October 1, 2014

When Will FAs Demand Front-Loaded Contracts?

As I was scanning the headlines this weekend, the impending release of James Harrison by the Steelers was one that came up a number of times. I couldn’t help but smile at the though of Harrison being told, “Sorry, Jimbo, but you ain’t that good any more.” But then a question began to form in my mind.

How long will free agents continue to allow their contracts to be back-loaded and risk never seeing seeing significant portions of the large deals that they sign?

Harrison became a victim of the salary cap for the cash-poor Steelers because he is a 35 year old player who was due $6.57M in 2013 and $7.57M in 2014. I don’t recall reading just how much of a cut the Steelers wanted him to take, but he would not budge. That age would finally catch up with Harrison and render him unworthy of the high dollars at the back of his contract is not exactly shocking. It makes perfect sense.

Most contacts in the NFL are back-loaded, allowing teams to bring in the guys they need at an immediately affordable price but still promise the player significant money. Just look at Joe Flacco’s new contract as the quintessential example. He will make a modest $6.8M cap dent in 2013, jumping to around $14.5M-$15M in 2014 and 2015, and then soaring to $28.55M in 2016, $31.15M in 2017 and $24.75M in 2018. Frankly, those numbers are stupid. Is any player worth a $31M cap hit? No. So unless Flacco leads the Ravens to hoisting the Lombardi trophy as the SuperBowl MVP at least two of the next three years, there is a better chance of my wife converting to Mormanism so that I can also marry Sophia Vergara than of Flacco ever seeing the bulk of that money.

While other contracts are not this extreme, they are build on a similar model. With players’ salaries not being guaranteed, teams have incentive to work contracts this way. Make a guy feel good by promising him significant jack. And if he does not live up to the promised money, the fans will ask, even demand, that the team get rid of him.

The only way I can see this changing is if free agents demand the big money up front. When will that happen? Who knows.