Looking Back at the Contracts and Impact of Darrelle Revis

With the official retirement of Darrelle Revis there has been much talk of his ability to play the business of the NFL incredibly well by using/creating leverage in any way possible to increase his value. Listening to ESPN radio discuss the issue and reading various articles on his impact on the contracts of the NFL I think there are misconceptions out there or at the least differing opinions than mine on Revis and I wanted to share those even though this probably doesn’t have a lot of interest to many people.

Revis was one of my favorite players on the Jets and his contract disputes were a big reason why I learned more about the salary cap and more importantly began to get some recognition for the work I was doing with the salary cap. So I guess I have a good recollection of this since it involved a player I liked and played a role in what I do today. My opinions on this are as a third party observer and what the contracts ended up being compared to the NFL norms.

The point that seems to be made a lot is that Revis’ contract history is somehow impactful in the overall scheme of NFL contracts. That they have been a model for contracts today and a system that has a number of pay as you go players, holdouts, guaranteed contracts, and high salaries. I’d probably disagree with most of that. So lets look a bit at Revis’ contract history and see what impact it really did have.

Revis’ contract disputes were legendary because they were unusual. Other than Terrell Owens issues with the Eagles, and that was handled differently, there really wasn’t a player of this magnitude that went this far with his contract. This began when Revis was a rookie.

While rookie holdouts (and yes I know holdout is technically not the correct term) in the last CBA were not unusual, and in many ways were the accepted norm, it was highly unusual for a contract holdout to last that long especially for a 14th pick in the draft. Revis signed his rookie contract around August 16th. Most deals for that pick were done in late July or very early August. The only first round pick that year that took longer to sign was Jamarcus Russell, the number 1 overall pick. From 2006 to 2010 the only players whose contract disputes lasted as long as Revis’ were Russell, Derrick Harvey, Matt Leinart, Aaron Maybin, and Michael Crabtree, all of whom were picked higher than Revis.

Revis initial holdout was based in part on the Jets trying to sign him for 6 years rather than 5 with the argument being that no picks at 14 get signed for 6 years. It was probably 50/50 to be honest but that was how the argument played out when the root cause of the dispute was discussed in the media. Eventually a concession was made that Revis would earn a contract that would be above his slot (back then there was no official full contract slotting system but most contracts were based on precedent and the fact that 10 earned more than 11 who earned more than 12 and so on). Revis base contract would essentially pay him as if he was the 10th or 11th pick in the draft. He had incentive based clauses that would rival those of the top 10 players, though they were harder to attain. He had a potential guarantee that was top 5. All of these would only be earned if he was, pretty much from day 1, a great player, which in fact he was. The contract in essence made up for his draft status.

Revis first official holdout came in 2010. While the rookie contract gave Revis a lot at the time he outplayed it as he was arguably the best player from that draft. Due to the contract structure of his deal Revis had a very low salary that he would risk by holding out. Rather than the millions that are often at stake for players now, Revis had a salary around the minimum. Revis had millions in future guarantees waiting for him that he would also void with a holdout. It didn’t matter.

This was a very bitter dispute that played out in the print media and on television. Revis had a number in mind that he wanted which was based on a bizarre contract that Al Davis and the Raiders signed with cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha that paid him at least $15M a year over just three seasons. Revis wanted $16M. Eventually the Jets signed a four year contract worth $11.5 million a season that frontloaded the contract by paying him $32.5M in the first two years, which was guaranteed but only for injury. The Jets also added a unique provision that if he held out again he would have another three years tacked onto his contract at the cost of $3 million each. Revis would later refer to this contract as a “band aid” contract as it was just supposed to be a short term bridge to another extension three years later. There were rumblings of a hold out in 2012 but it was clear that would not work this time around and the idea quickly dropped.

By 2013 the Jets organization changed general managers and Revis was again angling for a hold out. Despite the risk of being held to an additional three contract years it seemed clear that this was going to happen at some point. My assumption is that Revis’ side knew that new Jets GM John Idzik had no desire to deal with the issue and that he either could leverage his way off the Jets or into a new contract with the Jets. That kind of made the holdout protection worthless for the Jets. This would have probably played out differently had the front office not seen the changes it did. The Jets dealt him to Tampa Bay.

In Tampa Bay Revis signed his first true mega contract. He became the highest paid defensive player in the NFL (tied with Mario Williams) earning $16 million a season from the Bucs. It was an impressive feat considering that the year before Revis tore his ACL and missed most of the season. Compare that to the recent contract for Richard Sherman who took a big pay decrease and not an increase by any means. This was well above the norms for cornerbacks who had topped out at $12M a season and most were in the $10M and less range. Revis did not get any guaranteed salary in this contract and was released after one season.

Contract four came from the Patriots. This technically was worth $16 million a year but the true value was $12 million. This was more of a calculated decision because Revis did not stand out in Tampa and he knew he would have an excellent chance to be given credit for being an elite defender on a Super Bowl team. It paid off for him as they won the Super Bowl, he was considered a big part of the team, and he became a free agent.

