The numbers are in from PFT for Rams running back Todd Gurley and it is indeed quite an impressive contract that should help reshape the running back market. So lets explore a bit and look at what this deal may mean moving forward.
Contracts like the one signed by Gurley are pretty rare in the NFL. The contract represents a 74% increase over the second highest paid running back and a whopping 110% increase over the 5th highest paid running back. The last player to a contract like this was Ndamukong Suh and his increases were closer to 50% and 75% and that was coming as an unrestricted free agent. The only other contracts in recent times that really fit similar criteria were Larry Fitzgerald, Calvin Johnson. Adrian Peterson, Chris Johnson, Darrelle Revis, and Nnamdi Asomugha.
These contracts are always very impressive because they are essentially negotiating in no mans land. There are no comparable players or deals to work off of. The players are simply special and that has to be enough to come up with the outline of a contract that is acceptable to both sides. Of those above names only Calvin Johnson had parameters to really work from though Chris Johnson likely benefitted from a contract for Peterson signed a few days earlier.
The contract was negotiated by Ari Nissim of Roc Nation who also used to negotiate contracts for the New York Jets during the Mike Tannenbaum era. I bring that up here in part because Nissim was on the other end of one of these negotiations which was a contentious one with Revis in 2010. Revis at the time was looking to be a market buster based on the Asomugha numbers and the Jets were not going to go there. Understanding the pluses and minuses from both sides I would think helps to get a deal like this done in an orderly fashion with no threats of holdouts or anything like that while making strong arguments that a team would listen to.
While the running back market has been depressed Gurley was in a unique spot for a few reasons. He was a top 10 pick which is incredibly rare for a running back (from 2007-2015 only 5 running backs were picked top 10). Teams always have a great deal invested in players who they select high in the draft and/or move up to draft and there is a lot more to push on when that is the case. The Rams are also in a position where they have a number of potential free agents on their hands over the next few years and can’t guarantee having a franchise tag on hand for Gurley and another player, such as Aaron Donald. Once you get into a spot where you may lose that tag it is far more difficult to get a deal done because the player and agent know they have a good chance to get to market. Finally the Rams had already done a hideous contract with Tavon Austin (another high pick who the team was invested in more with their hearts than head) worth $10.55M just two years ago. Austin was an “offensive weapon” with value as a gimmick runner and receiver. There is no way to really negotiate off an $8.25M running back market when you paid a second rate runner/3rd rate receiver $10.55 million a season.
Even with all that I was very impressed that they were able to get to the $14.375M contract figure (which ranks 8th since 2003 in inflated value) and was surprised that a team went that far. The Rams at times have been slow to pull the trigger on these kind of deals and I figured they would be closer to the Austin range than what ended up being the best running back contract signed since 2011. Whether they worked or not off the 2011 contracts that is really all I have to go on so to put the deal in some context here is the way that the contract compares in new money to the Peterson and Johnson deals over the four year timeframe.
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To be perfectly honest I forgot just how strong that Johnson contract was with the Titans and this contract slightly trails the new money up front before moving past it in year 2. It is a significant leap forward from the Peterson deal which is generally regarded as the gold standard of contracts for a running back.
The guarantee package is worth $45 million with $21.95 million guaranteed up front. Another one of the reasons it made sense for the Rams to do this deal now rather than wait is that Gurley already had $11.95 million guaranteed so in theory they are guaranteeing less by doing a deal now than later with $45 million in completely new guarantees.
Functionally the effective guarantee on the contract is around $49 million which I’ll explain here. The contract has $21.95 million guaranteed at signing which covers all his earnings this season. Given what the team has invested in Gurley there is nothing that he could do this year on the field to be released next season. Even if there was a slight thought of doing it the team would be stuck with $16.8 million in dead money over the 2019 and 2020 years if they were to consider it.
