The Atlanta Falcons have rebounded quite nicely from a disappointing 2015 season, with the Super Bowl within reach. While the offense has led the charge for the turnaround, the Falcons’ secondary has served as the backbone of the defensive effort. As to the leader of this unit, look no further than fourth year cornerback Desmond Trufant. While Trufant suffered a season ending torn pectoral muscle, the standout player from the University of Washington has been the Falcons’ best player in the secondary over the past four years. As such, the team needs to lock this core member up for the long haul, and will look to do so this offseason with a lucrative contract extension.
Looking closely at Trufant’s contract status, he’s finishing up the fourth season under his rookie pact, which pays him nearly $2.6 million including bonuses. As a first round pick, the Falcons held a 2017 team option for Trufant at just over $8 million, which the team exercised at the start of the 2016 season. Note that the 2017 salary is guaranteed for injury only. Assuming no extension, the Falcons would need to decide following the 2017 season if the team wants to apply the franchise tag to Trufant. The 2016 franchise tag value for cornerbacks was approximately $14 million. With the cap scheduled likely to continue rising over the next two years, for the sake of simplicity let’s project a 2018 cornerback franchise tag value of $16 million. The critical point here is that the $8 million 2017 option year, plus the projected 2018 franchise tag value sets the minimum baseline for Trufant’s side to open contract extension discussions. In no event will Trufant’s side enter into an extension in which Trufant receives less than $24 million in guaranteed cash through 2018.
Both the Falcons and Trufant’s representatives will look at his contemporaries at cornerback as the basis for negotiations. In NFL circles, Trufant’s widely considered just a notch below the top level corners (Richard Sherman, Patrick Peterson, etc.). For this article, we’ll analyze the contracts for three top cornerbacks who sit in the just-below-the-top tier with Trufant, all of whom signed new contracts or extensions in 2016: Darius Slay of the Detroit Lions, Janoris Jenkins of the New York Giants and Josh Norman of the Washington Redskins. The high level details of their contracts are as follows:
|Darius Slay, Detroit Lions||
4 years, $48M extension signed in 2016
2016 Salary cap: $155.27M
% of cap: 7.8%
|$23.1 million fully guaranteed upon signing, including a $14.5 million signing bonus. Slay has annual per game roster bonuses in his contract.|
|Janoris Jenkins, New York Giants||
5 years, $62.5M signed in 2016
2016 Salary cap: $155.27M
% of cap: 8.05%
|$28.8 million fully guaranteed, including a $10 million signing bonus|
|Josh Norman, Washington Redskins||
5 years, $75M signed in 2016
2016 Salary cap: $155.27M
% of cap: 9.66%
|Norman received $50 million total guarantees, $36.5 million fully guaranteed; $15 million signing bonus and both of his 2016 and 2017 base salaries guaranteed; estimated annual $500,000 per game roster bonuses starting in 2017|
Let’s first look at the Lions’ standout cornerback Darius Slay, who received a four year extension which kicks in for the 2017 through 2020 seasons. Slay has just over $23 million fully guaranteed (roughly half of his total deal) and receives $14.5 million up front. The realistic way to look at Slay’s deal is as essentially two years guaranteed, with the Lions’ having the option to continue the relationship or cut the cord in 2019 with minimal penalty. His contract averages $12 million per year, which constitutes 7.8% of the 2016 salary cap.
Janoris Jenkins’ contract with the New York Giants raised some eyebrows when signed in March 2016, as he had been more inconsistent than desired for someone receiving such a lucrative payout. Unlike Slay, Jenkins was an unrestricted free agent at the time of signing, so he was able to leverage offers from multiple teams to maximize his numbers. Jenkins’ contract comes with $28.8 million fully guaranteed and a slightly higher AAV than Slay’s deal, but also required Jenkins to agree to a fifth year. From the Giants’ standpoint, Jenkins will bring negative cap relief if cut prior to the 2017 season, but he could be cut in 2018 (year three of the deal) if needed. Cutting Jenkins in 2018 would not be ideal, since it would result in $6 million in dead money, but the team would also realize $7 million in cap relief. So again, cutting Jenkins in 2018 is far from the perfect scenario, but one that is plausible if required.
Josh Norman’s path to the Washington Redskins surfaced like manna from the sky. The Carolina Panthers rescinded the franchise tag on Norman in late April last year, a week before the NFL draft. At that point in time, most teams had spent their available cap space, and Norman’s realistic set of suitors was limited as a result, with the 49ers and their massive cap room as the most realistic opponent for the Redskins. Fortunately for Norman, the Redskins were ready to pounce with a top of the market offer, and the cornerback ended up signing a five year deal with an AAV of $15 million per year. Norman’s deal constitutes 9.66% of the 2016 salary cap, and along with a signing bonus of $15 million, both his 2016 and 2017 salaries are guaranteed. This means that there’s no chance the team will cut Norman until 2018, at the earliest. Norman’s cap situation in 2018 mirrors that of Jenkins in that the team would incur significant dead money if Norman was to be released ($9 million), but the Redskins would also save a substantial amount under the cap ($8 million). So it’s another split the baby situation, where the team can get out of the deal if absolutely needed, but it would be far from desirable.
