In preparation for the start of the regular season the Dallas Cowboys have restructured the contract of running back Ezekiel Elliott to create $6.88 million in cap room. Elliott had $8.6 million of his salary converted to a signing bonus reducing his cap number from $13.7 million to $6.82 million. Dallas now has approximately $12 million in cap space for 2021 which is more than enough to cover the regular season.
Elliott’s 2022 cap number will now increase by $1.72 million to $18.22 million next year. His dead money increased by $6.88 million but because his salary for 2022 is already guaranteed that was of no concern for Dallas in making this decision. Elliott will now cost $11.86 million to release in 2023 which is the year the salary cap is expected to return to more normal levels.
Throughout the 2018 off-season, the Bears were in talks for an extension with their 2015 second-round pick out of Florida State, nose tackle Eddie Goldman. Ryan Pace extended one of the players that he was personally responsible for drafting in Chicago for the first time. So far the returns have been positive. Early extensions such as Goldman’s enable teams to have a better understanding of both their roster and salary cap situation for the following offseason before that offseason arrives. Last year the Bears knew they wanted to keep Goldman around. Agreeing to a deal as he was entering the fourth and final year of his rookie contract was the smart decision to move up the timing of his deal before the market increased.
This off-season is no different.
By the numbers
The second-round draft pick at No. 56 overall for the Bears in 2016 was Kansas State interior offensive lineman Cody Whitehair. Like Goldman, the veteran interior lineman is entering the last season of a four-year rookie contract.
At every step of the way during his tenure with the Bears, Whitehair has demonstrated exactly what the Bears were seeking when they drafted him three years ago: versatility and reliability. Whitehair has shifted back and forth between center and left guard multiple times already and has featured well in both spots. He has even handled some duties at right guard in emergency situations. That the veteran has missed only 25 total snaps in three years (per TheQuantEdge), demonstrates just how dependable of a player he is.
Pro Football Focus deemed Whitehair’s rookie season third-best among all centers since they began recording statistics in 2006. Here is what the analytics database had to say about Whitehair’s second season in 2017:
“Though tasked with playing guard to the tune of 259 offensive snaps last season, Whitehair still predominantly played center and played extremely well at the position in 2017. Whitehair ranked fifth in run-block grade (81.8) and fourth in run-block success percentage (17.6) in 2017.”
Whitehair was not only PFF’s third-highest-graded center in 2016, he was No. 13 in 2017, and No. 10 in 2018. At the initial peak of his accomplished career, he allowed a grand total of zero sacks and zero QB hits in 2018. This was while playing every offensive snap.
Run blocking may have suffered a bit for the whole Bears’ offensive line unit in 2018, which will have to be mitigated in coming years. But it was Whitehair and the Bears’ collective pass protection that took a major leap forward.
Here was PFF’s review of the whole season for the big men up front in Chicago:
“The Bears finished the season with the league’s second-best pass blocking efficiency of any offensive line, and this was yet another team without a real weak link. Rookie James Daniels ended up earning their lowest grade at 62.3 overall, but Charles Leno Jr., Bobby Massie, and Cody Whitehair were all over 70.0.”
All of these accolades are great, which brings up an important query: why are the Bears moving Whitehair to left guard after he was one of the NFL’s premier centers (according to at least one metric) in the last three years? It’s a multi-faceted answer.
First, James Daniels is the more natural center, as it was his college position. Second, Whitehair struggled mightily with shotgun snaps in 2018. Matt Nagy utilized the shotgun formation on 79 percent of all offensive snaps in 2018, which was tied for the second-highest percentage in the NFL. The Bears cannot afford to be stressing over quality shotgun snaps. It should be a routine exchange and the more natural center in Daniels gives them that drilled regimen.
What’s most important in Whitehair’s position shift is getting the rest of the Bears’ offensive line to ascend. PFF had complements for Charles Leno Jr. and his run blocking, but the rest of the big boys struggled mightily. Pairing Whitehair and Leno Jr. together on the left side is a calculated decision from Nagy, Pace, and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand. Tarik Cohen and David Montgomery are elite change-of-direction running backs who need space to work with before they can create magic out of thin air. Thanks to the presence of these two dynamic backs, I expect there to be a heavy usage of counters and cutbacks to the left side behind Leno Jr. and Whitehair.
