Inside 2019 NFL free-agent contract numbers: Who really got the best deals?

ByDan Graziano ESPN logo
Tuesday, March 19, 2019

The flurry of NFL free-agent signings last week came with its usual flurry of numbers. X player signed with X team for X years and XX,XXX,XXX dollars, of which X,XXX,XXX is guaranteed. You read and/or heard about it every minute of the first week of free agency, and it's hard to keep track of it all.

We're here for you.

The numbers that accompany the news of signings don't always tell the whole story. It's easy to draw conclusions from initial reports and believe one linebacker or safety got a much better deal than another in another town. But the numbers you hear in the early days of free agency don't do much to separate fully guaranteed money from injury-guaranteed money. They don't tell you how many years of a five-year deal the player is actually likely to see based on the contract's structure. They don't tell you when the money actually gets direct-deposited into the player's bank account.

That's why, after the first wave of free agency settles a bit and we get a look at the real contract details, we like to dig into those details and figure out who really got the best deals. It's here that we pick out a couple of contracts we like and a couple we don't like so much and point out a couple of other worthwhile oddities or comparisons that might help you understand a little bit more about what goes into this complex process.

There were other teams pursuing Mosley, and the final numbers of the deal reflect a competition-driven price. If Mosley were to play out his whole contract, it would pay him $85 million over five years. More practically, it fully guarantees him $43 million over the next three years. He gets a fully guaranteed, $7.5 million signing bonus and fully guaranteed salaries of $1 million in 2019 and $6 million in 2020. His $10.5 million 2019 roster bonus becomes fully guaranteed on the sixth day of the league year (Monday). His $10 million 2020 roster bonus was fully guaranteed at signing. And as if that weren't enough, half of his $16 million 2021 salary becomes fully guaranteed on the fifth day following the execution of the contract. So if he signed the deal Wednesday, he has already guaranteed $8 million of his 2021 salary no matter what.And in case you weren't impressed yet, there's one more nifty trigger in the deal: The balance of the 2021 salary -- the remaining $8 million -- converts to fully guaranteed as of the fifth day of the 2020 league year, more than a year in advance of the 2021 season.

This third-year guarantee is a huge thing. Most of these contracts are really only one-year or two-year deals that allow the teams to get out of them if they don't like them. But if you can secure a third-year guarantee -- especially one as significant as Mosley did -- you've almost guaranteed yourself a third year with the team. If the Jets were to cut Mosley after the 2020 season, they'd still have to pay him $16 million tonotplay for them in 2021 and would have paid him $51 million for just two years.

The strong likelihood is that Mosley sees all $51 million of the money this deal is scheduled to pay him in the first three years, and that makes it the deal of this cycle. Mosley won this thing.

These guys all got paid, and all got paid about the same amount, but the structures are a little bit different. If we're splitting hairs, I give Collins' deal the slight edge over Thomas' deal, with Mathieu's not far behind. Here's a side-by-side look at the three deals:

  • Thomas, $20 million; Collins, $15 million; Mathieu, $14.8 million
  • Thomas, $22 million; Collins, $16 million; Mathieu, $15.65 million
  • Collins, $32 million; Thomas, $32 million; Mathieu, $26.8 million
  • Collins, $45 million; Thomas, $43 million; Mathieu, $42 million
  • Collins, $37 million; Thomas, $32 million; Mathieu, $26.8 million

The reason I put Collins slightly ahead of Thomas is not that his full contract is $84 million over six years and Thomas' is $55 million over four years. It's because Collins has $5 million of his $12.5 million 2021 salary fully guaranteed at signing. As with Mosley's deal, this virtually assures Washington will keep Collins for at least that third year, as cutting him after two years and $37 million wouldn't make a lot of sense financially. Either way, it was an excellent week for agents David Mulugheta and Andrew Kessler, who negotiated the deals for Collins and Thomas.Trey Flowers' new deal with the Lions is another that includes guaranteed money in the third year -- $10 million of his $14.375 million 2021 salary -- but there aren't many deals that do.

Jackson got $33 million for three years, which is just fine, but what makes this one a winner is that $23 million of that money is fully guaranteed at signing and pays out in the first two years -- a $9 million signing bonus, a $3 million 2019 salary and an $11 million 2020 salary. Further, the 2021 year is an option year at $10 million, but the Broncos have to decide on that option by the end of the 2020 league year, which means he'd know before free agency opened. More on the significance of that date versus others below.

You'd think the $16 million dead-money charge the Giants are carrying for Odell Beckham Jr. to play for the Browns would temper their other wide receiver spending this season. You'd be wrong. Tate is getting $22.95 million fully guaranteed over the first two years of his four-year deal with New York-- afully guaranteed $7.975 million salary in 2020, plus a $7.5 million dead-money charge if they cut or trade him after 2019, basically ensuring he'll be on the Giants' roster for at least two years.

The Jets were free-agency's Santa Claus this year, and Bell found his way onto their "nice" list. His four-year, $52.5 million deal will be criticized because it falls short of Todd Gurley's Rams deal in terms of annual average, and that makes it easy to say it wasn't worth his sitting out a full season to get it. And that might be fair. But such analysis ignores the fact that part of Bell's motivation was to hit free agency healthy, which he did, and that the $27 million in full guarantees he'll get over this contract's first two years exceeds whatever guarantees the Steelers were offering him last summer.

