Under the Cap: The Contract Matchup
by J.I. Halsell
This weekend, all NFL eyes will be on the Keystone State. The Ravens-Steelers rivalry is always a headline game, but on the opposite end of Pennsylvania, Donovan McNabb returns to face his former team in this weekend's marquee matchup. McNabb's return, the surprising resurgence of Michael Vick, and the battle between mentor and mentee are several of the compelling storylines for this game. But there is also an interesting compensation storyline here: Each quarterback is in the final year of his contract and, therefore, each has a lot to gain financially in 2010.
Many assumed that McNabb would receive a contract extension immediately upon arrival in Washington. But four weeks into the regular season, McNabb (who is making $5.5 million, with $3.5 million guaranteed this season) and the Redskins have yet to execute a new deal. The delay in the new deal has caused some to question if he will be one-and-done with the Redskins.
It appears that McNabb has taken a wait-and-see approach to his contract. Not extending McNabb as soon as he arrived was probably a prudent decision for both McNabb and the Redskins. For the Redskins, it seems that the ghost of the trade-and-sign deal for Brandon Lloyd was in the building, causing the club to evaluate McNabb before giving him an extension. McNabb seems to have taken a patient approach to evaluating the environment in Washington.
While only three games into the season, McNabb has provided the leadership the club needed and proven he still has the ability to play the game well. So why won't the Redskins do the deal now? Contending teams such as the Vikings and Cardinals are potentially looking for new quarterbacks in 2011, and those teams are arguably further along than the Redskins. Why would the soon-to-be 34-year-old McNabb pass on the possibilities of free agency and commit himself to a multi-year deal in Washington?
Clearly, the Redskins could preclude McNabb from leaving via free agency through the use of the Franchise tag (assuming there is a Franchise tag as part of a new CBA that would be necessary for a 2011 season). But Peyton Manning has yet to sign his inevitable record-breaking contract, which could make the fully guaranteed franchise tag for a quarterback easily exceed $17 million.
For McNabb, there is always the risk of injury, but he has made a lot of money in this league so he's in no hurry for his next payday. In exchange for taking on the risk of catastrophic injury, McNabb is seeking an ability to control his future. In short, McNabb becomes a free agent for the first time in his career this offseason and truly controls his destiny and destination as he enters the final phase of his career, or he gets franchised and makes a ton of money for a one year commitment to the Redskins. Sure, McNabb has spoken of finishing his career in Washington and said other things that a "good soldier" should say, but this isn't McNabb's first rodeo. In light of the options discussed, it would be surprising if the Redskins signed a multi-year McNabb extension during the 2010 season.
Meanwhile, on the opposite sideline this Sunday, Michael Vick is also positioned to potentially sign a multi-year extension or enter free agency. However, Vick's circumstances differ significantly from McNabb's. Between McNabb and Vick, Vick seems to be more likely to sign a multi-year extension during the 2010 season or shortly thereafter.
Keeping in mind that the Eagles gave Vick a shot at redemption by controversially signing him prior to the 2009 season, there are certain circumstances that would lead to Vick staying in Philly. And just as McNabb looks to finish his career on a Super Bowl contending team, Vick finds himself on a perennial contender
This year, Vick is slated to make $3.5 million, with $1 million guaranteed and up to $2.75 million available via incentives. By comparison, when it appeared Kevin Kolb would be the Eagles' 2010 starter, the Eagles re-did Kolb's contract by extending him by one season (2011) and gave Kolb $12.2 million in new money, all of which is guaranteed.
While Vick still has some road to travel before the Eagles make a hefty financial investment in him (he's only been the starter for two games), it wouldn't be surprising if the Eagles leveraged the uncapped year and placed a significant amount of Vick's new money in 2010. By placing a significant amount in 2010, The Eagles can more easily terminate Vick's contract if he flames out after this season (and if the salary cap is part of the new CBA).
Prior to the 2009 season, the Chiefs traded for and extended the contract of Matt Cassel. While Vick is a more accomplished quarterback, just as with Cassel there is some uncertainty regarding the long-term viability of Vick as the Eagles' starter. In the case of Cassel, the Chiefs chose to commit to him for two seasons, 2009 and 2010; during that time, Cassel would earn $27.8 million ($13.9 million/year over two years), all of which was guaranteed. In the Cassel contract, the Chiefs have the ability to pay him a $7.5 million option bonus in year three (2011), which would then add the 2014 season onto the contract. If the Chiefs choose to not exercise this option, then they have Cassel under contract for three more seasons at a total compensation of $18.3 million (or $6.1 million/year over those three years), a value in today's quarterback market. If the Chiefs choose to exercise the 2011 option on Cassel, then from 2011 to 2014, his total compensation will be $35 million (or $8.75 million/year), which is also a long-term value at the position.
Applying this structure to Vick, the Eagles could very well provide the resurgent signal caller with new money in 2010 and 2011 to the tune of $14 million/year for a total compensation of $28 million. As the Eagles and Vick finish the 2011 season, the team can position itself to have to make a decision between Kolb, whose contract would be expiring, and Vick who would have a significant option bonus or roster bonus that would have to be decided upon. The pay-as-you-go structure that could kick in during after 2012 in the hypothetical contract would be ideal for an older quarterback like Vick, whose prized athleticism may or may not have escaped him at that phase of his career.
Like McNabb, Vick could play out the remainder of his current contract in hopes of hitting free agency or getting franchised at an amount in excess of $17 million for one season. Either way, Sunday's matchup pits two quarterbacks who not only share a common bond due to their time last season as teammates and as friends, but also two quarterbacks whose contract situations should provide more headlines over the next four months.
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