With the news that Xavien Howard is upset about his contract with the Dolphins we are starting to see a trend of players who sign longer term contracts and very quickly have buyers remorse and are upset with their contracts. This isn’t entirely new in the NFL (Darrelle Revis for example was great at selling how underpaid he was the minute the big salary was paid out) but it seems to be a bit more widespread now.
Howard signed a five year $75.25 million contract extension in 2019 which made him the highest paid player in the NFL for about 11 months before the Dolphins blew past their own extension with Howard to sign Byron Jones to a $16.5 million per year contract in free agency. The Jones contract had to be frustrating to see for Howard as Jones topped Howard in every imaginable category.
|Year 1 Cash||$26,000,000||$25,925,000||0.3%|
|Year 2 Cash||$40,000,000||$38,025,000||5.2%|
|Year 3 Cash||$54,375,000||$51,000,000||6.6%|
Given that the contract was signed just a year later and by the same team certainly gives the impression that there was money left on the table and that the Dolphins did not treat him fairly during the negotiation. Whether either of those is a fair assessment or not is a matter of debate but the numbers certainly show that the Dolphins went further to sign Jones than Howard.
While Jones was a free agent which brought market competition it wasn’t long since his contract was topped. The Eagles traded for and signed Darius Slay to a deal averaging $16.8 million a few days later. A few months later the Bills signed Tre’Davious White to a big extension and a few days after that the Rams signed Jalen Ramsey to a record setting extension that dwarfed the market at $20M per year. The Baltimore Ravens put Marlon Humphrey up there as well. These were massive increases over what the Dolphins offered Howard.
The cornerback market was in a tough place when Howard signed his extension and it is entirely understandable why this was going to be difficult. That said I think if you look at yourself as a game changing talent there are a few considerations. One is to look back at prior leaps in the market. Discounting the Darrelle Revis outliers the market for corners was really set by Nnamdi Asomugha in free agency in 2011. That was then surpassed by the 2014 extension group of Joe Haden, Richard Sherman, and Patrick Peterson who all played a game of leapfrog with Sherman being the first to sign. Here is a look at the market movers:
The big market movers here were Sherman and Norman followed by Jones and then Ramsey. In general the target rate should be at least 7% for a market mover. That would have put Howard in the $16M a year category and may have been a reasonable ask. That doesn’t mean he would have been happy now but aiming for at least the Norman growth would have been fair. Sherman and Ramsey were just consider super players and I am not sure if Howard would have fit that same bill at the time.
The cornerback market as mentioned above was tough. There had been minimal growth in the position at all. Here was the average of the top five contracts for each season since 2015.
|Year||Avg. Top 5 Salary||Avg. Year Signed||Growth|
As you can see this was a flat market after 2016 with no new players really cracking the mix until 2020 when the market went crazy. But could you see changes possibly coming?
One of the things I like to occasionally do is benchmark position vs position. In this case it would be wide receiver vs corner since in a sense they should mirror each other to some extent. Here is the wide receiver market during that timeframe.
|Year||Avg. Top 5 Salary||Avg. Year Signed||Growth|
While there had been steadier growth here there was a flatness for two years at which point there began an upward trend. Now lets compare the two positions.
|Year||Avg. Top 5 Salary WR||Avg. Top 5 Salary CB||Difference|
Back in 2015 there was an outlier contract at receiver (Calvin Johnson) and if we remove that we see the difference there would have been 6.4% with him removed. Basically we have a reasonable differential until things go haywire in 2018 and then especially in 2019. That either means there is a fundamental change in the market dynamics or there is a lagging indicator that corner salaries should go way up. There is probably a little bit of both in play but the rise in pay for receivers should lead to a rise in pay for corners.
In 2020 the market clearly started to correct itself. If you take out the outlier of DeAndre Hopkins the difference crashes all the way to 11% but even with him in there we have inched closer to 2018 levels The point being when you see the stark jump in 2018 it is probably fair in 2019 to dig your heels in and think about salaries rising and how far Miami would have been willing to go that year given potential future costs.
More and more players probably should take on the risk on playing their deals out if the numbers are not there. Sometimes it also is not worth just pouncing on a deal when others could help you. While this would not have impacted Howard at the end of the day there were players up for new deals. There was Ramsey with the Jaguars, if there was any thought that the Jaguars would extend him as I’m not sure how feasible that would have been (I don’t recall if Ramsey was 100% anti Jacksonville by then). You also had Jones in Dallas, James Bradberry with Carolina, and Slay with the Lions. At the very least jumping on a contract in May when someone else might do a deal in June, July or August might not always be the right play even if it means you lose your day in the sun of being “highest paid” for a moment. Miami was also in team tank mode that offseason and Howard had some leverage there to be the “good story” for Miami.
It is also fair to point out that taking the risk of free agency by playing into the season can be too much for many players. Howard only wound up playing 5 games in 2019 so he would not exactly have soared into free agency. It is possible he would have played somewhere on a one year, $5 million deal or signed for less on a longer term deal in free agency. For many its just about pushing for as much as possible and then signing. Perhaps that happened here. That said you also have to understand that you might be surpassed by a lot no matter how well you play. The NFL is a big negative for the players in that regard.
One of the ways to try to bridge that is to work on incentives right from the start. Everyone should have a baseline expectation and exceeding that baseline should be a reason to ask for more. In his case his last two years had averaged 85% playtime, 5.5 ints, 0.5 Pro Bowls. At the very least he could have incentives or escalators for something like 90% playtime, 6 ints, Pro Bowl, All Pro, and Defensive player of the year. That can sometimes immediately cut off the unhappiness because they already got paid off a great year or had their contract adjusted upward because of the great year.
Should the Dolphins open things back up now? I don’t see how that makes much sense for them. They could shift some money up or add a few incentives like the Patriots have done in the past but those things sometimes set a bad precedent when you have other players who also don’t sign the best contract in the world and then quickly look for more. They could make his $7 millionish injury guarantee for 2022 fully guaranteed. Maybe more creatively they could give him a chance to earn the right to buy out his contract for $2.8 million (the cost of his remaining signing bonus) and give them the right to buy it back or use the more expensive tag. Add a few options at the end of the deal such that if they are exercised a part of the salary is fully guaranteed. That last option or the 2022 guarantee are probably the only ones that don’t impact Miami at all though I don’t know if that makes Howard happy either.
Regardless of what people externally think about the number in a contract the fact is the team takes on all the risk once an extension is signed. The injury risk shifts from the player to team which is highly beneficial to the player. Miami got 5 games in 2019 and then a fantastic year in 2020. That is probably a fair tradeoff for both sides all things considered and one that should not require opening a potential can of worms with a bunch of other players one or two years from now. But if you really vision yourself as a market setter you have to aim for a market setting deal or take that risk and bet on yourself if the team will not play ball. Getting a team to shift this quickly is not an easy task in the NFL.
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.