Kyler Murray, Lamar Jackson Contract Conundrums
NFL Offseason - Imagine that you are Baltimore Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta or Arizona Cardinals general manager Steve Keim and you need to make a decision about the future of Lamar Jackson or Kyler Murray.
You could immediately sign your young quarterback to the latest version of the Standard Rich and Famous contract: something similar in size and shape to the five-year, $230-million, fully guaranteed deal that Deshaun Watson signed with the Cleveland Browns. Or, you could:
- Wait for Jackson to play out the fifth-year option on his rookie contract in 2022 and Murray to do so in 2023;
- Franchise tag them if you are happy with their performances;
- Franchise tag them again the next year if still completely satisfied;
- Franchise tag them for a third consecutive year if still uncertain about their futures for any reason; and then
- Worry about what happens in 2026 or 2027 when the future arrives.
Multiple franchise tags would cost much more than the $230-million contract over time, because the tag will increase drastically for quarterbacks from its current $29.7-million value, in part because of Watson's $230-million contract. Also, percentage escalators increase the tag value if a team applies it for multiple years. But the franchise tag guarantees only extend for one year at a time as opposed to five full years. The Cardinals or Ravens could pull the ripcord at any time if Murray or Jackson get injured or decline if they just indefinitely tag them, something the Browns cannot do with Watson.
Fully guaranteed contracts are a sign of progress for players in the NFL. Walkthrough will stand and cheer for them as soon as someone a little more laudable than Watson earns one. But the Law of Unintended Consequences remains strictly enforced. The Watson contract is going to make the franchise tag much more appealing to general managers when deciding whether to offer extensions to young quarterbacks.
Jackson was the 2019 MVP. Murray looks like an All-Pro on his best days. Both are thrilling to watch and fun to root for. They're also both undersized dual-threat quarterbacks who are already showing signs of wear and tear and still have nagging holes in their games. If it was your money, would you really guarantee either of them $55 million in 2026 when a series of one-year contracts is an option?
OK, perhaps you would as a matter of principle: the NFL is grueling and players deserve guaranteed contracts. But really, we're talking about your boss' money, your reputation is on the line, and the dollars you give Murray or Jackson just get taken away from some other player. Are you in any hurry to draw up that contract? Or do you wait and see for as long as you can, until Murray or Jackson either demonstrate they can avoid injuries and minimize slumps or that they cannot?
Murray wants a Watson-sized deal ASAP. He is slated to make just over $5 million in roster bonus and base salary this year, so who can blame him? Erik Burkhardt, Murray's agent, pulled an offer off the table last week in an effort to light a little fire under Keim and the Cardinals. The Cardinals/Murray situation is already pretty messy, but messiness is sometimes just another negotiation tactic. Playing the grasping heavy in a contract drama is a service that agents like Burkhardt provide, often eagerly, so the player can just focus on the things he can control.
Jackson probably wants a big bag as well, though his financial expectations and plans are less clear. Jackson famously does not retain an agent, a decision that's applauded as bold and brilliant by many of my colleagues who: A) use tip calculators in restaurants; and/or B) retain agents. This column isn't about whether or not it's wise for a twentysomething-year-old athlete who did not major in economics or finance to hire someone to handle the complex and time-consuming details of negotiating nine-figure contracts, because, seriously, c'mon, get real. Teammate Marlon Humphrey said on the Ross Tucker podcast that Jackson is uniquely not "money-motivated," which is all the more reason to retain an agent.
Jackson should have started making demands the moment Josh Allen's extension was announced last August. Allen now has $100 million in full guarantees and $150 million in injury guarantees. Jackson will earn $23 million in 2022 and is not guaranteed a penny more.
Maybe Jackson's silent negotiating tactics earned him that $230-million Watson deal instead of the suddenly modest-looking Allen deal. Or maybe he just bought himself a ticket on the Franchise Tag Local, making stops in 2023, 2024, and 2025.
What's In It For The Teams?
In the past, long, lucrative quarterback contracts have been preferable to multiple franchise taggings for players because they provide financial stability and some guarantees against injuries. Such contracts have also benefited the teams, meanwhile, by allowing them to:
- Use bonus money to create affordably low salary cap numbers at the start of the contract;
- Potentially gain some affordable years due to salary inflation at the tail end of a contract;
- Keep the face of the franchise happy.
The Ravens, for example, would love to convert Jackson's $22-million salary into a bonus and spread it out over a few years so they can spend some money elsewhere in 2022 and 2023. They would traditionally do so by adding non-guaranteed years to the tail end of a five- or six-year contract and smearing a giant prorated bonus across the length of the deal. In the later seasons of such a contract, all sorts of things could happen: Jackson could demand an extension if he's playing at a Pro Bowl level, the Ravens could use the deal like a home equity loan against the cap, or the team could potentially cut bait and trade or release Jackson, swallowing all of the guaranteed money but none of the non-guaranteed money. There was something in the structure of the contract for both sides.
