When Kirk Cousins cashed in on his hard-earned free agent status, following two franchise-player tags by the Washington Redskins, to sign a guaranteed three-year deal with the Minnesota Vikings worth $84 million, there was room to wonder if he had ushered in a new age for NFL contracts.
NFL players and others have wondered over the years why guaranteed contracts are not the norm in football like they are in other professional sports such as baseball and basketball. Could the Cousins contract be the beginning of a move toward guaranteed contracts in pro football?
It’s doubtful, given that Cousins’s deal resulted from an unprecedented set of circumstances unlikely to arise often, if ever again. If he provided any kind of road map for other players, it’s unlikely many would be able to follow the same path.
Cousins hit the market as a productive quarterback coming off three straight 4,000-yard passing seasons with the Redskins, in the prime of his career, at age 29. He was free of major injuries. His team failed to sign him to a long-term contract extension, instead using two franchise tags to keep him off the free agent market in 2016 and 2017 at a combined cost of approximately $44 million. Rather than franchise-tag him for a third straight year at a cost of about $34.5 million, the Redskins made an early move during Super Bowl week to line up a trade for Cousins’s replacement, Alex Smith, and opted against the risky maneuver of franchise-tagging him to try to trade him.
So that made Cousins the free agent with the greatest leverage in NFL history. NFL teams simply don’t allow franchise-caliber quarterbacks to hit the marketplace. They sign them to long-term contracts or, barring that, use the franchise tag. When Drew Brees left the Chargers (then in San Diego) to sign with the New Orleans Saints in 2006, he was facing major questions about a shoulder injury. When Peyton Manning signed with the Denver Broncos in 2012 after being released by the Indianapolis Colts, he was about to turn 36 and he had just missed an entire season because of a neck injury that had put his NFL future in doubt.
What happened with Cousins simply doesn’t happen in the NFL. If it doesn’t happen again, it becomes more difficult for players and agents to cite the Cousins contract as a precedent.
“Everyone likes to talk about comparables when you negotiate a contract,” said one agent who represents multiple NFL quarterbacks. “You’re usually talking about: Who’s a comparable player? Who’s had comparable production? But you also have to think about comparable situations. This was a unique situation.”
There are other NFL players, particularly quarterbacks, with great leverage who could seek guaranteed or nearly guaranteed deals. The Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Rodgers and the Atlanta Falcons’ Matt Ryan are negotiating new contracts with their teams that are expected to surpass the $28 million average annual value of Cousins’s deal, currently the league’s highest. They are former league MVPs who have taken their teams to Super Bowls, making them more accomplished quarterbacks than Cousins. But it’s not clear if they will seek guaranteed contracts.
There is pressure on top-tier quarterbacks, the agent with multiple quarterbacks as clients pointed out, to dial back their contract demands in the name of leaving their teams with greater salary cap flexibility to bolster the rest of the roster. While Tom Brady has led the New England Patriots to five Super Bowl titles in eight Super Bowl appearances, he generally has not sought to raise the salary bar, especially later in his career.
“Guys like Rodgers and Ryan face that expectation that they’ll help the team put better players around them,” the agent said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the situations of players not represented by him.
The usual structure of NFL contracts is that signing bonuses and perhaps the annual salaries for some seasons early in the contract are guaranteed. Most annual salaries are not guaranteed, meaning that the team can release the player before the contract expires without having to pay those non-guaranteed salaries.
Some players maintain that’s unfair. But the injury risks in football and the relatively short duration of NFL players’ careers make teams particularly wary of handing out guaranteed contracts.
Some on the management side also argue that guaranteed salaries would not benefit players as a whole. Instead, such deals would shift money to potentially undeserving players who get hurt or fail to play up to expectations after signing their contracts, at the expense of more deserving players who might end up being underpaid as a result.
“There’s only so much money to go around,” a high-ranking executive with one NFL team said recently. “If you guarantee money to a guy and it doesn’t work out, you’re probably going to have to save that money somewhere else.”
Some of the scrutiny over the years about the lack of guaranteed contracts in the NFL has been aimed at the NFL Players Association. But the NFLPA always has maintained that guaranteed contracts are neither required nor prohibited by the sport’s collective bargaining agreement. If guaranteed contracts are important to players and agents, they should make that a negotiating priority, in the union’s long-standing view.
There is another aspect of the CBA that some agents say is problematic for guaranteed contracts in the NFL, however. Under Article 26 of the CBA, the league “may require” that a team place in escrow the present value of “deferred and guaranteed compensation owed by that Club with respect to Club funding of Player Contracts involving deferred or guaranteed compensation.” That funding requirement sometimes is cited by teams as an obstacle to guaranteed contracts, some agents say.
The fact that Cousins and his agent, Mike McCartney, got three guaranteed seasons from the Vikings was not necessarily unique. Other prominent players, including defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh as part of his contract with the Miami Dolphins signed in 2015, have had three guaranteed years in their deals. But those players, including Suh, also had non-guaranteed seasons added to the end of their contracts. What makes Cousins’s contract unique is that it expires after the three guaranteed seasons, making him eligible for unrestricted free agency again in 2021 when he’ll be 32.
“More so than the full guarantee, it is the precedent of the shorter length of the Cousins contract that scares management,” former Packers executive Andrew Brandt wrote for Sports Illustrated. “Cousins’s contract broke the mold, although not the mold we originally thought.”
Are there more guaranteed contracts to come in the NFL? That’s not clear. But what does seem relatively clear at this point is that Cousins’s path to his guaranteed deal will not be easy for other players to replicate.
Read more on the NFL: