Camp Holdouts Seeking Second NFL Contract Have Not Been Successful

With the rookie wage scale effectively eliminating bargaining ability for draftees, players seeking their second NFL contract often come to the negotiating table with big demands after feeling undervalued for their first four (or five) years in the league. This year there are plenty of veteran camp holdouts that want to boost their current contracts such as Julio Jones and Earl Thomas, but this article takes a closer look at the guys that have yet to sign a truly negotiated contract in their young careers.

Being selected in the first round of the NFL Draft can become a double-edged sword with the fifth-year option, which provides teams with an incredibly valuable tool to retain top talent at a discounted price. For first rounders, the initial rookie deals are far superior to those of their counterparts taken later in the draft. However, these later round players can then get a seat at the negotiating table for their second contract a whole season earlier. Teams exercising the fifth-year option is very similar to tagging a player; the player receives a fully guaranteed, one-year contract that is based off the market at their respective position.

As we’ll see with the first holdout below, although Le’Veon Bell was a second-round pick and thus not subject to the fifth-year option, he has now been franchise tagged in consecutive seasons. Monday, July 16th was the deadline for franchise tagged players to reach an agreement with their team on a new contract. A deal didn’t come to fruition for any of the remaining players that had received a franchise tag for the 2018 season (Bell, Detroit Lion Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah, Dallas Cowboy Demarcus Lawrence, and LA Ram Lamarcus Joyner).

Here is where the top holdouts currently stand:

Le’Veon Bell

RB Top 10 APY – $14,544,000 – $5,083,333 (Bell only one over $8.25 million)

Le’Veon Bell (Steelers): Franchise Tag – 2018 Salary Cap Charge: $14,544,000

% of 2018 Team Cap: 8.04%

1/103 RB

Fully Guaranteed Money: $14,544,000

Age: 26

Steelers Cap Space: $5,483,820

For the second offseason in a row Le’Veon Bell has chosen to holdout from attending the Pittsburgh Steelers OTA’s after the club placed another franchise tag on him for the 2018-2019 season. Bell is set to make $14,544,000 this season on the tag, which by rule must be 120% of the previous year’s salary. The money becomes fully guaranteed whenever Bell signs the tag.

Le’Veon believes he should not be paid as a pure running back, and that any reference to the running back market is a mischaracterization of his contributions on the field. He may have a point: on top of leading the NFL in rushing attempts in 2017 with 321, Bell was also 10th in the league in receptions with 85, just 3 fewer than Julio Jones. Bell had 60 more offensive touches than the second highest player, LeSean Mccoy, who had 346 to Bell’s 406.

Bell had reportedly been seeking somewhere in the $17 million APY range on a five-year deal with a signing bonus in the $15-$20 million range to maximize his upfront cash flow. Last season’s biggest sticking point for Bell was guaranteed money, which the Steelers historically are not willing to shell out (Antonio Brown’s 2017 extension converted P5 base salary to signing bonus and includes multiple roster bonuses, but not a dollar of P5 base salary is guaranteed).

Bell had shifted his focus accordingly, but ultimately the two sides were unable to reach a long-term deal before the deadline on Monday, which prompted Le’Veon’s agent to say that this is likely his last season in Pittsburgh. At 26 years old for a running back there is probably one good payday left, and Bell clearly knows this. He aims to maximize his next deal which apparently will come next offseason from a team other than the Steelers.

43DE Top 10 APY – $17,143,000 – $9,125,000

Khalil Mack (Raiders): 2018 Salary Cap Charge: $13,846,000

% of 2018 Team Cap: 7.61%

10/71 at 43DE

Fully Guaranteed Money: $13,846,000 – Fifth Year Option

Age: 27

Raiders Cap Space: $2,342,599

In 2015, Mack became the first player in NFL history to be named an AP All-Pro at two positions in a single season; defensive end and outside linebacker. Following this historic achievement and consistently elite production, the Raiders obviously chose to execute Mack’s fifth-year option, and that brings us to present day. For top ten draft picks, the fifth-year option salary amount is equal to the transition tag at the player’s position during his fourth season (so 2017 defensive end in this case, full list here).

