- With their QB still on a team-friendly rookie deal, the Rams are rapidly locking up other key pieces to a long-term contender, and everyone is happy—even if Todd Gurley’s new contract isn’t quite NBA money. Plus, your questions on Lamar Jackson, Roquan Smith, Le’Veon Bell and more
Todd Gurley became the latest in a long line of NFL players to bemoan how much less they make than NBA stars when he told the Los Angeles Times in mid-July: “I just want like $80 million, those guys are getting like one-fifty!” And if you didn’t know any better, you might have taken that as a sign that Gurley was still a ways off from getting the splashy second contract that all the game’s best lust after.
The truth is, by then, he knew. His time was coming, and that’s even though the talks between his people and the Rams were still a couple days from really heating up.
“The first offer was pretty strong,” Gurley told me on Wednesday, after reporting to camp in Orange County. “And I looked at that, and my agent just told me to trust him. I wasn’t worried about it, I was just appreciative they would be open to a contract after my third year. So I kind of just let that handle itself. And he kept calling me, and I’d get a couple updates. And it was like, ‘Oh, maybe this thing can get done.’”
Give the Rams credit. The talks between VP of football and business administration Tony Pastoors and Gurley’s agent, Ari Nissim, were clean because the team didn’t screw around. That first offer, coming during mid-June minicamp, reflected how the Rams felt about the reigning NFL Offensive Player of the Year, and it took the common dance of swapping non-starter proposals out of the equation.
So by the time everyone got back from vacation—and long-term negotiations with safety Lamarcus Joyner failed ahead of the July 16 deadline to sign franchise-tagged players—the sides could hit the ground running, and set the stage for Gurley to strike paydirt on a four-year, $57.5 million extension.
“They did a great job of communicating,” Gurley said, “and everything worked out for the best.”
We’re going to get to your questions in a bit, but we’re starting this week’s mailbag with the seismic news from Tuesday. The Rams locked up another member of their young core (they still have a big one left, you might have heard). And Gurley didn’t just get rich. He also did guys like Arizona’s David Johnson, Dallas’s Zeke Elliott, and others further down the line, like Leonard Fournette and Alvin Kamara, a huge solid.
The new-money APY on Gurley’s deal ($14.375 million) is a 74 percent markup on what Devonta Freeman got last August, and puts an emphatic stop to the backward momentum the tailback market had endured the last few years. Based on a rebirth in talent coming into the NFL at the position, it’s a good bet that this is just the start.
“I’m just happy to even be in a position to take the next step for us running backs,” Gurley said. “And to be able to get closer to what a receiver or a D-end makes, it’s pretty good for us. There are a lot of great running backs in the league, and their time will definitely come. And when it’s time for them to get paid, hopefully my part has played a role in it.”
The cool thing here is that everyone walks away happy. The Rams certainly are, even as they become the first team to take the plunge on the inevitable correction that was coming in running back salaries. Six years ago, seven backs were on long-term deals with an APY of $8.5 million or more. Two days ago, there were none, despite the cap having gone from $120.6 million to $177.2 million over that time.
So the first step for Los Angeles was acceptance that things would change.
“Because we’re not the Steelers, and we’re not Le’Veon [Bell], you truly don’t know [what was offered there],” Rams GM Les Snead said over the phone a day after the Gurley deal was announced. “But that situation did have an affect, because if [Bell] had gotten something done, that’d be the standard. Since he didn’t, it was up to us to blaze the new standard.”
Here’s why it made sense for the Rams:
There was a template. And that was Adrian Peterson. Gurley gets $14.375 million per, $21.95 million in Year 1, and $40 million over three. Peterson, in 2011, got an APY of $14.546 million, $20.25 million in Year 1, and $39.751 million over three. Pretty close, huh? “I do truly think that even though it’s been a while, the Adrian Peterson deal, the last [running back contract] in this stratosphere, was something of a baseline to create your model,” said Snead. “What you do know, yes, Todd’s a running back, but oh by the way, he made a big difference in our team going from 32nd to first in scoring, because he’s a touchdown-maker, and Sean [McVay] utilized him out of the backfield, he became a dual threat.” The Steelers’ final offer to Bell, from an APY standpoint, further affirmed the Rams were in the right neighborhood. And while Peterson had more leverage (final year of an old-system rookie deal), the Rams get this one seven years later at a much smaller percentage of the cap.
