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Russell Wilson’s Contract Is a Huge Win for NFL Owners

The Broncos quarterback could have pushed for a fully guaranteed deal similar to Deshaun Watson’s. Now it’s up to Lamar Jackson to be strong in his stance with the Ravens.

The NFL opener between the Rams and Bills is just a week away, and as the season approaches, there have been some interesting items in the final run-up of action off the field before we turn our attention to the field. Here are a few insights:

Wilson gets paid, but not enough

The Broncos rewarded their new quarterback, Russell Wilson, a player who certainly added to the eye-popping franchise sale price of $4.6 billion. The deal is impressive from a cash standpoint. Although I have not seen details, reports are that the five extension years are worth $245 million, including $165 million guaranteed. The contract binds Wilson, the former Seahawks quarterback turned Denver signal-caller after a trade in March, to the Broncos for seven years and $296 million. However, no matter what the numbers, the fact that it is a contract that’s not fully guaranteed is a win, a huge win, for NFL management.

Denver Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson

The Deshaun Watson deal set a precedent, or so we thought, for full guarantees for elite quarterbacks. And while recent extensions for Derek Carr and Kyler Murray did not include those guarantees, the argument could be made that they were not elite-level players. With Wilson, however, there is no such argument. And with his deal now set to run seven years, even Wilson will be vulnerable in future contract talks to a release or a pay reduction.

The Broncos have an owner worth $60 billion, and they easily could have funded $250 million or $300 million of future guarantees for their franchise player, but they avoided doing so. That alone is a huge win for management.

Ravens owner Steve Biscotti now has the ammunition he needs to repeat assertions by many owners that the Watson deal was an outlier and aberration. It has been up to agents of elite players to push against that narrative, but it clearly has not worked. Now it is up to Lamar Jackson, with or without an agent, to be strong in his stance. He has youth on his side compared to Wilson, and performance on his side compared to Watson.

Maybe the Watson deal will not have the ripples many on the player side hoped for. And that is a disappointment, as it will mean NFL contracts—in terms of security and strength for players—will continue to pale in comparison to NBA and Major League Baseball contracts.

Hold-ins over Hold-outs

First, let’s get some definitions out of the way, along with a pet peeve. A holdout is a player under contract who is not reporting to his team. A holdout is not an unsigned player, such as a rookie yet to sign his first NFL contract or a franchise player yet to sign his one-year franchise tender. In the latter category, the Bengals’ Jesse Bates was one of those players up until last week; he was not holding out as there was no contract to hold out from. Glad to get that off my chest.

As contract negotiator for the Packers, I felt very little, if any, stress about holdouts; they were out of sight and out of mind, and we had too many other issues to worry about. Since the new CBAs starting in 2011 and continuing in ’20, holdouts have become exceedingly rare, as there are stepped-up penalties and free-agency consequences. Instead, a new phenomenon has entered the business of football: hold-ins.

Hold-ins report to training camp, but only as an embodiment of the Marshawn Lynch quote, “I’m just here so I don’t get fined.” They show good faith by reporting as they hope/wait for contract upgrades while doing little on the field. Unlike holdouts, hold-ins need to be dealt with and resolved before the season. And the strategy has been effective, more so than the holdout strategy, in getting players better contracts or better situations. It started a few years ago when Jalen Ramsey held in and got himself out of Jacksonville. Last year, T.J. Watt held in with the Steelers before being rewarded with a top-of-market deal for defensive players. And this year Derwin James just successfully held in with the Chargers, Chauncey Gardner-Johnson got himself out of New Orleans to Philadelphia, and three wide receivers—Diontae Johnson (Steelers), DK Metcalf (Seahawks) and Deebo Samuel (49ers)—got themselves paid with that strategy (more on them below).

We now have a clear pattern toward bringing a young player’s contract out of its fixed and reasonable rookie-wage-scale earnings into the top-tier veteran stratosphere: Stay (mostly) quiet during the offseason, report to camp, do not participate in drills or on-field work and get paid. The truth: Holding in works better than holding out.

Except in one situation.