The fully guaranteed Watson contract, by contrast, is completely player-friendly. The Browns were able to create some salary wiggle room for Watson in 2022 for #reasons, but there are no back-end options or other trapdoors the Browns can use to move on from Watson if things aren't working out in two or three years. If the Browns need to pull off a Carson Wentz/Jared Goff escape trade, they will need to find a partner willing to eat a $46-million base salary per year. Good luck with that! And releasing Watson (something the Browns may end up doing with Baker Mayfield, a subject of "what will his extension look like?" articles this time last year), would create an unprecedented financial catastrophe.
The benefits of "keeping the face of the franchise happy," meanwhile, are becoming increasingly tenuous. Aaron Rodgers doesn't have to be happy to win MVP awards. The Falcons will be paying for Matt Ryan's years of bliss with a four-win 2022 season. Money didn't make Wentz a better leader, and the Rams weren't missing Goff's contentment at the Super Bowl. Long-range stability and commitment at quarterback remains nice but no longer feels all that necessary.
There's just not much value in a Watson-like contract to make it appealing on the team's side, unless the team is certain it is locking down the young Tom Brady or is run by an impulsive truck-stop magnate. Other sports offer guaranteed contracts to superstars, but other sports don't have a franchise tag which can be used as golden handcuffs for three straight years, or eight straight years if applied to the back end of a first-round rookie contract.
Teams have daisy-chained multiple years of franchise tags with their quarterbacks in the past: Washington with Kirk Cousins in 2016 and 2017; the Cowboys with Dak Prescott in 2020 and as a negotiating tactic/threat before his 2021 extension. Cousins, in particular, was content to earn annual raises and bide his time. Tag-chaining was a suboptimal tactic for Washington, because it forced them to spend immediate guaranteed money for less-than stellar play instead of manipulating the structure of a long-term deal to their advantage. The Watson contract throws that calculus out of whack.
The Future of Quarterback Extensions
So let's say the Ravens just tag Jackson in 2023 and the Cardinals drag their heels with Murray. The quarterbacks can complain. They could threaten holdouts, but the current collective bargaining agreement contains harsh holdout penalties, so both would likely be present for every mandatory activity. (Watson, again, benefitted from his, er, unique circumstances when he was allowed to just vanish for a full year). Murray and Jackson will probably play for their annual contracts and learn to like it until their franchises decide to make the next move either way.
And what about Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert down the road? Maybe they'll be treated differently because they're not "scramblers," literally and euphemistically. Perhaps their upward trajectory will continue, making $230 million look like a safe investment. Or maybe they will endure ups and downs the way Jackson, Murray, and most other young quarterbacks have and find themselves in the same situation in a year or two.
The more that teams opt for tag-as-you-go tactics, the more appealing they will become. Washington and the Cowboys couldn't straight-facedly threaten to stop giving Cousins and Prescott tag raises each year because they lacked suitable replacements (Washington purposely damaged their own leverage by never even bringing in a rookie prospect, while the Cowboys tried their darndest to polish up Andy Dalton). But if the Ravens decide to move on from Jackson in two years, why, they could just sign Murray when the Cardinals are ready to part with him! Or trade for the 2024 equivalent of Matt Ryan (Derek Carr, perhaps). Quarterback liquidity is all the rage these days: one more reason not to guarantee anything five years down the road.
One thing feels certain: the days when the Eagles and Rams extended Wentz and Goff in their fourth seasons—despite clear warning signs about each player's long-range potential—so they could get ahead of the market are over. Teams are going to be certain beyond all doubt before they start doling out $200-million guaranteed extensions to young quarterbacks.
None of this is anything Walkthrough is wishing for, so don't shoot the messenger. There are an ever-increasing number of reasons for franchises to not fork $250 million over to young quarterbacks. The squeeze has come just as two young quarterbacks of breathtaking ability but dubious shelf life are due for extensions.
My guess is that the Ravens will offer Jackson something Josh Allen-like, with lots of lowball figures hidden within the option years and bonuses. Jackson will sign it, and the "agents don't matter" crowd will rewrite any lost guarantees, starting with the money Jackson could have earned in 2021, as a secret success. (Jackson has the COURAGE to gamble on himself!) Fully guaranteed contracts will remain rarities, just as the Patrick Mahomes contract was shrugged off by the marketplace as an outlier, though guarantees will substantially increase and teams will be quicker to apply the tag when in doubt.
Murray? He shouldn't hold his breath for an extension anytime soon. And he'd better have a great, healthy year in 2022. Otherwise, the market will really start to work against him.