Guarantees are moved up. The Rams believe in Gurley. But as Pro Football Talk detailed yesterday (and we’ve confirmed), the guarantees in the contract are rolling, and over (as it customary) after Year 3. That means the Rams have Gurley at $40 million for the next three years, and the final three years are essentially team options. This separates Gurley, 23, from Bell, 26. The Rams are in for Years 4, 5, 6, and then get flexibility. Bell is already going into Year 6. So Gurley gets his money early. The team is protected later.
The Rams can plan. The team has Gurley, Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods all under contract through 2021, and Cooper Kupp and Gerald Everett have three years left on rookie deals. All are 25 or under. So yes, they’ve taken advantage of having a quarterback on a rookie deal by going out and getting vets like Aqib Talib and Ndamukong Suh. But they’ve also gotten pieces of the young core taken care of so they have certainty on how big deals for Aaron Donald and, eventually, Jared Goff will fit on their books. “If the QB shows success sooner rather than later, it does provide an opportunity, which is where we’re at right now, and you try to take advantage of it,” said Snead. “But you’re well-aware in planning, what we did, [COO] Kevin [Demoff], Tony, always saying, hey, we have a young team, and if the ‘we’ tips to success, we’re going to have to start locking up and paying players who deserve to be paid, and that’s what we’ve done. That’s why we’re going to be able to do what we do.”
Gurley’s the right kind of guy. When I asked Gurley if he sees added responsibility now that he’s paid, he answered that he’s in his third year as a captain. And the fact that he’s already that dude made it easier on the Rams. “You get paid if you perform on Sunday, and you get paid if you work hard,” Snead said. “But it’s not one or the other. When you say you’re going to make a player like Todd one of your staples, one of your faces, there’s a lot of things that are involved, and not just on Sundays.”
And then there’s the continuing message here: The Rams are in for 2018, with full belief that behind McVay, they can contend for a world title. When I asked Snead about that, he answered that he believes the team got “efficacy” last year.
“That’s a fancy word for confidence,” Snead said. “But I like it, because you earn that. And now you believe, we’re a one-game-at-a-time organization, but when we start the week Monday preparing for the next opponent, there’s a belief we can go win that game. … The key for us is that our players believe, they’re confident, they have efficacy, they earned that. There’s no locker room speech that can give you that.”
The newly wealthier Gurley, for his part, isn’t backing down from the pressure.
“Every year is the year,” Gurley said. “The Rams did a great job of adding great pieces this offseason. We want to be able to take the next step. Last year we were able to make the playoffs. And whether you’re the Rams or the Patriots or Eagles, if you’re not playing in the Super Bowl, it’s definitely a failed season at the end of the day. Coming off last season, we’ve got a lot to learn from, a lot to build off of.”
A lot to look forward to, too, maybe starting with one more guy (hello, Aaron) getting taken care.
On to your mail …
From J (at @pjays13): Is Lamar Jackson the Ravens’ starting QB by Week 8?
I’m going to say no. And I’ll you that Joe Flacco’s ability to hold on to his job rides as much on the team’s success as his own. Let me explain. Over a 10-year period (2008-17), the idea of redshirting first-round rookie QBs has virtually vanished. There have been 27 first-rounders in that time. Only two were truly put on ice as rookies—Tennessee’s Jake Locker in 2011 and Kansas City’s Pat Mahomes last year. What do those two have in common? Both were on teams that contended.
If Flacco plays well and the Ravens contend, Jackson will be a gadget player this year. And even if Flacco’s not great, so long as the team stays in the race, it might be hard to commit to that kind of change. But if Baltimore isn’t contending in November or December, then the door swings open. That’s not about Jackson. It’s about pretty much every rookie QB who starts his first year on the bench.
As for where Jackson’s at, the team is encouraged with his progress while acknowledging he’s got a long way to go. Mechanical tweaks have tightened his ball, but he still has to get more consistent there. The good news? He’s quickly showed strong field vision, which is something you can’t really teach.
From BearsMexi (@BearsMexi): What’s the hold up in the Roquan Smith negotiations? Will his delayed reporting keep him from calling the plays in the defensive huddle?
I don’t think the second part of your question will be much of an issue—Danny Trevethan is a seven-year vet who’s had the green dot (signifying being the one getting the calls from the sideline) on his helmet for two different franchises. Eventually, Smith may make more sense as that guy, because maybe he’ll come off the field less, but for now the Bears are covered.