Revis went back to the Jets in 2015 on a contract worth slightly over $14 million a year and averaged over $16 million in the first three contract years. Again he was the highest paid player and those first three seasons were a few million higher than the much younger Patrick Peterson of the Cardinals. For the first time Revis got the mega guarantee package on the contract with $39 million guaranteed at signing. Revis was cut after two seasons, effectively earning close to $20 million a year from the Jets due to the guarantee.

Revis’ final contract was a pit stop in Kansas City which was only notable because they crafted a unique contract that avoided most of the offsets from the Jets had Revis been an all star player.

So as you look through these contracts the driving factor was neither guarantees nor the year to year concept, both of which are things in today’s NFL. Only one of Revis’ contracts was really about guarantees and that was the final multi year contract. Only one contract was a true “prove it” contract and that was the one in 2014. His other major contracts were six years, four years, six years, and five years in length.  Revis locked himself in, he just did other things to avoid really being locked up.

Revis’ contracts certainly were not about the fight for guarantees. As mentioned above he was willing to risk his 2011 and 12 guarantees for a bigger salary.  His guarantee structure on his second contract was typical even if the injury amount at signing was large. He had no guarantees in the third contract. Guarantees on a 1 year deal for a top player are nothing but a paper stamp. So really its just 2015 where we see a negotiation that is likely focused on guaranteed salary.

So on both these fronts I don’t see Revis as a pioneer for todays NFL contracts because his approach is still a bit unique. Should he be a pioneer?  More on that in a minute.

Where I would agree that he an impact was with his rookie deal even if only in an indirect way. Revis’ contract created a situation where other contract people would have to deal with it in upcoming negotiations with rookies. Revis also held out after only just three years under that contract as well. So it was one of many non conforming or large contracts that led owners to the current slotting system that prevents teams from sidestepping the norms for a player they believe in and players from having a chance to hold out with little on the line.

Did Revis have a major impact on salaries for corners?  I think its debatable. Champ Bailey was already making over $9 million a season on a contract signed back in 2004. That was a bigger deal that Revis 2010 contract when you factor in the timeframe. Again it was probably more indirect as teams began to focus more on the concept of finding a shutdown corner or secondary help in general but as time went on salaries actually retreated for a bit following overpayment of players who simply were not Revis. Corner salaries still trail those of pass rushers and nobody has ever reached Revis’ $16M contract figure.

What I liked about Revis, whether intentional or not, his contract strategies kind of morphed with his career. Right now everything is so firm for everyone. Almost every contract negotiation plays out the same- get near the end of a rookie contract, get as much guaranteed as possible, and as high an annual value as possible on a five year contract. Revis didn’t necessarily follow that.

While his rookie contract cant be duplicated unless the system changes in the new CBA it was all about protecting his interests in the event he outplayed the draft slot. His negotiation more or less was about putting him in a position to earn closer to what his play deserved than his draft slot.

Revis happened to not only outplay the draft slot but to a level that far exceeded his contract. Contract 2 was about finding a way to bring his cash payment in complete line with his one field play.  The guarantee of $20M on the old contract was easily worth risking because the Jets were not going to cut the best player on their team, guarantee or no guarantee. Revis turned $20M into $32.5M, some of which was guaranteed and some of which was guaranteed for injury only. Again in actuality the guarantee makes no difference because the Jets were never cutting their best guy.

The second contract, which was frontloaded, I think was set up in a way to lead to a hold out. Even with the protection in there the low salary in 2012 and 2013 were in some way going to justify the fact that he was “underpaid” in those specific seasons and in a lot of ways that worked. At worst he got a one year extension worth $20M in new money if he had to honor 2012 before going to war again in 2013.

Contract three was more of the same. It was all about making sure that in every year of the contract he earned max pay rather than accepting a traditional contract where you get a large sum up front and chance playing under market value. Getting cut was part of the risk he took to maintain his top salary status.

Contract four was about rehabbing his image and repairing his reputation.  This was the one contract that was not about maximizing his current value but hoping to maximize his future one.

The final real contract he signed was about protection. Im sure he saw the writing on the wall as to where his career was headed so he was willing to go to a lower annual value in exchange for the big guarantees and more traditional contract structure.

I kind of think that if there is a pioneer aspect to Revis it should be this not the other stuff. His approach to constantly maximizing value and creating situations that can help do that. It was finding the right mix of betting on yourself and making money for each time he did a deal.

Did Revis take control of situations the way teams usually do?  Absolutely. The way teams don’t plan on honoring full contracts Revis did the same.  Im not sure it was done in the most honest of ways at time, but that is what it is in the NFL.

The holdouts are not and will likely never be a model for the league. Revis was a special player with a special role on a team that was near the top of the NFL at the time. He had a coach that more or less demanded he be on the field because he was too important to his defense. He had a GM and front office that believed strongly in his ability from day 1.  Outside of QBs I don’t think anyone has that same situation. Others, really good players, have tried the holdout strategy and failed.

All told Revis’ playing career earned him close to $125 million in salary. That is probably $20M or so more than most others in his position would have earned. His agents deserve a great deal of credit for constantly forcing the issue even if it would not have worked for other players. We probably won’t see another player with this kind of ability to force the issue and earn the big money, but there are still things that can be learned from looking at his career and his willingness to risk some of the contract norms to keep his eye on the fact that cash is king in the NFL and players should do what they can to maximize that whenever they can.