Breaking Down the Contract Structure Tendencies and Styles of Each Team – NFC North

This new series will go through each division and look at how each NFL team tends to structure and negotiate their contracts. This is particularly relevant as we near free agency, and fans can begin to understand the general approach that their team will take to the marketplace come March. We start with the NFC North.

Chicago Bears

GM: Ryan Pace (early 2015)
Director of Football Administration: Joey Laine (mid 2015)

The Bears brought GM Ryan Pace and head cap exec Joey Laine into the building together in 2015. They are one of the youngest front office duos in the league, and this new leadership in Chicago makes it difficult to pinpoint their current cap strategy, but there are certainly some early tendencies.

Laine comes from a Saints franchise that, in recent years, have been aggressively tuned to the present, and unafraid to backload or restructure contracts to push their charges into the future. This has resulted in some difficult cap situations, recently seen in the cases of Drew Brees and Jairus Byrd.

In Chicago, Laine seems to be learning from past mistakes in the Saints organisation, and taking a much different approach. The Bears have signed several key and veteran players in Laine’s short tenure, and these have largely been front-loaded contracts that bet on the player maintaining his impact and level of play early in the deal. This has primarily come in the form of large Year 1 or Year 2 roster bonuses. In terms of the negotiation, this feature balances some positives for both player and team. For the player, he receives an appealing portion of cash early on, while for the team, they inflict the cap charges early to give them much greater flexibility and escapability down the road. This is reinforced by Over The Cap’s Contract Proration page, in which we can see that the Bears have one of the lowest proration ratios in the league, showing their preference to reduce future cap hits in the trade-off with present/early cap costs.

Before Laine arrived, Chicago had an even stronger emphasis on front-loaded contracts and minimising proration. The Pernell McPhee, Lamarr Houston, and Eddie Royal deals all featured small or no signing bonuses, and most of the guarantees in Year 1 or 2 in the form of roster bonuses and guaranteed base salary.

This feature is still evident in many of the deals that the Bears have made in Laine’s era. Half of Jerrell Freeman’s three year, $12 million contract was fully guaranteed at time of signing, but it contained just a $1.5 million signing bonus. Most of the guarantees were earned in Year 1 (2016), in the form of a $2.5 million roster bonus and $1 million guaranteed base salary.

In a similar mold, Josh Sitton’s contract was signed for three years, $21 million, but with a mere $1.5 million signing bonus. The Year 1 base salary of $4.75 million was fully guaranteed, and the deal features a Year 3 option in 2018. RT Bobby Massie signed a three year, $18 million deal with $6.5 million in full guarantees, and $5.5 million of that is eaten in Year 1. These contracts are all about compensating the player well early, while keeping your options open in the future.

Recently, however, the Bears have shown a greater willingness to use slightly higher signing bonuses while maintaining their use of roster bonuses. For example, Danny Trevathan’s 4 year, $28 million contract contains a $5 million signing bonus, and Kyle Long also signed in 2016 and has a $7.5 million signing bonus in a four year, $40 million deal. The Trevathan deal features two guaranteed $3.5m offseason roster bonuses in Years 1 and 2, keeping with the Bears’ front-loaded tendency.

So essentially, in the past few seasons the Bears’ front office has preferred to spend a bit more of their current cap space on each player, reducing the options and cap room they have in the short term, in exchange for greater flexibility and an ability to move on from players at little to no cost in the future. This approach may have particularly benefited them with Jay Cutler’s current contract situation, as they can escape his deal with just $2 million of dead money for 2017.

Detroit Lions

GM: Bob Quinn (Jan 2016)
VP of Football Administration: Matt Harriss (Jan 2016)

After a relatively sustained period of poor cap management, and having cleared the hefty charges of Calvin Johnson and Ndamukong Suh from their books, the Lions have finally reached a state of stability. The men brought on to guide the Lions front office through this change are GM Bob Quinn and cap specialist Matt Harriss. Both were hired in 2016 and therefore, much like Chicago, it is difficult to truly identify the methods that we will see from this Detroit front office.

In the Suh/Johnson era, the Lions were in a tight year-to-year cap handling situation where cap hits were always looking to be shoved into the future. This has resulted in the Lions having one of the higher proration ratios in the league. They needed (as opposed to preferred) to give players larger signing bonuses and cheaper Year 1 cap hits to balance any new contracts with the existing tandem of Suh and Johnson, which was consistently the highest cap hit duo in the league.

Now, with the Lions in newfound cap comfort, it will be interesting to see how their approach changes. The first large contracts for Quinn and Harriss were the Marvin Jones free agent pickup and Darius Slay’s extension. These deals showed that the Lions are still willing to prorate some of the player’s guarantees, with Jones’ five year, $40 million contract including an $8 million signing bonus, and Slay’s four year, $48 million extension including a sizeable $14.5 million signing bonus. Slay’s deal is particularly backloaded, with cap hits of $15.4 million and $13.4 million in 2019 and 2020. This is intriguing considering Ansah and Stafford’s deals will come into play in those seasons, but the Lions obviously have confidence in “Big Play” Slay, and did dip his cap hit to $5.5 million in 2018 to give some room for those big-money deals.

Slay’s deal also features a slew of workout bonuses, roster bonuses and contract escalators, many of which the Lions used in other, smaller deals in 2016 such as Tavon Wilson and Haloti Ngata. After Ansah’s down year in 2016, the Lions may try to negotiate his deal to include escalators and performance incentives.

The Lions do have some significant cap decisions to make in the near future, and these could define the philosophy that this new front office will carry forward. Star pass rusher Ziggy Ansah is under his 1st Round fifth-year option for 2017, and Matt Stafford is on the last year of his big deal. Before his 2016 struggles and injuries, Ansah showed in his first three seasons that he can be an elite pass rusher, and Stafford has consolidated his standing as a good starting quarterback that is set to hit his prime in the next few seasons. These two will command large salaries, probably between $33-36 million combined, and it will be particularly intriguing to see if the team prioritises getting Ansah’s deal done before this season, as another year of elite production will only shoot his value up even more.

