Breaking Down the NFL's Stickiest Contract Situations This Offseason
The NFL draft smoke has cleared, OTAs are underway if not already completed and front-office types can now sit back and review their books.
That is bad news for some underperforming NFL veterans like Brandon Flowers or BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Meanwhile, a prime player like Jimmy Graham is doing his own hand-wringing for completely different reasons amid discussions—or a grievance—of a long-term contract.
Here, we'll break down the NFL's current stickiest contract situations, looking at players ranging anywhere from the great (Graham) and once-great (Eli Manning) to the mercurial (Ndamukong Suh), disappointed (Andre Johnson), disappointing (Sam Bradford) and publicly polarizing (Andy Dalton).
The nine players featured here are in the most tenuous positions of all with their teams and their contracts. For that reason, you will see a a veteran tight end like Vernon Davis represented by the San Francisco 49ers but not burgeoning star quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who is almost certainly not going anywhere and will get his due come negotiation time.
Jimmy Graham, TE, New Orleans Saints
Anytime you have your franchise player—arguably the greatest at his position of his or any era—headed toward something called a "grievance," you know you are in a sticky contract situation.
That is where the New Orleans Saints are with tight end—or should he be considered a wide receiver?—Jimmy Graham.
Graham was franchise-tagged as a tight end with the NFL's Management Council, which carries a minimum one-year tender of $7.053 million.
However, as former sports agent Joel Corry wrote for CBSSports.com this week, the NFL Players Association would like to argue he lines up more as a wide receiver and therefore should be eligible for a minimum $12.132 million tender—a $5.079 difference.
That grievance hearing is scheduled for June 17-18, and apparently the Saints are willing to take up the argument at the risk of irking their franchise man. This might not go well.
According to ESPN.com's Mike Triplett, Graham will argue he lined up in the slot or out wide—as opposed to an in-line tight end—on 67 percent of snaps last season.
The NFL can argue that tight ends and players at skill positions generally move around in formations nowadays. Triplett lists five other traditional tight ends having lined up in the slot or out wide a higher percentage of the time than even Graham.
This is going to be a potentially game-changing fight for tight ends around the NFL.
If the Saints win the grievance, they could pay him a mere $7.053 million for one year by NFL rule. That would be a bad way to do business.
Expect them to keep their franchise player happy with a deal that averages at least $10 million per year, even if they don't reach the wide receiver tender level of $12.132 million.
Paying Graham anything more than around $8.5 million next season will put them over the salary cap, by the way. The Saints are really close to the cap right now, currently ranking 30th among the NFL's 32 teams in terms of cap space. Ouch.
To call this a "sticky" contract situation is an understatement.
Ndamukong Suh, DT, Detroit Lions
Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh has the largest salary-cap number in the NFL: a whopping $22,412,500. He is a DT—not even a defensive end, much less a quarterback.
That is a great deal of money to allot for an outspoken and sometimes mercurial personality at a position that general equates to being a disposable hero.
Defensive tackles are more pawns than rooks, bishops or knights in the NFL chess game.
Suh, of course, doesn't help his situation with his nasty demeanor. It makes him a great football player...and an unbelievably tough player to deal with off the field.
Heck, the Detroit Free Press' Drew Sharp argues the Lions' team captain should be stripped of that lofty title after Suh said that he had the opportunity to potentially steer his draft fate away from the Lions four years ago.
Now they have to negotiate a contract extension to perhaps make him the highest-paid defensive tackle in NFL history.
Oomph! Good luck with that.
Vernon Davis, TE, San Francisco 49ers
How unhappy is Vernon Davis with his contract situation? How about enough to eschew a $200,000 workout bonus to stay away from the San Francisco 49ers' voluntary workouts to date.
We have to assume Davis likes money and isn't so loaded he can turn down $200K at the drop of a hat. That makes Davis one of the most unhappy campers—or non-camper, if you will—in football. The San Francisco Chronicle's Eric Branch reported that is exactly what Davis was willing to give up to make a statement about his displeasure with "a contract that will pay him $9.1 million in base salary over the next two seasons."
