Years vs Money: A Closer Look at Wilson and Luck

Who has the better contract,  Russell Wilson or Andrew Luck?  The answer itself seems pretty simple. One player set the record for the largest contract in the history of the NFL and the other failed to become the highest paid player even for a short period of time. Luck received $87 million in total guarantees and Wilson barely cracked $60 million. But often in the world of contracts we, too often, get caught up in the big numbers and don’t put them in context.  I wanted to look a little closer at the two contracts and examine some of the tradeoffs that a player might be accepting to get the universally praised contract.

One of the more difficult things to do when comparing NFL contracts is finding ways to compare apples to apples. In Wilson and Luck’s case there are plenty of similarities. Both were extended in the final year of their contract. Both were the same age when signing. Both are universally regarded as the best young veterans in the NFL. But there is one big difference between the contracts the two players signed and that is the length of the contract. Wilson signed for just four seasons while Luck signed for five.

The length of that contract is a big factor when evaluating the decisions made by the two players. When we look at career earning potential the best way to generally earn the most money is to either continuously hit free agency or to have your contract structured in a way such that a team is forced to extend early on player friendly terms. The more cracks a player has at free agency the better.

I would argue that the two sides have now likely set a standard length of contract that they would find acceptable. If we consider Wilson to be locked in at 4 years and Luck at 5 here are the age at which the players will get their next crack at free agency:

Free Agent 23233
Free Agent 33638
Free Agent 44043

The big one I look at here is the FA3 period. Wilson at 36 has far more earning potential than a similar player who is signing a contract at 38. It also gives Wilson a very outside chance at a 4th contract at the age of 40 if he were indeed this generations Tom Brady. Luck virtually has no chance at the last contract and at 38 would arguably see far less of any third free agent contract than Wilson.

Other than the annual value of the contract there are many metrics when done on a per year or percentage of contract basis that would either be equivalent or favor Wilson over Luck. While I doubt Wilson was ever offered anything near the Luck total number in essence what we have here is Luck accepting (or Wilson declining) a possible extra $35 million to give up a year of free agency. Here are the cash flows from Lucks perspective:

PlayerYear 0Year 1Year 2Year 3Year 4Year 5
Russell Wilson$30,158,000$42,500,000$55,100,000$70,600,000$87,600,000$87,600,000
Andrew Luck$27,845,000$40,845,000$58,845,000$79,970,000$101,970,000$122,970,000

While that number seems huge, what happens when we factor in an extension for Wilson, which likely will come in year 4 of his contract compared to a year later for Luck?  That’s really the best way to evaluate the contracts.

Id argue that when the two sign their next contracts that the totals will be equal or favor Wilson unless Luck improves. While Luck is considered the perfect prospect, by almost any metric Wilson is the superior player. When Pro Football Focus made their comprehensive pass data open to the public Luck was basically average or below average compared to the normal QB while Wilson was a superior player.

The one thing that Luck had over Wilson is perception. Wilson was a mid round pick who most felt was too short to amount to much in the league. Luck was considered the best prospect in nearly 30 years. That balances itself out by the time players more into their 2nd veteran contract. That’s how long it took for Brady and Manning to be looked at as equals and I would expect similar here.

When we look at Brady’s $18 million market setter in 2010 that represented a 28.5% raise over Manning’s deal signed six years earlier.  Assuming Wilson continues to excel that likely means his next contract should come in somewhere between $30 and $31 million if the market continue to grow and one would expect Aaron Rodgers, Matt Stafford, or Matt Ryan to bump the market at some point between now and Wilsons next contract.

If Luck does improve and his team wins a Super Bowl expect him to match Wilson, similar to Manning and Brady in their 2011 and 2010 contracts in which the APY matched but Manning’s up front cash flow was gigantic compared to Brady’s. Here is where we would stand after 8 years.

PlayerYear 4Year 5Year 6Year 7Year 8
Russell Wilson$128,900,000$145,806,000$163,106,000$184,336,000$207,600,000
Andrew Luck$101,970,000$156,935,000$172,792,500$194,749,074$220,517,554

This is where things I think get more interesting.  Wilson will hit his final contract at 36, with an extension possibly coming at age 35. While there is no guarantee Wilson will receive any contract (plenty of players break down before that) I put far more likelihood of him getting a deal t 35/36 than Luck at 37/38.  That was effectively the Manning breakdown age. We’ll see where it goes with Brady this year and Brees soon enough. Brett Favre had some big highs and lows in that age bracket. Most others never get there, at least as starters.

For their final contracts I would not expect much movement in APY due to age concerns and a steady cash flow of basically $30M per year.  Lets assume both play until 39 and then are retired by their respective teams.

PlayerYear 8Year 9Year 10Year 11Year 12
Russell Wilson$222,600,000$237,600,000$267,600,000$297,600,000$327,600,000
Andrew Luck$220,517,554$247,353,354$287,970,000$302,970,000$332,970,000

When we look at the contracts this way if, in the hypothetical world, Luck had a chance to take a similar contract to Wilson he probably made the right choice in taking the five year contract with the higher APY, but the difference is not as big as most seem to think between the two contracts. Wilson’s upside is clearly greater because of the potential of added free agent trips. If Wilson can stick with the 4 year contract he can also play his contracts out to try to drive a better bargain. I don’t think Luck has that much leeway, specifically on that last contract where he needs to get signed as early as possible (or he has to make sure his next deal is no more than 3 seasons). If both happen to be effective in their late 30’s the odds are that Wilson would wind up with more post rookie earnings than Luck as he would earn that fourth contract while Luck is in the middle of his third one.

Id argue that more and more agents should be looking at the years of contracts as a more important factor than the overall contract numbers that far too many seem focused on. For many, but not all, positions there is a benefit to signing shorter length contracts. Stafford’s contract could be an eye opener because his extension was just three years. Stafford had huge leverage because the Lions seemed to have zero idea of how to manage a salary cap which will position him for free agency at 30 and then again at 34 or 35 and then again in his late 30s. Stafford is nowhere near the best quarterback in the NFL but his career earnings have the potential to be off the charts. More players should follow his lead.