In March he will not only guarantee his 2019 salary but also his 2020 roster bonus of $7.55 million. Once that happens the cost to release Gurley in 2020 would be over $20 million on the cap. Because this is the final league year of the CBA there is no June 1 provision so they would need to absorb that full number if they were to cut him. That wont be feasible given what is expected of their roster. That March not only does his base salary vest but so does a $5 million roster bonus on 2021. Again this makes the cost to release very high and with just a $4 million salary it is probably going to chase the salary rather than cut him. As a point of reference this is what happened with Austin. While they changed the manner in which he could earn his money they were stuck with his salary because of the guarantee on a roster bonus.
There are two things to also point out here when discussing the guarantee and the impact on the market. While this guarantee structure is incredibly friendly and a large chunk of the guarantee contains no offsets, that is a Rams things not a Gurley thing. This is the same structure that the Rams have used with multiple players including Austin, Robert Quinn, Michael Brockers and others. This is just one of those things they do as they are player friendly in that regard and put on paper what they know will happen anyway. So don’t expect these to impact the league any differently than the Steelers only doing signing bonus guarantees or the 49ers and Packers insisting on per game bonuses for every player.
There are a few other things in here which are interesting. This is the first contract that seems to have some acknowledgement of a potential work stoppage in 2020 based on the roster bonus language. It also includes large reporting bonuses that are generally supposed to be holdout protection for the team. Nissim’s Jets used these with players, though at a smaller number, so it was not a surprise to see that same type of roster bonus used here. It’s a good mechanism to keep both sides happy if the deal goes that far. I also like the large cap charge in 2020 as it lends itself to a possible restructure for cap purposes.
The other thing that I think is important to understand with this contract and something that Nissim should also be followed on is the fact that he negotiated the contract with the idea that Gurley was a franchise player. Franchise players are special and when you break down the contracts that those players sign there are generally a few givens. One is that the APY of the deal is going to generally be an increase over the tag number anywhere from 5 to 40%. The two year cash flows will generally be more than two years of franchise tags by at least a few million and the third year will be under but not as far as you think of the three year number. Generally there is solid upside in the deal compared to most year by year realistic scenario analysis. This is one of the reasons I was so negative on the Danielle Hunter extension because it shortchanged him on the fact that he should have been treated like a franchise player.
So where do things go from here? Well with David Johnson looking for a new contract I would imagine he will slot under this by a little bit. Johnson is older than Gurley, doesn’t have the same pedigree, nor the same 2 year performance as Johnson has just the one stellar season. I don’t expect him to be the Johnson to Gurley’s Peterson but Id guess at this point $12 million. I’d say this also puts the Steelers back in play for Le’Veon Bell next year as this gives them more to work with assuming that they are still willing to make that offer. The next set of running backs, starting with Ezekiel Elliot, are a year away.
So I would expect the market to make a jump now into the $10M+ category for the better players, a large jump from the $8M range it is stuck in. I don’t know if it will impact free agency. The last time a good player got to free agency, DeMarco Murray, there was no market. Maybe Bell will be the test case. Maybe it will be Elliot. I don’t think well have an idea as to how this impacts paying someone elses player versus players you are familiar with until it happens.
Long term these players will be important. The last market collapse happened because running backs fell off a cliff after a certain age and use level. Some overworked players like Arian Foster were still top line guys when healthy but getting on the field wasn’t always easy. Others like Ray Rice, Shaun Alexander, Clinton Portis, and Johnson fell off a cliff. I think todays players are better conditioned and monitored, practices are easier, and teams are more cognizant of the workload, but whether they can be productive through 50% of the contract will likely determine if this is the start of a running back renaissance or a brief four year blip that will see contraction at the start early in the new CBA.
Regardless for the first time in a long time we got a chance to see a real eye popping contract, the first of its kind in a few years.
Jason is the founder of OTC and has been studying NFL contracts and the salary cap for over 15 years. Jason has co-authored two books about the NFL, Crunching Numbers and the Drafting Stage, which are widely circulated in the industry and hosts the OTC Podcast. Jason’s work has been featured in various publications including the Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, NFL Network and more. OTC is widely considered the leading authority on contract matters in the NFL.