Taylor Gabriel and Cordarrelle Patterson running jet sweeps from the right side to the left should also be a feature of the Chicago offense in 2019. According to SharpFootball’s 2019 NFL preview, the Bears ran the ball behind the center and to the left more than they did to the right in 2018. This may have had something to do with Kyle Long’s absence. An understandable point considering Long’s proficiency as a bruiser in the running game. But I see this trend continuing, and perhaps expanding, in 2019.
While purely speculative, one can also assume that the Bears did not want to put too much on James Daniels’ plate in Year 1. It’s difficult enough to be a rookie in the NFL. If Daniels also had to learn all of the cadences and snap counts of a brand-new offense (along with quarterback Mitchell Trubisky), it could have been a disaster. The shift from center to left guard for Cody Whitehair and vice versa for James Daniels in 2019 makes plenty of sense, and better suits both of their skill-sets long term.
Now what effect does moving Whitehair from center to left guard have on his contract? Many seem to believe that left guards get paid significantly more than centers, but that is not the case.
Below is a table with the top-five free agent contracts in each off-season based on average per year for both left guards and centers:
Top Five Free Agent Signings by APY
As you can see above, only in 2018 did the top-five contracts at left guard have a higher average APY than those at center. This is primarily a result of somewhat of an outlier of a contract – Andrew Norwell’s $13,300,000 per year free agent deal with the Jaguars. Norwell may have proven to be a cautionary tale for teams looking to extend their guards to big deals: he missed five games in 2018 and did not play particularly well in the other 11. In the 2019 free agency cycle, Rodger Saffold, another second-round draft pick and perhaps the best comparison to Whitehair’s situation, was the only left guard to top $7,000,000 APY. However, Mitch Morse, Maurkice Pouncey, and Matt Paradis all topped the $9,000,000 mark at center, and technically these are Whitehair’s cohorts of the past three seasons.
Saffold received an overall PFF grade of 73.2 in his 2018 season with the Rams, compared to Cody Whitehair’s 70.4. A discrepancy that small doesn’t mean a great deal, both were good players last year. Whitehair has the benefit of youth, as he is just 27-years-old whereas Saffold is 31.
If we look at the centers specifically, Morse is 27 and Paradis is 29. Two guys more relatable in age to Whitehair. They also played the same position as the Bears’ interior swingman the past few seasons. That makes them a potentially better gauge of his true market, even though he is sliding over to left guard for 2019.
Morse was drafted No. 49 overall in the 2015 draft, one year before Cody Whitehair was selected at No. 56. Morse played out his rookie contract with the Chiefs and became an unrestricted free agent this off-season. While Morse did play at a high level when healthy, he missed five games in 2018 after missing nine games in 2017. There are some concerns about his concussion history, as he has already been diagnosed with three, and he remains in the Bills’ concussion protocol as of today, August 21st.
Paradis, meanwhile, is a journeyman center that was selected in the sixth round in 2014 and eventually placed on the Broncos’ practice squad. He became a UFA in 2019 after playing on a second-round RFA tender for $2.914 million in 2018. Paradis also missed seven games in 2018, though he hadn’t missed a snap in three years prior to that. Managing a PFF grade of 79 was all the more impressive in a shortened 2018 season.
Below is a table with each of the four player’s PFF grades since 2016:
While PFF grades are not the end-all be-all authority on player effectiveness, this table demonstrates the type of impact that draft pedigree can have on contract negotiations. Paradis is the only player taken later than the second round. Though he grades out better than the other three players above, he will have received the smallest contract of the group. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I believe Whitehair will come out with the largest contract of his peers.