As Khalil Mack watched the Raiders organization shell out a 10-year, $100 million deal to new head coach Jon Gruden, there is no question he wondered why some of that money wasn’t coming his way. Six months later, as Gruden & Co. have made so many head scratching moves it could lead to hair loss, Mack and the Raiders are no closer on reaching a deal. Mack is set to play this season on his fifth-year option of $13,846,000 and become a free agent heading into 2019. The two sides allegedly are not close because of what Joel Corry of CBS Sports describes as “sticker shock” in a recent article. As the quarterback market has continued to grow exponentially over the past year, the non-QB market has not kept up the pace. Mack and fellow 2014 draft-pick-turned-superstar Aaron Donald are not interested in topping the current market, they’re interested in blowing the roof off it. Additionally, although they don’t play the same position, they may be engaged in a game of chicken, as whoever signs a new deal first provides the other with the ability to use that contract as a benchmark.

As we saw with the quarterbacks, particularly Kirk Cousins, guaranteed money is a major focus in contract negotiations this offseason. Olivier Vernon and Von Miller have the premier defensive end/outside linebacker contracts, with Vernon receiving $40.5 million fully guaranteed and Miller $42 million fully guaranteed at signing. Cousins and recently-extended Matt Ryan both have double that amount fully guaranteed, with $84 million and $94.5 million respectively. Khalil Mack’s camp is likely doing all they can to anchor guaranteed money negotiations closer to the recent quarterback numbers than to the top defensive player numbers.

34DE Top 10 APY – $16,666,667 – $7,000,000

Aaron Donald (Rams): 2018 Salary Cap Charge: $6,892,000

% of 2018 Team Cap: 3.85%

7/49 at 34DE

Fully Guaranteed Money: $6,892,000 – Fifth Year Option

Age – 27

Rams Cap Space: $2,206,614

It is not an exaggeration to say that if Aaron Donald ends up playing for his fifth-year option amount of $6,892,000 in 2018 it may be one of the more underpaid seasons for a premier player in NFL history following the standard four-year rookie deal (more on this later). The fifth-year option for a first-rounder outside of the top ten is calculated by taking the average of the 3rd through 25th highest salaries at the player’s position, in this case defensive tackle. Coming off Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2017, it still does not appear that Donald is going to receive the payday he deserves.

The Rams front office have shown with several offseason moves that they are certainly aware of how good they have it with Donald right now, and that they must capitalize before he gets a likely record-setting deal. With only 3.85% of the 2018 Team Cap allocated to Donald, and with Jared Goff, Todd Gurley and Marcus Peters still playing on their rookie deals, the Rams have gone all-in for 2018. The trade for cornerback Aqib Talib, who is set to make $8 million this season, bolsters a secondary that was exposed at times last year. The acquisition of Ndamukong Suh on a one year, $14 million deal creates one of the scariest defensive tackle combos of all time. The franchise tagging of Lamarcus Joyner to avoid negotiating a big, long-term payday for now… I could keep going. All of this is possible because of Donald’s fifth-year option.

Donald deserves a monster contract, a fact he is keenly aware of, but he may have to forego getting it now for a very legitimate chance at a Super Bowl ring instead. There is not much money left to dish out in LA at this point.

WR Top 10 APY – $17,000,000 – $14,000,000

Odell Beckham Jr. (Giants): 2018 Salary Cap Charge: $8,459,000

% of 2018 Team Cap: 4.77%

19/202 WR

Fully Guaranteed Money: $8,459,000

Age – 25

Giants Cap Space: $7,288, 664

Honorable Mention goes to Odell Beckham Jr., although it now appears he is going to participate fully in team activities. Coming off a season-ending injury in 2017 likely hurt Beckham Jr.’s bargaining power, but he has made it known he expects to be paid big money soon.

Let’s get back to this pesky fifth-year option, often a common thread seen every year with camp holdouts. What can first round draft picks do to avoid it?

Khalil Mack, Aaron Donald, and Odell Beckham Jr. were all taken in the 2014 NFL Draft, and after remarkable starts to their careers they have all fallen prey to the exploitation of the fifth-year option. Beckham Jr. went 12th overall, Aaron Donald 13th, and then went a guy who did not have the same issue this offseason: Kyle Fuller at 14th overall to the Chicago Bears.

