Over the weekend there was pretty big buzz coming out of Philadelphia when the Eagles signed their right tackle Lane Johnson to a huge $11.25 million per year contract extension with over $35 million in guarantees. My initial thought was the same as everyone else’s: “what in the world are they thinking”. Johnson was drafted 4th overall back in 2013 and has been a bit of a disappointment. He’s not a left tackle and these are the numbers for an elite left tackle. While I still don’t have all the numbers on the contract I have enough information now to I think put the contract in a context that we can all understand better and see why the Eagles signed the contract when they did and for this huge figure.
Left tackle had generally been a stagnant position salary wise until this past year when Washington signed Trent Williams to an extension worth $13.2 million per year. Williams is a terrific player though I’m not sure anyone considered him best in the NFL. One contract that seems high can usually be thrown out but this was a clear market mover. Within days of Williams’ deal the Colts signed Anthony Castonzo to a $10.9M contract and the Patriots did a short term extension with Nate Solder for about $10 million. While Williams may have been a Pro Bowler these others were not. Solid players, sure. Former first rounders, absolutely. Top 5 or 6 in the NFL? Probably not. It was a market shift that teams needed to be aware of.
Comparing Johnson’s new money cash flows to the other left tackles in the market doesn’t paint a terrible picture for the Eagles but it doesn’t seem great either as he’ll earn significantly more than Castonzo by the end of the 3rd year of the contract.
But from the team perspective this really is not the fair way to look at the contract. The Eagles made an interesting decision regarding the time that they entered into this negotiation with Johnson. Johnson was eligible this offseason to have his fifth year option picked up by the team for 2017. Generally teams pick up the option and then enter negotiations. That is exactly what happened with Smith and Castonzo.
For the Eagles though strategically it did not make sense to make that move. Johnson’s status is probably similar to that of Matt Kalil of the Vikings who had an $11.1 million option picked up for the 2016 season despite the fact that most people seemed to agree Kalil was not an $11 million player. But Kalil, like Johnson, falls into that donut hole area where he plays an important position and you will kick yourself if he develops into a better player down the line and you let him leave over a few million at the backend of his rookie contract.
When we truly value the Johnson contract we need to include that team option in the analysis because it was very clear the team was going to pick it up. Even if they didn’t do it on paper We can estimate that the team option would likely have cost the Eagles $11.7 million guaranteed. In addition Johnson had $3.1 million already guaranteed in 2016 salary. Like Smith, Johnson is really being signed two years out from free agency.
Now the numbers paint a very different picture.
His four year contract will pay him less new money that Smith or Castonzo by the end of the original effective term of his contract. He also lags Castonzo over the first two years and won’t pass him until year 3. That’s pretty good for the Eagles, assuming of course Johnson is a left tackle.
Essentially what the Eagles did was take a $6.3 million risk that Johnson can be a left tackle, a transition that seems clear will occur either this year or next as the replacement for Jason Peters. Knowing that once that switch was made the Eagles would be forced to pay him as a left tackle anyway it made far more sense to just concede the point and get out in front of the contract rather than working from behind when more players sign extensions that push the market further.
Don’t read into the guarantees on the contract either. Per a source with knowledge of the deal the full guaranteed portion of the contract is worth $20.8 million, all of which is paid by the end of 2017. The new guarantee only represents the same $6 million raise reflected above.
The savings are actually reasonable by doing a deal now. What happens if they wait until next year? Well first of all the $3 million guarantee for 2016 that is rolled into this package would instead represent new guarantees. If they run the same contract they agreed two here just starting a year later, they will save themselves about $3.7 million over the next two years and $1.5 million over 2 years. What if they just didn’t sign him and had to go the franchise tag route? The overall payout is about the same (this is technically what the deal probably best represents) but the cap structure is far worse.
In general as long as Johnson becomes an adequate left tackle by next season the Eagles will come out ahead on the contract. The only disaster scenario is if he never develops beyond the right side. The Eagles will have leverage to bring the dollar figures down in 2018 but they would have to get him to slash about $6 million in both 2018 and 2019 salary to bring the effective totals down to the Bryan Bulaga market. That might be a hard sell to drop that far down.