Great money for you or I, but not quite top dollar for the elite tight end that Davis has become with quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Davis would not reveal to Branch whether he would attend the mandatory minicamp from June 17-19.
"I might be there; I might not," he told the paper. "It's mandatory. I probably should be there. We’ll see."
The stickiness of this situation comes in the fact the 49ers have less than $8 million of available cap space and also have put a priority on re-signing Kaepernick to a contract extension. It might be tough to make both the quarterback and his tight end happy financially here—although the 49ers likely will have no issues ensuring Kaepernick gets paid. Aldon Smith (off-field issues) and Michael Crabtree (coming off serious injury) are also entering a precarious period regarding their futures with the 49ers, albeit in far less-enviable positions to negotiate from.
Davis is the Niner who might have to bite the bullet some here...something he clearly has shown he is not quite willing to do this offseason. Davis has the most right to hold the 49ers' up for ransom as he enters his 30s and the twilight of his career.
Andre Johnson, WR, Houston Texans
Andre Johnson, arguably the face of the Houston Texans franchise for years, might want out. It is not because he is unhappy with his contract.
He just isn't sure if Houston is the right fit anymore, per Tania Ganguli of ESPN.com.
It would be hard to be unhappy when you're a soon-to-be 33-year-old wide receiver making a $10 million base salary amid a seven-year, $67.8 million contract that runs through three more seasons (2016). Surely, he is fine with that.
However, at the moment, the Houston Texans only have quarterbacks Ryan Fitzpatrick, Case Keenum, T.J. Yates and 2014 fourth-rounder Tom Savage on new head coach Bill O'Brien's depth chart.
That is a depth chart Johnson doesn't want to be associated with, apparently.
According to NFL Insider Ian Rapoport, Johnson skipped OTAs with the Texans and might be headed for a holdout. This might not be a contract-related holdout, but it is as just as sticky a situation.
Eli Manning, QB, New York Giants
- 3 Joe Montana, 49ers (XVI, XIX, XXIV)
- 2 Bart Starr, Green Bay (I, II)
- 2 Terry Bradshaw, Pittsburgh (XIII, XIV)
- 2 Tom Brady, New England (XXXVI, XXXVIII)
- 2 Eli Manning, N.Y. Giants (XLII, XLVI)
New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning has the second-highest cap hit in the league.
The Giants have $20.4 million allocated to their franchise quarterback under the six-year, $97.5 million contract that expires after 2015. That is more than $1.1 million per touchdown pass from a year ago.
The two-time Super Bowl MVP is coming off a disaster of a year that saw him throw more interceptions (27) than touchdowns (18) for the first time since his rookie season. According to Pro-Football-Reference.com, it was the third time he led the NFL in picks.
Another year of poor play like that and the Giants are going to be faced with the end of the Manning era in New York.
That will be a tough situation, because Manning won two Super Bowls with the Giants. He is one of only five players to win multiple Super Bowl MVPs.
That list in an exclusive one:
That is a Hall of Fame club right there. It would be tough to kiss goodbye to that era. The Giants and Manning might be headed for a sticky divorce if their quarterback doesn't play up to his contract this season or next.
Sam Bradford, QB, St. Louis Rams
You might be wondering what in the world Sam Bradford did do to earn the six-year, $78 million contract that will pay him a career-high $14.015 million this season—and count for $17.61 against the cap.
Not a darn thing—not in the NFL, anyway—would have to be the answer. He was merely drafted No. 1 overall.
Bradford is one of the last players operating under the old draft pay structure that got so out of hand it caused labor strife with the NFL and its players. Now the St. Louis Rams are stuck with a huge cap number and a tight cap situation because their underperforming, yet-to-break-through quarterback is making too much darn money relative to his production.
Oh, and he just happens to be coming off a major knee reconstruction.
The Rams had two first-round selections in this May's draft and could have had their pick of the quarterback litter to move on from Bradford. That contract ostensibly wouldn't allow them to. They went with an offensive lineman (Auburn's Greg Robinson) and defensive tackle (Pitt's Aaron Donald).