This is admittedly somewhat of a conspiracy theory, and although there can be huge upside, it is likely too risky a move to pull in the NFL… but bear with me here (no pun intended). Kyle Fuller looked like a rising star in his first two seasons with Chicago, then in year three the injury bug reared its ugly head (or did it?). Fuller didn’t play a snap in 2016 following a routine knee scope operation and there were rumblings, some coming from inside the organization, that he was healthy enough to have played at some point. Chicago has never won more than six games in the four years Fuller has been on the team, so his presence in year three of a rebuild (“rebuild” may be putting it nicely) would not have made a difference in the team’s overall success. After the 2016 season the Bears chose to decline Fuller’s fifth-year option for 2018 as concern arose about his desire to play in Chicago, injury concerns, or perhaps his toughness. After an outstanding 2017 season, and with zero returning starters at corner, the Bears were set on retaining Fuller… and now they had to pay top dollar. Did Fuller hold out of 2016 on purpose to avoid the fifth-year option and get a head start on his second contract? It is easy to say “of course not, because if he got hurt in 2017 than this huge gamble would have turned into a disaster.” Perhaps.

Chicago Bears GM Ryan Pace decided to place the rarely-used transition tag on Fuller for 2018, guaranteeing $12.971 million for 2018 and providing Chicago with the “right of first refusal” to match any offer sheet the player may agree to with another team. A few weeks later, after Fuller signed an offer sheet with the rival Green Bay Packers, the Bears matched. Fuller received $18 million fully guaranteed in his four-year, $56 million deal. Mack, Donald, and Beckham Jr. will certainly surpass that amount barring something catastrophic happening this season, but for now it is Kyle Fuller that is in the best financial position. I’m not suggesting this is a route that rookies take to avoid the fifth-year option, nor am I suggesting that this is what happened, but it did work out pretty darn well for Fuller.

Front Office Scheme Bolstered by Ability to Trade Compensatory Picks

On Friday, February 23 the NFL released its annual list of compensatory picks for the draft on April 26th (see here). Thirty-two draft picks were awarded to fifteen teams, with the Bengals, Cowboys, Packers and Raiders leading the way with four each. In a nutshell, teams receive a compensatory draft pick for each of their unrestricted free agents signed away by another team in a given offseason, minus the amount of unrestricted free agents they sign from other teams, up to a maximum of four. The teams that are awarded the picks, as well as the round in which the picks fall, are determined by the NFL using a “secret formula.” (For a detailed overview see Over The Cap: Comp Picks Explained). Full 2018 list:

2018 NFL Compensatory Draft Picks

Cincinnati 4
Dallas 4
Green Bay 4
Oakland 4
Arizona 3
Houston 3
Minnesota 2
Atlanta 1
Baltimore 1
Denver 1
Kansas City 1
LA Chargers 1
New England 1
New York Giants 1
Tampa Bay 1

With the introduction of compensatory draft picks in the 1993 Collective Bargaining Agreement, the NFL sought to provide relief for teams that lost quality players in free agency. The picks serve as a consolation prize for a team potentially losing a key player within their organization. As with any new provision in a CBA, there are always loopholes to be exploited (and they’re usually first discovered by the Patriots). The advent of the compensatory pick was no different, and many tricks of the trade have since come to the surface.

One such example may have played a role in the Packers’ early dismissal of Martellus Bennett this past season. Putting his struggles on the field aside, Bennett was projected to count against the Packers’ compensatory pick considerations in this upcoming draft. However, one stipulation of the compensatory pick determination dictates that if a team cuts a player before Week 10 that player won’t count against their picks (it’s an added bonus when someone claims the player off waivers and bears the full burden of their contract, which is what the Patriots did with Bennett).

Beginning with the 2017 draft, the NFL owners voted to allow compensatory draft picks to be traded. This update provided further incentive for teams to stockpile comp picks, and it will likely lead to a strong uptick in another popular front office maneuver involving the comp pick formula. With 2018 free agency in full swing, prepare to see more contracts that include team options on the back end, and here’s why:

If a team decides they no longer want a player that has years remaining on his contract, they must cut him before the first day of the league year (March 14th for 2018). If a player is cut, thereby terminating his contract before its natural end, the player cannot count towards a team’s compensatory draft pick award when another team signs him. On the other hand, if a team no longer wants a player whose contract includes a club option for the upcoming season, declining to pick up the option is not considered terminating a contract before its natural end.

