The CBA, in taking a sledgehammer to the rookie pay system, does not allow drafted players to renegotiate with their teams until they have completed three seasons in the league. This has given teams a built-in excuse to leverage the fixed and reasonable cost of starting quarterbacks in rookie contracts for extraordinary value. The list of teams taking advantage in recent years includes the Seahawks (Russell Wilson), Chiefs (Patrick Mahomes), Cowboys (Dak Prescott), Texans (Deshaun Watson) and, more recently, the Bills (Josh Allen), Browns (Baker Mayfield) and Ravens (Lamar Jackson). Those three players have been ripe for extensions since February; one of them just happened.
The Allen deal
The first shoe dropped among the trio, with Allen extending his contract with the Bills for six years—past the existing two years—for a total contract value of $258 million over eight years. As readers in this space know, the total value is a fictitious number as, unlike NBA and Major League Baseball deals, NFL contracts are not fully guaranteed. But Allen’s deal appears to be a strong one, with $100 million fully guaranteed at signing—a key metric for these extensions—and a portion of that guarantee extending even into Year 4, another strong feature for Allen. Allen also has another $50 million of “rolling guarantees” that vest easily next year and the year after. It is a strong player deal, but it also has a distinct advantage for the Bills: its length.
As I wrote last summer, I believe the Mahomes deal is very team-friendly, locking up the league’s best young player for essentially the rest of his career. There would never be even the threat of free agency for Mahomes and, as I often say, player empowerment only truly comes from the threat (or reality) of free agency. Similarly, the Bills now have Allen under contract through 2028, from ages 25 through 32, the prime of Allen’s career. Allen will have no leverage with free agency until the end of the decade at the earliest.
Whither Mayfield and Jackson?
They have been eligible for extensions since the end of the 2020 season. There have been reports of negotiations, potential deadlines for talks, etc., but nothing has happened. And with Allen now setting the market, this would not appear to be too complicated.
One thought is that perhaps the Browns and Ravens don’t really want to do extensions with their star quarterbacks; at least not right now. Maybe they are cowed by the case studies of Carson Wentz and Jared Goff, who received massive extensions after their third years with the Eagles and Rams only to have those contracts traded, leaving disastrous cap consequences in their wake. Perhaps the Browns and Ravens are negotiating knowing if they don’t get a deal done, that is fine. It is not like these players are going anywhere; they have another contract year and then a team option. Other top quarterbacks had to wait until past their fourth season, including Andrew Luck.
Also, from a player perspective, waiting is not a bad option. Not only do we have a reduced cap this year, but the old trope about fear of injury should not force any ascending young quarterbacks into signing; their market price will only go up, even with injury. We now have Exhibit A for that scenario: Dak Prescott. A gruesome injury in a contract year did nothing to reduce his value; rather, that value only went up. That should be a lesson for Mayfield and Jackson.
With Allen’s deal now complete, will the Mayfield and Jackson deals get done? Well, deadlines spur action and perhaps one or both will get done before the deadline of the start of the season. However, I can see reasons to wait for both sides. As I have learned the hard way in the past, sometimes the best deals you do are the ones you don’t.
The Watson watch … how does he play?
Deshaun Watson is practicing—sort of—with the Texans, but I don’t see how he plays for them or anyone else in the coming months. Let’s examine.
As with Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, many predicted that Watson would never, ever set foot in the Texans headquarters again. Yet here we are. There have been only nonresponsive comments from Texans’ coaches and management; we are clearly in a holding pattern with the team and the player. Trade rumors are rampant, with opportunistic teams smelling blood in the water to see whether they can leverage a bargain due to circumstances. Which, of course, raises the question of those “circumstances.”
At last count we had 22 civil lawsuits and 10 criminal complaints against Watson alleging sexual misconduct or assault. There has been little movement on the legal front aside from posturing from loquacious attorneys. As for the law of the NFL, as of this writing there are crickets: no suspension, no fine, no commissioner exempt list, no paid leave … nothing. As for the Texans, they appear to be “leaving it to Roger [Goodell],” waiting for the commissioner to handle it so they don’t have to. Deadlines spur action, and something has to happen before the season.
Power of precedent
As a lawyer, my first question is always: What’s the precedent here? Two cases come to mind.
In 2010, Ben Roethlisberger was accused of sexually assaulting a woman in a bathroom bar in Georgia (two years later, he also settled a civil case alleging sexual assault that took place in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, in '08). After a long investigation from the Georgia Bureau of Investigations, no criminal charges were filed. Notwithstanding the lack of charges, Goodell imposed a six-game suspension (later reduced to four games) for one incident that drew no criminal charges. In '17, Ezekiel Elliott was accused of domestic misconduct with, again, no criminal charges. Goodell imposed a six-game suspension, one unsuccessfully challenged in court.
Thus, the precedent: two star players, both without criminal charges, both resulting in six-game suspensions from Goodell. So how on God’s green Earth is Deshaun Watson going to play this season, for the Texans or anyone else, until at least mid-November? I'm a lawyer; Goodell has many lawyers around him. I just don't see it.
And here is some more precedent. In 2014—against the backdrop of the Ray Rice video—Greg Hardy beat his girlfriend (charges were dropped when the woman failed to appear in court to testify) and Adrian Peterson pleaded no contest to a count of misdemeanor reckless assault after disciplining his son with a switch. At that time a top league executive told me: We’ll pay them, but we can’t put them out there on the field. We just can’t. So the NFL brought the commissioner exempt list out of cobwebs, a list that was used for completely different purposes, to park these players for the year while they were paid. Better to pay them for not playing than to have them playing, as if nothing had happened, in a sport trying to appeal to women. I don’t see how things would be different now with Watson.
As for these opportunistic teams trying to leverage his “circumstances” to better their trade value, good luck selling Watson to their fan base, no matter the bargain-basement trade price.
Webinar next week
I will be offering a one-hour webinar next Tuesday night, Aug. 17, at 8 p.m. ET. As I do in this space, I will take attendees behind the curtain into the inner workings of the business of sports, both from a player/agent perspective and a team perspective. And I will tell some stories and offer advice about breaking into the business, something so many people ask me about on a daily basis. Please sign up here.
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