Which Players Could Face Negative Contract Fate In 2024?

As I continue my study into contract fate in the NFL (as described here), before the 2023 season begins I thought I’d take a look as to some veteran players whose play in 2023 should be seen with an eye as to whether that season could be their last under their current contracts. This resulting in generating a list of players that met the following criteria:

  • On a vested veteran contract (four or more accrued seasons)
  • Due at least $4 million in cash for 2024
  • With a negative contract fate of 60% or greater odds that their contracts will be terminated or cut in pay after the having completed the number of seasons on their contract.
Continue reading Which Players Could Face Negative Contract Fate In 2024? »

Breaking Down Andrew Thomas’ Five Year Extension

Andrew Thomas inked a deal earlier this week with the Giants that would make him the 2nd highest paid left tackle in the NFL at $23.5 million a season with a record setting $67 million fully guaranteed at signing. Per a source with knowledge of the contract here is the yearly breakdown”

In 2023 Thomas will earn a base salary of $1.02 million along with a signing bonus of $15 million. This is a raise of $11 million. His salary cap number will be $9.29 million, a savings of $1 million for the Giants,

In 2024, the contract has a guaranteed base salary of $14.175 million and a guaranteed roster bonus worth $5 million. He can also earn up to $1 million in per game bonuses and a $500,000 workout bonus. His cap number will be $23.675 million, and increase of $9.5 million over his rookie contract. He will earn a $6.5 million raise over his prior contract.

In 2025, which is technically when the extension begins, Thomas will earn a guaranteed salary of $16.4 million. He can also earn the same $1 million per game bonus and $500,000 workout. His cap number will be $20.9 million and his new money from 2023 to 2025 will total $35.4 million.

In 2026, Thomas has a salary of $15.9 million of which $15.4 million is guaranteed along with the same per game and workout bonus. His running cash is $52.8 million and his cap charge is $20.4 million.

In 2027, Thomas has a $15.4 million base along with a March roster bonus worth $2.5 million. He can also earn the $1.5 million in bonuses. His cap charge this year is $22.4 million. His three year new money is $72.2 million at this point.

In 2028 Thomas has an $18.4 million salary along with a $2.5 million March roster bonus. The same workout and per game bonuses are also available. The cap charge remains $22.4 million and his four year cash hits $94.6 million.

Finally, Thomas has a $18.9 million salary, $2.5 million roster bonus, and $1.5 million in per game and workout bonuses in the final year of the contract. The cap number is $22.9 million and the total contract value will be $117.5 million.

This is a very fair contract for both sides. The cash flows on the contract are somewhat favorable to the Giants. Here is how the new money ranks among other tackles in the NFL:

YearRunning CashRanking

Despite Thomas’ contract ranking 2nd overall in annual value and 1st overall among long term contracts, the Giants are able to keep his cash flows at 3rd in the NFL over the first two new years before the contract makes the turn in year 3 and 4 to move into the higher positions.

The guarantee is strong for Thomas at $67 million, the most ever guaranteed at signing for a left tackle. This represents a $47.8 million raise over his prior contract which is the new full guarantee on the contract. This ranks 2nd to Ronnie Stanley of the Ravens at $51.25 million. Thomas can close that gap by $2.5 million by attending workouts and being healthy in 2024 and 2025 to earn the non-guaranteed salaries in the contract.

The $67 million in total guarantees is also second to Stanley’s $70.9 million. Stanley does outdistance him here with the new guarantee as Thomas’ remains at $47.8 million compared to Stanley’s $58 million. On a percentage basis this also drops Thomas further compared to some of the other players at the position and does open an argument that there may have been some room for more injury protection down the line in the contract.

The length of the contract is also very good for the Giants. There wasn’t really much to argue here since the market is limited for players who did deals with two years remaining on an existing contract. Stanley took a five year contract at a similar stage (he signed during his fourth year but in season). The other players at four seasons were all on much lesser valued contracts or were players on their third contract. The strongest point for Thomas to argue for a shorter deal was the Laremy Tunsil 2020 three year extension when he had one year remaining on his contract. That contract was one of the most player friendly deals in the NFL though.

The salary cap numbers are very steady in the contract and with a moderate signing bonus of $15 million the Giants would have the flexibility to convert salary to a bonus if needed without really making the contract an albatross. At this time there is virtually no dead money starting in the 2027 season.

With the salary cap likely going up the Giants should now be set at a reasonable cost for their star left tackle. My assumption would be by the time the second new year hits the backend of the starter market will begin pulling close to this number which means New York should get a lock on an elite tackle at a “good starter” price.