Although the result of a cut and declined option is the same; the team foregoes their exclusive right to retain a player, one may result in the team receiving a draft pick while the other cannot. This trick was already enticing to clubs prior to the rule change in 2017, and now that these picks may be traded we should expect to see it even more often. The traditional club option includes an option bonus; a lump sum of money treated as a signing bonus, if the team picks it up then the player has the option bonus amount prorated over the remaining years on the contract. These options were usually attached to the later years of a contract, four or five years after its execution. Recently, teams have begun including club options in contracts that are not tied to an option bonus, but are merely an agreement that the club has the right to terminate the players’ contract at the end of a season without it being considered a true cut. These “options” provide a lot of flexibility for the franchise at essentially no cost, and teams like the Ravens have begun including them after each season of a contract (more on this later).

A prime example of a club option where the team planned for a compensatory pick was Darrelle Revis’ contract with the Patriots. New England signed Revis in the 2014 offseason for 2 years, $32 million. However, here’s the contract breakdown:

($10 million total signing bonus)

Year 1 – 2014

2014 P5 Base Salary of $1.5 million fully guaranteed

2014 Per-game Roster Bonus of $500,000 (total of $500,000 over 16 games)

2014 Signing bonus of $5 million fully guaranteed

Year 2 – 2015 (Club Option)

2015 P5 Base Salary of $7.5 million

2015 Roster Bonus $12 million

2015 Per-game Roster Bonus of $500,000 (total of $500,000 over 16 games)

2015 Signing bonus of $5 million fully guaranteed

The Patriots effectively got Revis, considered by many to be the best cornerback in the NFL, for one-year, $12 million ($10 million signing bonus, $1.5 million 2014 P5 base salary, $500,000 per-game roster bonus for 2014), and won a Super Bowl in the process. The $20 million price tag for exercising the club option on Revis in 2015 ($7.5 million 2015 P5, $12 million offseason Roster Bonus, $500,000 per-game roster bonus for 2015) was presumably not going to be picked up, especially by the Patriots. Revis instead signed a monster deal with the New York Jets, and the Patriots received the second highest compensatory pick in the 2016 NFL draft, the 96th overall pick in the 3rd round.

Although perhaps not the primary reason for including the option, another example of this practice occurred in the 2017 offseason, and it certainly paid off in a big way. Prior to the start of the 2016 season the Denver Broncos signed Russell Okung (who was acting as his own agent which cannot be ignored) to a 5-year / $53 million-dollar contract. However, the contract included a club option after 2016, and the details left virtually zero incentive for the Broncos to retain Okung after one year. Take a look at the breakdown of Okung’s deal:

Year 1 – 2016

P5 Base Salary: $2 million non-guaranteed

Roster Bonus: $2 million non-guaranteed

Rehab Bonus: $1 million non-guaranteed (Okung had offseason shoulder surgery)

Okung performed adequately in 2016, but anything short of dropping back under center and slinging a few TD passes for the QB desperate Broncos pretty much assured that his club option would not be picked up. The team option ($1 million) going into Year 2, if exercised, provided Okung the following:

Year 2 – 2017

2017 P5 Base Salary of $2 million fully guaranteed

2017 Roster Bonus of $8 million fully guaranteed

2018 P5 Base Salary of $9.5 million fully guaranteed

Had the Broncos exercised Okung’s option they would have been on the hook for $19.5 million dollars fully guaranteed, after not guaranteeing him a penny in Year 1. This was never going to happen, but when Okung signed with the LA Chargers before the 2017 season (4 years / $53 million) his final contribution to Denver came in the form of the third highest compensatory pick in the entire 2018 draft. Denver selected Isaac Yiadom with the 99th overall selection in the 3rd round of 2018 thanks to Okung and a club option that all but ensured he was gone after a year. This scheme can yield tremendous returns for teams, and there is almost no downside. One can only imagine the impact on contract construction across the league now that these compensatory picks are eligible for trade, thus driving up their value.

