When the Cleveland Browns gave Deshaun Watson a five-year, $230 million contract with every dollar of it guaranteed, reports came out quickly that several other team owners were aghast at Jimmy and Dee Haslam, owners of the Browns, for doing such a thing.
And it had absolutely nothing to do with Watson’s multiple alleged incidents of sexual assault.
The real reason other owners were so upset was — in their minds — the dangerous precedent the contract set. In a high-revenue decade when broadcast deals are going through the roof, and the players’ share of that revenue via the salary cap will rise accordingly, the standard NFL contract with escape clauses all over the place represents one of the last vestiges of financial control. Just because the Haslams did that for Watson doesn’t mean any other team is going to do it for any other player.
Which brings us to the case of one Lamar Jackson.
Per reports from ESPN and NFL.com, Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens were unable to come to terms on a new contract for the star quarterback, leaving Jackson to play on the final year of his rookie deal, with $23,016 million fully guaranteed.
Per ESPN’s Chris Mortensen and Adam Schefter, Jackson turned down a contract that would have given him over $230 million with more than $130 million guaranteed. That would have given Jackson more overall and guaranteed money than Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson and Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray, but with the standard clauses in effect.
Jackson, on the other hand, was holding out for a guaranteed deal similar to the one Watson got. Per ESPN”s report:
Jackson acted as his own agent in the negotiations while leaning on the help of his mother and the NFL Players Association, whose job it is to offer stats, information, guidance and to be a sounding board, which it was during this process.
The union advised Jackson, 25, that based on his performance and age, he was justified to demand a fully guaranteed contract, sources said.
Justified? Sure. But in what universe would that actually happen? What Watson got was the outlier, not the norm.
The NFL.com report from Ian Rapoport reminds us of this quote from Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti in the spring, after Watson got his deal.
I don’t know that [Watson] should’ve been the first guy to get a fully guaranteed contract. To me, that’s something that is groundbreaking, and it’ll make negotiations harder with others.
So, yeah. Jackson and his group may have misread the room here.
Watson and Kirk Cousins of the Vikings are the only NFL quarterbacks playing on entirely guaranteed deals (even Tom Brady’s has incentives in it, and he’s Tom Freaking Brady), and Cousins had to play through several years on the franchise tag to make that happen. The Redskins franchised Cousins in both 2016 and 2017, and then the Vikings gave Cousins a three-year, $84 million, fully-guaranteed deal in 2018 as an unrestricted free agent. Cousins signed a two-year, $66 million extension in 2020 of which $61 million was guaranteed. Because Cousins was on the Vikings’ roster on the third day of the 2021 league year, the final year of that deal — 2022 — gave would be fully guaranteed. Cousins then signed a one-year, $35 million, fully-guaranteed extension in 2022.
That’s nowhere near what the Browns gave Watson, and nowhere near what Jackson wants. Cousins’ deals were kick-the-can-down-the-road agreements that allowed the Vikings to manage the salary cap on a short-term basis by avoiding too much front-loaded money over multiple years, whole still giving Cousins the illusion of putting one over on the rest of the league with so much guaranteed money.
What Watson got, and what Jackson wants, are in an entirely different stratosphere.
If you look at the Watson deal — he’s already suspended for the first 11 games of the 2022 season, which makes this year a wash from a performance perspective. The first-year cap number is $9,395,500, which seems manageable. But Watson has identical cap hits of $54,993 million in 2023 through 2026, and there is absolutely no way to get out of any of this. Watson’s dead money — what the Browns would owe on the salary cap for him even if he wasn’t on the team — is $229,367,500 in 2022, $219,972 million in 2023, $164,979 million in 2024, $109,986 million in 2025, and $54,993 million in 2026. We have no idea whether Watson will fulfill that contract. We have no idea if there are other traps in Watson’s personal life that could make this contract even more onerous. And there’s nothing the Browns can do about it — they are in a purgatory of their own volition.
So, the issue is not what Lamar Jackson is worth, or what he’s earned. The issue is what the NFL’s owners are willing to allow with the contracts they give.
And in that case, today and five years from now, you’ll have to pry that financial flexibility out of their hands with extreme force.