There’s a certain amount of patience that is needed when it comes to NFL free agent contracts. Almost always the initial reported numbers don’t tell the whole story.
Sometimes the real numbers leak out a few hours later. Sometimes it takes a few days. In the case of new Bears tight end Jimmy Graham, it took almost a week, but they’re here.
The Graham contract has been one of the most criticized in football, not only locally, but nationally. Pretty much everyone – including me – was surprised that Graham received $9 million guaranteed, and even more surprised that he was signed in the first wave of free agency. That typically means there was a lot of demand for the player, but considering Graham is 33 years old and caught only 38 passes for 447 yards and three touchdowns in 2019, it’s understandable that fans, analysts and reporters are struggling to wrap their heads around the contract.
Before we get to the actual numbers, one important point to remember: Graham was released by the Packers on March 12, which means he was immediately eligible to sign with another team. Even though his agreement with the Bears didn’t come until the league’s free agency negotiation window officially opened on March 16, Graham was on the market days prior. That reality, plus the seemingly competitive contract Graham received, suggests that the Bears weren’t the only team bidding for the tight end and that it wasn’t just a hasteful move by general manager Ryan Pace to grab the guy he helped draft in New Orleans. Of course, even when that is the case, you usually end up overpaying in free agency. That’s just how it works in the NFL.
The real numbers of the contract came out Sunday morning, thanks to ESPN’s Field Yates, and, well, it’s actually a pretty typical contract for Pace and Bears contract negotiator Joey Laine. The cap hit isn’t bad in Year 1, there’s an out in Year 2, and there are incentives available for the player to hit.
Breaking down Jimmy Graham's two-year, $16M deal with the Bears: $6M signing bonus, $3M 2020 base salary (guaranteed). 2021: $6.9M base salary, $100K workout bonus. Plus incentives to up the ante and a rare no-trade clause.— Field Yates (@FieldYates) March 22, 2020
The signing bonus gets prorated on the salary cap over two years, so the total cap hit in 2020 is $6 million. That’s not terrible. Graham is still a much-needed upgrade at the position and he’s become a better blocker over the years. Perhaps more importantly, despite nagging injuries, Graham hasn't missed a game since 2015. Considering Trey Burton's situation last year, the Bears are almost certainly paying for availability here, which makes sense. For comparison sake, Greg Olsen’s cap hit with the Seahawks is nearly $7 million and he's missed a total of 18 games over the last three years. Of course, Olsen is only on a one-year deal, and it’s 2021 when the Graham contract gets complicated.
There is no guaranteed money in the second year of Graham’s deal, so that means the Bears can eat the $3 million in dead cap from the signing bonus and save $7 million by releasing him. That already makes Graham a potential cap casualty in 2021, but $3 million in dead cap seems like a high number to swallow in this situation. If Graham has a great 2020 season, then his 2020 money will be justified and the Bears may even want to keep him for an additional $7 million in cash in 2021 and a cap hit of $10 million. If he’s not worth it, well, it’s ultimately that $3 million in dead cap space that will look bad in this deal.
As for the no-trade clause, I wouldn’t worry about it too much. If Graham struggles, the Bears wouldn’t be able to trade him anyway. If he plays well, then they really need him at a crucial position and wouldn’t want to trade him during the season. And with a $10 million cap hit in 2021, it’s unlikely they could trade him next offseason even if he does play well. The no-trade clause just seems like a throw-in that doesn’t really matter.
Ultimately, the question is whether or not Graham is worth the $6 million cap hit in 2020. Given how desperate the Bears are at the tight end position, I’d say yes. But will he worth the $10 million cap hit in 2021 or the $3 million cap hit just to be released? Probably not. Unfortunately, that’s usually the price you pay in free agency, especially when you have to pay to compensate for past mistakes at a certain position.
In the end, the Graham contract doesn't feel like a bargain, but it's probably not as bad as you thought it was. And if he can still catch touchdowns, then you can live with it.