The largest APY signing at left guard in 2018 was Norwell with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Norwell was an undrafted free agent with the Panthers and played on a RFA tender in 2017 before agreeing to terms in Jacksonville. It should be noted that the Jaguars went on a spending spree in 2018, shelling out the fourth-most cash in the league. Norwell’s three-year PFF grade average prior to 2018 was a 79.37. Norwell’s $13.3M APY extension under the 2018 salary cap equates to $14,125,620.80 APY under the 2019 salary cap. Norwell received $30 million fully guaranteed at signing out of a $66 million total, which is roughly 45 percent. Rodger Saffold, Mitch Morse, and Matt Paradis all received similar guaranteed-at-signing percentages of around 45 percent.
While Ryan Pace, Joey Laine and Co. have presumably attempted to negotiate a lower number by offering the extension a year early (a la Jaylon Smith in Dallas), Whitehair’s camp is still probably looking for top dollar. Pace had no problem making Eddie Goldman one of the highest-paid defensive tackles in the NFL last off-season after his third season. Expecting anything but a similar contract at left guard for Whitehair may be foolhardy. The goal for the Bears’ front office at this point should be to just keep the eventual number below Norwell’s.
Whitehair’s contract projection:
Four years, $49 million ($12.25M APY), $22.5 million fully guaranteed at signing ($14.5 million signing bonus, $1.5 million 2019 base salary, $3 million 2020 base salary, $3.5 million 2020 roster bonus).
In this deal, there will also be a 2021 roster bonus of $3.5 million guaranteed for injury only at signing. The roster bonus will become fully guaranteed on the third day of the 2021 league year. Whitehair is currently due a $1,026,078 base salary in 2019 and the remainder of his rookie contract signing bonus is for $318,103.
Below is a table with the full contract details, including a small $473,922 pay-bump to his 2019 base salary that becomes fully guaranteed:
Whitehair has too many positives working in his favor to not receive a strong, secure contract extension. He’s 27, a former second-round draft pick, extremely dependable and reliable, and capable of playing at a high level at multiple positions. The change of position in the contract year muddles negotiations a bit, but the left guard and center market are still pretty similar.
This projection is a very nice payday for Whitehair, especially when considering that the extension is a year early as he enters the fourth year of his rookie deal. For comparison’s sake, Jaylon Smith of the Dallas Cowboys just became the fourth highest paid inside linebacker (based on APY) in the NFL after starting just 22 games since being drafted in the second round of the 2016 draft (at No. 34 he went 22 picks ahead of Whitehair). As I mentioned at the top of the article, Cody Whitehair has missed only 25 snaps in his three year career out of a possible 3,073… Jaylon Smith has missed 26 starts out of a possible 48. The inside linebacker and interior offensive line market have nothing to do with each other, but consistency brings huge value, particularly to a position that relies on the unit to develop chemistry.
Whitehair becoming the fourth highest paid left guard/center in terms of APY would mean his APY falls around $11 million. This estimate of $11 million APY was essentially where my Whitehair projection began, but the more I dove into the (scarce) resources available to determine Whitehair’s market, the more that number moved upward.
All of the Bears’ moves to clear cap space prior to the 2019 free agency period and most recently with Charles Leno Jr. were not for naught, as another draft pick will be rewarded before the 2019 season kicks off. This hypothetical move will take up roughly $3.4 million in 2019 salary cap space, lowering the Bears’ number to around $18 million (per the NFLPA Public Salary Cap report dated 8/21/2019)
Per ESPN’s Field Yates, the Patriots slightly reworked the contract of Tight End Rob Gronkowski, by paying him a $4 million signing bonus and reducing his end of the year option from $10 million to $6 million. Technically the move has no impact on the salary cap changes since the option was already being prorated starting this season, but I believe it does modify Gronkowski’s cap treatment this year and the Patriots cap the next season. though I’m not 100% certain on this treatment, I’ll explain my thought process and then see if anyone has any additional info on the topic. Continue reading Gronkowski Slightly Tweaks Contract »
According to Ian Rapoport of NFL.com, the Patriots and linebacker Jerod Mayo have worked out a contract that will reduce Mayo’s salary from $7 million to $4.5 million for the season, all of which is guaranteed. The contract will contain a non-guaranteed option, apparently worth $4 million, for the 2016 and 2017 seasons.
