When news broke last week of quarterback Matt Ryan’s five-year, $150 million deal with the Atlanta Falcons — which included an NFL-record $100 million guaranteed — there was no wailing and gnashing of teeth around NFL front offices, despite the historic amount of money headed Ryan’s way. In fact, the general consensus could be more characterized like this:
While Ryan’s agent, Tom Condon, earned plenty of kudos for negotiating a deal with a staggering amount of guaranteed money and no offset language, a handful of front-office executives contacted by Yahoo Sports characterized the deal as a solid one for both sides, one that ultimately fell in line with most internal projections of what Ryan would get paid.
“Just natural progression,” one league executive told Yahoo Sports. “The best ones will get paid big money.”
Will Kirk Cousins’ deal have more impact than Matt Ryan’s?
Ryan’s deal is notable because, while lucrative, it isn’t fully guaranteed like the three-year, $84 million pact that free-agent quarterback Kirk Cousins signed with Minnesota in March, which some hoped could usher in a new era of fully guaranteed salaries. But Ryan’s deal, which came with a year left on the 32-year-old’s contract, offers proof that Cousins’ deal was a perfect storm, of sorts, one that could be replicated only if a quarterback currently under contract was willing to do what so few are — play on the franchise tag, twice, then hit free agency (since franchising a player three times is salary cap-prohibitive to NFL teams).
“You have to hit the open market to get that kind of money,” said former agent and salary cap expert Joel Corry. “But in the meantime, you have to risk getting hurt on the [franchise] tag, and players like the illusion of security that comes with long-term deals.”
‘Rodgers will get more,’ which means a lot for Carson Wentz
Ryan’s deal affects a few quarterbacks who are due for new contracts soon, starting with Green Bay star Aaron Rodgers, who isn’t slated to be a free agent until 2020 but has historically done his extensions with the Packers two years early.
“Rodgers will get more,” another executive predicted to Yahoo Sports. “It’s all about the guaranteed [money].”
Former agent and salary-cap analyst J.I. Halsell sees Rodgers’ potential deal as a measuring stick for Philadelphia Eagles star Carson Wentz, whose MVP-caliber sophomore campaign ended prematurely last fall due to a season-ending ACL injury. Provided Wentz recaptures his 2017 form, Corry says the Eagles could give Wentz big money after this season, as opposed to executing his fifth-year option for 2020 and franchising him in 2021 and 2022.
“Philly does everything early,” Corry said. “If he comes back, you will have to throw a huge number out there to get him to extend, but when it comes to quarterbacks, the longer you wait, the more you pay down the road.”
Are Dak Prescott, Russell Wilson best suited to follow Cousins’ path?
While Wentz and Rodgers appear to be on the Ryan Extension Plan, two other top-tier quarterbacks — Seattle’s Russell Wilson and Dallas’ Dak Prescott — could go the Cousins route … if they have the patience for it.
“The key to getting a Cousins deal is this — who’s got the guts to bet on themselves?” Halsell asked.
Wilson, 29, has two years left on a deal that will carry cap charges of $23.7 million in 2018 and $25.2 million in 2019. After that, the Seahawks could franchise him in 2020 and 2021 for numbers slightly north of Ryan’s $30 million per-year average before the cost to franchise him a third time jumps to a staggering, prohibitive number, setting him on a course to hit free agency at 33 years old.
Meanwhile Prescott, like Wilson, has only two years left on his contract, meaning the Cowboys could extend him next spring, just like the Seahawks did for Wilson in 2015 after his third pro season. If the Cowboys don’t believe in Prescott yet, and they refuse to pay him Ryan money next spring, they could franchise him in 2020 and 2021, only to be forced to watch him hit free agency in March 2022 at 29 years old.
“It might be Kirk Cousins all over again,” Halsell said.
Potential impact on defensive stars like Aaron Donald, Khalil Mack
As for premium non-quarterbacks who are slated to hit free agency next spring, like the Los Angeles Rams’ Aaron Donald or the Oakland Raiders’ Khalil Mack, the consensus around the league is that Ryan’s deal will have a marginal effect on their negotiations, though it won’t keep agents from trying to use Ryan’s numbers for their own benefit.
“If I’m repping a non-QB,” Corry said, “I’m looking at how the guarantees have gone up.”
Mack and Donald could make a case for being compensated more like quarterbacks than their own position groups — treatment historically reserved for only the most special of non-QBs, like the Denver Broncos’ Von Miller — but Halsell and Corry agree the chance of either earning a Cousins-type deal is fairly small, even if they’re willing to play two additional years on the franchise tag and hit unrestricted free agency in 2021 at age 30.
Quarterbacks, teams will argue, are worth the investment due to the importance of the position. They also tend to age more gracefully, which not only explains why Tom Brady is playing into his 40s, but also why handing them fully guaranteed deals — which can be cap-crippling if the player is released before the end of the term — isn’t thought of as much of a gamble.
“[Quarterbacks] are their own entity and almost guaranteed they won’t get cut,” one executive said. “When you make a decision to extend that position, you are almost positive in what you have in the player.”
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