When the Eagles announced the Malik Jackson, Brandon Graham and DeSean Jackson contracts, they were referred to as three-year deals. When the Ronald Darby contract was announced, it was announced as a one-year deal.
Take a look at any of them and they’re actually five-year contracts.
Until they aren’t.
We’re here to help!
The odd structure of Eagles contracts
In the often-baffling world of NFL contracts, Eagles vice president of football operations and salary cap guru Howie Roseman has been designing contracts with fake years, a tool that spreads out cap hit into contract years that are guaranteed to never exist.
It’s kind of cheating.
But according to the CBA, the collective bargaining agreement between the NFLPA, the players’ union, and ownership, it’s completely legal.
NFL contracts can be very complicated, but in simple terms, a player’s salary cap figure for a specific year is determined by adding together three components:
1. The player’s base salary
2. The pro-rated amount of his signing bonus, which is derived by dividing the amount of the bonus by the number of years in the contract (up to five years)
3, All so-called “likely-to-be-earned” incentives, which are generally speaking performance and playing-time milestones the player reached the previous year
The longer the contract, the more years the signing bonus is spread out over and the less the cap hit.
The Ronald Darby contract
But what if you have a player like Darby, who has been hurt the last two years, and you’re reluctant to sign him to a long-term deal because of injury concerns?
Let’s take a look at Darby’s contract.
At first glance, it’s a five-year deal with base salaries of $1 million in 2019 and $15 million in 2020, 2021, 2022 and 2023.
Yes, $15 MILLION per year.
The deal also includes a $3.5 million signing bonus that he received when he signed on March 19 and a roster bonus worth as much as $2 million in the form of $125,000 weekly bonuses for each game that Darby dresses for in 2019.
The cap hit for 2019 is a modest $2.825 million — that’s the $1 million base salary, $700,000 of the signing bonus (the first 20 percent of the $3.5 million pro-rated over five years) and an additional $1.125 million representing the likely-to-be-earned portion of the roster bonus.
What about those $15 million annual salaries from 2020 through 2023?
That’s a ton of money!
The small print in Darby’s contract states simply that the 2020 through 2023 seasons “void automatically” if Darby is on the Eagles’ roster 23 days before the start of the official 2020 league year, which would be sometime in late February.
In other words, if he’s on the team, he’s no longer on the team.
And the $60 million base salaries? They evaporate. They disappear.
All that remains is the $2.8 million remaining pro-rated portion of Darby’s signing bonus, which accelerates into dead money under the Eagles’ 2020 cap.
What’s the point of all this?
Howie Roseman is clearing as much room under the Eagles’ 2019 cap as possible, presumably to give the team flexibility for the inevitable signing of Carson Wentz to a massive, $30 million-per-year ballpark contract.
Whether that happens now or next offseason, clearing cap room now helps because whatever the Eagles don’t use under their 2019 cap carries over to additional cap room in 2020.
And the more room the Eagles have after signing Wentz, the more flexibility Roseman will have to make additional moves.
The Graham, Malik Jackson and DeSean Jackson deals are a little more complicated because they include an option bonus that is added to base salary if the Eagles don’t execute it, but in each case, the deals are listed as five-year deals but can’t last more than three years.
The Graham deal includes a $12.5 million signing bonus that pro-rates to $2.5 million per year, so if Graham plays all three years that would mean $5 million in dead money in 2021.
Malik Jackson’s deal similarly includes a $9 million signing bonus, initially spread out over five years, which means $3.6 million in dead money in 2021.
DeSean Jackson’s deal has a $7.17 million signing bonus, initially spread out over five years, which means $1.434 pro-rated per year. So if he’s here for the life of his contract, that would mean $2.868 million in dead money in 2021.
Without the fake years?
Darby’s 2019 cap hit would be $5.625 million instead of $2.825 million. Malik Jackson’s would be $4 million instead of $2.8 million. DeSean’s would be $4.12 million instead of $3.164 million. Graham’s would be $5.17 million instead of $3.5 million.
So by adding fake years into four contracts, the Eagles saved about $6.6 million under their 2019 adjusted cap figure of $197,901,096.
According to a league source familiar with league-wide free agency contracts, there are only a few other instances of teams using guaranteed voidable years during this free agency period.
The Lions used the technique in the contract for tight end Jesse James, the Panthers used it with center Matt Paradis and the Cards with Terrell Suggs.
Could this all blow up in the Eagles’ face?
If it seems like the Eagles are simply deferring salary cap hell into the future, don’t forget, this is Howie. He knows what he’s doing.
First of all, the salary cap has been increasing more than 10 percent per year. As recently as 2013, the unadjusted cap figure was $123 million. In 2019, it’s $188 million. That’s more than a 50 percent increase in just six years. It will likely be close to $200 million next year.
So the exact same cap hit in the future is a smaller percentage of a team’s cap in the present. So it’s just common sense to defer as much cap hit as possible as long as possible.
But also the current CBA expires after next year, so nobody really knows what’s going to happen in 2021. Some expect a lockout or a strike. There’s a chance 2021 will be an uncapped year, just as 2010 was after the last CBA expired.
And if the next CBA includes a bunch of new rules? Rest assured Roseman will figure out a way around them as well.
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