Circling back to Trufant, his situation most closely tracks that of Darius Slay, since he also has one year remaining under contract with his team. Not making it to unrestricted free agency will slightly suppress his contract numbers versus hitting the open market. However, but he gains financial security without worry of an injury or underperformance in his contract year impacting his next deal. One additional advantage that Trufant has over Slay, and over Jenkins and Norman as well, is that Trufant was a first round draft pick. While performance on the field clearly trumps draft status when it comes time to get paid, agents will use first round status as a supporting point in contract negotiations. This is especially the case for positions such as cornerback, where stats don’t always tell an accurate story, and reputation and pedigree play a key role when it comes to placing players in comparable tiers.
Before we dig into the potential extension terms, remember the important baseline referenced above – the aggregate running cash amount for 2017 and 2018 in any proposed contract must exceed the first round tender for 2017 plus the value of the franchise tag for 2018 in order for an extension to make sense for Trufant. Otherwise, a player of his stature would best be served to play out the 2017 season under the fifth year tender and hit the market in time for 2018 free agency. Plugging in those numbers, Trufant is scheduled to make $8.026 million in 2017. The franchise tag value for cornerbacks won’t be available until prior to 2018 free agency, so we will need to derive an educated value here. The franchise tag value for cornerbacks in 2016 was $13.952 million, so with a salary cap that’s expected to grow each of the next two years, an estimate of $16 million for 2018 makes sense. So if the Falcons and Trufant decide to forego a contract extension, then Trufant likely pulls in around $24 million total for 2017 and 2018.
With this number in hand, now let’s dive into contract extension numbers for Trufant. An extension makes sense for both sides, as it protects Trufant in case of an injury while also allowing him to secure a large payout sooner. For the Falcons, the team locks in cost certainty and a likely lower AAV over the life of the contract than if the team were to let the contract play out. Considering (i) the contracts of Trufant’s comp players, (ii) his status as a player with one more year under contract, (iii) the rising cap and (iv) the alternative to entering into an extension, Desmond Trufant should receive an extension along the lines of the following terms:
|Desmond Trufant, Atlanta Falcons||
4 years, $54M extension; to be signed in 2017
2017 Salary cap (est.): $168M
% of cap: 8.03%
|$30 million fully guaranteed, including $12 million signing bonus; 2018 & 2019 guaranteed, $5M of 2020 guaranteed for injury; $2M roster bonus for 2020 & 2021 (to be exercised in early March)|
The numbers exceed Slay’s payout in AAV, full guarantees and percentage of cap. Trufant’s contract compares favorably to Janoris Jenkins’ pact, with a higher AAV and a slight advantage in full guaranteed dollars, even if the cap percentage is a tad lower. While Trufant’s numbers fall below those of Josh Norman, it can be argued that Norman has had a more dominant peak than Trufant thus far. Plus, Norman’s situation was somewhat unprecedented in terms of a franchise type player becoming a free agent in the latter part of the signing period, for a team with a huge need at cornerback and with the money to sign him. The Josh Norman – Washington Redskins marriage was somewhat of a perfect storm.
Now let’s take a look at Trufant’s cash flow under his proposed contract:
* Fully guaranteed dollars
Recall that the first year of the extension is 2018, so Trufant receives an additional $12 million payout to go with his $8.026 million base for 2017. And importantly, through the 2018 year, Trufant’s running cash equals $29,026,000, which easily clears the $24 million hurdle we established above. As you can see from the dead money at hand, Trufant doesn’t have to worry about being cut by the team until the 2020 season, with both his 2018 and 2019 salaries fully guaranteed – and Trufant can count on receiving over $38 million through the next three years. Looking at 2020 and 2021, Trufant has some protection as well with the roster bonuses. While the Falcons could look to get out of the contract by then, if the team elects to do so, it will make the decision by early March to avoid paying out the bonuses. So Trufant will know his fate early on in the process for each season. And if the Falcons do decide to move on, then Trufant can hit the free agent market at the beginning of the league year.
This deal makes sense for the Falcons as well, as the team locks in its best cornerback at reasonable numbers, and gets cost certainty in the face of a rising salary cap. If the team does in fact structure the deal with higher base salary guarantee and lower signing bonus, it will allow the team to walk away after a few seasons with manageable dead cap numbers. All subject to negotiations of course, but the team can steer the contract terms to better fit its future cap sheet while also satisfying Trufant’s contract needs.
Before we conclude, one last point of which both parties are keenly aware – we’re entering unchartered territory in the NFL, with many teams likely having large swaths of salary cap space available over the next few offseasons. Not apples-to-apples, but in a somewhat parallel situation, just consider what happened in the 2016 NBA offseason with teams flush with cap space. Among other things, the Los Angeles Lakers gave backup center Timothy Mozgov a four year, sixty four million dollar contract! When cap space is burning a whole in teams’ pockets, crazy dollar figures tend to be thrown around. Trufant’s side can use the threat of hitting the free agent market in this unprecedented time as leverage to hammer out an extension with the Falcons on favorable terms. As an extension would benefit both sides, look for something to happen over the next few months.
 Not to fully dismiss the option of the transition tag, but this is much less likely since it would provide an easier opening for teams to structure deals to poach Trufant.