only negotiating with one team, not potentially 32.

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When I was in Green Bay I would never let our franchise quarterback, then Brett Favre, get within two years of the finish line, free agency. That philosophy is now in place with Rodgers, as the Packers approach him this offseason about extending a deal that expires after the 2019 season.

Thus, were I a team negotiator, as I was for a decade, and a player came to me trying to use the Cousins contract as precedent, I would first ask two questions: (1) Are you a proven and accomplished quarterback? and (2) are you a free agent? This narrows the potential sample size for use of this precedent to, well, no one on the horizon.

Could the Falcons or Packers follow the Vikings lead and provide full guarantees for Ryan and/or Rodgers? Sure. But it won’t be the Cousins precedent that does it, because Cousins had something they don’t: freedom.

Now to the more interesting precedent of Cousins deal: the length.

Short and strong

The real question about the future impact of the Cousins deal, then, is this: Will it cause other players with extreme leverage to opt for shorter deals without nonguaranteed “out” years? This, I think, could be the lasting impact of the Cousins deal. McCartney remarked that Cousins turned down much more from other teams; my sense is those deals had more over three years but had additional years after the three-year guarantee.

There have been three-year guarantees in the NFL before. Players such as Larry Fitzgerald, Ndamokung Suh, Darrelle Revis (partial) and several quarterbacks have had them. The difference between these deals and the Cousins contract is that they all had additional nonguaranteed years after the guarantee. And in the case of Revis (last year) and Suh (last week), the Jets and Dolphins terminated the contract before those years. Cousins’ contract changes that paradigm, shifting the post-guarantee risk to the team rather than the usual scenario of the player assuming all the post-guarantee risk.

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NBA superstars such as LeBron James consistently demand “outs” in their deals every year or two years, while, of course, being paid maximum contracts. This allows them to stay current with the changing marketplace and CBA updates and, perhaps more importantly, maintains the pressure on management to keep the team contending. Despite being limited to maximum salaries, NBA stars have true power in negotiating these deals with constant opt-outs.

Imagine if Rodgers agreed to a market range deal with the Packers, say $29-30 million a year, but wanted a player option every year? True, there is the NFL franchise tag, something NBA owners can only dream about, and the Packers (as any team) would strongly resist. But that position would put the team under constant pressure to make sure the roster and culture are to Rodgers’ liking. No team wants to be put in that position.

More so than the full guarantee, it is the precedent of the shorter length of the Cousins contract that scares management. Cousins’ contract broke the mold, although not the mold we originally thought.

Five other thoughts of the crazy week that was …

• Speaking of shorter contracts, 24-year-old wide receivers Sammy Watkins (Chiefs) and Allen Robinson (Bears) not only negotiated top-of-market deals but limited the length to three years. They will have another bite at the lucrative free agency apple at age 27 or before.

• I get the Jets mortgaging some future for their hopefully-franchise quarterback, but signing Josh McCown and Teddy Bridgewater for roughly $15 million this year makes little sense to me. How long until fans—and even media—are clamoring for the rookie? One bad game, two, three maybe? The same is true for Tyrod Taylor, a $16 million placeholder in Cleveland. Have teams not learned from the failed Mike Glennon $16 million experiment? He lasted four games before the Trubisky era began in Chicago.

• The veteran running back market has cratered, with DeMarco Murray, Doug Martin and Adrian Peterson the latest casualties. The second-highest-paid running back in the league right now, behind Le’Veon Bell, is Jerick McKinnon, newly signed by the 49ers. Let that sink in.

• The agent-fueled bashing of Richard Sherman regarding his contract was over the top, especially considering some free-agent deals that were oversold by the media through agents. Here is one example: The Eagles deal with their best linebacker, free agent Nigel Bradham, was reported as five years, $40 million. The reality is it is a one-year, $8 million deal with four years of team options for the other $32 million. [Editor’s note: figure has been corrected from previous version.] Where are the Richard Sherman bashers regarding this deal?

For Kirk Cousins and the Vikings, It Was About the Fit As Much as the Money

• Although Sherman did not use a traditional agent, he did seek advice in his negotiations. A member of the NFLPA Executive Council, he was in regular contact with the union and reached out to others (including myself) with questions. And in the context of a player just cut, with a severe injury, here is what he negotiated: $5 million ($3 million bonus, $2 million salary) to rehabilitate his torn Achilles. If sufficiently rehabilitated to not be on an injured list at the start of camp, he will make $2 million more. And then there are up to $2 million in active roster bonuses—clauses that I started using 15 years ago on players who were coming off injuries—depending on how many games he is able to play. And then, of course, there is upside. So, if Sherman does nothing but injury rehab this year, he makes $5 million. If he is able to play at all, he makes $7 million to 9 million. If he is able to play to the level he once did, he could make $10million to $12 million. Perhaps viewed in this context, the deal—for a player just released who ruptured his Achilles four months ago—is not as bad as some will have you believe. Especially compared to some healthy free agents.

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