Compensatory pick scheming can also backfire, such as a team insulting a player with a tender offer, where it is clear the only reason they extended the offer was in hopes of receiving a comp pick. This was the case with the Patriots’ handling of LeGarrette Blount. In the 2017 offseason, the Patriots extended a tender offer to Blount for one-year, $1.1 million dollars. The offer came on the last day that NFL teams would receive a comp pick if they lost a player to free agency. The Patriots had seven other running backs on their roster and had previously shown no interest in retaining Blount. New England was taking a gamble that someone else would top their offer, with the risk of just over one million dollars worth taking. Sure enough, the Eagles stepped in and beat New England’s offer, leaving the Patriots with the right to match it or potentially receive a comp pick. According to our comp pick expert, Nick Korte, Blount was just outside of the 32-compensatory pick limit, and will award the Patriots nothing. Blount certainly has the last laugh for now after steamrolling New England in the Super Bowl to the tune of 90 yards and a touchdown on just 14 carries.

Now, you may be thinking there is no way a late-round draft pick could possibly make up for the loss of a good player. Well, as previously mentioned, the Patriots are known for their excellence in exploiting all that the CBA has to offer. New England used a comp pick in 2000 when they drafted a QB prospect out of Michigan by the name of Tom Brady in the 6th Round with the 199th overall (compensatory) pick. The list of notable compensatory pick selections is a long one, with franchise cornerstone players including:

Mike Vrabel – Pittsburgh Steelers, Round 3, Pick No. 91 overall, 1997

Matt Hasselbeck – Green Bay Packers, Round 6, Pick No. 187 overall, 1998

Marques Colston – New Orleans Saints, Round 7, Pick No. 252 overall, 2006

La’Roi Glover – Oakland Raiders, Round 5, Pick No. 166 overall, 1996

Hines Ward – Pittsburgh Steelers, Round 3, Pick No. 92 overall, 1998

Josh Sitton – Green Bay Packers, Round 4, Pick No. 135 overall, 2008

Antoine Bethea – Indianapolis Colts, Round 6, Pick No. 207 overall, 2006

Pierre Garcon – Indianapolis Colts, Round 6, Pick No. 205 overall, 2008

Dak Prescott – Dallas Cowboys, Round 4, Pick No. 135 overall, 2016

David Tyree – New York Giants, Round 6, Pick No. 211 overall, 2003

Malcolm Smith – Seattle Seahawks, Round 7, Pick No. 242 overall, 2011

Ahmad Bradshaw – New York Giants, Round 7, Pick No. 250 overall, 2007

Super Bowl MVPs, perennial Pro-Bowlers, and the greatest Quarterback that ever lived are just some of the compensatory picks from years past. Certain NFL teams prioritize acquiring compensatory picks far more than others, with the Ravens topping the all-time list with 49 (roughly two per draft since 1994), and the Saints bringing up the rear with just 10. Here is the full list:

SUMMARY OF COMPENSATORY DRAFT PICKS, 1994-2018

Baltimore 49
Green Bay 42
Dallas 41
New England 35
Los Angeles Rams 33
Cincinnati 32
Pittsburgh 32
Philadelphia 30
San Francisco 30
Tennessee 30
Seattle 29
Buffalo 28
Kansas City 24
New York Giants 24
Arizona 22
Indianapolis 22
Denver 21
Detroit 21
Oakland 21
LA Chargers 20
Miami 20
Atlanta 19
Jacksonville 19
Minnesota 19
Tampa Bay 19
Carolina 17
Chicago 17
Houston 15
New York Jets 14
Cleveland 13
Washington 12
New Orleans 10

Contract Construction

Player agents would be wise to leverage the possibility of their client awarding the team a comp pick during contract negotiations, considering the team will likely be the one to introduce the idea of a club option. Draft picks have a ton of value, this was clearly evidenced by the Browns who last year paid $16 Million for a 2nd Round Pick. The Ravens, who love to stick as many club options into their contracts as possible, included a club option in every year of Brandon Carr’s contract. The ability to decide at the end of each season whether a player is worth retaining, or whether you would prefer to let him hit the open market and potentially receive a draft pick in the process, is a very nice position to be in.