Bear market for Smith

Bears linebacker Roquan Smith

Although Justin Fields may be the Bears’ most important player, Roquan Smith may be their best player. Yet there was no contract resolution after a hold-in for Smith during training camp.

Smith, while representing himself, revealed the Bears had offered him a heavily backloaded deal that included de-escalators: reduced compensation for lower playtime or statistical markers. I used de-escalators for lower-level players coming off injury and players entering the later part of their careers, etc. Offering de-escalators to a premier player such as Smith is out of the norm and brought a predictable reaction.

As for Smith representing himself, he learned the hard way that this is a delicate situation for the team. I negotiated a few contracts directly with players, without an agent, and it cost me friendships and relationships.

Player-contract negotiations are raw and emotional. I was telling players that we (the Packers) did not value them as other teams valued certain players. I truly realized the value of an agent as a filter from the team to the player. We do not know whether this is playing out with Jackson and the Ravens (I wrote about that here) or the Bears and Smith, but it is a definite factor in team-player negotiations without an agent.

Smith will now bet on himself, but Chicago has final say due to the franchise tag, so this situation Bears watching.

Fourth-year receivers cash in

While other positions—running back and tight end—have lost market value, the wide receiver market has grown exponentially in the past few months. And more interesting to me than the veteran group of wide receivers taking the average per year to a $22 million-to-$25 million average per year—players such as Davonte Adams, Tyreek Hill, Cooper Krupp and Stefan Diggs—is a younger group doing the same.

Once A.J. Brown received a massive contract extension from the Eagles upon their trade for him, precedent was set for other productive receivers from the 2019 Draft. After Brown, impressive contract adjustments were made for Terry McLaurin, Metcalf and Samuel (and, in a different kind of deal, Johnson).

Below is a comparison of the year-by-year cash of the four players from the 2019 Draft that upgraded their contracts this offseason. I look at cumulative cash—ignore cap since that is simply accounting—to see which player is getting the better deal. Here is a look at that in millions:

Year 1 | Year 2 | Year 3 | Year 4 | Year 5

Brown | 24.2 | 36.2 | 57.2 | 73.2 | 104.2

Metcalf | 31 | 45.2 | 58.2 | 76.2

Samuel | 25 | 36.2 | 58.2 | 75.7

McLaurin | 29.5 | 34.7 | 53.2 | 71.2

Metcalf has the best contract, with a two-year average of $22.6 million, with Brown and Samuel at $18.1 million and Mclaurin at $17.35 million. The deals even out, except for McLaurin’s, after the third year, but Metcalf’s deal is the most player-friendly, with Brown’s (with a fifth year) and McLaurin’s being more team-friendly.

Araiza no longer

The news dominating the Bills last week was about a sixth-round punter, and none of it was good.

Matt Araiza’s feel-good story turned sinister amid accounts of his participation in a gang rape of a 17-year-old girl while at San Diego State last year.

The Bills could not, as so many teams do, leave it to Roger Goodell, as the NFL Personal Conduct Policy does not apply to pre-NFL employment conduct. So the Bills released Araiza from the team. Still, so many questions arise. What did the Bills know about this incident and when? What did they not want to know? What did they know that they hoped no one else would find out? Despite being informed of the incident by the attorney for the woman in July, the Bills released veteran punter Matt Haack early in training camp, effectively handing Araiza the job.

On the heels of reading about Deshaun Watson’s predatory behavior over the past year, this was not a good look for the NFL or the Bills. And my adage “greater talent equals greater tolerance” does not apply to punters.

Jimmy G still (surprisingly) a 49er

Jimmy Garoppolo was, as of last week, scheduled to make $24 million this year playing for the 49ers. The reality, of course, was that he had as much chance of making that amount from them, or any other team, as you or I did. Now he will make 27% of that, $6.5 million (plus incentive that he will likely never earn) while still playing for the Niners.

The reason he is still with the team seems obvious: There was no trade market for him. The notion that the Browns would suddenly be interested after the Watson suspension was always folly to me; Garoppolo has been available since January.

Garoppolo may still be traded, now with a more palatable contract, whether upon an injury to a quarterback around the league or at the trade deadline in October. For now, though, he and the team will co-exist.

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