Breaking Down the Justin Herbert $262.5 Million Contract Extension

Justin Herbert signed a five year, $262.5 million contract today making him the highest paid player in NFL history. The contract is very heavy on up front cash, setting big records in first and second year cash flows, while following the recent pattern with vesting guarantees that are not guaranteed at signing. Here is a breakdown of some of the key points of the contract.

This is one of the first contracts that seems to explicit deal in “new money” guarantees, which is something I’ve been harping on for years. Herbert’s contract has $133.738375 million guaranteed at signing, which ranks third in the NFL behind Deshaun Watson and Lamar Jackson. When pulling out Herbert’s 2023 and 2024 existing compensation the number works out to a clean $100 million in new guarantees. That ranks fifth behind Watson, Jackson, Jalen Hurts, and Aaron Rodgers.

The injury guarantee at signing is $193.738375 million which would be 2nd best in the NFL behind Watson. This works out to $160 million in new guarantees which would be fourth in the NFL. Finally, Herbert can earn another $25 million in guarantees which brings his new money guarantee to exactly $185 million, which ties him with Lamar Jackson who has $185 million in injury protection at signing.

The real strength of the contract for Herbert lies in the big cash flows on the front end of the contract. Herbert will earn $100 million in new money by the end of his 1st new contract year. The prior high for that was $80 million, so this is a massive increase for Herbert and the market. Through year two Herbert will be at $124 million, $11.5 million higher than the next closest player. The numbers come back down to earth in the final three years which show moderate growth over the market.

This is a good example of a contract where the front end cash flow makes a pretty big difference in the way a contract should be valued compared to just using the APY, which is only a minimal bump over Jackson’s $52 million a year.

Per a league source familiar with the negotiations the year by year breakdown is as follows:

In 2023, Herbert will earn a signing bonus of $16.12 million along with the minimum salary of $1.01 million. This represents a raise of $12.9 million from his existing salary. His cap charge will be $8.45 million or exactly what it was before the extension.

In 2024, Herbert will earn a massive $50.6 million option along with a guaranteed $6 million salary. This is a $27.1 million raise from his rookie option salary. His cap will be $19.34 million.

2025 brings another huge option bonus worth $45 million as well as a guaranteed $15 million salary. The new money cash hits $100 million this year. The cap that year will be $37.34 million.

In 2026 Herbert has a $24 million salary that is guaranteed for injury and will be fully guaranteed by the time 2026 rolls around. The cap grows to $46.34 million and his running cash is $124 million.

In 2027 Herbert will earn a $36 million salary (this is already injury guaranteed) for a cap charge of $58.34 million to bring the three year total to a record $160 million, $4 million more than the next closest QB contract.

In 2028 Herbert has a $47 million salary and a $5 million roster bonus. His cap charge that year will be $71.12 million to bring the four year new money to $212 million, also $4 million more than the next closest player.

In 2029, there is a $10 million roster bonus and $40.5 million salary for a cap charge of $59.5 million. The $262.5 million total is tops in the NFL by $2.5 million.

The 2028 salary cap number likely will serve as a measure to potentially facilitate an early contract extension.

While this is a strong deal for Herbert, the one thing that would concern me for the market as a whole is that we are back to playing a game of very small leapfrog on the totals with the last three deals going for $51 million per year, $52 million per year, and now $52.5 million per year. While this does blow away Jackson’s contract in the way that the salary is earned early in the contract it still would have been nice to see this hit the $54 million per year mark.

In fairness, Herbert was at a disadvantage for that kind of movement given that he had two years remaining on his contract, Kyler Murray had only moved the market by $100,000 per year when he signed with two years remaining last season. Patrick Mahomes took a 10 year contract to move the market by a massive number. Other highly drafted players like Josh Allen, Carson Wentz, and Jared Goff failed to reset the market when they signed their contracts with two rookie years remaining. So perhaps I should have given more weight to the remaining years when considering the expectation levels.

Next up will be Joe Burrow, who, if the trend holds, will sign a deal for $53 to $53.5 million a year. His situation is more unique because the Bengals are opposed to any salary guarantees and it is unclear if they will bend on that policy for Burrow. If they do not I would expect Burrow to significantly top Herbert’s payout in the first year of the contract and potentially hit $55 million a year as the Bengals have shown a willingness to bump annual values and increase early cash flows to avoid guaranteed salaries in the future. At this position the guarantees are often less meaningful but it can be difficult with the ways deals are reported this days to be willing to accept that kind of contract. We should have an answer on that shortly.

Saquon Barkley and Giants Agree on a Contract

About a week ago the Giants and star RB Saquon Barkley could not come to terms on a long term contract setting off a bit of a firestorm among running backs, fans, and media about the system being unfair to their position. At the time Barkley indicated he would not show up until the start of training camp, but with reality setting in Barkley quickly signed a slightly modified franchise tag that has him reporting to camp on time and back with the Giants.

