Thoughts on Harrison Smith’s New Contract

The full details of Harrison Smith’s extension hit the internet today which gives us the ability to better evaluate the contract. Smith’s $10.25 million new money average per year, $28.578 million injury guarantee, and $32.25 million three year value are all high points among safeties under long term contract. So what were the tradeoffs and how strong is the contract?  Let’s inspect further.

In looking closer at the numbers I would say that the Earl Thomas contract was the initial model that was followed when negotiating this contract. That would make sense as both Smith and Thomas were extensions rather than free agent signings and were both highly regarded draft picks. Smith received a $10 million signing bonus compared to Thomas’ $9.5 million. Both received new full guarantees that were essentially nothing more than the signing bonus and their current year salaries which were either already guaranteed or virtually guaranteed to be earned. Both have vesting guarantees in future years. Over two years Smith will earn $500,000 more than Thomas, who signed back in 2014.

Here are the year by year cash breakdowns of the relevant contracts

PlayerYear 1Year 2Year 3Year 4Year 5

On a yearly basis this is clearly a strong contract for Smith who will be the top earned in all but the first year category in which Devin McCourty was able to negotiate a $15 million signing bonus and $18 million first year salary after his contract expired.

The biggest tradeoff to set those marks and get that pay schedule, in my mind, was years. Smith will give up 5 years of free agency while Thomas, in a similar situation only gave up 4. Thomas will be 30 when he hits free agency which gives him a good chance of being extended at the age of 29 to a pretty decent size contract, similar to how Malcolm Jenkins re-upped with the Eagles. Smith will be 33 and in a worse spot that Eric Weddle who at 31 struggled to parlay a terrific career into a meaningful contract.

Granted Smith is not as good a player as Thomas, who was probably considered the best safety since Ed Reed when he signed his deal, but the age differential is a reason why perhaps the player could have looked for a bit more before signing the deal. The area where I see the biggest tradeoff or room for improvement is the guarantee structure when we look at the guarantee as a percentage of contract or years given up:

PlayerTotal Guarantee% GuaranteedFull Guarantee% Full GuaranteeNew Guarantee% New Guar

In these metrics Smith trails the biggest earners by a pretty big margin and really is lumped closer to the $9 million players rather than the top two. The new guarantee (which is the total guarantee minus salary already promised to the player) is low and we use that to come up with a new “full guarantee” he will rank lowest in the group.  Here are the numbers on a year by year basis:

PlayerTotal GPYFull GPYNew GPY

What these kind of charts tell us is, more or less, what the player receives in return for giving up control of his future. Smith’s numbers would not be indicative of the top paid player at the position but more the 3rd or 4th. Those may have been the areas where Smith could have gotten slightly more, probably as part of the signing bonus where Smith received 19.5% of his total contract, which is less than all in the group.

The signing bonus is somewhat important because it can help you keep a roster spot despite declining performance. For example in the third year of his contract McCourty has a $10 million cap charge but $9 million in dead money if cut which makes it unlikely that the Patriots would release him unless he fell off a cliff in his performance. $1 million in savings just isn’t enough if the player has a pulse.  Smith, at the same time frame, will save nearly $7 million on the cap if cut. Part of that is simply because it is an extension which he has limited control over but it should illustrate reasons to look for more.

In this case its possible none of that would have been earned and when you consider that things we are haggling over may be the difference between a contract that allows for 32 rather than 33 year old free agency those are easy points to give in on if you are happy with those payouts primarily over the first two years of the deal.

The reality is hitting free agency at 32 or 33 is not ideal for anyone except a quarterback. To overcome that we are looking at a fundamental difference in contract acceptance and taking something like a three year deal which is not that usual in the NFL. Considering Smith has an injury history that might not be a great option anyway.

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The bigger question for Smith may have been the timing. Could they have waited until later in the summer to sign?  Would the same deal have been on the table if they waited?  The reason I mention that is because Eric Berry of the Chiefs has a July deadline for signing a new contract. Berry is on a firm deadline while Smith is not, so Smith could have used that as a data point in a new negotiation. The only risk is if Berry took a contract lower than $10 million a season which does not seem likely.

Smith’s only real deadline should have been the start of training camp and more likely the preseason games which is where the first significant threat of a season ending injury could occur. After that it becomes a measure of risk tolerance for the player to bring the contract towards free agency where the money could grow bigger.  The timing factor is something most should consider when doing these deals to get as much leverage as possible. The last player to sign almost always gets the best contract.

That said Smith would have likely been tagged as a franchise player. The tag this year was $10.8 million and while it would likely grow next year the tag would not equal the current $15.5 million year one payout he agreed to. If you were a real risk taker, given Smiths age that may have ended up being his best long term earning prospect to play this year at $6M, next year at $11, and then hoping to score a contract at 29. But given the nature of the sport few are risk takers.

Still any way you slice it this is a pretty solid contract for Smith and one that should keep him happy during the rest of his career with the Vikings.