Can a Premier Contract Player Really be a Bargain?

I read an article by Jimmy Kempski of the Philadelphia Voice the other day about Fletcher Cox and came across an interesting quote by former NFL executive Joe Banner regarding the franchise signings.

Teams signing deals today are doing so because the contracts will be looked upon as cheap down the line given the rising salary cap. I think that’s true to an extent when discussing extensions, but I think application across the board doesn’t really work and in most cases does not work for the franchise tag contracts.

The NFL generally segregates positions by matter of importance. The current hierarchy is likely similar to this order:

Defensive End (4-3 Defense)
Wide Receiver
Outside Linebacker (3-4 Defense)
Left Tackle
Defensive Tackle/Defensive End (3-4)
Inside Linebacker
Tight End
Outside Linebacker (4-3 Defense)
Right Tackle
Backup QB

Five years ago this list would have looked very different and five years before that different again. This is because the NFL runs in cycles and in general is a copycat league with teams changing the way they play based on success of other franchises. When we talk about driving future value by locking players up early it is important to project both the performance and the going rate of players in the future.

Currently the large increase in salary cap limits has primarily seem money cycled to quarterbacks (the lowest wage starting veteran QB’s earn, on average, around $17 million, about $6 million more than one or two years ago), pass rushers and cornerbacks. Wide receivers will likely see a more wide ranging bump by next season when AJ Green and Julio Jones both sign extensions. Safety and tight end have both begun to creep up at the top and it is likely that the rest will soon follow.

But what of everyone else?  Left tackle is flat and has been since 2010.  The importance of the linebacker has fallen off completely and we all know about the decline of the running back. Fullbacks don’t even exist on every team and those 34 defensive ends and defensive tackles are still struggling to keep up with the more traditional pass rushing positions (Ndamukong Suh obviously excluded). So if you signed big money contracts for those players in the last few years there is now probably a bigger disparity.

Even for the prime positions, other than QB, when we move into premier salaries teams are more or less setting the market for the next few seasons. Those dynamics don’t seem to change until a number of lesser individuals sign big contracts. On top of that, the lifecycle of many players is rather short and by the time the position catches up in salary that player has been or is about to be released. So just because a team signs today doesn’t mean that the value becomes cheap down the line. Here is the current breakdown for the top salaries at a position and some general thoughts on the market.

PositionTop Salary2nd Salary5th SalaryThoughts
QB$22,000,000$21,850,000$20,100,000Aaron Rodgers signed his deal in 2013 and it will likely be surpassed by the end of this year. May be cheap within 3 years.
DT$19,062,500$13,600,000$10,000,000Clearly this will never be surpassed. Maybe not for the next 10 years.
34OLB$16,833,333$13,200,000$9,000,000Justin Houston shattered all expectations with his massive contract. Von Miller could challenge next year
34DE$16,666,667$11,000,000$10,250,000JJ Watt's megadeal from 2014 should remain the highest by at least a few million until Watt receives a new deal down the line.
WR$16,207,143$14,000,000$11,111,111Calvin Johnson's record setting contract was signed in 2012. It will likely remain the top contract until he is released from the Lions
43DE$16,000,000$14,253,724$11,311,600Mario Williams contract was signed in 2012. It will not be surpassed before it expires.
CB$14,024,212$14,010,000$10,500,000$14 million looks to be the max value for a player for the forseeable future. All the big contracts have come in the last two years
RB$14,000,000$12,200,000$8,000,000Other than top two players, market is generally maxed out at $8 million. Dont expect major changes upward
LT$12,200,000$11,500,000$10,000,000Unique excessive length contract on top. Deals 3-5 likely wont exist next season.
S$10,000,000$9,500,000$8,250,000Contract has potential to be surpassed, but likely never looked at as low cost.
ILB$9,559,150$9,050,000$8,000,000Flat market position with top deal being signed in 2011. Will get jumped no later than February of 2016
C$8,950,000$8,900,000$8,400,000Position seeing a bit of a resurgence after flat 4 year period. Expect new high water mark in 2016 when Mack voids contract.
G$8,500,000$8,000,000$6,750,000Top contract was signed in 2011 by Mankins. Won't be cheap anytime soon.
43OLB$6,750,000$6,143,333$4,669,251Fifth highest deal here is a rookie, so this isnt changing unless Miller is looked at as a 43 OLB.

Most of these positions either will see or have seen their top compensated players remain the top compensated for quite some time. It’s better to extend now rather than pay the franchise tag and then extend the following year. You gain more flexibility by extending both in terms of contract leverage and contract structure. But odds are it will never be a cheap contract.

Bargain contracts are not found after four or five years in the NFL. Hitting that win/win type of contract comes by taking the plunge after three years. Those contracts are usually lower in cost and allow the team to control the rights of the player for his entire prime.  After that they can decide where to go. In general the performance and price will always meet or be in the team’s favor. The exception to that is the first two years of the deal if the team whiffed on the player and his performance is poor.

The true value in the NFL in recent years has been found by those teams that are forward thinking in that regard. Antonio Brown, Jordy Nelson, Joe Staley, Aaron Rodgers, Rob Gronkowski, Chris Harris, etc…are the types of bargains that you can find in the NFL. It can come in free agency when targeting non top tier talent that you feel can flourish in your system like an Emmanuel Sanders or Elvis Dumervil.

Stars will always get paid and they will always get paid big money. 90% of the time those big contracts will remain big contracts compared to the rest of the NFL over the term of their agreements.  It is focusing on those guys who may not look like stars when you sign them that will help teams gain a competitive advantage in the future with the rising salary cap.