The way the franchise tag works is that a player has until July 15th (or the Monday after the 15th is that falls on a weekend) to sign a long term contract. However it does not lock the player into a franchise tag, just a one year contract. The base value of Barkley’s new contract is still $10.091 million but he will get $2 million up front in the form of a signing bonus which is a positive for the player. He also has $909,000 million in high end incentives which would only be earned if the team qualified for the playoffs and he rushed for 1,350 yards, had 65 receptions, and 11 touchdowns (each is earned individually as 1/3 of the total). These will be difficult to earn as Barkley has only once had the yardage and touchdown total.

The incentives while difficult to earn, are a nice touch. This is something rarely done for a franchise player and I don’t believe has been done since the mid 2000’s. It is a typical mechanism, however, that teams have used with players under contract who are unhappy with their current contract as a way to pacify the situation and give the player a chance, no matter how difficult to earn the incentives.

On the negative side Barkley did not get a no franchise/transition tag designation for 2024. That means he is eligible to tagged next year at either $12.109 million or the running back franchise/transition tag number, whichever is greater. If it is the $12.109 million number the incentives would also carry over into the new contract with a slim chance they could have a higher threshold (it would depend on some technical language the Giants use in the contract about how to classify/modify the incentives) giving it a max value of $13 million. For Barkley to agree to the offer so quickly his agents must have been convinced that under no circumstance would the Giants give him a no tag provision for 2024.

While this contract certainly makes the most of a bad situation it is hard to spin this in any way as a good contract for Barkley. Whether Barkley fell victim to emotions, bad advice, or a desire to help the running back market, this is close to the worst outcome. All of the negatives that apply to being franchised are well known to every player and agency around the NFL. Similarly all equally know the difficulties that face running backs. This is not a position where you can up your value by “balling out” on the tag. All that does is invite another tag.

The Giants still have the ability to tag Barkley two more times if they want to. The cost of two tags would be $22.2 million for 2023 and 2024 and if they use a third tag it would bring the total to $36.731 million for three years. To use three tags and have this type of value apply one would need to be a transition tag, which would likely be the third tag that was used. These numbers were all known when contract talks were ongoing.

The Giants reportedly had an offer on the table paying $26 million over two years with I believe $22 million guaranteed. The average of the contract was $13 million a year which likely means the three year would have been close to 36 million. This was the offer the Giants seemed to indicate would be pulled if they franchised him. Later reports had the Giants offers around $20 million in guarantees once the tag was applied.

The initial offer, while probably a few million too low, certainly could have been worked with and given Barkley said he wanted to get a deal done, this number should have been one they could have worked with prior to the tag period. Maybe it was a miscalculation about the tag on Barkley’s side making the assumption that the Giants would have to use the tag on QB Daniel Jones and that Barkley would have been clear to be a free agent.

If that is the case then it was a bad assumption. Teams historically will bend over backwards to get a QB deal done and it is always a risk to assume the team will not get it done, especially when the contract is for a mid grade QB who could lose out on tens of millions if he fails in the regular season. For a QB like Jones there may be more incentive to sign than play a one year deal out. Secondly there is no guarantee free agency will be good for Barkley. It has been a disaster for almost every running back over the last decade.

A $13 million a year contract offer with $26 million in the first two years was workable in the current market. Even if it is not the best outcome Barkley hoped for, working from that would have at least gotten Barkley more guarantees and likely a better payout than the two tags he could play on. To go from that to this one year deal is not good.

For this to work out for Barkley he has to go out and has a great injury free season and have an owner that decides to get involved next offseason and push his own front office to “do the right thing” and get a deal done even knowing that it could be a negative in 2024 and/or 2025. Maybe the Giants are that team, but Barkley is taking an unnecessary risk by having to play out this season on this contract when there were clear alternatives that were better during the offseason.

Running Back Performance Over Time

In keeping with the running back discussions I wanted to add a little more context to the argument that a big part of the reason why running backs don’t get paid in free agency or at the end of a rookie contract is because of the way in which the performance of the position on average declines over time. What I did here was go back and look at every running back who entered the league since 2011 and followed a career arc for the players in terms of rushing yards as well as rushing and receiving yards. To keep things more relevant to the discussion I am only focusing on players who passed a specific threshold at least once during the first four years of his career. In both categories the cutoff I am using is 1,000 yards.

First let’s look at the average rushing performance of the players who hit at least 1,000 rushing yards one time in that four year period.

On average there is a very even performance in the first 4 year before a very steady decline should be expected from years 5 through 7 and then most drop out by year 8. The high end performances also drop. Here is how the position compares to the wide receiver position when using the same 1,000 yard cutoff.

