Robert Griffin III had been one of the more intriguing names left in free agency. Today he finally he found a suitor in the Browns, who signed him to a $15 million contract with $6.75 million guaranteed and a potential value of $22 million over two years if he reaches certain incentives. I think it’s a great deal for the Browns and the contract can tell us a little about the market, or lack thereof, that may have existed for Griffin.
The contract itself would seem to represent that no team in the NFL was willing to either guarantee Griffin a starting job or even a strong opportunity to earn a starting job. Why do I say that? I say that because of the years of the contract and the maximum value of the deal. If RG3 hits all his incentives, which are feasible if he wins the starting job in Cleveland, is injury free and plays well, he will earn $11 million per year. In todays NFL that is pennies.
At $22 million RG3 would rank under Nick Foles of the Rams. Foles played well for about 16 games across two years when he got that contract. $22 million is $13 million less than Sam Bradford, who like Griffin is a high draft pick that is injury prone. $22 million would rank $15 million behind Brock Osweiler, who was passable for a few games this season. $22 million is just $2 million more than Kirk Cousins, RG3s former backup who rode a wave of good fortune into the franchise tag, will make this year alone.
If Griffin thought he had a strong chance of starting it would have made almost no sense to lock yourself in on a two year contract. The money for just a glimpse of potential, especially one with this draft pedigree, is just far too much to pass up. Even if he took a one year $3 million deal, all it would take is a passable performance to probably earn a total of $23 million over two years plus millions more in guarantees for future years if he agreed on a long term deal. Now he has to stay healthy for two years and play well to get that free agency chance and guarantee protection and all for an added $3 million, at the most, in guarantees for signing this deal.
I would guess that they looked at the Browns as the best chance for starting and having a coach that has a reputation for doing wonders with quarterbacks. The Browns also have big cap space and perhaps the thought was if he does well the Browns might re-open negotiations next year. But the two years seems to be an admission that there is a good chance he will not start and there would be no benefit to sitting for another year or playing poorly in a musical QB situation and then doing free agency again.
As a high level backup contract this is a decent one for RG3. It ranks alongside Chase Daniel and is above the standard backup deals which are usually worth $5 million or less. He did not get as much guaranteed as Daniel and the upside isn’t as high, but his incentives should be more realistic to reach and he only took a two rather than three year contract. RG3 has more to lose if he is hurt, but given his history I’m not sure there was any way to avoid that.
The best starter level contract I could compare this to is the Alex Smith deal with the 49ers signed in 2012. Smith came off a better season than RG3, but like RG3 was considered a flawed player. Smith did the tour of free agency and found no takers. He cane back to San Francisco as the penciled in starter but with knowledge that the team believed they had something in Colin Kaepernick, who was still Smith’s backup at the time.
Smith signed a three year contract worth a base value of $24 million that year. His two year payout was $16.5 million with a max value of $23.5 million over those two years. Smith received $9.5 million fully guaranteed and like RG3 had a hefty offseason roster bonus iin the second year of the contract to force a quick decision on the player’s future. My guess is that contract was likely used to help with some parameters on this one. I would not even be stunned if the fact that Smith redid his deal after two years was a logical reason to go to two years on the deal. The league wasn’t as QB desperate at the time Smith signed (in todays NFL Smith hitting free agency would have resulted in a $20 million contract because everyone would have overlooked the flaws coming off a NFC title game), which makes this worth far less, but Smith was coming off a career high rather than a low.
For the Browns I think this is a great deal. He is an electric talent that as a rookie wowed the league. While you cant remove all the problems he has had- the injuries, the clashing with the coaches, the rumored ego that alienated teammates- close your eyes for a minute and reverse his career. Imagine if RG3 was a number 2 overall pick who rode the bench for the most two years because he was behind a decent starter and it was rumored he clashed with the coach. In year three he played and put up decent numbers but struggled as the teams talent level was poor and the coaching was suspect. Then in year 4 he goes 10-6 with 20 touchdowns to 5 interceptions, makes the Pro Bowl, and leads the team to the playoffs as his contract expires and he hits free agency.
Imagine what kind of contract that player would get. Looking at what Osweiler, Bradford, etc.. received that player would have gotten a $20 million a year deal over four years, with $40 million in guarantees. Same career as this Griffin just a completely different timing arc. The Browns got that player for a base of $7.5 million a season. Would you rather be the Browns with $15.5 million for RG3 over 2 or like the Texans locked into $37 million because the career timing is different which considerably changes the outlook on the player? That should be an easy answer.
It is the type of contract that adequate risk is absorbed by both sides. If you go back and read this piece I wrote on Kirk Cousins you can get an idea of the way I try to project realistic contract values based on expectations. RG3 is mentioned in there often because he and Cousins track somewhat similar, they just got to their numbers in a backwards manner, so the general analysis holds. The short version is that, while I might slightly reassess this for RG3 versus Cousins, the general career outlook for players similar to RG3 is:
More or less the numbers say you dont want to go more than $8 million a season for someone like Griffin. Anything more puts too much of a burden of risk on the team. The $8 million covers the likelihood of all events for Griffin and given his career you have to view all scenarios as possible. That makes this fair for both sides.
Unlike their Dwayne Bowe assessment which was based in fantasyland reasoning and spelled the beginning of the end, this one is rooted in reality. If it works out they got a bargain. If it doesnt they didn’t take a massive loss and walk away. The Browns don’t do a lot right in the NFL, but this is one where they got it right.
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.