The move should coe as no surprise. Mayo has been relatively invisible since 2012, struggling with injuries and seeing action in just 12 games over the last two seasons. He had a large amount of guarantees in his contract and was currently protected from release by a $4.5 million injury guarantee that would have kicked in if he did not pass a physical upon termination. That $4.5 million is the figure used as his new base salary, bascially a way to keep the player on the team for the same price that they would have owed had they released him.
Mayo had been set to count for just under $10.3 million against the cap this year and the cost to release, factoring in the injury guarantee, would have been $10.5 million, making that difficult for New England. While no details are known about the structure, they should be able to lower that to just under $6 million if they maximize his signing bonus but do not include voidable contract years. His cap charge could also be impacted by the option decision at the end of the year, if there is a bonus attached to it and not a contractual guarantee. The Patriots have typically opted for the latter, though Rob Gronkowski’s has the bonus payment.
Eventually these types of option contracts are either going to come under more scrutiny by the NFL or will become a common practice around the league. In general these are contracts designed to manipulate the rules of the compensatory draft system while still exhibiting some control over the player’s future. The Patriots had three such contracts last season and did not pick the option up and any of the three players. The Cowboys are currently the other team in the NFL that seems to be moving in this direction with some of their players as well.
The Vikings have extended the contract of center John Sullivan through 2017 according to ESPN’s Field Yates. Technically the extension is valued at one year for $8.5 million, but the reality is that the contract is a $2.25 million raise for this season and $3 million over the next two years. Such a contract avoids any potential contractual problems this summer, keeping the team’s starting center happy and fully involved with the team.
Sullivan, who was scheduled to earn $4.75 million this year, will now earn $7 million, but just $1 million of that raise comes from a signing bonus, which keeps the Vikings accounting records clean in the event they want to move on from Sullivan at any point in the future. His actual “extension year” carries a $5.5 million salary, but he could be released that year with just $333,334 remaining on the salary cap, so this is essentially a pay as you go style contract.
The Vikings lost $1.333 million in cap room by extending Sullivan. Sullivan had previously counted for $6 million on the cap. His new cap charge this year is $7.333333 million. The following two seasons will have Sullivan at cap charges of about $5.83 million each year. Sullivan had been OTC’s pick for best contract on the Vikings due to their decision to lock him up early rather than allowing him to test free agency. The $6 million he can earn over the next three seasons puts him somewhat back in line financially with his actual production.
I’ve talked extensively about Romo’s contract and the Cowboys options with him, but today the Cowboys finally pulled the trigger according to the Dallas Morning News. The Cowboys converted $16 million of Romo’s $17 million base salary into a signing bonus that will be prorated from 2015 through 2019. The move created $12.8 million in cap space for the Cowboys this season and will add an additional $3.2 million per year in every season thereafter. The potential dead money in Romo’s contract increases considerably with the move, essentially tying the Cowboys to Romo though the 2017 season.
The fact that Dallas waited so long to make this move makes me believe that this wasn’t something they necessarily wanted to do, but were prepared to do if the situation called for it. Dallas only had about $1.6 million in cap room as of today, which was not even going to be enough to sign their rookies this summer, let alone fit Rolando McClain under the cap, who they just agreed to terms with today. So this became a necessity. Dallas may have also wanted to sit on their cap space in free agency as a method to try to negotiate a more team friendly contract with DeMarco Murray, who eventually signed with the Eagles a few weeks ago.
Though there will be much speculation about what this means for other Cowboys possible transactions, namely looking to acquire Adrian Peterson, really all this move does is give Dallas the ability to pay for a full season of Greg Hardy. If Hardy hits his incentivized roster bonuses his cap charge will rise considerably this winter and the Cowboys needed room for that move. More would need to be done to bring in a player like Peterson, even if he agreed to an incentivized or deferred money contract. The Cowboys would still likely need to do something with the contract of Brandon Carr to make that happen. Carr could still be a June 1 (or I guess now a May 12) cut to help with that, but it would not help getting McClain signed now.
