The General Pattern With Player Contracts

Nick has already shared the details about Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall’s contract. From a first glance, it would appear that the deal is a “three years then we’ll see” deal, but in reality, it’s not. It’s actually in line with how a player such as Marshall would be extended.

But how Marshall has been extended, how Von Miller will need to be extended, and how any extension for Emmanuel Sanders plays out, are all going to be different things.

The one thing to remember about any contract extensions in the NFL is they really work like this: The elite players gets contracts that are really “three years then we’ll see,” the good players and once-elite-but-now-aging players are getting “two years then we’ll see,” and everybody else is getting what amounts to a one-year deal.

Technically, the Marshall contract is “two years then we’ll see” because he was already under the restricted free agent tender. For structure purposes, the signing bonus Marshall got has been spread into 2016 to keep his cap charges in future years lower. So it fits in with how Marshall would be viewed: A good but not necessarily elite player.

Luke Kuechly, the highest paid inside linebacker in the NFL, got what was really a “three years then we’ll see” contract. He signed his contract during the 2015 season, allowing the Panthers to pro-rate money into 2015. But the contract will really keep him around through 2018 because, while the Panthers might save cash by cutting him that year, it does not allow them to effectively manage their cap.

There have been some unusual examples, such as JJ Watt, whose deal beyond the fifth-year option of his rookie deal makes it a “two years then we’ll see” deal. On the other hand, Watt will collect much more in fully guaranteed salary than he did upon signing. He received $20.8M in full guarantees when he signed the contract in 2014. But in 2015, he gained an additional $10M (a roster bonus converted into a signing bonus) and put him on track to fully guarantee his 2016 and 2017 salaries, a total of $21M over those two years. Those full guarantees have kicked in, so Watt will collect $51.8M in fully guaranteed money. And given how the contract was structured, there was really no way for the Texans to avoid paying any of that money.

Regardless, the Broncos have operated in the usual pattern that follows how most players are treated. The examples are pretty well known. Demaryius Thomas was considered an elite player at the time he was due for an extension and his deal effectively keeps him around through 2017 (three years worth of salary) since he signed it in 2015. Derek Wolfe’s deal took effect in 2016 and he’ll effectively be a Bronco for this year and 2017. Donald Stephenson signed a deal that only guarantees he’ll be a Bronco this year, but no promises after that.

There have been the unusual deals the Broncos have signed. There is Russell Okung’s “contract within a contract,” the Aqib Talib contract that was really a series of three one-year deals with nothing promised after that, and the Peyton Manning five-year deal that amounted to a series of fully guaranteed deals after passing a physical each year, with the exception of the second and third years, in which both were locked in upon passing the physical for the second year. Each of these contracts, though, covered a player who did not enter free agency under normal circumstances. Manning’s neck injury was a concern, as was Okung’s durability and Talib’s off-field transgressions.

But look back at the normal circumstances and the pattern is clear. DeMarcus Ware, a once-elite-but-aging player, was “two years then we’ll see.” Chris Harris was “two years then we’ll see,” although one might argue the third year doesn’t really allow the Broncos a practical way to get out of the deal. T.J. Ward was “two years then we’ll see.” And for practical purposes, CJ Anderson got an effective one-year deal – had Miami’s offer sheet been a “two years then we’ll see” deal, perhaps the Broncos would have matched it, but it’s hard to say for sure.

Which brings me to Von Miller. It’s true Miller had off-field transgressions two years ago but nothing like that has happened since. He’s also two years removed from the first significant injury of his career and is playing at a high level again. Thus it’s hard to defend a case that he should take a “two years then we’ll see” deal. His new contract should be a “three years then we’ll see” deal because he is definitely among the elite at his position.

Miller may not be able to get the first-year money that other players got. But he can make an excellent case that the Broncos should be required to fully guarantee money for 2018 before that league year actually starts. The Broncos won’t give him everything he wants, but on that negotiation point, the Broncos will very likely have to bend. They bent on that point with Demaryius Thomas, so it’s hard for them to argue Miller should be different.

What about Emmanuel Sanders? Because Sanders will be 30 years old in 2017, it’s more likely he’ll have to take what is an effective one-year deal, even if he’s getting what is, on paper, a three-year or four-year deal. If the Broncos extend him this league year, any deal would effectively keep him through 2017, but it’s likely to be structured so the Broncos can get out of the contract after 2017 without any issues. It is possible that Sanders could get “two years then we’ll see,” but it’s not a lock, given his age.

You’ll see the same logic applied to other players up for extensions. Kayvon Webster will most certainly get the “in effect a one-year deal.” Sylvester Williams could get either an effective one-year deal or two-year deal, but that’s the best he can hope for.

As far as how the cap is managed this year, it’s still doable because only the top 51 players count toward the cap until the regular season. And many of the players on the roster bubble have no guaranteed money to be paid. Britton Colquitt, for example, can be safely kept on the roster through training camp and the preseason because he has no guaranteed money or roster bonuses due, meaning he wouldn’t get paid until the regular season starts. And while Ronnie Hillman is due $500,000 in fully guaranteed money, the remaining $1.5M is not guaranteed. Both could be cut with more cap space gained than dead money applied.

So it’s not really going to be an issue to manage extensions for Miller and Sanders while ensuring the Broncos stay under the cap. More importantly, those two will eventually get extensions that fall in line with what the type of players they are. Because that’s how the Broncos have done business under normal circumstances.

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Bob Morris

I'm a sports writer in real life, though I've always focused on smaller communities, but that hasn't stopped me from learning more about some of the ins and outs of the NFL. You can follow me on Twitter @BobMorrisSports if you can put up with updates on the high school sports teams I cover.