Thoughts on the Matt Stafford $135 Million Contract

Unless you have been living under a rock for the last few days you are well aware that Matt Stafford signed a new contract that made him the highest paid player in NFL history. I waited to write on it until we got more concrete details and thanks to the job of Mike Florio at PFT we now have those details to examine and this contract sure is a winner for Stafford.

In looking at the way the deal breaks down (and you can see the cap structure here) Stafford gained a significant amount of leverage following the Derek Carr extension from June. Carr’s contract was a solid deal but lacked some punch in terms of virtual guarantees and up front cash due to the low signing bonus but in return set new benchmarks in every year of the contract. This became new baselines for Stafford to work from.

While it is easy to debate the merits of Stafford and Carr, there is no debate between the track records of the two. Stafford is a prolific, proven passer, a former top pick, and the face of the Lions franchise. Carr may be two of those three at some point but it should be an easy thing to compare himself to Carr and immediately say he deserved $2-3 more million a season. He was also able to easily separate himself from Carr in terms of the first year cash as well.

Here is how the cash components of Stafford’s contract compare to the current benchmark numbers.

New Contract YearBenchmarkStaffordDifferential
Year 0$30,160,000$34,500,00014.4%
Year 1$46,522,481$51,000,0009.6%
Year 2$66,522,481$70,500,0005.8%
Year 3$85,522,481$92,000,0006.1%
Year 4$105,147,481$112,000,0004.8%
Year 5$125,025,000$135,000,0008.0%

The first year raise was on par with Carr’s raise and the 4th year number was identical as well, so even if they weren’t talking in those terms, indirectly a lot of this contract mimics the raise Carr received over the prior players. Had Carr not been signed I don’t think Stafford would have reached here to be honest.

The deal itself gets better after this. Because the Lions are tight on the salary cap and had little ways to beat these benchmarks they gave Stafford a $50 million signing bonus. The current NFL high was Joe Flacco at $40 million and most quarterbacks are in the $30 million range. This is a huge number and opens the door to a lot of possibilities for him later on, which I’ll discuss in a bit.

The guarantee structure is very player friendly. $86 million will be fully guaranteed by next March. This is in contrast to many of the recent contracts where the guarantees are earned in that same year. So all things considered there is no doubt he is seeing the first few years of this one even if his arm fell off. There are also no offsets in these guarantees but that’s not something Id get worked up over since we know he isn’t getting cut.

The part of the contract that I really like that I think will get underplayed deals with the structure. The first part is due to the massive signing bonus, which means every year except one will have a $10 million cap charge for the bonus. Stafford will have cap charges of $29.5, $31.5, and $30 million from 2019-2021 and those numbers are high enough to put the Lions in a position where they may have to restructure or extend early. That is gold for a player and one restructure for cap relief turns this deal Flacco-esque.

The second comes from the offseason roster bonuses. Stafford gets roster bonuses in every year of the contract including $10 million in each of the last two years. These bonuses force the Lions hand to make early decisions with his contract- whether about restructures, trades, termination, or extensions- rather than being able to sit on it until the summer. I think that’s a major bonus for him. This structure was likely borrowed from the Andrew Luck deal signed in 2016.

So what did the Lions get in return here? They didn’t have to fully guarantee the same portion of the deal as Aaron Rodgers and the percentage guaranteed trends under a few other players in the league. They created some needed cap room this year and get rid of the distraction of everything contract related.

Since Stafford has zero track record of playoff success or for that matter regular season team success, his contract should set the stage for the first $30 million a year player in the NFL. It may be Kirk Cousins if he actually reaches free agency, but more likely it will be Matt Ryan or Aaron Rodgers. If I were the Falcons or Packers, I’d probably start negotiating now to make sure they are the first to do a deal rather than waiting like the Lions did with Stafford.