Wide receiver is generally a position teams are too bullish on but the reward on that position is very different than what we see with RBs. While RB holds up very well in years 1 through 4, the wide receiver market has given around a 40% chance of hitting 1,000 yards in the first few years past those rookie seasons. Running backs drop off into the 20% range and then fall apart. It might be reasonable to say that year 8 for a very good wide receiver would be the equivalent of year 5 for a running back.

What if we run the numbers including receiving yards for the running backs?

This is more or less the same curve which should be expected since a bulk of a running back’s production comes from the run game which has diminished over time, but we do get a bit of a different story where we look at the reward aspect. Again, here is the comparison to the receivers.

While the rushing performance declines and many of those players drop out those who do catch the football have a bit more stable performance. For those who catch the ball there should be some expectation of performance beyond the rookie contract, however the long term is still not there.

Now teams generally do not pay simply because a running back can catch the football. The primary reason for paying the player is the rushing performance. More specialized players have generally been paid in the $6 million range compared to the $12-$16 million those who put up monster rushing numbers and some receiving numbers have received. So while teams are not going to put big value on the receiving yards it does give some idea as to the type of players who may still be effective post the rookie contract.

Overall there are limited options. Relative to other positions they are high performers as rookies and that continues for a few more years. It is that early performance that is probably a reason behind teams continuing to draft running backs in the 1st round since it is much less risky than other positions and can make an immediate impact. But the peak years are all in those rookie seasons. The usage and effectiveness is not there as time goes on and you run the risk of having to force the ball to an underperforming player simply because of the contract and that never leads to a good result.  

2023 Cash vs Cap Spending

Recently I have seen a number of comments about the free agency of wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and how cap space is limiting the ability to make an offer. While this may be true in some cases more often than not, especially once free agency has ended, it is the cash budget of a team that has more influence as to whether or not a team makes an offer to a player like Hopkins. While the salary cap certainly keeps teams honest in many cases the owners are not going to give general managers an endless amount of cash reserves to use each year and most teams do have an internal budget to follow.

I went back and looked at every teams average amount spent from 2018 to 2022 and pegged that to the salary cap each year (making an adjustment for the covid year cap to bring it to a normal level). I then applied that percentage to this years salary cap to project a typical budget for each team. The following table breaks down each team’s estimated spend versus their current budget for their highest 60 paid players (this number includes salaries for unsigned rookies).

TeamAvg. % of Cap SpentEst. BudgetCurrent SpendRemaining Budget

Currently 10 teams in the NFL are on the high end of their budgets. These are teams that are mainly very focused on this season and likely borrowing money from the future to maximize their roster in 2023. Most probably will not have the ability to borrow much more to add players and could potentially look to cut some players if a lower cost rookie makes a splash in training camp. The team I would consider an exception to this would be the Texans whose payroll is so high mainly because of the draft.

Nine teams would look to have less than $15 million to spend. This list includes the Jets, Bengals, and Chargers all whom have major contracts that may be addressed and would put them in the same category as the other 10 teams.

The remaining teams are those who are way under their normal budgets. They are teams that are either dealing with the fallout of big budgets and salary cap mistakes of the past or the teams that can actually spend. Here is how the league looks in regards to cap room. The focus here should be on the teams on the right side of the graph.

Teams in the bottom right quadrant are the team that are cap constrained and would need to make some changes to add anyone major. The teams in the right upper quadrant are the teams that have cap room to burn and are currently underbudget.

When viewing the league this way we can see why it is so important for a player to be a free agent at the start of the league year. Once team’s spend their money that is generally it for the teams budget. This is also why the in-season trade market often requires trading teams to pay off a salary and the acquiring teams sometimes overpaying in draft compensation since they cant justify the cost of the player on his full contract.

Right now the only teams that make sense from a cap and cash standpoint to really add to the team are the Bears, Cardinals, Lions, Cowboys, Patriots, and Vikings. Minnesota has a big extension to consider and are more likely to be slashing that spending. Arizona is in more of a retooling process. That leaves a market of four teams for free agents. Dragging other teams into the mix requires convincing a team to even go further beyond their norms to keep adding. You can see why it is very difficult for street free agents to get lucrative deals this late in the process and why summer free agent signings are usually signed for very cheap.

What does this mean for Hopkins, Dalvin Cook, Yannick Ngakoue, Jadeveon Clowney, and so many others still out there searching for a home? Most will now have to focus on finding incentive laden contracts with base salaries that are lower than any contract they have had since they were rookies. There is still time and perhaps some of them will land a big deal but eventually the market will vanish and players can be stuck on the outside looking in hoping for injuries to give them a chance to land with a team during the season.