Thoughts on Tyrann Mathieu’s Contract

Yesterday I took a look at Eric Fisher’s new contract and tried to come up with the logic of both sides in agreeing to the contract. Today I want to look at Tyrann Mathieu of the Cardinals and his recent $12.5 million per year contract extension. I have a pretty different view of this contract than Fisher’s. 

The Mathieu contract is one of those deals that gets reported in a way that kind of drives me crazy. Because only two years are guaranteed on paper the feedback is that “the contract is really two years and then we’ll see”. When teams commit the kind of up front money that they have here its pretty much a lock that they already saw enough and it would take a catastrophic event to make them release the player after just two seasons.

“Two years and we’ll see” is the Cardinals stating their intention today to franchise tag Mathieu and then decide what to do next. A $15.5 million signing bonus, $20 million in first year new money, and a large 2018 offseason roster bonus is about as solid a commitment as you will find in an extension. Consider the fact that if Mathieu was classified as a safety his tag value would be around $12 million at most next year. The Cardinals are betting $8 million of their money that there is nothing to wait and see. It’s a dramatic departure from the Fisher deal which essentially paid him nothing over the tag.  Even if classified as a corner we would still be looking at a $6 million raise.

There is little I see from the Cardinals side that made them agree to this contract outside of the desire to avoid distractions on a must win team.  Arizona has generally done well by their players that they keep around and this also fits that mold, so maybe there is just something to be said about team harmony on and off the field. Beyond that though Im not really sure.

The pay breakdown indicates that the Cardinals valued Mathieu as a cornerback not as a safety.  Here is how Mathieu’s running cash matches up with the top safeties in the NFL:

PlayerYear 0Year 1Year 2Year 3Year 4Year 5
Tyrann Mathieu$15,000,407$20,000,407$31,000,407$42,000,407$53,000,407$62,500,407
Harrison Smith$10,000,000$15,500,000$23,500,000$32,250,000$41,000,000$51,250,000
Devin McCourty$18,000,000$23,000,000$30,000,000$38,000,000$47,500,000
Earl Thomas$9,500,000$15,000,000$23,000,000$31,500,000$40,000,000FA

As you can see the differentials by the second year of the contract are pretty staggering. Here is how the salary matches up with the top corners:

PlayerYear 0Year 1Year 2Year 3Year 4Year 5
Tyrann Mathieu$15,000,407$20,000,407$31,000,407$42,000,407$53,000,407$62,500,407
Richard Sherman$11,000,000$21,000,000$33,569,000$45,000,000$56,000,000FA
Patrick Peterson$15,000,000$25,000,000$35,000,000$46,250,000$57,500,000$70,050,000
Joe Haden$14,000,000$24,400,000$34,600,000$45,800,000$57,000,000$67,500,000

The payments match much better here and if you start bringing lower level number 1 corners I think it would mesh very well.

I find that to be such an odd decision by the team. Does Mathieu play corner?  Yes he does. Per PFF he plays over 65% of his snaps lined up against a teams slot receiver. That’s all well and good but when was the last time a team needed a $12.5 million player to play the slot. The other corners generally regarded as top “slot corners” all earn under $9 million a year, most much less. Even as salaries rise (Doug Baldwin and Randall Cobb would be the two highest paid slot guys) its hard to really justify such a leap in salary.

The other concerning thing with this contract is the fact that the team seemingly put nothing in the deal tied to actually being healthy. Thus far in his pro career Mathieu has had two major knee injuries and has yet to play 16 games in a year.  He is still recovering from his last one as he signs this deal. They didn’t give him the injury guarantees that most players would get but this is a player whose contract would scream for big per game bonuses, especially considering how much money they have agreed to pay him.

Mathieu also has a very favorable vesting schedule in the future. All he has to do is be on the roster in early 2018 to earn another $18.75 million in full guarantees. The Cardinals would take on just over $9 million in dead money to avoid that payment so while its not 100% sure he will get it, the odds are strongly in his favor that he will.

From a cap perspective I also don’t see much gained by the Cardinals here. He’ll count $12.4M the next two years against the cap versus somewhere in the ballpark of $13.8 million(and about $2M more if listed as a corner) if they had him play out his rookie contract and had to tag him next year.

To me this is just a fantastic deal for Mathieu and one that should raise eyebrows around the NFL because it has the potential to be somewhat of a game changer at the safety and corner position.

I guess for the Cardinals the benefits have more to do with perception to free agents and other players on the team. Mathieu’s draft stock fell significantly because of off field concerns and this contract certainly compensated him for that drop. That’s a nice way of them to approach it if that is indeed what they did here, but I’m not sure there are many other teams that would have done this contract. Just too much risk being absorbed by Arizona for pretty limited reward they might get at the backend of the contract.