In bad economy, contracts still rising in NFL

More on free agency: Top 100 | By position

As agent Mark Bartelstein argued on behalf of quarterback Kurt Warner for a new contract from the Arizona Cardinals, he couldn’t help but slip in a couple of big numbers. Like the $100 million that defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth got from the Washington Redskins or the $45.3 million that cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha got from the Oakland Raiders. Normally in the NFL, the contracts of a couple of 27-year-olds don’t have a lot to do with what a 37-year-old gets, but the references don’t necessarily hurt.

Rank Player Team Yrs Value Guarantee
1. DT Albert Haynesworth Redskins 7 $100M $41M
2. CB DeAngelo Hall Redskins 6 $54M $22.5M
3. LB Bart Scott Jets 6 $48M $22M
4. DL Chris Canty Giants 6 $48M $22M
5. WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh Seahawks 5 $40M $15M
6. G Jason Brown Rams 5 $37.5M $20M
7. DE Antonio Smith Texans 5 $35M $12.5M
8. LB Jonathan Vilma Saints 5 $34M $17.2M
9. C Jake Grove Dolphins 5 $29.5M $12M
10. CB Domonique Foxworth Ravens 4 $28M 16.5M
11. CB Ron Bartell Rams 4 $28M $13.6M
12. WR Laveranues Coles Bengals 4 $27.5M $7.5M
13. S Gibril Wilson Dolphins 5 $27.5M $7M
14. WR Nate Washington Titans 6 $27M $9M
15. G Derrick Dockery Redskins 5 $26.5M $8M
16. LB Michael Boley Giants 5 $25M $11M
17. QB Kurt Warner Cardinals 2 $23M $5M
18. OT Jon Stinchcomb Saints 5 $22.5M $12.5M
19. CB Jabari Greer Saints 4 $22M $10.2M
20. CB Andre' Goodman Broncos 5 $20.2M $10.1M
21. G Chris Kemoeatu Steelers 5 $20M $10M

“I think contracts are always a reflection of a number of factors, and while it’s hard to say that those two contracts [for Haynesworth and Asomugha] have a lot to do with what Kurt should get, I certainly brought them up as a reflection of where contracts are going,” Bartelstein said.

That direction, as always, is up. While the rest of the country is hurting and some NFL teams are even cutting back on staff members to pinch pennies, player salaries continue to climb at a staggering rate – so staggering that NFL management types are a little concerned about what might happen if there is no salary cap in the future. As of now, the 2010 season will be uncapped because the owners have opted out of the collective bargaining agreement.

“It’s the same [expletive] every year that you hear from these owners who say, ‘We’ll be careful, we’re going to keep salaries down, it’s out of control,’ ” a league source said. “They talk so big and so strong, but they don’t realize that only one of them has to step out and everything changes.

“Yeah, the uncapped year is going to have a lot of rules that keep players from hitting free agency right away, but the ones that get there, watch out. It’s going to be a feeding frenzy like it always is, and that always has a ripple effect.”

In the cases of Haynesworth, who became one of the few big stars to actually hit the open market, and Asomugha, who was re-signed before free agency, their deals could have a tsunami effect.

In essence, those two got contracts previously associated with terms negotiated for quarterbacks. Haynesworth’s deal included $41 million in guarantees and will pay him at least $48 million over the first four years of the contract. His pact far outstrips previous deals for the likes of defensive ends Jared Allen and Dwight Freeney, who both received approximate $72 million over six years.

Likewise, Asomugha’s deal features at least $28.5 million in the first two years and balloons to $45.3 million if the Raiders keep him for the third year, a decision they must make by early March 2011.

“Those deals are both monsters for the players,” said an NFL Players Association source. “Haynesworth’s deal just destroys the Jared Allen deal [$31 million guaranteed] – obliterates it – and Allen’s deal was a good deal for the player.”

Of more immediate concern to the NFL and its players is the impact that those deals could have on a couple of important contracts likely to be done this offseason. Quarterbacks Eli Manning of the New York Giants and Philip Rivers of San Diego are expected to have new deals prior to the ’09 season kickoff.

Manning is represented by Creative Artists Agency, the same firm that reps Asomugha. There has already been plenty of talk about Manning getting more than $40 million in guaranteed money and well over $100 million as part of a long-term deal. Rivers figures to get at least that much. Even more important is that Manning’s deal could include protection against a possible lockout of players by owners in 2011. Agents Tom Condon and Ben Dogra, who work together at CAA, have declined to discuss any deal for Manning

Likewise, Manning has stayed away from the subject.

“I don’t even know why it’s an issue at this point,” Manning said. “I have another year left on my contract. We’ll see what happens.”

True, but NFL teams don’t like the idea of tying up so much cap room and/or guaranteed money in one player from year to year. Even if the NFL continues to operate without a cap for 2010 and beyond, having a quarterback who counts for upwards of $15 million to $20 million against the cap can be onerous.

Photo The Patriots decided against absorbing the cap hit of keeping Cassel (pictured) and Tom Brady.
(Rick Stewart/Getty)

“Because of the rules, that money starts to go up really fast for your quarterback,” the league source said. “Just look at what the Patriots were dealing with on Matt Cassel. Everybody thought it was such a great idea for them to franchise him and have that leverage, but you saw how fast [New England coach Bill] Belichick got out of that. He knows the downside.”

The downside for the NFL this year is that beyond Haynesworth and Asomugha, numerous players who are considered just average or slightly above continue to get big money. Of the top 16 contracts in terms of total value given out to free agents so far this offseason (Asomugha didn’t reach free agency), only one went to a player who made the Pro Bowl last season. That was Haynesworth.

“Hey, if you’re going to spend, at least buy the best guy,” the league source said.

The next highest Pro Bowler on that list was Warner, who received $23 million over two years. Warner got $15 million in a signing bonus and another $4 million in base salary, effectively getting $19 million in one year.

And while Warner just led the Cardinals to the Super Bowl, there’s little question that $19 million is a large sum for an aging player.