Bradford is the epitome of a sticky contract situation. The Rams are stuck seeing Bradford through this season at the very least.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis, RB, Cincinnati Bengals
BenJarvus Green-Ellis was nicknamed the Law Firm by the New England Patriots because his lengthy name sounds like a group of legal partners.
He might have to seek some counsel on his future with the Cincinnati Bengals right now.
The Bengals are going to a power-running offense under new coordinator Hue Jackson, but they might be planning to move on without BJGE doing the power running.
The Bengals were the first to draft a running back a year ago, selecting shifty back Giovani Bernard in Round 2. They were nearly the first team to pick a running back again this May, selecting LSU's Jeremy Hill at No. 55 overall—just one pick after the Tennessee Titans selected Bishop Sankey.
It is a growing NFL trend to wait on running backs. However, the Bengals are one of the teams most in a hurry to replace their incumbent starter, Green-Ellis.
According to Geoff Hobson of the Bengals' official website, the Bengals installed Bernard as the starter and their second-rounder Hill as the No. 2 back in the rotation at OTAs.
"Green-Ellis politely declined comment after practice as the Law Firm Era arrives at the crossroads," Hobson wrote.
BJGE is currently a third-stringer set to make $2.3 million in a base salary next season. This contract situation might merely be sticky for the soon-to-be 29-year-old running back, not the Bengals.
The Bengals have the fourth-most cap space in the NFL right now and were one of the most frugal teams in free agency, losing left tackle Anthony Collins and pass-rusher Michael Johnson without much of a fight.
Cincinnati could save most of Green-Ellis' contract by releasing him. The squad is on the hook for only $500,000 of his $2.3 million deal.
The writing is on the wall for BJGE's time in Cincy.
Andy Dalton, QB, Cincinnati Bengals
From one Cincinnati Bengal to another, Andy Dalton is in a better place for 2014, but his future is equally tenuous with the franchise.
Dalton is making under $1 million next season under his rookie contract terms, a ridiculously low number for a starting quarterback—particularly for one who has proven to be a winner.
Dalton has to win a playoff game, though. He is 0-3 with just one touchdown pass to six interceptions in the postseason.
Dalton is going to be due some serious money as a free agent next winter, regardless of whether he advances the Bengals any further in the postseason. Another year like his third, during which he threw for career highs in yards (4,293) and TDs (33), would position Dalton to negotiate for elite quarterback money.
The public perception is Dalton is a game manager like a Joe Flacco. Flacco earned his six-year, $120.6 million contract after winning a Super Bowl. Dalton might be comparable, arguably better statistically, but he needs to win in the postseason.
Otherwise, the Bengals might have to seriously consider 2014 fifth-rounder out of Alabama, A.J. McCarron—a proven collegiate winner as a "game manager"—as their quarterback of the future.
Brandon Flowers, CB, Kansas City Chiefs
The Kansas City Chiefs have endured a costly offseason in which they couldn't retain three offensive linemen that signed big deals to start elsewhere (Branden Albert, Jon Asamoah and Geoff Schwartz). Making matters worse: Their quarterback, Alex Smith, is a pending free agent for 2015.
Now they might need to make a decision with cornerback Brandon Flowers.
A combination of factors could have already decided Flowers' long-term fate with the team, particularly his disappointing end to last season. The Chiefs can save $7.25 million this year and $7.5 million next year by cutting Flowers, per The Kansas City Star's Terez A. Paylor.
June 1 is a dangerous time for NFL veterans like Flowers, Cincy's BenJarvus Green-Ellis, etc.
These are useful NFL players, yes, but sometimes in today's NFL cap-onomics, their price just might not be worth the freight.
Salary-cap and contract information courtesy of Spotrac.com.
Eric Mack, one of the giants among fantasy writers, was the Fantasy Football Lead Writer for Bleacher Report this past season. He is now an NFL featured writer. Follow him on Twitter, where you can ask him endless questions about your team, rip him for his content and even challenge him to a head-to-head fantasy game.
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