NFL Players & Guaranteed Contracts

Matt Forte, like many players before him, is struggling to come to terms on a new deal with his team.

NFL Player contracts are a complex beast. In my post on just how much the Chicago Bears can afford to pay Matt Forte, I listed eight recently signed deals for marquee running backs:

  • Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings – 7 years, $96 Million ($36 Million guaranteed)
  • Chris Johnson, Tennessee Titans – 4 years, $53 Million ($30 Million guaranteed)
  • LeSean McCoy, Philadelphia Eagles – 5 years, $45 Million ($20.765 Million guaranteed)
  • Arian Foster, Houston Texans – 5 years, $43.5 Million ($20.7 Million guaranteed)
  • Steven Jackson, St. Louis Rams – 6 years, $49.3 Million ($21 Million guaranteed)
  • DeAngelo Williams, Carolina Panthers – 5 years, $43 Million ($21 Million guaranteed)
  • Maurice Jones-Drew, Jacksonville Jaguars – 5 years, $31 Million ($17.45 Million guaranteed)
  • Marshawn Lynch, Seattle Seahawks – 4 years, $31 Million ($17 Million guaranteed)

The money paid out in these contracts can be broken down into three categories (it’s not really this simple, but for time and sanity’s sake, let’s just roll with this):

  • Signing Bonus – This is a portion of the “guaranteed” money in the contract. The total sum of the bonus is divided evenly through out the number of years agreed to within the contract and paid in prorated quantities over the life the pact. A signing bonus is payable at the time of signing or any other mutually agreed upon date. The signing bonus salary cap hit is distributed evenly across the deal.
  • Roster Bonus – Another portion of the “guaranteed” money over the life of the deal. This is usually given as a team option where a club can release the player before his roster bonus is due to be paid. In today’s NFL, most agents negotiate roster bonuses to be paid in March so a team is forced to make a decision early in case their client is released. This allows the player to enter Free Agency while teams still have cash to spend, allowing their clients to hit another payday.
  • Base Salary – This portion can be paid out in any manner both parties agree to. Base salary does not have to be prorated as signing bonuses are. Money within a new contract is usually concentrated in roster bonuses and signing bonuses. Teams will normally pay smaller base salaries up front to provide immediate salary cap relief and backload a deal in case the player doesn’t perform up to the team’s standards over the life of the deal. Base salary is not considered guaranteed money. Since base salary is usually backloaded, this portion of the contract can skyrocket towards the end of the pact. Teams can either restructure the base salary in the form of a signing bonus as guaranteed money to lessen their salary cap hit, or simply release the player.

Got all that? Good. The mechanisms within an NFL contract combined with the language held within the Collective Bargaining Agreement leads to contracts that are not fully guaranteed. Unlike in the NBA and MLB, NFL players can be cut at any moment, with teams incurring financial penalties that aren’t enough of a deterrent to make them consider an alternative. This means that NFL players are essentially on year-to-year contracts that force them to prove themselves each and every season. This leads to teams cutting players once they feel they’ve gotten everything they wanted out of him.

These facts have many folks up in arms. CBSSport’s Mike Freeman adressed this topic this past weekend:

No one is going to feel sorry for a football player who makes millions of dollars while the anemic economy destroys lives and careers. But football is different. It’s always been different. The normal rules don’t apply just like they don’t to actors. So in football’s insular world, Forte is getting screwed.

If you want to understand why NFL players never, ever trust management or why they hold out, look at the Forte case. If you really want to know why the union constantly fights management, look at Forte. If you want to understand why NFL players not receiving guaranteed contracts is practically criminal, again, Forte.

It’s almost comical. The Bears run Forte into the ground and then leak to the media they’re concerned about giving Forte a long-term deal because of concerns over his knee. What the Bears are doing is like a guy running up his credit card bill buying lap dances and Gummi Bears and then blaming Visa.

While the Bears are operating well within the rights given to them under the CBA, an argument can be made that this just isn’t how you should treat someone. NFL players sacrifice their physical well-being to play the game that they love while the teams that employ them treat them as disposable commodities. You would see a hell of a lot less contract disputes in the NFL if their contracts were held to the same standards as the NBA and MLB. NFL owners would hate to abide by a system similar to those, but it would be greatly beneficial to the men who put it all on the line while on the football field.

Further reading – Forte’s messy situation proves why NFL players need guaranteed deals

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