The New England Patriots, Dallas Cowboys and St. Louis Rams each spent over $100,000 in guaranteed money on their class of undrafted free agents this offseason, according to a source with knowledge of rookie salary data.
NFL teams could spend a maximum of $78,170 in signing bonuses on undrafted rookie free agents this offseason, but there are no limits to the amount of guaranteed money teams can include in the standard three-year contracts signed by undrafted free agents. Seven NFL teams have spent more than the $78,170 signing bonus maximum in guaranteed money, with New England leading the way by spending $140,000 in guaranteed money on their undrafted free agents.
The largest individual guarantee among the Patriots undrafted rookie free agents belongs to Missouri wide receiver T.J. Moe, who received an $8,000 signing bonus and will receive $22,000 in fully guaranteed base salary regardless of whether or not he makes New England's 53-man roster for a total of $30,000 in guaranteed money. The 5-foot-11, 204-pound Moe excelled in the three-cone drill at the 2013 combine, posting the second-fastest time among all invitees. As explained here by Christopher Price of WEEI.com, the Patriots have shown a tendency to target players who perform well in that particular agility drill, so that Moe was a "priority free agent" for the Patriots does not come as much of a surprise. (Had Moe played at Rutgers, the Patriots might have requested that Foxborough officials award him the key to the town or make him an honorary selectman.)
Behind Moe on the Patriots' list of large guarantees is Nevada tight end Zach Sudfeld, who received the team's largest signing bonus ($12,000) and also has a $5,000 base salary guarantee for a total of $17,000 in guaranteed money. Sudfeld, who a month older than Rob Gronkowski and a few months older than Aaron Hernandez, caught just two passes in his first five seasons at Nevada catching 45 passes with eight touchdowns after being granted a medical redshirt for the 2012 season. Offensive lineman Elvis Fisher, Moe's former teammate at Missouri, received $15,000 in guaranteed money from the Patriots, while guard Josh Kline ($14,000), fullback Ben Bartholomew ($10,000) and linebacker Kanorris Davis ($10,000) also received five-figure guarantees.
The Cowboys ($104,500), Rams ($103,100), Tampa Bay Buccaneers ($94,670) and New Orleans Saints ($88,500) round out the top five in guaranteed money on rookie free agents. The Jacksonville Jaguars ($86,000) and Philadelphia Eagles ($82,000) have also exceeded the signing bonus limit. The Chicago Bears ($29,500) and Green Bay Packers ($35,500) are the two NFL teams to spend under $40,000 in guaranteed money on undrafted rookie free agents.
For the Patriots, Cowboys, Rams, Saints and Jaguars, committing larger-than-required amounts of guaranteed money to undrafted rookies is nothing new as each club spent $85,000 in guaranteed money or higher on undrafted free agents in 2012, as well.
The Cowboys, Patriots and Saints spent over $200,000 on undrafted free agents last season. Those guaranteed amounts were inflated as each team signed a single player to a contract with over $200,000 in guaranteed money. For the Cowboys, they paid undrafted offensive lineman Ronald Leary as if he were a fifth-round pick, guaranteeing him $214,000 ($9,000 to sign, $205,000 base salary guarantee). The Patriots' total was pumped upwards when they guaranteed Olympic silver medalist Jeff Demps $211,000 ($11,000 to sign, $200,000 base salary guarantee) following the London games.
As the first seasons of Leary and Demps show, large financial guarantees are not an indicator that the player will make an immediate impact in the NFL. Demps spent last season on injured reserve and was traded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the third day of the 2013 NFL draft. Leary did not make the Cowboys' 53-man roster, spent 15 weeks on Dallas' practice squad and was inactive for the two games he was promoted to the team's active roster.
For the second consecutive season, the Cowboys handed out the largest individual guarantee, signing former Arizona State linebacker Brandon Magee to a contract that includes a total of $70,000 in guarantees, including $65,000 in fully guaranteed base salary. The second-largest guarantee on the Cowboys belongs to safety Jakar Hamilton, who pocketed a $10,000 signing bonus. The Rams' large guarantees were made to offensive tackle Braden Brown and safety Cody Davis, each of whom received $20,000 in guarantees. Linebacker Jonathan Stewart was third with $17,500, while linebacker Phillip Steward and running back Benny Cunningham received $15,000 in guaranteed money.
The largest signing bonus issued to an undrafted rookie this year belongs to UNLV linebacker John Lotulelei, who received $25,000 to sign with the Seattle Seahawks. Boston College offensive tackle Emmett Cleary received $20,000 to sign with the Indianapolis Colts, while Florida linebacker Lerentee McCray was third on the list with a $17,500 signing bonus from the Denver Broncos.
As is the case with guaranteed money, a large signing bonus does not improve a rookie's job security. Virginia Tech wide receiver Marcus Davis received a $15,000 signing bonus from the New York Giants after the 2013 draft and was waived after the team's rookie mini-camp. Davis was claimed the following day by the New York Jets. On Monday, the Philadelphia Eagles waived running back Miguel Maysonet, who had received a $10,000 signing bonus, which was the third-highest bonus that the Eagles paid to an undrafted free agent this offseason.
Players receiving small signing bonuses, or even no signing bonus at all, can have a major impact in their rookie seasons.
Last year, linebacker Vontaze Burfict, Magee's former teammate at Arizona State, led the Cincinnati Bengals in tackles (127) after receiving a $1,000 signing bonus. Burfict played in over 82 percent of the Bengals' snaps as a rookie, so it was not much of a surprise when he led the NFL in performance-based pay with $299,465. Baltimore Ravens kicker Justin Tucker was 30-of-33 on field goal attempts in the regular season, and four-of-four in the post-season (including two in the fourth quarter of a 34-31 win over the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII) as a rookie who received zero guaranteed money when he signed with Baltimore last year as an undrafted free agent out of Texas.