Overall, the Lions are in a pretty flexible spot for the near future. The team has $108 million in cap space for 2018, so even with the large Stafford and Ansah deals looming, they should have room to upgrade their roster and try to create a Super Bowl window. The new front office has not made many big contract moves in their time in charge, but those will come with the way they deal with Stafford, Ansah and the cap space they will have in the next few seasons.

Green Bay Packers

GM: Ted Thompson (2005)
VP of Football Administration: Russ Ball (2008)

The Packers have an established culture and strategy in their front office, with GM Ted Thompson and head cap exec Russ Ball in charge of building the roster for many years now. They have a clear philosophy of building through the draft and developing those players. Their current roster is a testament to their excellent scouting, with all of their highest-paid players being drafted by the team.

It follows that all of their highest-paid players are on extensions, and there are some very consistent features amongst all of those contracts. The most common is the high signing bonuses that the Packers use, and looking at the structure of their contracts, it’s no surprise that the Packers have the highest proration ratio in the NFL.

It is interesting to note that apart from Aaron Rodgers, basically all of their extensions make the signing bonus the only guaranteed portion of the contract. Clay Matthews’ five year, $66 million contract included a $20.5 million signing bonus which was the only guaranteed portion of the deal. Randall Cobb signed a four year, $40 million contract with all guarantees in the form of a $13 million signing bonus. Jordy Nelson’s signing bonus was the entire guarantee at $11.5 million of a $39.05 million deal. These signing bonuses are each roughly one-third of the total value of the contract, in contrast to the Bears who don’t have a significant signing bonus above 18% of a contract.

Therefore, the Packers generally give the player a lower percentage of full guarantees, but because they come as a signing bonus, the cash is earned upfront. It is a win-win system that reflects the Packers’ philosophy of staying loyal to their homegrown talent, and the talent staying loyal to the team.

Another feature that the Packers consistently use is large offseason roster bonuses in the early part of the contract. For example, Aaron Rodgers signed his extension in 2013, and had roster bonuses of $9.5 million and $10.1 million in 2014 and 2015. Clay Matthews signed in 2013 and earned a $5.4 million roster bonus on the 5th day of the 2014 League Year. Cobb signed in 2015 with a $4 million roster bonus earned at the start of the 2016 League Year. Most of the larger Green Bay deals include this feature, and it really comes down to

The Packers also maintain very low cap hits in the early stages of most of their deals, primarily because of the nature of the deals as extensions. The cap hits towards the end of the contracts are significant, and considering many are the first deal after a rookie contract, it shows the belief that the Packers have in their homegrown players.

To summarise, the Packers never go shopping for big-money free agents, and have a great track record of turning some of their draft picks into upper echelon talent. They reward these homegrown players pretty well, with large signing bonuses and salaries towards the end of the deal that project the players highly. The players also seem generally loyal enough to accept relatively low guarantee percentages, to reduce the contractual risk for the team.

Minnesota Vikings

GM: Rick Spielman (2012)
EVP of Football Operations: Rob Brzezinski (1999)

Head negotiator and cap exec Rob Brzezinski is considered one of the foremost cap minds in the league, and along with new Director of Football Administration Anne Doepner, the Vikings have adapted to the times and joined the relatively “new school” trend of minimising proration and guaranteeing early base salary or roster bonuses. The Vikings have one of the lower proration ratios in the league, and also had the highest cap flexibility coming into 2017.

Their current cap situation is relatively tight but their significant flexibility should come into play with the release of Adrian Peterson. Even Sam Bradford could be released with a reasonably low cost if Teddy Bridgewater recovers quickly.

Looking at their current contracts, the Vikings seem to take a similar approach to the Bears by prioritising future flexibility and frontloading guarantees, even if it comes at the cost of giving the player a higher total value. However, also like the Bears, they are not afraid to boost the signing bonus for some players where they see fit, such as Harrison Smith who received a pretty standard signing bonus of $10 million in his contract.

The Vikings’ general preference for avoiding proration is epitomised in Alex Boone’s deal, which featured no signing bonus and all of the full guarantees as first two years’ base salary and a $5 million Year 1 roster bonus. The Vikings took a gamble on an up-and-down player with some injury troubles, giving him top 10 guard money, but they can release him in 2018 and 2019 at no cost.

Another similar deal is Linval Joseph, who signed in 2014 free agency from the Giants for five years, $31.25 million. Joseph’s $12.5 million in fully guaranteed money comes in the form of just a $3 million signing bonus, a $2.4 million Year 1 roster bonus and almost all of the first two years’ base salary. The small signing bonus adds some dead money at the end, but the deal is still very escapable for the Vikings.

The Vikings also have the tendency to push for long contracts with their highly-paid players. Joseph, Smith, Everson Griffen, and Kyle Rudolph’s deals were all signed for five years, giving the team the best opportunity to receive surplus value from the deals down the road if the players begin to outperform their value relative to the market.

Overall, I think the Vikings have a very well-managed cap. They have locked down their key players for the prime of their careers, with some useful future flexibility and escapability in case the players don’t continue to meet their value. They may have sacrificed some extra cap space to let that happen, but they are still in excellent position once they sort out Peterson’s huge cap charge.

Will Eddowes is a 20 year old college student from New Zealand. Will is in his third year of study at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, pursuing conjoint degrees in law and economics. Despite living so far away from football, Will has developed a strong passion for the game, particularly the front office aspects of salary cap analysis and team building/scouting. Follow Will on Twitter @WillEddowesNFL