Here is the list of players who had club options built into their contracts for the upcoming 2018 season:

2018

Brandon Carr CB Baltimore Ravens – $7,000,000 (Exercised)

Adam “Pacman” Jones CB Cincinnati Bengals – $6,447,918 (Declined)

Austin Howard RT Baltimore Ravens – $5,000,000 (Declined)

Torrey Smith WR Philadelphia Eagles – $5,000,000 (Traded)

Alan Branch DT New England Patriots – $4,550,000 (Declined)

Elvis Dumervil OLB San Francisco 49ers – $4, 250,000 (Declined)

Cordarrelle Patterson WR Oakland Raiders – $3,250,000 (Traded)

Josh Robinson CB Tampa Bay Buccaneers – $1,875,000 (Exercised)

Here are some notable players who have a club option in their contract for the 2019 season (with 2019 Salary Cap Hit) :

2019

Jason Peters    LT       Philadelphia Eagles     $10,666,668

Pierre Garcon  WR      San Francisco 49ers    $8,400,000

Menelik Watson RT    Denver Broncos          $7,458,334

Brandon Carr  CB       Baltimore Ravens       $7,000,000

Jerick McKinnon RB  San Francisco 49ers    $6,000,000

Kyle Juszczyk FB       San Francisco 49ers    $5,950,000

Recent Signings

It should be no surprise that some of the biggest contracts signed so far in free agency (excluding Quarterbacks), are full of club options:

Andrew Norwell G Jacksonville Jaguars 5 yrs/$66.5 million – Club Option 2020, 2021, 2022

Malcolm Butler CB Tennessee Titans 5 yrs/$61.25 million – Club Option 2020, 2021, 2022

Weston Richburg C San Francisco 49ers 5 yrs/$47.5 million – Club Option 2021, 2022

Anthony Hitchens LB Kansas City Chiefs 5 yrs/$45 million – Club Option 2020, 2021, 2022

Nigel Bradham LB Philadelphia Eagles 5 yrs/$40 million – Club Option 2020, 2021, 2022

Jerick McKinnon RB San Francisco 49ers 4yrs/$30 million – Club Option 2019, 2020, 2021

Most of these new club options do NOT include an option bonus, thereby giving all the benefit to the team while the player must enter each offseason with questions about their future. It is quite a luxury when managing a roster headed into the offseason. Additionally, having a stash of compensatory picks during the draft leads to plenty of maneuvering and creativity. Cincinnati, Green Bay, Oakland and Arizona – 4 of the top 5 teams in terms of 2018 compensatory pick allotment – all made trades in the first round of the NFL Draft (Green Bay and Oakland made multiple). With more ammunition in their arsenal, and with the new ability to use compensatory picks in draft day trades, these teams were very active throughout the draft. Whether or not the picks work out is a different story, but what is for certain is because of comp pick capital these teams were aggressive in landing their targeted guys in the draft at the moments they felt necessary.

With some teams carrying up to twelve total draft picks (Green Bay had eight standard picks and four compensatory picks), they can package these in trades to maneuver around the draft board, and ideally get the seven-to-eight guys they want most. In the case of the Packers, they traded back in the first round from 14 to 27 and secured a 2019 first-round pick from the Saints in the process. Green Bay then traded back down with the Seahawks to 18 to take Jaire Alexander from Louisville, sending Seattle their 3rd and 6th round picks and recouping a 7th rounder. They then traded a 4th and 5th round pick to move up to the 88th overall pick in the 3rd round and land Oren Burks from Vanderbilt. With all this maneuvering they still drafted eleven players. They traded away their 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th round picks, but it hardly mattered considering they had two 4ths, a 5th and a 6th in compensatory picks. Whether or not the players pan out remains to be seen, but the Packers did not have to rely on taking the “Best Player Available,” they didn’t sit in their war room hoping a guy they liked would fall to them, they were able to go get the guys they wanted when they felt they needed to.

It is probably no coincidence that the top four teams on the all-time list of compensatory picks (Baltimore, Green Bay, Dallas, New England) happen to be four of the best teams in the NFL at producing home-grown talent. They simply have a higher likelihood of one or two of their draft picks working out when they bring eight-to-ten new draft picks into camp every year.

