There's no doubt that San Francisco 49ers middle linebacker Patrick Willis(notes) is one of the best players at his position in the NFL. Since being picked with the 11th overall selection in the 2007 draft, Willis has transcended what was an initially porous defense, become its on-field leader and helped it become an effective (if underrated) unit. And since Willis' five-year, $16.7 million rookie contract had just one year remaining, it was time for the Niners to fill out an already exceptional offseason by signing their best player to a new deal.
There was only one problem with the compensation -- while Willis deserved to be paid as the star he has become, there's a kink in the NFL's post-CBA landscape called the 30-percent rule. This rule, which kicked in once the NFL went to an uncapped year, states that no renegotiation or extension of a current contract may increase a player's base salary by more than 30 percent. But as Marvin Miller eventually did in defeating the reserve clause in baseball, 49ers chief negotiator Paraag Marathe (one of the new wave of "Moneyball" guys) clearly saw the rule as a series of one-year agreements as opposed to an extending base. Thus, the team could increase Willis' base salary and further fund the new contract by giving him two different signing bonuses.
According to Pro Football Talk, Willis received a first signing bonus of $15.5 million as part of a five-year, $50 million extension (basically, a seven-year, $53.3 million contract). Then, the team got creative by giving Willis a second signing bonus of $4.8 million in 2011. And as PFT's Mike Florio indicated, the second signing bonus is put on a perch with an injury-only guarantee -- this means that the team isn't stuck with funding the payment now.
Contract details aren't generally among the most exciting things in any sport, but in a modern NFL where the new rules are often used to limit players from making what they deserve and fulfilling their financial potential, it's good to see one team using a real knowledge of the situation to lock up a franchise cornerstone. The player is happy, the team is happy, and Roger Goodell is probably annoyed that someone in the NFL is smarter than him. What more could we ask for?