The Arizona Cardinals have been in a retooling mode over the last two seasons, evident by the team’s high roster turnover and mediocre 7-8-1 and 8-8 record in 2016 and 2017 respectively. With the team drafting Josh Rosen 10th overall, the front office should now focus on developing and retaining young talent to surround the young QB. One player who fits this mold is Running Back, David Johnson. Johnson was drafted in the 3rd round of the 2015 draft and had a solid rookie season before breaking out in 2016 with 2,100 all-purpose yards, 20 Touchdowns, and Pro-bowl and All-Pro accolades. After suffering a season-ending wrist injury the following season, he now enters the last year of his rookie deal and is looking for an extension. The Cardinals have publicly stated Johnson is a core player and look forward to rewarding him, so it’s clear both sides are motivated to hammer out a deal. The question will be at what number?
Before determining a fair value for Johnson, there are a few points I want to discuss. The first relates to what Jason Fitzgerald wrote in his recent article, where the multiple franchise tag isn’t a good option for Johnson and the best way to maximize his earnings is by doing an extension with the Cardinals. If Johnson were to go the multiple franchise tag route, the Cardinals would have him under his current $1.907M salary and likely apply the franchise tag in 2019. During his tagged year, Johnson would be incurring injury risk while having no long-term financial commitment from the team, which is a crucial need for Running Backs given their short career span. After Johnson would play out his first franchise tag, he would either hit free agency in 2020 or be tagged for the 2nd time. If he were to hit free agency, he’d be 28 years old and teams probably wouldn’t value him the same given his age. Being tagged a 2nd time would put Johnson in similar circumstances during his first tag, where he’d have nothing guaranteed past the tag year. One might point to Johnson’s peer, Le’Veon Bell, as a RB who seems to be doing well with the multiple-franchise tag option; however, the key difference is Bell will be hitting free agency at 27, an age where teams are more likely to show the money for a Running Back vs Johnson who would be 29 after his 2nd tag. My second point relates to the Cardinals usage of Johnson. During negotiations, Johnson’s camp should look for him to be paid like a true 3-down back. During the 2016 season, his first season as the entrenched starter, Johnson had 373 total touches, which was more than any other RB that season. I would expect Johnson to continue to be the work-horse, as he’s arguably the most dynamic player on the offense and the ability of new OC, Mike McCoy, to build a system around his players. Johnson can also further his case on his value by pointing out he had the second most targets on the team in 2016, with 120 targets. The Cardinals rushing offense also struggled when Johnson wasn’t on the field, dropping from 18th to 30th from 2016 to 2017. My last point relates to the timeline of a deal. I would expect Johnson’s camp and the Cardinals to set a deadline of exactly one month before the start of the 2018 season. The CBA doesn’t credit a player with an accrued season if their holdout extends to anything less than a month before the regular season. This has huge financial consequences as a player is eligible only for Restricted Free Agency if they have less than 4 accrued seasons. Johnson would only have 3 accrued seasons with an extended holdout.
Below is a list of some of the recent RB deals and each player’s performance 2 years leading up to the deal:
One thing to note from the table above is that I’ve included Le’Veon Bell. Although he rejected the Steelers’ offer last year, it’s important to reference the offer in determining an appropriate APY for Johnson. I would expect the Cardinals’ offer to be lower as Johnson doesn’t have the same leverage that Bell did. Bell was already tagged at a $12.12M APY figure with a second tag valued at $14.544M, with no team control thereafter. In Johnson’s case, the Cardinals theoretically have him under control for the next 3 years at roughly $27.207M, whereas the Steelers had Bell for 2 years at $26.664M at the time of their offer. In addition, when a team like the Steelers don’t guarantee anything past the first year, they need to compensate with a higher APY. Considering the points above, below is my estimate for Johnson’s extension and how it compares to his peers:
- 5 Year Extension worth $48.75M in new money ($9.75M APY)
- Signing Bonus: $10M
- Fully Guaranteed: $19.5M ($10M SB + $3.5M 2018 Base Salary + $6M 2019 Base Salary)
- Total Guaranteed: $25.5M (Fully Guaranteed Amount + $6M 2020 Base Salary which vests on 3rd day of 2020 league year)
- 1 Year Cash Flow: $17.593M
- 3 Year Cash Flow: $29M
I would expect Devonta Freeman’s APY to be the starting point as Johnson is used more when healthy and has more upside. In regards to cash flow, I believe the only way the Cardinals will agree to a 3 year cash flow higher than $27.207M, the sum of Johnson’s current salary and estimates of the next 2 tag values, is if they can get more years of control. In addition, the Cardinals will likely look to do a vesting guarantee in the third year, which gives them the flexibility to move on from Johnson for any reason after just 2 seasons. This structure was also used on Tyrann Mathieu as he was cut two years into his extension before additional guarantees in his deal triggered.
The table below illustrates the cap hits each year of Johnson’s deal and the cost/benefit if the Cardinals were to release him any given year. The Cardinals are approx. $14M under the cap, with a projected $44.9M next year, so I don’t anticipate Johnson’s extension causing any salary cap constraints. In addition, if the Cardinals structure Johnson’s deal as below, Johnson’s cap hit % through 2020 will never exceed 4.21%, which is a very reasonable rate for a player of Johnson’s caliber.
It’ll be interesting to see whether Johnson and the Cardinals will be able to reach an agreement in the next month. If Johnson is realistic about his value and not asking to be in the range of Le’Veon Bell’s offer from last year, I would expect a deal in the next few weeks. Assuming Johnson signs an extension in the neighborhood of what I’ve projected, he’d trade in this year’s $1.907M salary and either a shot at free agency next year or approx. an $11.5M Franchise Tag for a deal totaling $50.632M over 6 years. At signing, Johnson would be guaranteed $19.5M, which would be paid over 2 years and then the Cardinals would decide in March 2020 whether they want to continue to employ the RB or let him walk.
Hardik Sanghavi graduated from DePaul University in 2016 with a major in finance and minor in accounting. During his time at DePaul, Hardik interned with ESPN Chicago and Priority Sports & Entertainment. He now works as a Commercial Underwriter in the Insurance Industry and is a contributor on sportsagentblog.com. You can follow him on twitter at @hardiks94