2018 Free Agency Review: 49ers

Key Additions: Weston Richburg ($9.5M), Richard Sherman ($9.1M), Jerick McKinnon ($7.5M), Jonathan Cooper ($5M), Jeremiah Attaochu ($3M)

Key Re-Signings: Jimmy Garoppolo ($27.5M), Garry Gilliam ($7.8M), Cassius Marsh ($3.9M), Brock Coyle ($2.8M)

Key Losses: Brandon Fusco (Falcons), Aaron Lynch (Bears), Daniel Kilgore (Dolphins)

Player Signings

Jimmy Garoppolo- 5 Years, $137.5M, $74.1M guaranteed

The 49ers made this trade late in the season last year and probably should have just worked on an extension prior to the trade if this was going to be the end result after just a handful of starts. Give the 49ers credit for being able to come up with a contract structure that made Garoppolo the “highest paid” despite not hitting the highest mark in any real meaningful metric while also not killing their cap if they are forced to release him in two years, but this is a fortune to pay for someone with 7 starts in his career. It is not as if Garoppolo was the first overall pick sitting behind a hall of famer, he was a player who four years had 61 other players, including 4 quarterbacks, drafted before him. As with most QBs teams are desperate so you have to look at these contract differently, but San Francisco should have had opportunities to do a much better contract. They need him to be great to make this a great signing. Grade: B-

Weston Richburg- 5 Years, $47.5M, $28.5M guaranteed

Richburg was, in my opinion, the best available center but I do think it is very fair to question the price paid for him. In general centers have not fared well in free agency outside of Alex Mack who was a top line player, though there were market changes last year when the Jaguars extended Brandon Linder to a head scratching $10.34 million per year extension which set in motion a few other big extensions. With the cap room the 49ers had, they had the luxury of being able to come in with a big number without the worry other teams might have. The 49ers made a massive 1st year $17M investment which is pretty much right at the top of the position and surprisingly used a pretty big signing bonus despite all the cap space they had. Really the big strength of the contract for the 49ers is that their full guarantee at signing comes in at under 35% of the total contract value which ranks around 12th among veteran centers. Coming off a four game season it would have been beneficial to see more tied to per game bonuses. Grade: B-

Richard Sherman- 3 years, $27.2M, $3M guaranteed

There is no doubt in my mind that if Sherman is healthy enough to play in 13 or more games a year for the next three seasons that this will be the best contract on the 49ers during those three years. The 49ers risked next to nothing to sign Sherman as his $3M guarantee is less than the $4M they paid a 30 year old Earl Mitchell off a 9 game season in free agency last year. The 49ers created an incentive laden deal that still leaves Sherman underpaid even if he is a great player again and probably will draw some comparisons to the ill fated Ricky Williams rookie contract negotiated by Master P in the late 1990’s. With millions in per game bonuses, no true future guarantees, and reasonable contract figures this is nothing but pure upside for the 49ers. Grade: A+

Jerick McKinnon- 4 years, $30M, $18M guaranteed

This contract has to be the direct result of a terrible contract that the 49ers signed last year with Kyle Juszczyk that saw the team pay over $5M for a fullback that played in under 40% of the teams offensive plays.  You can’t expect a running back signing with the same team in the early stages of free agency to not demand a far bigger contract. McKinnon’s four year Viking career saw him start a total of 14 games, rush for under 2000 yards at about 4 yards per carry. He added 142 receptions for just under 1,000 yards. That should be good for around $4 million, not a contract that makes him the 4th highest paid running back in the league. Maybe the 49ers were negotiating against slotted rookie contracts or something when they came up with this one. I believe they also may have flubbed the contract structure here causing a small signing bonus to turn into a large one due to an obscure CBA rule, though I am not 100% sure about that. Either way this is one of the worst deals of the offseason and they must have a lot of faith in him to have gone to this number. Grade: F.