As for what’s holding up the negotiations, it’s details. One consistent issue for top-10 picks under the 2011 CBA—with almost nothing to bargain over on slotted deals—has been the presence of offset language in deals, which only comes into play if a player is cut within three years. Another that’s cropped up this year: language explaining what leads to the voiding of guarantees (i.e. league discipline, suspensions).
That stuff, for the most part, is about precedent-setting for teams and recruiting for agents. And taking all this into account, we came into the week with only two of the top nine picks signed. Seven are signed as of this writing, with Smith and Jets QB Sam Darnold the only two left.
From Fly Eagles Fly! (@GoEagles259): How is Sidney Jones progressing after being injured most of 2017?
I can tell you the Eagles were very encouraged with how the 2017 second-round cornerback moved in the spring. And it’s important to remember who Jones was before blowing out his Achilles at his 2017 pro day—a player who was in the race to be the second corner taken in a corner-rich draft, after Defensive Rookie of the Year-to-be Marshon Lattimore, and one some preferred to promising Titan Adoree Jackson.
Now, Philly did shut Jones down after he experienced some soreness late in the offseason program. But the expectation is that he’ll be ready to start training camp in earnest. And while we’ll have to wait and see if he can get back to pre-injury form, he’s absolutely in the mix to play alongside incumbent starters Ronald Darby and Jalen Mills in Jim Schwartz’s defense.
From Steven (@EbenezerStrong): Can the Cowboys require their players to stand for the anthem?
We’ll see. Had the rules the owners adopted in May stuck, the answer to that question would be no—teams would be fined if players who were on the field weren’t standing for the anthem, but were free to decide on discipline, with the caveat that players could stay in the locker room. I’d be surprised, frankly, if there’s any new policy that doesn’t give the players some sort of out, unless there’s a significant giveback.
As for Jones himself, I think this is a reminder that each of the owners is dealing with his own audience, his own sponsors and his own circumstances. The controversy hit Jones’s Cowboys harder than it did teams in the Northeast or the West Coast—from the ratings to local revenue and partnerships. And that’s why I believe Jones’s primary motives here relate to business.
What’s interesting is that Jones has always been close with his players. Guys love playing in Dallas. We’ll see if he can effectively play both sides here. It won’t be easy.
From Tara (@Love_the_Colts): Reich over Pagano, new O-line over old O-line, Andrew (Luck) healthy, new more appropriate defensive scheme. Why are so many media members expecting fewer Colts wins than last year?
I can’t jump in anyone else’s head to look, but I’d say it’s probably skepticism over Luck’s health. And I get that. We were told on several occasions last year that Luck would be back, and then he wasn’t, so it’s fair to make your optimism cautious. I can say that the Colts feel good about Luck—his progress is steady, and he’s way ahead of where he was at any point last year.
And I also agree with you. GM Chris Ballard is building something that I believe will be lasting in Indy. It’s not a stretch to think 2017 first-rounder Malik Hooker could be All-Pro at safety this year, and his draft classmate Quincy Wilson should be a solid starter at corner. If a couple rookies win jobs, you’ll have four top-40 picks starting on the offensive line. The front seven was addressed with three second-round picks in April. And the skill-position talent remains solid.
So that brings us back to where we started. If Luck is healthy and (this is key) close to what he was, I think the Colts can make the playoffs. If he isn’t, then we’re having a different discussion.
From Mrs. S (@thecornerview): Any chance [Le’Veon] Bell gets traded in a Kawhi Leonard scenario?
I’d be stunned. First of all, the Steelers are very much in win-now mode—Ben Roethlisberger is 36, Antonio Brown is 30, and four of their starting offensive linemen are 29 or older, with a fifth at 28. After the 2012-13 dip, Pittsburgh has made the playoffs four straight years and is 45-19 over that time. Yet it’s been eight years since the Steelers were in the Super Bowl. So the time is now.
The other thing is, I’m not sure what kind of return they could get for Bell right now anyway. If you’re another team, you by rule can’t give him an extension, so you’re signing up for one year of Bell and the prospect of trying to keep him before he hits the market, without having the lever of the franchise tag (no one’s tagging Bell at the quarterback number).
So yeah … Bell will be a Steeler this year. And that outcome isn’t exactly horrible for Pittsburgh, provided he’s the same guy he’s been over the last five years.
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