If Romo continues to play well there is little danger in this move. His cap hit in 2016, at $20.835 million is manageable, though the $24.7 million cap hit in 2017 is a bit more worrisome, depending on how the cap continues to rise. It is possible that when Romo reaches one of those last few seasons on the deal that Dallas can approach him about pulling a Brady or Manning and reducing his salary for the good of the team. If Romo’s back flares up and he goes downhill then the contract becomes much more troublesome for the Cowboys.
In a somewhat interesting salary cap move, 49ers pass rusher Aldon Smith has restructured his one year contract to essentially remove the guarantee from the deal according to Matt Maiocco. According to Maiocco Smith will receive a $2 million roster bonus in April (likely April 1) and then roster bonuses paid out through the season. Smith’s $9.754 million salary was currently guaranteed for injury and would become fully guaranteed on March 10, now most of the salary is not guaranteed. Sounds strange, right? Lets speculate a bit.
Smith’s demons off the field are well known and he has spent signifiant time on the non football illness list and suspended list the last two seasons. During that period his performance has slipped somewhat as well. In Smith’s first two seasons in the NFL he combined to sack the quarterback 1.05 times per game. In the last two seasons that ratio has fallen to 0.58.
Though he does have immense talent both things combined might be enough for him to consider his current earning potential if released. It is possible that in order to earn the same salary as he was scheduled with the 49ers he may have to give up years of free agency in incentive laden contracts. This allows him to play out free agency like planned and hopefully have a strong season with no off the field transgressions that should get him into the $14M per year discussions. The 49ers are also the team most likely to extend him so playing ball with the team on a contract only helps the relationship.
Now before we go off the deep end with Smith giving up guarantees it is quite possible that the contract is essentially virtually guarateed. The April 1 payment is likely guaranteed, at the least for skill and injury. His P5 I would imagine is also guaranteed. For the sake of argument lets assume his new salary is $754,000 and his per game roster bonuses are paid out in installments of $437,500 per week ($7 million total). That $7 million is not guaranteed but it likley has a very high likelihood of being earned.
Normally we associate those bonuses as requiring being active on Sunday, but that is not always the case. It is not uncommon for per game bonuses to include payment to a player for being on injured reserve or the PUP list. So in that respect they can be identical to salary. I would imagine that the negotiation will not pay him for games in which he lands on the NFI or Suspended/Exempt lists, which is basically the same as what would have happened if he had another off the field issue (base salary is not paid on those lists either, regardless of guaranteed status). So as long as he makes it through the summer he is likely going to end up paid the same as before.
So what’s in this for San Francisco then? Mainly salary cap relief. Per game roster bonuses are valued against the salary cap based on the players performance last season. Smith was only active for 7 games last season so using our hypothetical example Smith’s salary cap figure drops from $9.754 million to $5.8165 million, savings of nearly $4 million in immediate salary cap relief for the cap hungry 49ers.
There is a catch, however. That hidden money that is not counted against the salary cap now will need to be accouned for on a weekly basis during the season if earned, which should be pretty likely. So while it gives temporary relief the team still needs the space to account for it in the regular season. What that tells me is that the 49ers front office is strongly considering using the June 1 cut on one of their players.
The way a June 1 cut works is the player designated a June 1 cut will have his cap charge count in full until June 1 and then on June 2 only his current year’s proration will count against the cap with the remaining acceleration hitting the following year. This gives no cap relief for free agency but helps for in season cap management.
If we look at a player like Ahmad Brooks, cutting him now provides San Francisco with just $1.5M in cap relief, which isnt a very big help for free agency. If they designate him a June 1 they will gain $4.7 million for 2015, which more than offsets those roster bonuses being earned by Smith.
While I have no idea if that is the team’s intention it is the way I would look at this deal. Reworking Smith gives me the immediate cap relief right now for free agency and then a player like Brooks pays it back in June. Its a creative way to get some extra cap dollars to spend in free agency while remaining in full compliance with the cap.