Jonathan Cooper- 1 year, $4.95M, $2M guaranteed

This is a pretty big price to pay for one year of Cooper, who is now on his fifth team since 2015. I guess the strategy in moving on from Brandon Fusco is similar to their trade for Laken Tomlinson last year in that they are stockpiling high draft picks at guard and expect two of three to make the team, so you want contractual flexibility to release this year. Still Cooper has basically been a $1.5M or less player the last few years and I cant imagine there was much interest anywhere else at $5M. The $2M guarantee is reasonable but that is a big upside number for him to not be named a starter. Generally you should not go over $3.5M if there is a chance to be a backup and bridge the gap with incentives. Cooper has the highest current true 1 year contract (Mike Iupati’s recent pay cut puts him just slightly over Cooper) in the NFL among guards and its not even close, with Chance Warmack and Matt Slauson at $2.5 million. Grade: D

Garry Gilliam- 2 years, $7.8 million, $3.65M guaranteed

This is one of those contracts that people probably look at negatively because of the nearly $4M APY for basically a journeyman swing tackle, but when you look at the overall structure it’s a different story. Gilliam will earn $2.7 million this season, just $500,000 more than he received last year from the 49ers. His salary next year jumps to $5.05 million and it costs nothing to release him. So basically he is a market or very slightly above market player this year and either proves he can be a starting right tackle or is cut. Nothing wrong with that kind of contract. Grade: C

Cassius Marsh- 2 years, $7.7M, $3.1M guaranteed

Marsh fills a role for the 49ers as a situational end that also plays special teams. As a contract this is a bit rich for his production so far. While the contract has more in year 2 than year 1, it’s not the big discrepancy like the Gilliam deal. Alex Okafor, who has had a far more productive career and a similar draft grade, re-signed with the Saints for slightly less money during the heart of free agency. The 49ers wanted to get a bunch of their contracts done early but they would have probably saved around $1M a year if they waited.  Grade: C-

Jeremiah Attaochu- 1 year, $3M, $2.5M guaranteed

This is a shot in the dark contract on a second round pick who has spent a good deal of the last two seasons battling injuries and ineffectiveness. There was a time when he looked like he would be a good pass rusher but he likely needs a strong coaching system to see if they can get that out of him now. In essence he is a cheaper replacement for Aaron Lynch, who signed for $4 million with the Bears. Lynch had less guaranteed and I think you could make the argument that the 49ers over-guaranteed this contract  especially since players like this may not even make the team but maybe they see enough openings that they are considering his spot a given no matter what. Grade: C

Brock Coyle- 3 years, $8.4M, $4.1M guaranteed

This is similar to the Marsh signing where it seemed to be more about just whatever number out there for the purpose of getting a deal done.  Coyle played a role last year but other players have had similar roles and far more upside that signed for less money at the position. He’ll make close to $3.5 million this year and I’m not sure he should be earning much more than $2 million based on his history. Hes also hurt and will take some time to fully recover.  Small deals like this don’t really hurt you but that doesn’t make them good ones either. Grade: D

Overall Thoughts

No team committed more new contract money than the 49ers this offseason, but most of that is because of the massive contract for Garoppolo.  Overall I just look at the moves made and come out feeling underwhelmed given all the resources they had to work with. I honestly expected them to be competing for some of the big name talent at corner, guard, and receiver while maybe trying to land a decent pass rusher and they were never in on those players. They really overspent on a number of players and while none will hurt them whatsoever it just seems they could have done more outside of having Sherman fall to them. I will say that this has to be a pretty unique situation where a team may have signed both the best (Sherman) and worst (McKinnon) contract in free agency in the same season.

Some of what the 49ers do still has that seat of the pants feel to it. Maybe that’s the inexperience of the GM, but the 49ers spent more money last year on players that didn’t stick on the team for the full season and this year has that same potential. Already they signed center Daniel Kilgore to an extension in February and turned around and traded him in March when they decided to make a play for Richburg. That didn’t cost them much but that was more luck than anything that they found a partner willing to trade for him.

They added a better center, a better corner, and some depth but this feels like the same team. They ranked 12th in the NFL in terms of outside dollars added and that number is kind of bloated when you look at some of the signings. That’s not to say that this is a bad thing as building through the draft is better but with everything they had at their disposal they could have probably covered themselves at one or two more positions better. If that 5 game streak at the end proves to be a fluke there is going to be criticism for not doing enough in free agency.

Overall Grade: C