Steelers contracts guarantee only the signing bonus, and there's no way Pittsburgh was offering Bell a signing bonus higher than $27 million. His full guarantee at signing with New York is higher than Gurley's $21.95 million and David Johnson's $24.6825 million. The only running back contracts with higher full guarantees at signing are those of Jacksonville's Leonard Fournette and the Giants' Saquon Barkley, whose rookie deals were fully guaranteed at signing because of how high they were drafted.

Reported as a four-year, $54 million deal, Alexander's is in reality a one-year, $15 million deal. His only guarantees are his $4 million signing bonus, his $1.75 million 2019 salary and his $8.5 million 2019 roster bonus. He can earn another $750,000 in per-game roster bonuses this year (and every other year of the deal) if he's on the game-day active roster all 16 games, which is how it gets up to $15 million. Alexander's 2020 salary of $11.25 million is guaranteed for injury only at signing, and it doesn't convert to fully guaranteed until April 1, 2020. Which is where I feel it's important to pause and make a point about the 49ers.

This April 1 date is a common factor in the deals 49ers executive vice president of football operations Paraag Marathe is doing in free agency. Jimmy Garoppolo, Marquise Goodwin, Weston Richburg, Jerick McKinnon and Laken Tomlinson are among the current 49ers whose contracts include an April 1 deal to trigger 2019 contract guarantees. The deals Ford (whose five-year, $85 million deal guarantees him only one year and $19.75 million) and running back Tevin Coleman signed with San Francisco don't fully guarantee 2020 salary until April 1, 2020.

The reason this date favors the team is fairly obvious: It allows the 49ers more than two weeks of free agency to find out whether they can upgrade over a player they have before committing the next year's money to him. This is why, for example, the Coleman signing could be bad news for McKinnon, who signed with the team just a year ago and didn't play a snap after suffering a season-ending injury in camp. If the Niners decide Coleman is a sufficient replacement for McKinnon, they could cut McKinnon before April 1 without owing him a penny more than the $11.7 million they've already paid him. And while, yes, $11.7 million is a lot for a running back who never carries the ball for you, that's a sunk cost, and the only way it would affect the 2020 budget is with a $6 million dead-money charge the cap-rich Niners can easily afford.

Those who like the Alexander deal would point to the fact that Alexander's $11.25 million 2020 salary is injury-guaranteed, as is $2 million of his $12.55 million 2021 salary. And injury guarantees are good to have. But they are different from full guarantees because in practice, players and agents often have to file grievances to collect on injury guarantees, and those cases are usually settled for a portion of the full amount. Marathe takes a little bit of a risk guaranteeing that much against injury in future years, especially with a player such as Alexander coming off a major injury. But the reality is the April 1 dates provide the team a massive amount of financial protection, and it surprises me that all of their players keep agreeing to these terms.

Same thing here. The top-line numbers say $67.5 million over five years, but this is really a one-year, $16 million deal. Barr is guaranteed his $13 million signing bonus and a $2.9 million salary in 2019 and can earn another $100,000 workout bonus to get the number to an even $16 million. His $10 million salary in 2020 is injury-only guaranteed, as is $7.1 million of his $12.3 million 2021 salary. I'd love to know whether the Jets deal Barr backed out of included any second-year guarantees. (The way the Jets were handing out money last year, you'd have to think so.)

Barr is betting on himself, as you can tell by the $3 million-a-year, sack-based escalators his deal has in the 2020 to '23 seasons. If he stays healthy and emerges as a pass-rusher, he could see a really solid chunk of this deal before he's done.

I get it. Wake is 37 years old. To get any deal at this point is a miracle, as is Wake's entire career to some extent. I just think the Titans got a steal here. The top-line numbers say $23 million for three years, but this is really a one-year, $8 million deal with $7.25 million guaranteed. (He can add $750,000 in per-game roster bonuses.)

This is basically what they were paying Brian Orakpo, who just retired. And Wake is a freak who has four double-digit-sack seasons since turning 30. There's no reason to assume he's about to go off a cliff at age 37 just because most mortals do.

  • We still haven't seen the full details of Antonio Brown's new Raiders contract, but since the Bills were the team that almost got him, it's worth noting they'll dole out a total of $23.8 million in guarantees and $25.2 million in first-year cash to three receivers --Cole Beasley, John Brown and Andre Roberts. Once we get the guarantee and first-year numbers on Antonio Brown, it'll be worth comparing.
  • Speaking of the Raiders, I'm intrigued by some of their contract structures. Trent Brownismaking $15.25 million this year and $21.5 million in 2020. LaMarcus Joyner is making $9.05 million this year and $12.95 million in 2020. We'll see how Brown's contract looks, but I wouldn't be surprised to see a similar jump. The Raiders don't do signing bonuses, so that's one part of it, but another is that the team is moving to Las Vegas next year, and there's no state income tax in Nevada, while California has one of the highest in the nation. If I were signing with this team, I'd want to slide as much of my money into 2020 and beyond as possible.
  • Tennessee's acquisition of quarterback Ryan Tannehill could be a shrewd move. ESPN's Adam Schefter reported that the Dolphins paid $5 million of Tannehill's $7 million guaranteed salary as part of the deal, which indicates the Dolphins are in pick-acquisition mode, similar to where the Browns were two years ago when they traded for Brock Osweiler and a second-rounder. From the Titans' end, they have Tannehill for one year and $2 million. Tannehill is a solid backup for Marcus Mariota, who has persistent health issues, but he also could be a nifty trade chip late in the summer if someone's veteran starting QB goes down with an injury -- or even if that doesn't happen. The Jets got a third-round pick from the Saints in exchange for Teddy Bridgewater late in camp last year, and the Saints weren't even bringing Bridgewater in to start.

Related Video